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  • Mannerist Fiction: Pathologies of Space from Rabelais to Pynchon by William Donoghue
  • Christopher Fanning
William Donoghue. Mannerist Fiction: Pathologies of Space from Rabelais to Pynchon. University of Toronto Press. viii, 192. $55.00

William Donoghue observes that François Rabelais and Marcel Proust deploy wilful distortions of space (Rabelais) and time (Proust) in their lengthy prose fictions and argues that each one’s proclivity for “deformation” can be accounted for by the fact that he lived in a period whose sense of the world was revolutionized by a near-contemporary scientific thinker (Copernicus and Einstein, respectively). Donoghue claims that these and other authors are part of an aesthetic tradition that engages with questions of form by way of deforming. He terms this “mannerism,” after the sixteenth-century Italian school of painting that prioritized formal play with space over perspectival mimesis (this brief discussion suffers from a lack of illustration). He then extends “mannerism” to include any kind of anti-representational “deformation” in writing, the visual arts, and even psychological conditions. This is an extensive claim that does not hold together by more than mere analogy. [End Page 433]

At his best when dealing with distortions of space, Donoghue argues for correspondences between the disorienting spatial incongruities of Gargantua and Pantegruel and Copernicus’s reorientation of the universe around the sun, and finds the nearly perfectly maintained scale of Gulliver’s Travels to correspond to Isaac Newton’s achievement of a regularized and demonstrated account of the Copernican (and Galilean) universe. A similarly strong case is made about Thomas Pynchon’s post-Einsteinian oscillation between two different, and incommensurable, spaces, the everyday and the cartoon.

Later chapters are more engaged with modernist conceptions of time than space, especially theoretical statements by Henri Bergson, Martin Heidegger, and Friedrich Nietzsche, outlining “perspectivism” as the major device of novelists such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Thomas Mann. This section covers well-known territory in literary studies, and it struggles to make the period’s scientific insights into astronomy and the nature of the universe (Einstein, Harlow Shapley, and Edwin Hubble) relevant beyond demonstrating that some of the modernists were aware of contemporary scientific thought. The book concludes with an attempt to show that modern senses of space-time relativity are to be found in Aristotle’s Physics as well as in the verbal nature of the Hebrew Bible, the upshot of which is that Bergson seems to have been blind to his own Hebraic sense of time, and that the modernists who thought they were Bergsonians were really unwittingly Biblical.

This is not the first time the author has used his reading of materials unavailable to his subjects to correct them. In the weakest section of the book, Donoghue offers psychoanalytic diagnoses of pre-modern authors that are not only reductive but also an extremely metaphoric stretch of the spatial mannerism that grounds the book’s argument. Although he lived in the time of the Copernican Revolution, to connect this to a diagnosis of Ben Jonson as suffering from “a narcissistic malfunction that stalls the subject in the paranoid-schizoid position,” using psychoanalyst Melanie Klein’s object relations theory, is to take the spatial metaphor of Kleinian thought too far. Furthermore, it reduces the entirety of Jonson’s seventeenth-century oeuvre to a series of symptoms of his twentieth-century neurosis. In a similar fashion the Marquis de Sade is diagnosed with blocked testicular vesicles, which accounts for the prevalence of underground passages and their constrictive nature in his fiction. Pynchon fares better in this section insofar as he seems to be aware of deploying “hysteria” as a literary technique.

In a study that attempts to create a unified theory for works separated by thousands of years, as well as approaches through different disciplines, there will inevitably be a fair amount of potted history: “When Charles LeBrun came along in French history painting of the seventeenth century …” begins a very representative paragraph. Summary is the [End Page 434] definitive mode of this book. Scientific advances receive encyclopedia-style treatments, as does art history. Sources more familiar to literary scholars, such as modern philosophy and psychoanalysis, are treated at slightly greater length...


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