The Séance of Reading: Uncanny Designs in Modernist Writing


                                         The visual design of Samuel Beckett's Ohio Impromptu stages  the uncanny transformation of mortal 
human                                                     bodies  into what, following Mircea Eliade's interpretation of the Manole Legend, we could call the immortal                                                     "architectural body" of  the play itself.

My current book-in-progress 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.  Burke's observation struck me as suggesting in two related ways the presence of an uncanny design in literary works: first, by implying that a protagonist was – covertly, to be sure – both a freely acting individual and the writer’s unwitting victim; second, by using "perfect" to designate both the protagonist and the work itself in such a way as to suggest that – having made the protagonist serve as his “perfect victim” – the author then fashions for him a virtual doppelgänger in the form of the “perfect work.”  It then occurred to me  that the paradigm in classical literature of the protagonist as the author’s victim and the work itself as the protagonist’s double appears in Ovid's Metamorphoses, in which "changing nature's laws"  makes  Daedalus into Ovid’s  perfect victim  while Ovid's own "telling of bodies changed into other forms" produces in Metamorphoses itself the perfect work.  

A serendipitous development of my project occurred when I discovered -- while teaching as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Bucharest during the Fall 2014 semester -- 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.  It dawned on me that  this Romanian ballad had the same uncanny design as the Daedalus legend: Ana is both Manole’s beloved wife and the victim that he will sacrifice; likewise, the edifice that he constructs will be both a monastery and her covert doppelgänger.  Eliade’s suggestion that the ballad itself alludes to an archaic construction ritual led me to further thinking about the disguised ways in which the creation of literary monuments requires the covert reenactment of  human sacrifice.  

Entitled The Séance of Reading: Uncanny Designs in Modernist Writing, this book is guided 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 a covert doppelgänger emerges.  Like the letter in Edgar Allan Poe's short-story "The Purloined Letter," an overlooked word that is  "hidden in plain sight" within each text will provoke this apparition.

 In F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Jay 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 "fixed" eulogizing of Gatsby -- in order to produce a literary triumph. 

 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."  

Bernardo Soares, the author/narrator of Fernando Pessoa’s masterpiece, The Book of Disquiet, is covertly doubled by the Lisboeta of his minor work, Lisbon: What Every Tourist Should See.  

The expectation of the main characters in Waiting for Godot that they will be rewarded with a tangible personal return for their actions is transformed into the intangible aesthetic return achieved by the actors who play their roles. 

J.Alfred Prufrock's "turning back" to crippling memories of his personal past is likewise 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.  

"Finishing it" in Endgame refers ambiguously both to Clov's desire to put an end to his suffering and to Samuel Beckett's desire to "fail better" by finishing his work on a theatrical monument that resists completion.

The Romanian writer who produced Emil Cioran’s minor work, The Transfiguration of Romania, is transformed into the universal author who creates his masterpiece, A Short History of Decay.

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.  

The accusatory framing of Joe Christmas as a "nigger" in William Faulkner's Light in August,  which leads ultimately to his lynching, is uncannily doubled by a novel in which the  aesthetic framing of episodes serves as a pervasive narrative technique.  

The introductory chapter will lay the foundation for this project by detailing the movement from overt to covert representations of human sacrifice that we discover in comparing The Legend of Master Manole with Sophocles' Oedipus the King and Samuel Beckett's Ohio Impromptu.

Introduction: The Manole Complex

Ch. 1  Fixing James Gatz in The Great Gatsby

Ch. 2   Being Scrupulous  in “The Sisters”

Ch. 3  Revisiting Lisbon in The Book of Disquiet

Ch. 4   Anticipating a Return 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 a Romanian in A Short History of Decay

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

Ch. 9   Framing Joe Christmas in Light in August


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