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  • Immersions in the Cognitive Sublime:The Textual Experience of the Extratextual Unknown in García Márquez and Beckett
  • H. Porter Abbott (bio)

In the work on narrative difficulty over the last hundred years, much of the energy has gone into two contrasting conditions of reader resistance, the defamiliarized and the veiled. The first is most famously associated with Viktor Shklovsky, who gave us the ur-concept of plot (syuzhet) as the means by which the telling can be used to defamiliarize the story (fabula). In this kind of reader resistance the focus is on the conscious management of narrative as a craft, not as an end in itself but as an instrument with insightful rewards for the hard-working reader. Thus, Shklovsky's coinage, "ostranyenie" (ocTpaHeHue), often translated as "making strange," is also "showing the strangeness of,"1 and in this regard keyed to the larger purpose of breaking habitual templates and seeing with fresh eyes. This general idea of yielding insight by resisting the easy transport of conventional texts, of slowing the reader down and increasing reflexive awareness, can be found in a broad range of diverse assessments of reader/viewer resistance from Brecht's Verfremdung to Michael M. Boardman's "urgent innovation" to Vicki Mahaffey's "challenging fictions" to James Phelan's concept of "the difficult." In the same spirit, modernist texts imported the more demanding and textually self-conscious modes of poetry (Lodge), even as T. S. Eliot argued that poetry itself must be difficult to be successful. More broadly still, these modernists were simply elaborating what Coleridge contended when he wrote that "Genius produces the strongest impressions of novelty" in rescuing truths that "lie bed-ridden in the dormitory of the soul" (60). [End Page 131]

The dark version of reader-resistant narrative is the veiled. It is "the necessary not-said of the text" that Allon White located in Meredith's "sudden ellipses," Conrad's "metaphysical enigmas," and James's "cultivated obscurity" (28, 130). With these texts, the yield for hard-working readers is perplexity as they seek what Hawthorne can never let them see behind the minister's dark veil (Miller). And though there is craft here in the management of obscurity, it leads in one direction: to cognitive darkness. The insight acquired is a lack of sight, the revelation of an inescapable condition of unknowing that is unacknowledged or pasted over in conventional texts as it is in our lives outside the text. It is also the absent signified that, in different ways, played a central role in the theorizing of Derrida, Lacan, and De Man, and that leads to a process of interpretation without end. In Frank Kermode's elegant treatment of such textual opacity, the hidden is the "secrecy" that feeds on the very effort to abolish it: "We are most unwilling to accept mystery, what cannot be reduced to other more intelligible forms. Yet that is what we find here: something irreducible, therefore perpetually to be interpreted; not secrets to be found out one by one, but secrecy" (143).

In this essay, I want to propose a kind of textual resistance that falls between these two modes or, more accurately, has traits of each without being fully either. In this regard it is most like Phelan's concept of "the stubborn" (173–89) and my own concept of the "egregious gap" ("Narrative") in both of which a particular event or entity is at once central to a narrative and forever beyond the reader's grasp. Through either a stubborn refusal to cohere or a permanent lack of key information or both, such instances of intentional textual recalcitrance will not go away with successive readings. As such, they paradoxically enrich both the immediate experience of the text and the effort of interpretation, even as they undermine interpretive closure. The concept I want to make the case for in this essay—what I am calling the cognitive sublime—also involves the permanently unknowable. But where the stubborn and the egregious gap play a role in the interpretive enterprise, experiencing the cognitive sublime requires letting go of interpretation altogether. With the former, the sense of both...


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pp. 131-142
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