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Recherche littéraire / Literary Research

Automne / Fall 2020


Edited By Marc Maufort

Julie K. Allen, Eugene L. Arva, Jean Bessière, Helena Carválho Buescu, Vanessa Byrnes, Chloé Chaudet, Yves Clavaron, Christophe Den Tandt, Catherine Depretto., Theo D’haen, Caius Dobrescu, Dong Yang, Brahim El Guabli, Nikki Fogle, Gerald Gillespie, Kathleen Gyssels, Oliver Harris, Sándor Hites, Michelle Keown, S Satish Kumar, Jacques Marx, Jessica Maufort, Marc Maufort, Jopi Nyman, David O'Donnell, Liedeke Plate, Judith Rauscher, Haun Saussy, Karen-Margrethe Simonsen, Chris Thurman, Anne Williams, Janet M. Wilson, Chantal Zabus, Gang Zhou

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Gerald Gillespie. Living Streams: Continuity and Change from Rabelais to Joyce. Bruxelles: Peter Lang, 2018. Pp. 207. ISBN: 9782807610217. (Lucia Boldrini)

Gerald Gillespie. Living Streams: Continuity and Change from Rabelais to Joyce. Bruxelles: Peter Lang, 2018. Pp. 207. ISBN: 9782807610217.

Lucia Boldrini

Goldsmiths, University of London

Anyone familiar with Gerald Gillespie’s work will be aware of his immense erudition, his ability to identify threads that connect different literatures and ages, his gift for weaving them into canvases that reveal larger, overarching patterns of recurrence and transformation. This latest book, collecting twelve essays written in the last two decades, tracks major themes that form a “durable consciousness” (11) of western culture: hence the “living streams” of the title.

The themes explored traverse different chapters, as do key authors and texts. Among the main ones are Rabelais, Goethe (especially Faust), Mann (especially Der Tod in Venedig and Der Zauberberg), Proust, Joyce (particularly Finnegans Wake). These suggest a predilection for the western canon, but Gillespie prefers the term “repertory.” The word is apt, invoking as it does a collection from which the writer who elaborates the themes and the critic who interprets them can draw in their creative-critical performances. Alongside the major figures, less mainstream ones thus also recur: some can be expected, like Grimmelshausen or Lohenstein (the latter was the subject of Gillespie’s doctorate, 1961); others are more surprising, such as Kepler, the great astronomer whose Somnium is surely not a staple of literary criticism; films like Griffith’s Intolerance or Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari enrich the analyses. European and North American post-medieval literatures are where Gillespie’s expertise lies, and where his readings accordingly focus. The reader is invited to be as creative with the book as the book is with the literary and cultural repertory through which it wanders: we can follow alternative strands ←211 | 212→according to our inclinations, read the chapters in different order, even skip some. Whichever way we choose to regroup the chapters, they have been organized for us in two parts. The first, “The Joys of Vision and Rewards of Retrospection,” has a broadly literary-historical focus and combines the movements of forward and backward glance to examine literature’s power to envision futures and make them possible by revisiting and transforming traditions. Part 2, “Hindsighted (Post)Modernism and Polysemous Multiplexity” concentrates more particularly on modernist and postmodernist texts and how they recover, revise and reactivate themes inherited from the wider repertory.

Rabelais is the starting point of many of the book’s “streams.” A “pioneering humanist,” he actively built into the repertory of the European cultural system “the thrill of boundary-crossing and of discovery” (21) as Europe began its massive expansion, geographically through travel and of knowledge through scientific discoveries and the printing press. In chapter 1, “The Dangerous but Joyful Venture of Cultural Rebirth from Rabelais to Joyce,” the combination of the desire for touring the world with desire for universal history is found in the compendiums of myths by Italian humanists such as Petrarch and Boccaccio, and in Ariosto’s narrative retrospection about the middle ages; while Kepler imagines journeying to the moon (Ariosto did too). But it is Rabelais that contributed to shaping the modern western repertory by internalizing in the comic epic form the principle of self-criticism, the habit of contestation and questioning, of risk-taking and creative innovation, ensuring it would become constitutive of “high culture.” This major “stream” will flow, in different but related ways, through Cervantes, Sterne, and Joyce – “the ultimate apostate” who in Finnegans Wake abolished the recognizable structures of epic narration and radically challenged the values of his time, not just to critique past (and present) institutions, but to “encourage us in a liberating attitude” (33–34). In the later chapter “ ‘Paradox Lust’: The Fortunate Fall According to Joyce,” Gillespie pursues other ways in which Finnegans Wake extends and transforms the course of the encyclopaedic-humoristic tradition initiated by Rabelais by constantly merging opposites, whether eastern and western strains of culture, dying and being reborn, the masculine and the feminine, and of course fall and salvation.

Overarching fictions that recapitulate human history attract special attention. Gillespie turns more than once, for example, to D. W. Griffith’s film Intolerance (1913), with its epic historical sweep from the ←212 | 213→fall of Babylon, through the passion of Christ, the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre, to the plight of poor immigrants to America: the filmic equivalent of a Baroque panoramic canvas, its ending reproduces the spirit of the conclusion of Wagner’s Ring cycle. Like Mann’s contemporaneous Der Tod in Venedig or the longer Der Zauberberg, and Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, these works draw upon the rich heritage of myth, anthropological habits and psychological analysis to seek an understanding of contemporaneity.

If the first chapter considers cultural rebirth and figurations of larger worlds that provide alternatives to ours, but seen from perspectives firmly placed within our world, the second, entitled “Looking Through Windows of Time: Illustrative Moments of Vision in Literature since the Renaissance,” examines “apertures in time” through which the divine intervenes into our world to guide us and impart information on what is yet to come; but the chapter also pursues a complex of pessimistic themes which infiltrate European discourse and grow in prominence, especially after the French revolution, figuring hellish labyrinthine worlds, as in Byron’s Cain. This darker outlook is taken up again in chapter 4, “Traveling into the Abyss.” The abyss here is seen in its secular dimension, experienced partly in the real world, partly in the self, and linked (in an alternative to the “joyful ventures” of chapter 1) to the expansion of travel and the encounter with new and strange worlds and people. In Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe the encounter with the other, the cannibal, and with other forms of religiosity leads to defamiliarization and to a “necessary self-alienation from an original homeland in the course of an expansion of moral consciousness” (64). The transformation of the world by capitalism, industrialization and urbanization provides writers with new sources of creative power, as in the thread that runs from Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal (1857), through Thompson’s The City of Dreadful Night (1874), all the way to Donoso’s El Obseno pájaro de la noche (1970). The journey through hell, or the related harrowing of hell, can become anthropological and / or psychological journeys, as in Heart of Darkness or Der Tod in Venedig, and rejoin the quest for religious or transcendent understanding, as in the conclusion of Poe’s Narrative of A. Gordon Pym of Nantucket with its final vision of perfect whiteness, where the abyss can no longer be grasped in the historical terms that Defoe had helped establish.

Chapter 3, “The World as Music: Variation on a Cosmological Theme,” outlines literature’s aspiration to transcendence by linking the desire to recover the authenticity of Edenic language with the desire to chart the ←213 | 214→perfect mathematical-musical proportions of the cosmos. This aspiration to endow language with an imperishable quality like that of maths and to find deeper, stable correspondence between sound and meaning is traced through writers as diverse as (the list, here as elsewhere, is very partial) Kepler, Rabelais, Fray de Leon, Donne, Hölderlin, and especially Schopenhauer, who organizes the arts in gradations of perfection, from the lowest, architecture, via the visual arts and literature (also ordered through degrees of increasing objectivity) to the highest, music.

Several chapters are dedicated, in different ways, to the feminine. In Chapter 5, “Some Shape Shifting of the Divine Feminine in Nineteenth Century Literature,” a third polarity is added to the Venus and Virgin sides of the “eternal feminine”: the ominous, haunting, oppressive yet life-endowing “all-mother.” Often associated with statues, it can be petrifying or seductive; or it can be a dominatrix figure as in Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs; before her, men regress to a condition of infantile obedience. In Chapter 8, “Swallowing the Androgyne and Baptizing Mother,” the motherhood of God and the androgynous nature of the flesh of the Incarnation is detected in such disparate representation as Van Eyck’s The Lamb of God, Caravaggio’s The Doubt of Thomas, in Novalis, Proust, Joyce, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, and Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. The sacramental value of imagery is thrown into relief: while the performance of baptism is generally associated with masculine authority, in Joyce it is just as often feminine and brings together in union male and female, in a confluence of baptism and marriage. In the “Paradox Lust” chapter, the androgyny of the godhead and its relation to rebirth and return is correlated to the way the consubstantiality of father and son in Finnegans Wake juxtaposes with that of father and mother, and thereby of parents and children, to include all of humankind in profound continuum.

There are more streams than I can describe here. Chapters can feel at times like cumulative lists of brief references, but the aim is to demonstrate how comparative literary studies, even in survey form, can enhance our perception of the multifarious complexity of living cultural interactions. There are moments that cause discomfort, however. These are especially concentrated in “North / South, East / West, and Other Intersections,” a chapter driven by a polemical vein. Observing that each culture will have its specificities, and each of us our own mentality that will color our perception, Gillespie finds in “honesty and not ideology” (102) the best policy to address these differences; he sees comparative literature as crucial because it is “in the business of framing an elitist ←214 | 215→transterritorial metanarrative which describes a rich variety of lower-order theories and processes in particular repertories or intraterritorial metanarratives” (102, my emphasis). I fully appreciate Gillespie’s honest recognition of the elitism inherent in comparative practices that require a high level of education and specialization, not available to everyone. But why should approaches that openly recognize the ideology that underpins them therefore be dishonest? In a no-punches-pulled diatribe, “ideologically ‘committed’ or obsessed scholars” are said to “falsify or distort” information “to promote an ideological agenda”; they confuse students; they waste the time of more adequate comparatists; the “more egregious falsifiers” among them are a “species of ‘sociopaths’ ” (102). Particular excoriation is reserved for postcolonial studies that discuss imperialism without due consideration of, for example, ancient empires, or that study slavery without due recognition of its much longer history than just in the last centuries, or that slavery was practiced not just by Europeans but by many other peoples. No-one will disagree with the importance of informed historical perspectives, but why should this lead to the dismissal of critical models that expose how injustices whose effects still structure societies today and affect real lives now, have been ingrained and normalized also through the great literature of the western canon – that is, through the works that shape our culture?

This is not to deny, of course, that the greater the linguistic, historical, textual expertise the reader brings to the text, the more informed and capable of informing the reading; but the implication that comparative literature training can demonstrate the superiority of some cultures over others is troubling. Gillespie states that the “variety of cultural norms” should not lead to infer that “no constellation of standards could have or lay claim to a superior moral validity,” and “analyses promoted by comparative literature can feed back positively into the formation of improved ‘final’ or evaluative judgments which may strengthen particular cultures or individuals who are receptive to such insights as comparative literature practitioners generate.” Comparative literature can empower to “formulate sounder judgments, rather than let us be petrified into quietism by fear of the demon of relativity” (107–108). The elite of comparatists seems to be given a role of moral guidance – Shelleyan moral legislators of the world, perhaps. It would be problematic if the recognition of the elitism conferred by the privilege of an advanced, specialized higher education segued into an assertion therefore of the moral superiority of those that have had the privilege of such education, ←215 | 216→as the words above appear to imply. Surely no comparatist, however well-read, can claim immunity from prejudice (after all, as Lubrich has shown, there was a National Socialist variant of comparative literature [Lubrich]). The hostility against “ideological” approaches may seem surprising when authors that Gillespie celebrates, like Joyce or Rabelais, offer trenchant ideological critiques of phenomena that affect societies, individuals and cultures. But this is precisely the point: a scholar of the old school – he will forgive me for saying this – trained and formed at the time when comparative literature was re-emerging out of the rubble left by nationalist, imperial wars and was seeking to move beyond approaches determined by (national or other) identities, will see comparative literary analysis as necessarily self-sufficient in its textual focus, and will wish to shield it from the taint of ideological structures that must appear, even more than a distraction, a return to divisive and ultimately anti-humanistic practices. Belonging to a generation who grew up intellectually in the heyday of structuralism, post-structuralism, post-colonialism, gender studies, it is normal for me to see these approaches not as “rubble heaps” (103) but as part of the complexity of the cultural field, and a necessary constant challenge to the facility with which we let our biases morph into norms assumed to be neutral. Inevitably, I will have my own blind spots.

Despite my disagreement, therefore, I can continue to enjoy Gillespie’s detailed knowledge of texts and contexts, his ability to perceive streams that, in the karstic terrain of culture, can disappear underground to reappear elsewhere; the ability to pick an apparently minor detail and tease so much out of it. Chapter 10, “Ondts, Gracehopers, and Quarks; Joyce Never Gets Quit of Faust” offers a gratifying example of this gift by focusing on the journey of the word “quark.” As is known, the Nobel laureate physicist Murray Gell-Mann adopted this word from Joyce’s Wake to designate a new particle he had hypothesized. As I learned from this chapter, however, Joyce had in turn borrowed it from Goethe’s Faust, where Mephisto describes humanity as a presumptuous grasshopper that wants to jump heavenwards but falls, Icarus-like, into the trivial earth: “quark” in the original German. Joyce, who is re-elaborating the medieval romance of Tristan and Isolde, inserts in his account a reference to Goethe and to the paradox of opposites coming together, of flight and fall, of hope and damnation, through a word that will then be picked up to describe a sub-atomic constituent of matter. How Rabelaisian.

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Work Cited

Lubrich, Oliver. “Comparative Literature – in, from and beyond Germany.” Comparative Critical Studies 3.1–2 (2006): 47–67.

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