The Séance of Reading: Uncanny Designs in Modernist Writing


                                            Carlo Saraceni, "The Fall of Icarus"

"The Daedalus Complex" -- 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 symmetry between two uncannily complementary forms of perfection appears in Ovid's  Metamorphoses, where "flying too high" leads to death for Icarus and to Daedalus “cursing his craft” while, at the same time, bestowing immortality upon Ovid, who predicts in the Epilogue to his poem that, having perfected his work, he will, in his afterlife ,  "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, thanks to the collaboration of  protagonists who play the role of “perfect victims,” construct their  “perfect works.” 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, with Burke’s assertion in mind, to translate this triune relationship from Greek into English as the symbiotic union of the designing author, his designated victim, 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 is told 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 helped me to see more clearly two aspects of the “Daedalus Complex” that had not previously come into view: first, that quite apart from any moral  lessons that might be learned from the Daedalus legend, the overriding consideration for Ovid was the aesthetic imperative that he sacrifice his alter-ego (represented in the legend by both Daedalus and Icarus) in order, as he says in the Epilogue, to “accomplish his task”; second, the legend itself, which explicitly dramatizes the metamorphosis of Daedalus and Icarus into flying creatures, which makes onlookers think “they must be gods,” implicitly metamorphoses Ovid into a writer who – thanks to the literary monument in which he has "immured" them  -- will be “borne above the stars.” The collaboration of  Manole and his wife -- one as the master-builder and the other as the sacrificial victim -- which is made entirely explicit in the Romanian ballad – is revealed only indirectly in the Greek legend, and  not until we arrive at the Epilogue to Metamorphoses .  Like Ana, who must be immured, so also (even in the absence of the obligation that is explicitly revealed in the ballad, Icarus must “fly too high” and Daedalus must “curse his craft” in order that the monument be built and Ovid's "better self" be immortalized.

A work-in-progress that explores this idea -- 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  writer's protagonist into the architectural body of his completed  work.  In each of the modernist works under discussion, a single word  or phrase serves as the "medium" (in the occult sense of the word) that provokes the emergence of  what we might call a "virtual doppelgänger" to the protagonist in the form of the work itself rather than another fictional character.   

 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 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 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." In Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet, the experience of loss is incarnated both in its narrator, Bernardo Soares,  for whom it is a personal tragedy, and in his “factless autobiography,” a literary monument built in the form of ruins.

 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. "Doing nothing," an activity that Vladimir and Estragon pursue in a random way in Waiting for Godot, is shaped into a play whose formal symmetry is conveyed by the celebrated quip that, in it, "nothing happens -- twice."  In Endgame, "finishing it" applies ambiguously both to Hamm and Clov, for whom it means completing, and to Samuel Beckett, for whom it means perfecting.  In A Short History of Decay, Emil Cioran transfigures the "national penchant for failure" that he shares with his fellow Romanians into a "verbal conflagration" modeled on the penchant for unrestrained poetic invention that he so admired in Shakespeare.  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 telling of stories that frame Joe Christmas as a "nigger," which leads to his lynching, is recounted in a novel in which the framing of stories -- most obviously in Faulkner's use of a comic frame tale to enclose the tragic main story -- is the hallmark narrative technique.

In the introductory chapter -- after discussing the uncanny reciprocity between perfect victims and perfect works such as we find in the Legend of Daedalus and the Ballad of Master Manole – I will then analyze, using the “Daedalus Complex” as my guide, Oedipus the King and  Hamlet, the two classic literary works to which Sigmund Freud refers in his exposition of the  "Oedipus Complex" in Introduction to Psychoanalysis. I will argue there – coming to a conclusion very different from Freud’s – that the most intense emotional effect of both works is produced -- not by return of repressed childhood memories -- but by the uncanny way in which the same situation represents both a problem for the protagonist and an opportunity for his creator.  Thus, the "reversal" that is a tragic personal fate for Oedipus provides Sophocles with the materials out of which he will make Oedipus the King, a play in which reversal serves as  a structural principle for the choral odes as well as for the arrangement of its episodes. Likewise in Hamlet, being "to double business bound," is both a stumbling block for characters in the play and the cornerstone upon which Shakespeare constructs his play.


Introduction: The Daedalus Complex

 "For God judged it better to bring good out of evil than not to permit any evil to exist"

                                                                  -- Saint Augustine

Ch. 1  Fixing Everything 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  Failure in A Short History of Decay

              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