The Mirror and the Killer-Queen is the first volume of a two-part project, in which Gabriele Schwab will address reading as a form of “cultural contact”—contact not only with other cultures, but also with the otherness of our own culture(s). The second book will focus on literal encounters between cultures, colonial and postcolonial; The Mirror and the Killer-Queen primarily addresses the dynamics of otherness internal to acculturation, especially surrounding gender, and the role of the aesthetic in mediating such intracultural difference.
Schwab’s theoretical model, drawing on Lacanian and reader-response theory, seeks to redress what she sees as a recent tendency to treat literary texts only as cultural objects, ignoring the specificity of their formal strategies. These aesthetic strategies, especially in experimental texts, can “open up experiences of cultural contact that are fundamentally different from those facilitated by other cultural practices or forms of discourse.” Experimental literature embodies otherness in its very difficulty, reminding readers that we all become foreign to ourselves when we enter into language. By activating unconscious experiences within a highly rationalized aesthetic structure, experimental [End Page 1067] texts bring us face-to-face with otherness without threat. They function, Schwab proposes (following D. W. Winnicott), as “transitional space[s]” where we can learn a mode of “thinking in open rather than in closed systems which, in turn, tends to increase sensitivity and tolerance for otherness and to decrease cultural paranoia.”
While Schwab’s focus on aesthetics is welcome, this larger claim is hard to demonstrate. A significant portion of its proof resides in the unconscious interaction between reader and text, an interaction largely inaccessible to the critic (even in his or her own reading). The readings here—of works by Lewis Carroll, James Joyce, John Cage, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Faulkner, Djuna Barnes, and Marguerite Duras, in addition to theoretical texts from French feminism—cannot, Schwab acknowledges, apply her theory; rather, they “perform the type of cultural contact” she has described, emphasizing the “literature’s concern with otherness.” Whether this performance can be generalized—coming, as it does, from an expert reader who is presumably predisposed toward both experimental literature and cultural otherness—is a difficult question that perhaps only psychoanalysis, with its relatively universal models of human psychic development, can attempt.
The chapters on Carroll’s Alice books and As I Lay Dying are the strongest, simply as careful, complex readings, although the discussion of Duras’s The Malady of Death goes further toward explaining how the language’s own otherness translates into the reader’s exchange (ideally an operation of “transference”) with the text. Schwab shows that the nonsense discourse of Carroll’s characters undermines meaning precisely by adhering too literally to the rules of language, thus deconstructing the conventional opposition between symbolic communication and the over-literal realms of dream and schizophrenia, the symbolic order’s “others.” However, it remains unclear whether this deconstruction positively mediates otherness, by revealing how the symbolic order always relies upon metaphor and the condensations and displacements thought peculiar to dreams, or actually effaces otherness by containing the radical threat of the schizophrenic’s discourse within the “safe play” of nonsense.
Schwab’s reading of the abject mother’s body in As I Lay Dying provides a corrective to purely celebratory appropriations of the grotesque and carnivalesque; remaining true to Bakhtin’s concept of exotopy, she points out that the inner voices of the Bundrens reveal [End Page 1068] the grotesque body to be as much a terrifying internalized phantasm as an external object. While the family’s carnivalesque misadventures offer psychic distance from the fact of the grotesque (m)other, the intrusive materiality of her rotting corpse and the boys’ transformations of her into fish or horse insist on her continued existence as a construction of their own “grotesque soul[s].”
If The Mirror and the Killer-Queen fails to cohere entirely around the space between otherness in texts and the otherness of reading, it may be because the crucial term “otherness” remains so fluid. Is the relation between...