- Transgressions of Reading: Narrative Engagement as Exile and Return
Robert Newman argues that the reading process-a process of “vision and revision that approximates the authorial experience”-is analogous to psychoanalysis. To put it in simple terms, the reading experience, like the experience of psychoanalysis, is propelled by opposing forces: our need to wander (hence the “narrative quest”) and our need to return. The narrative quest begins when equilibrium is disturbed, and we desire to know not only what happens but what has happened. As a result, we support the narrative order and, paradoxically, desire its end and closure. But the desire for closure is also a desire for disclosure- for a knowledge of what is threatening and has been repressed from our memories, especially about the ideal state of equilibrium. The narrative quest is also a form of exile. Our loss of equilibrium, resulting from what amounts to an invasion of narrative order, initiates a counter, transgressive desire to undermine or destroy the narrative order and return to our originary condition. And this is complicated by the fact that our memory of the originary condition is always a revision, shaped by our engagements along the line of the narrative quest, and thereby contributing as well to the shape of our narrative experiences. So the reading experience-like narrative itself and like psychoanalysis- [End Page 420] is layered with contradictory and ambivalent desires and trajectories.
To put it in the psychoanalytic terms of Freud and Lacan, the reading experience is “governed by the revelations and displacements of memory,” by the invasion of the pre-Oedipal Imaginary by the phallogocentric Symbolic order, by the seductions and power of the Symbolic order, by our “attempt to recover the ideal Imaginary state from which we have been exiled while narrative memory inevitably recapitulates this loss,” by memory’s revisions of the Imaginary state, by our contradictory needs to transgress or destroy the Symbolic order and to maintain the order that sustains our “narrative quest.”
Newman’s model is both heuristic and illuminating, especially in regard to those modern and postmodern texts that foreground the contradiction, parody idealization of the return, and complicate fetishization of repressed threats. As Newman puts it, these texts “advertise the problematic nature of . . . return. They encourage their readers’ desire, but simultaneously estrange them from their sense of this preexilic ‘home’ by demonstrating the products of memory to be fictitious.” Newman brings together a surprising but nonetheless representative assortment of texts in an unusual order to illuminate a central obsession of modernism and postmodernism-at least as viewed from the perspective of the 1990s. In the first chapter, called “Exiling History,” he reads James Reston, Jr.’s Our Father Who Art in Hell (the story of Jim Jones, “exiled patriarch of the People’s Temple, who in a grotesque parody of Moses, brought his people to the promised land of Guyana), Chilean exile Ariel Dorfman’s Mascara (the story of an unnamed character born without a recognizable face and the prominent plastic surgeon who reconstructs the faces of public figures to match public desires as reflected in opinion polls), and Freud’s Moses and Monotheism (“as an expression of Freud’s own fear of imminent exile”). In “Disrupting the Look,” he “reads” Max Ernst’s collage novel, Un Semaine de bonté, which positions its readers simultaneously as voyeur and object, victim and victimizer. In “Cannibals and Clock Teasers” he “reads” the postmodern horror film as represented by Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, and Blue Velvet, which fetishize while parodying the fetishization to fragment the viewer’s sense of self. In “Narrative Masking,” he focuses on the “Hermetic messengers” in Joyce’s Ulysses” that produce counternarratives of exile and return. He then goes on to illumine [End Page 421] the “ideology of powerlessness” in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and the “sublime repression” in D. M. Thomas’ The White Hotel. And he concludes with a chapter called “Exiling the Feminine: Engaging Abjection,” which applies the feminist psychology of...