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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Postgraduate Diary: Humour Me

Friday, December 15, 2006

Having at long last rounded off my chapter on A Whistling Woman, I am moving on to look at A.S. Byatt's Possession (although with only a week before I go home for Christmas, I am trying productively to procrastinate and to re-edit existing chapters, rather than starting a new one now). Among its many other subjects, this Booker-winning novel provides a parody of postmodern literary criticism. At one gloriously anarchistic moment in the novel, Maud (the heroine) stands in the shower and thinks about Fergus, an arrogant, academic anti-hero with whom she had a brief fling at a conference. Maud is a feminist, psychoanalytic critic, a form of analysis Byatt mockingly plays up to here:
Freud was right, Maud thought, vigorously rubbing her white legs, desire lies on the other side of repugnance. The Paris conference where she had met Fergus had been on Gender and the Autonomous Text. She had talked about thresholds and he had given an authoritative paper on 'The Potent Castrato: the phallogocentricstructuration ofBalzac'shermaphroditehero/ines'. The drift of his argument appeared to be feminist. The thrust of his presentation was somehow mocking and subversive. He flirted with self-parody. He expected Maud to come into his bed.
The passage reminds that we are addicted to jargon and conjunctions as evidence of our own cleverness. But, as Maud rubs her legs, naked in the shower, it lays bare through the puns that our vocabulary provides a screen of language which conceal s the fact that, behind it all, we are, simply, obsessed about sex. (See Acephalous for some unfortunate, hilarious proof).

Byatt is herself a former institutionalised literary critic (as opposed to the public intellectual she is now). However critical, her writing also indicates that we do have a sense of humour, able to mock ourselves even whilst taking and presenting ourselves seriously and (perhaps incongruently) sexily as well. Given the passage above, Byatt would probably have approved of The Amazing and Incredible, Only-slightly-Laughable Politically Unassailable, PoMo English Title Generator. Here, you type in an author and a novel and let the generator produce a clever sounding title, for use by the undergraduate in his dissertation topic, or by the professor "trying to obtain department funding to go to that high-flying, hard-drinking conference." Try Balzac, and what emerges is not unlike the title Byatt invents for her fictional characters. From "Collusive Relic and the Dis-ease of Masculist Dualism in Balzac's La Comédie humaine" to "Merging Seduction: Testicular Capitalism in Balzac's La Comédie humaine," the generator produces titles which, worrying, would be quite feasible in some of the postmodern literary journals and conferences of the sort the two fictional academics attend. For myself, I am not sure that I dare write on "Complicity and Feminism in Possession: A.S. Byatt Visioning Orgasmic Discourse," though it remains a possibility if the current theme of my chapter proves unproductive.

We are driven by sex, and as part of that impulse we show off our learning with the pretentious peacock feathers of language (an ostentatious piece of alliteration and metaphor if ever there was one). Literary criticism has thus become something of a cult, with its own morals and codes of discourse. Perhaps, therefore, not every reader of this blog will appreciate the humour derived from intense anthropological observation of our group that goes into Jorge Cham's comic strip Piled Higher and Deeper (PhD). If you are lucky enough to have escaped academia for the real world, the subtleties of some of these may pass you by. If you are yourself a postgraduate, however, you may be able to comment on whether, since I dare not use a randomly generated title in my PhD, I dare at least show this or this to my supervisor, as I fail to get my writing on Possession off the ground?

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Posted by Alistair at 3:36 pm


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