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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 4 (Beckett)


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absurd adj. irrational; risible, ridiculous; without structure or design; being in a state of godliness or godlessness; paradoxical; being reduced to fundamental meaninglessness, nullity or void.

The latter half of the nineteenth century was a time of great certainties – in western Europe, at least, and in particular in Britain.

It was the age of empire, of scientific, industrial, technological and economic dominance. The British, with all their inventiveness, military might, political guile and business acumen, had shown themselves to be heirs to the God-given right to rule the world. The English language had established its own global hegemony, both for itself and for its originating nation. Language itself had, as always, proven crucial to the strategies of imperial empowerment.

And yet it was language which was about to undo all that.

The word of the lord

In his influential late Victorian study of Imperialism, the liberal polemicist J. A. Hobson cited the case of one Major Thurston, a British army officer sent to Uganda on a treaty-signing mission in 1893 (Hobson 1987: 266). Thurston writes:

I had a bundle of printed treaties which I was to make as many people sign as possible. This signing is an amiable farce, which is supposed to impose on foreign governments and to be the equivalent of an occupation. ← 89 | 90 →

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