Madness and Bliss: Critical versus Primitive Readings in A.S. Byatt’s Possession: a Romance

                                                                                Part 1 of 2
“You have one of the gifts of the novelist at least,” Christabel LaMotte says to her cousin Sabine de Kercoz in A.S. Byatt’s Possession: a Romance, “you persist in undermining facile illusions” (377). LaMotte is staying with her uncle and cousin, Sabine later learns, because she is carrying the child of the renowned, and married, poet Randolph Henry Ash. The affair began when the two met at a breakfast party where they struck up an impassioned conversation that later prompted Ash to instigate a correspondence. LaMotte too was a poet, so each turned out to be an ideal reader for the other’s work. Just over a hundred years after this initial meeting, in the present day of Byatt’s narrative, the literary scholar Roland Mitchell finds two drafts of Ash’s first letter to LaMotte tucked away in the pages of a book he’s examining for evidence about the great poet’s life, and the detective work begins.

Roland, an unpaid research assistant financially dependent on the girlfriend he’s in a mutually unfulfilling relationship with, is overtaken with curiosity and embarks on a quest to piece together the story of what happened between LaMotte and Ash. Knowing next to nothing about LaMotte, Mitchell partners with the feminist scholar Maud Bailey, who one character describes as “a chilly mortal” (159), and a stilted romance develops between them as they seek out the clues to the earlier, doomed relationship. Through her juxtaposition of the romance between the intensely passionate, intensely curious nineteenth century couple and the subdued, hyper-analytic, and sterile modern one, the novelist Byatt does some undermining of facile illusions of her own.
A.S. Byatt

       Both of the modern characters are steeped in literary theory, but Byatt’s narrative suggests that their education and training is more a hindrance than an aid to true engagement with literature, and with life. It is only by breaking with professional protocol—by stealing the drafts of the letter from Ash to LaMotte—and breaking away from his mentor and fellow researchers that Roland has a chance to read, and experience, the story that transforms him. “He had been taught that language was essentially inadequate, that it could never speak what was there, that it only spoke itself” (513). But over the course of the story Roland comes to believe that this central tenet of poststructuralism is itself inadequate, along with the main tenets of other leading critical theories, including psychoanalysis. Byatt, in a later book of criticism, counts herself among the writers of fiction who “feel that powerful figures in the modern critical movements feel almost a gladiatorial antagonism to the author and the authority the author claims” (6).  Indeed, Possession can be read as the novelist’s narrative challenge to the ascendant critical theories, an “undermining of facile illusions” about language and culture and politics—a literary refutation of current approaches to literary criticism. In the two decades since the novel’s publication, critics working in these traditions have been unable to adequately respond to Byatt’s challenge because they’ve been unable to imagine that their ideas are not simply impediments to pleasurable reading but that they’re both wrong and harmful to the creation and appreciation of literature.

       The possession of the title refers initially to how the story of LaMotte and Ash’s romance takes over Maud and Roland—in defiance of the supposed inadequacy of language. If words only speak themselves, then true communication would be impossible. But, as Roland says to Maud after they’ve discovered some uncanny correspondences between each of the two great poets’ works and the physical setting the modern scholars deduce they must’ve visited together, “People’s minds do hook together” (257). This hooking-together is precisely what inspires them to embark on their mission of discovery in the first place. “I want to—to—follow the path,” Maud says to Roland after they’ve read the poets’ correspondence together.

I feel taken over by this. I want to know what happened, and I want it to be me that finds out. I thought you were mad when you came to Lincoln with your piece of stolen letter. Now I feel the same. It isn’t professional greed. It’s something more primitive. (239)

Roland interrupts to propose the label “Narrative curiosity” for her feeling of being taken over, to which she responds, “Partly” (239). Later in the story, after several more crucial discoveries, Maud proposes revealing all they’ve learned to their academic colleagues and returning to their homes and their lives. Roland worries doing so would mean going back “Unenchanted.” “Are we enchanted?” Maud replies. “I suppose we must start thinking again, sometime” (454). But it’s the primitive, enchanted, supposedly unthinking reading of the biographical clues about the poets that has brought the two scholars to where they are, and their journey ends up resulting in a transformation that allows Maud and Roland to experience the happy ending LaMotte and Ash were tragically deprived of.

            Before discovering and being possessed by the romance of the nineteenth century poets, both Maud and Roland were living isolated and sterile lives. Maud, for instance, always has her hair covered in a kind of “head-binding” and twisted in tightly regimented braids that cause Roland “a kind of sympathetic pain on his own skull-skin” (282). She later reveals that she has to cover it because her fellow feminists always assume she’s “dyeing it to please men.” “It’s exhausting,” Roland has just said. “When everything’s a deliberate political stance. Even if it’s interesting” (295). Maud’s bound head thus serves as a symbol (if read in precisely the type of way Byatt’s story implicitly admonishes her audience to avoid) of the burdensome and even oppressive nature of an ideology that supposedly works for the liberation and wider consciousness of women.

            Meanwhile, Roland is troubling himself about the implications of his budding romantic feelings for Maud. He has what he calls a “superstitious dread” of “repeating patterns,” a phrase he repeats over and over again throughout the novel. Thinking of his relations with Maud, he muses,

“Falling in love,” characteristically, combs the appearances of the world, and of the particular lover’s history, out of a random tangle and into a coherent plot. Roland was troubled that the opposite might be true. Finding themselves in a plot, they might suppose it appropriate to behave as though it was a sort of plot. And that would be to compromise some kind of integrity they had set out with. (456)

He later wrestles with the idea that “a Romance was one of the systems that controlled him, as the expectations of Romance control almost everyone in the Western world” (460). Because of his education, he cannot help doubting his own feelings, suspecting that giving in to their promptings would have political implications, and worrying that doing so would result in a comprising of his integrity (which he must likewise doubt) and his free will. Roland’s self-conscious lucubration forms a stark contrast to what Randolph Henry Ash wrote in an early letter to his wife Ellen: “I cannot get out of my mind—as indeed, how should I wish to, whose most ardent desire is to be possessed entirely by the pure thought of you—I cannot get out of my mind the entire picture of you” (500). It is only by reading letters like this, and by becoming more like Ash, turning away in the process from his modern learning, that Roland can come to an understanding of himself and accept his feelings for Maud as genuine and innocent.

            Identity for modern literary scholars, Byatt suggests, is a fraught and complicated issue. At different points in the novel, both Maud and Roland engage in baroque, abortive efforts to arrive at a sense of who they are. Maud, reflecting on how another scholar’s writing about Ash says more about the author than about the subject, meditates,

Narcissism, the unstable self, the fractured ego, Maud thought, who am I? A matrix for a susurration of texts and codes? It was both a pleasant and an unpleasant idea, this requirement that she think of herself as intermittent and partial. There was the question of the awkward body. The skin, the breath, the eyes, the hair, their history, which did seem to exist. (273)

Roland later echoes this head-binding poststructuralist notion of the self as he continues to dither over whether or not he should act on his feelings for Maud.

Roland had learned to see himself, theoretically, as a crossing-place for a number of systems, all loosely connected. He had been trained to see his idea of his “self” as an illusion, to be replaced by a discontinuous machinery and electrical message-network of various desires, ideological beliefs and responses, language forms and hormones and pheromones. Mostly he liked this. He had no desire for any strenuous Romantic self-assertion. (459)

But he mistakes that lack of desire for self-assertion as genuine, when it fact it is borne of his theory-induced self-doubt. He will have to discover in himself that very desire to assert or express himself if he wants to escape his lifeless, menial occupation and end his sexless isolation. He and Maud both have to learn how to integrate their bodies and their desires into their conceptions of themselves.
Yorkshire Moors courtesy of Park Benches and Book Ends

            Unfortunately, thinking about sex is even more fraught with exhausting political implications for Byatt’s scholars than thinking about the self. While on a trek to retrace the steps they believe LaMotte and Ash took in the hills of Yorkshire, Roland considers the writing of a psychoanalytic theorist. Disturbed, he asks Maud, “Do you never have the sense that our metaphors eat up our world?” (275). He goes on to explain, that no matter what they tried to discuss,

It all reduced like boiling jam to—human sexuality… And then, really, what is it, what is this arcane power we have, when we see everything is human sexuality? It’s really powerlessness… We are so knowing… Everything relates to us and so we’re imprisoned in ourselves—we can’t see things. (276)

The couple is coming to realize that they can in fact see things, the same things that the couple whose story they're tracking down saw over a century ago. This budding realization inspires in Roland an awareness of how limiting, even incapacitating, the dubious ideas of critical theorizing can be. Through the distorting prism of psychoanalysis, “Sexuality was like thick smoked glass; everything took on the same blurred tint through it. He could not imagine a pool with stones and water” (278).

The irony is that for all the faux sophistication of psychoanalytic sexual terminology it engenders in both Roland and Maud nothing but bafflement and aversion to actual sex. Roland highlights this paradox later, thinking,

They were children of a time and culture that mistrusted love, “in love,” romantic love, romance in toto, and which nevertheless in revenge proliferated sexual language, linguistic sexuality, analysis, dissection, deconstruction, exposure. (458)

Maud sums up the central problem when she says to Roland, “And desire, that we look into so carefully—I think all the looking-into has some very odd effects on the desire” (290). In that same scene, while still in Yorkshire trying to find evidence of LaMotte’s having accompanied Ash on his trip, the two modern scholars discover they share a fantasy, not a sexual fantasy, but one involving “An empty clean bed,” “An empty bed in an empty room,” and they wonder if “they’re symptomatic of whole flocks of exhausted scholars and theorists” (290-1).

            Guided by their intense desire to be possessed by the two poets of the previous century, Maud and Roland try to imagine how they would have seen the world, and in so doing they try to imagine what it would be like not to believe in the poststructuralist and psychoanalytic theories they’ve been inculcated with. At first Maud tells Roland, “We live in the truth of what Freud discovered. Whether or not we like it. However we’ve modified it. We aren’t really free to suppose—to imagine—he could possibly have been wrong about human nature” (276). But after they’ve discovered a cave with a pool whose reflected light looks like white fire, a metaphor that both LaMotte and Ash used in poems written around the time they would’ve come to that very place, prompting Maud to proclaim, “She saw this. I’m sure she saw this” (289), the two begin trying in earnest to imagine what it would be like to live without their theories. Maud explains to Roland,

We know all sorts of things, too—about how there isn’t a unitary ego—how we’re made up of conflicting, interacting systems of things—and I suppose we believe that? We know we’re driven by desire, but we can’t see it as they did, can we? We never say the word Love, do we—we know it’s a suspect ideological construct—especially Romantic Love—so we have to make a real effort of imagination to know what it felt like to be them, here, believing in these things—Love—themselves—that what they did mattered—(290)

       Though many critics have pointed out how the affair between LaMotte and Ash parallels the one between Maud and Roland, in some way the trajectories of the two relationships run in opposite directions. For instance, LaMotte leaves Ash as even more of a “chilly mortal” (310) than she was when she first met him. It turns out the term derives from a Mrs. Cammish, who lodged LaMotte and Ash while they were on their trip, and was handed down to the Lady Bailey, Maud’s relative, who applies it to her in a conversation with Roland. And whereas the ultimate falling out between LaMotte and Ash comes in the wake of Ash exposing a spiritualist, whose ideas and abilities LaMotte had invested a great deal of faith in, as a fraud, Roland’s counterpart disillusionment, his epiphany that literary theory as he has learned it is a fraud, is what finally makes the consummation of his relationship with Maud possible. Maud too has to overcome, to a degree, her feminist compunctions to be with Roland. Noting how this chilly mortal is warming over the course of their quest, Roland thinks how, “It was odd to hear Maud Bailey talking wildly of madness and bliss” (360). But at last she lets her hair down.

Brittany Coast
Sabine’s journal of the time her cousin Christabel stayed with her and her father on the Brittany coast, where she’d sought refuge after discovering she was pregnant, offers Roland and Maud a glimpse at how wrongheaded it can be to give precedence to their brand of critical reading over what they would consider a more primitive approach. Ironically, it is the young aspiring writer who gives them this glimpse as she chastises her high-minded poet cousin for her attempts to analyze and explain the meanings of the myths and stories she’s grown up with. “The stories come before the meanings,” Sabine insists to Christabel. “I do not believe all these explanations. They diminish. The idea of Woman is less than brilliant Vivien, and the idea of Merlin will not allegorise into male wisdom. He is Merlin” (384). These words come from the same young woman who LaMotte earlier credited for her persistence “in undermining facile illusions” (377).

Readers of Byatt’s novel, though not Maud and Roland, both of whom likely already know of the episode, learn about how Ash attended a séance and, reaching up to grab a supposedly levitating wreath, revealed it to be attached to a set of strings connected to the spiritualist. In a letter to Ruskin read for Byatt’s readers by another modern scholar, Ash expresses his outrage that someone would exploit the credulity and longing of the bereaved, especially mothers who’ve lost children. “If this is fraud, playing on a mother’s harrowed feelings, it is wickedness indeed” (423). He also wonders what the ultimate benefit would be if spiritualist studies into other realms proved to be valid. “But if it were so, if the departed spirits were called back—what good does it do? Were we meant to spend our days sitting and peering into the edge of the shadows?” (422). LaMotte and Ash part ways for good after his exposure of the spiritualist as a charlatan because she is so disturbed by the revelation. And, for the reader, the interlude serves as a reminder of past follies that today are widely acknowledged to have depended on trickery and impassioned credulity. So it might be for the ideas of Freud and Derrida and Lacan.

Roland arrives at the conclusion that this is indeed the case. Having been taught that language is inadequate and only speaks itself, he gradually comes to realize that this idea is nonsense. Reflecting on how he was taught that language couldn’t speak about what really existed in the world, he suddenly realizes that he’s been disabused of the idea. “What happened to him was that the ways in which it could be said had become more interesting than the idea that it could not” (513). He has learned through his quest to discover what had occurred between LaMotte and Ash that “It is possible for a writer to make, or remake at least, for a reader, the primary pleasures of eating, or drinking, or looking on, or sex.” People’s minds do in fact “hook together,” as he’d observed earlier, and they do it through language. The novel’s narrator intrudes to explain here near the end of the book what Roland is coming to understand.

 Now and then there are readings that make the hairs on the neck, the non-existent pelt, stand on end and tremble, when every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact, like stones of fire, like points of stars in the dark—readings when the knowledge that we shall know the writing differently or better or satisfactorily, runs ahead of any capacity to say what we know, or how. In these readings, a sense of that text has appeared to be wholly new, never before seen, is followed, almost immediately, by the sense that it was always there, that we the readers, knew it was always there, and have always known it was as it was, though we have now for the first time recognised, become fully cognisant of, our knowledge. (512) (Neuroscientists agree.)

The recognition the narrator refers to—which Roland is presumably experiencing in the scene—is of a shared human nature, and shared human experience, the notions of which are considered by most literary critics to be politically reactionary.

Though he earlier claimed to have no desire to assert himself, Roland discovers he has a desire to write poetry. He decides to turn away from literary scholarship altogether and become a poet. He also asserts himself by finally taking charge and initiating sex with Maud.

And very slowly and with infinite gentle delays and delicate diversions and variations of indirect assault Roland finally, to use an outdated phrase, entered and took possession of all her white coolness that grew warm against him, so that there seemed to be no boundaries, and he heard, towards dawn, from a long way off, her clear voice crying out, uninhibited, unashamed, in pleasure and triumph. (551)

This is in fact, except for postscript focusing on Ash, the final scene of the novel, and it represents Roland’s total, and Maud’s partial transcendence of the theories and habits that hitherto made their lives so barren and lonely.