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Re-reading the Subtexts of Modernity

Alec Charles

What takes place when we examine texts close-up? The art of close reading, once the closely guarded province of professional literary critics, now underpins the everyday processes of forensic scrutiny conducted by those brigades of citizen commentators who patrol the realms of social media.

This study examines at close quarters a series of key English texts from the last hundred years: the novels of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, the plays of Samuel Beckett, the poetry of Sylvia Plath and Philip Larkin, the films of Alfred Hitchcock and the tweets of Donald Trump. It digs beneath their surface meanings to discover microcosmic ambiguities, allusions, ironies and contradictions which reveal tensions and conflicts at the heart of the paradox of patriarchal history. It suggests that acts of close reading may offer radical perspectives upon the bigger picture, as well as the means by which to deconstruct it. In doing so, it suggests an alternative to a classical vision of cultural progress characterised by irreconcilable conflicts between genders, genres and generations.

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Chapter 2 (Woolf)


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scar n. the trace of a wound; a blemish upon the physiognomy, the character, the culture or the landscape; the residuum of trauma; a brand; a mark of honour, power, belonging, ownership, stigma, sacrifice or disgrace.

Harold Bloom, in his Map of Misreading, argues that a poet becomes a poet through the act of challenging and usurping her precursors in the art of poetry. Poets aspire to the artistic immortality of the dead poets’ society; that is, they ‘attempt to join the undying by living in the dead poets who are already alive in them’ (Bloom 2003: 19). They do this through the critical and reconstructive misreading of their literary ancestry: ‘to live, the poet must misinterpret the father, by the crucial act of misprision, which is the re-writing of the father’ (Bloom 2003: 19).

There is, as Said (1975) observed, something particularly Oedipal in this. Each generation of writers, artists, critics and readers supplants the last: for Bloom, even students come to seem the ‘Oedipal sons and daughters’ of their lecturers (Bloom 2003: 29). Readers themselves usurp the authority of writers. As Barthes supposed, the birth of active (writerly) readership requires the ‘death of the author’ – the annihilation, at least, of authorial authority (Barthes 1977: 148).

When emergent literature wilfully misreads its own heritage, it generates, in its politely parricidal fashion, such expressions of Oedipal usurpation as parody, pastiche and palimpsest. James Joyce...

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