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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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ellipsis n. omission; interruption; deferral; orbit; eclipse; obscurity; opacity; obfuscation; circumlocution; concealment; aposiopesis; lacuna; aporia; absence; void … (a thing unspoken or unspeakable).

The definitions which have served as epigraphs to each chapter of this text are, it must be admitted, inventions. They might otherwise be described as fictions or lies.

They are misappropriated from, as it were, an imagined dictionary not of recorded denotations but of unforgotten connotations, of, one might say, ideas received rather than fixed: a lexicon, then, of aletheia (of open truths and polysemic disclosures), a dictionary of cultural memory, the meta-utopian vision of an imaginary alethesaurus. As such, they are not in any manner to be trusted as accurate. They are intended instead to be indicative of a suggested direction (or, rather, of a suggested plurality of directions) of travel. They are not meant to set limits upon interpretation. They are, in truth, in no way definitive.

Jacques Derrida reminds us that ‘those consulting the oracle of Trophonios in Boetia, found there two springs […] the spring of memory and […] of forgetting’ (Derrida 1989: 51). Derrida adds that ‘if Lethe also names the allegory of oblivion […] you will easily recognize in Mnemosyne, its other, a figure of truth, otherwise called aletheia.’ Aletheia or truth represents, in other words, the diametrical opposite of Lethe, the source and emblem of forgetfulness (it is a-lethetic). Truth, in short, is memory.

The quest for...

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