The Séance of Reading: Uncanny Designs in Modernist Writing

My current book-in-progress was initially 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.  Two details of Burke's contention struck me as especially uncanny: first, the rather startling idea that the protagonist of a literary work was -- covertly, to be sure -- the author's victim; second, Burke's application  of "perfect"  to both the protagonist and the work suggested to me the possibility of there being an equally covert reciprocity between the mastery displayed in a literary work and the victimizing of its protagonist.   I wondered if perhaps the  protagonist experiences a downfall that is transformed into a "fortunate fall" for the work produced by his sacrifice.

This hypothesis came more clearly into focus for me when, during my tenure  as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Bucharest during the Fall 2014 semester, I discovered the "Legend of Master Manole," a popular Romanian folk ballad about a master-builder named Manole who learns in a dream that, in order to construct the monastery at Curtea de Arges, he must sacrifice his wife Ana by burying her alive within its walls.  I subsequently read Mircea Eliade's Commentaires sur la légende de maître Manole and was highly intrigued by the author's  contention that Ana isn't simply buried in the monastery; rather, her soul passed from her mortal body into what Eliade calls the "architectural body" of the monastery. Learning that the Romanian word for "monastery" was "manastire" -- which "embodies" Ana's name  -- suggested to me an uncanny literalizing of Eliade's interpretation

The book that I am now writing -- entitled The Séance of Reading: Uncanny Designs in Modernist Writing -- is guided 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 my readers a séance-like experience in which nine "books of genius" serve as the setting within which emerges this uncanny transformation of the mortal body of the  writer's perfect victim into the architectural body of his perfect  work.  The introductory chapter will set the stage for our séance  by showing how our uncovering of this "double-business" leads us to  uncanny readings of Sophocles' Oedipus the King and of Shakespeare's Hamlet -- the two classic plays that Sigmund Freud interpreted as literary expressions of his better-known "Oedipus Complex" in The Interpretation of Dreams but whose essay "The Uncanny" will be of far greater value to us as we explore the unexpected emergence of doubles in both plays. 

 In each of the nine chapters that follow -- which are 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." Like the letter in Edgar Allan Poe's short-story "The Purloined Letter," a familiar word  or phrase "hidden in plain sight" within each text will cause  an  unfamiliar "doppelgänger effect" between sacrificed protagonist and monumental work to emerge.  

 In F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, for example, Jay Gatsby's determination to "fix everything just the way it was in the past," which leads eventually to his death,  parallels 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 "fixed" 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."  The beauty of the architectural wonders of Lisbon, which Fernando Pessoa had described with such patriotic fervor in his guidebook, Lisbon: What The Tourist Should See, is "repressed" from The Book of  Disquiet (Livro do Desassossego) that it may return as the "architectural body" of a literary monument made of words.  

In Murphy,  Murphy's love of the "amiable schizophrenic" Mr. Endon is uncannily mirrored throughout the novel that bears his name by Samuel Beckett's love of  words -- beginning with the word "endon" (Greek for "within") -- as well as by the covert presence of such "wordsmiths" as Dante and James Joyce, whose own monumental achievements he especially admired.  J.Alfred Prufrock's "turning back" to crippling memories of his personal past is 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 The Loser (Der Untergeher), Wertheimer's playing J. S. Bach -- which leads to his crippling rivalry with Glenn Gould and, eventually to his suicide -- is metamorphosed by Thomas Bernhard into the narrative technique of a literary masterpiece that reinvents both Bach and Gould. 

Emil Cioran sacrifices the role of prophet that he had adopted while writing an early minor work entitled The Transfiguration of Romania (Schimbarea la fata a romaniei) in order that he himself may be transfigured into the poet who writes his masterwork, A Short History of Decay (Précis de décomposition).  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 pleasure.  Finally, the accusatory framing of Joe Christmas as a "nigger" in William Faulkner's Light in August,  which leads ultimately to his lynching, is uncannily doubled by a novel in which the  aesthetic framing of episodes serves as a pervasive “architectural” technique.


Introduction: 'To Double-Business Bound': Uncanny Readings of Oedipus and Hamlet 

Ch. 1  Fixing James Gatz in The Great Gatsby

Ch. 2   Being Scrupulous  in “The Sisters”

Ch.3    Rebuilding Lisbon in The Book of Disquiet

Ch. 4   Loving Mr. Endon in Murphy

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

Ch. 6   Playing J. S. Bach  in The Loser

Ch. 7   Transfiguring A Romanian in A Short History of Decay

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

Ch. 9   Framing Joe Christmas in Light in August





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