This entire entry is just going to be my plans for it. I'm just clearing my head. This will be boring and self-indulgent.
I wasn't really made aware of it at the time, but as an undergraduate, my professors kind of trained me as a structuralist. Structuralism is a now outmoded approach to literature (and other humanities) where the critic tries to identify the structures (big surprise) operating in a text. For a structuralist, the individual elements of a text assume meaning only in their relationship to other elements. A useful example might be to think about how the idea of daughter is inconceivable without the idea of parent.
The structuralist approach to literature involved a kind of hyper-attention to detail. It assumed every text was a self-contained unity containing all the answers required for its interpretation. It's easy to imagine why this approach took off after World War II: the kind of novel that was popular then usually didn't offer everything it had at first glance; decoding often rewarded the careful reader.
As I said, this approach has fallen out of style, and it shouldn't be too difficult to figure out why. First of all, the idea that a text forms a self-contained unity seems now like a fantasy created by people desperate to stabilize a method of reading that didn't have to be re-established with every new text. (As it happens: the best critics in my opinion do typically approach texts with as few principles as possible, and instead adapt their reading strategy to every new piece of work.) Second of all, that extreme attention to detail produced a lot of paranoid readings. You can see a vestige of this kind of reading in the YouTube videos today posted by people who have somehow determined that pop music videos have illuminati symbolism designed to communicate some malevolent message to fellow conspirators. Lastly: the truth is, this method took off in the first place largely because after World War II and the Vietnam War, many soliders came back to the United States and attended college. The government was financing them, since they had served, so a lot of young men who hadn't been bred for college found themselves going anyway. They didn't have the education the students from wealthier families had, which meant that they brought very little to their reading experience (no historical or cultural understanding, no background in systems of thought). A reading methodology that taught that any given text was complete in itself obviously made it easier to teach literature to these students. (In the United States, you hear of this approach being called New Criticism, but it shares affinities with structuralism and arose out of a similar intellectual breeding ground.)
Although it fell out of style, structuralism did leave an impact on literary study. Because students couldn't refer to anything outside of the text, they had to build their arguments around specific and abundant textual evidence. Before then, in literature classes, many scholars got away with saying vague things about novels, especially when it came to Christianity. The attention to detail made literary study almost like a scientific endeavor instead of an excuse for rich kids to say vacuous things about books.
So: I was raised this way as an undergraduate because many of my professors were trained and did most of their big work during the reign of structuralism. When I got to graduate school, it became clear that the conversation had long since moved on. What's in vogue now, for better or worse, is cultural studies and what they call New Historicism. Gone are the days of the text's autonomy from society. Now we've gone to almost the other extreme: nothing is special about literature, say the New Historicists, it's just one type of language among others, and by reading literature, we can gain valuable insights into the attitudes, beliefs, and practices of a culture. Criticism that reveals how a text works and stops there has no value. Everything needs a "so-what" factor: how does the text function politically? what groups does it represent? what affordances does it make for oppressed groups?
It's easy to see how this is both useful and horrible. The structuralist mistake was turning the text into an object of consumption, something for men in ivy towers to play with in order to earn tenure. Now we've gone the other way: the text hardly has value in itself. It acts as a supplement to culture and history.
So: I've been playing catch-up, but also asking myself some important questions. I readily concede the problems with structuralism, but I don't want to abandon something I was kind of awesome at. If you want to get high and somehow determine that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from Hamlet actually have everyone else in the play under mind control, then I'm your guy. Part of me hates that all literature has to justify itself now in the name of some greater cause, especially because I think literature does its work best when you don't approach it with any expectations, but I'm willing to play the New Historicist game because I see some use in it, I want a career, and the history of literary methodology makes it clear that change typically comes from the inside. When New Historicism finally dies, it'll have been the New Historicists themselves who put it to rest.
All this was a preface so I could make my goal clear: for my thesis, I wanted some kind of synthesis. I wanted to put my close-reading skills to work, but also in a way that wouldn't reduce the novels I'm working with to neat little games that I had beaten, so to speak. I wanted to make my work "useful."
Well, it seems to be common practice amongst these New Historicists to bring their life experience to their work, and again, this both makes sense to me and pisses me off. Gay people show how novels highlight the experience of being gay in a certain culture. Women show how poems "subvert the hegemonic patriarchy." Race, disability, religion, age, ideology, trauma: everyone who experienced any kind of suffering brings it to their work. And don't worry, white straight middle-class men, it appears that that group is starting to speak up because millenia of dominance haven't been enough. Facing the twilight years of their privilege, groups we usually think of as dominant are starting to squawk about how oppressive it is not to be able to claim oppressed status. Yep.
So, I ask myself: what matters to me? I'm crazy. I get frustrated a lot because when I want to hump someone with my boner, no one is available. I manage to make everything I learn a tool to abuse myself with. I'll probably kill myself over melted ice cream when I'm thirty. How can I bring this to my work?
Answer: madness, sexual frustration, suicide, and literature. As it happens, three of my favorite books have narrators who have a lot in common: they're all crazy, they're all sexually frustrated and their sexual frustration makes them introspect obsessively, and at the end of all of these texts, narrator suicide is either explicit or at least highly plausible. (The Sound and the Fury, Pale Fire, and In the Heart of the Country.)
Good job, autism! Way to find that pattern.
As it happens, the story I've been writing is about basically all these things (though I've revised the suicide teleology). As I was writing my story, I got myself to thinking about self-obsession. Pale Fire has a lot of mirror imagery. Mirrors, self-obsession: hmm, I thought, what about Narcissus? He would probably be cool to include in my story.
Well, I added him to my story, but then when I was reading for my thesis, I noticed his name popping up. More excitingly: I noticed his name popping up exactly once in each of the novels I'm studying. Hohoho! There's that structuralism showing itself off!
So I asked myself? Why Narcissus? Then I thought about it more.
The myth is very familiar. The mother of a very beautiful young man consults the blind priest Tiresias about her son's future. He will be fine, says Tiresias, as long as he never knows himself. The mother doesn't really know what that means. Fast forward until when the boy is like sixteen. Everyone wants to fuck him. Narcissus walks down the street: erections swell, vaginas fester, or whatever it is vaginas do. But Narcissus doesn't like anyone. Get out of me, he says. I don't want your slack vaginas or your pesky cocks. The nymph Echo obsesses over him particularly. He spurns her because all she does is repeat him. He becomes thirsty and looks into a stream and finally sees himself. What most people don't know about the Narcissus myth is that, at least in Ovid's version, he did not at first understand that the person he was looking at was himself. He becomes fixated with this person, finally wants to fuck him, but can't access the beautiful face in the water. Only then does he realize that it's himself. Unable to get over the problem, he withers away at side of the stream. His mother and sisters find the flower Narcissus where he died.
Growing up, you don't really think of this myth in terms of sexual frustration, but that's what it is. What's more: the sexual frustration leads to obsession with the self, and then a self-destructive self-knowledge.
That's cool, Billy. How is this useful?
Well, each of these novels was written after Freud changed how we think of mental illness, but before the practice of psychiatry as we know it today. This was a strange time in the history of mental illness when people understood that something was behind behaviors we think of as mad, but before they had any clear idea what it could be. (Even today, neurotransmitter theory is technically still just a theory. Correlative evidence abounds, but you know the cliché about correlation.) What I'm arguing then, is that these novels represent an approximation of how post-Freud society thought about madness. It seems to be almost a punishment, what someone gets for letting their sexual desires reign unchecked, and for letting that desire turn into an obsession with the self that ends in self-destruction.
When we call someone a narcissist, we do so usually from a judgmental, moralistic position. We forget that narcissism, in its strict mythological sense, claims victims.
What's important is not to ask: what do these novels say about madness? We can't speak for madness. The good question is: what do these novels say about how people conceived of madness in the historical moment before they could really understand its causes?
It could've gone without saying that my thesis is a narcissistic undertaking.
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