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Retrospective prospections (Archaeologies of the self)


Acabo de enterarme de que el reciente libro Introducing Cultural Studies de David Walton (Sage, 2007) es un best-seller académico. Enhorabuena a David, que es uno de los críticos más originales, extravagantes y divertidos desde que el mundo es mundo; creíamos que Barthes o Lyotard eran something wild hasta que llegó David a hacer piruetas en la cuerda floja del circo crítico, en monociclo hermenéutico y lycra multicolor, haciendo malabarismos conceptuales con analepsis y cronotopos, sin que se le caiga ni uno al suelo. Y si se le cae, ya rebotará, con trayectorias inesperadas.

A ver si con el éxito de este libro se anima a publicar su carnavalesca tesis doctoral sobre Oscar Wilde, "Mail Bondage. Sentencing Wilde between the Sheets..." y no revientan los sesos del comité editorial ni se les caen los ojos de las órbitas (—pop—) ni le suplican que cambie el título... A ver si se atreven con la crítica creativa, vamos, en alguna editorial que le dé a este libro el eco que merece, como lo merecía Umberto.

La tesis se defendió hace diez años, y aún sigue inédita (aunque en nuestra Miscelánea apareció en 2000 un artículo relacionado con estas cuestiones). Pongo aquí un excelente trocito que me interesa por la manera en que trata un tema caro a mis obsesiones, la retrospección y su relación dialéctica con el presente y con el futuro—o la narratividad del yo. Lo hace con el ejemplo de Wilde, que tanto se presta—una de las razones por las que es el tema de esta tesis, como también lo es del más reciente libro de Pierre Bayard que comentábamos hace poco, Demain est écrit. A quienes les parezca paradójica la crítica de Bayard, no les recomiendo que continúen (in retrospection) con la de Walton. Para paradójica, o paradeójica, no tiene par. Este fragmento (como la tesis en conjunto) me parece un análisis magistral de la dimensión narrativa del yo, y de los límites (flexibles, éstos) de la reinvención de uno mismo en circunstancias difíciles. O, quizá, de cómo ejercer la libertad creativa a la vez que se reconoce el peso del tiempo, del destino, del Sistema Penal y de los juicios y opiniones incontrolables de los demás.

Se centra W. en la obra conocida como De profundis, y más propiamente llamada Epistola: in carcere et vinculis, carta escrita por Wilde a su amado Lord Alfred Douglas, desde la prisión de Reading, ese sitio tan apto para la relectura de sí. Y analiza la sorprendente naturaleza profética o prospectiva de escritos como Dorian Gray o El crítico como artista, que contenían (o al menos contienen ahora, tras la self-deconstruction) la crónica de desastres anunciados. Retrospección o retroacción que también hemos tenido ocasión de observar aquí con cierta extrañeza.

(Aviso: la tesis o rapsodia postestructuralista de Walton es dialogada, polifónica y teatral. Este trocito del capítulo 3, sobre las autorreconstrucciones de Wilde en la cárcel de Reading, es bastante moderado en sus excesos formales, si vale la expresión, y vale).


The chronotope of (present) prison time: life as a symphony of sorrow within a hermeneutics of anachrony

And we are in hell, and a part of us is always in hell, walled-up, as we are, in the world of evil intentions.
(Bachelard, 1969: 217)

…where there is a wound there is a subject: die Wunde! die Wunde! says Parsifal, thereby becoming 'himself'; and the deeper the wound, at the body's centre (at the 'heart'), the more the subject becomes the subject.
(Barthes, A Lover's Discourse, 1982: 434)


AUTHORIAL JUDGMENT: Within the terms of the chronotope of (present) prison time it is possible to use Bachelard's notion that the "outside is inside" or "the prison is outside" (1967: 217 & 221) as a controlling metaphor for reading how Wilde founds a self on a perpetual sense of suffering. This is dependent on relating the three coordinates of place, time and feeling. In terms of time all events (which take place in prison) are focused through pain which is so omniscient that it becomes itself the definition of event:

But we who live in prison, and in whose lives there is no event but sorrow, have to measure time by throbs of pain, and the record of bitter moments. We have nothing else to think of. ([Epistola...] 884)


Suffering is so overwhelming that it becomes the guarantee of identity: the self is suffering. Events here become subsumed under an all enclosing event of Nietzschean-like eternal recurrence; dominated by "throbs of pain" the chronotope of (present) prison time is fundamentally iterative. Given this structuring of the self any admission of joy would, in effect, negate it, or interrupt its sense of coherence or continuity. In this way Wilde necessarily constructs a past characterized by painful tragic events locked within what I've called his construction of a "metaphysics of destiny and doom."[4]

Suffering—curious as it may sound to you—is the means by which we exist, because it is the only means by which we become conscious of existing; and the remembrance of suffering in the past is necessary to us as the warrant, the evidence, of our continued identity. Between myself and the memory of joy lies a gulf no less deep than that between myslf and joy in its actuality. Had our life together been as the world fancied it to be, one simply of pleasure, profligacy and laughter, I would not be able to recall a single passage in it. It is because it was full of moments and days tragic, bitter, sinister in their warnings, dull or dreadful in their monotonous scenes and unseemly violences, that I can see or hear each separate incident in its detail, can indeed see or hear little else. (884)


Wilde's construction of what might be called the hermeneutics of backward reading (which makes up the narrative of the chronotope of pre- and post-prison time) enables him (or obliges him, as he semes to be aware in the following passage) to read the incidents of his past life as proleptic signs of a teleological history which would lead to debacle, doom and the dungeon. This hermeneutic of backward reading aptly "aestheticizes" the past into the form of a "Symphony of Sorrow" which reinforces the unchangeable nature of a determinist history endowed with, in hindsight, a fixed and recoverable thematics:

So much in this place do men live by pain that my friendship with you, in the way through which I am forced to remember it, appears to me always as a prelude consonant with those varying modes of anguish which each day I have to realise; nay more, to necessitate them even; as though my life, whatever it had seemed to myself and others, had all the while been a real Symphony of Sorrow, passing through its rhythmically-linked movements to its certain resolution, with that inevitableness that in Art characterises the treatment of every great theme. (884).


In an analeptic move, current suffering provides what Lyotard has called a meta-narrative [5] to read the past; that past, through acts of prolepsis, then, provides the means for taking account of the future. This self-conscious hermeneutic anachrony (Genette's term for shifts in time, 1980: 35f.) results in an interpretative context where past, present and future seme to escape a determinist view of history because they are caught up in a strategy of reading based on an unstable interdependent circularity. This is where the outside becomes, through a metaphorical turn, the inside. Wilde's transformation of his pre-prison history into multiple signs of suffering which cohere in a teleological trajectory towards ruin and the prison door implicates him in a view of the "outside" (as the history of suffering) as the same as that of the "inside": for they are both predicated on his homogenizing vision of event as suffering – reversals which are, arguably, a piece of mere "common sense". [6]

ADVOCATE: Could I be allowed double spacing, your Honour?

AUTHORIAL JUDGMENT: Yes, as long as you are prepared to agree with, or at least back up, everything I have to say.

ADVOCATE: Indeed, that is what I am here for, my Lord. So, could we not say that Wilde's seming efforts to hold together a sense of identity through suffering involves him in a representation which effectively imprisions him in a self of existential suffering, itself immured within this hermeneutic of backward reading, resulting in an interpretive prison which is not confined to the inside? (This semed to be confirmed (letteraly) by a letter Wilde wrote to Ross asserting, "Of course from one point of view I know that on the day of my release I shall be merely passing from one prison into another, and there are times when the whole world seems to me no larger than my cell, and as full of terror for me" (Hart-Davis, 1979: 240-1).

AUTHORIAL JUDGMENT: I believe we could, yes. Yet Wilde's act of reconstructing the past at once semes like "an act of intervention in a changeable world" (Wilde feels "forced" to reconstruct the past in a certain way) and, paradoxically, "the documenting of an immutable one…" (his past life is determined by his tragic destiny caught within the structural metaphor of the symphony). [7] Furthermore, the "symphonic" view, if it semes to militate against the terms of the hermeneutic of backward reading or anachrony, also sits uneasily with passages which deal with Wilde's efforts to change how contemporaries read or understood how he had been represented in history (e.g. "I felt that for both our sakes it would be a good thing… not to accept the account your father had put forward through his Counsel for the edification of a Philistine world, and that is why I asked you to think out and write something that would be nearer the truth" (903). [8]. From this perspective the self is caught or divided within two contradictory views of history: history semes predetermined and yet is subject to intervention, re-reading and change.

In addition to this split history, the metanarrative of backward reading that Wilde uses to ensure continuity of identity comes into conflict with an earlier passage where Wilde confesses "I don't regret for a single moment having lived for pleasure. I did it to the full… There was no pleasure I did not experience… I lived in a honeycomb… The other half of the garden had its secrets for me also" (922). This is linked to my earlier interpretation of the hedonistic daily rituals where I suggest that Wilde's sense of an earlier more authentic "self," which sees itself as tragic victim, is in conflict with a self coerced into a degenerate state, or is transmuted into a willing, or even wilful, hedonist. [9]. If this undermines a coherent identity, then it is further complicated by a self underpinned by pain. Wilde's admission of enjoying hedonistic pleasure to the full, according to the logic of fashioning a self based on suffering as an all encompassing event which only promises continuity by analeptically sending back tendrils of pain, results in a downward spiral into a negation of identity, or non being. Once Wilde claims joy as his own he semes to be caught out by Pierre-Jean Jouve's "we are where we are not" (Bachelard, 1969: 211); and could claim, like Iago, "I am not what I am". [10] For, to catch Wilde in an antimetabole, where there is joy there is no Wilde, and where there is Wilde there is no joy. [11]

Wilde's earlier hedonist self versus his prison self as sufferer, is mediated through another force which can be said to problematize a determinist view of history: art. At the point where Wilde affirms that "The other half of the garden had its secrets for me also", assuring Douglas of his acceptance of suffering and pain, he asserts:

Of course all this is foreshadowed and prefigured in my art. Some of it is in "The Happy Prince": some of it in "The Young King,"… a great deal of it is hidden away in the note of Doom that like a purple thread runs through the gold cloth of Dorian Gray. In "The Critic as Artist" it is set forth in many colours: in The Soul of Man it is written down simply and in letters too easy to read: it is one of the refrains whose recurring motifs make Salome so like a piece of music and bind it together as a ballad: in the prose-poem of the man who from the bronze of the image of the "Pleasure that liveth for a Moment" has to make the image of the "Sorrow that abideth for Ever" it is incarnate. It could not have been otherwise. (922)


Here Wilde's own works serve as intertexts which seme to function within this strategy of backward reading. Yet the relation can be seen as a more dialectical one because this intertextual manoeuvre rehearses one of favourite aesthetic theories (to add my own intertext to this already considerable intertextual ballast): "Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life". [12]. Wilde's inversion of a common realist assumption enables him to read present suffering back into the past, while suggesting that works of art themselves play a determining role in the development of history. This admission introduces yet another possibility to add to the forces which have gone on to fashion Wilde. Wilde, from this perspective (to add to the multi-layered possibilities of authoring suggested earlier [13]) , not only semes to fashion himself within the letter as author of his own works, but, paradoxically, is authored by his own works. In a structural relation which would bear out Wordsworth's epigraph to his Intimations of Immortality, "The Child is father of the Man," Wilde fathers his works, which, in turn, father him. [14].

Critics, at this point, may throw up their hands in despair and exclaim with Bachelard: "What a spiral man's being represents! And what a number of invertible dynamisms there are in this spiral! One no longer knows right away whether one is running toward the centre or escaping" (1969): 214). However, to the very end of the letter Wilde suggests that there is one mental faculty that could transcend these multiple engendering forces, which seme to lead the fashioned self into a kind of anarchy of historical contradiction:

Do not be afraid of the past. If people tell you that it is irrevocable, do not believe them.The past, the present and the future are but one moment in the sight of God, in whose sight we should try to live. Time and space, succession and extension, are merely accidental conditions of Thought. The imagination can transcend them, and move in a free sphere of ideal existences. (956)


Yet the imagination only throws Wilde back into the contradictions of the past as fixed, immutable or determined and a sense of history which is fluid, negotiable and subject to change. Firstly the past is alterable—albeit divested of any extension in time—being condensed into one moment or event in the eyes of God. The coordinates of time, space, succession and extension are merely accidental and Wilde goes on to repeat another idea found in his essays on art: "Things, also, are in their essence what we choose to make them. A thing is, according to the mode in which one looks at it" (957). [15] So, one version of history within this chonotope is like Stanley Fish's literary text, it is negotiable, subject to the hermeneutical acts [16]; an interpretive position which semes to be supported by the observations Wilde makes following his comments on Blake (who fiunctions as a kind of Ur-reception theorist):

"Where others," says Blake, "See but the Dawn coming over the hill, I see the sons of God shouting for joy." What seemed to the world and to myself my future I lost irretrievably when I let myself be taunted into taking the action against your father… What lies before me is my past. I have got to make myself look on that with different eyes, to make the world look on it with different eyes… This I cannot do by ignoring it, or slighting it, or praising it, or denying it. It is only to be done fully by accepting it as an inevitable part of the evolution of my life and character… (957)


This phenomenological view of the past as flexible history amenable to change through reinterpretation is threatened by two factors: the past as the future, and a concomitant sense of its inevitability.

When Wilde expresses the future in a play on one of his familiar paradoxes, "What lies before me is my past," this semes to contradict a view of the past as open to interpretive bargaining. Now the past semes to be someting settled, known—capable of future projection—because it has to be accepted "as an inevitable part of the evolution" of his "life and character". The hermeneutics of anachrony or backward reading, which constructs the self in coherent narratives based on secondary proleptic projections into present time, constantly pushes up against a self which may be dissolved in the radical ontological uncertainty of those past events, which, in turn, affect the "nature" of the self responsible for constructing those narratives. Wilde, as historical subject, is at once subject and object of the hermeneutical act; a self lost in an infinite regress, potentially rehearsing a kind of unstoppable Iserian kaliedoscope of gestalts and ever-changing horizons; an identity whose being is constantly jeopardized by the shuttlings of temporal perspectives and a compulsive Iserian hermeneutic of anticipation, frustration, retrospection and reconstruction. [17].

It is not a question of ridiculing Wilde for falling into contradiction, but tracing the spatio-temporal paths, the proairetic possibilities of the letter. After all, Wilde in his conclusion recognizes failure and reminds Douglas of the material context in which the letter was written:

How far I am away from the true temper of soul, this letter in its changing, uncertain moods, its scorn and bitterness, its aspirations and its failure to realise those aspirations, shows you quite clearly. But do not forget in what a terrible school I am sitting at my task. And incomplete, imperfect, as I am, yet from me you may have still much to gain. (957)

 


[...]





Notes

[4] See the section in the last chapter entitled "Paternal authors continued: of maternal authors and the de-storying and re-storying of Wilde…"

[5] See Lyotard (1984: 34f.).

[6] Now, if all this reversal of outside and inside semes like a piece of radical deconstruction, it may be worth recalling Zizek's comment in Enjoy your Symptom! that: "There is namely an unmistakable ring of common sense in the 'deconstructionist' insistence upon the impossibility of establishing a clear cut difference between empirical and transcendental, outside and inside, representation and presence, writing and voice; in its compulsive demonstration of how the outside always already smears over the inside, of how writing is constitutive of choice, etc. etc.—as if 'deconstructionism' is ultimately wrapping up commonsensical insights into an intricate jargon. Therein consists perhaps one of the hitherto overlooked reasons for its unforeseen success in the USA, the land of common sense par excellence" (Zizek, 1992: 25). This opens up the possibility that all the reversals I am bringing about here may be seen from the perspective of the good old Anglo-Saxon tradition of common sense. However, since Zizek made these suggestions there does not seme to have been a great rush by the proponents of "common sense" (whoever they may be) to embrace forms of deconstruction.

[7] These phrases have been lifted from Eagleton's discussion of George Moore, which has little to do with the ideas I develop here. However, they struck me as rather felicitous (Eagleton 1995: 217).

[8] I deal with this more fully in a later section. See "Oscar de Sade: Wilde on the pedestal and the case of the French letters".

[9] See "Doing things to the 'fall': on the ontological uncertainty of going down primrose paths to the sound of flutes".

[10] See Othello, act i, scene i (Shakespeare, [c. 1604] 1968: 53).

[11] Incidents such as the one where Wilde's favoured warder, Warder Martin, who made Wilde laugh by scolding his stomach in his efforts to hide some beef tea he was surreptitiously delivering to Wilde's cell, would presumably have rendered Wilde non-existent. The incident is recounted by Montgomery Hyde (1976: 400f.).

[12] "The Decay of Lying" (982). I have explored how this idea, and other ideas outlined in the essays on art, is played out repeatedly in Wilde's own writings; see "Artful Lying and Lifting the Painted Veil: Schopenhauer and the Psychological Role of Aesthetics in the Works of Oscar Wilde" (Walton, 1991).

[13] See "Of paternal authors. An author authored; or, on not being yourself, including some discussion of the 'Other' as a scandal which threatens Oscar's essence".

[14] Wilde is fathered in a double sense here: fathered in the sense that earlier works predetermine Wilde's future, and in so far that my fashioning of Wilde is the product of multiple semes—his works providing one means of constructing an identity for him. I am quoting Wordsworth from The Oxford Anthology of English Literature (Kermode et al., 1973: 176 [vol. 2]). Wordsworth takes the epigraph, of course, from one of his own poems, My Heart Leaps Up.

[15] This can be compared to "The Decay of Lying" where Wilde has one of his characters say, "If, on the other hand, we regard Nature as the collection of phenomena external to man, people only discover in her what they bring to her" (977). The lines quoted from the letter tend to complicate Dollimore's assertion that "Oscar Wilde's De Profundis -… involves a conscious renunciation of his transgressive aesthetic and a reaffirmation of tradition as focused in the depth model of identity" (Dollimore, 1991: 95). I shall take up these ideas in Chapter Five.

[16] See, for example, Fish's Is There a Text in This Class? (Fish, 1980). This claim on Wilde's part tends to complicate the claim made by Rodney Shewan that "… De Profundis is a critical work in both senses of that word. It takes pleasure in finding fault. But it also tries to perceive things in their true relations, to be 'a disinterested endeavour' to see 'the objet as in itself it really is'…" (Shewan, 1977: 194).

[17] For these concepts see Iser's The Implied Reader (1974).

(Texto extraído de la tesis doctoral de David Walton "Mail Bondage. Sentencing Wilde between the Sheets: An Epestemology of the Epistolary [An Architectonic Rhapsody]." Universidad de Murcia, 1997; defendida en 1998. Del capítulo 3, "Doing Time; a Poetics of Space. Sen-TENSE-ing Wilde"; pp. 122-29).



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