“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Madness and Bliss: Critical vs Primitive Readings in A.S. Byatt's Possesion: A Romance 2

Read part one.
            The critical responses to the challenges posed by Byatt in Possession fit neatly within the novel’s satire. Louise Yelin, for instance, unselfconsciously divides the audience for the novel into “middlebrow readers” and “the culturally literate” (38), placing herself in the latter category. She overlooks Byatt’s challenge to her methods of criticism and the ideologies underpinning them, for the most part, and suggests that several of the themes, like ventriloquism, actually support poststructuralist philosophy. Still, Yelin worries about the novel’s “homophobic implications” (39). (A lesbian, formerly straight character takes up with a man in the end, and Christabel LaMotte’s female lover commits suicide after the dissolution of their relationship, but no one actually expresses any fear or hatred of homosexuals.) Yelin then takes it upon herself to “suggest directions that our work might take” while avoiding the “critical wilderness” Byatt identifies. She proposes a critical approach to a novel that “exposes its dependencies on the bourgeois, patriarchal, and colonial economies that underwrite” it (40). And since all fiction fails to give voice to one or another oppressed minority, it is the critic’s responsibility to “expose the complicity of those effacements in the larger order that they simultaneously distort and reproduce” (41). This is not in fact a response to Byatt’s undermining of critical theories; it is instead an uncritical reassertion of their importance.

            Yelin and several other critics respond to Possession as if Byatt had suggested that “culturally literate” readers should momentarily push to the back of their minds what they know about how literature is complicit in various forms of political oppression so they can get more enjoyment from their reading. This response is symptomatic of an astonishing inability to even imagine what the novel is really inviting literary scholars to imagine—that the theories implicating literature are flat-out wrong. Monica Flegel for instance writes that “What must be privileged and what must be sacrificed in order for Byatt’s Edenic reading (and living) state to be achieved may give some indication of Byatt’s own conventionalizing agenda, and the negative enchantment that her particular fairy tale offers” (414). Flegel goes on to show that she does in fact appreciate the satire on academic critics; she even sympathizes with the nostalgia for simpler times, before political readings became mandatory. But she ends her critical essay with another reassertion of the political, accusing Byatt of “replicating” through her old-fashioned novel “such negative qualities of the form as its misogyny and its omission of the lower class.” Flegel is particularly appalled by Maud’s treatment in the final scene, since, she claims, “stereotypical gender roles are reaffirmed” (428). “Maud is reduced in the end,” Flegel alleges, “to being taken possession of by her lover…and assured that Roland will ‘take care of her’” (429). This interpretation places Flegel in the company of the feminists in the novel who hiss at Maud for trying to please men, forcing her to bind her head.

            Flegel believes that her analysis proves Byatt is guilty of misogyny and mistreatment of the poor. “Byatt urges us to leave behind critical readings and embrace reading for enjoyment,” she warns her fellow critics, “but the narrative she offers shows just how much is at stake when we leave criticism behind” (429). Flegel quotes Yelin to the effect that Possession is “seductive,” and goes on to declaim that

it is naïve, and unethical, to see the kind of reading that Byatt offers as happy. To return to an Edenic state of reading, we must first believe that such a state truly existed and that it was always open to all readers of every class, gender, and race. Obviously, such a belief cannot be held, not because we have lost the ability to believe, but because such a space never really did exist. (430)

In her preening self-righteous zealotry, Flegel represents a current in modern criticism that’s only slightly more extreme than that represented by Byatt’s misguided but generally harmless scholars. The step from using dubious theories to decode alleged justifications for political oppression in literature to Flegel’s frightening brand of absurd condemnatory moralizing leveled at authors and readers alike is a short one.

            Another way critics have attempted to respond to Byatt’s challenge is by denying that she is in fact making any such challenge. Christien Franken suggests that Byatt’s problems with theories like poststructuralism stem from her dual identity as a critic and an author. In a lecture Byatt once gave titled “Identity and the Writer” which was later published as an essay, Franken finds what she believes is evidence of poststructuralist thinking, even though Byatt denies taking the theory seriously. Franken believes that in the essay, “the affinity between post-structuralism and her own thought on authorship is affirmed and then again denied” (18). Her explanation is that

the critic in A.S. Byatt begins her lecture “Identity and the Writer” with a recognition of her own intellectual affinity with post-structuralist theories which criticize the paramount importance of “the author.” The writer in Byatt feels threatened by the same post-structuralist criticism. (17)

Franken claims that this ambivalence runs throughout all of Byatt’s fiction and criticism. But Ann Marie Adams disagrees, writing that “When Byatt does delve into poststructuralist theory in this essay, she does so only to articulate what ‘threatens’ and ‘beleaguers’ her as a writer, not to productively help her identify the true ‘identity’ of the writer” (349). In Adams view, Byatt belongs in the humanist tradition of criticism going back to Matthew Arnold and the romantics. In her own response to Byatt, Adams manages to come closer than any of her fellow critics to being able to imagine that the ascendant literary theories are simply wrong. But her obvious admiration for Byatt doesn’t prevent her from suggesting that “Yelin and Flegel are right to note that the conclusion of Possession, with its focus on closure and seeming transcendence of critical anxiety, affords a particularly ‘seductive’ and ideologically laden pleasure to academic readers” (120). And, while she seems to find some value in Arnoldian approaches, she fails to engage in any serious reassessment of the theories Byatt targets.

            Frederick Holmes, in his attempt to explain Byatt’s attitude toward history as evidenced by the novel, agrees with the critics who see in Possession clear signs of the author’s embrace of postmodernism in spite of the parody and explicit disavowals. “It is important to acknowledge,” he writes,

that the liberation provided by Roland’s imagination from the previously discussed sterility of his intellectual sophistication is never satisfactorily accounted for in rational terms. It is not clear how he overcomes the post-structuralist positions on language, authorship, and identity. His claim that some signifiers are concretely attached to signifieds is simply asserted, not argued for. (330)


While Holmes is probably mistaken in taking this absence of rational justification as a tacit endorsement of the abandoned theory, the observation is the nearest any of the critics comes to a rebuttal of Byatt’s challenge. What Holmes is forgetting, though, is that structuralist and poststructuralist theorists themselves, from Saussure through Derrida, have been insisting on the inadequacy of language to describe the real world, a radical idea that flies in the face of every human’s lived experience, without ever providing any rational, empirical, or even coherent support for the departure. The stark irony to which Holmes is completely oblivious is that he’s asking for a rational justification to abandon a theory that proclaims such justification impossible. The burden remains on poststructuralists to prove that people shouldn’t trust their own experiences with language. And it is precisely this disconnect with experience that Byatt shows to be problematic. Holmes, like the other critics, simply can’t imagine that critical theories have absolutely no validity, so he’s forced to read into the novel the same chimerical ambivalence Franken tries so desperately to prove.

Roland’s dramatic alteration is validated by the very sort of emotional or existential experience that critical theory has conditioned him to dismiss as insubstantial. We might account for Roland’s shift by positing, not a rejection of his earlier thinking, but a recognition that his psychological well-being depends on his living as if such powerful emotional experiences had an unquestioned reality. (330)

            Adams quotes from an interview in which Byatt discusses her inspiration for the characters in Possession, saying, “poor moderns are always asking themselves so many questions about whether their actions are real and whether what they say can be thought to be true […] that they become rather papery and are miserably aware of this” (111-2). Byatt believes this type of self-doubt is unnecessary. Indeed, Maud’s notion that “there isn’t a unitary ego” (290) and Roland’s thinking of the “idea of his ‘self’ as an illusion” (459)—not to mention Holmes’s conviction that emotional experiences are somehow unreal—are simple examples of the reductionist fallacy. While it is true that an individual’s consciousness and sense of self rest on a substrate of unconscious mental processes and mechanics that can be traced all the way down to the firing of neurons, to suggest this mechanical accounting somehow delegitimizes selfhood is akin to saying that water being made up of hydrogen and oxygen atoms means the feeling of wetness can only be an illusion.
Helen Fisher

       Just as silly are the ideas that romantic love is a “suspect ideological construct” (290), as Maud calls it, and that “the expectations of Romance control almost everyone in the Western world” (460), as Roland suggests. Anthropologist Helen Fisher writes in her book Anatomy of Love, “some Westerners have come to believe that romantic love is an invention of the troubadours… I find this preposterous. Romantic love is far more widespread” (49). After a long list of examples of love-strickenness from all over the world from west to east to everywhere in-between, Fisher concludes that it “must be a universal human trait” (50). Scientists have found empirical support as well for Roland’s discovery that words can in fact refer to real things. Psychologist Nicole Speer and her colleagues used fMRI to scan people’s brains as they read stories. The actions and descriptions on the page activated the same parts of the brain as witnessing or perceiving their counterparts in reality. The researchers report, “Different brain regions track different aspects of a story, such as a character’s physical location or current goals. Some of these regions mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities” (989).

       Critics like Flegel insist on joyless reading because happy endings necessarily overlook the injustices of the world. But this is like saying anyone who savors a meal is complicit in world hunger (or for that matter anyone who enjoys reading about a character savoring a meal). If feminist poststructuralists were right about how language functions as a vehicle for oppressive ideologies, then the most literate societies would be the most oppressive, instead of the other way around. Jacques Lacan is the theorist Byatt has the most fun with in Possession—and he is also the main target of the book Fashionable Nonsense:Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science by the scientists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont. “According to his disciples,” they write, Lacan “revolutionized the theory and practice of psychoanalysis; according to his critics, he is a charlatan and his writings are pure verbiage” (18). After assessing Lacan’s use of concepts in topological mathematics, like the Mobius strip, which he sets up as analogies for various aspects of the human psyche, Sokal and Bricmont conclude that Lacan’s ideas are complete nonsense. They write,

Bricmont and Sokal
The most striking aspect of Lacan and his disciples is probably their attitude toward science, and the extreme privilege they accord to “theory”… at the expense of observations and experiments… Before launching into vast theoretical generalizations, it might be prudent to check the empirical adequacy of at least some of its propositions. But, in Lacan’s writings, one finds mainly quotations and analyses of texts and concepts. (37)

Sokal and Bricmont wonder if the abuses of theorists like Lacan “arise from conscious fraud, self-deception, or perhaps a combination of the two” (6). The question resonates with the poem Randolph Henry Ash wrote about his experience exposing a supposed spiritualist as a fraud, in which he has a mentor assure her protégée, a fledgling spiritualist with qualms about engaging in deception, “All Mages have been tricksters” (444).

There’s even some evidence that Byatt is right about postmodern thinking making academics into “papery” people. In a 2006 lecture titled “The Inhumanity of the Humanities,” William van Peer reports on research he conducted with a former student comparing the emotional intelligence of students in the humanities to students in the natural sciences. Although the psychologists Raymond Mar and Keith Oately (407) have demonstrated that reading fiction increases empathy and emotional intelligence, van Peer found that humanities students had no advantage in emotional intelligence over students of natural science. In fact, there was a weak trend in the opposite direction—this despite the fact that the humanities students were reading more fiction. Van Peer attributes the deficit to common academic approaches to literature:

Consider the ills flowing from postmodern approaches, the “posthuman”: this usually involves the hegemony of “race/class/gender” in which literary texts are treated with suspicion. Here is a major source of that loss of emotional connection between student and literature. How can one expect a certain humanity to grow in students if they are continuously instructed to distrust authors and texts? (8)

Steven Pinker
Whether it derives from her early reading of Arnold and his successors, as Adams suggests, or simply from her own artistic and readerly sensibilities, Byatt has an intense desire to revive that very humanity so many academics sacrifice on the altar of postmodern theory. Critical theory urges students to assume that any discussion of humanity, or universal traits, or human nature can only be exclusionary, oppressive, and, in Flegel’s words, “naïve” and “unethical.” The cognitive linguist Steven Pinker devotes his book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature to debunking the radical cultural and linguistic determinism that is the foundation of modern literary theory. In a section on the arts, Pinker credits Byatt for playing a leading role in what he characterizes as a “revolt”: 

Museum-goers have become bored with the umpteenth exhibit on the female body featuring dismembered torsos or hundreds of pounds of lard chewed up and spat out by the artist. Graduate students in the humanities are grumbling in emails and conference hallways about being locked out of the job market unless they write in gibberish while randomly dropping the names of authorities like Foucault and Butler. Maverick scholars are doffing the blinders that prevented them from looking at exciting developments in the sciences of human nature. And younger artists are wondering how the art world got itself into the bizarre place in which beauty is a dirty word. (Pinker 416)

There are resonances with Roland Mitchell’s complaints about how psychoanalysis transforms perceptions of landscapes in Pinker’s characterization of modern art. And the idea that beauty has become a dirty word is underscored by the critical condemnations of Byatt’s “fairy tale ending.” Pinker goes on to quote Byatt’s response in New York Times Magazine to the question of what the best story ever told was.  Her answer—The Arabian Nights:

The stories in “The Thousand and One Nights”… are about storytelling without ever ceasing to be stories about love and life and death and money and food and other human necessities. Narration is as much a part of human nature as breath and the circulation of the blood. Modernist literature tried to do away with storytelling, which it thought vulgar, replacing it with flashbacks, epiphanies, streams of consciousness. But storytelling is intrinsic to biological time, which we cannot escape. Life, Pascal said, is like living in a prison from which every day fellow prisoners are taken away to be executed. We are all, like Scheherazade, under sentences of death, and we all think of our lives as narratives, with beginnings, middles, and ends. (quoted in Pinker 419)

            Byatt’s satire of papery scholars and her portrayals of her characters’ transcendence of nonsensical theories are but the simplest and most direct ways she celebrates the power of language to transport readers—and the power of stories to possess them. Though she incorporates an array of diverse genres, from letters to poems to diaries, and though some of the excerpts’ meanings subtly change in light of discoveries about their authors’ histories, all these disparate parts nonetheless “hook together,” collaborating in the telling of this magnificent tale. This cooperation would be impossible if the postmodern truism about the medium being the message were actually true. Meanwhile, the novel’s intimate engagement with the mythologies of wide-ranging cultures thoroughly undermines the paradigm according to which myths are deterministic “repeating patterns” imposed on individuals, showing instead that these stories simultaneously emerge from and lend meaning to our common human experiences. As the critical responses to Possession make abundantly clear, current literary theories are completely inadequate in any attempt to arrive at an understanding of Byatt’s work. While new theories may be better suited to the task, it is incumbent on us to put forth a good faith effort to imagine the possibility that true appreciation of this and other works of literature will come only after we’ve done away with theory altogether. 

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