From the archives: Literary theory

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The metalepsis will not be wikified

Tuesday, 17 March 2015 — 5:17am | Film, Literary theory, Literature, Music

Amber Jacquemain (Kate Miller-Heidke) and Toby Kramer (Roderick Williams) in Sunken Garden (2011-2012), a 3D film-opera by Michel van der Aa with a libretto by the novelist David Mitchell.

For the conscious mind can be set aside and subdued by the emotions, but in a dream world all is logic.
— Mervyn Peake, Gormenghast

One can hardly reproach a reader entranced by the stories of David Mitchell, sold on his aesthetic games and primed for every fresh display of his metafictional tricks, for failing to suppress a squeal of delight on cashing in a ticket for the oldest of loyalty rewards: the recognition of a familiar face. Or in Mitchell’s case, notorious as he is for threading his characters along a washing line of transmigration, not a face but a dislocated name, a clue to a persistent mind and memory. “Fifteen pages into The Bone Clocks,” Kathryn Schulz says of his latest novel (which begins in 1984), “I sat up so fast I clocked my own bones—skull against ceiling, in the low nook where I was reading. [The protagonist Holly Sykes] had just mentioned that, as a child, she had been cured of the strange voices in her head by a visit to one Dr Marinus. Mitchell fans will recall that Marinus is also the name of the doctor in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. When we meet him in that book, it is 1799.”

The recurrence of characters across a writer’s oeuvre is nothing new; Schulz acknowledges Shakespeare’s Falstaff as a precedent, and we could say the same for Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym, the other patrons of the Boar’s Head, whose encounter with the titular king of Henry V is all the more reverberant if you recall from earlier plays their rapport with the young Prince Hal. But Mitchell’s signature devices, the transmigration of souls and the porousness of the border separating narrative from lived reality, dramatically expand the range and flexibility with which a character occurring in one story can be thought of as identical to a character in another, joined by a continuous sense of self.

This is a trick he plays both within his novels and across them. Often our only clue is a name, but as with the early Soviet cinema, the meaning is in the cut: we are ever only who we are in the instant we are living now, and our past or future selves are not the same embodiments of drives and experience, yet we find it intuitive to think of them as part of the same coherent personhood, its growth implicit in the abruptness of difference from one discrete stage to another.

How did you get from there to here? This is what Mitchell entices us to wonder about his players at every turn, and when Neal Brose, the neurotic financial lawyer in Ghostwritten, shows up a school-aged popularity racketeer in Black Swan Green, where we first meet the avatar of adolescent peer pressure Hugo Lamb, who returns in The Bone Clocks as a sociopath making his way up the Cambridge elite and is soon recruited into a secret society of predatory immortals by Elijah D’Arnoq, a rifler from the Chatham Islands implied to be the descendant of a churchman in Cloud Atlas who meets with the crew of the Prophetess, whose first mate Boerhaave sails into Nagasaki as a young midshipman in The Thousand Autumns aboard the Profetes—presumably the same vessel, though you will have to ask the staff of the museum ship preserved in a Californian harbour espied in Cloud Atlas by Luisa Rey, the crime writer who calls into Ghostwritten’s Bat Segundo Show (not to be confused with the literary podcast by Edward Champion where Mitchell has appeared as a guest several times)—you see his method at work, lapping waveforms on top of each other in search of an emergent resonance, a drone. The people, the families, the sailing ships—they are the same, yet not the same, and we read into their histories from not only what we see but what we don’t.

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Here Be Cartographers: Reading the Fantasy Map

Monday, 18 April 2011 — 11:14pm | J.R.R. Tolkien, Literary theory, Literature

It is hard to imagine a world without maps.

Now stop—and diagram that sentence. Break its syntax apart. You can parse it in at least two valid and meaningful ways:

  • It is hard | to imagine | a world without maps. The use of maps is so embedded in our daily lives, so essential to our normal functioning, that the idea of a pre-cartographic society is as alien as the thought of a pre-literate one. On top of this, our idea of what it means to be a mapped society is itself confined to our familiarized expectations of what maps are like. How did people get by without maps—or rather, without the sorts of maps we know and understand?

  • It is hard | to imagine a world | without maps. Maps govern the way we think about space, and that extends to imaginary or hypothetical spaces. Without a graphic representation on paper or in our heads, our plans for things not yet built—homes, roads, electric circuits—may be cloudy and ambiguous. They may lack precision in the same way we have trouble with describing things that are outside our linguistic abilities. This is a negative definition of maps as a form of language: to be without a map is to be without language, and it impedes us from communicating ideas in the mind—to others, yes, but also to ourselves.

In both of these senses, maps of fictional places are remarkably challenging texts.

One of my chief interests in fiction, along with art in general, is how it presents itself as evidence of the way people receive the existing cultural data around them before they process it and spit it back out. (In literary criticism you will encounter words like allusion and intertextuality, but I think of them as subtypes of a broader cognitive activity.) When an author plans out a story’s setting in place, or when a reader attempts to reconstruct it from the words alone, the maps they produce tell us not only how they imagine the depicted geography, but also how they imagine the idea of maps. Furthermore, the author/audience distinction isn’t always sharp: some privileged readers, such as the illustrators at a publishing house or manuscript historians like Christopher Tolkien, participate in the interpretive stage as well as the official construction of the space for everyone else.

So when we open up a novel to find a map, we can think of the map as an act of narration. But what kind of narration? Is it reliable narration or a deliberate misdirection? Is it omniscient knowledge, a complete (or strategically obscured) presentation of the world as the author knows it? Or is the map available to the characters in the text? If it is, then who drew up the map, and how did they have access to the information used to compose it? If it isn’t, then through what resources do the characters orient themselves in their own world? And finally, does anyone even bother to think about these questions before they sit down to place their woodlands and forts?

In the post that follows, I am going to informally sketch out a theory of fictional maps, which is to say that I will put up a lot of pretty pictures from novels and talk about why they are neat. There is likely some academic work on this somewhere—I would be astonished if there weren’t—but I’m not aware of any, and certainly nothing that has accounted for modern critical approaches to the history of cartography. Map history and the comparative study of commercial genre literature are niches within niches as it stands, and my aim is to entwine them together.

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Cognizing the film about film

Friday, 15 January 2010 — 10:35am | Film, Literary theory, Literature, Science

There is a lot of rubbish being written about Avatar, and I freely admit to letting my own contribution stew in my draft box while I correct its pungent odour with the appropriate spice. But for the time being, I want to draw attention to one particular response to the film. Jonah Lehrer writes about the neuroscientific basis for cinematic immersion, and concludes:

What these experiments reveal is the essential mental process of movie-watching. (Other research has also emphasized the ability of stories to blur the difference between fiction and reality.) This doesn’t mean that every movie needs to be an action packed spectacle, just as Greenberg was wrong to suggest that every painting should imitate Pollock. But I think it helps reveal why Avatar is such a success. At its core, movies are about dissolution: we forget about ourselves and become one with the giant projected characters on the screen. In other words, they become our temporary avatars, so that we’re inseparable from their story. (This is one of the reasons why the Avatar plot is so effective: it’s really a metaphor for the act of movie-watching.)

When I think of films that act as “a metaphor for the act of movie-watching”, the director that instantly comes to mind is Alfred Hitchcock. And it so happens that the Hitchcock film most commonly read in this way also has a protagonist laid up in a wheelchair.

Psychoanalytic criticism has long thrived as a route into Hitchcock’s oeuvre, not least because he was familiar with psychoanalysis and popularized it in his 1945 film Spellbound, but also because his characters were marked with disorders, obsessions, and pathological instabilities of personal identity. You can see it in his choice of literary adaptations, chiefly Rebecca, where the second Mrs de Winter (Joan Fontaine) is consumed by the lingering household presence of the first; and in later films like Vertigo, where Madeleine (Kim Novak) “becomes” her suicidal great-grandmother through gazing at a painting in the museum (or so it would seem). It is Rear Window, however, that openly sets up its hero, L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart) as a passive voyeur behind a fourth wall that encloses an exterior apartment complex, where he sees fragments of his own life and relationship reflected back at him.

None of these interpretations are terribly hard to arrive at by yourself, but if you really want to get fancy, step back one level further and look for films where people watch Hitchcock. (We’re all familiar with the typical shot of a character sitting in a cinema, backlit by the beams of the projector, but pay attention to their faces and how they react to the film embedded en abyme.) The most recent example off the top of my head is Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, where Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) gazes at Joan Fontaine in Suspicion as if looking into a mirror.

Of more interest from a sci-fi perspective—which will hopefully lead us back to Avatar—is how Terry Gilliam cues the final act of Twelve Monkeys with a scene from Vertigo, right when Madeleine Stowe takes after Kim Novak in turning her character blonde. A decade and a half after its release, Twelve Monkeys holds up today as one of the finest original pieces of sci-fi cinema (with all respect to its inspiration, La jetée), and it seems oddly prescient today in the face of James Cameron’s more conventional showpiece about a guy dumped into a tank to infiltrate and warn a society in which he is ultimately subsumed.

How, then, does Avatar differ from all these films? If the dissolution of identity is so key to its appeal, as Lehrer suggests, then why is it such an anomalous mainstream success?

The easy answer is that the kind of cortical stimulation Lehrer talks about comes equally from the overwhelming visuals of Cameron’s film, especially if you experience it in 3D. But that dodges the very questions of story and theme that Lehrer wants to raise. The thematic answer, as I see it, is that Avatar plays it safe: completely unlike the films of Hitchcock, Lee, and Gilliam, it never dares to convey the madness of a dissolved identity or bother its audience to consider the schizophrenia of immersing itself in film. On Pandora, a world where USB ponytails plug into any living thing, bodily escape is free of risk. The film doesn’t spit us out and force us to look at ourselves; it does the opposite instead, encouraging us to enjoy what Lehrer calls “a pretty nice cognitive vacation.”

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Wednesday Book Club: Spiritus Mundi

Wednesday, 18 March 2009 — 11:28pm | Book Club, Literary theory, Literature

This week’s selection: Spiritus Mundi: Essays on Literature, Myth, and Society (1976) by Northrop Frye.

In brief: This collection of a dozen variegated essays—some broadly accessible, others strictly for the interest of literary scholars—is a grab bag of erudite criticism that serves as thorough sampling of Frye’s one-man theory show. The academic pieces, which attempt to deduce overarching mythic cosmologies from the poetic output of writers such as Milton and Blake, are an ample demonstration of Frye’s method. Far more compelling, however, are the pieces that argue for the continued relevance of the imagination following its dislodgment from the objective world of science and history.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Spiritus Mundi, keep reading below.)

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Unintentional fallacies

Monday, 17 November 2008 — 4:36pm | Literary theory, Literature

I am pleased to see that Jonathan McCalmont is writing again. I followed his SF Diplomat blog quite regularly before he abandoned ship, and have yet to find a suitable replacement for the aggregation of insightful commentary on speculative fiction that he consistently provided.

That said, I have to hold him to account for his recent post on Futurismic, “How to Dismantle the Wall Between an Author and Their Work”, for its egregious misrepresentation of the intentional fallacy. I recommend that you read the full text; despite its flaws, it is an ample demonstration of when it is valuable to take the author into context when reading a work of fiction. Permit me to quote some of the boldfaced declarations:

  1. “[The intentional fallacy] is a denouncement of the idea that one can ever infer what an author was intending when he wrote something and [the affective fallacy] is a rejection of the idea that the effect that a text has on a reader is any kind of basis for thinking about it.”
  2. “There is no ‘logical’ reason why one should not interpret a book in terms of what one knows about the life of the author.”
  3. “[…] if one cannot infer from a book what an author means then one cannot infer from anyone’s words or actions what they are thinking.”
  4. “The inner life of an author before they write a book is as much a part of that book’s meaning as the words on the page.”

Unfortunately, statements (1) and (2) rely on a disingenuous summation of what the intentional fallacy is and how it is put into practice. Furthermore, an argument for the validity of biographical criticism is not equivalent to an argument for its primacy or necessity. The latter opposes the thrust of the intentional fallacy, but the former does not.

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