Mythologies

When I read Gauguin’s Tahiti Journals earlier this year I didn’t know that the Tate were set to put on a large exhibition of his works. The exhibition is sufficiently popular that I have to wait a few hours to get in and go for a walk past Hopton’s Almshouses and the Oxo Tower. Once I’m inside, the exhibition is drawn up thematically (landscapes, portraits, still life, the feminine, narratives, religion) as well as two rooms dedicated to biography and social history. As an approach it works rather well, putting his Breton works alongside Tahiti and Martinique, while contrasting his early career as a bourgeois portrait painter with his later works.

As a painter, Gauguin is particularly writerly, in spite of his emphasis on ceramics and carving alongside painting. Where the impressionists dwelt on surface and effects of light, Gauguin’s primary colours point to an ambition to see the instress and inscape of things. Each painting seems like a fragment of a wider fresco, particularly with the way that so many of them depict wallpapers (or his own paintings) in the background in order to emphasise the reality of the foreground or even to suggest to blur the line between imagination and life, with the wallpaper being shown as a projection of a sleeper’s dreams, something that begins with paintings of his children and extends to his Tahitian paintings. By the same token, his still life paintings are often depicted through the gaze of an observer, as if the thing in itself could not be left unattended.

Nonetheless, my view of his journals was that his romanticisation of the noble savage was to a large extent superficial (given that missionaries had been active in Tahiti a hundred years before Gauguin’s arrival, which was essentially a product of the advent of mass tourism) and the paintings do go some way to confirming that. A painting of a woman holding a fruit as a representation of Eve at the tree of knowledge is painted a second time with her holding a fox, a folklore symbol of sexuality. Christian themes compete with pagan themes throughout; even as he rejects Christian theology he depicts Tahiti through its lens. Christ is frequently depicted in his paintings, but is often shown in the guise of Gauguin. Conversely, the idols in his paintings were often carved by himself while the Tahitian names are often chosen for their sounds rather than their means. Easter island glyphs included in his paintings remain untranslated today and are included solely as a form of exoticism.

The following week sees a visit to Oxford for the Ashmolean’s exhibition on the Pre-Raphaelites and Italy. It’s a somewhat thin pretext for an exhibition, which ranges from Ruskin’s detailed studies of Italian architecture and Burne-Jones church interior designs to Brett’s landscapes of Capri and Florence and to Rossetti’s somewhat fanciful interpretations of Dante. However, it does have some rather nice works by minor painters, like Dyce’s interpretation of Paolo and Francesca Da Rimini, Inchbold’s painting of the Venetian lagoon, Bell Scott’s painting of Keats and Shelley’s graves, Newman’s depiction of the Duomo in Florence and an extraordinary painting of the Maries at the Sepulchure after Mantegna by Howard. Some of the Etruscan group’s paintings are more interesting than the Pre-Raphaelites proper, with Howard’s ruin paintings and Richmond’s landscapes especially standing out. Afterwards, I visit the castle; I don’t particularly like tours but it was worth is to see the interior of St George’s chapel alone.

The British Museum’s Egyptian Book of the Dead exhibition leaves me feeling rather ambivalent, given that it does rather tend to drag Egyptian religion out of the exoticism of mythology down to the rather prosaic level of theology. The paraphernalia of a seraph-like soul being weighed and judged as to whether it shall gain eternal life and the promise of a physical resurrection all presumably found their way into christianity (sadly missing the Cerberus like Devourer), while the desperate ploys to persuade the heart not to testify against the soul in the final judgement seem like nothing so much as the Catholic confessional and selling of indulgences. The best exhibit is rather clearly the beautiful gilt cartonnage mask of Satdjehuty, the one item free of religious symbolism.

In a certain sense, literature is commonly associated with social order. In tragedy, the ambitions of the malcontent or overreacher are curtailed. In comedy, the perverse and vulgar are help up as objects of amusement, before the social order snaps back into its fixed position. Both descriptions are of course exaggerations, and often diametrically opposed to tragedy’s ability to highlight the plight of the powerless or comedy’s ability to mock the privileged. However, I did find myself thinking of those definitions as I read a collection of Ancient Egyptian writings. Many of them are explicitly cast as teachings, instructions on inherited tradition; “emulate your forefathers, your ancestors.” Stories, such as The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant dwells on social injustice, but only in the context of restoring social order; indeed, issues of order and kingship permeate many of the stories. The result often feels rather narrowly defined, in terms of everything being seen through a single lens to the exclusion of all else. The best story is clearly The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, which is rather more reminiscent of the Odyssey in its delight at the fantastic and in its refusal to suggest that all will be re-ordered at its conclusion. Compare that to The Tale of Sinuhe, which dwells on travel to other lands but almost of the sole purpose of setting a scene for the return to Egypt in the manner of a prodigal son.

As in Coetzee’s Foe, White’s Voss can be regarded as a feminist critique of the European exploratory narrative. The parallels between the stories of Voss and Laura places both on an equal footing, implicitly serving to undermine the epic calibre of his narrative. However, it inevitably also partakes of the same sort of mythologising as Robinson Crusoe, hence the novel’s stress on the relativity of such accounts; "words were not the servants of life but life was the servant of words… all words must be deceitful… people have a habit of making truth suit the occasion.. all truths are particoloured."

Reading Adorno’s The Culture Industry I’m reminded of the way Lukacs paid homage to conservative writers like Scott and Balzac, noting that the Tory worldview dovetailed with a Marxist analysis, at least where it concerned the depiction of the middle class. Something similar applies to Adorno’s defence of a division between elitist high-culture and a carnivalesque popular culture in the face of a middle class culture industry exemplified by film and television. As such, his arguments against mass culture chime quite readily with a conservative viewpoint (I can easily imagine the likes of Roger Scruton secretly nodding in agreement with much of it); in fact, the historical genealogy he constructs that high and low art were last united by Mozart doesn’t really sound terribly different to Eliot’s dissociation of sensibility. Adorno’s theory rests on the presumption that consumers are simply passive recipients of mass cultural propaganda that induces a permanent state of false consciousness in its "blind and passive victims" a patrician idea of the working class that denies them any concept of agency.

Coetzee’s early novels could loosely be described as being in the mould of Kafka; allegorical novels told in the first person that sought to withhold their allegorical meaning. More recent novels have preceded from modernism to postmodernism and from a single narrator to multiple narrators, seeking to postulate a fictionalised version of the author while interrogating the realism of such a version. As one character in Summertime put it; "it would be very, very naive to conclude that because the theme was present in his writings it had to be present in his life…. what Coetzee writes there cannot be trusted, not as a factual record, not because he was a liar but because he was a fictioneer." Summertime interrogates that self by removing its presence entirely and reconstructing it through a set of narratives told to a biographer by several of his acquaintances. As one of them points out that they are all fictioneers, with one of them complaining about the biographers account of their conversation and all of them demanding editorial rights. However, although the picture they paint varies widely and is far from uncritical (as with a critique of the romantic primitivism in his work or his cousin’s criticism of his impracticality), it is not inconsistent. While a novel like Lessing’s The Golden Notebook suggests that the self is fractured, the fictionalised Coetzee is entirely recognisable between each narrative. Much the same applies to Diary of a Bad Year, a set of diaries split between an elderly author and one of the foreign woman whose recurrent presence as a trope in his work is noted in Summertime. The novel begins with a set of essays, much of which seem to imply a criticism of the author, which Anya and her libertarian boyfriend make explicit. However, the dialogic aspect of the narrative is undermined somewhat by a improbably melodramatic act by the boyfriend that decimates the force of his criticisms. Summertime is perhaps more at ease with polyphony than Diary of a Bad Year, but Coetzee seems to be split between withholding truth as a concept and presenting it as complex and fractured.

Much of satire resorts to simplification and objectification as a means of making its point. The travel metaphor in Gulliver’s Travels enables Swift to make his case with much greater ease than if he were operating in a realist vein. Similarly, Flatland reduces human society to a matter of geometry in order to make a series of disproportioned broadsides against the inequality of woman (especially the notion of the irrationality of women), Lombrosian criminology, eugenics and and social injustice. The later section, a sort of cross between A Christmas Carol and Gulliver’s description of the Houyhnhnms is more difficult to pinpoint, given that it relates to the protagonist’s perception of geometry, thereby relating more closely to the signifier structure in the novel than to what it generally signifies. Like Swift or Bellamy’s Looking Backward (which it anticipates), the pessimism in that conclusion does rather undermine the melioratory project otherwise at work in the novel.

When reading Zola’s The Ladies Paradise my main reaction as how extraordinary that such a hymn to progress and commerce could come from an author who’d written such vehement denunciations of capitalism as The Belly of Paris and Germinal. In the case of Pot Luck, although the novel forms a prequel to The Ladies Paradise, it has rather more in common with The Belly of Paris than its sequel. In particular, Pot Luck metes out to the bourgeoisie the same sort of treatment Zola has given the working class in L’Assommoir. However, in this context, much of the text is rather reminiscent of Civilisation and its Discontents; "covering the corrupt bourgeoisie with the cloak of religion." Nonetheless, the nature of vice is something Zola regards with ambivalence. Vice is often seen as an inherited condition "it;’s your mother all over again… all the unhappiness of his life was going to be repeated in his daughter!" which may be suppressed by which will nonetheless release itself; "checked at first by their good breeding the desire for the twenty francs got the better of them and all pretence was abandoned.. their lips quivering with the excitement of the fray." At other points, the characters vices are seen as something specific to their class (not that this idea had occurred to him when he was describing the lower classes ), with the servants either imitating or scorning them; "like master, like servant! When the landlords set the example, the flunkeys become immoral as well…how glad they were not to belong to the bourgeoisie when they saw their masters living in this flithy state." In order to explain middle class vice, Zola resorts to education and environment as factors, and the tendency to bring up girls in sexual ignorance with only idealised expectations; "it’s absolutely certain that if you’d brought me up differently… some of whom were brought up as dolls and were made crazy or corrupt thereby, while others had their feelings and passions corrupted by hereditary neurosis."

The Hunchback of Notre Dame reminded me of Dickens in several respects; both authors combine a rationalist outlook with a gothic sensibility. In the case of Hugo, he descriptions of medieval Paris are emphatically those of the gothic revival evangelist, with modern architecture viewed as a form of degeneration, but he is nonetheless constantly at pains to stress the barbarity of the medieval worldview. Bernhard’s Old Masters, follows the generic convention of every Bernhard novel I’ve ever read; a character incessantly fulminates against the repressive and philistine nature of his native Austria, from the Catholic church through to subjects that increasingly suggest the first person narration to be unreliable (the state of Vienna’s public toilets springs to mind) and the narrator unbalanced, a point confirmed when the narrative details the circumstances of his wife’s death. As usual. the reader is left working out how much of what they have read can be trusted and how much doubted.

It’s a cliche in literary criticism that the most powerful effects in literature can be attributed to an author showing something dramatically rather than describing it. Reading some of Lovecraft’s stories, I wondered about this. In horror fiction it is often vital to neither show nor describe the monster being depicted, but while Lovecraft rarely shows dramatically the beings in his stories, he often does describe (and indeed taxonomise) them in rather tedium detail. The story veers between the narrator resorting to vague adjectives to relate what he has seen (horrifying, dreadful etc) and speaking of their capacity for flying or the descent of some of the creatures from fungi. Houellebecq’s recent essay notwithstanding, it’s difficult to see this as being comparable to the likes of Blackwood or Derleth.

If Tom McCarthy’s previous novel Remainder was distinctly cast in the mould of Sartre and Robbe-Grillet, then his latest novel C is perhaps rather less predictable; perhaps being best described as a picaresque novel that combines Tristram Shandy with Ulysses. Where the futile attempts of the narrator in Remainder to re-capture a sense of the authenticity of past events could be as easily read as an essay on the death of affect as on the spuriousness of authenticity, C makes little attempt to hide the fact that it is depicting a linguistic world. The two novels arguably represent a transition from modernism to post-modernism, with part of its effect being derived from the narrator treating events with an air of surrealist whimsy (of jouissance at the sense of differance), ranging from parodies of first world war literature through Serge experiencing a Marinettiesque sense of enjoyment during his time at the front while reading Holderlin and denigrating Housman, to parodies of Mann’s Magic Mountain during his stay at a spa. Throughout McCarthy deploys realist tropes such as the bildungsroman or first person narration in order to parody them; for example, characters often simply repeat the same stock phrases in order to defuse any illusion of interiority (although the effect of that can often be rather Dickension) and anachronistic detail casually inserted into the text. The world is instead depicted as a confluence of signals and cryptonyms; a dummy-chamber in the sense the novel’s Egyptian’s section introduces or the various radio transmissions that form a leitmotif throughout it. While C relates to the protagonist’s surname, Carrefax, it also relates to carbon, the basic stuff of life reduced to the character of the textual.

The early section of the novel follows that of Freud’s Wolf Man, Sergei Pankejeff in terms of Serge’s incestuous relationship with his sister Sophie and resulting neurosis. Sophie is repeatedly encoded throughout the novel as a set of myths; that of Persephone, Isis ("the god’s dismemberment, his sisters Isis’s search for his parts.. forced to remake her self") or Philo’s Saint Sophia ("the Logos, dweller in the inmost… desiring too ardently to be united with God, she falls into matter and our universe is formed from her agony or remorse."). Death is certainly linked to sexuality in Freudian terms (as in the joke about the res-errection of Horus, in Serge’s death about having sex with Laura or Sophie’s suicide in response to her pregnancy) but is also coded as a form of signal; Sophie’s signal is disperse, Serge’s death is a call. The name of the family estate, Versoie, similar to Versailles, is more importantly a Derridean word, from his essay "Un Ver a soie" (A Silkworm of One’s Own; silkworms are indeed farmed on the estate), as the silkworm becomes a moth it is not what it was, but is now the opposite of a silkworm, and is therefore opposed to itself. As such, the novel veers between a concept of existence as somehow fallen, lacking in meaning that can only be regained in death and a concept of the world’s differance, producing jouissance, as with the parodies of Freud’s analysis of Pankejeff or the unmasking of a seance.

One particular thing stays with me after reading the novel; although McCarthy parodies realist tropes in the novel (effectively treating the period as a historical theme park), his choice of a period that witnessed the birth of modernism and of modern communications technology leaves me wondering how much C differs from AS Byatt having characters in Angels and Insects ponder Jungian archetypes long before Jung has invented them. Equally, for all of the intertextual references outlined above, there’s something remarkably flat about this novel, as with Serge’s inability to draw perspectives. I recall that when I first read Tristram Shandy, I felt that its auto-deconstruction was rather flat and predictable in comparison to the often accidental contradictions in Fielding; similarly beyond the facile pleasures of decoding, C seems a rather two-dimensional exercise in modernist pastiche.</p

Advertisements