David Mitchell, “Cloud Atlas”

2004

David Mitchell’s novel is probably the best thing I read all year. It was inspired by the interrupted narratives of Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, but completes all its stories in a nested cycle. This arrangement of narrative, like an onion sliced in half, seems to thematize a postmodern collapse of history and boundlessness of space, forcing us to move first from history to the present to the future, and then back again. Far from being a negative quality, however, Mitchell seems to explore this as a means of creating a story so large that even he, the author, cannot make all its pieces match up (vs. Nabokov). This reminds me of Auerbach on Woolf – the characters being beyond Woolf’s authorial scope, and I want to compare this to The Waves & The Golden Notebook as British novels in 6 voices.

The novel’s complex nuanced overlaps of the pages of the atlas Mitchell creates remind me of the opening critique of the hysterical realist novel by James Wood: Several of the main characters have the same distinctive birthmark, like a shooting star. Mitchell has said,

Literally all of the main characters, except one, are reincarnations of the same soul in different bodies throughout the novel identified by a birthmark…that’s just a symbol really of the universality of human nature. The title itself “Cloud Atlas,” the cloud refers to the ever changing manifestations of the Atlas, which is the fixed human nature which is always thus and ever shall be. So the book’s theme is predacity, the way individuals prey on individuals, groups on groups, nations on nations, tribes on tribes. So I just take this theme and in a sense reincarnate that theme in another context..

Genealogy is also present throughout the text. Adam Ewing’s son Jackson edits the journals and is the person for whom Ewing wants to improve the world (he becomes an abolitionist). Luisa del Ray is rescued by her father’s friend. Zachry’s son ends the “Sloosha’s Crossin'” tale. Yet it is never a safe origin point, but rather a Foucauldian arrival point of results – it feels temporally lateral, and many  bonds are of affiliation rather than filiation, as in The Waves.

Another theme is the cloud atlas itself. Zachry ends his tale with “Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ the clouds” 308. Frobisher critiques Ewing’s journal for being too neatly structured (like Benito Cereno, but also Hawthorne’s birthmark theme?), but he doubts his own ‘gimmicky’ “Cloud Atlas Sextet.” Luisa Rey receives the letters, but the novel she appears in is fictional in the world of Timothy Cavendish. His narration, later made into a film, is an actual film when Sonmi sees it. Finally, Zachry believes in Sonmi as a god, but his son watches her on the recovered orison and doesn’t understand her language – she is just “beaut’some, and she ‘mazes the littl’ uns an’ her murmin’s babbybie our babbits. Sit down a beat or two. Hold out your hands” 309. (A ‘babbit’ is an unthinking middle-class man, as in the title of Sinclair Lewis’ 1922 novel, the same year as Ulysses). This central “ending” questions the whole enterprise of narrative – it is both a force so powerful that it leads us to bind all these lives together, and something so fragile that time can erase its legibility completely.

The structure of Cloud Atlas:

1: Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (1849 – American in Pacific Islands) – journal
2: Letters from Zedelghem (1931 – Englishman in Belgium) – epistolary
3: Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery (1975- American in LA) – detective novel
4: The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (2000 – Englishman in UK) – film script
5: An Orison of Sonmi-451 (2200? – clone in Korea) – interview
6: Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After (post-apocalyptic – islanders in Maui) – oral story
5: An Orison of Sonmi-451 – Zachry’s tribe worships Sonmi; Zachry’s son’s children watch her orison.
4: The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish – Sonmi watches archived film version
3: Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery – Timothy Cavendish reads and critiques novel
2: Letters from Zedelghem – Sixsmith keeps them and Luisa Rey finds them
1: Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing – Frobisher finds in Ayrs’ library and figures out Henry’s plan (Melville)

Virginia Woolf, “Mrs. Dalloway”

1925

Probably Woolf’s most widely-read novel, Mrs. Dalloway is a response to Joyce’s Ulysses in its multiple subjectivities, its urban exploration, and its one-day setting. As opposed to the stream of consciousness of Joyce’s Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway is usually described as hinging on free indirect discourse. This allows a jumping and flowing between subjectivities, but with an emphasis on the ambiguity of the third-person intercostal phrases that occur as mutually observed objects become nexus points for multiple viewers.

To me, it seems that while the object is the occasion for memory or perspectival change in Woolf, it proliferates in Joyce. That is, whereas the surfaces of Woolf’s world are points of contact with other people and with a deep store of memory, in Joyce, even for the more worldly Bloom (let alone the philosophical Stephen), they are occasions to ruminate and multiply associations. One of the most profound set of images for this in the novel comes with the connection between Clarissa and Septimus, who never meet. Both of them imagine connectedness with other people through trees – materially rooted and reaching at the same time, but imagine loneliness and depression through silent seas – not present but in the mind. At the end of the novel, when Clarissa goes to the window, she is able to imagine his death with her body first – a visceral giving on to his subjectivity in a wonderful moment of genuine sympathy, sadly absent between many characters who actually do know each other.

Woolf’s free indirect discourse also gives itself over to the characters in a sort of democratic consensus. On the novel’s first page:

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning – fresh as if issued to children on a beach. What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when… 3.

This is echoed again in the last line, as Peter’s perspective opens outward: “What is this terror? what is this ecstasy? he thought to himself. What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement? It is Clarissa, he said. For there she was” 194. The continuous present of Woolf’s past tense, as well as the lack of chapters, encourages the reader to process the novel as an accumulation of thought, of the “atoms as they fall,” as Woolf writes in “Modern Fiction.”

E. M. Forster writes of the “shimmering fabric of mysticism” in the novel, “required like most writers to choose between the surface and depths as a basis of her operations, she chooses the surface and then burrows in as far as she can,” perhaps a reference to Woolf’s own imagining of her characters as caves with tunnels connecting them. I’m also interested in the nascent split subject in this novel, especially Clarissa. Woolf and other modernist writers point to women, specifically, as always split. I will conclude the passage where Clarissa pulls the parts of her self together in the mirror alone:

“That was her self – pointed; dart like, definite. That was her self when some effort, some call on her to be her self, drew the parts together, she alone knew how different, how incompatible and composed so for the world only into one centre, one diamond, one woman who sat in her drawing-room and made a meeting-point, a radiancy no doubt in some dull lives” 37.

Barbara Johnson, “The Feminist Difference”

1998

Feminism is no longer one thing, Johnson begins. It speaks multivocally and with contradictions. “Double consciousness” in W.E.B. DuBois’ terms is made into a political problem when Freud puts “race” in quotation marks. In the complex interweaving of culture, gender, race, class, and psychoanalysis, “literature is important for feminism because literature can best be understood as the place where impasses can be kept and opened for examination… as a mode of cultural work” 13.

Johnson first examines Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark,” Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and Freud’s “Case of Hysteria” as locations of the figure (the outline or form, for Kant) and ground (the attention, or content, for de Beauvoir). The girl who is the “blank page” in Irigaray is here imagined as the “background” or “negative space” (think of Woolf’s Lily Briscoe). Psychoanalysis would like to suture subject and background neatly. In Hawthorne, the background changes, while the mark remains constant – their relation changes because the background does. In Gilman, the girl creates a form out of the texture of the background (wallpaper). The cost of achieving “definitive femininity” in Freud’s terms is the subject of both stories. What these texts engender is a coda in which the author or narrator steps back as reader to interpret the work. But the image of the body as “blank page implies that the woman’s body is white” 35. The problem of the black woman in American literature is one of Topsy having no origin and Dilsey having no end.

In “Muteness Envy,” Johnson considers Keats’ urn as a silent woman – “thou still unravished bride of quietness.” The chiasmus “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” is a cancelling silence as well. The moment of the poem is the freezing right before “ravishing” – rape or ecstasy, we cannot be sure. Women are silent about pleasure or violation, Johnson argues. She reads the silence of Campion’s film The Piano as productive precisely because it can be read as rape or pleasure – it elicits polarized opinions. Feminism disrupts not because it speaks where women should be silent, but because it introduces an interference with male self-pity, which keeps attention and interest on the subjects, rather than the objects, of patriarchy.

In “The Postmodern in Feminism,” Johnson turns to semantics. Is postmodern a ‘good’ word? If postmodernism can be described by intense wordplay, decentered subjectivity, and language as social construction, we should consider in the postmodern era how legal language constructs women. In the indeterminacy of language, how can we speak of “women” if there “is uncertainty about what the word ‘woman’ means?” For Johnson, it is this very “incoherence of woman” that is “encountered in the engagement with the heterogeneity” of real women. Indeterminacy is the result of material existence, not the occlusion of it. She reiterates Cixous’ desire to stop talking of women in a reproduction of the binary in which “women are still standing facing men” 194. We must place difference among women, rather than between the genders, as if it were a war. The difficulty of this challenge constitutes the future of feminism.

 

Immanuel Kant, “Critique of the Power of Judgment”

1790

Also called the third critique, this is where Kant lays out his idealist philosophies on the sublime and the beautiful. Following from Burke, Kant’s approach is much more disinterested, depersonalized, categorical, and universalizing. Kant’s a priori knowledge moves more by deduction than experience (Burke’s empiricism). His idea of the sensus communis translates its literal meaning – common sense – from the individual’s total capacity of bound faculties working together to produce judgment into a wider social realm, in which a disinterested and trained public could agree on questions of aesthetic taste.

Kant’s position is certainly one of a bourgeois, middle class individualist. Still, he opens himself for debate by inviting contestation and by asserting the self/social dynamic of the sensus communis. As with the categorical imperative, one cannot act or judge out of political interest – we must act as if a universal law exists. Aesthetics, as in Schiller, is a sort of training, preparatory work that predates political change. Kant thus advocated reform, rather than revolution.

In Kant, the object is always outside our understanding, and the subject of the treatise is the mind itself. Judgment is a sort of negation of the senses – almost an alchemical process like Eliot’s disinterestedness. In cognitive judgment, we transform the objects of the world, through mental representation, into determinate concepts via our highest faculty, reason (this is the sublime). In aesthetic judgment, we create a unified representation from the manifold, but can arrive only at a harmony of the imagination and the understanding, not a determinate concept shaped by reason (this is free beauty).

We move from the manifold (the senses or sensation) to the intuition (representations in the imagination) to the generation of concepts (understanding) to our highest faculty, that of our ides (reason). Our senses are at the level of nature, while our Reason is at the level of freedom, and we move osmotically up and down this ladder of mentality as we order the world around us.

One of the most fascinating subjects of Kant’s inquiry into the beautiful is the crustacean or the rare bird or tropical flower. Kant gives all of these as examples of things that exist as ornament or drawing, not as natural, or having entelec function (recall that Kant prioritized the bounding line of form over the filling color of content – think about this in terms of Blake’s drawings (line filled in later) versus Lily Briscoe’s painting in To the Lighthouse, which engages color before line and strict form, or The Waves, where the female characters see color and the boys see form).

My reading of this fascination is a relation to defamiliarization – free beauty is that which we cannot categorize, a novelty we cannot subsume (Lolita). Whereas adherent beauty seems to unite beauty and cognition, form and function, free beauty lies in an excess of form to its function. This reminds me of Nabokov’s theories on the chance excess of evolution – how butterflies are far more detailed in their colorful trickery of predators than their predators’ senses can sense. This is where Kant’s confusing distinction of “purposiveness without a purpose” might be explicable, at least to an extent.

In contrast to the beautiful, the sublime is a negative, rather than a positive, pleasure in Kant. Unlike Burke, beauty is above the sublime as experience for Kant. Beauty is contemplation, an (in)determinate concept at the realm of (imagination and) understanding, a spatial and static harmony, a purposive form or limitation. On the other hand, the sublime is a toggling between repulsion and attraction, a dynamic narrative of experience, an indeterminate concept at the level of reason, a contra-purposive with a limitless higher purpose. The mind is fitted to the beautiful; it is unsuited, at least initially, to the sublime. Here, the object is a springboard for the mind, which confronts something  either mathematical (a problem of quantity or greatness) or dynamic (a problem of threat or fear).

The experience of the sublime is one of regaining power over experience. In the mathematical, the mind uses what it already knows to overcome the problem, moving from a failure of imagination to a reasoning of the totality by a whole based on comprehensible units (concepts of space time for example. One wonders if, once conquered, such a concept transitions into beauty…) In the dynamic sublime, the solution is narrativization – one moves to a picture of the whole synthesized by the imagination in discourse. As the body is in danger, but not really, one learns that the power of nature does not have dominion over our power of reason. The distinction seems to be one of apprehension vs comprehension. The proper distance is required for the sublime.

Kant is implicitly defending defensive, but not offensive, war. This is bound to the value of Protestant individual/national concerns, rather than Catholic objective idol/ imperialist concerns for Kant. It would be interesting to compare his ideas on “formless” feeling to Bakhtin and the “formless” novel.

 

 

Katherine Mansfield: Stories

Mansfield’s stories are remarkable for their clarity of image, their stirrings of stream of consciousness, and the way in which they resonate with the work of Virginia Woolf.

“PRELUDE,” 1918

Lottie and Kezia are moving away. Kezia is startled when she goes back into the house to get something. Aunt Beryl and the grandmother put Lottie, Kezia, and Isabel to bed together. The grandmother washes dishes and recalls Beryl being stung by red ants when they lived in Tasmania. The children play at being grown-ups. Kezia tells her cousin to “put head back on” the duck he has decapitated. They eat the duck for tea. The story ends with Beryl writing a letter to her ‘nan’ saying she is bored and false in the country. Kezia calls her to dinner and marvels that a jar of cream that flies off the dresser does not break.

“BLISS,” 1920

Bertha Young’s consciousness unfolds over the course of a dinner party she throws with her husband Harry. She starts out filled with bliss, as though she had “swallowed” part of the afternoon – she plays with her baby and looks at “a tall, slender pear tree in fullest, richest bloom” in the garden. In attendance are the Knights, as well as the implicitly gay Eddie and the fascinating Pearl Fulton. She thinks Harry is rude to her, and hers is the only perspective we have as readers. She thinks again of the pear tree, which “would be silver in the light of poor dear Eddie’s moon.” Bertha tries to locate her interest in Pearl, which is at the fringes of desire, but ultimately realizes that she shares with Pearl an attraction to Harry. She realizes they are having an affair when she walks into the hallway and sees her husband take Pearl in his arms. She “laid her moonbeam fingers on his cheeks and smiled her sleepy smile.” As she leaves, Pearl mutters, “Your lovely pear tree!” “Bertha simply ran over to the long windows… But the pear tree was as lovely as ever and as full of flower and as still.”

“GARDEN PARTY,” 1922

The in medias res beginning of the story, “And after all the weather was ideal,” reminds me so much of Mrs. Dalloway. The similarities continue as we watch Laura and Jose Sheridan and their mother prepare for a garden party, which is nearly interrupted by a death (recall Clarissa!). The sensations of the house, where all the doors and windows feel open, and there are an abundance of fragrant cut lilies, also remind me of Mrs. Dalloway. When the Sheridans learn that a man from the cottages at the edge of the property has died, Laura wants to call off the party. Mrs. Sheridan considers this “extravagant.” She sends Laura to the cottages with leftovers afterwards. Laura is taken with the beauty of the young man, who seems to be peacefully sleeping. The story ends with her musing, “Isn’t life…” to which her brother says, “Isn’t it, darling?”

“AT THE BAY,” 1922

This story seems almost like the bits of The Waves that begin each section with a time of day and the sea. It is told in one day, like the structure of that novel (which imagines each stage of life as a time of day), and involves the same characters as “Prelude.” It begins with Stanley swimming in the sea, tracks Kezia, Isabel, and Lottie playing, Linda remembering, and Beryl fretting over growing old alone. It ends with a cloud floating across the moon, and then “All was still.” The way the story draws attention to the objective world is also like To the Lighthouse. 

 

Sandra Gilbert & Susan Gubar, “Sexual Linguistics”

1985

“Is anatomy linguistic destiny? Is womb a metaphorical mouth, a pen a metaphorical penis?” the authors begin.

“From Freud to Lacan to Derrida on the one hand, and from Woolf to Irigaray to Cixous on the other, masculinist and feminist theorists alike have toyed with the idea of a culturally determined body language which translates the articulations of the body into that body of articulated terminology we call language” 515.

“If language is a process of cultural artifiice that both distances and defines nature, then it would seem that its workings might well embody the bodily differences through which each human being first confronts the fundamental sexuality of his or her own nature… as Julia Kristeva puts it, ‘Sexual difference – which is at once biological, physiological, and relative to production – is translated by and translates a difference in the relationship of subjects to the symbolic contract which is the social contract: a difference, then, in the relationship to power, language, and meaning” 515-16.

Gilbert and Gubar seek to interrogate this psychologically and historically – through the primacy of the mother in the ‘symbolic contract’ and through a tradition of female writing that belies the idea that the feminine does not appear in common language. “The female subject is not necessarily alienated from the words she writes and speaks” 516. A French feminist approach prioritizes the preexistence of a woman’s language that breaks from patriarchy, while an a priori Anglo-American approach has been focused on research into a praxis of linguistics itself. Irigaray and Kristeva picture the female body as open, blank, full of gaps and lacunae that ‘speak louder than words,” and Cixous calls writing an outpouring or disgorging of fluids. These thinkers seek to move beyond the binary of patriarchy – for Cixous, Molly Bloom carries “Ulysses off beyond any book and toward the new writing” 518. By opting for matter over mind, the female body escapes.

However, the “mysteriously multiple fluency” and “antithetical imagining of eloquent silence” is more like the male avant-garde’s fine de siecle concept of women 519. Thus, many feminists “refuse to be Mollified” 519. Is it better to speak illegibly outside history or to join the forces of the enemy? Empiricism is a way out for many American feminists, who examine linguistic structures for how ‘he/man’ usages filter out recognition of female existence; indeed, as if corroborating the French emphasis on blanks, gaps, silences… ‘for females, the only semantic space in English is negative'” 519. Beyond “pronoun envy” are also “lexical asymmetries” of wholeness for man and things like hysteria for women 520. Robin Lakoff proposes that women’s English is collaborative, but weaker than men’s.

Ultimately, the French and American sides of the argument appear quite different, at least in part because French is a more gender-marked and inflected language 520. The authors wonder if the “charisma” of French discourse is a haute-couture of linguistics (“a utopian vision of woman’s language”) beside the “garment district empiricism” of Americans (“a dystopian version of woman’s sentence”) 521. Rather than “a joyously emetic emission from a community based on the commonality of women,” the American approach has stressed that “if a woman learns and uses women’s language, she is necessarily considered less than a real full person,” but if she does not, “she is ostracized as unfeminine” (Lakoff’s double bind) 521.

One issue is the repetition of women as suppressed, as not yet fully present. But even Virginia Woolf, in tracing a weak line up to her own time, 70 years before Gilbert & Gubar are writing, found a tradition beginning in the late 18th century of women’s writing 522. Woolf’s “woman’s sentence” is neither French nor American in its approach – it is more historical than the first and more optimistic than the latter. Woolf used “what was essentially a fantasy about a utopian linguistic structure… to define (and perhaps disguise) her desire to revise not woman’s language but woman’s relation to language” 523. The woman’s sentence is not so much about the grammatical construction of language as it is about overturning the idea that a sentence is final, judgmental, or complete, “by which woman has been kept from feeling that she can be in full command of language” 523. Woolf’s fantasy is of the legal power to sentence being moved to the realm of femininity.

Molly Bloom’s, while held up as example, is still a leaky, chaotic discourse set against the two men’s. James (in The Bostonians) fears the chatter of women will take over male discourse, and Eliot (in “Hysteria”), has “caught” the disease from woman and runs on in a paragraph rather than a poem proper 526. Even in The Waste Land, the female characters are hysterical, and can “connect nothing with nothing,” except for the silent hyacinth girl, and Eliot’s goal seems to be to transcend female language, “justifying Joyce’s claim that The Waste Land ‘ended the idea of poetry for ladies'” 526.

The authors point to Emily Dickinson as the foremother of a fantasy of women’s language as sorcery, as well as Wharton, Barnes, Cather, Hurston, H.D. and Stein. Stein “speaks in tongues” in Tender Buttons, “recover[ing] the numinous names of an alternative history” 529. G & G also point to the inscrutable sky-writing of Mrs. Dalloway, where the homeless woman’s song is mystical and Clarissa and Septimus are given a similar language 531. “Woolf emphasizes the fact that both the alienation from language her books describe and the revision of lexicography her books detail are functions of the dispossession of women, as well as of women’s natural resources in the face of this dispossession” 531. This includes Mrs. McNab and Mrs. Bast’s creaking on in To the Lighthouse as they keep the house from further disintegration 531.

What is the difference between “mother tongue” and “father speech”? The latter is an external possession, like Latin or Greek, and is hierarchically above and more pure the intimate vernacular we gain at birth 533. Perhaps men translating between these two forms of speech also feel belated to their forefathers. Joyce is the prime example, the authors hold, of the transformation of mother tongue into dense, hard father speech. “Oxen of the Sun” plays through a “(male) linguistic ontogeny” that “recapitulates (male) linguistic phylogeny” (the individual’s development scans the biological history of that development) 534-5. “Most male writers are either reacting against or appropriating the verbal fertility of the mother,” since there are truly “no father tongues” 535.

The “swerve” Lacan must make to align language and the Oedipal complex demonstrates the extreme fixation on the necessary abjection of the mother. The child already has language at this point, language fed to him by his mother, but Lacan makes a logical detour to conceal this and subsume language as “fatherly,” as part of individuating from the mother 536. Is the obsession with a patriarchal language actually the result of the fear that it is matriarchal? Thus castration anxiety is more about the anxiety of the knowledge that woman is complete, that she is not castrated, as Susan Lurie argues 537. The symbolic (maternal) contract is “signed” before the social (paternal) contract is constructed 538.

“We must also ask whether the whole structure of ‘hierarchized’ oppositions that some of us have thought essentially patriarchal has been historically erected as a massive defense against the deep throat of the mother and the astonishing autonomy of that mother tongue which is common to both genders” 538.

It would be interesting to compare this to stories and food in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, where a female language is also under construction.

“To carry such an empowering intuition one step further… can it be that feminist theorists must look beyond the traditional alphabetizings of history, with its masculinist syntax of subordination, to discover and recover the ways in which, as we have seen here, women have sometimes stealthily and sometimes ecstatically claimed the alphabet to capitalize (on) their own initials and their own initiatives?” 538.

Here, you might think of Mr. Ramsay’s stubborn progress through the alphabet, or even the narrator of Isherwood’s Prater Violet, cataloguing his male lovers. The authors suggest seeking language and readings and writings in the chaos of an “alphabet soup””

“The very possibility that women might achieve such a vision implies that the relationship between anatomy and linguistic destiny, between sexual diference and the symbolic contract, may promise not just female jouissance but feminist puissance. For at last, in spite of feminist doubt and masculinist dread, we can affirm that woman has not been sentenced to transcribe male penmanship; rather, she commands sentences which inscribe her own powerful character” 539.