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 draws upon René Girard's theories of mimetic desire and the scapegoat mechanism and Kenneth Burke's observation 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 a form of suffering that could otherwise have been their own, 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.  More recently, Mircea Eliade's work on the role played by human sacrifice in construction-site rituals and alchemical processes -- which bears a striking resemblance to the act of literary creation -- has led to some fresh thinking about this project.  In particular, it has helped me to shift the  emphasis away from  the community's sacrificing of the scapegoat as a way of putting an end to internecine violence and toward the author's sacrificing of his protagonist in order to construct his work.  I've been especially intrigued in this respect by Eliade's discussion of "The Legend of Master Manole," a Romanian folktale in which an architect learns that he must sacrifice his own wife in order to build the church that he has designed.  

Throughout this project, I have 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 triune figure representing the uncanny symbiosis of
                                                                                        the designing author, his designated victim, and the formal
                                                                                        design of his 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 potentially spine-tingling  effects produced  by our discovery of  the symbiotic connections within the trinity formed by the designing author, his designated victim in the person of a  protagonist,  and the formal design of the work itself, which achieves the goal  whose pursuit had led the protagonist to an impasse.  

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 "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.   Fitzgerald mimics Gatsby's behavior but without relinquishing his authorial invulnerability.  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."   Emil Cioran's self-diagnosed "hysteria" is both a paralyzing personal predicament in his A Short History of Decay (Précis de décomposition) and the source of the "incendie verbale" that lies at the heart of his literary glorySo also,  the experience of loss in The Book of Disquiet is both a predicament for its protagonist-author Bernardo Soares, a self-described "ruins of buildings," and an ironically apt description of The Book itself, a pile of disparate fragments discovered in a sea trunk long after Pessoa's death that is generally acknowledged to be a towering masterpiece of literary modernism.

J. Alfred Prufrock's paralysis -- induced in him by words (whether real or imagined) that an adversarial "they" speak to him --  is mirrored throughout "Prufrock" itself by T. S. Eliot's creative surrender to  words written by others-- especially Dante and Shakespeare -- from which he continually drew inspiration as he was writing the poem.  Similarly, Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Endgame feature characters who are involved in activities -- "doing nothing" in one,  "playing it" in the other -- at which their creator is far more adept than they and which he constantly turns to his advantage at their expense.  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 inability  of Wertheimer,"an unrelieved emulator," to survive his traumatizing encounter with Glenn Gould at the Salzburg Mozarteum is paralleled throughout the The Loser by Thomas Bernhard's creative emulation of Gould.


                                             Table of Contents 

Introduction: The Daedalus Complex

                           "Together with his father, the boy Icarus

                           was standing unaware he was facing danger

                           now with a beaming face kept on capturing the feathers

                            which the moving air has moved, with his thumb now kept softening the yellow wax

                            and with his play he kept interrupting the marvelous work of his father."

Ch. 1  Fixing James Gatz in The Great Gatsby

              “’I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before,’ he said, nodding determinedly.”


        Ch. 2   Being Scrupulous  in The Sisters

                     “He was too scrupulous always, she said.  The duties of the priesthood were too much for  him.”


        Ch.3    Incarnating Loss in The Book of Disquiet

                  “I don’t mourn the loss of my childhood; I mourn because everything, including (my) childhood, is lost.”


        Ch. 4   Doing Nothing in Waiting for Godot   

                                        "Nothing to be done"


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

                                        "Then how should I begin

                                        To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways"

         Ch. 6   Playing It in Endgame

                                        "Since that's the way we're playing it . . ."

             Ch. 7   Transfiguring Hysteria in A Short History of Decay

                           “The wonders of the earth – and, a fortiori, those of heaven – result from a durable hysteria. »

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

                        “’I call myself the Misfit,’ he said, ‘because I can’t make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone   

                          through in punishment.’”

             Ch. 9   Emulating Glenn Gould in The Loser

                 “Wertheimer was an unrelieved emulator, he emulated anybody he thought was better off than he was”


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