Now and then there are readings that make the hairs on the neck, the non-existent pelt, stand on end and tremble, when every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact, like stones of fire, like points of stars in the dark—readings when the knowledge that we shall know the writing differently or better or satisfactorily, runs ahead of any capacity to say what we know, or how. In these readings, a sense that the text has appeared to be wholly new, never before seen, is followed, almost immediately, by the sense that it was always there, that we the readers, knew it was always there, and have always known it was as it was, though we have now for the first time recognised, become fully cognisant of, our knowledge.
–A.S. Byatt, Possession
The passage above is a rather raw expression of the experience of reading, one I find myself quoting again and again because it feels so completely real—it performs exactly what it describes. Reading and writing, for me, are about the perpetual attempt to articulate the inarticulable, to create a linguistic translation of a truth that is deeply experiential. I read to find a sub-linguistic place within myself of absolute certainty, not a certainty of something, but a certainty, both solitary and deeply communal, both desperately alone and held in the embrace of the sum of human consciousness.
The passage speaks strongly to one element of reading: the deeply emotional, affective experience, and the compulsion to recognize the communal nature of that experience. It speaks as well to another element—the interpretive aspect, the need to contextualize, to order and organize the act of reading as a creative activity that stakes a particular claim in the world, to classify the place of the reader, to identify the mechanics of this form of communication (and of reading generally), and to know and describe exactly what is going on and so master it. This is an attempt at the greatest possible self-knowledge, in a way an attempt at complete consciousness and control over one’s membership in the community—literary, human. This latter impulse is what drives most criticism.
“In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” Thus ends Susan Sontag in her galvanizing 1964 essay—manifesto?—“Against Interpretation.” Sontag’s essay is a self-justifying declaration, a stand for criticism that embraces and even encourages the sensuous experience of art. She writes,
What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.
Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.
“Against Interpretation” was published two years before Jaques Derrida delivered “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” at Johns Hopkins University, four years before Roland Barthes published “The Death of the Author”; the giant wave of post-structuralism and the celebration of the literary super-ego swept up in its overwhelming force everything near it, like so much seaweed.
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The novel Possession: A Romance came out in 1990, and won A.S. Byatt the Man Booker Prize. It follows two academics in roughly contemporary England: Maud, a well-established feminist scholar, and Roland, a floundering Victorianist. Maud studies Christabel LaMotte, a Victorian poet with the dark, mystical sensibility of Christina Rossetti and the reclusiveness of Emily Dickinson. Roland studies Randolph Henry Ash, pretty clearly modeled on Robert Browning. Roland discovers early on a previously unknown correspondence between the two Victorians, and enlists Maud in a quest to discover the truth behind the two writers’ relationship (no surprise—and this isn’t a spoiler—it was a clandestine romance). The narrative weaves the story of Roland and Maud with pieces of the story of Ash and LaMotte; each of novel’s chapters begins with an epigraph from the Victorians’ writings, beautifully authentic poems and fragments of stories Byatt has created for her fictionalized historical writers.
Possession is itself a romance that uses the narrative conventions of the traditional form to tell the story. Our protagonists are on a quest for self-discovery along with the designated object of their search (here, narrative fulfillment; the truth of the story). Maud is the descendant of Christabel LaMotte, and finds out more about her legacy, both material and intellectual; Roland, the discoverer of the original letters, is searching for a purpose, finding himself wearied and stymied by the world of academia he has been immersed in. The literary hijinks don’t fail to delight: a wild flight across Europe, secret ancestry, hidden letters and manuscripts, academic rivalry featuring radical feminists and villainous, over-funded Americans.
Although we have here all the elements of a romance traditional enough to rival Sir Walter Scott, Byatt (herself a scholar and critic) takes us a step or three further. The narrative and the narration of Possession are extremely self-reflexive. Roland and Maud are acutely aware that they are characters in a story, and that it is a story whose conventions are pushing it toward conclusions they don’t feel particularly comfortable with. They’re postmodern literary scholars, so they shouldn’t believe that the truth of a story is uncovered by finding out what happened, but rather by thinking about the way the story functions, what its effects are. And yet they are reluctantly and consciously compelled by “narrative curiosity” to find out. They shouldn’t believe in unified selves or love as a redemptive or otherwise organizing state, and yet they themselves are characters in (victims of) a romance that slow draws them together. Roland thinks to himself at one point,
‘Falling in love,’ characteristically, combs the appearances of the world, and of the particular lover’s history, out of a random tangle and into a coherent plot. Roland was troubled by the idea that the opposite might be true. Finding themselves in a plot, they might suppose it appropriate to behave as though it was that sort of plot. And that would be to compromise some kind of integrity they had set out with.
Roland faces the questions so many dedicated readers do, and some of us will perhaps never let go of: how much of our lives are stories? Do we write the stories as we live them, or have they been written all along?
* * *
Byatt published The Biographer’s Tale ten years after Possession. It’s much shorter and perhaps less ambitious, but the project is quite similar. Our narrator is Phineas G. Nanson, a small, odd figure who, at the beginning of his story, is leaving the world of academia. He tells his postgraduate advisor, “I have decided to give it all up. I’ve decided I don’t want to be a postmodern literary theorist.” He explains his decision as a reaction to the content of his life:
I said, “I felt an urgent need for a life full of things.” I was pleased with the safe, solid Anglo-Saxon word. I had avoided the trap of talking about “reality” and “unreality” for I knew very well that postmodernist literary theory could be described as a reality. People lived in it. I did, however fatally, add the Latin-derived word, less exact, redundant even, to my precise one. “I need a life full of things,” I said. “Full of facts.”
Phineas’s advisor suggests he pursue the delicate craft of biography, and thus begins his new life. Phineas sets out to write a biography of Scholes Destry-Scholes, a prominent biographer, and his research leads him to a labyrinth of Destry-Scholes’s notes on three figures: Henrik Ibsen, Carl Linneaus and Sir Francis Galton, all “students in their own ways of the connectedness of things and people.”
The facts of the biographer’s life prove largely unattainable. Much of The Biographer’s Tale comprises “transcriptions” of the notes Phineas finds in Destry-Scholes’s unearthed papers. Facts on the three different subjects are often hard to distinguish from each other, as are any facts Phineas finds about Destry-Scholes himself from those about his subjects—as, really, are any true occurrences from untruths about any of our subjects here. (The labyrinthine project of deconstructing selfhood at the heart of The Biographer’s Tale is deeply provoking, but Phineas’s reading of the above-mentioned notes overwhelm the drive of the narrative, making it slightly difficult to always keep abreast of what is happening—often, nothing is.) Phineas goes on to become involved with two women, each somehow connected with his research and representative (in a painfully self-conscious way, for Phineas) of different elements of his world.
Phineas professes several times to not be writing an autobiography. The Biographer’s Tale, though, is really a recounting of how Phineas engages with his various subjects, how he constructs his new self with nothing but the tools of his old one and a mission handed to him by a denizen of the world he is trying to leave. Phineas tells us,
I am not interested in myself. It was difficult being a literary schoolchild—I was often put off what turned out to be my vocation by the urgings of pedagogues who assured me I would “discover myself” by reading, that I would “understand myself” by “identifying” with—well, whom? Robin Hood? Hamlet? Gregor Samsa? Prince Myshkin? No, no, the true literary fanatic, the primeval reader, is looking for anything but a mirror—for an escape route, for an expanding horizon, for receding starscapes, for unimaginable monstrosities and incomprehensible (strictly) beauties.
The writer doth protest too much? Maybe. Phineas does in fact live in a strangely spun cloud-castle of fantasies, bewilderedly navigating his exit from the world of critical theory and yes, trying to discover who he is. The Biographer’s Tale is, after all, written like a diary, complete with the undirected Who’s reading this? queries and Gosh I was just looking back through this diary observations. After wading through abbreviated guesses at the lives of Destry-Scholes’s three subjects, Phineas has found almost nothing about the biographer, but has made quite a portrait of himself—also, of course, a biographer.
* * *
Both of these novels are sprawling, impressionistic works that trace the intricacies of intellectual pursuit and the discovery of self that accompanies or perhaps germinates it. Byatt inhabits the voices of different eras with skillful empathy, and writes with a real sense of what drives the undying search for knowledge.
Byatt’s frequent return to the Victorian for her subject matter is striking. Both Possession and The Biographer’s Tale deal with contemporary scholarship that focuses on the Victorian period, especially intellectual figures—scholars, explorers, poets. We often find as her subject, and lens, the gentleman scholar (Ash, clearly, and in The Biographer’s Tale Sir Elmer Bole, a fictionalized Sir Richard Burton), who embodies the questing desire for knowledge and order in the face of a sudden florescence of knowledge about the natural world. Byatt identifies the driving urge to define, name and categorize in response to this sense of overflow. An almost overwhelming sense of the abundant sensuality of nature is met with an equally abundant need to organize it. This is when Darwin comes to prominence, and the Western understanding of life is overturned. Suddenly, every upper-class gentleman becomes an amateur scientist, and intellectual pursuit becomes less about communing with nature and more about domesticating its truths.
In both novels, we also see our contemporary protagonists struggling with the academic mode of seeking knowledge, of interpreting reality, history and the self. And in both cases, this mode falls apart as the protagonists encounter different experiences of reality; it doesn’t feel true. These protagonists (some, not all) end up throwing over a form of knowing characterized by skepticism in favor of an inchoate and yet much more real sense of what is true and meaningful—perhaps the very sense that experiences and words can be true and meaningful.
The formal elements of both novels, too, make a bridge between two modes of knowledge, although not in quite the same way. The first is conventional narrative, designed to order human experience into intelligible form, using codes and signs that are ages old to evoke emotional responses. It is highly artificial and yet, in a way, straightforward; it’s telling stories. The second is the hypercriticism, the skepticism that dominates critical theory, the compulsion toward extreme self-awareness that permeates our contemporary literary culture and Western society more broadly. Neither of these modes alone is quite adequate to reflect the experience of reading, thinking, living that we want reflected in literature. The deconstructive analytical impulse is impossible to suppress, and yet writing that outdoes itself with self-awareness and deconstruction leaves little space for the humanistic elements of reading that still compel people to read and write. Byatt’s novels give us a hybrid of these attitudes, allowing us to see the relevance of both, and creating a site for the new self-knowledge that comes of fusing these different elements of literary production, of our own minds. As children want to master the rituals of their being trained, we readers and writers want to master the narrative rituals that function on us. The self-reflexive narrative that deconstructs as it writes its story allows us to do just that.
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What I find in Byatt’s novels reflects what I feel about reading. I’ll never read without the analytical part of my brain cranking away furiously, and yet it’s that feeling I get of the hairs on the neck standing on end that makes me feel most alive through reading and writing. Reading, for me, is the simultaneous and compatible functioning of both a hermeneutics of art, with its already well established gargantuan structure, and an erotics of art, a system which is perhaps only well established, and best left, in the unarticulated chambers of the heart and mind of the reader.
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