A.S. Byatt

Can’t Win for Losing: Why There Are So Many Losers in Literature and Why It Has to Change

Doris Lessing
            Ironically, the author of The Golden Notebook, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and considered by many a “feminist bible,” happens to be an outspoken critic of feminism. When asked in a 1982 interview with Lesley Hazelton about her response to readers who felt some of her later works were betrayals of the women whose cause she once championed, Doris Lessing replied,

What the feminists want of me is something they haven't examined because it comes from religion. They want me to bear witness. What they would really like me to say is, ‘Ha, sisters, I stand with you side by side in your struggle toward the golden dawn where all those beastly men are no more.’ Do they really want people to make oversimplified statements about men and women? In fact, they do. I've come with great regret to this conclusion.

Lessing has also been accused of being overly harsh—“castrating”—to men, too many of whom she believes roll over a bit too easily when challenged by women aspiring to empowerment. As a famous novelist, however, who would go on to win the Nobel prize in literature in 2007, she got to visit a lot of schools, and it gradually dawned on her that it wasn’t so much that men were rolling over but rather that they were being trained from childhood to be ashamed of their maleness. In a lecture she gave to the Edinburgh book festival in 2001, she said,

Great things have been achieved through feminism. We now have pretty much equality at least on the pay and opportunities front, though almost nothing has been done on child care, the real liberation. We have many wonderful, clever, powerful women everywhere, but what is happening to men? Why did this have to be at the cost of men? I was in a class of nine- and 10-year-olds, girls and boys, and this young woman was telling these kids that the reason for wars was the innately violent nature of men. You could see the little girls, fat with complacency and conceit while the little boys sat there crumpled, apologising for their existence, thinking this was going to be the pattern of their lives.

Lessing describes how the teacher kept casting glances expectant of her approval as she excoriated these impressionable children. 

           Elaine Blair, in “Great American Losers,” an essay that’s equal parts trenchant and infuriatingly obtuse, describes a dynamic in contemporary fiction that’s similar to the one Lessing saw playing out in the classroom.

The man who feels himself unloved and unlovable—this is a character that we know well from the latest generation or two of American novels. His trials are often played for sympathetic laughs. His loserdom is total: it extends to his stunted career, his squalid living quarters, his deep unease in the world.

At the heart of this loserdom is his auto-manifesting knowledge that women don’t like him. As opposed to men of earlier generations who felt entitled to a woman’s respect and admiration, Blair sees this modern male character as being “the opposite of entitled: he approaches women cringingly, bracing for a slap.” This desperation on the part of male characters to avoid offending women, to prove themselves capable of sublimating their own masculinity so they can be worthy of them, finds its source in the authors themselves. Blair writes,

Our American male novelists, I suspect, are worried about being unloved as writers—specifically by the female reader. This is the larger humiliation looming behind the many smaller fictional humiliations of their heroes, and we can see it in the way the characters’ rituals of self-loathing are tacitly performed for the benefit of an imagined female audience.
D.F. Wallace courtesy of
infinitesummer.org

           Blair quotes a review David Foster Wallace wrote of a John Updike novel to illustrate how conscious males writing literature today are of their female readers’ hostility toward men who write about sex and women without apologizing for liking sex and women—sometimes even outside the bounds of caring, committed relationships. Labeling Updike as a “Great Male Narcissist,” a distinction he shares with writers like Philip Roth and Norman Mailer, Wallace writes,

Most of the literary readers I know personally are under forty, and a fair number are female, and none of them are big admirers of the postwar GMNs. But it’s John Updike in particular that a lot of them seem to hate. And not merely his books, for some reason—mention the poor man himself and you have to jump back:
“Just a penis with a thesaurus.”
“Has the son of a bitch ever had one unpublished thought?”
“Makes misogyny seem literary the same way Rush 
[Limbaugh] makes fascism seem funny.”
And trust me: these are actual quotations, and I’ve heard even
worse ones, and they’re all usually accompanied by the sort of
facial expressions where you can tell there’s not going to be any profit in appealing to the intentional fallacy or talking about the sheer aesthetic pleasure of Updike’s prose.

Since Wallace is ready to “jump back” at the mere mention of Updike’s name, it’s no wonder he’s given to writing about characters who approach women “cringingly, bracing for a slap.”

Blair goes on to quote from Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections, painting a plausible picture of male writers who fear not only that their books will be condemned if too misogynistic—a relative term which has come to mean "not as radically feminist as me"—but they themselves will be rejected. In Franzen’s novel, Chip Lambert has written a screenplay and asked his girlfriend Julia to give him her opinion. She holds off doing so, however, until after she breaks up with him and is on her way out the door. “For a woman reading it,” she says, “it’s sort of like the poultry department. Breast, breast, breast, thigh, leg” (26). Franzen describes his character’s response to the critique:

It seemed to Chip that Julia was leaving him because “The Academy Purple” had too many breast references and a draggy opening, and that if he could correct these few obvious problems, both on Julia’s copy of the script and, more important, on the copy he’d specially laser-printed on 24-pound ivory bond paper for [the film producer] Eden Procuro, there might be hope not only for his finances but also for his chances of ever again unfettering and fondling Julia’s own guileless, milk-white breasts. Which by this point in the day, as by late morning of almost every day in recent months, was one of the last activities on earth in which he could still reasonably expect to take solace for his failures. (28)

If you’re reading a literary work like The Corrections, chances are you’ve at some point sat in a literature class—or even a sociology or culture studies class—and been instructed that the proper way to fulfill your function as a reader is to critically assess the work in terms of how women (or minorities) are portrayed. Both Chip and Julia have sat through such classes. And you’re encouraged to express disapproval, even outrage if something like a traditional role is enacted—or, gasp, objectification occurs. Blair explains how this affects male novelists:

When you see the loser-figure in a novel, what you are seeing is a complicated bargain that goes something like this: yes, it is kind of immature and boorish to be thinking about sex all the time and ogling and objectifying women, but this is what we men sometimes do and we have to write about it. We fervently promise, however, to avoid the mistake of the late Updike novels: we will always, always, call our characters out when they’re being self-absorbed jerks and louts. We will make them comically pathetic, and punish them for their infractions a priori by making them undesirable to women, thus anticipating what we imagine will be your judgments, female reader. Then you and I, female reader, can share a laugh at the characters’ expense, and this will bring us closer together and forestall the dreaded possibility of your leaving me.

In other words, these male authors are the grownup versions of those poor school boys Lessing saw forced to apologize for their own existence. Indeed, you can feel this dynamic, this bargain, playing out when you’re reading these guys’ books. Blair’s description of the problem is spot on. Her theory of what caused it, however, is laughable.

Because of the GMNs, these two tendencies—heroic virility and sexist condescension—have lingered in our minds as somehow yoked together, and the succeeding generations of American male novelists have to some degree accepted the dyad as truth. Behind their skittishness is a fearful suspicion that if a man gets what he wants, sexually speaking, he is probably exploiting someone.

The dread of slipping down the slope from attraction to exploitation has nothing to do with John Updike. Rather, it is embedded in terms at the very core of feminist ideology. Misogyny, for instance, is frequently deemed an appropriate label for men who indulge in lustful gazing, even in private. And the term objectification implies that the female whose subjectivity isn’t being properly revered is the victim of oppression. The main problem with this idea—and there are several—is that the term objectification is synonymous with attraction. The deluge of details about the female body in fiction by male authors can just as easily be seen as a type of confession, an unburdening of guilt by the offering up of sins. The female readers respond by assigning the writers some form of penance, like never writing, never thinking like that again without flagellating themselves.

           The conflict between healthy male desire and disapproving feminist prudery doesn’t just play out in the tortured psyches of geeky American male novelists. A.S. Byatt, in her Booker prize-winning novel Possession, satirizes the plight of scholars steeped in literary theories for being “papery” and sterile. But the novel ends with a male scholar named Roland overcoming his theory-induced self-consciousness to initiate sex with another scholar named Maud. Byatt describes the encounter:

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)

The literary critic Monica Flegel cites this passage as an example of how Byatt’s old-fashioned novel features “such negative qualities of the form as its misogyny and its omission of the lower class.” Flegel is particularly appalled by how “stereotypical gender roles are reaffirmed” in the sex scene. “Maud is reduced in the end,” Flegel alleges, “to being taken possession of by her lover…and assured that Roland will ‘take care of her.’” How, we may wonder, did a man assuring a woman he would take care of her become an act of misogyny?
Martin Amis

            Perhaps critics like Flegel occupy some radical fringe; Byatt’s book was after all a huge success with audiences and critics alike, and it did win Byatt the Booker. The novelist Martin Amis, however, isn’t one to describe his assaults as indirect. He routinely dares to feature men who actually do treat women poorly in his novels—without any authorial condemnation. Martin Goff, the non-intervening director of the Booker Prize committee, tells the story of the 1989 controversy over whether or not Amis’s London Fields should be on the shortlist. Maggie Gee, a novelist, and Helen McNeil, a professor, simply couldn’t abide Amis’s treatment of his women characters. “It was an incredible row,” says Goff.

Maggie and Helen felt that Amis treated women appallingly in the book. That is not to say they thought books which treated women badly couldn't be good, they simply felt that the author should make it clear he didn't favour or bless that sort of treatment. Really, there was only two of them and they should have been outnumbered as the other three were in agreement, but such was the sheer force of their argument and passion that they won. David [Lodge] has told me he regrets it to this day, he feels he failed somehow by not saying, “It's two against three, Martin's on the list”.

In 2010, Amis explained his career-spanning failure to win a major literary award, despite enjoying robust book sales, thus:

There was a great fashion in the last century, and it's still with us, of the unenjoyable novel. And these are the novels which win prizes, because the committee thinks, “Well it's not at all enjoyable, and it isn't funny, therefore it must be very serious.”

Brits like Hilary Mantel, and especially Ian McEwan are working to turn this dreadful trend around. But when McEwan dared to write a novel about a neurosurgeon who prevails in the end over an afflicted, less privileged tormenter he was condemned by critic Jennifer Szalai in the pages of Harper’s Magazine for his “blithe, bourgeois sentiments.” If you’ve read Saturday, you know the sentiments are anything but blithe, and if you read Szalai’s review you’ll be taken aback by her articulate blindness.

           Amis is probably right in suggesting that critics and award committees have a tendency to mistake misery for profundity. But his own case, along with several others like it, hint at something even more disturbing, a shift in the very idea of what role fictional narratives play in our lives. The sad new reality is that, owing to the growing influence of ideologically extreme and idiotically self-righteous activist professors, literature is no longer read for pleasure and enrichment—it’s no longer even read as a challenging exercise in outgroup empathy. Instead, reading literature is supposed by many to be a ritual of male western penance. Prior to taking an interest in literary fiction, you must first be converted to the proper ideologies, made to feel sufficiently undeserving yet privileged, the beneficiary of a long history of theft and population displacement, the scion and gene-carrier of rapists and genocidaires—the horror, the horror. And you must be taught to systematically overlook and remain woefully oblivious of all the evidence that the Enlightenment was the best fucking thing that ever happened to the human species. Once you’re brainwashed into believing that so-called western culture is evil and that you’ve committed the original sin of having been born into it, you’re ready to perform your acts of contrition by reading horrendously boring fiction that forces you to acknowledge and reflect upon your own fallen state.
"In his new self-lacerating 'Memoir', J.M. Coetzee portrays
himself as a loser with no sexual presence." Here he is at the
Nobel ceremony.

           Fittingly, the apotheosis of this new literary tradition won the Booker in 1999, and its author, like Lessing, is a Nobel laureate. J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace chronicles in exquisite free indirect discourse the degradation of David Lurie, a white professor in Cape Town, South Africa, beginning with his somewhat pathetic seduction of black student, a crime for which he pays with the loss of his job, his pension, and his reputation, and moving on to the aftermath of his daughter’s rape at the hands of three black men who proceed to rob her, steal his car, douse him with spirits and light him on fire. What’s unsettling about the novel—and it is a profoundly unsettling novel—is that its structure implies that everything that David and Lucy suffer flows from his original offense of lusting after a young black woman. This woman, Melanie, is twenty years old, and though she is clearly reluctant at first to have sex with her teacher there’s never any force involved. At one point, she shows up at David’s house and asks to stay with him. It turns out she has a boyfriend who is refusing to let her leave him without a fight. It’s only after David unheroically tries to wash his hands of the affair to avoid further harassment from this boyfriend—while stooping so low as to insist that Melanie make up a test she missed in his class—that she files a complaint against him.

            David immediately comes clean to university officials and admits to taking advantage of his position of authority. But he stalwartly refuses to apologize for his lust, or even for his seduction of the young woman. This refusal makes him complicit, the novel suggests, in all the atrocities of colonialism. As he’s awaiting a hearing to address Melanie’s complaint, David gets a message:

On campus it is Rape Awareness Week. Women Against Rape, WAR, announces a twenty-four-hour vigil in solidarity with “recent victims”. A pamphlet is slipped under his door: ‘WOMEN SPEAK OUT.’ Scrawled in pencil at the bottom is a message: ‘YOUR DAYS ARE OVER, CASANOVA.’ (43)

During the hearing, David confesses to doctoring the attendance ledgers and entering a false grade for Melanie. As the attendees become increasingly frustrated with what they take to be evasions, he goes on to confess to becoming “a servant of Eros” (52). But this confession only enrages the social sciences professor Farodia Rassool:

Yes, he says, he is guilty; but when we try to get specificity, all of a sudden it is not abuse of a young woman he is confessing to, just an impulse he could not resist, with no mention of the pain he has caused, no mention of the long history of exploitation of which this is part. (53)

There’s also no mention, of course, of the fact that already David has gone through more suffering than Melanie has, or that her boyfriend deserves a great deal of the blame, or that David is an individual, not a representative of his entire race who should be made to answer for the sins of his forefathers.
From the movie version of Disgrace

            After resigning from his position in disgrace, David moves out to the country to live with his daughter on a small plot of land. The attack occurs only days after he’s arrived. David wants Lucy to pursue some sort of justice, but she refuses. He wants her to move away because she’s clearly not safe, but she refuses. She even goes so far as to accuse him of being in the wrong for believing he has any right to pronounce what happened an injustice—and for thinking it is his place to protect his daughter. And if there’s any doubt about the implication of David’s complicity she clears it up. As he’s pleading with her to move away, they begin talking about the rapists’ motivation. Lucy says to her father,

When it comes to men and sex, David, nothing surprises me anymore. Maybe, for men, hating the woman makes sex more exciting. You are a man, you ought to know. When you have sex with someone strange—when you trap her, hold her down, get her under you, put all your weight on her—isn’t it a bit like killing? Pushing the knife in; exiting afterwards, leaving the body behind covered in blood—doesn’t it feel like murder, like getting away with murder? (158)

The novel is so engrossing and so disturbing that it’s difficult to tell what the author’s position is vis à vis his protagonist’s degradation or complicity. You can’t help sympathizing with him and feeling his treatment at the hands of Melanie, Farodia, and Lucy is an injustice. But are you supposed to question that feeling in light of the violence Melanie is threatened with and Lucy is subjected to? Are you supposed to reappraise altogether your thinking about the very concept of justice in light of the atrocities of history? Are we to see David Lurie as an individual or as a representative of western male colonialism, deserving of whatever he’s made to suffer and more?
From the Crucible

            Personally, I think David Lurie’s position in Disgrace is similar to that of John Proctor in The Crucible (although this doesn’t come out nearly as much in the movie version). And it’s hard not to see feminism in its current manifestations—along with Marxism and postcolonialism—as a pernicious new breed of McCarthyism infecting academia and wreaking havoc with men and literature alike. It’s really no surprise at all that the most significant developments in the realm of narratives lately haven’t occurred in novels at all. Insofar as the cable series contributing to the new golden age of television can be said to adhere to a formula, it’s this: begin with a bad ass male lead who doesn’t apologize for his own existence and has no qualms about expressing his feelings toward women. As far as I know, these shows are just as popular with women viewers as they are with the guys.

            When David first arrives at Lucy’s house, they take a walk and he tells her a story about a dog he remembers from a time when they lived in a neighborhood called Kenilworth.

It was a male. Whenever there was a bitch in the vicinity it would get excited and unmanageable, and with Pavlovian regularity the owners would beat it. This went on until the poor dog didn’t know what to do. At the smell of a bitch it would chase around the garden with its ears flat and its tail between its legs, whining, trying to hide…There was something so ignoble in the spectacle that I despaired. One can punish a dog, it seems to me, for an offence like chewing a slipper. A dog will accept the justice of that: a beating for a chewing. But desire is another story. No animal will accept the justice of being punished for following its instincts.

Lucy breaks in, “So males must be allowed to follow their instincts unchecked? Is that the moral?” David answers,

No, that is not the moral. What was ignoble about the Kenilworth spectacle was that the poor dog had begun to hate its own nature. It no longer needed to be beaten. It was ready to punish itself. At that point it would be better to shoot it.

“Or have it fixed,” Lucy offers. (90)

Also read The Adaptive Appeal of Bad Boys

Madness and Bliss: Critical vs Primitive Readings in A.S. Byatt's Possesion: A Romance 2

Read part one.
            The critical responses to the challenges posed by Byatt in Possession fit neatly within the novel’s satire. Louise Yelin, for instance, unselfconsciously divides the audience for the novel into “middlebrow readers” and “the culturally literate” (38), placing herself in the latter category. She overlooks Byatt’s challenge to her methods of criticism and the ideologies underpinning them, for the most part, and suggests that several of the themes, like ventriloquism, actually support poststructuralist philosophy. Still, Yelin worries about the novel’s “homophobic implications” (39). (A lesbian, formerly straight character takes up with a man in the end, and Christabel LaMotte’s female lover commits suicide after the dissolution of their relationship, but no one actually expresses any fear or hatred of homosexuals.) Yelin then takes it upon herself to “suggest directions that our work might take” while avoiding the “critical wilderness” Byatt identifies. She proposes a critical approach to a novel that “exposes its dependencies on the bourgeois, patriarchal, and colonial economies that underwrite” it (40). And since all fiction fails to give voice to one or another oppressed minority, it is the critic’s responsibility to “expose the complicity of those effacements in the larger order that they simultaneously distort and reproduce” (41). This is not in fact a response to Byatt’s undermining of critical theories; it is instead an uncritical reassertion of their importance.

            Yelin and several other critics respond to Possession as if Byatt had suggested that “culturally literate” readers should momentarily push to the back of their minds what they know about how literature is complicit in various forms of political oppression so they can get more enjoyment from their reading. This response is symptomatic of an astonishing inability to even imagine what the novel is really inviting literary scholars to imagine—that the theories implicating literature are flat-out wrong. Monica Flegel for instance writes that “What must be privileged and what must be sacrificed in order for Byatt’s Edenic reading (and living) state to be achieved may give some indication of Byatt’s own conventionalizing agenda, and the negative enchantment that her particular fairy tale offers” (414). Flegel goes on to show that she does in fact appreciate the satire on academic critics; she even sympathizes with the nostalgia for simpler times, before political readings became mandatory. But she ends her critical essay with another reassertion of the political, accusing Byatt of “replicating” through her old-fashioned novel “such negative qualities of the form as its misogyny and its omission of the lower class.” Flegel is particularly appalled by Maud’s treatment in the final scene, since, she claims, “stereotypical gender roles are reaffirmed” (428). “Maud is reduced in the end,” Flegel alleges, “to being taken possession of by her lover…and assured that Roland will ‘take care of her’” (429). This interpretation places Flegel in the company of the feminists in the novel who hiss at Maud for trying to please men, forcing her to bind her head.

            Flegel believes that her analysis proves Byatt is guilty of misogyny and mistreatment of the poor. “Byatt urges us to leave behind critical readings and embrace reading for enjoyment,” she warns her fellow critics, “but the narrative she offers shows just how much is at stake when we leave criticism behind” (429). Flegel quotes Yelin to the effect that Possession is “seductive,” and goes on to declaim that

it is naïve, and unethical, to see the kind of reading that Byatt offers as happy. To return to an Edenic state of reading, we must first believe that such a state truly existed and that it was always open to all readers of every class, gender, and race. Obviously, such a belief cannot be held, not because we have lost the ability to believe, but because such a space never really did exist. (430)

In her preening self-righteous zealotry, Flegel represents a current in modern criticism that’s only slightly more extreme than that represented by Byatt’s misguided but generally harmless scholars. The step from using dubious theories to decode alleged justifications for political oppression in literature to Flegel’s frightening brand of absurd condemnatory moralizing leveled at authors and readers alike is a short one.

            Another way critics have attempted to respond to Byatt’s challenge is by denying that she is in fact making any such challenge. Christien Franken suggests that Byatt’s problems with theories like poststructuralism stem from her dual identity as a critic and an author. In a lecture Byatt once gave titled “Identity and the Writer” which was later published as an essay, Franken finds what she believes is evidence of poststructuralist thinking, even though Byatt denies taking the theory seriously. Franken believes that in the essay, “the affinity between post-structuralism and her own thought on authorship is affirmed and then again denied” (18). Her explanation is that

the critic in A.S. Byatt begins her lecture “Identity and the Writer” with a recognition of her own intellectual affinity with post-structuralist theories which criticize the paramount importance of “the author.” The writer in Byatt feels threatened by the same post-structuralist criticism. (17)

Franken claims that this ambivalence runs throughout all of Byatt’s fiction and criticism. But Ann Marie Adams disagrees, writing that “When Byatt does delve into poststructuralist theory in this essay, she does so only to articulate what ‘threatens’ and ‘beleaguers’ her as a writer, not to productively help her identify the true ‘identity’ of the writer” (349). In Adams view, Byatt belongs in the humanist tradition of criticism going back to Matthew Arnold and the romantics. In her own response to Byatt, Adams manages to come closer than any of her fellow critics to being able to imagine that the ascendant literary theories are simply wrong. But her obvious admiration for Byatt doesn’t prevent her from suggesting that “Yelin and Flegel are right to note that the conclusion of Possession, with its focus on closure and seeming transcendence of critical anxiety, affords a particularly ‘seductive’ and ideologically laden pleasure to academic readers” (120). And, while she seems to find some value in Arnoldian approaches, she fails to engage in any serious reassessment of the theories Byatt targets.

            Frederick Holmes, in his attempt to explain Byatt’s attitude toward history as evidenced by the novel, agrees with the critics who see in Possession clear signs of the author’s embrace of postmodernism in spite of the parody and explicit disavowals. “It is important to acknowledge,” he writes,

that the liberation provided by Roland’s imagination from the previously discussed sterility of his intellectual sophistication is never satisfactorily accounted for in rational terms. It is not clear how he overcomes the post-structuralist positions on language, authorship, and identity. His claim that some signifiers are concretely attached to signifieds is simply asserted, not argued for. (330)


While Holmes is probably mistaken in taking this absence of rational justification as a tacit endorsement of the abandoned theory, the observation is the nearest any of the critics comes to a rebuttal of Byatt’s challenge. What Holmes is forgetting, though, is that structuralist and poststructuralist theorists themselves, from Saussure through Derrida, have been insisting on the inadequacy of language to describe the real world, a radical idea that flies in the face of every human’s lived experience, without ever providing any rational, empirical, or even coherent support for the departure. The stark irony to which Holmes is completely oblivious is that he’s asking for a rational justification to abandon a theory that proclaims such justification impossible. The burden remains on poststructuralists to prove that people shouldn’t trust their own experiences with language. And it is precisely this disconnect with experience that Byatt shows to be problematic. Holmes, like the other critics, simply can’t imagine that critical theories have absolutely no validity, so he’s forced to read into the novel the same chimerical ambivalence Franken tries so desperately to prove.

Roland’s dramatic alteration is validated by the very sort of emotional or existential experience that critical theory has conditioned him to dismiss as insubstantial. We might account for Roland’s shift by positing, not a rejection of his earlier thinking, but a recognition that his psychological well-being depends on his living as if such powerful emotional experiences had an unquestioned reality. (330)

            Adams quotes from an interview in which Byatt discusses her inspiration for the characters in Possession, saying, “poor moderns are always asking themselves so many questions about whether their actions are real and whether what they say can be thought to be true […] that they become rather papery and are miserably aware of this” (111-2). Byatt believes this type of self-doubt is unnecessary. Indeed, Maud’s notion that “there isn’t a unitary ego” (290) and Roland’s thinking of the “idea of his ‘self’ as an illusion” (459)—not to mention Holmes’s conviction that emotional experiences are somehow unreal—are simple examples of the reductionist fallacy. While it is true that an individual’s consciousness and sense of self rest on a substrate of unconscious mental processes and mechanics that can be traced all the way down to the firing of neurons, to suggest this mechanical accounting somehow delegitimizes selfhood is akin to saying that water being made up of hydrogen and oxygen atoms means the feeling of wetness can only be an illusion.
Helen Fisher

       Just as silly are the ideas that romantic love is a “suspect ideological construct” (290), as Maud calls it, and that “the expectations of Romance control almost everyone in the Western world” (460), as Roland suggests. Anthropologist Helen Fisher writes in her book Anatomy of Love, “some Westerners have come to believe that romantic love is an invention of the troubadours… I find this preposterous. Romantic love is far more widespread” (49). After a long list of examples of love-strickenness from all over the world from west to east to everywhere in-between, Fisher concludes that it “must be a universal human trait” (50). Scientists have found empirical support as well for Roland’s discovery that words can in fact refer to real things. Psychologist Nicole Speer and her colleagues used fMRI to scan people’s brains as they read stories. The actions and descriptions on the page activated the same parts of the brain as witnessing or perceiving their counterparts in reality. The researchers report, “Different brain regions track different aspects of a story, such as a character’s physical location or current goals. Some of these regions mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities” (989).

       Critics like Flegel insist on joyless reading because happy endings necessarily overlook the injustices of the world. But this is like saying anyone who savors a meal is complicit in world hunger (or for that matter anyone who enjoys reading about a character savoring a meal). If feminist poststructuralists were right about how language functions as a vehicle for oppressive ideologies, then the most literate societies would be the most oppressive, instead of the other way around. Jacques Lacan is the theorist Byatt has the most fun with in Possession—and he is also the main target of the book Fashionable Nonsense:Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science by the scientists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont. “According to his disciples,” they write, Lacan “revolutionized the theory and practice of psychoanalysis; according to his critics, he is a charlatan and his writings are pure verbiage” (18). After assessing Lacan’s use of concepts in topological mathematics, like the Mobius strip, which he sets up as analogies for various aspects of the human psyche, Sokal and Bricmont conclude that Lacan’s ideas are complete nonsense. They write,

Bricmont and Sokal
The most striking aspect of Lacan and his disciples is probably their attitude toward science, and the extreme privilege they accord to “theory”… at the expense of observations and experiments… Before launching into vast theoretical generalizations, it might be prudent to check the empirical adequacy of at least some of its propositions. But, in Lacan’s writings, one finds mainly quotations and analyses of texts and concepts. (37)

Sokal and Bricmont wonder if the abuses of theorists like Lacan “arise from conscious fraud, self-deception, or perhaps a combination of the two” (6). The question resonates with the poem Randolph Henry Ash wrote about his experience exposing a supposed spiritualist as a fraud, in which he has a mentor assure her protégée, a fledgling spiritualist with qualms about engaging in deception, “All Mages have been tricksters” (444).

There’s even some evidence that Byatt is right about postmodern thinking making academics into “papery” people. In a 2006 lecture titled “The Inhumanity of the Humanities,” William van Peer reports on research he conducted with a former student comparing the emotional intelligence of students in the humanities to students in the natural sciences. Although the psychologists Raymond Mar and Keith Oately (407) have demonstrated that reading fiction increases empathy and emotional intelligence, van Peer found that humanities students had no advantage in emotional intelligence over students of natural science. In fact, there was a weak trend in the opposite direction—this despite the fact that the humanities students were reading more fiction. Van Peer attributes the deficit to common academic approaches to literature:

Consider the ills flowing from postmodern approaches, the “posthuman”: this usually involves the hegemony of “race/class/gender” in which literary texts are treated with suspicion. Here is a major source of that loss of emotional connection between student and literature. How can one expect a certain humanity to grow in students if they are continuously instructed to distrust authors and texts? (8)

Steven Pinker
Whether it derives from her early reading of Arnold and his successors, as Adams suggests, or simply from her own artistic and readerly sensibilities, Byatt has an intense desire to revive that very humanity so many academics sacrifice on the altar of postmodern theory. Critical theory urges students to assume that any discussion of humanity, or universal traits, or human nature can only be exclusionary, oppressive, and, in Flegel’s words, “naïve” and “unethical.” The cognitive linguist Steven Pinker devotes his book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature to debunking the radical cultural and linguistic determinism that is the foundation of modern literary theory. In a section on the arts, Pinker credits Byatt for playing a leading role in what he characterizes as a “revolt”: 

Museum-goers have become bored with the umpteenth exhibit on the female body featuring dismembered torsos or hundreds of pounds of lard chewed up and spat out by the artist. Graduate students in the humanities are grumbling in emails and conference hallways about being locked out of the job market unless they write in gibberish while randomly dropping the names of authorities like Foucault and Butler. Maverick scholars are doffing the blinders that prevented them from looking at exciting developments in the sciences of human nature. And younger artists are wondering how the art world got itself into the bizarre place in which beauty is a dirty word. (Pinker 416)

There are resonances with Roland Mitchell’s complaints about how psychoanalysis transforms perceptions of landscapes in Pinker’s characterization of modern art. And the idea that beauty has become a dirty word is underscored by the critical condemnations of Byatt’s “fairy tale ending.” Pinker goes on to quote Byatt’s response in New York Times Magazine to the question of what the best story ever told was.  Her answer—The Arabian Nights:

The stories in “The Thousand and One Nights”… are about storytelling without ever ceasing to be stories about love and life and death and money and food and other human necessities. Narration is as much a part of human nature as breath and the circulation of the blood. Modernist literature tried to do away with storytelling, which it thought vulgar, replacing it with flashbacks, epiphanies, streams of consciousness. But storytelling is intrinsic to biological time, which we cannot escape. Life, Pascal said, is like living in a prison from which every day fellow prisoners are taken away to be executed. We are all, like Scheherazade, under sentences of death, and we all think of our lives as narratives, with beginnings, middles, and ends. (quoted in Pinker 419)

            Byatt’s satire of papery scholars and her portrayals of her characters’ transcendence of nonsensical theories are but the simplest and most direct ways she celebrates the power of language to transport readers—and the power of stories to possess them. Though she incorporates an array of diverse genres, from letters to poems to diaries, and though some of the excerpts’ meanings subtly change in light of discoveries about their authors’ histories, all these disparate parts nonetheless “hook together,” collaborating in the telling of this magnificent tale. This cooperation would be impossible if the postmodern truism about the medium being the message were actually true. Meanwhile, the novel’s intimate engagement with the mythologies of wide-ranging cultures thoroughly undermines the paradigm according to which myths are deterministic “repeating patterns” imposed on individuals, showing instead that these stories simultaneously emerge from and lend meaning to our common human experiences. As the critical responses to Possession make abundantly clear, current literary theories are completely inadequate in any attempt to arrive at an understanding of Byatt’s work. While new theories may be better suited to the task, it is incumbent on us to put forth a good faith effort to imagine the possibility that true appreciation of this and other works of literature will come only after we’ve done away with theory altogether. 

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.