The Séance of Reading: Uncanny Designs in Modernist Writing


                                                       "Legenda Mesterului Manole" by the Moldavan artist Igor Vieru

"The Daedalus Complex," which is the name that I had originally given to my current project,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.  It occurred to me that the archetype of this uncanny symmetry between two opposing forms of perfection appears in Ovid's  Metamorphoses, where "flying too high" leads to death for Icarus and grief for Daedalus while, at the same time, bestowing immortality upon Ovid, who predicts in the Epilogue to his poem an afterlife in which  he will  "be borne,/The finer part of me, above the stars."    The focus of my project is on the comparable craftsmanship exhibited by modernist writers who create works that blur the boundary between the protagonist -- who plays the role of the perfect victim -- and the perfect work into which he will be transformed.  Learning that the word "daedalus" had a threefold reference for the ancient Greeks -- as the name of the archetypal artist, of the lifelike statues that he was credited with sculpting, and of the labyrinth that he constructed at Knossos -- led me to translate this three-in-one relationship from Greek into English as the symbiotic union of the designing author, his designated vicim, and  the formal design of his work.

While teaching 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 doesn't simply die; rather, her mortal body is transformed into what Eliade calls the "architectural body" of the monastery into which her soul has passed.  Eliade further argues that Manole's "Icarian" fall to his death from the roof of monastery -- and the apparition of a fountain on the very spot where he met his violent death --  allowed him to join his wife beyond the grave -- a reunion that would have been denied to him had he died a natural death.  Eliade's commentary on the construction of the monastery of Curtea de Arges and the afterlife of Manole and Ana that it ensured led me to see in this Romanian legend the "naked" avatar of an uncannily symbiotic relationship -- between the the perfecting author, the perfect victim that he sacrifices, and perfect work that their collaboration produces -- that returns in such diverse as well as such deceptively "clothed" forms throughout world literature.  

A work-in-progress that began with this project -- 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 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  "perfect victim" into the architectural body of the "perfect work."  In each of the modernist works under discussion, a single word  or phrase will  serve as the medium (in the occult sense of the word) which, rather than transmitting messages to us from the beyond,  produces in us what we might call a doppelgänger effect in which the work itself -- not another fictional character -- emerges as the protagonist's uncanny double.   The introductory chapter, entitled "To Double-Business Bound," will begin by discussing classic literary works  -- including those by Hoffman, Dostoevski, Maupassant, Poe, and Stevenson -- in which overt doppelgängers appear and conclude with some thoughts about "doppelgänger effects" in Dante's Inferno and Shakespeare's Hamlet.

 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." The cicerone in Fernando Pessoa's guidebook Lisbon: What the Tourist Should See -- who celebrates, as it were, the "stones" of his native city -- returns in The Book of Disquiet as Bernardo Soares, an assistant bookkeeper who is confined within "the four stone walls of our inability to act" but who uses words to construct "the ruins of a building that were never more than ruins" whose sublimity far exceeds the mere beauty of the cicerone's Lisbon. 

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 -- "executing movements" 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.   The decision by the narrator of Thomas Bernhard's The Loser to give up the piano allows his abandoned  dream of achieving pianistic virtuosity to "return" throughout the novel as Bernhard's own display of writerly virtuosity.  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 narrative technique -- what Frederick Asals has called her "aesthetics of incongruity" -- from which she apparently derived immense pleasure. Finally, "framing stories" refers not only to the tales that members of  the community tell in order to "frame" certain isolated characters as guilty of some punishable misdeed but also to Faulkner's way of "framing" connections among the otherwise isolated episodes of his novel 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: To Double-Business Bound


                  Ch. 1  Fixing Things in The Great Gatsby

    Ch. 2   Having Scruples  in The Sisters

             Ch.3    Walling Up the Writer in The Book of Disquiet

             Ch. 4   Executing Movements 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   Giving Up the Piano in The Loser

             Ch. 8   Making 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