Friday, December 31, 2010

One more something...

This is the last paper of 2009, and though it is not the best paper of 2009 (a rushed term paper with winter stomach flu flourishes), it is from a year ago. And so it reminds me again, to remember that a time of reading and writing will return to me.

Post-Postmodern Intertextuality: The Realm of the Text in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours

“It is New York City. It is the end of the twentieth century.” --The Hours, p. 9

When addressing texts that are actively intertextual, that is, they purposefully interact with specific earlier texts, we often find that we are reading “the other side of the story.” This is especially true of texts written during that blurry-ended period we call postmodernism. In a literary climate where challenges to cultural and aesthetic norms were the business of both the critic and the author, novels such as Grendel and Wide Sargasso Sea attempted to show us the folly of taking their partner-texts (Beowulf and Jane Eyre, respectively) at face value. Through stories that carefully reflect the events of the poem and novel, yet cast them in a new light, Grendel and Wide Sargasso Sea show us the dangers of buying into the cultural and social constructions exhibited by the earlier texts, and, in postmodern fashion, attempt to deconstruct the oppositions in the texts by collapsing age-old binaries such as man/beast, colonizer/colonized, and madness/sanity. While the work of John Gardner and Jean Rhys continues to be illuminating, by the end of the twentieth century creative yet still very theoretical approaches like these seemed to have served their purpose. Theory itself was on the wane in the academy, and certainly in the minds of authors who had in the last half-century of theory-dominance been robbed of their authorial intent and made to question their relationship with their work.

The work of authors like Michael Cunningham began to defy the literary and theoretical “decrees” that would have guided earlier attempts at writing or studying novels, intertextual novels in particular. Cunningham’s novel The Hours is undoubtedly a reply, a dialogic interaction of the postmodern variety, to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. However, it does entirely not fit the mold of a postmodern argumentative “address” to an earlier, usually outmoded sort of text, i.e. the epic poem or the Victorian novel. Cunningham’s novel is different in three main aspects. First, The Hours is not hostile toward the original author or text, hostility usually being one of the unfortunate yet prevalent components of a deconstruction. In fact, the novel is an homage to Mrs. Dalloway and to Woolf. Second, The Hours considers the biographical “other side of the story” rather than the fictional one that, in the spirit of Wide Sargasso Sea, would attempt to tear apart Mrs. Dalloway at the seams. Bringing in biography is huge. Finally, The Hours, while it attempts no careful reconstruction of a storyline to oppose Mrs. Dalloway, sets up two new stories that mirror each other, while both of the stories interact with the original text and with the life of Virginia Woolf as semi-fictionalized by Cunningham. The way these stories interact and talk back to one another, while never forgetting to keep the conversation going with Woolf’s novel, is highly complex and even more impressive than postmodern attempts at simply constructing a story that presents a somewhat predictable (given what we know about theory’s aims) opposing argument to a text. We will see that Cunningham mounts similar deconstructive arguments, yet manages to do so without being destructive.

The Hours opens with an account of Virginia Woolf’s suicide. Already, we are in the realms of biography and tribute. Cunningham immerses us in Woolf’s thoughts as “she us almost distracted by the sight of the downs, the church, a scattering of sheep…one of the farm workers (is his name John?)…she thinks of how successful he is, how fortunate, to be cleaning a ditch…” (5). This stream of consciousness is purposely reminiscent of Woolf’s style in Mrs. Dalloway. Cunningham also includes Woolf’s actual suicide note (6), bringing in a physical connection to reality, to biography, and all this combined with his moving, almost mystical description of Woolf becoming part of the river, tell us we are reading an homage. (That is, if we didn’t already know from the title – "The Hours" was Woolf’s working title for Mrs. Dalloway, and the phrase is repeated in nearly every chapter of the book.) While it would be na├»ve to assume that, for instance, Jean Rhys does not admire Charlotte Bronte simply because she deconstructs her most famous novel, we find nothing of a direct nod to Bronte in Wide Sargasso Sea, nothing bordering Cunningham’s obvious and open adoration for the author his novel treats both as text and as human. The offensive on which theory places the mid-century author of the intertextual text practically prohibits any magnanimous interaction with the partner text, and explicitly prohibits the sort of interaction with the author that we find in The Hours. Julia Kristeva, coiner of the term intertextual in 1966, would have it (along with many other mid-century theorists) that “the author is dead.” Her theory of intertextuality divorces authors and their intent from the text, and in fact treats the author as a separate but related text, his personal history as yet another set of texts. I would argue that Kristeva’s thoughts on authorship are just a traditional look at authors and texts using theoretical terminology as a device to seemingly distance the critic from the literature and the person who wrote it, to create some kind of apparent impartiality so that the theory can be applied as some kind of science that gives objective answers. Her anti-intertextual detractor, William Irwin, would probably agree with me, and has it that Kristeva’s theories, couched in technical language as they are, are “notoriously subjective” (236). However, we cannot ignore the influence that she had as far as forcing critics and students to consider the text as an ungraspable entity, not a product of man’s mind, but a product of myriad forces of politics, culture, history, etc, that feed into the text from the spaces between texts, the intertext (Kristeva 36). It is this trend in the second half of twentieth century writing, theory, and critical work that moved us away from considering any relationship between an author and her work, and from considering the author as a person attempting to deliver a message (isn’t that the usual end of the written word?). Cunningham’s novel defies these newish conventions by considering Virginia the woman, considering Woolf’s life as a writer, and considering the actual penning of the partner-text Mrs. Dalloway as a mirror story to his new Mrs. Dalloway’s exploits.

Cunningham could have used the suicide prologue to establish his Woolf-fandom, to disclaim any attacks he might make on Mrs. Dalloway, but it instead sets the tone for an homage novel, and it does not have to serve as a disclaimer for anything. Cunningham sustains Woolf’s story throughout the novel, and it interacts with the stories of the two other women, Clarissa Vaughan (the surrogate Mrs. Dalloway) and Laura Brown (the historical and intertextual connection between the novels and the people in them). Laura and Clarissa’s stories do bring up questions about the life that Woolf led in the early twentieth century. Women were not properly treated for mental illnesses and depression, and even those women as talented as Woolf often had a dependence on their husbands’ approval and support that could not be overcome. And perhaps most importantly to Cunningham’s aims (for we know he has them), Woolf’s sexuality was as ambiguous as her characters’, in a time when such ambiguity was not socially acceptable.

Throughout the novel, Cunningham cycles through the three women’s stories, giving a chapter to each before jumping to the next... [analysis of how the stories work together, and how they work differently from pairs like Sargasso Sea and Eyre]

Michael Cunningham’s The Hours was a welcome novel in a time at “the end of the twentieth century” when a suspicion of authors and of great literature had taken over literary study, when theory had spent its momentum deconstructing every construction, whether literary or political or both, and when biography had been dismissed for years as mostly irrelevant to the study and appreciation of literary texts. Cunningham still tackles social constructs, but with a human and psychological insight that is not so explicit in a work like Wide Sargasso Sea, where the characters, from whom we glean so much in The Hours, for Rhys take a back seat to a mostly political theoretical agenda. And while Gardner has all the insight in the world in his treatment of Beowulf (even shares Cunningham’s knack for stream of consciousness), Grendel remains aloof as a text, “objectively” passing judgment on the values of epic poetry. Cunningham, perhaps because of his own genius, perhaps because he’d overheard the conversations about theory’s last gasps, chose to break out of the postmodern intertextual-writing protocol of having an agenda, of maintaining hostility toward the partner-text and all its values, and of turning a blind eye to the author who penned the work he thought important enough to use as the basis for his what would become one of his most important pieces of work. The Hours is a post-postmodern, post-theory novel, addressing a modern novel that was already dialogic, that already had its own doubts built in, that was asking to be spoken to on the same level. It did not need to be bullied into opening up and giving up some of its secrets, some of its contradictions. Cunningham lovingly opens up Mrs. Dalloway for the contemporary reader, and shows how texts can be addressed in an illuminating way that challenges social constructions without necessarily challenging everything an original text stands for. By contrast, it’s as if Gardner does a stand up routine ridiculing the life and times of Beowulf and the Beowulf poet. Rhys mounts a political uprising against everything Victorian, and does not stop pumping her fist in the air long enough to hear any echoes or insights from Jane Eyre or Bronte. Cunningham, at Theory’s wake, at the end of the twentieth century, sits down with Woolf. And they have a really good talk.

Works Cited
Cunningham, Michael. The Hours. New York: Picador USA, 1998. Print.
Irwin, William. “Against Intertextuality.” Philosophy and Literature. 28.2 (2004): 227-241. Print.
Kristeva, Julia. “Word, Dialog, Novel.” The Kristeva Reader. New York: Columbia UP, 1986. 34-59. Print.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1953. Print.

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