Really fantastic

A.D. Nuttall

  • A Rhetoric of the Unreal: Studies in Narrative and Structure, especially of the Fantastic by Christine Brooke-Rose
    Cambridge, 380 pp, £25.00, October 1981, ISBN 0 521 22561 2

If Christine Brooke-Rose had stayed in Oxford, instead of migrating to France, she might have been rather like Helen Gardner. Her new book is written with a crispness and a briskness which at once evokes a certain atmosphere: a highly intelligent unresponsiveness to theory, a fear of subjectivity (she even recalls, with obvious relish, her Oxford tutor’s phrase for mere criticism, ‘personal effusions’). But this manner is overlaid by a thick stratum of French theory and French taste. Professor Brooke-Rose knows all about and uses the writings of Barthes, Todorov, Genette and Hamon, and takes pleasure in applying chill taxonomies to racy American Science Fiction (Vonnegut, McElroy). The resulting mixture is heady stuff, but not very satisfying.

The book begins with a flurry of information. The impression one receives, despite the frequent use of ‘scientists’ idiom’ such as ‘A, building on the work of B, has shown ...’, is of a buzzing non-progressive plurality of views: Vladimir Propp is actually better than his successors; Todorov on ‘the fantastic’ is dubious; Barthes comes through as waywardly and idiosyncratically brilliant. Professor Brooke-Rose tells us what we have been told before, that Greimas could not supply a method of passing from one level of his system to another, and so failed to produce a generative grammar of literature. She also observes that the Marxist criticism of Lukacs and Goldmann fails to account for the difference between the values proposed by artists and the values upheld by their principal public, the bourgeoisie. This particular problem seems in fact made to order for Professor Brooke-Rose with her cluttered work-bench, for one has only to cobble together Marxist and psychoanalytic interpretations to solve it: the bourgeoisie applauds the ‘subversive’ artist as a licensed anti-self. Kings used to applaud their fools in much the same way. But Professor Brooke-Rose has no stomach for such grand or grandiose theories. Sounding more and more like Dame Helen, she proposes to get on with the job of analysing a specific text.

She chooses, first, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. With scholarly precision she compiles from previous critics a long, sad list of interpretations not warranted by the text. She then enters the labyrinth herself and finds that it is a maze of mirrors (beginning with the ‘long glasses’ in which the governess is able to view her entire person for the first time). At first (as reviewers should), I resisted Professor Brooke-Rose’s analysis. She writes that Quint’s face, seen at the window, is like a face seen in a mirror, because the governess immediately does what monkeys do: she rushes ‘behind the mirror’. My reaction to this was immediate and hostile: first, it is precisely because they do not understand that mirrors are mirrors that monkeys run behind them (they treat them as puzzling windows); secondly, the governess goes outside, knowing that the window is a window, to see if anyone is there; thirdly, the ‘mirror interpretation’ is not backed by the thematic structure of the book – if Miss Jessel (a clear ‘double’ for the governess herself) had appeared at the window, the point might have held. Or so I thought. But my author had not finished. The governess, having gone outside, looks in through the same window and her face ‘white as a sheet’ (like a ghost) frightens Mrs Grose, the housekeeper. Thus the governess’s face does appear in the same frame and is analogically linked to Quint’s. Professor Brooke-Rose follows up this insight with a whole series of ‘mirror-encounters’ and so analyses, with great penetration, one of the principal sources of eeriness in the book. This is brilliant literary criticism, the thing itself, at last.

The method, notice, is entirely traditional. When Professor Brooke-Rose imports the elaborate apparatus assembled in the earlier chapters, the results are less happy. We are given a table showing the appearances of the ghosts, according to six ‘axes of variation’: namely, ‘far/near, up/level/down, out/frontier/in, whole/cut, detailed/vague, framed/unframed’. Thus, reading off from the table, we learn that Quint on the tower is far, up, out, cut, detailed, framed. And that, it seems, is that. Even Edmund Wilson in his clumsy Freudian interpretation did make some use of his observation that the male ghost appeared on a tower, the female by a lake. The interesting element for anyone with a taste for these things (and Professor Brooke-Rose’s tolerance of psychoanalytic explanation seems to be quite high) is the fact that Quint, like Elvis Presley in his early performances, is cut off at the waist. The same esprit de système leads Professor Brooke-Rose to break down the story into groups of four elements. This she connects, rather desperately, with the fact that mirrors usually have four sides. But one can just as easily discern groups of two (two ghosts, two children, the master and Quint, Miss Jessel and the governess).

More importantly, Professor Brooke-Rose decides that The Turn of the Screw is a radically ambiguous work, never allowing the reader to decide whether the apparitions are ghosts or hallucinations. With some trepidation (for I know how many critics have read it differently), I must enter the view that the story is unambiguously supernatural, a real ghost story, and therefore belongs by Todorov’s terminology to the category of the fantastic-marvellous. The matter is clinched by the fact that the governess, never having seen the living Quint, gives a correct description of him, based solely on the apparition. It remains true that James plants in the story a number of suggestions which, if they were uncontested, would lead us to conclude that the apparitions were a pathological hallucination. But it is not the kind of story which leaves such things in unbiased suspense. James excites his readers with a little psychology but then wickedly loads the indices against the naturalist bias of the age. The aim of systematic structural analysis would seem to be a hitherto unattained precision of description and classification. Yet Professor Brooke-Rose misdescribes, misclassifies The Turn of the Screw. It is hard not to conclude that she has fallen victim to the spirit of the age, just as surely as the Freudians whose errors she notes fell victim to another fashion. The ascription of ambiguity is now automatically plausible, before the text is scrutinised. The curious thing is that the scholar in Professor Brooke-Rose really knows all of this. She deals incisively with the futile efforts of John Silver to explain away the governess’s knowledge of Quint’s appearance. But the allure of radical ambiguity, as a mere idea, proves too strong. In Chapter Eight the governess says, of Mrs Grose: ‘I had only to ask her how, if I had “made it up”, I came to be able to give, of each of the persons appearing to me, a picture disclosing ... their special marks – a portrait on the exhibition of which she had instantly recognised and named them.’ Professor Brooke-Rose says that with reference to Miss Jessel this is a ‘patent lie’, since the governess had in fact described her only in ‘conventional ghostly terms’. This is true enough if we artificially confine ourselves to the conversation reported verbatim in Chapter Five, but leaves out of account the fact that Mrs Grose and the governess ‘had another talk’, as James tells us near the beginning of Chapter Eight. If it is objected that the pluperfect tense of ‘had instantly recognised’ more naturally refers to an earlier conversation, it is in any case made clear in Chapter Six that the words directly reported in Chapter Five were only a part of what passed between Mrs Grose and the governess.

Professor Brooke-Rose also writes at length about Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which she dislikes. Structuralists used to despise evaluative criticism but Professor Brooke-Rose does not hesitate to judge. This may look like rebellion but the values she assumes were always, one suspects, latent in structuralism. Thus Tolkien fails by the canons of tidiness, functionality, consistency, coherence. As Voltaire was shocked by Shakespeare’s mingling of tragedy and comedy, Professor Brooke-Rose is repelled by Tolkien’s mixing the techniques of realism with the techniques of the marvellous. Moreover he interweaves stories which do not advance the main action and even adds preposterously overloaded maps and philological notes. What, one asks oneself, must she think of Homer’s similes? But behind the professional irritation of the structural analyst lies a simpler impatience with the childishness of it all. Professor Brooke-Rose acidly notes the ‘infantile happiness’ which Tolkien clubs get out of writing to one another in Elvish. The Tolkien cult is not to my taste but I cannot share this confident contempt. Those who play with computers learn computing. Real philologists and real poets both play with language (not at all the same thing as playing with narrative techniques, a thing Professor Brooke-Rose understands and loves).

Meanwhile the various beasts released at the beginning of the book still prowl untamed at the end: science has let us down with its primary instabilities, objective historiography is impossible; the very notion of mimesis is an illusion. But then Professor Brooke-Rose praises the way Robbe-Grillet conveys the experience of the lost soldier in Dans le Labyrinthe and comes at last to call for a new fiction in which the self-consuming war of formulas is dropped and ‘new forms, even realistic ones’ simply show us the world as it is. Here she seems to opt for a positivist conception of reality as a series of brute, ‘idiot’ facts, which literature may truthfully reflect. The position is in fact solidly objectivist, and in close accord with her earlier scholarly regard for the text itself as opposed to aberrant readings. But Robbe-Grillet proves a doubtful ally. Not content with singularly bare narration, he adds contradiction. Professor Brooke-Rose, faced with this, switches to a non-mimetic view. All this suggests extreme confusion over the issues raised by the title of her book.

Yet she can be sharp, philosophically. She is attracted by the proposition: ‘Formalism is realism.’ Nathalie Sarraute had argued that so-called realists were really formalists because they imitated the forms of their predecessors. This left the obscure apodosis: ‘The formalists are the true realists.’ If this is allowed to ripen into the full thesis, ‘the formalists are the true realists because reality itself is a tissue of forms,’ our ground for disparaging the slavish pseudo-realist is removed: ‘merely formal’ can no longer figure as a term of abuse. The crucial metaphysical postulate, that the world itself is a tissue of forms, requires independent demonstration. Any critic who considers that the postulate can be deduced from Modernist literature, or even that it is corroborated by Modernist literature, must assume that such art is mimetic. Indeed as soon as we say that the formalist is realistic we presuppose mimesis: the two notions are interlocked. But in fact artists often feign. Professor Brooke-Rose, however, remains interested in the important intuition that radical realism is inescapable: even to attribute unreality to things is to make that unreality a feature of reality; if all is convention, convention at least is real. Of course to say that all is convention is to claim implicitly that one statement at least (the present one) is not merely conventional but also true. Therefore total assertions of unreality die even as they are uttered. But this entire body of argument applies only to the assertion of unreality. An unassertive (fantastic?) work escapes its net. Professor Brooke-Rose, though she correctly isolates the crucial proposition, does not want to think about these questions. Instead she rhapsodises: not only is formalism realism, but the new realistic fiction should be fantastic, since reality is itself fantastic. Existentialists may tell us that reality is startling in its aberrancy from norms of expectation, but language will have none of this: no literature which passively reflects reality will be called fantastic; that is not what the word means.