Section 7

Dick Frizzell: Masterpiece

Lecture 7:
Metafiction (ii)

How to be Somewhere & Nowhere
at the Same Time


Jorge Luis Borges: El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan
[The Garden of Forking Paths] (1941)

Hector Haralambous: Ts’ui Pên's Garden of Forking Paths (trans. Dr. Stephen Albert)

Non-unitary Self-consciousness

In his wonderfully clear (and deservedly famous) guide to Literary Theory (1983), Terry Eagleton tries to unpack some of the implications of the sentence “Dogs must be carried on the escalator.” Now, as we all know, this means that if you are accompanied by a dog, you should lift up that dog and hold it in your arms while using the escalator.

That’s not what it actually says, however. The sentence can also be construed, perfectly correctly (in grammatical terms, at least) to mean that no-one has the right to use an escalator unless they are carrying a dog.

This may sound like a silly paradox, but as we get deeper into the subject, we begin to perceive just how radically our use of language shapes the ways in which we see reality, and to understand that a sentence can make grammatical sense without having much – if any – meaning in reality.

The linguistic philosopher Wittgenstein called these “language games” – things which can be casually said without having any real bearing on outside phenomena. His response was to exclude all statements including vague or ill-defined terms (abstractions such as “truth” or “justice,” hypothetical entities such as “God” or “Brahma”) from discussion.

Age-old philosophical questions such as “What is the nature of truth?” suddenly fell by the wayside. To Wittgenstein, this was the equivalent of asking “What is the blah of blah-blah?”
What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.
- Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921)
Shutting up about things we can, in the present state of our knowledge, say nothing about, was his solution to the endless proliferation of foolish theories about abstractions which no-one could satisfactorily define.

There’s another interesting sentence which Eagleton discusses in his book. The sentence, ‘This is awfully squiggly handwriting!’ could be a factual statement about reality, but ‘as a matter of fact’ (he informs us triumphantly):
it is ‘literary’ language, because it comes from Knut Hamsun’s novel Hunger.
Actually Eagleton’s example is somewhat ill-chosen, as the sentence he quotes is not, in fact, from Hamsun’s novel. It is, rather, from an English translation of Hamsun’s Norwegian original.

Is a translation the same thing as its original? Hardly. There’s a famous essay by Walter Benjamin in which he argues that the translator, in transporting a work of art from one language to another, is privileged – when situated momentarily between the original and its translation – to see it as a whole, outside the contingencies of language and era (for a work can date in its use of language, also).

Roland Barthes: The Death of the Author

Those of us who are fascinated by the true nature of language and being can therefore see, hidden in the paradoxes of literary theory, a genuine way to discuss those things which Wittgenstein (in his early phase, at any rate) sees as unattainable for man.

We cannot resolve the questions he raised, but we can work our way around them – swim in the new realities his apparent reductionism has opened up for us.

For the moment, though, perhaps we can conclude simply that there are many different levels on which we can speak, and we need to possess a reasonable understanding of them before we can even begin to make sense to one another.

V-J Day kiss (Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1945)

V-J Day kiss (Watchmen, 2009)

In the New Zealand context, metafiction has both an increasingly complex contemporary presence, and an interesting backstory. Matt Harris has charted its history in in his fascinating PhD thesis “Metafiction in New Zealand from the 1960s to the present day” (2012), focussing along the way on such works as Janet Frame’s Living in the Maniototo (1979), C. K. Stead’s All Visitors Ashore (1984), Russell Haley’s The Settlement (1986), Michael Jackson’s Rainshadow (1988), Albert Wendt’s Ola (1991), and Charlotte Randall’s Within the Kiss (2002).

Harris concludes with the following reflections on nationality:
If one contrasts the extroverted European or American with the self-consciously reluctant New Zealand “hero” (say Edmund Hillary, Janet Frame, Colin McCahon, Richie McCaw) one ends up with a more introspective, or at least laconic, individual – the typically humble and sometimes dour and self-deprecating sensibility that led … Craig Harrison in “How To Be a Pom” to sarcastically joke that all of New Zealand fiction is censored by one “General Literary Universal Misery Subcommittee” – acronym: GLUMS. (170-71)
It is (perhaps) this very grimness and inwardness that makes metafiction such a comfortable mode for New Zealanders. Harris admits that this may be as much a ‘self-fulfilling tendency based on notions of distance and isolation, as it is an effect of place and culture.’
But what I hope has come out of this discussion is that while the renaissance of reflexive literature in America and Europe probably had a large part to play in New Zealand’s appropriation of the metafictional mode, the ground here was already fertile for its growth: however it came about, a degree of the inward-looking, apolitical, reflexive, self-regarding character was already a feature of what could be broadly described as the terms of New Zealanders’ self-description, and others – especially those outside of the country – have recognised it. (171)

Ralph Hotere: Black Rainbow (1988)

E. Hull: 'Death found an author writing his life' (1827)

Critical Skills (i) – Analysing a Story

By 'milieu' he meant the circumstances or environment that modify
the inherited racial disposition. By 'moment' Taine meant the momentum
of past and present cultural traditions.
The Encyclopedia Britannica

How should one set about conducting a critical analysis of a story?

  • Choose one story from the 18 included in your course materials (either one we've already discussed, or one from the next half of the course).
  • Using French critic Hippolyte Taine's formula of "l'homme, le moment, le milieu" [author / era / context], write a brief paragraph about each.
  • Now try to sum up your investigation in a single phrase about the story: what you think it is actually about.
  • We'll use this as the starting point for a discussion about theories of fiction: different ways of making sense of the stories we read, in terms of some of the categories (psychology, politics, philosophy) we've already talked about in the course.

Length: no less than a page, no more than 500 words.

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