The Séance of Reading: Unearthing The Foundations of Literary Monuments



                                                                                    "Legenda Mesterului Manole"

My current book-in-progress,  entitled The Séance of Reading: Unearthing the Foundations of Literary Monuments, is inspired by Vladimir Nabokov's remark that “A wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle.” With Nabokov’s recommendation in mind, I propose in this study to explore the potentially spine-tingling ways in which the stumbling block that causes the protagonist of a literary work to suffer is uncannily shadowed by the building block from which the writer constructs the work itself. “The Legend of Master Manole” -- a Romanian folktale that I discovered while teaching as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Bucharest in 2014, is an overt illustration of this stumbling block/building block collaboration.  In it, a master-builder named Manole learns that he must immure his wife Ana within its walls in order to complete construction of the monastery that he has been commissioned to build.   The focus of my new book is on the covert literary reenactments of this form of collaboration (with the role of Manole and Ana played, mutatis mutandis, by a writer and his protagonist) that we find in a group of highly familiar monuments of modernist writing that will become strangely unfamiliar when they enter our séance.  The uncanny design of each will be revealed by a "purloined word," one that has been in plain sight for generations of  readers, who nonetheless have failed to detect its defamiliaring implications.

We will see, for example, that, in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Gatsby's determination to "fix everything just the way it was in the past," which leads eventually to his death,  is shadowed by Fitzgerald's mastery in "fixing" every detail of his novel -- including the highly dubious sequence of events that eventuates in Gatsby's death and Nick Carraway's equally dubious eulogizing of Gatsby -- in order to produce a literary triumph.  Similarly,  the drift into senility and eventual death of Father Flynn, who was "too scrupulous always" in the exercise of his priestly duties, is uncannily mirrored by the writerly triumph that James Joyce achieves in his short-story "The Sisters" by employing a narrative technique that he himself described as "scrupulous meanness." In The Book of Disquiet, "loss" refers both to  the  personal predicament of Bernardo Soares and to the abandonment  of fictional conventions that produces his "unwritten novel."

 J.Alfred Prufrock's "turning back" to crippling memories of his personal past is likewise accompanied throughout his love song by T. S. Eliot's authorial turning back to the impersonal cultural past (especially the Inferno and Hamlet) as he writes Prufrock's love song. In Waiting for Godot,  Didi and Gogo's  expectation of  a "tangible return" for their fidelity to Godot's directive  is uncannily doubled by the intangible return given to the play itself by actors who strive to fulfill Samuel Beckett's goal -- preserved in his stage directions -- of  achieving the onstage apparition of "form in movement." In Thomas Bernhard's The Loser, emulation is both the character trait that leads Wortheimer to his suicide and the authorial predilection that leads to a fictional re-invention of J. S. Bach's fugal composiitons.   In Endgame, "finishing it" applies ambiguously both to Hamm and Clov, for whom it means completing, and to  Beckett himself, for whom it means perfecting.    In Flannery O'Connor's short-story, "A Good Man is Hard to Find," the word "misfit" points not only to the personal predicament of the Misfit -- whose cruelty gives him no pleasure -- but also to O'Connor's choice of a narrative technique -- what Frederick Asals has called her "aesthetics of incongruity" -- from which she obviously derived immense authorial pleasure.  Finally, the stories that characters in Light in August  tell to frame Joe Christmas as a "nigger," which lead to his lynching, are recounted in a novel in which William Faulkner's framing of stories themselves -- most obviously (but by no means exclusively) in his use of a comic frame-tale to enclose the tragic main story -- is the hallmark narrative technique.

The introductory chapter will set the stage for our séance  by showing how the "Manole Complex" reveals to us the uncanniness of Sophocles' Oedipus the King and Shakespeare's Hamlet -- the two classic plays that Sigmund Freud interpreted as literary expressions of the "Oedipus Complex" in The Interpretation of Dreams but whose essay "The Uncanny" will be of far greater value to us.  In each of the nine chapters that follow -- arranged to create the mirroring effect of a chiasmus  -- we will have continually in mind Bernardo Soares's observation in The Book of Disquiet that "Anything and everything, depending on how one sees it, is a marvel or a hindrance, an all or a nothing, a path or a problem."  Our own project of unearthing the foundations of literary monuments will lead us to discover that they are made from their authors' uncanny blurring of the boundary that separates Soares's "or" from  "and," which uncannily transforms the oppositions of marvel/hindrance, all/nothing, and path/problem into symbiotic doubles.

IntroductionThe Manole Complex: Uncanny Designs in Oedipus and Hamlet 

Ch. 1  Fixing Things in The Great Gatsby

Ch. 2   Being Scrupulous  in “The Sisters”

Ch.3    Incarnating Loss in The Book of Disquiet

Ch. 4   Anticipating a Return in Waiting for Godot

Ch. 5   The Eliot Way: Turning Back in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

Ch. 6   Finishing It in Endgame

Ch. 7   Inventing Emulation in The Loser

Ch. 8   Being Misfits in “A Good Man is Hard to Find”

Ch. 9   Framing Stories in Light in August






Thomas Cousineau,
Sep 12, 2012, 7:15 AM