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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 6 (Hitchcock)


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suspense n. a condition of indecision, uncertainty or anxiety; a state of waiting or expectation; a suspension or deferral of action, communication, meaning or judgement; the act of holding back or of killing by hanging; an underhang.

Meaning is enfolded and unfolded in oral language and alphabetic writing diachronically: through the actions of time. It is, by contrast, crystallized in the spaces of painting and photography as a synchronic suspension: a captured moment in time. Cinema affords the deployment of significance in both dimensions. Ironies and subtexts may emerge through diachronic processes of interpretation, but their textual foundations occur as single moments, as synchronous, simultaneous, visual reservoirs of meaning. Or, as we might call them, moving pictures.

The meanings of Las Meninas

There are striking ironies which underlie images (or underpin modern readings thereof), even some of those most fixed in the canon of western visual culture.

Even something as immediately recognizable as Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, frozen for five centuries on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, may unfold, under interrogation, meanings withheld at first glance from the casual yet familiar (the casual because familiar) eye. Are we not struck afresh, each time we regard this image, by its imbalance and its incongruity? The thrusting purpose of that bearded patriarch of a God is met by the studied insouciance of Adam’s demeanour, Adam who, even in the ← 147 | 148 → act of...

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