- Reader in a Strange Land: The Activity of Reading Literary Utopias, and: Exile and the Narrative Imagination, and: The Sixth Continent: A Literary History of Romney Marsh
For many of us, educated in English departments between 1950 and 1970, it seems as if we are, in Arnold's words, "Wandering between two worlds, one dead / The other powerless to be born." We are caught between two worlds; one is interpretive humanistic criticism, not dead, but called into question by the challenge of recent theory. The other is deconstruction, fully born but unsatisfactory to many of us for three reasons: its failure to understand or account for the entirety of a work; its tendency to read reductively so that all texts seem much the same; and its polemical tone and at times arrogant stance that looks down on other approaches from a steep and icy peak.
The three books under review speak to our human need for alternative places, [End Page 386] whether imaginary or real. Exile is a condition when one is involuntarily removed or voluntarily removes oneself from one's roots, whereas utopias speak to our desire for a perfected world. The impulse for voluntary exile and for Utopias is not dissimilar; they each depend on our hope that a better place may exist than the one we inhabit and that we may vacate the pressures and responsibilities of our world and remove ourselves to a better one. What Ruppert says of utopias is relevant to exile: "Implicit in all Utopian dreams is the urge to escape, the desire to get away from the turmoil of history and the anxiety that comes from an awareness of time and change."
Seidel and Ruppert show how the mainstream of Anglo-American criticism is trying to come to terms with recent ideologies of reading, including deconstruction and reader-response criticism. Oblivious to recent theory, Finlayson assumes that readers are interested in the way that a group of writers lived at a specific place at a specific time. All three books assume that literature to some degree represents anterior reality and that it negotiates between real and imaginary experience. Seidel's focus is upon what happens within the world of texts, although he certainly is aware of the anterior world in which the author lived; Ruppert's stress is upon what happens to the reader. Ruppert and Seidel understand that readers and authors meet on the boundaries of their own separate spaces and that readers chart an imaginary new space as they decode a text and apply their own sensemaking. Thus, for Seidel and Ruppert, readers are cartographers who construct maps produced by a transaction between text and reader.
Michael Seidel has written an important study of how the experience of literary exile shapes imaginative literature. His focus is "on literary representations of exile, especially representations in which exile or expatriation is foregrounded as a narrative action." He concentrates "on exile as an enabling fiction, or at least a fiction enabling me to address the larger strategies of narrative representation." Seidel is often a compelling reader who combines erudition which perspicacity, as when he writes of Ulysses: "The exilic Bloom is generated by the very mythology the narrative establishes for him, 'Leopold Bloom of no fixed abode' whose exodus from one land of bondage to another is part of his defense in the phantasmagoria of 'Circe,' 'my client's native place, the land of the Pharaoh.'" Seidel also writes with great sensitivity about "Strether's American mission" in The Ambassadors.
Seidel's book raises questions about the metaphoricity or disfiguration of interpretative language. Interpretations are never purely literal or demonstrative, for do they not distort and reshape literary texts just as texts reshape and distort anterior reality? Or, as Stevens's "The Man with the Blue Guitar" puts it, "Things...