Monday, February 13, 2006

What is the relationship between a person within a literary text and a person outside of it?

Interpolated Answer (i)

Initially, it is necessary to establish the meaning of the term “person”, and traditional to do so by citing and elaborating a canonical definition. Therefore, according to Locke, “a person” is different from “a human being”. To callously truncate a well-developed philosophical debate (quite possibly with the figurative Vulgar Freudian Vorpal Sword of Brevity), identity in general is predicated on continuity of some sort, and personal identity is established by means of the continuity of memory. It is entirely possible, then, that Locke’s definition of a person as a thinking being with a continuous set of memories can be adapted to apply to fictional characters to a greater or lesser extent. In that although the majority of human beings (the notable exceptions, it seems, being most State administrators) treat others as if they were thinking beings with memories &c, we have no means of objectively proving this. However, we have evidence of the thinking of entities within texts that is greater than that we possess of other minds: one can literally “read the mind” of Titus Groan, but be unable to enter the mental world of one’s coincidentally violet-eyed teenage son. At this point, the Free Will Debate rears its scabby head, and somewhere in a completely metaphorical afterwor(l)d(?), A.J.Ayer sharpens Occam’s Razor with a horrible grin. This may need some explanation.

Clarification on (i) ((ii))

To clarify, it is unclear whether or not human beings possess free will. Although I know that at least one human being (Your Humble Narrator) is capable of thought and an approximation of coherent memory, I am unaware whether or not my life is in fact that of a puppeteered envatted brain, and that I have in fact no choice but to lack a range of facial expression and say “Whoa” a lot.

Quaalude (iib)*

At this point, it strikes me that getting to the point is a little like Hunting the Snark; it requires an awful lot of nonsensical preamble, and ends with the thing turning out to be unexpectedly predatory. In this case its principle prey appear to be the endangered Brevity Antelope and the cripplingly shy Coherence Hedgehog. More on this later, I fear.

* A Quaalude is a neologism implying a gently soothing interlude, possibly with mildly narcotic effects.

Interpolated Answer (iii)

Logically, therefore, it would seem that it is certain that if our free will is dubious, that of entexted characters (those in the state of being present in a text, regardless of fictionality) is impossible. However, this is not always the case. Although some characters are devoid of opportunity to act with some freedom, due to the specificity of their description, those that are better written, and in the Deconstructionist sense, more fertile, may be demonstrated to have shifting motivations within the text. That is to say, although conventional figurations would have their attributes and reasons for behaving established by the readers’ interpretation, this seems unnecessarily egotistical on the part of the reader: this fluidity of character content in open texts could instead be constructed as a product of the interface between the current condition of the outside world and the text itself, with the human being performing the act of reading behaving as a mere catalyst. It cannot be denied, for example, that greater knowledge of homosexuality renders “fertile” characters in Victorian sentimental friendships quite differently than might have originally been intended. I, for one, find it a great effort of mind to consider the relationship of P.G.Wodehouses’ Jeeves and Wooster in an “innocent” manner. These characters develop velocity and intentionality, and often cannot be contained by their respective texts or indeed original authors. Therefore, the more an entexted character’s motivation or nature can be considered ambiguous or open for interpretation, the greater portion of free will ze can be allotted, in light of the reasoning that our own freedom of action is equally, if not more dubious.

Preliminary Summary (iv)

A summary! It has been established that characters within a text can be considered “persons” to the same extent as those ostensibly outside such a construction, which validates the first part of the question, and completes (according to ancient tradition) the first phase of the answer. (The second part of the question finishes with a preposition, and as such is entirely irredeemable).

Dialogue (v)

Question: How is the above discourse relevant to Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market?

Puck (in an Expository Voice): I’m glad you asked that, Question. Not only is all that has preceded necessary to establish the philosophical and tonal grounds on which the discussion of the poem takes place, but it has also permeated the text with an air of gentle whimsy.

Question: That’s not really an answer, you know.

Puck: Certainly not. I will expand upon this. Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market is fascinating in this context because it contains convoluted and partially-hidden chains of command and association between entexted characters, the poet, the author-function and the text itself. Firstly, the establishment of persons is a little awry; not only are the “Maids” of the second line not named until the second stanza, suggesting that the characters of “Lizzie” and “Laura” may in fact be representative types, the narrative voice adopts the focalisation of the goblins themselves in order to express the first iteration of the erotic, fast-rhythmed fruit chant that appears periodically throughout the poem. To a critical mind such as mine, dear Question, this immediately casts doubt upon the poets’ intentions, in that the division between speaker and writer is highlighted by the inconsistency of voice and character naming: the use of specifically textual toyings with identity draw attention to the flesh-and-blood poet’s existence by flaunting their unreality. Or at least existence on another, written plane of existence. Moreover, the alliteration of the only human characters’ names implies a basic typical similarity, and this appears to be borne out by the fact that the only difference between them is in their behaviour towards the “goblin men”. This would imply that they are perhaps allegorical constructions intended to demonstrate a conflict in dichotomous, possibly didactic form. Furthermore, if one considers the figuration of the psychomachia – are you following me?

Question (Brechtianly): Yes, yes, do go on.

Puck: Good. If one considers the popular construction of the psychomachia, then one could figure Lizzie and Laura as “Lizzie” and “Laura” – figures for two conflicting elements of the poet’s personality. Furthermore, their descriptions throughout as two parts of one whole – when embracing, their body parts are not distinguished from each other, nor are they ascribed individual physical characteristics at any time – would appear to provide a nice (in the archaic sense, of course) illustration of the way in which conflict destroys the harmony of the mind. Therefore, one could, in fact figure the entire narrative as a reintegration narrative using the “goblin men” as any tempting force one cares to name, and “Lizzie” and “Laura” as conflicting sub-personalities within the mind of the writer. Shall we do that, Question?

Question: Yes, that would be a lark!

Puck: I’ll start. Once it has been established that the formerly inextricably intertwined protagonists are split only over their attitude to the special fruit of the goblin men, Rossetti’s puzzling use of homoerotic imagery begins to make sense within the societal and religious context of the poem. In the same vein as the Song of Solomon, the sexual imagery is used as a metaphor for perfect unity and interpolation, or interpenetration if you prefer.

Question (with rising excitement): And I do. (he takes a breath) Therefore, it is all the more significant that the enactment of the desire of one element of the difecta results in their physical differentiation: Laura becomes grey and wizened after her traumatic goblin-fruit encounter, whereas the more restrained Lizzie remains plump and golden. Although textually they are reunited only by a Christian act of simultaneous altruistic submission and self-abnegation (combined with the much older Tricking-the-Trickster-Figure motif), on the more symbolic level the twain only do meet, so to speak, when they come to the mutual realisation that they are in fact elements of an integrated whole.

Puck: Of course! And this is enacted in the text by the repetition of lines from the initial goblin-encounter such as “knew not was it night or day”, and the return of the aforesaid sexual imagery, here made even more explicitly oral than the goblin men’s parade of suggestive and magical fruit, with their juices that lead to terrible consequences for a young girl. So we’ve worked it all out! Well done us!

Question: Hold on there…that might be the author’s interpretation of the relationship between her and the characters , but this is impossible for us to know, because she’s dead, and necromancers are too expensive for literary critics, especially imaginary ones. Surely it’s impossible for us to know whether or not we’ve established the relationship and the nature of the characters for certain? In fact, isn’t this whole argument

Puck: Just a straw man enacting the writer’s false-dichotomous use of characters to sort out a problem?

Both: Ah. (Exeunt within the page with great rapidity.)

A Conclusion, in One Part, or, Glossoembolaliectomy*. (vi)

It has been established that the relationship between characters within a text and writers is far more fertile and obscured than a crude discourse on the matter would claim. Furthermore, this is complicated by the propensity of human beings to adopt personae for varying reasons, especially if this is consciously performed: it is possible for a writer to adopt two personae simultaneously in order to solve a problem, which are then extant in the text being written and in the real world in the mind of the writer (QED, see (v)). Moreover, given the philosophical debate and uncertainty over the nature of a “person” and the existence of free will, the extent to which a writer and an entexted character differ seems to be either vanishingly small or impossible to ascertain. Indeed, if a writer constructs certain passages in order to elicit a response from the reader, and in doing so manipulates, forwards in time, a “real” person’s response, is the latter entity not to some degree a character being “written” by another character on the same (presumably) non-fictional plane of being? This would be borne up by the Structuralist assertion that everything, including real behaviour and character, can be considered “text”. To summarise the relationship between a person within a literary text and a person outside of it is impossible, due to the mutability (implicit in personhood) of both parties, even disregarding the problems inherent in the interpenetration of different levels of textual reality. These relationships are incestuous at their simplest, and at their most complex, fractal. The primary use of fractals at our current technological level being to make pretty pictures, the projected use being to build computers capable of generating coherent alternate worlds. In short, the best a critic can do until philosophy catches up with hir is to configure intra- and extra-textual relationships into as appealing a pattern as ze can: The best stories, then, are those that beget stories about them.

*The removal of unnecessary and random babble from a discourse with surgical precision.


At 8:00 pm, Blogger Sable X. Veins said...

Tight, entertaining, demosntrative, and incisisve.

What on Earth did you employ as a root-prefix to arrive at "quaalude"?

At 1:22 am, Blogger Withiel said...

"qualuude" is a brand-name for a gentle anaesthetic pharmaceutical in the States.

At 2:25 pm, Blogger Sable X. Veins said...

I don't appreciate being anaesthetised when I'm trying to metaread, Withiel.

At 4:19 pm, Blogger Thaddeus "B." Glands said...

Did she punch you?

At 2:04 am, Blogger Sable X. Veins said...

Yes, was it down in three rounds?

Did you take a dive?


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