The Séance of Reading: Uncanny Designs in Modernist Writing

    "Now, at the name of the fabulous artificer, he seemed to hear the noise of dim waves and to see a winged form flying above the waves and slowly climbing the air."

                                                                    James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

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 protagonists who serve as the scapegoats upon whom they displace their own victimage, whether actual or feared, 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.

A book-in-progress that began with this project, to be entitled The Séance of Reading: Uncanny Designs in Modernist Writing,  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  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, disguised reflections of each other.  In F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, for example, Gatsby's determination to "fix everything just the way it was in the past," which leads eventually to his death,  parallels Fitzgerald's authorial success in arranging 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 scrupulousness to which Father Flynn's sister Eliza traces the beginning of his drift into senility and eventual death is uncannily mirrored in the scrupulous narrative style that Joyce designated in a 1906 letter to his publisher as the aesthetic goal that he actively pursued  and whose achievement, especially in his revised version of the story, has been amply rewarded by the universal esteem in which it is held.   Emil Cioran's self-diagnosed "hysteria" produces a vision of history in his Transfiguration de la Roumanie, which is then uncannily mirrored several years later in the highly theatrical histrionics of his A Short History of DecaySo also,  the beauty of Lisbon, as described with such patriotic fervor in Lisbon: What The Tourist Should See, the guidebook written by Fernando Pessoa, forms a diptych with the sublimity of the same city in his The Book of Disquiet

His debilitating encounters with his personal double -- himself as seen in the eyes of others -- that repeatedly  thwarts J. Alfred Prufrock throughout his journey   is mirrored throughout "Prufrock" itself by the succession of impersonal encounters with literary doubles -- especially the Inferno and Hamlet -- from which Eliot continually drew his inspiration as he was writing his poem.  Similarly, Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Endgame feature characters who are involved in activities -- doing nothing in one,  playing a game in the other -- at which their creator is far more adept than they and which he constantly turns to his advantage.  In Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find," the word "misfit" points not only to  the protagonist -- whose cruelty gives him no pleasure --  but also to  Flannery O'Connor's choice of narrative technique -- what Frederick Asals has called her "aesthetics of incongruity" -- from which she herself obviously derived immense pleasure. Finally, the fate of Wertheimer, an "unrelieved emulator," who never becomes more than a second-rate version of his admired models is implicitly paralleled throughout the novel by Bernhard's highly original emulations of Bach's Goldberg Variations and Adolph Hitler's Mein Kampf, which he subjects to a parodic inversion.

                                             Table of Contents 

Introduction: Bound for Glory

 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   Doing Nothing in Waiting for Godot   

 Ch. 5   Seeing Doubles in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

 Ch. 6   Playing Beckett in Endgame

 Ch. 7   Transfiguring Hysteria in A Short History of Decay

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

 Ch. 9   Emulating Others in The Loser


The introductory chapter -- which takes its title from the traditional American gospel song, "This Train is Bound for Glory" -- sets the stage for our séance of reading  by exploring the contrast between the train described in the song, which, since it is bound for glory, "Don't take nothing but the righteous and the holy," and these masterpieces of modernist writing, which have achieved literary glory precisely because they welcomed aboard such unrighteous and unholy passengers as Gatsby, Father Flynn, Bernardo Soares, Vladimir and Estragon, J. Alfred Prufrock, Hamm and Clov, Emil Cioran, the Misfit, and Wertheimer.     

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