In late April MRes students went on an overnight reading party field trip to Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden. The Library, established by Gladstone himself in his later years, provides a wonderful resource for scholars of the nineteenth century but also, for us, an ideal environment in which to discuss, argue, reflect and to extend debates that had emerged during the taught elements of the Masters programme. The schedule for the visit included an information session on doctoral study; a short story analysis; a poetry seminar, where everyone present chose, read and led discussion on a particular poem; a research paper given by a member of staff; and a theory session where we engaged in particular with the work of Stanley Fish. We also had time to sit around the fire, in enormous leather armchairs, seeing a large moon outside the gothic windows and pondering many things.
What follows are student impressions and accounts of some of these sessions.
Short story Discussion: The Elephant Vanishes (Haruki Murakami)
Comfortably settled into our new, yet instantly welcoming environment, our discussion concerning Murakami’s short story, The Elephant Vanishes began. The title of the story is not in any way deceptive; the elephant does vanish along with its keeper and (annoyingly) ‘will never be coming back.’ Faced with an inexplicable disappearance, as readers, we can only search the text itself for meaning. Consider for a moment a substitution, replacing the elephant with an inanimate object; The Hat Vanishes for example? Personally I couldn’t place any sort of emotional investment upon the return of a hat, others may be different. Should we propose another substitution then? Another animal? The Dolphin Vanishes perhaps? This would be just as ineffective, as well as being vaguely reminiscent of a story concerning a smartly dressed “Pet Detective” with impeccable hair, investigating the theft of Snowflake. Unless you want suited Hollywood executives at your door threatening legal action, The Dolphin Vanishes is a no go. With this matter settled we set out with our particular set of skills to assess whether the elephant had indeed been taken, or if in fact the illogical explanation was in fact the logical one – it had simply vanished. What I found most enjoyable about the discussion was the fact the group had all conducted slightly different readings of the piece. I’ll set them out in a list below: it might make things easier to understand):
1. The elephant is in fact immaterial; it is merely a vehicle to convey various socio-political and economic ideologies. ‘The longer the elephant problem remained unresolved, the more interest the developer had to pay for nothing.’
2. (Slightly more bizarre) The elephant and its keeper are enveloped into some sort of temporal vortex of the sci-fi variety. ‘A different, chilling kind of time was flowing through the elephant house – but nowhere else.’
3. (Even more bizarre) The elephant is a warning to those with a secret obsession. The protagonist clearly gets some sort of voyeuristic kick out of watching the elephant and keeper after closing time and struggles to maintain interest in the only female character of the story.
4. The elephant vanishing merely exacerbated the already unbalanced mind of the protagonist. ‘Some kind of balance inside me has broken down since the elephant affair […] external phenomena strike my eye in a strange way.’
5. The elephant was in fact dreaming the whole story behind its vacant stare.
Of course, more ideas were formulated, but now I come to think of it, lists aren’t my thing. I began the evening knowing very little about Haruki Murakami, and left as an enthusiast, eager to read more of his work. Regardless of theoretical standpoint or eventual hypothesis, the story itself is a beautifully written example of how something simple can be contrived to stimulate thoughtful discussion.
As for me, an unhealthy fixation with detective fiction has left me re-reading The Elephant Vanishes on a daily basis looking for the final clue. If anyone has any information of the exact whereabouts of the elephant, please contact me directly. When I say directly, I mean, as quickly as possible and from a payphone preferably so the call cannot be traced.
Dr Kate Walchester: research paper
Having relocated to a cosy meeting room, we were ready to hear one of our party, Dr Kate Walchester, deliver a research paper entitled ‘The Servant as Narrative Vehicle in Nineteenth-Century Travel Texts about Norway and Iceland’. Kate focussed on the representation of servants in two pieces of travel writing: Letters from High Latitudes by Lord Dufferin and A Summer and Winter in Norway by Lady Di Beauclerk. She argued that, rather than disappearing into the background of their master or mistress’s narratives as one might expect, the servants who accompanied these young aristocrats on their journeys often feature prominently in the texts’ most enjoyable and engagingly written passages.
Kate explained that Lord Dufferin’s account of his trip to Iceland, comprising of letters home to his mother, includes references to two servants, Wilson and Fitz, who Dufferin depicts in extremely different ways. Whilst he clearly admires Fitz and praises his ‘decorous pertinacity’, he repeatedly ridicules the apparently morose Wilson, stating, ‘Of all the men I ever met he is the most desponding’. Kate suggested that Dufferin’s polarised descriptions of Wilson and Fitz helped him to establish a hierarchy between the two servants which adds to the already somewhat bizarre dynamic between the three men. This technique enables Dufferin to infuse humour into otherwise relatively uneventful sections of his travelogues, exemplified by his lengthy account of Fitz’s seasickness and Wilson’s morbid response. I was surprised to learn that Dufferin included comedic scripts in his letters, and although one can assume that he exaggerated certain situations by portraying Wilson as the stooge for comic effect, these almost Dickensian plays (aided by Kate’s enthusiastic delivery!) proved to be highly entertaining. These extracts also reiterated Kate’s argument that Dufferin uses his representation of the servants, and Wilson in particular, as a tool for narrative progression.
Similarly, Kate demonstrated how Lady Di Beauclerk displays an unexpected preoccupation with detailing the misfortunes of her long-suffering lady’s maid Teresina during their journey to Norway alongside Beauclerk’s mother. Teresina’s seasickness is blamed for disrupting the party’s original plans and forcing them to alter their route in order to avoid further travel by sea, with Beauclerk conveniently glossing over her own bout of illness. Furthermore, whilst Wilson is mocked for falling off his horse, Teresina disappoints Beauclerk by daring to be a novice at carriage driving. Kate explained that servants accompanying their employers on travels abroad were, in the absence of their colleagues at home, often expected to carry out tasks for which they were not usually responsible, in addition to having to join in with unfamiliar activities such as riding or driving. Thus, it is understandable that Teresina was, in Beauclerk’s words, ‘delighted to return’ from the tour.
Following Kate’s illuminating discussion of the texts, I found myself longing to hear more about both Wilson and Teresina. Kate noted that it is problematic to draw conclusions about their true characters from texts written by their employers, and as another member of our party remarked, Wilson and Teresina may well have resented their privileged young master and mistress. Indeed, it is perhaps not difficult for a modern day reader to ascertain why Lord Dufferin was unable to find any travel companions that were not in his employ. Although it would be fascinating to read accounts of Wilson and Teresina’s travels in their own words, this is of course not possible. Thankfully, our own experiences of travel, from Liverpool to Hawarden and back again, were markedly less traumatic.
Theory session: Stanley Fish on texts and readers
In the final paragraph of his essay ‘Interpreting the Variorum’, Stanley Fish claims to have “made the text disappear”, read in isolation one could assume Fish is suffering from delusions of grandeur, burt read in the context of the essay you could be expected to agree with Fish’s claim.
Fish’s essay opens with an aggressive vigour with a list of the “assumptions to which [he] stands opposed”, Fish argues that formalist assumptions that a text is embedded or encoded with a sense serve to devalue or ignore the reader of the text. Fish argues that rather than formal artistic features placed in the text by the author, it is instead the reader who in performing the act of reading places significance on these features, therefore formal artistic features are actually a function of reading by the reader – rather than anything intrinsic in the text itself. As Fish himself says “formal features [can] be (illegitimately) assigned the responsibility for producing the interpretation which in fact produced them”. In other words, it is the reader who has the agency in creating literary features rather than the any being held within text. Fish argues that a similar process also occurs when one considers the “authorial intent” of a piece, it takes an interpretative act on behalf of the reader to ascribe a value to a feature of the text – therefore authorial intent is always seen through the prism of the reader.
Fish then progresses to apply these reader response theories to John Milton. Fish’s choice is particularly apt for his theories – as Milton is such a well-researched poet, the amount of knowledge both of Milton himself and his references to classical history and myth will vary from reader to reader. First Fish explores Milton’s use of the figure of Bacchus in the masque Comus:
Bacchus that first from out the purple grape,
Crushed the sweet poison of misused wine.
The reader’s knowledge (or lack) of Bacchus, Milton, the image of Bacchus in 17th century (Protestant) England, and Milton’s own relation to this image would influence their reading. This baggage the reader brings to the figure of Bacchus then informs their reading till the penultimate word of the extract – “misused”, whereby the reader shifts agency from the wine to abusers of wine, exonerating the wine from any moral aspersions.
Fish then shifts his attention to Milton’s 1637 poem ‘Lycidas’ and focuses on how the reader “is always making sense” as he or she reads the poem. Fish takes lines 42-44 of the poem:
The willows and the hazel copses green (42)
Shall now no more be seen, (43)
Fanning their joyous leaves to thy soft lays. (44)
Fish offers a variety of readings of this passage as the reader progresses through it, one being that after line 43 the reader might assume that the willow and hazel has died in pathetic fallacy with the character of Lycidas, the reader then reassesses this reading after line 44 – the nature on display will remain as it always has, but will be unseen by the now deceased Lycidas. Through reading the passage nature changes from a caring, sympathetic force into a more uncaring and callous force.
If then, the text is what the reader makes of it rather than a piece of art in isolation – how is it then possible for a reader to read two texts differently? How is also it possible for two readers independent of each other to perform similarly when reading the same piece? Fish explains these apparent coincidences by attributing them to “interpretive communities”, arguing that “the stability and the variety are functions of interpretive strategies rather than of texts”, therefore it is not the same piece of text that each reader is reading but rather the way they are reading the texts remains constant.
Fish’s claims that the text itself doesn’t exist and artistic merit attributed to a piece of work is in fact part of the reader’s process of reading the text are naturally daunting. The group proceeded to discuss our interpretations of Fish’s thesis. Reactions to the essay ranged in a Fishian (to coin a term) sense from a depressing analysis that the no text holds any intrinsic artistic merit to an optimistic reading that Fish’s reader-response theories work as a rallying cry for specialisation – with pieces of literature offering ever more rewarding interpretations for those who study them. Following our reactions to Fish’s essay, we then discussed our relationship as students of literature to the text and how this might influence our reading of a text. Within my own field of late-colonial texts, I felt that although I was reading the texts in a postcolonial world we should take into account the socio-historical values prevalent at the works inception and allow ourselves to take a less objective and clinical view of a text.
Our conversation then focused on the relationships between literature, literary criticism, and the ‘practical’ world. We discussed how literature could change our understandings of certain things. Although we first opened on the pessimistic note with an analysis of the comment sections of online newspaper articles, we continued in a far more positive strain – we considered how our own work and research has influenced our outlook on the world. My own work and my reading of theories around postcolonial and gender issues, in particular have shaped my own views outside of academia.
This line of thought then brought the group back to discussing Fish’s reader response theories. It was interesting that the reader is both shaped by the text that he or she reads but also shapes the text in the process of reading it. Whilst Fish seems to view the process of reading as the text being formed by the readers, he perhaps avoids emphasising that the reverse of this is also true and that texts can exist in a dialogue with the reader.