A Room of Ones OneModernism has been seen as a response to widespread concern that the traditional ways of representing the world distort actual experience. In The Cambridge Introduction to Modernism, Pericles Lewis suggests that modernist literature attempts to respond to this ‘crisis of representation’ by creating literature that is radically different. Attitudes toward gender relations were shifting during this period and thus I suggest that modernist writers like Virginia Woolf and TS Eliot seized upon using radically different representations of gender in order to explore their own take on the gender-related concerns of modernity.

Woolf wrote extensively regarding women’s access to a level playing field – be it in marriage or the learned professions. In her essay A Room of One’s Own, she muses suggestively on the fate of William Shakespeare’s imagined sister, Judith, who, although as talented as her brother met with a very different results purely because of her sex. After running away from home to pursue her writerly goals, poor Judith would have been denied the same opportunities to display her talents as her brother would have enjoyed – and hence finally broken by the societal ‘ideas and prejudices’ that blighted her life, after committing suicide and instead of being enshrined as would be her brother, lay buried at ‘some crossroads’ where the ‘omnibuses now stop outside Elephant and Castle’.

In her novel, To The Lighthouse, Woolf evoked images of her own parents to demonstrate the inequalities of the sexes in marriage. Whilst Mr Ramsey (so gruff that he excited in his children such ‘extremes of emotion’ that they fanaticised ‘gashing a hole in his breast’ with any handy sharp object) strutted about pondering great things such as the philosopher David Hume, ‘enormously fat’ and ‘stuck in a bog’, his long-suffering wife, Mrs Ramsey (adored by her numerous children), charitably knitted stockings for the Lighthouse keeper’s son (with a ‘tuberculosis hip’). But whilst Mr Ramsey lived a long, literary life littered with accolades, Mrs Ramsey died young having burned herself out in the service to others (Mr Ramsey was especially needy).

In another novel, Orlando, Woolf evoked representations of the androgynous Tiresias who as punishment for affronting the goddess Hera, was forced to experience life as both a man and a woman. Whilst as a man, the character Orlando lived and loved in unfettered freedom, eventually being appointed ambassador to Constantinople where between long, luxurious lunches, he was ‘kept busy’ with the ‘wax and seals’ and ‘various coloured ribbons’ of officialdom. However upon becoming a woman, Orlando was ‘forced to consider her position’ and with the ‘coil of skirts about her legs’ concluded her life now revolved solely around preservation of her chastity – that ‘jewel’ and ‘centre-piece’ – laying at the foundation of womanhood.

Tracy Hargreaves (Androgyny in Modern Literature) has suggested that for a broad range of writers, the androgyne has signalled both cultural regeneration and degeneration – a disruption in ‘normative’ gendered identities which can be seen as being ‘divine or reviled’. But whilst Woolf takes the position that such disruption would be divine, Eliot seems to suggest that as women become more like men, society suffers.

Certainly this is the picture he presents in his poem, The Waste Land when in the section entitled The Fire Sermon, the ‘bored and tired’ typist returns home from work ‘at teatime’ and ‘lays out food in tins’ before coupling indifferently with her equally uninspiring ‘small house agent’s clerk’. As is well known, androgynous beings cannot reproduce and impotency is an important theme of The Waste Land – much of its symbolism suggestive of the myth of the Fisher King whose damaged sexuality was the cause of his kingdom being infertile and drought-stricken (the poem invokes this from the beginning commenceing with ‘April is the cruellest month, breeding’).

In his notes accompanying The Fire Sermon, Eliot states that Tiresias was the most ‘important personage’ in the poem, ‘uniting all the rest’. After witnessing the grim love-making of the typist and clerk, the speaker (presumably still Tiresias), making an allusion to Oliver Goldsmith’s poem When Lovely Woman Stoops to Folly), looks wistfully back in time to the 16th century when a woman ‘knew’ her place as a woman (after illicit promiscuity, she could only hide her shame and die) rather than lackadaisically turning on her ‘gramophone’ as did the ‘bored and tired’ typist, saying ‘Well now that’s done’ and ‘I’m glad its over’ as perhaps might a man. Such reversals of gender can only spell trouble – for with the departure of normative gendered identities all hope of cultural regeneration is now lost (keeping in mind that Tiresias could prophesize the future) and our own civilisation is now destined to fall away as did Carthage – ‘burning burning burning burning’.

barthes_graphThe interpretation of the relationship between conceptualizations of either author/reader vis a vis their engagement with a literary text and the relative significance of all three have grown increasingly complex and attenuated. It is my view that although such distinctions are of intellectual interest, their only practical benefit being to highlight new and novel parameters through which authors and readers may frame and express their engagement.

During the English reformation Sidney (Defence of Poesy) and Spenser (The Fairie Queen) announced that the purpose of poetry was both to ‘delight’ and ‘teach’. This was to be achieved through mimesis, the process of imitating (with a view to perfecting) nature. Arguably both the author and reader are equal partners in this process – the responsibility for delighting and teaching rests with the (real live) author and responsibility to being delighted and taught rests with a (real live) reader.

In the 18th century, when critics began scrutinising and commenting on various texts, the author arguably began to loose significance in favour of the reader/critic. By the end of the 19th century with poet-turned-critic Matthew Arnold, who espoused an objective criticism of poetry (proper subject matter = proper execution of authorial duties) the focus had shifted almost exclusively to the text leaving the significance of both author and reader in serious question. In the beginning of the 20th century, New Criticism (based on the ideas expressed by TS Eliot in his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent) picked up this theme of text as good or bad and declared that a text was a self-referential aesthetic object – with authorial intent irrelevant and the role of the reader reduced to determining how the text slotted in (or not) with a historical line of ‘great’ texts.

In the mid 20th century with the advent of the Structuralists, the focus was on identifying similarities and differences amongst texts with a view to finding patterns (theme, design, symbology) common to all texts; in this regard the text remained of primary importance with the author and reader carrying little or no significance.

When the Post- Structuralists pronounced that as Nietzsche has declared there were ‘no facts only interpretations’, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault announced the ‘death of the author’ along with the corresponding ‘birth of the reader’. With this neither ‘author’ nor the ‘reader’ are real, live persons as had previously been understood but a ‘function’ for wielding the (dangerous) political power inherent in words.

With all meaning resting firmly now in the hands of the ‘reader’, other critical theories come into their own – looking for ‘meaning’ outside the text in many different places – for example, in gender politics (feminist and/or gay-lesbian criticism), in culturally determined divisions of society such as class (Marxist criticsm), or in cultural norms, beliefs, and practices (Cultural Materialsm and New Historicism). But by the time the Postmodernists come on board at the end of the 20th century, meaning has become so relational and provisional that it – as well as the authors and readers who would try to pin it down – all but (happily) disappears.

In summary, whether any of these many distinctions from the time Spenser and Sidney to the Postmodernists change the way readers and authors actually engage with their texts is questionable and unless rigorous scientific study is undertaken (to my knowledge this has not been done by any of the critical theorists) we will never know for certain. Hence I suggest that in in the 21st century when an author sits down to write a text he is pretty much still focused on delighting and teaching (or at least delighting should he wish his text to be picked up by mainstream publishing) and when choosing texts to read, readers will quickly put down anything that fails to either delight and/or teach and hence the question of his/her role vis a vis the author and/or text quickly becomes irrelevant. However at least should a reader choose to engage with a text, these critical theories will provide him/her with new and novel ways to frame and express his engagement.

imagesMy new novel will be ‘postmodern Gothic’.

Thus I must understand the nature of the beast.

Terror has been central to Gothic literature since it first emerged in the 18th century.  Although the goal of Gothic remains unchanged – to  give voice to societal fears and desires – the goal posts have shifted.

Instead of fearing loss of meaning as did our forefathers, post-moderns fear loss of connection with self and reality. Makes perfect sense in today’s world where entertainment, information, and communication technologies provide experiences more intense – and gratifying – than RL.

In the old days, terror was generated through encounters with various aspects of the supernatural with emphasis on the duality between good and evil. This was achieved through elements of the ‘sublime’  –  that quality in nature which inspires awe, reverence, and other high emotion (OED, noun. 1. b). Hence the emphasis on turbulent landscapes, sinister forests and darkening skies.

Postmodern gothic also centres on the sublime – but no longer is the emphasis on the representable characteristics of nature such as landscapes, forests and skies, but on that which we can conceive- but cannot represent.

Strange enough, herein lies the connection between the 18th century preoccupation with meaninglessness and the 21st century preoccupation with loss of connection with self and reality; regardless whether represented or not, the sublime bridges the boundaries between the visible and invisible.

We establish boundaries through cosmologies or systems of thought through which to order our world. The sublime requires a certain type of cosmology – a psychologically spatial orientation of that which is ‘me’ and that which is ‘other than me’. It is through the shift between the microcosm and macrocosm and back again that we enlarge our perspective and transcend the boundaries of our cosmology.

The unthinkable happens.

 Thought is paralysed.

 Through circumscribing the Idea by image, the Idea is negated.

We comprehend that which lies beyond the borders of our cosmology as ineffable – or perhaps even as God?

In The Idea of the Holy, Rudolph Otto reminds us that fear, shock, and panic are all reactions attributed to experiencing traditional gods like that worshipped in Christianity – attributes like ‘goodness’ and ‘benevolence’ being idealist after-the-fact add-ons.

But according the psychologist James Hillman (An Essay on Pan), more primitive gods – like the great god Pan – seize us not in words but in immediate psychic shock. According to Hillman, in order to grasp Pan as nature we must first be grasped by nature.

So where does this leave us with the postmodern Gothic?

Full circle to 18th century concepts of Gothic and the sublime as an aspect of nature – but – according to my new heroine, Harriet, this time around the stakes are much higher.

Harriet's new home in SN_001

Postmodern Literature
Postmodern Literature

While writing query letters to literary agents, I was forced to classify my  new novel, The Curve of Capricorn  as belonging to a particular genre.

For better or worse, I’ve chosen postmodern literature.

That might sound a bit presumptuous but here’s what I think it means:

1)   Postmodern literature attempts to depict the crisis of human identity (ethic, sexual, social, or cultural) and its struggle for legitimization in a hypocritical society.

I realize that’s a mouthful – but suffice it to say that answering the question “who am I?” has become a good deal harder by constantly being forced to sort ourselves into predetermined boxes – (TICK ONE PLEASE): native American, Asian- American,  Hispanic, agnostic, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, white, gay, lesbian, …. or ‘other’ .

To allow both my readers and my characters maximum freedom in this regard, I’ve chosen to categorize or identify the characters in The Curve of Capricorn in a way that unless you’re an astrologer, won’t carry much baggage:

 

  Greatest flaw Greatest Strength Greatest Fear Desires
ABBY

(Faithful)

Capricorn

Ambition Perseveres Inability to justify existence To be worthy daughter of a great man
JENNIFER

(Opportunist)

Gemini

Justifies everything Emotionally Detached To lose To ‘have it all’
CASSIE

(Earth Mother)

Taurus

Can’t

forgive and forget

Emotional strength To be a bad wife and mother Save her marriage
RICK

(‘nice guy’)

Leo

Pride Geniune To hurt others Not to be a failure
McCABE SR

(‘sugar daddy’)

Cancer

Can’t escape emotions Ability to amass followers To be forgotten Win love & respect of Abby’s mother
McCABE JR

(‘smart ass’)

Aquarius

Single-mindedness Strategy To be like his father Revenge on father for having ignored him
ALEX

(antihero)

Sagittarius

Lack of ambition Survivor To look into the mirror External stimulation and excitement
JACK

(hero)

Libra

 

Ability to see all sides Diplomat To be overcome by guilt Save the world
BELINDA

(princess)

Pisces

 

gullible Knows that to ‘err’ is to be ‘human’ To take charge Someone to take care of her

 

2)   In postmodern literary works, the idea of originality and authenticity is undermined and parodied – For example, when I first started writing this novel for NANORIMO 2012 using astrology as my superstructure I thought I was really on to something original.  I could have had no idea that Eleanor Catton in her Booker prize winning novel The Luminaries would beat me to it!

3)   Postmodern literature is closely connected with advances in technology. If Abby had lived in the days of snail mail, things would have turned out differently.

4)   Postmodern literature is also associated with the growing distrust that ‘reason’ can provide us with verifiable ‘truths’. Jennifer (Gemini = Opportunist) is the narrator in The Curve of Capricorn and trust me – her truth is most certainly not the same as mine or yours.

5)   Postmodern literature often questions its own fictional status thus becoming ‘metafictional’. This one’s a bit tricky – but how about ‘metafiction is a fiction about fiction’? In terms of The Curve of Capricorn, Jennifer and I always encourage you as the reader to imagine how things might have turned out differently if only, if only, if only…

6)   One of the most important aspects of a postmodern literary work is its intertextuality – suffice it to say that in The Curve of Capricorn, all those allusions to the heroines of Jane Austen are there for a reason.

7)   Another important aspect of postmodern literary works is the use of postmodern parody, which emphasizes the difference between past art forms and sensibilities.  My all-time hero is Henry James and while his novels exquisitely explore the psychology of their characters, poor Henry didn’t have the opportunity to study psychological astrology with Liz Greene as did I.

Postmodern Literature

8)   In postmodern literary works there is often an overlap between fiction, fantasy, dreams and sometime hallucinations in an attempt to demonstrate that unlike with modernist thinking, these spheres are not always distinguishable.  Jennifer covers that one in the preface where she explains her reasons for using Zen Ko-ans (along with astrology) as a structuring device.


The Meow of Kafka’s Metamorphosis

 

 

 

“One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that he had been changed into an adorable kitten.”

Thus begins the Meowmorphosis by Coleridge Cook– a quirky parody on Kafka’s magical realism novel, Metamorphosis. Although superficially Cook’s story parallels Kafka’s, in more substantial terms it differs significantly and it is through these differences that I wish to investigate what I perceive is one of the most important purposes of magical realism and how such purpose can be best achieved.

According to Maggie Ann Bowers (20–21), what is meant by the term magical realism is in dispute and can be best resolved through careful delineation of both the terms “magic(al)” and “realism”.  The foundation of “realism” rests on Descartes’ proposition that truth is that which can be discovered through sensory perception (Bowers, 21). In other words, truth is established in the mind’s reconstruction of it (Dupré, 80). From the mid-18th century onwards, Cartesian thinking has dominated Western perceptions of the world.

However, once, a long time ago, men held a more holistic view in which form and meaning were unified in the single – albeit complex – kosmos – the ordered totality of being (Dupré, 15-19).  I suggest that the term “magic(al)” which Bowers defines as the assumption that extraordinary things have really happened (Bowers, 21) is in reality a return to kosmos where the realm of appearances yields no genuine knowledge but only opinion (Dupré,18).

Clearly these two worldviews are at odds.  However I suggest that through their fusion (i.e. returning full circle to kosmos), magical realism authors achieve one of their primary (postmodern) aims – to challenge the assumptions upon which the establishment ‘truth’ is constructed.  In this regard, the purpose of magical realism is similar to that of the postmodern sublime which, according to Jean-François Lyotard, depicts the un-representable as outside the realm of perception in order to keep the focus on within rather than without so as to provide insight about how one perceives his world (Lutzker).[1]

According to postmodern concepts of the sublime, we establish boundaries through cosmologies or a “fitting order” (Angelo, 16). The sublime (as does, I suggest, magical realism) requires a certain type of cosmology–a psychologically spatial orientation of something that is “me” and something that is “other than me” (Angelo, 17). It is through the shift between this microcosm and macrocosm and back again that one enlarges her perspective. Thus I suggest that the greater the disparity between me/realism and other than me/magic, the more effective is magical realism in encouraging readers to search for the narrative clues that will broaden their horizons. Conversely, the less disparity, the more likely readers are to accept the authorial perception of truth without question.

So how do Kafka and Cook stack up? In both their novels, readers are confronted with a typical magical realism ploy.  In the “real” world men do not wake up in the morning having been ‘magically’ transformed into animals.  Similarly, in both novels all the characters do not question that such things are possible.  Disparity for certain.  However, while in Kafka’s story, Gregor becomes a cockroach (or in the German literally an “unclean animal not suitable for sacrifice”), in Cook’s version, he becomes an adorable kitten.

The image of a cockroach is truly disgusting. We expect bad things to happen and we are not disappointed. By choosing the cockroach, Kafka has established an immediately disparaging and depressing link between his imagery and his overall theme – the risks and rewards of an individual’s conformance with the demands of society.  Cockroaches are lowly creatures indeed.  One can be pretty certain how a cockroach will fare.  Not much disparity there.

Alternatively, to explore the same theme, Cook has chosen an extremely pleasant image–an adorable kitten. Here, readers are not certain what to expect.  Although cockroaches are easily understood as being something to be squashed underfoot, kittens are not.  Indeed in many societies it is just the reverse.  Yet somehow the reader has a niggling fear that things will not work out well. Elsewise why would he be reading the novel? If the aim of magical realism is to broaden readers’ horizons through disparity, then surely the more challenged the reader is to unravel the narrative’s mystery, the more challenged are their cherished assumptions about ‘truth’?

Equally, by choosing the image of a furry kitten, I suggest that Cook has made sounder use than Kafka of Gregor’s treasured picture of the woman in the fur coat.  It is commonly believed that this picture is a metafiction alluding to Sacher-Masoch’s sadomasochistic novella, Venus in Furs and while Kafka provides few, if any, clues as to why this would enhance his theme, Cook provides them in aces.  By introducing an adorable furry kitten that is both the willing and unwilling subject of serious petting by his sister, Cook shines a direct spotlight on Gregor’s potentially incestuous relationship.  Might it be that like the hero in Venus in Furs, Gregor is so infatuated with his sister that he has become her slave and this is the reason he encourages her to treat him in progressively more degrading ways?  Does he…(you know what)… or doesn’t he…?  Uggh.  Plenty of delightfully dark disparity here.

Finally, it is Gregor’s escape from and subsequent return to, his family after his trial by the other cats of Prague (during which he confronts his cowardly ways), which I suggest provides the most insight about Gregor’s ordeal.  While such an extended internalized character exposé (it goes on for twenty or so pages) might be seen as a weakness in that it leaves less to the reader’s imagination, I welcome it. In my view it is only because Gregor finally takes an active decision that we can understand, that we can believe that he is for “real”.

In summary, when Gregor becomes a cockroach, it’s easy for readers to fall into the lull of yet another rant in support of victims of societal politics. However if one of the most important aims of magical realism is to challenge our automatic perception of “truth”, then I suggest that Cook bests Kafka through utilizing the gloriously incongruous imagery of an adorable, furry kitten who, however OMG cute, possesses a “truly” tortured soul.

 _________________________________________

Bibliography

Angelo, Marie.  “Placing the Sublime: Cosmology in the Consulting Room” (15-45). On the Sublime in Psychoanalysis, Archetypal Psychology and Psychotherapy. ed. By Petruska Clarkson.  London: Whurr Publishers Lit., 1997.

Bowers, Mary Ann.   Magic(al) Realism. London: Routledge, 2004.

Butler, Christopher. Postmodernism-A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Cook, Coleridge and Franz Kafka. The Meowmorphosis. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2011.

Dupré, Louis. Passage to Modernity – An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Lutzker, Emily.  “Ethics of the Sublime in Postmodern Culture – A Talk from the International Conference Aesthetics and Ethics”. http://www.egs.edu/media/research-database/ (7/4/2012)


[1] For an example, the French post-modernist Jean Baudrillard suggests that ‘hyperreal’ art stimulates audiences to evaluate reality through ‘self-seduction’.  So when faced with Disneyland imagery, the aesthetic response requires Americans to question whether this or their own lives represents the ‘real’ America (Butler, 112).