From The Daedalus Complex to The Séance of Reading

The Daedalus Complex is the name that I had given to a  project that explored American literary critic Kenneth Burke's contention that "the perfection of the work, including the perfecting of the victim" is a fundamental motive underlying all narratives.  Its title was taken from the story of Daedalus as recounted by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, in which the perfect work is represented by the objects that Daedalus constructs -- including both the labyrinth that was commanded by King Minos and the wings that allowed him to escape from Knossos -- and the role of perfect victim is played in turn by the Minotaur and Icarus.  It focused on   the comparable craftsmanship exhibited by writers who create both  perfect victims in the form of the protagonists upon whom they displace what may otherwise have been their own suffering and perfect works in the form of literary masterpieces in which the sacrificing of their victims – foreshadowed by the fates of the Minotaur and Icarus – will assure their enduring glory. 

    Throughout this project, I had at hand such resonant touchstones for the perfecting of the victim as T. S. Eliot’s question, raised in a letter, "Is it true that sometimes one can only live by another's dying?” as well as his celebrated distinction, in  “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” between “the man who suffers” and “the mind which creates," the Romanian writer Emil Cioran’s assertion that  “cruelty is a sign of election, at least in literature,” and Vladimir Nabokov's quip that the characters in his novels are "my galley slaves." Stephen Daedalus’s assertion, in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that “the artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails'' was an especially useful touchstone with respect to the perfection of the work.

I taught classes, gave guest lectures, and wrote books on this symbiotic relationship between the fashioning a scapegoat who will suffer in place of his creator and the construction of a work that will redound to the creator’s glory as it emerges in selected masterpieces of modernist writing, including T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," Henry James's The Turn of the Screw,  F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, James Joyce's Dubliners, William Faulkner's Light in August, Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, Thomas Bernhard's Correction, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet,  Cioran's A Short History of Decay, Gabriel García Márquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold,  Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, Jorge Luis Borges's ficciones, the parables of Franz Kafka, and the major plays of Samuel Beckett.  

Remembering that “Daedalus,” the name given by tradition to the archetypal artist, is also a common Greek noun that designated in classical antiquity both the labyrinth and the lifelike statues that Daedalus was credited with inventing helped me throughout my work on this project to keep in mind that -- although the author, his protagonist/scapegoats, and the literary work that he constructs are distinct things -- they also tend curiously to merge with each other.  Likewise remembering that, in the first of the three stories that Ovid tells us about Daedalus, we learn that he himself came very close to being entrapped by the labyrinth that he had so cunningly constructed as a prison for the Minotaur will alert us to the possibility that the distinction between suffering and creativity may not be quite as absolute as Eliot’s formula would seem to suggest.

 I am now writing a new book, to be entitled The Séance of Reading: Uncanny Designs in Modernist Writing, which is inspired by Vladimir Nabokov's advice that we should read the work of great writer neither with our heads nor our hearts but with our spines because that is where we feel the "telltale tingle."  In a nutshell, it focuses attention on the uncanny, potentially spine-tingling, effects produced as we read by our paradoxical discovery that such apparently opposing things as  the impasse to which the author consigns his protagonist and the work that he constructs for himself are, in fact, mirror images of each other.  In F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, for example, Gatsby's determination to "fix" everything so that Daisy Buchanan will return to him -- which echoes Meyer Wolfsheim's fixing of the 1919 World Series -- parallels Fitzgerald's authorial fixing of the (highly improbable) chain of events that leads to Gatsby's death as well as his arranging of Nick Carraway's narrative in such a way as to achieve a perfectly chiastic structure that pivots midway through the novel in chapter five with the reunion of Gatsby and Daisy.    

Similarly, the silence that is symptomatic of paralysis in "The Sisters" is uncannily mirrored by the ellipses that James Joyce actively incorporated into the revised version of what was to become the first, as well as the emblematic, story in Dubliners.  The framing of Joe Christmas as a both a "nigger" and a murderer in William Faulkner's Light in August leads eventually to his lynching in a novel whose signature narrative technique is, again uncannily, the "spatial form" that  Faulkner creates by his pictorial rather than linear way of  framing the events of his novel.  In Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet, Bernardo Soares's self designation as "a building in ruins" points ambiguously both  to his own psychological disintegration and to the disordered pile of fragmentary texts that is arguably his (and Pessoa's) most "towering" literary achievement.  And so on for each of the additional masterpieces of modernist writing that I discuss in this book, concluding, as  I had begun, with a short story: Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find," in which the term "the misfit" becomes not only the name that the protagonist -- whose cruelty gives him no pleasure --  had chosen for himself but also the name of the narrative technique -- what Frerick Asals has called her "aesthetics of incongruity" -- from which Flannery O'Connor apparently derived immense pleasure.

                                             Table of Contents 

Introduction: To Double-Business Bound

 Ch. 1   Plagiarizers Unbound: Borrowing Things in The Great Gatsby

 Ch. 2   Following Leaders  in The Sisters

 Ch.3    Incarnating Pain in The Book of Disquiet

 Ch. 4   Staging the Chorus in Waiting for Godot   

 Ch. 5   The Eliot Way in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

 Ch. 6   Rehearsing the Past in Endgame

 Ch. 7   Transfiguring Rage in A Short History of Decay

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

 Ch. 9   Framers Unbound:  Picturing Things in Light in August


The introductory chapter -- taking  both its title and its cue from the Chapel Scene in Shakespeare's Hamlet -- will set the stage for this "séance of reading"  by exploring the uncanny way in which something that is a problem for the protagonist -- the "double-business" of incompatible aims by which he is bound (in the sense of "trapped") -- is, at the same time, the double business to which the author is bound (in the sense of "directed") as he fashions a literary work in which his protagonist's failure is perfectly compatible with his own achievement.    Chapters on individual works are arranged in the form of a  chiasm [abcdedcba] so that each of them is mirrored by its double, with the exception of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" -- the single poem that I discuss (calling particular attention, however, to its the chiastic structure that Eliot constructs out of Prufrock's aimless wandering) -- which occupies the solitary central position.

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