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 have 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.  The project's title is 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 focuses 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 a form of suffering that could otherwise have been their own, 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 construction-site rituals and alchemical processes -- which bears a striking resemblance to the act of literary creation -- has led to some fresh thinking about this project.  In particular, it has helped me to shift the  emphasis away from  the community's sacrificing of the scapegoat as a way of putting an end to internecine violence and toward the individual author's sacrificing of his protagonist in order to construct his work.  I've been especially intrigued in this respect by Eliade's discussion of "The Legend of Master Manole," a Romanian folktale in which an architect learns that he must sacrifice his own wife in order to build the church that he has designed.  

Throughout this project, I have 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 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  effects produced  by our discovery of  the symbiotic connections within the  threefold figure (represented here by a Celtic knot) formed by the designing author, his protagonist as designated victim,  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 "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.   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 himself described as "scrupulous meanness." So also,  the experience of loss in The Book of Disquiet is both a predicament for its protagonist-author Bernardo Soares, a self-described "ruins of buildings," and an ironically apt description of The Book itself, a pile of disparate fragments discovered in a sea trunk long after Pessoa's death that is generally acknowledged to be a towering masterpiece of literary modernism.  The inconvenience of being born as a Romanian -- the subject of Emil Cioran's early minor work, La Transfiguration de la Roumanie -- returns in the form of the  uncannily convenient inconvenience of being born as a human being of any sort in his masterpiece, "Précis de décomposition." 

The "Eliot Way" -- a term that T. S. Eliot invented to diagnose the indecisiveness that afflicted members of his families -- is uncannily echoed by his equally Eliotic way of transforming  a psychological impairment (which he also called "The Prufrock Complex") into  an epochal poem called "Prufrock."  Similarly, Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Endgame feature characters who are involved in activities -- "doing nothing" in one and  "playing 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.  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 inability  of Wertheimer,"an unrelieved emulator," to survive his traumatizing encounter with Glenn Gould at the Salzburg Mozarteum is paralleled throughout the The Loser by Thomas Bernhard's creative emulation of both Gould and J. S. Bach.


                                             Table of Contents 

    Introduction: The Daedalus Complex


       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   Turning Back in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" 

                   Ch. 6   Playing It in Endgame

                 Ch. 7   Transfiguring Inconvenience in A Short History of Decay    

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

                 Ch. 9   Emulating Everyone in The Loser



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