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The self-subversion of the book.

By Alan Wall.

IN THE YEAR of Shakespeare’s death, 1616, Ben Jonson collected and published his own works. Such an edition was novel; it treated a living writer’s work as though it had the status of a classic. The imprimatur of such a ‘definitive edition’ announced that contemporary writing for the stage could be laid side by side with the works of the ancients, without embarrassment. Then 1623 saw the publication of the Folio of Shakespeare’s works. The playwright had now been dead for seven years. The work had been assembled by Heminges and Condell, his companions in the world of the theatre.

Once again, contemporary work was presented as having sufficient authority to be printed in a substantial edition. Both the edition of Jonson and that of Shakespeare announce that contemporary literature of the highest calibre had true authority, and therefore should be published authoritatively.

Just over one century later, Alexander Pope would be working on The Dunciad. This work would accrue, agglomerate, grab everything of interest in the London of its time; a London, intellectually speaking, of inversion and degradation, at least if the poet is to be believed. It would, initially at Swift’s prompting, begin to gather footnotes about it, until their gargantuan proportions competed with the lines of the verse; cod scholarship threatened to inundate the text for which it supposedly provided a glossary.

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And now, in our own time, the glossary itself has come to require a further glossary; the annotations now need themselves to be annotated. The gesture involved in the publication of the Folio is here being subverted from every direction. This definitive edition has, in effect, become a mockery of itself. The epic of dullness must be provided with a scholarly machinery which is itself an exercise in pedantic dementia.

THREE DECADES EARLIER, Swift had written A Tale of a Tub. This work too provides its own scholarly machinery of footnotes, prefaces, glosses, explications – all of which are in effect decorations for the Bedlam walls of its literary madhouse. The footnotes put into question the veracity of the text, but then the text, left to its own devices, was already chewing up any evidence of its own veracity. Even Martin, who is presumably meant to exemplify at least the possibility of an intermediate sanity between Peter and Jack, appears to be only fractionally less demented than they are. Extremity here runs its course; the centre cannot hold. We seem quickly to be approaching that condition philosophers refer to as ‘infinitized irony’. The subversive voice ceases to have a dialectical effect, prompting its necessary reply from the margins of sanity, and becomes instead the dominant note of a chorus. There is no one voice we are hearing: the voices instead are legion. And no one voice, it appears, can secure the wayward energy of so many competing voices; the hydra’s heads all have a tongue apiece. And the pit from which they sing is a vortex.

What A Tale of A Tub and The Dunciad have in common is a radical self-consciousness in regard to themselves as books, not merely compositions but books, and this self-consciousness is employed to subvert the status of the book itself; to foreground the question of its authority. Both books mock the pretensions of any book to assert the truth; both ridicule what Walter Benjamin would call the book’s ‘universal gesture’. In arriving at the moment of their own belatedness in the tradition, they assume the role of commentary upon a pre-existing text. Here they link with the strategy of Borges, who was clearly aware of the precedents of Swift and Pope, and of what such precedence might represent. As Italo Calvino says of the Argentinian writer:

What helped him overcome the block that had prevented him, almost until he was forty, from moving from essays to narrative prose was to pretend that the book he wanted to write had already been written, written by someone else, by an unknown invented author, an author from another language, another culture, and then to describe, summarise or review that hypothetical book.

One immediate effect of this strategy is to abolish the illusion that there is a single plane of text, one into which the reader’s consciousness might enter unproblematically, and remain there for the duration of the narrative. A footnote alerts the critical consciousness to the existence of a region beyond one plane of reading.1 An ellipsis marked in the text (a favourite technique in A Tale of Tub) informs us that the text itself cannot be assumed to vouch for its own complete integrity, since the rats of entropy and misprision have already been chewing away, even during the act of writing. Prefaces and introductions, which distance the author as editor from the actual authorship of the text to follow, insert a question-filled distance between author and text, text and reader. In other words, that very gesture of guaranteed authenticity (videlicet, guaranteed authorship), which the editions of Jonson and Shakespeare sought to claim and proclaim for themselves, is here being deliberately undermined, not by the pirates and plagiarists of Grub Street, but by the authors themselves.

A text can be imbued with every narrative and rhetorical device so as to assert its authority as that single plane of reality which, once entered, proclaims its supremacy over all competing forms of consciousness until the narrative rite of passage is complete; or it can, on the contrary, draw attention to its own rhetoric, its devices either overt or covert – in a word, to its artfulness. In not merely employing its art but also foregrounding such an art’s devices, it must inevitably draw attention to itself as an expression not of unironized sincerity, but instead of skilful construction. This leads, not necessarily to the abolition of sincerity, but certainly to its self-questioning as a form of rhetorical expression. The modes and manners of sincerity are themselves asked to prove themselves as amounting to more than a congeries of rhetorical manoeuvres. The ‘page-turner’ must at least admit its identity as a sequence of pages.

IN THE FIRST lines of Nabokov’s Despair we are told ‘If I were not perfectly sure of my power to write and of my marvellous ability to express ideas with the utmost grace and vividness…So, more or less, I had thought of beginning my tale.’ But this strategy is abandoned. In the explanation as to why, the reader is apostrophized as ‘gentle reader’. A somewhat elaborate simile is attempted, comparing the narrative to a bus, but it is abandoned: ‘Rather bulky imagery, this.’ Then we revert to the traditional narrative device of genealogy: ‘My father was a Russian-speaking German from Reval, where he went to a famous agricultural college. My mother, a pure Russian, came from an old princely stock.’ A few lines later, we are told: ‘A slight digression: that bit about my mother was a deliberate lie. In reality, she was a woman of the people, simple and coarse, sordidly dressed in a kind of blouse hanging loose at the waist.’ So why does the author contradict himself? Why does he not cross out the previous description? He leaves it in ‘as a sample of one of my essential traits: my light-hearted inspired lying.’ The information is put into parenthetical question, so that another type of information might accrue: information about the identity of the narrator, and necessary data about the way fiction itself is ‘put together’.

The phrase ‘in reality’ had pointed us, of course, to the dimensions of reality which are available within the book, its planar perspectives. And in terms of the ‘slight digression’, all fiction is a digression from the serious business of acting. All writing that analyses human motivation or describes the psychological condition of its characters is to some degree recapitulating the fable of Achilles and the tortoise: to the extent that every distance is infinitely divisible into more and more minute units of description, writing is a series of parentheses within parentheses. Its very nature is to be digressive. We are in one sense getting nowhere. The kind of writing we are examining here does not exist simply to ‘get on with things’, in the manner of a John Buchan story. It translates such ‘things’ into modes of understanding, so that the constellations of consciousness might be delineated a little more brightly.

And here the fictiveness of fiction has surely grown ever-more aware of its distantiation from ‘scientific writing’. Six years before the edition of Jonson and thirteen before the Shakespeare Folio, a book was published which offered not the planar perspectives of epistemological self-questioning, but a new description of ‘the facts’ of our situation here in the universe. The book was Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius of 1610. As a result of his development of the telescope, Galileo could see the pockmarked surface of the moon; the four circumjovial planets; something of the vastness of the Milky Way. His book gave testimony to this new evidence. It is simultaneously a celebration of ocular discovery and a series of scientific assertions. Pirated copies were soon being sold across Europe. Everyone with any interest in the scientific dimensions of reality wanted a copy of this book, and a telescope to accompany it, where possible.

NOW WE MUST confront a dilemma which has never since been resolved. What nature of truth might books offer us, if any? Swift’s patron Sir William Temple was explicit: truth lay in the ancient texts, the new ones having added nothing of any significance. At Moor Park in Surrey he wrote in 1692 ‘Upon the Ancient and the Modern Learning’, the gist of which can be conveyed thus: nothing new in the way of discovery or science has in any way displaced the great philosophical tradition. Nothing substantial has been added. And Swift went along with this, being entirely dependent upon Temple’s good will. And it this Swift, at the same intellectual moment, who in A Tale of A Tub effectively despairs of detecting any voice which might tell an indisputable truth about the world we inhabit. None of the voices in A Tale is really striving for truth; they are all rhetoricians in Nietzsche’s sense, employing the arts of language and persuasion to increase their power and indulge their appetites. If ancient wisdom obtains, it is in its hard-bitten ability to perceive and articulate the corruption of humanity. Three decades before A Tale Thomas Sprat had written his History of the Royal Society. There he had pleaded for a new language, a language of plain description which would declare war upon a certain ‘vicious abundance of phrase’ – i.e. metaphor. It sometimes seems as though Swift is exemplifying the Bishop’s execration. The hideous fecundity of metaphor, the nightmarish generative prolixity of language, is here proclaimed: ‘…whereas, Wisdom is a Fox, who after long hunting, will at last cost you the pains to dig out: ’Tis a Cheese, which by how much the richer, has the thicker, the homelier, and the courser Coat; and whereof to a judicious Palate, the Maggots are the best. ’Tis a Sack-Posset, wherein the deeper you go, you will find it the sweeter. Wisdom is a Hen, whose Cackling we must value and consider, because it is attended with an Egg; But then, lastly, ’tis a Nut, which unless you chuse with Judgment, may cost you a Tooth, and pay you with nothing but a Worm.’

It is surely hard not to hear in this engulfing of judgment by the rich suggestiveness of language a specific precedent:

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?

Polonius: By th’mass and ‘tis – like a camel indeed.

Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.

Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.

Hamlet: Or like a whale.

Polonius: Very like a whale.

Hamlet’s point of course is the infinite tractability of the courtier before a royal will, but in making his point he has employed the infinite productivity of language in figuring the world; and this is Swift’s device too. Once the coinages begin then, like a corrupt mint (another of Swift’s many obsessions) there is no necessary end to the debasement of the currency, and therefore the debasement of the realm. Where has the authority of the book disappeared to, given such a ‘vicious abundance of phrase’? And what in any case, Swift seems to ask, is the purpose of any narrative? The vulgar pleasantries they might afford are eschewed thus in A Tale:

I shall not trouble you with recounting what Adventures they met for the first seven Years, any farther than by taking notice, that they carefully observed their Father’s Will, and kept their Coats in very good Order; That they travelled thro’ several Countries, encountered a reasonable Quantity of Gyants, and slew certain Dragons.

So much for enfolding the reader in the narrative adventure. Given the profound alienation of Gulliver from his human fellows on his return from his travels, so that he finds his wife repellent, and sleeps in the stable with his horses, one can’t help wondering whether Swift regarded the hunt for the exotic in the form of fiction – whether writing it or reading it – as a straightforward degradation of the moral faculties; which would, in effect, make it one more severe questioning of the authority of ‘the book’, the sort of book in which metaphor runs riot; in which the referent grows smaller and smaller, like figures out of Lilliput.

BY THE TIME Nabokov comes to write Pale Fire, the notion of the text accompanied by its necessary commentary has become an institutional aspect of the late European intellectual tradition. Nabokov made his living for many years as an academic teaching literature, and was as aware as anyone can be of the necessity of producing interpretation and analysis; that after all is the nature of the job. The setting of most of the novel is a university; the poet is tied to the university; the critic teaches at the university. And if the latter is mildly more demented than most of the characters who occupy such posts, this, it is implied, is surely a matter only of degree. Kinbote claims to come from Zembla, an emblem of impossibly distant places, taken from Pope’s Dunciad. Kinbote’s commentary on John Shade’s poem functions in the way an anti-Stratfordian’s commentary on the works of Shakespeare might do: to show what an infinity of interpretation is possible for any text, and to show too how much the reader’s desire inevitably commands the textual truth. It shows Sprat’s ‘vicious abundance of phrase’ to have had a point, and it demonstrates how, in a world of proliferating titles, ‘the authority of the book’ is hard to find. It is necessary for Kinbote’s intellectual survival that he should find Shade’s poem to be preoccupied with himself; consequently, he does so find it, even though other interpreters can see no such textual evidence themselves.

And here we must remind ourselves of Francis Bacon, who wrote:

All depends on keeping the eye steadily fixed on the facts of nature, and so receiving their images as they are. For God forbid that we should give out a dream of our own imagination for a pattern of the world.

And yet isn’t this precisely the space fiction creates for itself, and the freedom it allows itself? What then is it that fiction is permitting itself to discover? The constellations of consciousness, the way we arrange and re-arrange reality so that it might function for us, and we might find a functional relationship with it; in portraying a bottle, we are not trying to find the chemical composition of the bottle, but rather the way such a bottle is arranged in the spectrum of perception, as in a Cubist painting. We are examining how we all of us, to some degree, give out a dream of our own imagination for a pattern of the world. Wordsworth in ‘Tintern Abbey’ speaks of ‘both what they half create, and what perceive.’ To the extent that the modernists deliberately elected ‘primitive’ modes and forms, they were rejecting the realist notion of ‘receiving images as they are’, in favour of the radical interplay between imagination and reality, which generates its own ‘pattern of the world’.

THE MOTTO OF the Royal Society whose virtue and whose precision of language Sprat was extolling was: Nullius in Verba, a contraction from the line of Horace: Nullius addictus iurare in verba magistri, translated by Freeman Dyson as ‘Sworn to follow the words of no master’. That is surely another way of saying that knowledge and wisdom cannot be assumed to lie in books, however ancient, however sanctioned by tradition. In other words, Sir William Temple was wrong, and Swift along with him: the only way to find out about reality was to go and test it for yourself. This was the new science, devoted to experiment, calculation and measurement. What Aristotle said was not the truth: there was not a celestial realm of perfection, where nothing ever changes. The pockmarked face of the moon seen through Galileo’s telescope proved this. He had seen imperfection in the heavens, and he used his book Sidereus Nuncius to prove the fact. The authority of one book was here dislodging the authority of another. This is the real battle of the books.

Donne is much preoccupied in his writings with how the new philosophy is destabilising the realm of learning and tradition; how it ‘puts all in doubt’. And a fracture begins to open up at this point between writing which, in the words of Bacon quoted earlier, is ‘keeping the eye steadily fixed on the facts of nature, and so receiving their images as they are’ and that other species of writing which Bacon deprecates, which ‘should give out a dream of our own imagination for a pattern of the world’. The receiving of images starts to come into conflict with their autonomous generation. Out of this conflict will be generated the notion and the image of the Romantic artist.

There were two contradictory versions of light extant until Newton resolved the matter in his Optics. One tradition, the lux version, held that light shone from within us outwards; selected its object and focused the inner light upon it. The other spoke of lumen, the notion that light falls upon the object, is reflected and then enters our vision, so that we might receive the images ‘as they really are’. If the latter is the modern scientific description of the operation of light, the former has continued its hermetic tradition as the iconography of genius. Picasso painting with light, Einstein with the electrodes fastened to his head while he was instructed to ‘think about relativity’ – these images surely hang on to that notion that the light shines from within, and spreads its illumination outwards. This is the work of the artist or the writer who has shaken free from the constrictions of a scientific tradition which will only let us describe the world as the reception of a series of ‘images as they are’.

In Borges this conundrum re-iterates itself as one of textuality: there is always a text before us. Our imagination, and for that matter our rationality, can only function by acknowledging that between us and ‘the world’ lies the text, whether it is that of a medieval cabbalist, or that of a natural philosopher who assembles the data, the taxonomies, the genealogies and the laws, and then attempts to construct a meaningful world from the assembly. So what is it then that the imagination can do in the face of such a text? It can only re-create it in the terms of possibility and imagination available to the writer now. The ultimate extremity of this gambit is ‘Pierre Menard: Author of the Quixote’. Here the text, in its inescapability, its canonic immovability, cannot be changed; it can only be re-written, word for word, line by line. Once the new text is assembled, however, it will be seen to be entirely different from the old one, since the reality to which the words are pointing us has changed so irrefutably in the intervening centuries. Signifier and signified now have a different relationship.

This version of the book, which accepts its own subversion of knowledge, claims that it compensates for its deviation from the received images as we know ‘they really are’, by its exploration instead of the realm of understanding. This distinction is one which Wittgenstein used in a different area, but it might be useful here. Philosophy, he said, does not advance knowledge. That is why ancient philosophy can still tell us modern truths, whereas ancient science can only provide data about the history of itself. It is why, in one sense, Wittgenstein instructs us at the end of the Tractatus, to accept the dubiousness of the passage through which the book has directed us, if we accept the truth it is edging towards. A Borges story is helping us understand how the mind arranges and re-arranges the world so that it might inhabit it. It is not then giving us ‘knowledge’, which it has abandoned as belonging to the realm of science, but ‘understanding’, which is the way in which the intellect makes the world and society habitable for itself.

BUT BACK TO The Dunciad, a precursor of so much that was to come. In his essay ‘The Literature of Exhaustion’ John Barth described a condition where one arrives at the end of the tradition, to find literature completed: everything worth doing  has effectively been done. This is the condition Harold Bloom refers to as belatedness. It is the literary equivalent of the situation Jackson Pollock found himself in, when he lay in bed one morning reading a large book on Picasso. On finishing it, he threw the book at the wall, and said, ‘The bastard’s already done everything’. Jackson Pollock’s answer to this state of encyclopædic completion was what came to be called action painting. And the literary equivalent, the escape from such belatedness, would be what exactly? Barth speaks of the concept of the artist as ‘the Aristotelian conscious agent who achieves with technique and cunning the artistic effect’. This notion that the creation of art involves impeccable technique combined with spiritual acceleration still haunts us, but we often seem to find it easier to apply such categories to the past, rather than the present. There’s no doubt the two factors are there in Rembrandt, but in Damien Hirst? Technique he often leaves to others, and the notion of spiritual acceleration would presumably do little more than raise a snigger at the Groucho Club. This older concept of the artist is under attack, Barth reckons, because it is not thought to be democratic enough. He himself still likes it, all the same.

Barth reminds us that in the great story of Borges, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, no book is thought to be complete in Tlön which does not contain the terms of its own refutation. This is how we escape the Panglossian fatuity, the pseudo-mystical winsomeness that no serious person truly believes a word of in any case: we include the negative equivalent for every positive term. Thus do we supply the terms of refutation of the book itself. So, in the case of The Dunciad, we supply the Variorum Edition, where no one can come along in our wake and footnote us into dullness or idiocy, since we have already done that ourselves, at the inception of the text. In their vivid self-consciousness as books, as rhetorical manœuvres which are always vulnerable to being out-manoeuvred by subsequent texts, both A Tale of A Tub and The Dunciad announce a species of modernity. Only a century has passed since the publication of the First Folio, but we are living in another age. The Gutenberg Revolution has now passed through three hundred and sixty degrees. The authority of the book is being flatly contradicted by the book itself. No idiot, however egregious, can degrade any further by coarse interpretation a text which already adumbrates this supreme good, to be achieved by the employment of philosophy: ‘The Serene Peaceful State of being a Fool among Knaves.’

The self-subverting book gets over its resentment at its inadequate reception before it is even published. Anticipating stupidity and mendacity in equal measure it builds them into itself beforehand, often as a form of textual machinery. Like Prospero looking upon Caliban, it declares: ‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.’ It advertises its resentment through its own annotations on itself. Pope had no illusions about what awaited him out there in the world of the great and the good. Pamphlets were published against him monthly for the last three decades of his life. Here is a characteristic example from 1728: ‘The Frame and make of Pope’s Body is thrown into the favourable Scale, and inclines People to excuse and forgive him; for it is generally remark’d, that crooked, minute, and deform’d People, are peevish, quarrelsome, waspish, and ill-natur’d; and the Reason is, the Soul has not Room enough to pervade and expand itself thro’ all their nibbed, tiney Parts, and this makes it press sorely on the Brain, which is of a yielding Substance; and this Pressure again causes frequent Irritations and Twinges on the Nerves, which makes the crooked Person exert his Hands, his Feet, and his Tongue, in sudden Starts and Fits, which are very uneasy to himself, and which prove disagreeable and outragious [sic], often, to others.’

SO THERE WE have it. Pope was as nasty as he was because he was a crippled dwarf. As the Randy Newman song regarding small people announces, you’d have to pick him up just to say hello. Out of such a wretched and deformed body, together with its concomitant deformation of spirit, you can’t expect much, other than poison and bile, and you most certainly won’t be disappointed. The Dunciad might be the greatest work of resentment to achieve the status of great art. The textual machinery of The Dunciad is a device for containing the world’s witlessness while simultaneously exemplifying it; the commentary on John Shade’s poem in Nabokov’s Pale Fire does exactly the same thing. Here the world’s dementia is localized in the monomaniacal mind of Charles Kinbote. Pope’s main target famously shifted from Lewis Theobald to Colley Cibber, but the real target is larger. The real target did not have only one name; its name was legion.

The self-subverting book says this: you are surrounded by the products of dullness and meretricious self-applause, but here is a book which has mocked itself before you could even read it, and understands entirely the terms that will be provided for its own destruction. It is a tribute to the poem’s modernity that it contains within itself the terms of its own negation; it understands the manner of its own anticipated cancellation. It is, as it were, pre-mocked. It certainly does not confine itself to the affirmative, and any writing that does now surely risks appearing as a form of sentimentality. At such a belated moment in culture, the affirmative mood unalloyed can seem perilously close to kitsch. The affirmative faced with modernity is a mood that tends to modulate swiftly into the subjunctive, since our affirmations can only be local, never universal.

In his essay on The Dunciad, written to mark the publication of the Twickenham edition, F. R. Leavis insisted the notes were not needed: ‘…notes are not necessary: the poetry doesn’t depend upon them in any essential respect.’ But then we would inevitably be confined to the one plane of the verse. So much exquisite versification, examples of which Leavis quotes, is not diminished by being surrounded by the unceasing clatter of dullness in the form of the textual machinery; on the contrary, it is enhanced. The footnoted dullness is a foil upon which the verse might glitter all the more brightly. The Dunciad represents the midnight of the sublime; this is the darkest voicing of lyric exactitude before Paul Celan.

Can any genuinely modern work afford to be entirely without irony? Irony constitutes the book’s anti-self; the condition of its non-being. From the looking-glass world of negation, every value the book represents is threatened constantly with extinction. By acknowledging this threat in the texture of its own writing, the book at least inoculates itself against any bogus innocence, that gestus of theatrical wonder with which the insincere like to put a broad smile upon their insincerity. The self-subverting book instead says this: you are surrounded by the products of dullness, mendacity and self-applause. Here is a book which has mocked itself before you could even read it, and understands entirely the terms of its own demolition. Pre-mocked already, it knows what is at stake.


Alan Wall was born in Bradford and studied English at Oxford. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester. He lives in North Wales. His poem sequence, Raven, has just been published as a chapbook by Shearsman Books and a collection of his essays is forthcoming from Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review‘s publishing imprint.

  1. So that one must flick back and forth between textual planes, like this.
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One Comment

  1. Ron Stevenson wrote:

    Nice. But not every intentionally ironic book fits this. Donleavy’s novels for example are ironic and extremely confident. Examples abound.

    Wednesday, 26 September 2012 at 23:19 | Permalink

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