The Séance of Reading: Uncanny Designs in Modernist Writing

             ". . . a hawklike man flying sunward above the sea, a prophecy of the end he had been born to serve . . ."

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

The Daedalus Complex is the name that I originally gave to my current project,  which was inspired by Kenneth Burke's observation that "the perfection of the work, including the perfecting of the victim" is a fundamental motive underlying all narratives.  In Ovid's  Metamorphoses,  the role of perfect victim is played by both Icarus, who falls to his death, and by Daedalus, who is left to mourn his loss and to regret the "metamorphosis" into flying creatures that led to it -- and the perfect work by the Metamorphoses itself, which serves as the "wings" that allow Ovid, in the closing words of his poem, to "be borne,/The finer part of me, above the stars."    The focus of my project is on the comparable strategy exhibited by modernist writers who create works in which their protagonists fall victim to stumbling blocks that are, at one and the same time, the building blocks from which the works themselves are constructed.  The metamorphosis that leads to a debacle for Daedalus and 

A work-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 book of genius"  neither with our heads nor our hearts but with our spines because that is where we feel the "telltale tingle."  In it, I attempt to conjure in its readers a séance-like experience in which nine "books of genius" serve as the setting within which emerges this uncanny reciprocity between stumbling blocks and billing blocks.

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.  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." So 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.  The inconvenience of being born as a Romanian -- the subject of Emil Cioran's early minor work, La Transfiguration de la Roumanie -- returns in the form of the  uncannily convenient inconvenience of being born in any form whatsoever in his masterpiece, A Short History of Decay.

J.Alfred Prufrock's "turning back" from crippling memories of his personal past is accompanied throughout his love song by Eliot's "turning back" towards the impersonal cultural past (especially the Inferno and Hamlet). Similarly, Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Endgame feature characters who are involved in activities -- "doing nothing" in one and  "finishing 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 personal predicament of 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, "framing stories" refers not only to the stories that members of  the community tell in order to frame certain designated outsiders as guilty of some punishable misdeed but also to Faulkner's way of framing connections among  these stories as a way of giving form to Light in August.                                            

    The Séance of Reading: Uncanny Designs in Modernist Writing

                   "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."  

                                                                                  -- Vladimir Nabokov          

 Introduction: The Daedalus Complex

                                “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.”

                                                                                           -- Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
            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   The Eliot Way: Turning Back in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" 

                Ch. 6   Finishing It in Endgame

              Ch. 7   Transfiguring Inconvenience in A Short History of Decay    

              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