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 their own victimage, whether actual or feared, 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 building rites and alchemical processes -- which bear an uncanny resemblance to the act of literary creation -- has led to do some fresh thinking about my own work.

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 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 uncanny  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 arranging 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 described to his publisher as "scrupulous meanness."   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 (Précis de décomposition)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

J. Alfred Prufrock's abject surrender to the demoralizing words spoken about him by others (whether real or imagined)   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 a game 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 invidious framing of Joe Christmas as a "nigger" -- a designation that seals his fate following the death of Joanna Burden -- is paralleled throughout Light in August by the aesthetic device of framing that Faulkner uses to organize events in his notoriously a-chronological narrative.

                                             Table of Contents 

Introduction: Bound for Glory

 Ch. 1  Transmigrating James Gatz in The Great Gatsby

Ch. 2   Being Scrupulous  in The Sisters

 Ch.3    Revisiting Lisbon in The Book of Disquiet

 Ch. 4   Staging the Chorus in Waiting for Godot   

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

 Ch. 6   Disguising Repetitions in Endgame

 Ch. 7   Transfiguring Romania in A Short History of Decay

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

 Ch. 9   Framing Joe Christmas in Light in August


The introductory chapter -- which takes its title from the traditional American gospel song, "This Train is Bound for Glory" -- sets the stage for our séance of reading  by exploring the contrast between the train described in the song, which, since it is bound for heavenly glory, "Don't take nothing but the righteous and the holy," and these masterpieces of modernist writing, which have achieved literary glory precisely because they welcomed aboard such unrighteous and unholy passengers as Gatsby, Father Flynn, Bernardo Soares, Vladimir and Estragon, J. Alfred Prufrock, Hamm and Clov, Emil Cioran, the Misfit, and Wertheimer.     

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