The Séance of Reading: The Daedalus Complex in Modernist Writing

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 the protagonists upon whom they displace what may otherwise have been their own suffering 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 with roots in this project, to be entitled The Séance of Reading: The Daedalus Complex 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 "service of a vast, vulgar and meretricious beauty" which leads to his death parallels Fitzgerald's service to the  aesthetic beauty that outlives Gatsby in the form of the highly poetic prose narrative that Nick Carraway dedicates to him as well as in the carefully crafted chiastic design of the novel itself, which pivots at its midpoint in chapter five with the reunion of Gatsby and Daisy.    

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 in his revised version of the story has been amply rewarded by the universal esteem in which it is held. In Thomas Bernhard's The Loser, the ambition of becoming the world's greatest piano virtuoso likewise leads to two divergent outcomes: Wertheimer's doomed effort to acquire the greatness possessed by Glenn Gould and Bernhard's successful achievement of literary virtuosity.  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 Decay

So 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. The purposeless wandering of T. S. Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock is mirrored every step of the way by Eliot's highly purposeful authorial design.  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.

                                             Table of Contents 

Introduction: To Double-Business Bound

 Ch. 1   Serving Beauty in The Great Gatsby

 Ch. 2   Being Scrupulous  in The Sisters

 Ch.3    Rewriting Lisbon in The Book of Disquiet

 Ch. 4   Doing Nothing in Waiting for Godot   

 Ch. 5   The Eliot Way 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   Becoming the Greatest in The Loser


The introductory chapter -- taking  both its title and its cue from the Chapel Scene in Shakespeare's Hamlet --will set the stage for this "séance of reading"  by exploring the uncanny way in which something that is a problem for the protagonist -- the "double-business" of incompatible aims by which he is bound (in the sense of "trapped") -- is, at the same time, the double business to which the author is bound (in the sense of "directed") as he fashions a literary work in which his protagonist's failure is perfectly compatible with his own achievement.    The nine chapters on individual works are arranged in the form of a  chiasm  so that each is mirrored by its double, with the exception of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" -- the single poem that I discuss -- which occupies the solitary central position.

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