Marta Dvorak, Université Paris 3-Sorbonne Nouvelle
Ever since Aristotle, scholars have strived to map literature into taxonomical
classifications with respect to genre, mode, or voice. Russian formalists, French
structuralists, and international poststructuralists and narratologists have categorized
and quarrelled over the manifold shapes of that fictional creature known as the narrator,
that writerly mouthpiece analogous to a mask which can be doffed on and off 1 . Strictly
coded and closely correlated with issues of genre (epic, tragedy, comedy, satire) or
aesthetic movement (such as romance, literary realism, or modernism), these range
from omniscient narrator or narrator as external observer, to intradiegetic or
extradiegetic narrator, homodiegetic or heterodiegetic narrator, framing or framed
narrator, autodiegetic narrator or implied author, and so on. While hybrid forms
participate in the transgressive dynamics of postmodern writers, they are in no way a
postmodern invention, but were already gleefully practised by writers often classified
for convenience’s sake under the label of literary realism, such as Laurence Sterne,
Charles Dickens, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. While the scope of this paper will not allow
an in-depth study of these hybrid forms, I propose to address them briefly in the spirit
of the Voice & Vision project attempting to situate Canadian cultural production within
global tendencies, before investigating in a global context once more the evolving
dynamics of intertextuality in literary creation and the dialogism between production
and reception, (which will lead me to raise a troubling question with respect to
metafiction in mutation and the eventual death of the hypotext). I engage with these
hybrid forms initially because they reveal themselves to be subversive components of a
perlocutionary network of relations set up the world over between the producers of
discourse and the receptors. When the voice of the narrator overlaps with the point of
view of the focalizer, and this blend in turn is overcoded by the implied authorial voice,
the métissage serves a strategy of destabilization which undermines the relations of
distance and normativity initially set up in the reading pact. Already discernable in
1 Cf Ondaatje on Colette learning mime from Georges Wague, who told her "what she already knew.
That there was nothing more assuring than a mask. Under the mask she could rewriter herself into any
place, in any form" (Ondaatje, Divisadero 142)
Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the mutation of voice withdraws the comfort of a
powerful monologic axiology 2 .
Other centrifugal combinations promoting the plurality of multiple subjectivities and
consequently the provisional nature of truths and certainties abound in postmodern
writing around the globe. One finds double or multiple narrators involving the almost
mechanical repetition of a story through another voice and point of view (from Carol
Shields's husband and wife Happenstance to Anita Rau Badami's mother and daughter
Tamarind Mem) 3 . Or an exponential multiplication of focalization overlapping with
voice. Such multivocality can be found in Janet Frame's Living in the Maniototo, the
Tamil writer Ambai's story collection In a Forest, a Deer, Caribbean-Canadian Makeda
Silvera's "Caribbean Chameleon" 4 , or expatriate Canadian writer Mavis Gallant's
“Pegnitz Junction,” to take but a few examples 5 . There is Gallant’s remarkable variant
in “Voices Lost in Snow” consisting of retrieving voices through image, voices lost in
time recovered through an anamnesis triggered by a stored mental picture which erupts
whole 6 . One also finds the disorienting shifts from first person to third, and the
corresponding oscillation which occurs between the subjectivity which the former
allegedly reflects and the objectivity that the latter allegedly guarantees (practised by
Emily Carr in The Book of Small, Gallant in “Voices Lost in Snow,” and Margaret
Atwood in her first novel The Edible Woman, interestingly perceived as realistic, but
also in her recent story cycle of character Moral Disorders, as well as Nancy Huston in
Histoire d'Omaya, and Michael Ondaatje in Divisadero 7 ).
2 Add explanatory footnote.
3 Explain?
In Her Head a Village.
5 note that most of these writers are migrants who illustrate the relevance of the distinction made by
W.H. New between « belonging to place » (« the attitudinal identification with a particular locale » and
« being in place » (an awareness of existing in a certain spatial environment)(New, 117) : Rushdie on
cultural displacement and the dynamics of relocation and creativity/ Bhabha “how newness enters the
6 The genesis of the Linnet Muir cycle can be traced to an image, a haptic image of a Montreal street
lost in time. Gallant acknowledges in her Preface to the collection Home Truths that "An image of
Sherbrooke Street, at night, with the soft gaslight and leaf shadows on the sidewalk – so far back in
childhood that it is more a sensation than a picture – was the starting point" (Gallant, Home Truths xxii).
Gallant transmits the picture with such clarity to her readers that Russell Banks in his introduction to
Gallant's Varieties of Exile likens the effect on the reader to that of an Edward Hopper painting (Banks
7 The hermeneutic prefatory material preceding chapter One, italicized and related in the first person
singular, is at first identified with the voice of the author and taken for a paratext ("When I come to lie in
your arms, you sometimes ask me in which historical moment do I wish to exist" [Ondaatje, np]). Only at
the end of the passage is the "I" positioned as the protagonist Anna. Or rather, in a slippery way, as the
protagonist who "used to be" Anna. And only much later during the narration oscillating between
omniscience, external observation, and first person subjectivity, does the proleptic fragment encounter its
The disjunctions are undeniably metatextual, calling attention not only to the writing
process but also to the reading process. Ondaatje notably in Divisadero extends the
reflection on reading practices, effectively guiding the projected reader through the
hermeneutic interpretive process and proposing an objective correlative as the
foundation for a reading praxis. The objective correlative is interestingly itself a form of
intertext: the villanelle which "refuses to move forward in linear development"
(Ondaatje 136). The villanelle, that 16th century verse form based on a peasant dance
with a sung accompaniment, does indeed take one step back for every two steps
forward, since it is made up of five tercets followed by refrains, all circling and looping
back before arriving at the concluding quatrain, and just so does Ondaatje's sub-chapter
circle back analeptically to a preceding ellipsis. The narrator's subsequent allusion to
Nabokov (“only the rereading counts, Nabokov said” [136]), discloses the self-reflexive
strategy subtending Ondaatje's orchestration of voices.
Heteroglossia or polyphonic overcoding can generate chronotopic indeterminacy.
The voices of characters but also narrators - those creatures or figures of the writer overlap with the authorial voice and/or forms of the collective voice of the community
from which the text emerges, producing a symphony of inherited knowledges,
preconceptions, and naturalized axiologies 8 . The technique of ventriloquism underlies
heteroglossic discourse, in which hybrid constructions reflecting and refracting diverse
class-and-interest groups mingle, or in which different subjectivities are knit together
(leading to genre blurring, from Gertrude Stein's desubjectivising The Autobiography of
Alice B. Toklas [1933] and Everybody's Autobiography [1937] to Jamaica Kincaid's The
Autobiography of My Mother [1996]). An alternate form of double voicing involves an
enunciative split generated by a retrospective mode in which an older narrating I stages
the fractured perceptions and distorted space-times of a younger, more naïve narrated
self. While the device is discernable in texts ranging from Dickens’s Great
Expectations to James Joyce’s Dubliners, the postmodern variant (easily exemplified
once again by Atwood's Moral Disorder) fractures the binary enunciative
present/diegetic past and their respective flashbacks and flash forwards. It consists of a
present of enunciation which intermingles with diegetic time. This disorientingly blurs
storytime (inhabited by the narrated I) with the narrating I's open-ended time of
utterance which is perceived by receptors as interrelating with their extratextual,
echo and the textual addressee "you" metamorphose into the third person ("When Rafael asks … in which
historical moment I desire to live" [141]).
8 See Bakhtin’s discussion of heteroglossia in "Discourse in the Novel” in The Dialogic Imagination.
contemporary reality 9 . Postmodern writers, borrowing from the baroque strategies of
the first practitioners of the novel, play extensively with this Third Space of enunciation
(Bhabha, The Location of Culture). It can be envisaged as the interstitial territory
between the distanced image of the represented object and the enunciative stance,
disembodied yet rooted in personal authorial experience, which interrelates with an
extratextual reality, in turn intricately linked to the fluid, always contemporary reality of
the protean receptor.
J.M. Coetzee gives a homely extended analogy for the Third Space of enunciation
and the illocutionary act which constructs the metaphorical spatiotemporal category as a
zone of direct contact in the metatextual incipit of Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons:
There is first of all the problem of the opening, namely, how to get us from where we are, which is, as
yet, nowhere, to the far bank. It is a simple bridging problem, a problem of knocking together a bridge.
People solve such problems every day. They solve them, and having solved them push on.
Let us assume that, however it may have been done, it is done. Let us take it that the bridge is built
and crossed, that we can put it out of our mind. We have left behind the territory in which we were. We
are in the far territory, where we want to be. (Coetzee, EC 1).
Deploying a strategy of proximity and inclusion, the author manipulates all three forms
of deixis, namely person, location, and time. First, the first person pronoun (us/we)
generates a bond-forming act of utterance shared by locutor and receiver who are not
set off from the third person (People/they) but integrate effortlessly into a holistic
entity, reinforced by the use of the first person inclusive let-imperative and the
collective singular "our mind." Secondly, the 'nowhere' positioning the act of narration
in the ou-topia or nusquam famously coined by Thomas More in his satire Utopia is
opposed to the far bank of the story, the far territory which is the created fictional world
calling to mind Nelson Goodman's landmark work Ways of World-Making. Coetzee
ushers us from no place into an apparently concrete storyworld through spatial terms,
foregrounding the mode of entry (knock together a bridge/ build/ cross). Thirdly, the
open-ended enunciative present (There is/where we are/ which is, as yet) mingles with
a synoptic present ("People solve such problems every day) positing a gnomic locution,
repository of universal truth, which generates an impression of permanence and
9 add note on the postmodern augmenting or diminishing/erasing the enunciative split, the distance
between diegetic time & time of narration/utterance; ie quasi-fusion of subject & object of utterance, a
presencing of selfhood for a feeling of immediacy, either through a diegetic present tense that generates a
simulacrum of synchronicity between the diegetic time of event and the enunciative position (Munro
"Postcard" DHS) or through a synoptic present tense which generates an impression of permanence and
timelessness encompassing readerly time (Carr)
timelessness encompassing readerly time. These are put in opposition with the present
perfect and preterite which elliptically diegetize the writing & reading processes
presented as if they were synchronous: "Let us assume that, however it may have been
done, it is done. Let us take it that the bridge is built and crossed [stative locutions
implying they they have been built and crossed], that we can put it out of our mind. We
have left behind the territory in which we were" (1). The casual oral idiom 10 underlines
the storytelling which deploys the use of textualized orality adopted by modernists like
Ford Maddox Ford in The Good Soldier and honed by postmodernists like Salman
Rushdie 11 .
Earlier I alluded to the technique of ventriloquism which is discernable in
heteroglossic discourse, in which the refracted intention of the author overcodes the
direct intention of the character speaking, or in which an individual utterance masks the
speech of current opinion and its verbal-ideological belief-system. In the incipit under
scrutiny, the narratorial voice has incorporated another's speech, inherited in turn from
an officially recognized, authoritative text - the Old Testament. An alert reader will
recognize in the locution "They solve them, and having solved them push on" a parodic,
bathetic stylization of the famous verse by Omar Khayyam influenced in turn by the
Biblical passage on the writing on the wall from Daniel 5. Coetzee playfully transforms
Omar Khayyam's rubai or individual quatrain which through Edward Fitzgerald's
tradaptation has taken on an almost proverbial status "The Moving Finger writes; and,
having writ,/ Moves on." 12 This is an instance of internally dialogized discourse which
is doubly complex. It is arguably the 19th-century European translator/ adapter who
overcoded the 11th-century Persian text with the Biblical reference epitomizing Destiny
which was so familiar to his Western audience 13 . And Coetzee's technique of
reappropriation is analogous to that of the rhetorical device of the perverb, or
perverted/adapted proverb, through which common knowledge is denaturalized and
10 We note the interjections, parataxis, and idiomatic register curiously at odds with certain elements
belonging to a formal register such as the uncontracted form of the let-imperative).
11 (identified notably in Midnight's Children by Timothy Brennan as a dominant mode of
contemporary writing ("Shame's Holy Book" in Reading Rushdie: Perspectives on the Fiction of Salman
Rushdie, ed. M.D. Fletcher) maybe develop textualized orature (Walcott & Sheila Watson's The Double
12 The full quatrain translated/adapted by Fitzgerald reads: "The Moving Finger writes; and, having
writ,/ Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit/ Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,/ Nor all your Tears
wash out a word of it."
13 The literal meaning of the Persian text has been given by Shahriar Shahriari as "The signs of
what's to come has always been/ Has always written both benevolent and mean/ What is our lot was
(http://www.okonlife.com/poems/page6.htm; consulted 02/05/08).
questioned, shedding its totalizing status of universal given to take on that of a limited,
cultural construction. Moreover, Coetzee's internally dialogized discourse belongs to
that which Bakhtin calls "'nondirect speaking' - not in language but through language,
through the linguistic medium of another" (313, original emphases), a practice which I
shall subsequently investigate more extensively.
Dialogic interrelation 14 in postcolonial literature notoriously decentres & recentres a
master narrative by giving a voice and even agency to a previously voiceless, peripheral
(dummy) protagonist (from Jean Rhys's notorious Wide Sargasso Sea and Karen KingAribisala's Kicking Tongues which transposes Chaucer's Canterbury Tales to
contemporary Nigeria, to Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad 15 and, albeit differently,
Derek Walcott's Omeros or even "The Schooner Flight" in which the bifurcation of
voice refracts the discourse of a whole incorporated genre). While Hugh MacLennan's
use of Homer's Odyssey and Sophocles's Oedipus at Colonnus as intertexts in
Barometer Rising and Return of the Sphinx respectively is a transcontextualized and
blurred replication (corresponding to the minimal parody of Genette and Hutcheon)
which is non-transgressive. Heteroglossic ventriloquism such as Atwood's and
Walcott's however, is doubly subversive. The substitution of low style for high style,
and "common language" expressing what Bakhtin terms the "going point of view"
("Discourse in the Novel" DI 301) for heroic perspective not only deflates the
hierarchical position of the epic, but also disrupts the epic's traditional representation of
an absolute, completive past totally separated from the time-and-value plane that the
speaker shares with his/her contemporary audience (Bakhtin, "Epic and Novel" DI 14).
Having been acknowledged to be more a rewriting of Joyce's Ulysses than a writing
back to their common hypotext (Farrell 250), Homer's Iliad & Odyssey (which, it is
useful to remember, were already cumulative and culminative works in Homer's time),
Omeros is an interesting case of a hypertext which has morphed into a hypotext in turn
producing a new hypertext, and it undeniably participates in the strategy of mimicry,
which Walcott himself has argued refracts European texts through the irony of their
differential positioning (Walcott, "Muse"). Coetzee pushes the experiment in mimicry
further through a mise en abyme. By rewriting Joyce's Ulysses by proxy as it were, from
the point of view of Leopold Bloom's wife Molly in The House on Eccles Street, a
14 In modernist and postmodern production, dialogic interrelation often takes the form of a deictic
shift to the protean 'you' (inclusive second-person pronoun implicating the [dummy] receptor & positing
15 Cf also the anterior play in "Little Red Hen" (Good Bones)
fictive novel authored by his fictive Australian novelist protagonist Elizabeth Costello,
Coetzee deploys a Russian doll strategy of infinite regress in receding perspective.
Coetzee also resorts to appropriation, the taking away of voice, notably in Foe, a
rewriting of Robinson Crusoe in which a female castaway, Susan Barton 16 , tells the tale
of Cruso, and in which Daniel Defoe metamorphoses from author to receptor, receiving
Barton's tale and then "weaving it into a story" (Coetzee, Foe 58) 17 . The play with voice
through intertext serves the metatextual, metaphysical, and ultimately political question
concerning who writes, or, as he puts it, "Who takes up the position of power, pen in
hand?" (Kossew 161). This is a bald way of putting the question which rears its head in
the segment of the Rubaiyat which Coetzee has transformed in Elizabeth Costello,
which telescopes metatextuality and metaphysics through its resonance with a wellknown contiguous quatrain by Omar Khayyam which concludes: "Who is the Potter,
pray, and who the Pot?" Nelson Goodman, too, addresses the notion of writer as
demiurge as he investigates the ways of making worlds out of words 18
Among the different ways of world-making, it can be valuable to distinguish
mimesis, the Aristotelian concept of imitation, from mimicry. Mimesis has been
acknowledged to be the representation of reality, and mimicry to be the representation
of a representation (Terada 1). Michael Riffaterre, alongside Kristeva, Genette, Barthes,
Culler, Todorov, Hutcheon, and Laurent Jenny, has at length investigated literary
representations in which reference is not from words to things, but "from words to
words, or rather from texts to texts," asserting that "intertextuality is the agent both of
the mimesis and of the hermeneutic constructions on that mimesis" (Riffaterre 142). We
have seen on the far end of the transtextual axis the transformational replication which
structurally equates a text with a code or genre rather than another text (Gérard
Genette's and Laurent Jenny's architextuality, illustrated by Omeros). In the incipit of
Elizabeth Costello, although it is a mere semantic microstructure, and although the displaced, absorbed material may be familiar only to the receptor's unconscious, I have
16 Susan Barton is not a pure product of Coetzee's imagination designed to disrupt Defoe's master
narrative. She is interestingly a hybrid product of both Defoe's and Coetzee's making, an original Defoe
character uprooted and displaced from Roxanne and dropped into the parallel fictional world of Robinson
17 The author himself points out in Doubling the Point that voice was the particular "feature of
technique" on which he chose to concentrate in his novel Foe, as opposed to In the Heart in which it was
montage, and in Barbarians in which it was milieu (Attwell and Coetzee 142-43)
shown that Coetzee's parodic citation of the anamorphic Biblical/ Persian intertext
stratifies his novel with a network of codes and signifying practices whose traces
modify its reception. Such a trace which Riffaterre dubs "intertextual syllepsis"
produces a text fraught with significance there where a simple linear reading would
only produce meaning 19 . Yet a "full" understanding (or grasp of both meaning and
significance – which in this case involves an ontological and phenomenological
reflexion on creation and Being, on fate and free will) depends on the reader's
recognition and identification, in other words, on his or her culture and ability to
connect and collocate.
Using Genette's notion of hypertextuality as a point of departure in A Theory of
Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms, Linda Hutcheon, too, argues
that the characteristic feature of contemporary parodic codes is not derision, but the
implied repetition of a second literary text or even of a more general form for which
examples are familiar, involving the intertextual mingling of the familiar and the new in
a ludic self-referential way. Hutcheon heuristically calls attention to a hitherto ignored
dimension of parody long relegated to an oppositional activity of "counter-song"
[para/odos], a second dimension which she grounds in an alternate acceptation of its
etymological root parodia (notably para as signifying "beside") implying an accord or
intimacy. This type of parody, a mixture of homage and playful offhandedness, is a
transcontextualized repetition with a difference (Hutcheon 32-33). As a bitextual
synthesis, such parody is homologous to Bakhtin's double-voicedness, but also to tropes
such as the metaphor in which levels of meaning coexist within a paradigmatic relation
of substitution and equivalence. As such, it is dependent for its decipherment on the
decoder's ability to "construct a second meaning through inferences about surface
statements and supplement the foreground with acknowledgment and knowledge of a
backgrounded context" (Hutcheon 34) ( 20 ).
The question now arises as to whether the cultural production and reading practices
of the late 20th-century and early 21st-century continue to generate an ability to connect
18 I wish to thank two of my graduate students, Madeleine Laurencin and Sneharika Roy, for having
drawn my attention back to these landmark texts in our discussions.
19 Riffaterre distinguishes meaning and significance in a manner analogous to the distinction
previously made between mimesis and mimicry: "I shall speak of meaning when words signify through
their one-to-one relationship with non-verbal referents, that is, their reference to what we know or believe
we know as reality. I shall speak of significance when these same words signify through their relationship
with structural invariants (no one-to-one relationship this time since there must be two or more variants
for one invariant" (Riffaterre "Syllepsis," pp 625-626, original emphases)
20 for future book cf L Hutcheon's 5 directions of reference Poetics of PM 154).
with and collocate the segments from a network of inherited founding texts encoded
into a contemporary work. Can a contemporary readership perceive such voices and
decode them to arrive at a full interpretation other than in a second-hand way? How do
the practitioners of dialogism, writers themselves, perceive their receptors, their
interpreters, their interlocutors? How does their projection of reception affect their
production? I seem to detect an evolution in which transtextuality with metatextual,
even autotextual functions, designed primarily to foreground the text in process, is
shifting to a new form of metafiction, inherently didactic.
Mutant Metafiction: Dialogism and Death (of the Hypotext)
From Canadian writer Margaret Atwood to New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones, one
can discern a taste for an almost anxious dialogue with absent texts, in which exegesis
becomes story, and interpretation interchangeable with plot. This exploration of
metafiction in mutation was inspired by the examples of Jones's Mister Pip, winner of
the 2007 Commonwealth Writers' Prize, and Atwood's recent story collection Moral
Disorder (both published in 2006), notably the dialogues they respectively engage with
Dickens, Washington Irving and Browning. I posit that their metafictional writing is no
longer primarily self-reflexive but interpretive, calling attention not to its own process
but to a hypotext which has been all but erased by the subsequent layers of palimpsestic
overcoding, rather like an underpainting which has undergone the technique of
In Postcolonial Con-Texts: Writing Back to the Canon, John Thieme has already
amply investigated the complicitous reception outweighing the adversarial in Dickens's
reception and influence outside of Britain, notably the filiative response he has aroused
in a number of postcolonial writers from Narayan and Naipaul to Peter Carey (Jack
Maggs) and Elizabeth Jolley (Miss Peabody's Inheritance). A dialogue with a canonical
work by Dickens provides the building material in a more frontal, less oblique way for
Lloyd Jones's Mister Pip. On an island blockaded by rebels in which the few available
books are in pidgin, the last white man, Mr. Watts aka Pop Eye, agrees to take on the
interrupted schooling. To the children who have never been read to in English before,
he begins to read a chapter a day from Dickens's Great Expectations. The readings,
which reveal themselves to be simultaneously a series of rewritings, are presented
through the eyes of the small black narrator Matilda as a gift, calling up Derek
Walcott's celebration of the "essential masterpieces" which his colonial classical
education made available to him and the writers of his generation and which he called
"the greatest bequest the Empire made" (Walcott, "Meanings" 50). The very first
sentences of the novel read to the children 21 stun them with the capacity of language
and fiction to make worlds, notably with the first person shifter I/my and its power to
project locutors and receptors into another subjectivity and field of experience. Little
Matilda admits that when she heard Mr. Watts speak she thought "he was talking about
himself. That he was Pip" and only later noticed the book in his hand. The children are
mesmerised by the flow of words. When it stops, it takes them a while to "stir back into
[their] bodies and [their] lives (Jones 18) 22 . In subsequent readings the children are
amazed to discover words and the unknown notions, worlds, and truths which they
carry: "We were amazed when he told us the truth of a rimy morning. We could not
imagine air so cold that it made smoke come out of your mouth or caused grass to snap
in your hands. We could not imagine such a world" (Jones 29). Jones's story is the story
of world-making as a dialogical process between producer and receptor. When during a
foray onto the island the rebel redskins burn down the village and the novel along with
it, the children set out to "retrieve" (109) the lost novel, to reconstruct and re/member
the space they had inhabited with Pip23 . The collective rewriting (the children providing
recalled fragments in disorder) unfolds as a metatextual lesson in reception, the children
learning that when the exact words of remembered fragments did not come, they could
arrive at the gist of the meaning through analogy and substitution, and suggest the
different through the same 24 . But another level of rewriting, or rather unwriting, is at
the core of the novel. Following an apocalyptic turn of events during which the rebels
chop up Mr. Watts and Matilda's mother and feed them to the pigs, Matilda, saved and
at present in a high school in Australia, borrows a library copy of Great Expectations
and has a thundering revelation: "Mr. Watts had rewritten Mr. Dickens' masterwork"
(Jones 195), had "pulled the embroidery out of Dickens' story to make it easier on
[their] young ears" (197). In hindsight she remembers how her mother had previously
shocked the schoolteacher by accusing Dickens of using "fancy nancy" words merely to
21 Notably "My father's family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue
could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip.So I called myself Pip, and came to
be called Pip".
22 Quote from p200.
23 The room is large, for Pip quickly becomes the object of universal sympathy and identification.
The older narrator emphasises the "personal touchstones" each re-reading offers her: "To this day I
cannot read Pip's confession – It is a most miserable thing to feel ashamed of home – without feeling the
same of my island" (197). And she ponders the polyphonic resonances: "I called myself Pip, and came to
be called Pip is one of the most endearing lines in literature. This is who I am: please accept me as you
find me. This is what an orphanage sends its charges out to the world with. This is what emigrants wash
up on Pacific shorelines with." (218)
"pretty up a plain sentence" (196-97) She concludes that the children's attempts to
retrieve fragments of the novel were analogous to rebuilding a castle with straw, that
"[their] failure was guaranteed" because in appeasement to this objection, they
subsequently hadn't been given the "full story" (195). The layers of rewritings seem to
suggest that the original Victorian novel is hitherto accessible only through mediated,
simplified reconfigurations. Or that it is not given a chance 25 .
In today's publishing industry regulated by the market forces of consumer society
and catering to an audience more comfortable with visual and audial forms of fiction,
are the master narratives at all readable? Or are they reduced to living on solely through
the spin-off products of their hypertexts, such as, let us say, the film Sleepy Hollow,
directed by Tim Burton (1999)? These very same questions are raised on the other side
of the globe by Margaret Atwood. Through the dynamics of dialogism, in which the
locutor's utterance has been filled with the words of another before it and shaped by the
anticipation of the response following it, the figurations and configurations of the
headless horseman folktale have travelled across time and space. Through the dynamics
of allegorisation, the motif of such a figure of power devoid of his head, of reason and
control, have come to stand for evil. It has nourished the romance and then the Gothic,
from medieval England's Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (anonymous) and
nineteenth-century America's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Washington Irving) to
twenty-first-century Canada's Moral Disorder. Yet the folktale configurations are
apparently no longer part of a cultural continuum identifiable to a wide readership. The
older narrator of "The Headless Horseman" explains the origin of the Halloween
disguise she chose at the age of thirteen:
I got the Headless Horseman idea from a story we'd read in school. In the story,
the Headless Horseman was a grisly legend and also a joke, and that was the
effect I was aiming for. I thought everyone would be familiar with this figure: if
I'd studied a thing in school I assumed it was general knowledge. (MD 32)
The narrator's use of the indefinite article (a story; a thing) indicates already that the
story does not conform to the concept of identifiability associated with the definite
article. Thus it is not a huge surprise to the reader that, while her friend's Raggedy Ann
"Mr. Watts put it this way. 'If I say tree, I will think English oak, you will think palm tree. They are
both trees. A palm and an oak both successfully describe what a tree is, but they are different trees.' (114)
25 For when the older Matilda becomes a relief teacher in Brisbane, reading Great Expectations aloud
to classes of unruly boys is her "get-out-of-jail card." A mutinous class told that if after 10 minutes of
reading they can leave if bored never fails to remain under its spell. Cf pawpaw (200)
disguise is readily identified by the adults who opened the doors, her Headless
Horseman figure is absent from their cultural references:
Everyone knew who my friend Annie was portraying – "Raggedy Annie!" they
cried with delight, they even got the pun - but to me they said, "And who are you
supposed to be?" My cape had a muffling effect, so I often had to repeat the
answer twice. "The Headless Horseman." "The headless what?" Then, "what's
that you're holding?" they would go on to say. "It’s the head. Of the Headless
Horseman." "Oh yes, I see." The head would then be admired, though in the
overdone way adults had of admiring a thing when they secretly thought it was
inept and laughable. It didn't occur to me that if I'd wanted my costume to be
understood immediately I should have chosen something more obvious." (MD
The loss of such literary and cultural artefacts, the anxiety of a progenitive hypertext
confronted with the disappearance of its progenitor hypotext, make up a large part of
the story cycle's general dynamics of entropy. The retrospective narration oscillates
between "now" and "back then," a past contaminated by the degradation of the future
through lexemes such as "still" and "not yet" announcing what they postpone, and the
flashes forward to the time of narration project readers to a mother who "is now very
old, and bedridden, and blind" (MD 37), a ternary series with a sledge hammer effect
reinforced by the polysyndeton, alliteration, and strong one-syllable ending.
Furthermore, standing in front of the mother's door with her now grey-haired little
sister, the door she used to go in through year after year as a child, the narrator's voice
overlaps with the author's to offer a gnomic locution suffused with an ontological
resignation to the intimations of death: "all doors used regularly are doors to the
afterlife" (61).
"'That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,' said Miss Bessie." Atwood starts the
following hypertextual story off with ventriloquism, displacing the first line of
Browning's famous dramatic monologue "My Last Duchess" from the Duke of Ferrara's
mouth into the mouth of a dummy fictional character, all the more jarring as it involves
a shift in time and place, from the Italy of the Renaissance to contemporary Duchessless Canada. The ventriloquism is all the more complex as it replicates, with a
difference (true to the parodic mode Genette identified and Hutcheon developed), the
very genre of the dramatic monologue which became a trademark of the poet's
aesthetics precisely because it dramatically refracted the utterances of others, and
substituted another's voice for the subjective lyrical effusion favoured by the
Romantics. Plato had condemned tragedy for its imitative transposition or illusory
enunciation, namely the poet's delegating speech to his characters and speaking as if he
were another rather than speaking in his own voice. Browning reversed the mechanics
of tragedy by making the "I," the speaking subject, appropriate the voice of the
character. Atwood's sustained hybrid utterance refracts the original refraction of the
progenitor hypotext, all the while drawing the intradiegetic receptors, the high school
class, and the extradiegetic receptors, we readers, into exegetic activity. Miss Bessie
takes up her own voice in a maieutic strategy designed to take her learners line by line
through the process of interpretation: "Now, class. What does that single word, last, tell
us right away?" (MD 63). The story unfolds in accordance with this staged, stratified,
and mediated dialogic encounter between production and reception, encoding and
decipherment, through the subjectivity of the young female narrator: "Last Duchess.
There had to be more than one, then. A whole bunch of Duchesses, all in a row like a
chorus line. No: it was last as in last year. The Duchess was back there in the past –
gone, over with, left behind" (MD 64). The self-correction of epanorthosis (No: it was)
generates an illusion of orality and authenticity but also guides the second level of
addressees, Atwood's readers, through the traps of polysemy, point of view, and
verisimilitude into the world Browning has made with words. The adventure consists
essentially in vulgarisation, in rendering the high style of the fictional world intelligible
and relevant by transposing it into what Bakhtin has identified as the "common
language" expressing the "going point of view" (DI 301) corresponding to the time-andvalue plane of contemporary readers. The young narrator Nell wrestles with point of
view and muses: "Why indeed had the Duke spilled the beans in such a witless manner
to a complete stranger if he was trying to convince the envoy to clinch the deal?" (MD
85, my emphases). Intelligibility is ultimately attained, and while Nell's interlocutors,
her boyfriend Bill and his mother, find it neither readable nor relevant ("it was a shame
he had to study it – it wouldn't be of any use to him later in life" (MD 88), Nell herself
senses that hidden within such stories there is something important we need to know,
tangled, oblique, and complicated. That it is "not so much a thing as a pattern, like the
clues in a detective story once you start connecting them together" (MD 94, my
emphases). Deciphering the patterns in the worlds of her prescribed texts enables Nell
to make sense of hers, to see the multiplicity of viewpoints and the relative value of
one's own, placed last in a long cultural continuum. The excipit of the story imparts this
moral through antithesis, parallelism, and echo: "Very soon I would be a last-year's
student. I would be gone from Miss Bessie's world, and she would be gone from mine.
Both of us would be in the past, both of us over and done with – me from her point of
view, her from mine. Sitting in my present day desk there would be another, younger
student, who would be poked and prodded and herded relentlessly through the
prescribed texts, as I had been. The first line of a poem is very important, class, Miss
Bessie would say. It sets the tone. Let us proceed.'" (MD 95) The multivocal, looping
final echo, in which the teacher's initial remarks on the Browning poem are reiterated as
a generic guidance, takes on allegorical connotations, as the young narrator prepares to
enter "the dark tunnel" of the passage to adulthood (95). It is suggested that it is
precisely those prescribed texts she has been herded through which are a source of
empowerment: "I myself would be inside the dark tunnel. I'd be going on. I'd be finding
things out. I'd be all on my own." (MD 95)
What collides with an apparent level of optimism concerning transmission and
cultural continuity and thereby links this story (and others in the cycle) with the anxiety
of the preceding one is that Atwood too feels the necessity to herd her readers through a
number of prescribed texts, but in the drastically abridged, simplified and ultimately
reductive manner of common language which deflates the grand or cosmic to the low
level of the going view. Hardy's Tess of the d'Ubervilles is boiled down to soap opera
level through a series of idiomatic enumerations which leaves the term "tragic" at the
end emptied of all possible substance.
[Tess] got taken advantage of, at night, in the woods, because she'd stupidly
accepted a drive home with a jerk, and after that it was all downhill, one awful
thing after another, turnips, dead babies, getting dumped by the man she loved,
and then her tragic death at the end. ((MD 93)
Jarred moreover by the equivalence between dead babies and turnips generated by
contiguity, readers are informed that Tess was merely "another of those unlucky
pushovers, like the Last Duchess, and like Ophelia" who are all "hapless, annoying,
dumb-bunny girls" who get "bumped off" (93). Such polyphonic interpretive
metafiction seems to challenge the very texts whose slide into oblivion is being
mourned, and the vulgarising summaries which function equally as a hypertextual
attempt to prolong these master narratives paradoxically drive a nail into their coffin.
The speech of the narrator's social group knits with a debunking authorial voice, and
collides paradoxically with an authorial stance of anxiety concerning an identified
civilisational erosion. The story making this quite explicit is allegorically entitled
"Monopoly," the board game and its rules representing life and its social organisation.
The narration divides society into a Before and After in which the watershed separating
past civilisation from present barbarism or moral disorder was that year of socio14
political upheaval and disruption, 1968, "when all games had changed at once and
earlier structures had fallen apart and everyone had begun pretending that the very
notion of rules was obsolete" (133). Moral Disorder is undeniably metalinguistic,
metatextual, even metacritical in the manner of theory fiction 26 27 . As she has done in
previous works such as The Blind Assassin and Oryx and Crake, Atwood sets out to
investigate rules, to deconstruct the cryptic codes governing all areas of social
interaction, laying bare their underlying mechanisms and interconnections, from dress
codes and table etiquette to work, gender and identity construction.
The narratorial/authorial voice laments the "old rules" (responsible doubtless for her
having been among those still "herded through" the prescribed texts discussed above),
and identifies an accompanying impoverishment in all domains of human interaction,
particularly language 28 . Calling up Orwell's Newspeak, designed to reduce the faculty
to conceptualize by reducing the language, and Atwood's own near-future fiction Oryx
and Crake, in which the survivor Snowman desperately recites rare words in which he
identifies the remnants of civilisation, the enunciative voice declares in all its
multivocality, resonant with the speech of a common opinion in mutation:
There had been entrances and exits then, not just the vague wanderings in and out
of rooms and the mumblings and slouchings and shrugs that had replaced social
life. Emotions with recognizable words attached to them had been involved:
jealousy, despair, love, treachery, hate, fault, the whole antique shop. But to have
a vocabulary of any size was now a disadvantage, among the young and those
who purported to be young. (MD 134)
Cf Dvorak, ECW article.
27 The view of literature seen through the eye of the professional reader (teacher or editor), is almost
invariably ironically reductive with Atwood. Through her focalizer who needs to read Victorian novels
intensively so as to stay ahead of her students, Atwood sums up the "essence" of Victorian literature in a
chaotic enumeration of items whose disorder is reinforced by polysyndeton, and whose contiguity
apparently obeys the rules of musication, in which the phonic prevails over the semantic value. The list
nonetheless metatextually identifies key features or constants, intermingling the trivial and the sublime :
"She would … read about love and money and madness and furniture and governesses and adultery and
drapery and scenery and death" Or see Nell marking trite essay topics (Moral Disorder 123, 137
28 Known for her firm, often satirical stances on power politics, and for her claim that the novel is "a
moral instrument" (Second Words 353), Atwood's societal critique in this story collection is not in
question. What is interesting is that the social criticism is closely interrelated to the metalinguistic,
metatextual investigations interrogating artistic production and the mechanics of reception. Paradoxically
for a postmodern writer practised in interrogating certitudes and absolutes, Atwood roots her dynamics in
an essentialist stance already strongly discernable in The Blind Assassin and Oryx and Crake – an
essentialist stance seeking a meta-structure, a logic underlying all signifying systems. Even more
interestingly, the formal permanent features or constants that she finds in all spheres, whether it be in
literature or life, is the rules themselves, or rather the existence of rules. (Develop 132 & // with CES
Palimpsests + transition)
If alongside of obsolete words and obsolete notions, we place obsolete texts, can we
find a common denominator? A relation of cause and effect? And in the shrinking of
cultural references which have replaced Vercingétorix with Astérix and Ulysses with a
cartoon intergalactic traveller, what responsibility can be imputed to the education
system? Or to the publishing industry? Are the grand narratives still read and studied by
a small elite, available at least in university libraries and bookstores? Are the classics of
Canadian literature still published and available? Apparently, texts published prior to
the twentieth-century are increasingly rare in today's curricula. Having planned recently
to include in a joint graduate seminar at the University of Montreal the landmark satire
by Thomas McCulloch, The Letters of Mephibosheth Stepsure, I quickly learned that it
is among the numerous Canadian classics which went out of print in the 1960s and are
likely to stay that way 29 . The fact that my own copy is a discarded library copy is an
additional sign that the space granted on a library shelf is transient and dependent on
fashion. Moreover, today's fast book as well as fast food culture has editors and
publishers scrambling to accommodate tastes by cutting and abridging drastically. The
back cover of the 1969 New Canadian Library edition of William Kirby's classic
romance The Golden Dog (1877) announces that the editor cut the novel "to half its
original (and somewhat alarming) length of 678 pages, without losing any of its
essential tempo and colour" (my emphasis), and in his Introduction the editor, who is
pleased to have reduced such a "discouraging length for the average reader," is happy
that "Kirby's romance lends itself to cutting, especially if we consider the tastes of the
modern reader" (vii). He enumerates the so-called redundant material which has been
"struck out" Reader's Digest fashion: characters with no apparently direct bearing on
the main plot, love scenes, historical details, whole chapters on feasts. It is of no
concern apparently that feasts and other celebrations that authors describe at length
conform to the symbolic acts of social cohesion best described as ritual, which Northrop
Frye terms "the epiphany of the myth, the manifestation or showing forth of it in action"
(Frye 55). What is particularly deplorable is that the truncated version is the only one
available on library shelves.
Finally, it is enlightening to look at the role critics, anthologists, and authors and
editors of encyclopaedias and literary companions may have in promoting or silencing
29 This is in fact not entirely accurate, as I have learned since the moment of writing this.
McCulloch's classic has been reedited by Gwen Davies and reprinted by the Centre for Editing Early
Canadian Texts (Ottawa: Carleton UP, 1990) However, this significantly remains a well-kept secret.
Several bookstores from Amazon and Abebooks to Exportlivres have been adamant these past 3 years
voices. Having written the chapter on Fiction in The Cambridge Companion to
Canadian Literature, and then recently authoring chapters spanning two quite different
time periods (from Frances Brooke's The History of Emily Montague [1769] to Leonard
Cohen's Beautiful Losers [1966]) for two literary histories of Canada (Cambridge UP
and Camden House) 30 , I have naturally compared and confronted preceding scholarly
discussions ranging from Karl Klinck's Literary History of Canada (1965) to W.H.
New's Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada (2002). The comparisons were
enlightening as to the shift in critical tastes which accompanies the evolution in readers'
tastes, and which accounts for a writer either sliding into oblivion or being rescued from
obscurity. To take but a few examples, in William Toye's Oxford Companion to
Canadian Literature (1983), under E one finds Arthur Eaton but no Edith, while in
New's Encyclopedia (2002) one finds Edith but no Arthur. Arthur Eaton, a nineteenthcentury Maritime writer and poet, whose verses, satirical sketches, and historical studies
of Nova Scotia were judged significant by Toye's contributor ("an independent, not a
derivative, creation" Toye 227) but struck out by New. Edith Eaton, not deemed of
sufficient literary significance to be included by Toye, finds herself included by New,
whose entry acknowledges the stereotypical quality of the early twentieth-century
stories on Chinese immigrants but finds her description of the problems of acculturation
"sympathetic and insightful" (New 324). The choices reflect a growing interest in
popular literature and culture as well as multicultural perspectives. Grace Campbell's
formula fiction celebrating pioneer life and virtues, included by Klinck, is dropped by
Toye in spite of its bestseller status during the war, but brought back into favour by
New through a nascent interest in book design: the entries devote space not only to
Campbell's Thorn-Apple Tree (1942), but also to the fact that Group of Seven member
Franklin Carmichael provided the woodcuts, directed the typography, and completed
the book design. Evelyn Eaton, however, present in Klinck's literary history, sinks
without a trace in Toye's, never to rise again.
How many readers familiar with the title of Hemingway's novel For Whom the Bell
Tolls can identify John Donne's sermon "No Man Is an Island" (Meditations XVII) as
the intertext which gives the work not only its polyphonic but also its ontological
resonance? Who still reads Donne today? There are undeniably certain literary giants
(since early 2006 when I began to work on my chapter for the Cambridge UP Literary History of Canada)
about the book being out of print.
30 give titles
whose canonical works continue to be read and translated in themselves. After leaving
his imprint on modernists Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett, Dante has
notably influenced contemporary poets Robert Lowell, James Merrill, and Seamus
Heaney to Wilson Harris and Derek Walcott. Simultaneously, in the last fifty years
comporting late modernism and postmodernism, no less than fifty writers have tackled
new prose and verse translations of Dante 31 . Still, I suggest that most texts are fully
intelligible only within their cultural time frame (roughly the span of a century). Since
writing, particularly ironic writing, resides not only in the writer's ability to represent
textually, but also in the receptor's process of perception, successful reception requires
certain shared frames with respect to values, cultural and aesthetic context, or at the
very least a readerly sensibility to authorial intent 32 . These texts, then, metamorphose
into palimpsestic background cultural myths, informing new texts which render them
once more readable by transforming them, in an eternal process in which hypotext
morphs into hypertext, and then back into hypotext. In this cyclical process, many of
these master narratives disappear. Or rather, they enter the collective unconscious as
archetypal motifs (perceptible in the mass media, in advertising, film, or comics),
having undergone a detextualisation in our multimedia world which is perhaps
identifiable as the true mutation. We can indeed evoke the death of the hypotext, for we
are more in the realm of myth than text. Text in the original etymological sense of
textus (surface/material/base) signifying the concrete bottom or supporting part has
mutated – mutated to an immaterial mental state, but also to other forms of material,
other cultural media, transforming intertextuality to intergenericity, intersemioticity, or
rather, intermediality.
See Maria Cristina Fumagalli, The Flight of the Vernacular: Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, and
the Impress of Dante. Cross/Cultures 49.Amsterdam/N.Y.: Rodopi, 2001.
32 Klinck's Literary History notably dismisses Frances Brooke's The History of Emily Montague , the
first novel to emanate from the North American continent, as a merely amusing account of social
occasions, and the "niceties of courtship and love" (78, viii respectively), ignoring the series of letters
analysing the political and religious state of Canada. The satirist Thomas McCulloch is also read through
the filter of modern sensibility, notably the modern reader's taste for realism and distaste for apparent
self-righteousness. The recourse to farce and to caricatures for characters are judged as "technical flaws,"
even "defects," (Klinck 107, New)
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