The Sandman, Vols. 4, 5, 7, 9

During my list meeting last spring, when Eric (out-of-department committee member) and Scott (history) debated which volumes of Sandman I should read, I wasn't against the idea of having Neil Gaiman on my contemporary reading list but I wasn't thrilled about it either. As I understood them, my reading lists were meant to fill in holes in my reading history (e.g., thou shalt not embarrass thyself on the job market by admitting to not ever having read Moby-Dick, Anna Karenina, Swann's Way, etc. despite holding how many English degrees?). Our lists are our future syllabi in the making, countless combinations of teaching texts to have at our immediate disposal, should we be asked to teach any class on any subject in under a moment's notice. By the time my committee gathered for my official list meeting, Lance (chair) had probably overseen a few dozen revisions. I don't remember which text was given the boot in order to make space for Sandman, but I felt its absence as a loss. At some point along the way, getting it on the list had been a win — a text I'd justified or defended for its own special reasons. And just like that, it was gone. On the other hand, I'm realizing now, if I had in fact really cared so much about the change, (1) I could have said so at the time and (2) I would probably still remember today which text it was and lament its banishment with specificity, no?

So, for the past several hours, I've been wandering through "the Dreaming." Dream (who defines, because he is not, reality), or Morpheus, is a character in a universe I'm glad to have met. In fact, I kind of even wish I was one of the Endless (his family). I haven't even read the entire series, but this universe is vast and filled with people and places I think I recognize. My inability to talk about Dream and Delirium and Destruction, etc., only proves how transportive these texts are. I will have something more coherent to say about them, and soon, but here's what I can offer now. . . .  

I've also been reading Moby-Dick. Random? I know! But yeah, I had hoped to finish it entirely this weekend, but the more pages I flipped into my left hand the thicker the stack in my right seemed to grow. The only way to feel as if I was making any progress at all toward reading/studying was to move on to another text. I opted immediately for Sandman because I've borrowed the volumes from someone in the program and I'm nervous about glopping Amy's mac & cheese all over them. Of course, I'm not eating or drinking anywhere near them but because, as glossy-paged illustrated book objects are far easier to destroy than the "good" or "very good" used copies of most of my other books, my paranoia deepens by the day. I want to give these back this week. 

Anyway, here is my observation: I know I am about to re-enter the strange whaling world of Moby-Dick. I only left it a few hours ago, but when I did Ahab, the Pequod, Queepeg, Starbuck, and Ishmael felt so hyper-real and at the same time so historical. Lost people. Lost objects. Lost time. Lost world. Jumping back into that whale-hunt, though, after hanging out in "the Dreaming," I can't shake the sense that I'm still in "the Dreaming" and that the Pequod is a ship not from the written past but sailing now, still, outside of time, and that I've stepped onto its deck via some weird intertextual, extradiegetic dream I'm having.

Frankenstein (1818): "What was I?"

For months before I began reading for exams, I knew I would start with Frankenstein. I didn't have a clear understanding of why, but I could at least track the trajectory of my interest. My final paper for Andy Franta's fall 2014 Romantics course was on Keats's "The Eve of St. Agnes"; and, in the eleventh hour (twelfth? thirteenth?), my research led me to Stanley Plumly's The Immortal Evening, which I devoured in a sitting. Around that time, I saw an ad for Charlotte Gordon's Romantic Outlaws. I ILL'd it and when it arrived I plowed first through all the Mary Shelley chapters, then her mother's. (Litographs, by the way, launched a new book club this month featuring Romantic Outlaws as one of its first titles.) Between Plumly and Gordon, I caught Romantics fever; and Mary Shelley, I knew, would become ever-important to me and my future work. I kept seeing her as Gordon presented her — a little girl haunted by the knowledge that her own life ended her mother's. I recognize that little girl. I know her well. 

Colavito says Frankenstein is the epitome of the mad scientist novel. He notes critics who consider it a gothic novel, and he acknowledges that it is but draws attention to its focus on science, suggesting that the role of the scientist sets it apart from other Gothic novels. He links it to the school of biological horror that emerged in the 19th century. (I can't help but think back, too, to the Renaissance, to Marlowe's Doctor Faustus; and to Sarah Wall-Randell's "Doctor Faustus and the Printer's Devil," which is maybe one of my favorite essays about DF and should not be divorced from one's reading of it.) Anyway, when I think of Frankenstein, I think of the strength of its transcendence into everyday, household awareness. The average American, I'd be willing to bet, if asked, would answer that the creature's name is Frankenstein. (It's possible this line of inquiry could open up a simple discussion of Saussure's synchrony and diachrony?)

Anyway, the novel's multi-layered construction seems of primary interest to me, at least for now. Nested within Victor's narrative, nested within Walton's, the creature's lies at the heart of the text. All three men complain of loneliness and desire companionship, which may be all they have in common (and what we all have in common, perhaps). In any case, the intended recipient of this multi-level stack of narratives is Walton's silent and disembodied, married sister, Margaret, who never responds. We can assume, though, that she is reading (somewhere).

Another reader, in the creature's narrative, is the wife of the blind man's son. A foreigner, she must be taught to read and speak. As she learns, Frankenstein's creature also learns. He recognizes not just that the family communicates by speech but also that writing is made up of signs. Rejected by his maker/father, the orphaned creature discovers language, letter formations he himself calls "signs," and he reads. He reads everything he can get his hands on. I recognize this orphan, too. I know him well. "What was I?" he wants to know. The line breaks my heart. I realize we have probably all wondered who we are at some point, but, if we are also othered or marginalized in some way, we don't just wonder who we are but obsess about what we are, and desperately want to know why the answer is so repellant to those who have ever laid eyes on us. 

I'm interested, finally, in the text as "women's writing," as Shelley's possible meta-commentary on the status of women throughout history as readers. I'm interested in her multi-level narrative construction of stories within stories. Whose story is it? I'm interested in themes of identity-formation, in mirroring, in the blind man's inability to see the creature but his family's horror at seeing him, which mirrors the creature's own horror upon seeing himself. Three topics, or talking points, then: (1) the text's multi-level narrative stacking; (2) women-as-readers, as positioned and represented by a woman author; and (3) identity formation re: Aristotle's delight in representation, Saussure's signs and structure, and Lacan's mirror stage. 

Problematic: Liminality and Narrativity

In rites of passage, an individual often enters a liminal space where s/he has lost or surrendered one status position but has not yet transitioned into another “higher” one. Spatially and temporally, the initiand hovers on the threshold, “between” two fixed identities, two power structures, that the community narrativizes in order to normalize the experience (likely to reinforce a cultural master plot). If, however, during the liminal stage, these power structures are de-emphasized or ignored, a new social structure of “communitas” may form — arguably emerging as anti-structure, hyperstructure, or both. Such liminality (applied to individuals, groups, or societies) seems to share certain traits with Bahktin’s notion of the carnivalesque, wherein, for a set time, social norms are upturned and existants are temporarily released from monologic culture. Closely associated with the carnivalesque is Bakhtin’s theory of the grotesque body, which relates the cyclicality of human life to the potential for social and political renewal. If grotesque realism is “always conceiving,” then the pregnant body is an especially intriguing liminal space that challenges power structures around gender and sexuality, furthering the potential for social regeneration (Bakhtin 21).

Just as liminality interrogates social structures, so it interrogates language and narrative/genre structures that exist on a threshold and are, I would argue, implicitly transgressive. I am especially interested in those acts of transgression inherent in “cross- genre” literature. Are borders liminal zones? Does “cross-genre” literature approach abjection, which Kristeva says is created by “what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite” (4)? Does the act of crossing result in a transition, like a rite of passage, from one genre into another (producing a text that retains the “integrity” of those two genres), or something else, and, if so, what? Who or what establishes the boundaries at play? By what rhetorical gestures are we to recognize these boundaries? Alternatively, how do such innovative texts as Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759), Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Woolf’s Orlando (1928), Borges’s Ficciones (1942), Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979), Cha’s Dictee (1982), Carson’s Autobiography of Red (1988), Maso’ Ava (2001), Boully’s The Body (2003), and Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004) destabilize generic borders and, consequently, the very genres themselves? To what purpose? Is such innovation actually transgressive, and, if so, in what sense? Violent or ludic? Both at once? In the bigger picture, what does generic experimentation unconceal about categorization in general? If, according to Wittgenstein, the instability of language itself exposes it as potential nonsense, what is the value of any generic experiment, which is no more or less senseless? Is it an always evolving, endlessly self- referential mutation? Does the implicit monstrosity of “hybridity” suggest that “hybrid genres” is an apt term for language in general?

After a year reading texts that occupy liminal spaces, I wish to come away with a clearer understanding of what we mean when we use such labels as “cross-genre,” “multi- genre,” “anti-genre,” “trans-genre.” Do the texts to which these labels are applied look any different from texts claiming to “blur” genres? Is the only common thread uniting all of these their liminality? When, if ever, do these generic initiands become ritualized into the status of “non-genre” literature — “our most crucial and tantalizing experiences of literature” — which Jonathan Culler locates “at the interstices of genres” (53)? If such initiation occurs, why might this be a generic rite of passage and how is it ceremonialized by our culture and to what ends?


Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Hélène Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984. Print.

Culler, Jonathan. “Toward a Theory of Non-Genre Literature.” Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach. Ed. Michael McKeon. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2000. 51-56. Print.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1982. Print.

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