Authorship and Channeling in the fiction of Selah Saterstrom and Marie Redonnet
June 12, 2010 § Leave a comment
>Psychology is impatience.
All human errors are impatience, the premature breaking off of what is methodical, an
apparent fencing in of the apparent thing.
Don Quixote’s misfortune is not his imagination, but Sancho Panza. Evil is the starry sky of the Good.
–Kafka, The Blue Octavo Notebooks
Channeling, a kind of authoring that is consciously hermeneutic, takes place in the work of Marie Redonnet and Selah Saterstrom through a particular articulation of poetic voice in female protagonists. In order to discuss channeling, I must speak of something taboo in present criticism: the intentions of the author and the process of invention. This means that I will consider what these writers have said concerning the intentions of their work in criticism and interviews seriously. For example, both Saterstrom and Redonnet situate themselves as historical subjects. Redonnet in particular constructs, upon critical reflection, an emerging intention in her the narrative voices of her triptych:
Each of these three narrators is in a way a metaphor for the writer that I am: a writer trying to build a body of work upon the end of a literature, upon the lost utopia of a generation, upon a society in crisis, and at the same time a History that must be reinvented. (113)
It is with Redonnet’s sense of a project and its rhetorical capabilities that I am concerned with here. It is with her sense of literature as the work of a “pioneer” and “a work of civilization as well, and of progress (thus reestablishing a link with the Enlightenment), against the ruin and death of which the poetry of the nineteenth century was a bearer” (112). By contrasting Marie Redonnet’s work with Selah Saterstrom’s, I argue that both provide a poetics of hope through protagonists who acquire or exhibit a use of language affirming a self that is more than self and a body that is more than flesh – a peculiar negotiation between immanence and transcendence.
I call this negotiation channeling.
In order to begin, it is necessary to rehearse a narrative of the critical scene at the end of the twentieth century, since both Redonnet and Saterstrom actively engage with criticism.
The past half century in literary criticism can be thematized as the rise and fall of a rigorous attention to theories challenging long-standing assumptions made by the western critical tradition. As a romantic and colonial discipline, European Literary Studies, and especially English Studies, has faced ongoing criticism of inherent ethnocentrism and cultural arrogance. Despite the dissemination of the discipline to lower and middle classes throughout the twentieth century, despite the rise of popular culture studies, literary aesthetic studies have not been able to shake what appears to be an inherent elitism and simultaneously justify itself as a democratic profession. This is partly because of twentieth-century trends in most western art forms which have focused on radically accounting for subjectivity while still participating in a social discourse. Criticism’s intellectual explosion in postmodern and postcolonial discourse follows a trajectory in artistic works which become more abstract, representational, and conceptual throughout the twentieth century.
The focus on accounting for subjectivity is both a product of, and a critique of, what has been called modernism, itself a move that orders the universe around the rational human subject. This human subjectivity, deeply entrenched in language, always already limits the perception of reality, leading philosophers and artists to explore epistemological and ontological questions. Especially in academic discourse, it is generally accepted that modern humanity is mediated by perceptions, mostly shaped by language, and that there is no return to any naïve state. Everything becomes the history or perception of… Everything is constructed by a human telos.
While this architectonic view speaks to the individual subject, it is not necessarily created or willed by the subject. The term “rationality” describes a human condition and limitation which is merely embodied in the individual. The self comes to be seen as constituted partly by the human condition, and more specifically by language, culture, historical facticity, etc. Put in terms of language, Heidegger says, “language speaks us.” We cannot escape certain historical factors, language being one of them, which construct our view of reality. The idea that everything is a construct then becomes part of the post-modern critique of rationality – a critique that is hyper concerned with the question of what constitutes the self and, by extension, reality.
Postmodernism can thus be viewed as the amplification of ontology into a metaphysics where self becomes the central particular, rather than God, because we cannot come to know reality except through being, or our perception of being. In postmodernism, a fanatic devotion to the idea of the self arises along with the troubling feeling that even the self is a false God.
Along with the critique of self comes the critique of rationalism, which can be characterized by late nineteenth-century thinkers (and which is always present throughout modernism), particularly with their relation to Erlebnis, or immediate experience, believed to affect humans at the preconscious and pre-rational level. Henri Bergson in particular, widely read during his time, directly influenced modern writers such as Proust and Joyce with his concepts of duration and elan vital. The focus on describing subjectivity and how the self is constituted in the later twentieth-century thought owes much to the idea of lived experience fueled by Erlebnis, as do any poetic works which seek for the language to do the work at the level of syntax and rhythm as much or more than at the semantic level. How much lived experience is particular to the individual subject, and how much is the individual subject constituted by culture, language, gender, and other historical forces?
Inquiry into questions like this created a flood of intellectual activity, especially in universities, in the late twentieth century, emphasizing a new kind of critical and artistic elitism. Just as modernist writers consciously tried to distinguish their work from more pedestrian literature, postmodern writers created a discourse largely concerned with discourse itself. Thus, they came to critique the most prevalent and formal kind of conversation in the western tradition: the dialectic.
Dianoia, the Greek term for the human faculty of thinking rationally and constructing arguments, is also the rational term applied to how humans create dialectic, a conversation or argument through question and answer between two people. The binary foundation of dialectical thinking – subject-object, good-evil, speaker-audience, writer-reader – saturates the western tradition of knowledge. It is thus naturally characteristic of postmodern writers who would question that tradition to challenge binaries for the very reason that they are binaries. This challenging of binaries is most evident in linguistic theories and the application of those theories to literary criticism in the twentieth century.
One central critical discourse over the past fifty years, undoubtedly inane to some ears, focuses on the role of the author. It goes without mentioning in literary circles that Foucault, and later Barthes, challenged the position, the very concept of authorship: “the author is dead.” Even Foucault’s treatment of the subject laments archaic and “pedestrian” notions of authorship:
It is well known that in a novel narrated in the first person, neither the first person pronoun, the present indicative tense, nor, for that matter, its signs of localization refer directly to the writer, either to the time when he wrote, or to the specific act of writing; rather, they stand for a “second self” whose similarity to the author is never fixed and undergoes considerable alteration within the course of a single book. It would be as false to seek the author in relation to the actual writer as to the fictional narrator; the “author-function” arises out of their scission – the division and distance between the two. (129)
For both Foucault and Barthes, the author is a cultural phantasm. It is also intimately tied to ownership with roots in the development of liberal capitalism. To invoke the author is to invoke a construction of creative production and consumption. The “scission” between producer and product creates the spirit of the “author function,” which mediates a space between author and reader that is so immaterial it evades definition and location while simultaneously asserting power over and constituting readers. It is in this author function that the original author is moot, where authorial intention is laughable, where writing is death.
Barthes ends his “Death of the Author” with the metaphors of life, death, and exchange: “The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author” (257). The reader, then, is not the passive receiver implied by a producer-consumer transaction. As the maker of meaning the reader becomes a new kind of producer, a hermeneutic one.
Of course, this ambiguous relationship between author and reader is present in literature
before Foucault and Barthes. Borges’, for example, in “Garden of the Forking Paths” dealt with the issue in 1941. But the critical milieu of the 1970s suggests a more direct dialogue between writers and critics surrounding the issue of the author. Calvino’s If upon a Winter’s Night a Traveler (1979), parodies the entire scheme of book production and consumption all the way to the replacement of the writer by a computer.
Barthes does not speak of a “reader-function,” he suggests the “birth” of the reader who, in a sense, replaces the author. In other words, the reader Barthes suggests is not an interlocutor for Foucault’s author-function (Barthes’ author is not the same as Foucault’s). This reader is capable of production, not just of meaning, but of texts – a sort of reader-author, or, as Barthes might put it, a reader-scriptor, (in place of his “author-writer”) for “the scriptor no longer bears within him passions, humors, feelings, impressions, but rather the immense dictionary from which he draws a writing that can know no halt” (256). The scriptor is a vessel, but when combined with the “new” reader – one unconcerned with either ownership or passive consumption, thus going beyond Barthes’ notion in The Pleasure of the Text of “an aesthetic (if the word has not become too depreciated) based entirely (completely, radically, in every sense of the word) on the pleasure of the consumer” (412) – the scriptor is also the location of meaning, the space of sense. The scriptor who disintegrates experiences bliss, but the grounding of meaning is only found in pleasure, where desire is a lack that can be fulfilled.
Yet, even in The Pleasure Principle, Barthes laments the forgotten ancient rhetorical notion of “the actio, a group of formulae designed to allow for the corporeal exteriorization of discourse: it dealt with the theatre of expression, the actor-orator “expressing” his indignation, his compassion, etc” (413). Barthes’ reader comes to embody the location of sense as meaning, sense, and emotion. Ethos, once the spirit of the author, is transferred into a kind of self persuasion or identification – an internal, psychological dialectic. The once object (reader) becomes the new subject. Discourse is not corporeal, not physical; it becomes a feedback loop in a subject (ego-I) – object (me) play for a self which is constituted by intangible cultural specters like Foucault’s author function – something perhaps akin to the many demons in Tibetan Buddhism.
The reader, after Barthes, is not only a subject in the normative sense of the word; the subject is a positionality, a space, and the “I,” the ego, is nothing but a marking or instantiation of perspective, the signified cipher. Self, ego, and ethos (ἠθοϛ) are positions. As Kenneth Burke explains in A Grammar of Motives,
the key philosophic term, sub-ject (in Latin, thrown under) is the companion to the Greek hypokeimenon (underlying), a word that can refer to the subject of a sentence, or to the “sub-strate” of the world (the essential constitution of things, hence indeterminately a kind of basis or a kind of causal ancestor). The word can also refer to what is assumed as a ground for an argument, in which capacity it serves as a passive for hypotithemi (to place or put under, as a base or foundation, to assume as a principle, take for granted, suppose… (28)
When we look for a definition of the essence of subject, we get a word which describes not the subject, not the thing, but rather the support which holds it up.
Barthes’ reader transports us to an ambiguous space where the reader hears but also speaks, at least in the sense of making meaning. This space can be examined more closely by noting the unfixed etymological beginnings of both ethos and self as place, or home, where custom and manner come from on one hand – and on the other the place where wind changes direction, the place of breath, breathing and air, from the Greek (αηρ). Older words for self are particularly revealing here. Take, for example, the definitions of the following Hebrew words from Strong’s Biblical Concordance:
dabar: ( a primitive root, perhaps properly to arrange; but used figuratively (of words) to speak; rarely (in a destructive sense) to subdue: – answer, appoint, bid, command, commune, declare, destroy, give, name, promise, pronounce, rehearse, say, speak, be spokesman, subdue, talk, teach tell, think, use entreaties, utter.
adah: a primitive root; to advance; i.e. to pass on or continue; causatively, to remove; specifically, to bedeck (i.e. bring ornament upon): – adorn, deck (self), pass by, take away.
These obscure definitions are at the root of western conceptions of self, and they help to reassert that at its most fundamental, the self is unfixed, not just in the binary way that Burke examines the subject, or the way definitions serves to merely delineate and totalize a body while simultaneously generating a negative for what is defined. The poststructuralist and postcolonial move pushes toward an ancient conception of the world, and this theoretical move is an ethical move. The self is a gathering of potentialities into an action that only appears in that action; moreover, that only appears to another perspective, already existing before the action.
The “western worldview” so criticized by post-colonialist thinkers for its arrogance and systematic rationalization of knowledge structures which dominate through a nominative, controlling attention and superimposing of values may be the result of modernism, but this is not necessarily congruent with ancient Greek and Semitic thought. This is not to say that these empires did not engage in violent domination to maintain their empires. They did. But as Edward Said has argued, it is the systematic domination through knowledge, through Napoleon’s scientists, architects, and philosophers which makes modern colonialism different. It is the European Enlightenment , and not necessarily Greek or Semitic or even early Christian thought which informs modernism. “Orientalism” is a constructed lens which controls through its ability to locate and define through the production of knowledge. The occidental comes to know who he or she is only by negation; similarly, “whiteness” maintains its power through invisibility.
Coupled with the ethical implications of postcolonialism, the death of the author and the ambiguity of authority and authenticity can be read either as a retreat from location toward a place of ambiguity where the creative subject is no longer accountable for its ongoing oppression, or it can be read as an admittance that the modern subject is an absolute phantasm, constructed for the purposes of domination, and ambiguation is a tactic to call out that phantasm. Both of these positions can be accounted for by examining literary and critical techniques present during the past forty years. As a result of emphasizing the ambiguous nature of the author and the development of the reader-scriptor, we see a usurpation of the author’s place by the critic. Both Barthes and Foucault, in this sense, have had perhaps as much or more impact on the production of literary works and literary study during the past forty years as any author of fiction or poetry (as evidenced above with Calvino).
Hybrid literature, historical metafiction, the rise of the personal essay and memoir in composition, are all indicators of this shift which makes the role of the traditional, romantic author-subject ambiguous.
An early critical example of authorial ambiguity comes from Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space. In the following passage, I believe Bachelard gives evidence to suggest that the retreat from authorial intention is not a retreat from accountability, a cloaking device to mask the responsibility of the writer who names and shapes.
But I’ve already said too much. If I said more, the reader, back in his own room, would not open that unique wardrobe, with its unique smell, which is the signature of intimacy. Paradoxically, in order to suggest the values of intimacy, we have to induce in the reader a state of suspended reading. For it is not until his eyes have left the page that recollections of my room can become a threshold of oneirism for him. And when it is a poet speaking, the reader’s soul reverberates; it experiences the kind of reverberation that, as Minkowski has shown, gives the energy of an origin to being. (14)
It is not merely Bachelard’s deferral to the reader’s imagination that makes this quotation remarkable, but the generosity with which he does it – the respect for intimacy. In this sense, I would argue that Bachelard’s move toward the reader is not based in irresponsibility for otherness or the denial of responsibility on his part. He points toward the ancient conception of self earlier on in his book:
Not only our memories, but the things we have forgotten are “housed.” Our soul is an abode. And by remembering houses and “rooms,” we learn to “abide” within ourselves. Now everything becomes clear, the house images move in both directions: they are in us as much as we are in them. (xxxvii)
Bachelard’s opening of space for the reader’s imagination is both a rhetorical and an ethical move. It is an acknowledgment of his limitation when it comes to invoking intimate space. At the same time, Bachelard attempts to phenomenologically describe the essence of domestic space, and this search for essence has been at the heart of postcolonial critiques of so-called modernist works whose attempts to reduce to essences so often reduce to an ethnocentric gaze. I believe it is necessary to re-examine dogmatic tendencies to associate philosophical inquiry into origins of self as synonymous with an agenda of locating otherness, and channeling is one way to do this.
While it is easy to make the claim that so-called modernist works promote a myopic, western-centered perspective appear omnipresent – and it is easy because there is truth in that claim – such a reduction does not accurately account for all the works of a given period.
It is also possible to see the move toward an ambiguous author as an ethical turn among western artists rather than a move which seeks to reestablish a pre-existing hegemony or to merely retreat from a modern project gone awry.
Though the author has necessarily been ambiguated, part of this ambiguation has manifested in adopting characters who have been “located” historically by western culture and dislocating them by giving them a sort of de-centered agency (by making them live in a way where we aren’t sure if they are autobiographical, fictive, metaphorical, etc). Ellison’s Invisible Man comes to mind in this regard, both located and un-locatable. The anonymous narrator, or Kafka’s “K” in The Castle, also comes to mind. The nameless character induces oneiric qualities, hovering above reality.
Then there are those characters located by the narrator’s gaze and given mystic properties. Lolita, the nymphet comes to mind here, or Andre Breton’s Nadja. In both these examples, the narrators’ private symbols are made public. Lolita’s body is the American landscape. Nadja ends with the narrator questioning: “Who goes there? Is it you, Nadja? Is it true that the beyond, that everything beyond is here in this life? I can’t hear you. Who goes there? Is it only me is it myself?” (144). The character located by the narrative subject in these two examples begins by being objectified and through that process manifests itself as a part of the narrator’s psyche. In order to articulate this more directly, consider Humbert Humbert and Breton’s narrator as performing versions of courtly love. Slavoj Zizek has argued in “Courtly Love, or the Woman as Thing” that while modern versions of love purport to have gone beyond courtly love, it is still very present, and that any sort of spiritual idealization of the Lady is a mask for the most material objectification of woman as thing.
The idealization of the Lady, her elevation to the spiritual, ethereal Ideal, is therefore to be conceived of as a strictly secondary phenomenon: it is a narcissistic projection whose function is to render her traumatic dimension invisible. In this precise and limited sense, Lacan concedes that ‘the element of idealizing exaltation that is expressly sought out in the ideology of courtly love has certainly been demonstrated; it is fundamentally narcissistic in character.’ Deprived of every real substance, the Lady functions as a mirror on to which the subject projects his narcissistic ideal. (90)
It is not difficult to see either Nadja or Lolita as manifestations of their respective narrators’ narcissistic dreams. However, at least in Breton’s case, the narrator knows this is a possibility. The subject-object dialectic here is as cyclic and empty as the author-reader and producer-consumer binaries. Postmodern lenses like Zizek’s critique the tendency among modernist writers to either essentialize or mystify otherness. Essentialism has reductive tendencies while mystification amplifies and exalts not the thing itself, but the narcissistic desires of the subject who amplifies. While I certainly think there is more going on in Nabokov and Breton’s texts, briefly applying Zizek’s analysis of courtly love to them allows me to point to trends in contemporary criticism that may make what I have to say about Saterstrom and Redonnet’s works seem archaic on the surface.
The critical trend in postmodern and post-structural criticism has been to be very skeptical of essentialism. This is yet another theme which questions the nominative tendencies employed by critics in the western tradition. Consider, for example, Northrop Frye’s claim in “The Archetypes of Literature” that says “One essential principle of archetypal criticism is that the individual and the universal forms of an image are identical” (650). It is easy here to see a tension between a structurally organized world and an individual worldview, especially one that falls outside the culture of the one doing the structural analysis. Again, phenomenological descriptions would move toward another method for getting at essences – that of lived experience, or Erlebnis, or that of a non-rational account of reality as it feels. In phenomenological philosophy, there is much more continuity between modernism and postmodernism.
Post-structural and post-colonial criticism seeks to enact a critique of western critical lenses for the way that they locate their subjects and turn them into objects which are merely narcissistic projections of an ethnocentrism they cannot escape. This is not to say they throw away modernist or structuralist criticism. As a case in point, consider the work of Henry Louis Gates Jr. His Signifying Monkey employs mythical and archetypal criticism to African American fiction, specifically laying out literary descriptions of the crossroads trickster. Yet in the essay “Writing, “Race,” and the Difference it Makes,” Gates argues that
No critical theory – be that Marxism, feminism, poststructuralism, Nkrumah’s consciencism, or whatever – escapes the specificity of value and ideology no matter how mediated these may be. To attempt to appropriate our own discourses using Western critical theory “uncritically” is to substitute one form of neocolonialism for another. To begin to do this in my own tradition, theorists have turned to black vernacular tradition […] to isolate the signifying black difference through which to theorize about the so-called Discourse of the Other. (1588)
Gates calls for the employment of a different set of mythical figures and an altogether different tradition than that of the European Enlightenment. Perhaps most notable among these figures is the Esu / Legba figure of the crossroads, the master linguist, who plays an important role in the African American Blues tradition, African American literature, and the work of Selah Saterstrom. Gates’ turn to black vernacular helps to rework history. Part of reworking from this perspective means the removal of binary classification systems. Sun Ra’s writings are remarkable examples of this. Consider the following dialogue:
QUESTION: WHO IS GOD?
ANSWER: GOD IS THE HOUSE OF DAVID….ZECHARIAH 12:3
QUESTION: WHO IS SATAN?
QUESTION: WHO IS BEELZEBUB? Zacharaiah 4:7
QUESTION: WHO IS ZERUBBABEL?
QUESTION: WHO IS SATAN?
ANSWER: JESUS. (73-74)
Here Sun Ra uses dialogue to synthesize God and the Devil. The Esu / Legba figure at the crossroads is a combination of Jesus and Satan.
This reworking of history in the African American tradition informs Selah Saterstrom’s work and is necessary to understand how her work is significantly different than Marie Redonnet’s despite similar goals.
As I turn now to analyze their work more directly, I wish to make clear that my intention is neither to say they have the same project nor that they are radically different. This critical perspective seeks to present a perspective of both and… To understand this I want to introduce the concept of channeling, for which it is necessary to ask for the consideration of the return of the author – the revived author, the resurrected author informed by the recent history of the death of the author. This author is both mercurial and promethean. This author has knowledge of death, of immortality, of consubstantiation, and relays it to the world by channeling.
Channeling is the way a writer disintegrates and reintegrates into the realm of culture. Channeling is the gathering of self into the projection of a voice, the breath one takes before he or she speaks, the orienting of a perspective. In this orientation there is a coming to know. Gnosis comes from gignoskein – to come to know. This coming to, or movement toward, precedes knowledge. The action of saying performs ethics. Ethics from ethos, from a place or abode, similar to Bachelard’s domestic space, the place of self, of where the winds change. In that gathering together, that coming to speak, there is a hermeneutics at work, a reading of the world. Barthes’ “Death of the Author” creates space for the reader-scriptor, the reader who produces meaning. If postmodernism is a gesture of distance, one that sees architectonics, perceives the structure, channeling is an elimination of distance, a presence of shared intimate space. It feels almost pre-modern in that respect. Blanchot hints at this in The Space of Literature in a section on inspiration:
But when everything has disappeared in the night, “everything has disappeared” appears. This is the other night. It is what we sense when dreams replace sleep, when the dead pass into the deep of the night, when night’s deep appears in those who have disappeared. Apparitions, phantoms, and dreams are an allusion to this night. […] What appears in the night is the night that appears. And this eeriness does not come from something invisible, which would reveal itself under the cover of dark at the shadows’ summons. Here the invisible is what one cannot cease to see; it is the incessant making itself seen. (Blanchot 163)
The night is a space of being, a lived experience, and there is no distinction between construction or chaos. It is in this space that Redonnet’s and Saterstrom’s poetics seem to exist.
Marie Redonnet’s Rose Mellie Rose and Selah Saterstrom’s The Meat and Spirit Plan are both narratives of young women finding their voices and selves. Rose Mellie Rose ends Redonnet’s triptych with the character, Mellie, “the only narrator of the triptych to bear a name, [who] has as her task not only the transformation of her heritage into a work (like the first two narrators), but also the transmission of that heritage to Rose, thus opening up the story to another time, that of the reality of the world and the possibility of love” (116). Orphaned and found in the “Fairy Grotto” by an old woman named Rose, Mellie’s story follows her journey from a small hermitage in the mountains, where she lives until she is twelve. On her twelfth birthday, Rose dies, Mellie gets her first period, makes her way to the town of Oat, and loses her virginity to a truck driver who picks her up on a desolate road.
In stark contrast to the concrete rather traumatic events of Mellie’s twelfth birthday is the matter of fact tone with which she reports these events. Somehow, despite the starkness of the content, the language itself and the atmosphere surrounding Mellie is one of enchantment. The novel begins with the sentences: “The black rocks beside the river are made of quartz, like the sand. Rose says the light is stronger here than anywhere else because of the properties of the quartz. It must have gradually burned her eyes out over the years. She squints all the time. Her eyesight is becoming worse and worse. It is as if she lost the strength to see” (1). The opening image is one of two forms of the same substance: rocks and sand. They are black quartz, and they reflect a blinding light. A lived time moves through these simply constructed sentences in which the “be” verb becomes a recurring element. Rose decays constantly. By the end of the first paragraph, “Everything is white where the falls are because of the foam. Sometimes you can see the rainbow in the midst of the falls. Rose says she never sees the rainbow anymore.” Redonnet begins with a river of blinding light, a river whose source is unknown, and a character whose blindness accompanies her age and death. At the end of the novel, Mellie too will lose her sight as she is dying, all she will be able to see is her daughter, whom she has named Rose and left in the grotto she was found in as a child.
Mellie leaves Rose with a heritage in the form of text and images she has compiled from her life and combined with a “book of legends.” Dying, Mellie enters into the realm of legends, leaving one book with her daughter, and another with the reader. The space of the language is that of the Fairy Tale. Perhaps the difference between the fairy tale and the myth is that there is more stark human corporality in the fairy tale. Violence does not resound with significance; it is a brute fact, events simply happen. From the beginning of the book, Mellie tells us of her Book of Legends, in which one legend is called “The Fairy Grotto.” Mellie’s childhood association with “The Fairy Grotto” and the one she was found in reveals that Mellie is a reader. She interacts with her text and with the world in a hermeneutic way: “It was the book she [Rose] taught me to read from. It is my book now. Rose gave it to me as a reward for learning to read so well. It was written in the old alphabet. Rose can only read the old alphabet. It is the only alphabet I know too” (2). Mellie does eventually learn the new alphabet and for a brief period it seems like she will take Nem’s place as Oat’s librarian and translator; however, she later says “I will not be a translator since there will never be a library in the municipal offices like Miss Martha wanted. The mayor gave the order to send all the books from the former library of Oat to the continent. The more I learn the new alphabet, the more I think I would run into difficulties as I translated it” (39). Mellie belongs to the old alphabet, and to the island where the town of Oat exists. As Redonnet says in “The Story of the Triptych,” “It is in this new world – which has little by little conquered the old – that the triptych ends, just as it ends with Rose’s new heritage, thus opening the way for the writing of a new story, that of the present time and the present world” (120).
Redonnet ends her triptych with the notion of hope and the possibility of love. It is also the story of women: “The narrators are the figures of the emancipation of women: they are the ones who fight, who build, who seek, who pass down a work” (119). In this sense, Redonnet’s narrators usurp a role left empty from the stories of men in that they are the workers, the pioneers.
The ancient language of the book of legends and the amnesic language of the father’s closed book are grafted onto the language of education and modernity, thus becoming socialized and allowing communication. It is from these three languages that I have invented myself as a writer […] A woman’s language, no doubt, which allowed me to put forth a new system of imagination, in which the image created by the fiction is in a sense projected onto the emptiness created in the language. (118)
It is partly this “new system of imagination” then, which opens “up the story to another time, that of the reality of the world and the possibility of love” (116). The possibility of love comes from both the transmission of heritage through a foundation (Mellie and Yem’s incomplete house) and a new way to language. The anticipation then is of a future (return?) to the reality of the world. If it is a return, perhaps it is a return from the realm which Blanchot describes as the dreams which “replace sleep”; perhaps it is a waking. It is hard to tell from this side, but the longing fulfilled must be a sort of consubstantiation into traces, or as Levinas might describe love as more than lack, a goodness which nourishes itself on what it feeds.
The fairy tale space in Marie Redonnet’s Rose Mellie Rose feels altogether different than the space in Selah Saterstrom’s The Meat and Spirit Plan; however, both end in the optimism of language. Saterstrom’s book, the second of her own triptych, is the story of a young woman maneuvering through a landscape of sexual violence and self realization. Her book begins with the disruption of her initial plan: “Listen, I am in love. My sister lost her virginity to Anthony Amara when she was fourteen and I plan on doing the same” (13). The narrator’s conception of love in the texture of the ads for the movie The Blue Lagoon in a page from People magazine which she keeps under her pillow: “At night I would pull it out and look at it until my eyes adjusted and I could see Brooke Shields and the blond guy. I concentrated on the love in that picture until it was my feeling” (15). But her plan is soon thwarted by a college student named Hamp Jones who rapes her. Saterstrom’s narrator, unlike Mellie, is not relieved at the loss of her virginity. Instead, she separates herself from her body. Later on the night of the rape:
I was naked. I have taken off my clothes during the night but do not remember doing so. I get out of bed, stand in front of a full-length mirror that used to hang in the house of a gay movie star’s mother and I look at myself. With the exception of being born, being fucked for the first time, and dying, you generally get another shot at things. Did I say It or did It say it? Something said It. I touch my body and the image in the mirror touches its body. (23)
Not only do the body and the spirit split here. The words are unlocated. The narrator does not know who is speaking. The rest of the book follows the narrator through reform school, college, and graduate school for hermeneutics. She eventually becomes very ill and is hospitalized. Only after her body’s recovery is she able to create a new plan, to become a writer.
Similar to Redonnet’s finding her language through her characters’ work, Saterstrom seems to find voice through her characters’ finding voice. The first line that the narrator of The Meat and Spirit Plan writes begins “Listen,” thus implying that the narrator is beginning to write the book we have just read. But there is a deeper significance to this word, because it is an inscription of the author’s first name, Selah. “Selah” is a musical gesture recurring in Psalms in the Bible. It can mean to break into song, but also “hark” and also as the end of a cadence, similar to the word “amen.” It is both an opening and a closing.
Both Rose Mellie Rose and The Meat and Spirit Plan employ narrative voices which, despite being the voice of the protagonist, maintain extradiegetic qualities. This is in contrast the stark embodiment of the characters. Their physicality asserts their thing-ness, thus avoiding the narcissistic projections which Zizek (and Lacan) describes with his analysis of courtly love. Mellie’s being located in a body is not the tragedy of the book, though it may be sad that she has such a short life, the narrative almost comes from beyond her life. The narrator’s voice in The Meat and Spirit Plan comes from a later place of linguistic mastery, after her work hermeneutic work in Religious Studies in Scotland. While discussing this with Night Nurse Charlie – who may or may not exist – the narrator reveals some of her developing plan. Charlie asks how she wrote her long paper in Scotland
I did it like it was my favorite object, the kind that can be opened in which you find another like it within it but smaller which you open and find another like it within it but smaller which you open to find another like it within it but smaller, I say, I repeated myself.. (188)
Ahh, Charlie says, that kind of object. The indulgence in simultaneous hope and disappointment. The question of what will lead to next insinuates there will be something
At the end of this opening to find something smaller is the nub. The nub disturbs the narrator; she does not like it. Charlie asks, why?
Because the ability to recognize quits and the nub is what the awful condition looks like.
Yes, he says. Recognition ceasing, all your methods use-less, how will you proceed at the end of being known?
I don’t know, I say. That’s it exactly.
Have you ever thought he says, to use the nub. Apply to paper and rub. The imposter you that you have written in. (189)
The nub also appears in Saterstrom’s first book, The Pink Institution. In it, the protagonist possesses a pink robot eraser which she thinks is God. She becomes God’s keeper and protector: “The enemy of God was paper.” As the narrator would rub the dirt off of God, he began to deteriorate.
After His vulnerability exceeded a certain risk level, she could think of nothing else. She wished to be done with her class subjects so she could pull him out of her pocket and finger His robot head. She would insert her fingertip into the side of the pith that bore the incision and raise the nub slightly. When she did this she could briefly see that God was pink, much more pink than the outside, and not smooth, but nettled. There was a comforting sensation that accompanied lifting up God’s head. (102)
Eventually, God’s head breaks off, and she eats it. After doing so, “She entered the crowd of noisy children and pretended to play” (104). The nub in The Pink Institution accompanies a separation from childhood. The protagonist “pretends to play” but God is inside her. In The Meat and Spirit Plan, Charlie advises the narrator to use the nub to erase “The imposter you that you have written in.” The narrator, who was separated from her body in its mirror image, now recovering in the hospital for pancreatic malfunctioning affecting her digestive system is to use the nub to erase a self that is an imposter. Her recovered self will make a plan to write, to wield the power of language she has acquired in her travels. It is this voice which we find out at the end, writes the text. It is the voice of the forked tongue, the doublespeak which infuses Saterstrom’s text with an intimate irony which makes her characters both innocent and cunning.
The doublespeak, the forked tongue in Saterstrom’s language, recalls the Esu / Legba figure from African American folklore. Esu is the master linguist and trickster figure of the crossroads. As shown above with Sun Ra’s writings, this kind of thinking transcends western European dialectical thinking through inversion and melding of subject object relationships. Saterstrom’s narrator is prompted by Night Nurse Charlie to dissolve the subject-object distinction which has been part of her since the night of her rape. It is not merely a return to a more pure state. The story has shown a progression, that of acquiring language and hermeneutic tools with which to wield language.
The overcoming of trauma is also something Saterstrom believes to be important in her own voice as a writer. She told one interviewer in 2007: “As a child I once saw a relative’s dead body and I remember thinking, “Well, after seeing that I can see anything.” I had this overwhelming sense that this meant something important and that it was a kind of ethical responsibility to be willing to see what was there to be seen. What I did with that seeing was to write.” Writing in this way transcends mimesis and becomes a sort of conjuring. It doesn’t merely organize, because there is an ethical imperative at work which, like Redonnet’s work looks hopefully toward the future. Saterstrom claims that her friend’s stories and her work with “troubled teens” were part of the invention process for The Meat and Spirit Plan. She also says in the interview:
Through this narrator – who has a variety of sexual experiences, some of which are violations and some which are not – I wanted to examine the cultural conditions around young people and the ways they come into their bodies. I was interested in how sometimes the moment of sexual awareness coincides with moments of sexual disempowerment or disembodiment. Of course there are a lot of reasons why this happens, but what interested me was the break-down in communication we have about bodies in our culture and how this plays out among teenagers and what happens when those teenagers grow up – how we all learn to celebrate our bodies, with their history and complexities, as adults.
Saterstrom’s writing dramatizes a collective everyday life, but it does so by enacting the fracturing both necessary to life, because life is fracture. Writing fractures as an extension of an already fractured existence. It is not just mimetic then; it is a condition for existence. It is trap.
Moving beyond the trap is itself the creative process a channeling, a gathering together, and an ethical gesture toward the future. Kenneth Burke claims that the only truly novel creative action must at some level contain its own novelty – magic – something from nothing. Both Saterstrom and Redonnet’s work do this. It is more than hermeneutic research, but it actively employs hermeneutics. It is hermeneutics in the sense of divination, in the sense of what will come, and how active we can be in the process.
It may seem odd at this point to compare Saterstrom’s work with Redonnet. In a sense, it is tempting to argue that at the cultural level Saterstrom’s characters inherit Mellie’s legacy. If so, it is a rather distant relation. However, one can make a hermeneutic link back toward Mellie’s childhood death with another figure from African American folk tradition – that of Ogbanje and abiku mythologies. This figure was first made popular in print literature by Chinua Achebe in Things Fall Apart. In A Spirit of Dialogue, Christopher N. Okonkwo describes:
In their simplified and conflated meanings, the Igbo word Ogbanje […] and the Yoruba term abiku are culturally specific yet ideologically related names by which the Igbo and Yoruba of Nigeria denominate and grapple with experiences associated with a special category of children. The children are part-human and part-spirit beings. They are also believed to go through a pattern of repeated births, deaths and rebirths to and through the same mother. (xiv)
Later in his book, Okonkwo claims, “Quiet as it’s kept, Esu as a polysemus, mythic trope shares with abiku – and by implication Ogbanje – complements [ which Henry Louis] Gates does not recognize in his contextualization of that god and guardian of the crossroads” (26). With this reading, Mellie and the narrator of The Meat and Spirit Plan appear spiritually connected.
Of course, such a reading maps an African and African American mythological system onto the works of two white female authors. As part of a group marginalized and erased by colonial dominance, white women share some of the same cultural locating that Africans and African Americans have undergone through the nominative colonial construction of knowledge. It therefore seems that their emancipatory methods, if they do not overlap, would at least speak to and inform each other. For this reason, it was necessary in the beginning of this essay to relay the place of critical and theoretical discourse at the end of the twentieth century. Both Saterstrom and Redonnet’s hermeneutics and channeling are informed by this situation, and it would have been inaccurate to return to Northrop Frye’s literary methods in order to make the mythological connection I have made here.
By examining the way critics and writers have come to interact with one another in unique ways over the past fifty years, it is possible to construct a narrative trajectory which sees current aesthetic works as being motivated by largely ethical tendencies borne out of intensive cultural critique which employs pre-modern and anti-rational tactics toward intentional and value-laden ends. Thus, these aesthetic works, as evidenced here by Marie Redonnet and Selah Saterstrom, contain deliberative arguments about reality and the future. As deliberative, a work acts on a political level as a publicly conveyed value. While I do not suggest that the works discussed here prescribe a particular set of ethical actions, I do suggest that the works are motivated by ethics. They are consciously constructed works acting ambiguously instead of as imperatively on a cultural level. By inviting hermeneutic engagement on the part of the reader, these works anticipate the construction of a shared reality different than current conceptions of reality. Moreover, by operating toward different conceptions of reality the authorial voices of the works I have described come from an un-located poetic space where fantasy, myth, reality, intimacy, truth, fiction, and the body merge. Because these works are informed by historical and hermeneutic forces, and because they contain an optimistic hope about the future of creative works, I have used the term “channeling” to evoke an intentionality on the parts of Redonnet and Saterstrom as reader-authors. This intentionality is also informed by, and reactive to twentieth century theory. In the theoretical world, to speak of authorial intention has seemed naïve. I hope to have transcended that naivety here.
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon, 1958.
Barthes, Roland. “Authors and Writers.” Barthes: Selected Writings. Ed. Susan Sontag. Fontana / Collins: 1982.
———————-“The Death of the Author.” Falling Into Theory. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford, 2000.
———————-“from The Pleasure of the Text.” Barthes: Selected Writings. Ed. Susan Sontag. Fontana / Collins: 1982.
Breton, Andre. Nadja. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: 1960.
Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.
Foucault, Michel. “”What is an Author?” Language, Counter-memory, Practice. Ed. Donald Bouchard. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977.
Gates Jr., Henry Louis. “Writing, “Race,” and the Difference it Makes.” The Rhetorical Tradition. 2nd ed. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford, 1998.
Okonkwo, Christopher N. A Spirit of Dialogue. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2008.
Redonnet, Marie. “The Story of the Triptych.” Rose Mellie Rose. Trans. Jordan Stump. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.
Saterstrom, Selah. “Author Interview with Lisa Guidarini.” www.bluestalking.typead.com. August 27, 2007. http://bluestalking.typepad.com/the_bluestalking_reader/2007/08/author-intervie.html
———————–The Meat and Spirit Plan. Minneapolis: Coffeehouse Press, 2007.
———————–The Pink Institution. Minneapolis: Coffeehouse Press, 2004.
Strong’s Biblical Concordance. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990.
Zizek, Slavoj. “Courtly Love, or, the Woman as Thing.” The Metastases of Enjoyment: Six Essays on Woman and Causality. London: Verso, 2005.