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Verbal and visual language and the question of faith in the fiction of A.S. Byatt Sorensen, Susan D. 1999

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VERBAL AND VISUAL LANGUAGE AND THE QUESTION OF FAITH IN THE FICTION OF A. S. BYATT by SUSAN D. SORENSEN B.A., University of Regina, 1985 M.A., University of British Columbia, 1993 A THESIS SUBMITTED IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY in THE FACULTY OF GRADUATE STUDIES Department of English We accept this thesis as conforming to the required standard THE UNIVERSITY OF BRITISH COLUMBIA July 1999 © Susan D. Sorensen, 1999 In presenting this thesis in partial fulfilment of the requirements for an advanced degree at the University of British Columbia, I agree that the Library shall make it freely available for reference and study. I further agree that permission for extensive copying of this thesis for scholarly purposes may be granted by the head of my department or by his or her representatives. It is understood that copying or publication of this thesis for financial gain shall not be allowed without my written permission. S u s a n D . S o r e n s e n Department of E n g l i s h The University of British Columbia Vancouver, Canada D a t e 12 October 19 99 DE-6 (2/88) Abstract This study investigates the relation between faith in a transcendent reality and faith in language, both verbal and visual, in the work of English novelist and critic Antonia Byatt. Her ideal conception of communication combines the immediacy and primal vigour of the visual with the methodical pragmatism of words. However, Byatt's characters who exemplify this effort at double vision - in particular Stephanie Potter Orton in the 1985 novel Still Life - find in their quests frustration and even death rather than fulfillment. My investigation focuses on A. S. Byatt's presentation of the way language attempts to represent and interact with three particular areas: fundamental personal experiences (childbirth, death, love), perceptual and aesthetic experiences (colour and form, painting), and transcendent experiences (supernaturalism and Christian religion). I consider all stages of her career to date - from her first novel The Shadow of the Sun (1964) to Babel Tower (1996). Although Possession: A Romance (1990) has garnered most of the critical attention accorded to Byatt, I argue that this novel is not generally representative of her principles or style. A neo-Victorian romance, part parodic and part nostalgic, combined with an academic comedy, Possession shares neither the sombre mythological and psychological fatalism of her 1960s fiction nor the modified realism of her middle-period fiction. Still Life and The Matisse Stories (1993) are the works that best elucidate Byatt's major preoccupations; they intently strive to combine the most powerful aspects of verbal and visual knowledge. I l l The methodological basis for this study is pluralist; it emphasizes close reading, combined with phenomenological, biographical, and thematic criticism. As Byatt does, I rely principally on the ideas of writers and artists rather than theorists; she cannot be understood without specific reference to George Eliot, Donne, Forster, Murdoch, Van Gogh, and Matisse (among others). Byatt's quest for truth and transcendent meaning and her investigation of the trustworthiness of words have undergone recent changes; she seems more sharply aware of the limitations of language and the unattainability of absolute truth. Her writings in the 1990s about paintings and colour emphasize their intrinsic value rather than their ability either to revitalize the word or suggest the numinous. iv T a b l e o f C o n t e n t s Abstract ii Table of Contents iv Acknowledgements v Dedication vi Introduction Overview 1 A. S. Byatt: Life, Works, and Reception 4 Major Themes 12 Methodology 22 Part I The Language of Fundamental Personal Experience Chapter 1 Childbirth 32 Chapter 2 Death 59 Chapter 3 Love 85 Part II The Language of Perceptual and Aesthetic Experience Chapter 4 Form and Colour 115 Chapter 5 Visual Art: Van Gogh and Matisse 160 Part III The Language of Spiritual Experience Chapter 6 The Supernatural 216 Chapter 7 Religion 265 Conclusion 320 Bibliography 333 Acknowledgements v Instead of mentioning him last, I will thank my best reader first. Michael Kurtz has given me his time and help most generously, and I am very grateful. My supervisor Keith Alldritt has treated me with friendly respect and has let me go my own way, which I appreciated. I welcomed his idea that I look more closely at Byatt's archetypal trees in comparison with Sartre's. Mark Morton has been a valuable resource and a firm friend, as has Ken Probert, who read a draft and offered good suggestions. Ruth Baldwin and Maurice Yacowar provided welcome encouragement along the way. The Sorensen family has been supportive throughout; I especially thank Sandra Sorensen, for being a Sustaining Sister, such as would help and comfort a Wedged Bear in Great Tightness, and my mother Phyllis Sorensen, for her unflagging cheerfulness and optimism. I would have been unable to research this study without the resources of many excellent libraries: the libraries at University of British Columbia, University of Regina, University of Minnesota, University of Alberta, and University of Toronto, in addition to Regina Public Library, Vancouver Public Library, Metro Toronto Reference Library, and Ramsey County Public Library in Roseville, Minnesota. I did not consider advanced academic study until my son Peter Sorensen was born. His presence in the world galvanized me to try harder. I have learned much from him, and daily he reveals to me the wonders of the mind and the capabilities of the human spirit. Thank you. vi Dedication For my son Peter, who teaches me how to live, and for my husband Michael, who is written on my heart. With love. 1 Introduction I want to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, and which we seek to convey by the actual radiance and vibration of our coloring. Vincent Van Gogh, letter 531 (September 1888) A N OVERVIEW A. S. Byatt has always had a tenacious and increasingly unfashionable interest in truth. The first three chapters of this thesis study her quest to capture the reality of what I have designated as the three fundamental human experiences (birth, death, and love). Chapters 4 and 5 comprise some observations on Byatt's presentation of perceptual and aesthetic experiences, especially visual ones (colour, geometric form, painting), experiences which hold great significance for her. Finally, the last chapters canvass her writings on supernatural and religious experience. In all of these areas, Byatt's respectful insistence on finding precise means to capture these experiences has led her to experiment with a mixture of verbal and visual modes of language. She has an ideal conception of communication that combines the immediacy and primal vigour of the visual with the methodical pragmatism of words. But her professed lack of religious faith has meant that some of the seemingly transcendent revelations her characters encounter are short-lived and, indeed, have tragic conclusions. By "verbal language" I mean both the written and spoken word, although Byatt always emphasizes reading and writing over speech. "Visual language" includes graphic communications and visual art, in addition to internal imagery. I take internal visual 2 imagery to mean the use of mental pictures to understand and communicate, even though the origin or independence of these images may be in question. In chapters 1 and 2, Byatt's treatment of childbirth (from the woman's point of view) and death (from the viewpoint of the dying consciousness) emphasizes the importance of the individual experience. For Byatt, the conventions of represented birth and death (in everyday parlance and in literature) are inadequate to the power of the event. She searches for original formulations and for ways of demonstrating that the unique personality of the character undergoing the event can be conveyed without resorting to stereotypical ways of classification. For example, Byatt disputes the expectation that women in childbirth are undergoing a primitive or animalistic event, or that words and memory necessarily fail in the extremities of childbirth. In chapter 3, Byatt's view of love (mainly erotic) is similar: she rejects many of the classic notions of love (its fusion with death, its links to spiritual fulfillment). But about love she is especially wary; instead of seeing in it a potential realization of individuality, she concentrates on the sacrifice of individuality entailed in being part of a couple. In chapter 4,1 discuss a very individual part of Byatt's thinking - her determination that visual phenomena such as colour and geometric form can provide a kind of order that allows for the possibility of expressing essential truths. The visionary experiences involving geometry that several of her characters achieve are startlingly successful; however, as in love, they risk losing what is, for Byatt, the all-important sense of self. They are also, usually, unable to transfer their visions into the verbal language that most people use to communicate. In chapter 5, Byatt's aesthetic explorations continue as she immerses herself in the creative processes of Vincent Van Gogh and 3 Henri Matisse. In each case, Byatt inverts the expected views of the painters: she emphasizes the realist, not the expressionist in Van Gogh, and the potency and profundity, rather than the decorative quality of Matisse. Overall, Byatt's portrayal of their contributions concedes the mastery of the visual sphere; she attempts to find ways of fusing the power of their visual art with written language, but her successes are intermittent and transient. Byatt has written frequently of supernatural experiences, as a way of coming at transcendence or religion in a circuitous way. Byatt's ghosts, described in chapter 6, have a visual and linguistic solidity which makes them very believable; the ghost of Hallam in "The Conjugial Angel" is a significant person, not merely an idea. However, the individualistic nature of the quasi-religious exploration of the afterlife which her characters undertake severely limits the possibilities of comfort and illumination. Isolated spirituality seems doomed to misinterpretation and malnourishment. The conventional religious ideas explored in chapter 7 are again coloured by the stubborn individualism of her characters. Byatt and her characters are suspicious of religious institutions, but are clearly fascinated by religious ideas; several of her people are sincere Christians, and even Christian ministers. (It is religion, and not ethics, by the way, which appears in her fiction. Her mentor, Iris Murdoch, explicitly concerned herself with ethical problems, but for Byatt these do not loom so large.) Byatt experiments with ways in which language and art can take over incarnational ideas from Christianity, but the goal is overly ambitious and, perhaps - although her intentions are earnest - ultimately irreverent. My methods of discussing these various aspects of Byatt's work result in some overlap between chapters. For example, in chapter 4 on form and colour there is a good deal of discussion of transcendence and the numinous, which will return in chapter 7. Chapter 1 includes a certain amount of analysis of colour imagery in birth accounts, although the main portion of the discussion of colour is found in chapter 4. Each of these experiences described by Byatt emphasizes a different balance of the potential fusion of verbal and visual ways of knowing (and a shifting confidence in what possibilities of transcendence this balance exemplifies) and so certain chapters feature visual explorations or verbal or religious ones more emphatically. The visual representation of love, for example, is not prominent in Byatt's fiction, and the religious questions permeating most of her thinking about reality and language are less obvious in her portrayal of childbirth. A. S. BYATT: LIFE, WORKS, AND RECEPTION Antonia Susan Byatt was born in Yorkshire in 1936, the eldest daughter of the intellectually formidable Drabble family, which includes the novelist Margaret Drabble among the four children. Byatt's mother studied literature at Cambridge and her father was a judge. Byatt in childhood attended a Quaker school, although she has sometimes downplayed the family's Quakerism. She received a first class B A in English from Newnham College, Cambridge in 1957 and later began doctoral research at Oxford on religious metaphor in Renaissance poetry. Her studies ended when she married economist Ian Byatt in 1959. With Byatt she had two children, daughter Antonia (born 1960) and son Charles (born 1961). During the 1950s and 1960s, she began to write fiction, and in 1964, Shadow of a Sun, her first novel, was published. (When it was re-issued in 1991, Byatt 5 restored her preferred title, The Shadow of the Sun.) During this time, she also taught English at the University of London and the Central School of Art and Design, and wrote book reviews and critical essays. Her second novel, The Game, appeared in 1967. In 1969, the Byatts were amicably divorced, and Antonia married Peter Duffy, variously described in different news articles as a stockbroker and the manager of a property investment trust. Their first daughter, Isabel, was born in 1970. In 1972, the central tragedy of Byatt's life occurred. Pregnant with another child, she received the news that her 11-year-old son Charles had been killed by a drunk driver. The Duffys' daughter Miranda was born in 1973. A. S. Byatt did not publish another novel until 1978, when The Virgin in the Garden was released. It is the first of a projected tetralogy about the members of the Potter family, with a major focus on the sisters Stephanie and Frederica. Kathleen Coyne Kelly calls these novels the "Powerhouse Quartet," apparently following the lead of Byatt herself (A. S. Byatt: Twayne's English Authors 63). Kelly cites a section of Still Life describing the "powerhouse" family structure in psychoanalysis as one "in which the principles and even practice of the parents are so liberal, so rational, so acceptable that any necessary rebellion against their authority must take the form of absurd gestures, petulant or violent" (122). In this study, however, I simply call these the Potter books. The second volume of the series, Still Life, was published in 1985. In 1987, Byatt published her first collection of short fiction, Sugar, which included a number of semi-autobiographical stories. The major event of Byatt's career to date was the success of her 1990 novel, Possession: A Romance, which won the Booker Prize. It was an international bestseller and the first of Byatt's novels to make an impact outside Britain. The film rights of this novel were reputedly sold for a large sum, although no film has been released. However, a film was made of one of the two novellas in Byatt's 1991 book Angels and Insects. American director Philip Haas adapted the novella "Morpho Eugenia"; the film was called Angels and Insects and appeared in 1995, enjoying moderate success. Byatt was closely involved in the adaptation and casting process. Two short fiction collections followed: The Matisse Stories (1993) and The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye: Five Fairy Stories (1994). The third novel in the Potter series was released in 1996, entitled Babel Tower. Another collection of short fiction, Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice, appeared in 1998. Byatt has also written several works of criticism: Degrees of Freedom: The Novels of Iris Murdoch (1965; re-issued 1994), Unruly Times: Wordsworth and Coleridge in Their Time (1970; re-issued 1989), Iris Murdoch (British Council Writers and their Work series, 1976), Passions of the Mind (selected critical writings, 1991), and Imagining Characters: Six Conversations about Women Writers, with Ignes Sodre (1995). No major study of A. S. Byatt's work has yet appeared. Two short critical studies in book form have been published, Kathleen Coyne Kelly's A. S. Byatt in the Twayne's English Authors Series (1996) and Richard Todd's A. S. Byatt in the British Council Writers and their Work series (1997). Of the two, Todd's is slightly more ambitious, although his emphases are sometimes decidedly odd. One of his preoccupations is the "retrieval of unheard voices" in Byatt's fiction (particularly Possession); he details this in a 1994 article about Byatt and Marina Warner and again in his study Consuming Fictions: 7 The Booker Prize and Fiction in Britain Today (1996). The twentieth-century characters in Possession "can be said to owe their existence to their attempts to reconstruct their various nineteenth-century counterparts," he writes in the latter book (49), and he connects the minor characters Blanche and Val in a dubious design which has Blanche's unhappiness functioning as part of an "enabling" scheme for Val. Todd also attempts to get at Byatt's interest in language and reality in his version of her poetics of fiction: that is, her conviction that forms, patterns, and connections exist at such profound levels in strong yet fragile and finely drawn work that the writer may not even realize she has 'put' those elements into that work. (A. S. Byatt: Writers and their Work 5) Here, as elsewhere, Todd's analysis is muddled. His decision to include a chapter on menopausal characters in Byatt is puzzling, as is his insistence in bringing in new texts to explicate Byatt rather than using the hundreds of texts she mentions herself. Why use Charles Davy rather than Mallarme, for example? Why focus on Greek myths and ignore the Norse myths prevalent in Possession? More importantly, Todd makes too much of "opacity" in Byatt's aesthetic; while she certainly has allied herself with Iris Murdoch in calling for fiction which honours the opacity and complexity of persons (see my discussion in chapters 1,4, and 7), Todd sees a principle of "inscrutability" (22, 75) at work which does not bear up under examination. He believes, for example, that it is impossible to say whether Byatt makes claims for the "authenticity" of the experience of love described in The Virgin in the Garden; in my reading, Byatt's intentions are not so mysterious. Kathleen Coyne Kelly's study of A. S. Byatt resembles Richard Todd's in its lack of attention to irony, to religion, and to the field of visual art. Like Todd, she emphasizes Byatt's use of myth, going further by offering lengthy excurses on Byatt's character 8 names and book titles. (As a medievalist, Kelly's analysis of The Game - a story steeped in medieval influences - is perhaps the most useful chapter.) Her generally satisfactory readings of Byatt's plots are less contentious than Todd's and often lean toward the biographical, although she admits that "Byatt is doing more than simply working the stuff of autobiography into fiction" (9). One of Kelly's major objectives is to offer a feminist analysis of Byatt's work, but many of her conclusions are strident and overstated. Does Randolph Henry Ash truly "steal" Christabel LaMotte's virginity in Possession (94) and is Bill Potter in The Virgin in the Garden and its sequels really just a "despot" whose wife Winifred has been "beaten down by life" with him (69,125)? Male characters for whom Byatt has affection are demonized in Kelly's readings, while female characters are accorded complementary oversimplifications as victims. Kelly does not notice, for example, that Stephanie Potter Orton in Still Life (one of Byatt's most important characters) valiantly attempts to combine intellectual work with her work as a wife and mother. And Kelly chooses, among the multiple themes of Possession, to emphasize the myth of the "chained, imprisoned, or entowered woman" (89), never mentioning Byatt's ironic uses of the myth and the fact that many of the women in the novel are responsible for their own "imprisonment." This misapplication of feminist energy is a frequent occurrence in Byatt criticism; in 1996 Byatt reacted strongly against a particular feminist reading of The Matisse Stories by Michele Roberts, saying in an interview that Roberts "was looking for a particular feminist message and missed the feminist message which was there" (Miller). Much of the information available about Byatt has appeared in journalistic accounts, of which some of the best are by Valerie Grove, Kate Kellaway, Mira Stout, Sally Vincent, Richard Rosenfeld, D. J. Taylor, and Marianne Brace, all written since 1990. Several interviews with Byatt are helpful, especially Juliet Dusinberre's in Janet Todd's Women Writers Talking, Olga Kenyon's in The Writer's Imagination, and Eleanor Wachtel's two excellent interviews on CBC Radio's Writers & Company, one published in book form in 1993 and the other broadcast in 1996. The best interview by far was conducted by Nicolas Tredell and collected in his book Conversations With Critics. Another valuable resource is a series of films in the Writers Talk: Ideas of Our Time collection. In 1984, Byatt was interviewed by Iris Murdoch for this series; in 1989 she interviewed Anthony Burgess and Toni Morrison for the same series. The majority of the critical discussions about A. S. Byatt's fiction concern Possession, and particularly focus on Byatt's use of postmodernism, ventriloquism, Romance, fairy-tale, and Victorian history. The apparent need of critics to ally her with particular genres or techniques has not resulted in analysis of much insight, particularly as Byatt's fiction traverses a number of styles. Prior to 1990, there are, I believe, fewer than ten scholarly articles devoted to Byatt's fiction, and reference to her can be found within only a few general studies. Typical of this early analysis are the conclusions of Allan Massie (The Novel Today) and Elaine Showalter (A Literature of Their Own) who categorize Byatt, briefly, as a moral novelist. Massie additionally sees her as having "little sense of structure and no elegance" (19). D. J. Taylor has written more extensively and appreciatively about Byatt, but his contribution is strictly bounded by his belief that she is plainly a social realist, in line with E. M . Forster and George Eliot. Those who delve into the matter of Byatt's realism more rigorously present her as a realist exploring the limits of imagination and language (Dusinberre), or as a writer fusing realism with 10 modernism (Kenyon, Women Novelists Today). In the field of thematic criticism, Tess Cosslett has analysed Byatt's depiction of childbirth, and Joanne Creighton and others have studied Byatt's and Drabble's use of sisters. Some of the scholarly writing about Byatt is misleading, especially that which has appeared in the wake of Possession. Louise Yelin and Olga Kenyon take Byatt to task for her supposed anti-feminism, while Janice Rossen (The University in Modern Fiction) and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar (No Man's Land) focus almost exclusively on Byatt's feminist convictions. The latter study claims that Possession, in its portrayal of Christabel LaMotte, presents "a fully creative mother and a fully empowering literary matrilineage" (386), a conclusion that is surely overstated. Caroline Webb describes Byatt's "distrust of the metaphoric" (183), a decidedly problematic judgement. The sources of Possession are worked over incessantly. No clear picture of Byatt emerges from the majority of the critical work to date, except that Byatt is, supposedly, a postmodern game-player, an ironic neo-Victorian with a penchant for heavy use of allusion and intertext. Kathleen Coyne Kelly borrows the term "ficticism" from Marilyn Butler's review of Possession in the Times Literary Supplement and proposes that its combination of fiction and criticism is a neat summation of Byatt. Nearly all the graduate theses that have been written about Byatt in the past few years have been by women and have concerned feminist issues; the rest engage with various matters of postmodern style and form; nearly all of them are M A theses. There are, however, recent signs of improvement. Jean-Louis Chevalier is a lively and intelligent reader with a real understanding of Possession's provocative ending(s); he considers both the "ethics of conclusion" and the "aesthetics of conclusion" (110). Jane 11 Campbell has written several good articles on Byatt, including a piece on The Game which rightly underlines the irreducibility of Byatt's symbols and the devouring power of failed imagination in her world. She makes a convincing case for "Precipice-Encurled" as a story about the inadequacy of language and truth. Julian Gitzen has recognized that Byatt and her characters are "tirelessly alive to both the bond and the gap between words and their referents and between art and its subject" (84). Michael Westlake correctly sees that Still Life is not only "about truth but it is about looking; or rather looking, in its various and complex modalities, is the chosen metaphor for the articulation of truth" (33); he additionally notes that "an abandonment of correspondence between language and reality doesn't rule out the possibility of truth" (35), which I agree is key to an understanding of Byatt. Flora Alexander, in Contemporary Women Novelists, corrects some of the misguided attempts to place Byatt within particular feminist categories. She writes that Byatt has a "gender-neutral approach to the life of the mind" combined with "a breathtaking ability to conceptualize things about the life of the female body that have been almost inexpressible" (13). Alexander also observes clearly Byatt's obsession with perception and expression. She subjects realist writing to careful critical enquiry, thus developing it for her own artistic purpose. A foundation in realist procedures allows her to exercise remarkable powers of perception, in creating a verbal version of the material world. A complex discussion of the limitations of words, and a penetrating analysis of the emotional and the moral life, are placed within this setting, producing fiction characterized by a combination of intellectual rigour and a passionate interest in the depth and richness of human experience. (41) Like most Byatt commentary, Alexander's is limited to a few hundred words; this promising beginning is actually the conclusion of her short section about Byatt. 12 MAJOR THEMES The aspects I have chosen to emphasize in my study of A. S. Byatt are not the usual ones. Much of the work being done on her emphasizes her attitudes toward feminism, or treats her as an erudite postmodern Romantic of the "maximalist" type; there are critics who are studying her via genre, attempting to establish whether she is a realist, an ironist, an authority on nostalgic pastiche. Is she a fabulist? A psychological, historical, symbolic, or mythological writer? These are valid questions. There are several other fields of inquiry that would also be rewarding, and which have so far been neglected: her enthusiastic contemplation of themes from biology, physics, and mathematics; her presentation of illness, especially autism and asthma; her dialectical models of reality; and her status as a moral writer. On this last she says, "My early novels are in one aspect a sort of questioning quarrel with [F. R.] Leavis's vision and values [of moral seriousness], which nevertheless I inherit and share" (Passions of the Mind 2). Additionally, it should not be forgotten that Byatt is in mid-career, and that any analysis of her themes, ideology, or style must be provisional - indeed in the past decade her style has shown great variety and unpredictability. My interest is language and faith. Byatt is fascinated by language, both verbal and visual, and is always pushing at the boundaries of possibility to ascertain what words and pictures are capable of expressing, and whether they might not be fused in order that a superior mode of communication be created. This conception makes her sound perhaps like an idealist or a Utopian fantasist, but she is far from that. She is an empiricist and 13 emphasizes the importance of physical experience, of sensory data, of the concrete, individual response to the world. As I studied her reflections on this theme, I noticed that religious faith seemed to hover nearby. This is nothing new, of course. Christianity (my main framework of religious reference, and Byatt's) has been deeply involved in debates about language, truth, and authority for centuries, since the writer of the Gospel of John said, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1.1)1 and reported Christ as saying, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life" (John 14.6). And long before that, it was written that God created the world just by saying it, in Genesis. Furthermore, it is not accidental that vision has come to have two meanings: the faculty of sight and that which is apprehended in a supernatural trance. But what did, initially, seem odd was that A. S. Byatt should be so involved in questions of religious faith, since she declares herself to be an agnostic. It seemed appropriate to me that an investigation of Byatt's religious faith (or lack of it) should be yoked to a study of her faith in language and her faith in art. It is there in her books, although few critics have commented on it. It is a familiar theme; Matthew Arnold is only one of the most obvious examples of a secular writer who attempted to transfer allegiance from God to art. Byatt, as it happens, has little patience for Arnold; many Victorian writers claim her sympathetic attention (Browning, Tennyson, George Eliot) but Arnold is not among them. A clue to Byatt's dismissal of Arnold is found in the contemptuous remarks about him made by her supervisor at Oxford, Helen Gardner, who saw Arnold's misapplication of scriptural attributes as "grotesque" and "fantastic" (The 1 Biblical quotations are from the Revised Standard Version, unless otherwise noted. 14 Limits of Literary Criticism 7). As I investigated Byatt further, I discovered in her writing a surprising and sometimes unsettling passion when considering Christianity. She has said that, for her, God is "an omni-present absentee whose linguistic essence is reduced to traces of moral and cultural nostalgia, touched with savagery" (Passions of the Mind 5) and that she has "absolutely no religious beliefs although I think I have a religious temperament" (Byatt/Murdoch video interview)2 - statements that yoke paradoxical sentiments. In an argumentative essay about Van Gogh and religion, she reports: "I baulk at the words, 'religious,' 'spiritual,' even 'contemplative,' so what is left?" (Passions of the Mind 321). Yet she clearly wants to find the right word for her kind of "religious temperament." Byatt's education as a Quaker is particularly illuminating when we turn our attention to the question of why both written/oral language and visual language are important for her. For the Quakers, an "Inner Light" ideally reveals God's message; Meetings of the Society of Friends stress silence and simplicity. There is no emphasis on sacrament, priestly authority, creeds, or sermons. Instead, Quakers wait for individuals to spontaneously recognize the Spirit. The Word is important, but so is the recognition or perception (I emphasize the visual origin of the terms) of another form of message, one heralded by "light." The fact that Byatt is no longer a Quaker, however, is equally revealing; the bare, icon-free space of the Meeting House must have been stark to a person with such strong feelings about colour and paintings, the confidence placed in the Word inadequate, placed next to the complexities of the world. 2 Interviews are cited by the interviewer's name, not Byatt's. Audio and video interviews are, of course, unpaginated. The conversations in the Writers Talk: Ideas of our Time video series are cited by Byatt and the writer she is in conversation with, as in "Byatt/Burgess." 15 Byatt's expectation that language and truth are compatible is tempered, then, by her empiricism and by a strain of scepticism. The cautiously hopeful aspect of her philosophy allies her with the metaphysical poets and the Romantics; she has said that her "lost paradise was [T. S.] Eliot's elegant fiction of [Donne's] undissociated sensibility" (Passions of the Mind 2). She is a fervent admirer of Coleridge who, like Byatt, could see his thoughts and metaphors. On the composition of "Kubla Khan" Coleridge wrote that "all the images rose up before [the Author] as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort" (Selected Poetry and Prose 114). For herself, Byatt says, "I see any projected piece of writing or work as a geometric structure: various colours and patterns. I see other people's metaphors" (Passions of the Mind 14). She is also a professed follower of William Carlos Williams, attempting to describe the "thing itself in plain and exact language (Passions of the Mind 11). She acknowledges the importance of other modernists: I derive my sense of an order behind things from T. S. Eliot and Pound. I write the way I do from [Henry] James via T. S. Eliot rather than from a line of women writers. (Dusinberre interview 183) Postmodernists can claim her as well, because of her use of the term "self-conscious realism" (Passions of the Mind 4) to describe the style of some of her fiction. (I see this self-consciousness as exceeding even the considerable self-consciousness of modernism.) This last classification is accurate for her middle-period fiction (The Virgin in the Garden. Still Life, and Sugar) but less so for her first two novels. It can be used, but in a different way, for her fiction since Possession (1990), which has become more ironic and parodic. 16 There is an embarrassment of riches in any consideration of Byatt's literary lineage and her generic and stylistic transformations. These play a part in my study, because no one can properly interpret Byatt without grasping at least some of the complex network of allusions and deeply-felt loyalties she feels to other writers, past and present. But my primary interest is thematic: I want to know what she believes about the words and pictures we use to represent existence and knowledge. There is more than enough material to do a study solely of Byatt's philosophy of verbal language. The power of words is at the heart of Possession, where it is possible to find love through reading, and reading can actually change one's personality and entire life. Her excitement about words is palpable in the detailed interview Nicolas Tredell conducted with her in 1990: Well, Coleridge wonderfully said that he was sure that words were things like other things in the world. And the truth is that if you're standing on Jugger Howe or you're at the Boggle Hole [places in North Yorkshire she loves], all those things are there together, the spiders and the stones and the sea and the words Boggle and Hole, and you're there and they're there and they're not separate systems. I know that Iris Murdoch is right and that Wittgenstein is right, to say that, however much we may try to get at what is under the net, we're only ever describing the net. But if you make the meshes fine enough, the net is so beautiful that all the bumps and humps of things under it are so, yes, so accessible, you can actually sort of see them under the net. (Conversations with Critics 66, emphasis mine) If Still Life did not exist, it probably would not have occurred to me that there was a rival for Byatt's intense affection for words. But in that novel she dedicates herself to using seeing, rather than writing or reading or speaking, as her main epistemological approach. And furthermore, one notices, she has used the verb to see even when describing the power of verbal language, above. Using Van Gogh's paintings and Williams's creed "No ideas but in things," Byatt attempted a "bare book, my still life" (Passions of the Mind 17 12). Trying to write without metaphor, she soon concedes her failure, but the resulting meditation on writing like a painter is moving and profoundly original. At this point, I would like to clarify several concepts. One is the manner I use the terms "language" and "knowledge"; another is the way I separate internal and external visual imagery; the last is an attempt at explaining Byatt's particular use of the term "metaphor." First, my use of "language" and "knowledge" may seem, occasionally, blurred. Clearly these are quite different things: why do I appear to use them almost interchangeably? As with many of my approaches, I do this because it is appropriate for a study of Byatt. She herself assumes an intimate connection between knowledge and language, although it may be troubled; she is not an advocate of the gap between them. She has little enthusiasm for sceptical theories that signification is arbitrary and that there is no possibility of capturing our knowledge of reality (if such exists) in accurate language (if such exists). Byatt is well aware of the currency of such theories, and to some extent has modified, as a result, her initial faith in realism. But overall, it is clear from her essays and interviews that she believes in the strong possibility that knowledge and language can fruitfully coincide, and, more importantly, that abandoning the quest to find and articulate Meaning is an unjustifiable capitulation to the forces of pessimism. Next, I do not always separate internal imaging from the concrete representations that result from it. My pursuit of information about visual knowledge has been general, rather than narrowing the field only to the creation of mental images, sometimes called eidetic images, the kind that Byatt says she experiences. To stop there seemed foolish, although many studies do - there is a clear line of demarcation between the philosophers, 18 neurologists and New Age practitioners considering internal imaging, and the aestheticians and art analysts whose field is (actual) visual representation. For Byatt these are connected: her imaginative ability to "see" metaphors in her mind and her fascination with colour and geometric form, with Van Gogh and Matisse, are clearly of a piece. Despite the fact that how we see has been researched and debated for thousands of years, I found that the conclusions in this area are still tentative. There is still no definite model of precisely how, for example, colours are perceived by the eye and brain. For my purposes, it was best to use a generous definition of visual language - encompassing both what Byatt's characters see in their minds and what they think about concrete visual representations and phenomena. Earlier, I quoted Byatt's remarks about her determination in Still Life to write without metaphor. An entire study could be done on Byatt's treatment of metaphor and, although metaphor, with its close ties both to visual knowledge and written language, often appears in my remarks, I have decided not to delve extensively into its nature. Again, this is an investigation with a long history, but I restrict my remarks here to the following explanation of Byatt's particular attitude to metaphor. Although metaphor in literary scholarship is usually assumed to be a linguistic designation with visual (and other sensory) aspects, Byatt sometimes (though not always) uses metaphor as if it were wholly visual. When she says she wanted to write Still Life without metaphor, she was using the word in its conventional sense. But when she says, in a consideration of Van Gogh's paintings, "Both metaphor and naming in paint were different from these things [plums] in language" (Still Life 165), she hints that this metaphor is not really a word at all, but is closely related to picture, to thing. Anyone who would follow up on these 19 initial remarks of mine would do a valuable service; I, on the other hand, have decided to steer clear of the thorny history of metaphor theory and have concentrated instead on creating a broader model of Byatt's verbal/visual analysis. § § § Byatt puts her visual tendencies to various uses: she revitalizes written language, she explores whether the visual can make a more substantial attempt at achieving meaning (which I designate as "Meaning" if it is meant in an ultimate sense), she wonders whether these ways of knowing and articulating can be combined to make a truly superior, and even transcendent, kind of communication. These last two goals, one immediately notices, court danger and irreverence: if the searcher refuses to believe in a higher power, what does a quest for transcendent knowledge really mean? In using words like "transcendence," "numinous," and "faith," I intend for them to be invested with their full power; although it may be common to assign "epiphanies" to all sorts of minor experiences in literary criticism, I use religious terms conservatively and with sincerity. My "transcendence" draws on William James's "the reality of the unseen" (The Varieties of Religious Experience 53), but transcendence as I use it not only refers to that which is beyond the material world. Transcendent reality is vastly superior to physical reality and by my definition is so much more than what we are that we will never be capable of grasping it fully. It is holy. Similarly God is not a concept or an abstraction in this study, but is presented as a full and meaningful holy presence, powerful and actual. There is currently an absence of literary criticism that takes religion seriously. I find disturbing the assumptions that nearly everyone believes that God is dead, and that religion is an inappropriate element in intellectual work. Although statistics on religious 20 adherence must be considered with care, and a statistical snapshot can only be a first step in a much-needed analysis of world faith as we enter the twenty-first century, it is worthwhile noting that fewer than four percent of the world's people actually call themselves "atheists." Another 15 percent are "non-religious," a term that I assume is more-or-less equivalent to "agnostic." One-third of the world's population is termed Christian, with Muslims at 20 percent and experiencing rapid growth. Even taking into consideration the possibility that the statistical apparatus may have flaws, and the likelihood that sizeable portions of the Christian group are believers in name only, even the remaining adherents of the Christian tradition (which is only one creed) are still likely to constitute a larger group than atheists and agnostics combined ("Worldwide Adherents of All Religions " 1997 Britannica Book of the Year). I have been seeking a way to broaden literary study in a way that reflects religious faith as it still exists. Religion itself is the recognition that there is a higher power, usually a deity, who is the source of existence, and reading a literary text in the light of that recognition - or even reading out of profound curiosity about that recognition - is a very different act from the one which most literary scholars practice. Assuredly religious institutions crumble, and deceitful and hypocritical church leaders contaminate perceptions of faith itself. A. S. Byatt does not believe in God, and yet her desire for something very like God reverberates through her works. This situation recurs again and again in twentieth-century letters, but our intellectual scrutiny of this manifestation is inadequate and timorous. One of the basic problems is that people confuse faith, belief, and institutional practices. I find it helpful to employ Wilfred Cantwell Smith's definition of "faith" as characterized by a very personal recognition of and response to a 21 ~> transcendent reality, while "beliefs" are the intellectual and verbal doctrines and propositions that build upon and ideally buttress that individual's faith (Faith and Belief passim). The sometimes hollow institutional practices which are the reason that so many people in the twentieth century have abandoned religion must be seen as distinct from religious faith itself. A. S. Byatt is searching for systems of orderly belief that can replace a reliance on Christianity: she examines written language (rarely oral - she seems to have no interest in the discussion, taken up by Jacques Derrida in Of Grammatology, for example, about which mode has primacy), visual art, colour, and geometry for evidence of certainty, purity, even holiness. She also has thought fiercely about science, a topic beyond the scope of my study. She has written extensively on subjects which can be termed religious but (in her treatment) remain on the outskirts of a fully-committed discussion of faith: ghosts and other supernatural phenomena, ministers, myth. And she has wrestled with incarnational ideas of character development and language theory borrowed from Christianity. One of the few articles on Byatt which deals with her religious character is "The Religion of Fiction" by Michael Levenson, which states, in part, that her point is not to confirm religious truth, but to enlarge the religious sense, which locates value not in the infinite but in the yearning for the infinite, not in God but in the search for God. (43) These searches encompass the occasional ecstatic success (in Marcus Potter's visions, in Stephanie Potter's experience of giving birth) but often end in frustration. It is particularly this conjunction of glimpsed Meaning and painful disappointment in her fiction that I explore in this thesis. Sometimes the glimmer of faith I see in Byatt reminds me of James Blackadder's PhD thesis topic in Possession: "Conscious Argument and 22 Unconscious Bias: A Source of Tension in the Dramatic Poems of Randolph Henry Ash." Byatt, like Ash, is disappointed with the trappings of conventional religion; in Possession Ash says that truth has been obscured by "palimpsest upon palimpsest" (181) until it may no longer be within our grasp. Intriguingly, the concept of the palimpsest so often seen as felicitous and creative in postmodern literature here is used with negative and destructive force. The palimpsests are the mistakes, false turnings, and obsolescences of religious traditions. Yet the moral centre of Byatt's Potter novels is an Anglican priest. Daniel Orton, in the Potter novels, has a sincere faith, even if his attitude to the church and some of its doctrines is uncertain. Daniel saves lives; he changes people. He is also, significantly, adept neither with words nor images. Daniel just "is." He represents being and doing at its most solid, and is almost completely unrelated to the quests for accurate ways of seeing and saying that other characters embark upon. Along with Vincent Van Gogh and Randolph Henry Ash (exemplary characters who for Byatt represent fulfillment in, respectively, visual and linguistic terms), Daniel (silently representing existence, love, and service) provides a model for the fully inhabited life. Unlike the other two, Daniel has no profound interest in or ability with language - and he provides an impressive notion of what can be gained by faith alone - which causes considerable trouble for Byatt's linguistic quest for truth. M E T H O D O L O G Y I am a pluralist and synthesist in methodology, but not in ideology (I am a Christian, a socialist, and a feminist). Whenever possible I work from the "text up" to 23 find my method, rather than from the "theory down." I noticed recently that the entry for Walter Benjamin in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy defined him as a practitioner of "immanent criticism": theoretical principles are to emerge from the work studied, not brought to it from the outside. I like this idea, and would not be displeased to be described in such a manner. I am always on the lookout for practical working models of literary criticism, with an emphasis on working. By nature I am a close reader and a concrete thinker. It is difficult, however, to do close reading on nearly 3000 pages of fiction, so I combine this tendency with several other approaches. I am a thematic critic; in this study of Byatt my thematic interests are, obviously, religion, visual art, and the primary human experiences of birth, love, and death. I have found phenomenology, as scholars of religion like Huston Smith formulate it, useful as a critical tool. Smith's phenomenology is an attempt to understand another's experience from the inside. In my chapters about Byatt's presentation of birth, death, and love I have made particular use of a phenomenological approach, as, I think, does Byatt. The thoughts and feelings of Daniel, Stephanie, Marcus, Ash, and even the narrators (the narrator of Still Life has an imposing personality, for example) are presented by Byatt in all their variety, abundance, and self-conscious complexity for a reason. I take her characters seriously as indicators of meaning. There are exceptions: some of the fairy stories in The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye use stock characters, and some aspects of Angels and Insects and Possession are too ironic to be trusted in this way. In addition to trusting Byatt's characters and narrators as phenomenological guides, I have found it beneficial not to use technical or dictionary definitions of my subjects ("love" in my Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English starts out unpromisingly with "warm 24 affection, attachment, liking, or fondness") but, for comparative purposes, to use literary descriptions of the events under scrutiny, accounts by Donne, Julian Barnes, and Wordsworth, for example. I respect the author's intentions and feel particularly strongly that an investigation of authorial intention is overdue for Byatt, who has been somewhat mauled by inaccurate critics and about whose writing there is little agreement and much misplaced emphasis. Thus, I have looked closely at her critical and autobiographical writings and at interviews (many which have never, to my knowledge, been considered by critics). I have found these to be revealing; they clarify important aspects of her thinking that critics have mishandled or ignored. In a 1987 article about Willa Cather, Byatt writes: Criticism used to look for "influences" and now seeks to place author and text in one theoretical framework or another. Either way, the critics are looking for similarities, rather than the qualities which might be thought to make a work individual or even unique. ("Hearths in the Wilderness" 508) She is somewhat cranky about critics who obsessively sexualize or anthropomorphize or who collapse categories. She herself is precise. In a televised interview with Michael Ignatieff in 1996 she said: Part of my subject matter as a novelist is the danger of endlessly arguing by analogy. I know an awful lot of people who are making paintings and writing poems because they think they understand chaos theory. They're addicted to the word 'chaos,' they think it's beautiful, a religious word. But if you're a really good writer, you can take both the way the word has been and some understanding of the way the word is now newly used and make a modern vision. Byatt's belief in the unique individual and in the possibility of original and independent thought has been a contributing factor in her difficult relations with feminist movements. 25 What I don't like is people with very strong beliefs that cause them not to look. I'm a political feminist. I think women's lives need quite a lot of improving, some of which has now happened. I'm interested in women's themes, women's freedom. Literary feminism is a much more dubious thing.... It's because I'm a feminist that I can't stand women limiting other women's imaginations. (Miller interview) The importance of personality and the subjective outlook and her keenness to combine these with principles of realism, her insistence that signification is not arbitrary but meaningful - these are elements that have made her an object of suspicion for certain feminist critics who have been strongly influenced by the sceptical mainstream of post-structural thought. I read Byatt as a feminist reading a feminist, noting the salient feminist themes in her work. (My own definition of feminism is simple: I believe in the equal worth of women and men.) But these themes are not the mainspring of her fiction. Women in Byatt's work make choices, just as the men do, and some choices are better than others. Anna in The Shadow of the Sun appears trapped, but she has refused to learn the intellectual discipline that might have liberated her; Frederica Potter is a free and independent woman, and makes a number of bad choices, as do Maud Bailey and Christabel LaMotte in Possession. Byatt's women are individuals who must live (and die) by the decisions they make for themselves. They are not products of a system, or symbols of repression. I take into account when I write whether other methods are appropriate to the subject. For example, Catherine Belsey claims that Possession is a "profoundly Lacanian novel" (Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture 87), which I think is an irresponsible misreading. There is little convincing textual evidence for such an interpretation and Byatt displays little sympathy for Lacan's ideas. She certainly is not craven in her approach to difficult psychological or cultural theories (see her readings of Foucault, 26 Derrida, and Wittgenstein in Passions of the Mind), so it is doubtful that she can be accused of avoiding Lacan. It is, more likely, that his thinking is not pertinent for her world view. Byatt knows the work of various post-structuralist and feminist theorists well, but is often critical of it, especially when it overutilizes abstraction and intimidating jargon. I myself have no patience for vocabulary that erects barriers between the academic and general reader, and am drawn to thinkers who invite comprehension (Iris Murdoch, Edward Said, Oliver Sacks, Roland Barthes, and William James are variously placed along the critical spectrum but are all excellent stylists). In allowing my methods to arise from the text, I have been able to discover some surprising and gratifying particulars. For example, although I usually use biographical explanations sparingly, several aspects of Byatt's life demand attention and provide powerful explanations of, for example, the prominence of Stephanie Potter's death in Still Life. Byatt herself underwent a partial accidental electrocution by an ungrounded refrigerator in the 1960s, which explains the viscerality of that scene. Additionally, one cannot underestimate the importance of the accidental death of her son Charles in 1972. Byatt's writing stopped almost entirely for a number of years; after she was finally able to confront that death in fiction by transforming it into Stephanie Potter's death in 1985, her writing changed profoundly, in style, theme, and tone. Charles Byatt's death is, in large part, responsible for his mother's lack of faith and her obsession with accident. She has said, "Chance operates in the world in this terrifying way and can change things overnight. All our best endeavours are subject to it" (Byatt/Murdoch video interview). In using a synthesis of analytical methods, but especially close reading, I also came to realize how important is Byatt's insistence on the experience of the individual, 27 something I have already touched on briefly. A recognition of the place of individualism in her philosophy allows one to formulate theories of Byatt's political ideas, which are at first glance difficult to establish and contradictory. If I had not been open to a number of ways of reading, I doubt that I would have noticed her stance on individualism. Reading Byatt is a daunting task. As The New Yorker review of Possession said, somewhat caustically, in 1990: Possession is so enormous that it can't be maneuvered into the studio apartment of a review without a great deal of grunting and swearing - and of metaphor. It's a Niagara of allusions. It's a rope of pearls grossly disparate in lustre and value. It's a one-woman variety show of literary styles and types. It's a high-tech handbook of professional thought tools adapted for the consumer. (Thurman 153) The sheer abundance of Byatt makes a nimble and varied theoretical outlook advisable: those who assume that the postmodern literary detective story of Possession classes her with Eco and Borges find themselves perplexed when faced with the "self-conscious realism" of the Potter novels or the slightly morose fatalism of the 1960s fiction. In 1967, a journalist in the Guardian had the foresight to see this: For whereas Margaret Drabble writes (and talks) on double levels -offering soft options to the lazy and the dim - her sister has less patience. Her style is rarefied. She assumes complete attention, enormous breadth of reading, and an acrobatic mind. (MacCarthy 8) Another way of describing my methods would be to give them a contrapuntal designation. In his book Musical Elaborations. Edward Said has noted that certain composers and musicians overcome some of classical music's authoritative tendencies by using strategies of counterpoint - empowering several voices to sing at once - and variation - allowing melodic themes to be open-endedly elaborative and diverse. I find Said's musicological idea happily adaptable to other disciplines. 28 § § § Part of my goal has been to place Byatt in an accurate context for fruitful discussion, because so many of the comparisons being made are not useful. For example, consider the common procedure of contrasting Byatt's writing with that of her sister, Margaret Drabble, or her mentor, Iris Murdoch. I do find that Drabble's and Byatt's portrayals of childbirth are worth comparing (with Byatt offering a sharply dissenting point of view to her sister's apparently effortless fictional deliveries), but otherwise the connections are dubious. Byatt's first two novels bear certain resemblances to Murdoch's fiction, in their use of character to represent idea and their often heavily fatalistic plot structures. Since the 1970s, however, Byatt has experimented with a much wider variety of forms than she previously used. Byatt has written profusely on the writers she admires, and these antecedents and loyalties are a tremendous help in explicating her work. Although she claims Proust and Mann among her favourite writers, their influence is less visible than that of other favourites: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Browning, Tennyson, George Eliot, and Henry James. She has admiring quarrels with E. M. Forster and D. H. Lawrence. These are the writers who have shaped her thinking, more than any theorists of literature or culture (Bakhtin, Lukacs, Derrida), and so I have used the words of literary writers extensively, as part of the structure of my argument. I have done the same with a few contemporary writers who can profitably be set side by side with her: Julian Barnes, Peter Ackroyd, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood. Byatt has noticed some of these texts, but others are accidents of my own reading. 29 My mixture of poetry, fiction, philosophy, painting (and so on) may strike the reader as arbitrary, but I find this a useful way to approach Byatt, whose methods are much the same. I must also acknowledge the sometimes casual manner I have quoted from complex texts, for example when I have mentioned the work of Donne, Wordsworth, and Lawrence. My readings of specific and limited elements in their work should not be mistaken for full interpretations. I also think that, while this work on Byatt's sources, biography, and literary antecedents is necessary now - to situate Byatt accurately - in the coming years it will be more meaningful to employ historical and cultural analysis and more rigorous linguistic methods. The themes and forms I perceive in Byatt's work are functional, not decorative. My work on love, for instance, does not present that experience in Byatt's fiction as prettifying gloss, window-dressing, or some hazy change-of-pace stratagem in an otherwise cerebral undertaking. Love is a fundamental human experience to which Byatt gives her full attention. Similarly, death in Byatt is not meant to "stand for" something else, or to be a mere plot element, but takes centre stage and is resolutely itself. Nor is her investigation of Matisse intended just to brighten things up. A related point about my own method is that my work is rooted in experience and not abstraction: when I discuss Byatt's use of triangles or spirals or birth, I mean just that. The triangle that Marcus Potter sees as a mental image is not a diagram, but is real and literal. It naturally has symbolic and psychological (and sometimes religious) significance, but it also is, actually, a triangle. I also discuss Byatt's characters as if, in a way, they were real, and I do not always emphasize divisions between the novels (treating the characters as if they were, perhaps, members of one family): again this is a 30 helpful method Byatt has used herself, in her semi-psychoanalytical book Imagining Characters. § § § Theorizing the visual is currently experiencing one of its periods in vogue. Following Michel Foucault's analysis of the Panopticon in Discipline and Punish (1975) - "Visibility is a trap" (200) - some theorists are labouring at models of repressive visual technologies. As interdisciplinary study and popular culture analysis gain status, scholars are turning their attention to such things as the comic strip form and to Victorian illustrated novels. And the influence of computers in conceptual thinking has led to a lively growth in studies of visual communication theories of the utilitarian sort: the importance of iconic information on the Internet, of graphic presentation of data in business. Edward R. Tufte's Visual Explanations (1997) is indicative of this trend: This book describes design strategies - the proper arrangement of space and time of images, words, and numbers - for presenting information about motion, process, mechanism, cause and effect. (9) None of these current uses of visual thinking contributes much to an understanding of Byatt's fiction. These theorists usually emphasize how, not what. It is not the content of the information conveyed by way of the eye that is being theorized, but the form, as well as the ramifications (pedagogical, neurological, political, economic) of that transfer from brain to eye, from eye to brain. Foucault's discourse analysis as it touches on sight is pessimistic; it has no useful point of contact with Byatt's trust in visual reality. I have used instead the writings of aesthetic theorists and art critics like E.H. Gombrich and Lawrence Gowing to guide me and, especially, the writings of artists themselves. 31 If one can say that a study of an author is "needed" (and I am not sure that this is ever really the case), a thorough investigation of A. S. Byatt's writing is due. Possession: A Romance is the only Byatt novel which many readers know, and I cannot emphasize enough that Possession is not typical, but only one phase of her work. As one of the first to do a full-length analysis of Byatt's fiction, I am aware that I may have emphasized too strongly her quest for truth and transcendent Meaning, as well as her faith in the power of language to represent reality. Byatt is, after all, not an idealist, but an empiricist: she is aware of the limitations of language and the unattainability of absolute truth. In my conclusion, I will return to Byatt's failures of faith and hope and attempt some provisional summaries. The collapse of several of her investigations has not made her a cynic, although it has noticeably changed the scope of her ambitions. 32 Part I: The Language of Fundamental Personal Experience Chapter 1: Childbirth Suddenly she [Orlando] started - and here we could only wish that, as on a former occasion, Purity, Chastity, and Modesty would push the door ajar and provide, at least, a breathing space in which we could think how to wrap up what now has to be told delicately, as a biographer should. But no! . . . Is nothing then, going to happen this pale March morning to mitigate, to veil, to cover, to conceal, to shroud this undeniable event whatever it may be? Virginia Woolf Orlando (1928) I played the lead, and it was big stuff; supporting roles are less rewarding. Rosamond Lehmann, The Echoing Grove (1953) Scenes of childbirth in literature are rare, and told from the perspective of the woman giving birth they are even rarer. Children are frequently represented in poetry and fiction, both as individuals and as metaphors, but birth itself is common only in metaphoric use, where it has even become banal. The Bible is replete with such references: Zion is often in labour, bringing forth her sons (see, for example, Isaiah 66.8), and Paul appeals to the Galatians as if he were their mother: "My little children, with whom I am again in travail until Christ be formed in you!" (4.19). Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind" (1820) associates birth with his own poetic inventiveness. Childbirth as metaphor, however, is not the subject of this discussion; there is a good deal of criticism on this topic to which the reader can be referred.1 But the actual story of the woman giving birth is uncommon, and if written at all - especially before this century - it has 1 See Ellmann, Curtius, Ghiselin, Nelson, E. Sacks. For feminist views, see Friedman, Stone, and Gubar. Tess Cosslett in "Childbirth from the Woman's Point of View" criticizes these latter studies as privileging "childbirth as metaphor for other kinds of female creativity" (283 n. 3), as opposed to dealing with childbirth per se. 33 usually been told from an external point of view, often male.2 To underscore the strangeness of this situation, critic Carol H. Poston says that it is "as if a kiss were constantly described from the viewpoint of someone watching rather than from the perspective of those kissing" (25). One of the most famous descriptions of childbirth in fiction is found in Anna Karenin (1878). Levin looks on, horrified as "what had once been Kitty" utters in labour "terrible screams . . . [that] seemed to reach the utmost limit of horror" (748). Tolstoy captures powerfully the long hours of childbirth and the helplessness of a 19th century father, who finds, after the fact, that "the significance of a woman's life . . . now rose so high in his estimation that his imagination could not grasp it" (750). Despite this apparent reverence for female fortitude, however, the majority of the extended birth scene in Anna Karenin concerns the impact on the man: But after that hour another passed, a second, a third, and the full five hours he had fixed upon as the longest possible term of endurance, and still the situation was unchanged; and he went on enduring because there was nothing else to do but endure, every moment feeling that he had reached the utmost limits of endurance and that his heart would burst with compassion and pain. (745) This particular male viewpoint - glorifying and awestruck, apprehensive and alienated -is found again in D. H. Lawrence's The Rainbow (1915): "She knew she was winning, winning, she was always winning, with each onset of pain she was nearer to victory. . . . But he was screwed very tight in the vice of suffering" (192). It is not at all unusual for the observer in fiction to be just plain horrified, even when she is a woman. Kate Chopin, herself the mother of six children, ascribes this view to Edna, the protagonist of The Awakening (1899), who witnesses the "scene of torture" at the birthbed of her friend Adele "with an inward agony, with a flaming, outspoken revolt against the ways of Nature" (146). Chopin is aligned with the traditional opinion 2 See Poston for her discussion of childbirth in the fiction of Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, and Emile Zola; Kreppel for Laurence Sterne, James Joyce, and William Carlos Williams. 34 that childbirth involves unbearable pain, a view going back to Genesis and a view which has shown surprising, even alarming, resilience in the work of contemporary writers. I wish to examine some of the common methods, usually metaphorical, used by literary writers to describe childbirth, and compare these to the descriptions of birth used by A. S. Byatt, whose 1985 novel Still Life contains some of the most moving birth writing I have ever encountered. Critic Flora Alexander has written that this novel presents the "momentous experience of childbirth" with "insight and power" (38). The reader will note that, in my analysis, I have deliberately scattered the positive and negative metaphors used by Byatt and other writers. This is my small attempt to break the hero/victim dichotomy which characterizes so much of this literature. In addition to metaphor, Antonia Byatt's birth stories make use of language that she calls, in Passions of the Mind, "plain and exact" (11). Here the grounds for comparison, at least in literary terms, are relatively unpopulated, with the limited exception of the novels of Byatt's sister, Margaret Drabble. The obvious means for comparison in this case might have been medical texts, anthropological studies, or natural childbirth manuals, but I leave that work to other scholars. Before I go further, I offer a note on my terminology. I have attempted to steer clear of the usual rhetoric of pain in this chapter, and also particularly wish to avoid passive or past-tense formulations about birth: "was born," "confined," "with child." The ideas of "bearing children" and even of "delivery" are dangerous ones, depicting childbirth as punishment or imprisonment. See, for example, Kate Chopin's "hour of trial" (127) and the fact that she never mentions pregnancy in a straightforward, specific way. Even Carol Poston, a feminist critic, uses the Gothic-flavoured phrase "stricken with labour" (21). A. S. Byatt would not agree with my avoidance of the word "pain"; in the major birth chapter of Still Life (chapter 7) she uses the word at least 20 times. In Possession (1990) Christabel LaMotte states that "the greater part of suffering in this world is ours" (543) and is obsessed, before giving birth, with the pains of the Little 35 Mermaid in Hans Andersen's story (404). The knowledge is implicit that LaMotte is discussing childbirth pain. However, in most instances I find in Byatt an earnest attempt to capture the subtlety and intricacy of the event; where most writers might stop at the word "pain," Byatt goes beyond it to analyse the fuller ramifications of the experience. Questionable but influential translations from the Hebrew of Genesis 3.16-17 (c. 10th century BC) may be the origin of the rhetoric of childbirth pain. The original Hebrew punishment applied to Eve for her disobedience, roughly transliterated as "becetsev," may mean either pain or toil, and the word for Adam's punishment is closely related to the root of Eve's word.3 The King James Version (1611) proffers the term "sorrow" for both Adam and Eve; the tone is pessimistic but more equitable than it becomes in later translations. According to the most commonly used translations of this century, the American Standard Version (1901), the Revised Standard Version (1952), and the New Revised Standard Version (1989), Eve is cursed with "pain in childbearing" while Adam is sentenced to "toil" on the land. Some recent translations, such as the Revised English Bible (1989), return to the emphasis on the similarity in Adam's and Eve's situations, and now cast them both in terms of the more neutral "labour." However, the RSV has been the most influential translation of this century, and it makes Eve's punishment the harsher. I prefer the term "labour." For me, labour is an excellent description of childbirth. The idea of hard work has often lost out to exaggerated descriptions of agony used, by men and by women, to terrify and to valorize. I have also attempted to describe childbirth in terms of "event" and "experience," an act in which a woman, a baby, and others are present and creative. The degrees of pain and risk involved are widely variable. 31 am grateful to Michael Kurtz for his advice on Biblical translation. 36 § § § Critic Tess Cosslett reports that the mother's version of the birth event was more or less absent from literature until Enid Bagnold's The Squire in 1938 and Doris Lessing's A Proper Marriage in 1956 (Women Writing Childbirth 1). There are many reasons for this absence in literary practice. As Virginia Woolf ironically points out in the passage from Orlando which introduces this chapter, birth scenes are not matters to be discussed in polite society. Furthermore it is, plainly, difficult for women to remember something as strenuous and complex as childbirth; this amnesia is frequently iterated in discussions of childbirth. One important dissenting voice, however, is Sheila Kitzinger, who says, "Years after the baby has been born [the mother] remembers acutely the details of her labour and her feelings as the child was delivered" (18). (Perhaps women do lean too heavily on birth amnesia; surely the ability to remember childbirth could be developed.) American poet and novelist Louise Erdrich speaks of her fear before childbirth and the feeling of being displaced from her own body, and is ambivalently grateful about "the merciful wash of endorphins that precludes any thought from occupying [my brain] too long" (Blue Jay's Dance 9). There are few literary models to follow; childbirth anecdotes are usually oral, and attempts to collect them have been rare. Additionally, the oral tradition has often been mistrusted for its exaggerated and negative qualities, and Cosslett notes that the "unstructured, ghoulish horror stories [which] challenge the simple, optimistic structures of our modern myths of birth" (Women Writing Childbirth 4) are reviled by both the medical establishment and by natural childbirth proponents. The consequence is a paradigmatic gap, a blank space where representations of birth ought to be. Erdrich, writing in 1995 of the births of her own children, wondered: Why is no woman's labor as famous as the death of Socrates? Over all of the millennia that women have endured and suffered and died during childbirth, we have no one story that comes down to us with attendant 37 reverence, or that exists in pictures - a cultural icon, like that of Socrates holding forth to his companions as he raises the cup of hemlock. (Blue Jay's Dance 35) We might, initially, think to point to the most famous birth, that of Christ in the New Testament, to refute Erdrich's argument. But we remember that Mary's personal experience is not recounted in the gospels. The exception is the Magnificat which she utters, after conception, in Luke 1.46-55, rejoicing in the blessings the Lord has conferred on her and on others "of low degree." Significantly, there is a feeling among most of the writers under scrutiny in this chapter that, in any case, birth is indescribable, that language is inadequate, or that a new language, a wordless or intuitive one perhaps, should be developed to communicate the truths of birth. In Margaret Drabble's 1965 novel The Millstone, the new mother says "what I felt it is pointless to try to describe" (114). Margaret Atwood, in her 1977 story "Giving Birth," puzzles over the meaning of the title phrase. "But who gives it? And to whom is it given?" she asks (225). Jeanie, Atwood's protagonist, examines and rejects other terms she has been given. The words don't match the experience. Atwood's narrator, unlike Drabble's, is critical of language and imagery contaminated by male conventions. But Atwood and Erdrich are cautious about diverting creative energies away from the physical and spiritual contemplation of birth itself toward linguistic issues they see as less primary. Atwood's Jeanie writes of "language, muttering in its archaic tongues of something, yet one more thing that needs to be re-named" and then retorts: "It won't be by me, though. These are the only words I have, I'm stuck with them, stuck in them.... So we will go ahead as if there were no problem about language" (225-6). A. S. Byatt, in Still Life, approaches the problem of childbirth and language in a similar way. Clearly the available words are inadequate, but there are issues immediately, and even perhaps ultimately (although this is less certain) more demanding than linguistic 38 ones. Her protagonist, Stephanie Potter Orton, is absorbed with her responsibility for producing a healthy child; she blocks out the stories of other women and the advice of nurses, rejecting the prescribed relaxation exercises in childbirth books. The novel is set in 1950s England, and Stephanie is constantly frustrated in her attempt to find models for living which adequately take into account both her remarkable intellectual abilities and her position as wife and mother. Although loved and supported by her charitable husband Daniel, an Anglican curate, Stephanie has to face birth (and later, death) depending solely on her own (considerable) resources. "She imagined that women were not so civilized that they had no natural sense of what to do with things that happened to everyone as imperatively as eating and excreting" (Still Life 85). Byatt and Stephanie are clearly, at times, conflated; see the 1991 interview with Jeffrey Canton, when Byatt says, "I don't know what I shall do without her" (6). I assume in this discussion that Stephanie's childbirth events resemble Byatt's own experiences, and that Stephanie's reflections on language and birth are, at least in part, Byatt's. Erdrich likewise says: "I take her [the baby's] instructions without translating her meaning into words, but simply bypass straight to action" (Blue Jay's Dance 56). These authors have decided, under the pressure of the task at hand, that they must get on with the crucial work of having children, and they trust their bodies will perform adequately outside the scope of language. The reader must ask, however, to what extent these writers claim that a woman can naturally and permanently cope without accurate language or historical models. Or is their apparent trust in the female body's unspeaking and essential knowledge only a preliminary step toward the development of a fuller, more exacting narrative of birth? I would argue that Byatt, like Atwood and Erdrich, does assert that the birth event has not been adequately examined from a woman's point of view, and further that, of necessity, this story must be told using the faulty but by no means contemptible tools at hand. What does not seem to concern Byatt is the surveying and plotting of revolutionary 39 inroads into an eventual liberated, wholly feminized expression of the childbirth experience. For Byatt, the arrival of this event into our literature is too long overdue for the writer to be warmly exercised about the bias now evidenced in our language. One model for Byatt may be Virginia Woolf, who accepts, in A Room of One's Own (1927) that women write differently than men, but praises style that can "absorb the new into the old" (81) and pleads for a future androgynous consciousness. In 1974, in discussing the feminist linguistics of Monique Wittig, Byatt declared her own allegiance to "subtle distinctions within a continuing language, not doctrinaire violations" (Passions of the Mind 276). Cosslett speaks of Byatt and others as "women writers negotiating with and within dominant ideologies" ("Childbirth from the Woman's Point of View" 284), emphasizing the compromises these writers feel they are either forced or willing to make. Byatt, however, stresses not the woeful inadequacy of male-dominated discourse but instead the multifold possibilities by which our existing language can be made to connect more closely with the birth experience; these opportunities, she implies, have not been fully utilized. Her contribution to this nascent literary field has been diverse. Stephanie Potter gives birth twice in Still Life, and each birth is a very different experience. The birth of her son Will, described in fuller detail than any birth in fiction I can bring to mind, is painful but mostly triumphant, while the subsequent birth of Mary is marked by frustration. In each case Stephanie depends, with mixed success, upon literature to help her through labour (Wordsworth in her first pregnancy, Dickens in her second), a difficult conjunction of books and motherhood with which Stephanie will struggle through the rest of the life remaining to her. In Possession, Christabel LaMotte refuses to acknowledge publicly her pregnancy, and secretly gives the baby to her sister to raise. LaMotte believes that her vocation as a poet is incompatible with motherhood and is unwilling to try to connect the two roles. In the parodic, semi-allegorical novella "Morpho Eugenia" (1992), the women of Bredely Hall are either queen ants or worker ants, and again it is clear that, in the nineteenth century at any rate, a life of the mind and 40 motherhood are nearly impossible to combine, and additionally that women's reproductive capabilities are a precarious source of power. In Byatt's first novel, The Shadow of the Sun (1964), Anna (who may or may not be a latent artist) discovers her pregnancy with a feeling of passive foreboding, acting not unlike the acquiescent Jane in Drabble's The Waterfall (1969). Childbirth prompts and demands a much wider range of responses than are typically recorded, and Byatt's fiction provides an unusually full sampling of them. "Morpho Eugenia" presents Byatt's criticisms of cultural productions of gendered identity, while Possession and The Shadow of the Sun demonstrate some of the social and artistic consequences for the woman facing childbirth. But Byatt's fullest exploration of the subject, the story of Stephanie Potter, declares the author's central intention: to emphasize the unique and individual aspects of the event, the singular ways, depending on intellectual and imaginative characteristics, that each woman will experience childbirth. In an interview Byatt underscores the individual, personal experience which informed the writing of Still Life: I read a very good article [probably Cosslett's] about descriptions of childbirth by women which assumes that my accounts of childbirth in the 1950s and 60s are informed by feminist perspectives, whereas in fact they are simply accurate memories of, for instance, the rage I felt at not being allowed to walk up and down when I was in labour. It's nothing to do with feminist theory having told me that, I observed it. (Tredell 61) This elevation of individualism, memory, and imagination testifies to the ways in which Byatt allies herself with the Romantic poets, and it is no accident that Stephanie is so adamant about having her Wordsworth with her when giving birth to her first child, whom she appropriately names William. Throughout her works, Byatt repeats a line from Wordsworth's "Immortality Ode" that is, for her, a touchstone: "But there's a Tree, of 41 many, one" (line 51) 4 Wordsworth's Tree, like Van Gogh's yellow chair, is deceptively simple, stark, seemingly general; yet it is also capable of communicating precision and particularity. (I return to the importance of this tree in chapter 4, and to the chair in chapter 5.) Byatt also raises the possibility that Wordsworth's idealistic faith in "that immortal sea / Which brought us hither" (lines 164-165) can be seen as a way for a woman to visualize a positive and creative childbirth, transforming it, perhaps, from pain to "splendour in the grass [and] glory in the flower" (line 179). Wordsworth's language of birth and childhood may be exceptionally innocent, but his metaphors are refreshing and authoritative for Byatt's characters. § § § Even though direct and active depictions of childbirth in literature are rare, we should, nevertheless, look at some of the literary conventions which do exist (concentrating on fiction and poetry), and determine how Byatt's treatment of this theme differs. As we do so, keep in mind feminist scholarship which asserts that male ideas have contaminated childbirth narratives. Carol H. Poston has said that the most startling perception to emerge from a study of [childbirth in literature] is that although the experience has been woman's, the language has been men's; and so great has the tyranny of language been that women begin experiencing birth from a male point of view. (20) The usual discussion of literary childbirth is dominated by metaphor. Metaphor has always been especially useful here, as writers - old and new - wish to sum up childbirth as quickly as possible, in some generic way. Thus, individuals are reduced to "the woman" and "the baby" and the event abstracted from the personal. Images of mouths, 4 This line occurs in Still Life (chapter 21), "On the Day That E. M. Forster Died" (Sugar 134), and "Still Life / Nature morte" (Passions of the Mind 19). Anna writes a similar line of poetry in The Shadow of the Sun (9). 42 doors, caves, and evacuation, for example, may be used, as they are by Louise Erdrich in her 1989 poem "Hydra": The hinged mouth swings wide at birth, the dark peristalsis, the great swallowing begins. The child's first lesson is the iron knocker, the hasp of hunger opening. Erdrich, although usually alert to gendered power relations operating within language, does not seem uncomfortable with at least some of the customary generalizations about "the child," "the body," and "the pain." At the other extreme, Margaret Drabble insists on generalizing about the lack of difficulty in labour. Rosamund Stacey, the unwed mother in The Millstone, reports that after giving birth to her daughter, "I felt remarkably well, a usual reaction I believe on such occasions, and I could have got up and walked away" (114). In a 1967 interview, Drabble confirmed that this was her own experience. Margaret Drabble recalled how she had managed to write a book about Wordsworth5: "I wrote the whole thing - the re-write, that is - in the ten days when I was in hospital when my youngest child was born. I took my typewriter into hospital -1 sat in the ambulance clutching it saying, 'Don't take that away.' My baby was born ten minutes after I got to hospital. And the minute I got into bed I got my typewriter and was able to get on. I had some lovely fish and chips and a nice evening's work." (Williams 15) Drabble's insouciance sounds odd to us, as does her refusal to couch the experience in metaphor. We are more familiar with the figurative language of conquest, sacrifice, and blood in Anne Stevenson's "Victory" (1969): I thought you were my victory though you cut me like a knife when I brought you out of my body into your life. 5 It is intriguing that Wordsworth is associated with ease in childbirth for both Byatt and Drabble. 43 A prevalent comparison, between giving birth and engaging in combat, surfaces as recently as the films Courage Under Fire (1995) and Robin Hood. Prince of Thieves (1991), in which women declare their fitness for battle precisely because they have given birth. And of course, there is the required analogy between women and animals, a tradition used by Zola and many others. This view is, at least, mingled with some compassion and admiration in the 1930s doctor stories of William Carlos Williams: "Now, poor soul, I see her to be clean as a cow that calves. The flesh of my arm lay against the flesh of her knee gratefully. It was I who was being comforted and soothed" ("A Night in June," Collected Stories 142). Sylvia Plath, in the 1961 poem "Morning Song," also sees herself as "cow-heavy." A related "natural" comparison is that of birth as a splitting, like a germinating seed. This process may be difficult (in Byatt), indifferent (Plath), or casual (Erdrich). "By June I'll push the baby out/as easily as seed wings fold back from the cotyledon," writes Erdrich in the poem "The Fence." Although Byatt shares in some of the common images used by other women writers, whenever possible she seems determined to avoid or interrogate the universalist assumptions associated with childbirth. Some critics, not inappropriately, see Byatt as a "traditional" writer. The review of Still Life in The Spectator said, "Her tetralogy [the Potter novels]... looks as if it will be an ornament to the Great Tradition" (Jones 31). But Byatt can be also impatient with "radical" writers for not going far enough in search of innovation. For example, she has taken Monique Wittig's The Lesbian Body to task for "the limpness with which it adheres to traditional myths" (Passions of the Mind 275). In Still Life Byatt attempts to go beyond hackneyed and limited representations, and simultaneously wants to return to an examination of the possibility of making intellectual and physical knowledge adhere to words, with accuracy and originality. Hers is a strangely old-fashioned radical task. 44 She uses a number of common metaphors, but prods them for multiple meanings. There is, for example, the recurring notion of possession: "I am used. I am drummed into use," writes Plath in her 1962 poem "Three Women." In Still Life Stephanie complains she has "lost her autonomy. Something was living her life; she was not living" (84). This is a particularly frightening notion for the female artist, and it is this sense of the inability to escape from the inexorable claims of motherhood which drives Edna Pontellier to her death in Kate Chopin's The Awakening. In Plath's "Three Women" a baby's cries are "hooks that catch and grate like cats." In Still Life, Byatt pushes beyond the obvious meanings of possession (as she does in her novel Possession), teasing out ambivalence and multiple interpretations. Stephanie finds a rather grim satisfaction in describing her pregnant self as "sunk in biology" (Still Life 20). This phrase echoes one from Iris Murdoch's "Against Dryness," the 1961 essay which attempts to correct existentialist notions that we are "isolated free choosers"; instead, says Murdoch, we are "benighted creatures sunk in a reality whose nature we are constantly and overwhelmingly tempted to deform by fantasy" (20, emphasis mine). Byatt, following Murdoch, insists it is crucial to accurately name; accuracy in this case means not giving in to the temptation to oversimplify pregnancy as either complete fulfillment or entrapment. Still Life, she says in a recent interview, is her book about "biology described from very close up" (Wachtel 1996); if Stephanie feels possessed by the imperatives of her body, she also realizes this has positive and negative ramifications. A common method of coping with birth pain, a kind of visual aid not unlike, but not precisely, a metaphor is to move into the pain, using darkened ideas of welcome or embrace. Byatt writes that Stephanie "found the desperate energy to end the pain by increasing it" (Still Life 93); Erdrich says that "very often in labor one must fight the instinct to resist pain and instead embrace it, move toward it, work with what hurts the most" (Blue Jay's Dance 45). In The Millstone Drabble's character reports "sensations which though unbelievably violent were now no longer painful but indeed almost a 45 promise of pleasure" (113). It is no great distance from here to masochism, and it is possible in Plath's work to read a perverse pride in being the "center of an atrocity"; she writes that "there is no miracle more cruel than this. /1 am dragged by the horses, the iron hooves. /1 last. I last it out. I accomplish a work" ("Three Women"). A related matter is the way in which the protagonists of Byatt, Atwood and Plath alike describe the emotions of rage they feel in near-murderous terms. In Still Life Stephanie "was amazed at the rage she felt. She wished the women dead for holding her so uncomfortably in an unnatural position" (92). A woman who will give away her newborn child in Plath's "Three Women" decides "I should have murdered this, that murders me." Atwood's Jeanie is less violent, but she is "outraged" at the lack of understanding her doctor demonstrates and is "vicious" to her husband (237). Several of these writers bring forth battering ram images of the final stages of labour. In "Three Women" Plath writes: "I am breaking apart like the world. There is this blackness / This ram of blackness. I fold my hands on a mountain." In Still Life Stephanie also describes this, in more detail, giving the battering ram personality, an animal intensity. It is a "furious blunt block," and a "thing [which] launched itself again against its prison walls" (92), echoing and inverting Wordsworth's "prison-house" from the "Immortality Ode." One of the most common comparisons involves labour as powerful waves. Stephanie is described as "pulled almost off her feet" by the waves (87); Erdrich similarly says, "I feel myself slip beneath the waves as they roar over" and eventually "the undertow grabs me" (Blue Jay's Dance 45). And finally, there is birth as art. Atwood and Plath each describe the creation of a child as the crafting of a well-made watch. Babies are frequently compared to statues, paintings, poems, especially in Plath. Byatt tends not to set up this semi-antagonistic comparison between children and works of art, but she does make frequent use of water and tidal imagery, often considered to be stereotypically female. 46 Each writer also taps into an idiosyncratic store of more original images: Atwood's narrator compares herself to a birdcage opening inside out; Erdrich sees herself as a boat and as an armoured figure, her baby as a rocket. I could continue to enumerate birth metaphors, but this list will serve as an introduction. As previously noted, I refuse to divide this list into "light" and "dark" groups. The dualism set up between the Old Testament emphasis on the punishing pain of childbirth and the modern pretense of ease, as evidenced in Drabble and in some of the sterile myth-making which surrounds the modern hospital birth, is an overly simplistic and not very useful one. I have also hesitated to assign typically "male" or "female" meanings. I was surprised at how most of these common images resisted male labelling, with the obvious exceptions of images of warfare and of Erdrich's "rocket" mentioned above. And while the equation between women and animals can be queried, I believe for a feminist to prolong that argument (the one that goes - are animals, or women, "lower" forms of life than men?) is to play into the wrong hands. The use that many of these writers make of natural or animalistic examples is simply to underline our connection to other forms of life; a heavily gendered interpretation is a mistaken one, I believe. My point is that I have not found in my research the preponderance of patriarchal images which feminist childbirth scholars led me to believe I should. It is true that some of the writing I am discussing is of fairly recent vintage, but I have also found that Sylvia Plath's metaphors, 35 years ago, do not always, or even often, fall in with Carol Poston's judgement that male language has tyrannized this female experience. Perhaps the complaint of feminist critics is valid when applied to birth as written by Sterne, Hemingway, Joyce, and Lawrence, as Maria Curro Kreppel claims. But Virginia Woolf, in Orlando, uses the flight of a kingfisher and the music of an organ grinder to sketch the birth of Orlando's child; neither of these ideas, it seems to me, is poisoned by the patriarchy. 47 Contrary to what Kreppel and Poston argue - and to a lesser extent Cosslett, who claims that Stephanie's use of Wordsworth does not work and that the poet's masculinity limits the applicability of his model - the birth scene as practised by A. S. Byatt in Still Life attempts to use language which has neither a male nor a female bias. The obvious exception is the use of water imagery often considered to be stereotypically female. However, there is a precedent for Byatt challenging or disregarding the established hierarchies of symbols; in The Virgin in the Garden (1978) she deliberately attempted to reverse the usual association of men with the sun and women with the moon, by emphasizing the identification of Elizabeth I (and, by extension, Frederica Potter, who is acting the part of Elizabeth in Alexander Wedderburn's play) with sun iconography (see her introduction to the 1991 reprint of The Shadow of the Sun). Byatt's intention is, I believe, not to take command of a point of male privilege - or at any rate that is only part of her intention - but more importantly to strip imagery of its gendered associations. In an interview with Olga Kenyon, Byatt politely says she "doesn't wholly agree" with critics like Ellen Moers, who think "there are specifically female metaphors" (18). But most importantly, Byatt retains the sensory power that such imagery confers, the instantaneous communicative energy of imagining a wave or a battering ram. § § § With this background in mind, I turn to Byatt's most detailed treatment of childbirth: the experience of Stephanie Potter in Still Life. The tentative method for giving expression to the birth experience at which Stephanie Potter arrives is a combination of metaphor and "direct treatment of the thing," some form of Imagism6. Byatt has said that William Carlos Williams's famous dictum "no ideas but in things" 61 do not attempt a full discussion of Imagism and its changing manifestations here, but find the following definition, by Natan Zach, who quotes Ezra Pound, useful for this discussion of Byatt's Imagistic tendencies: "The poem projected by Imagism is a laconic complex in which 'painting or sculpture seems as if it were just coming over into speech' " (A Dictionary of Modern Critical Terms, ed. Roger Fowler). I am also aware, as Zach is, that Imagism "may comprise traditional metaphor." I am separating, for the sake of simplicity, two tendencies which do, in fact, overlap. 48 was the starting point of the writing of Still Life (Passions of the Mind 11). But she soon realized that for her to write a novel "eschewing myths and cultural resonances [and] which would try to forgo metaphor" would be "doing violence to something in my own mental constitution" (9,14). This struggle - between condensed, concrete plainness and verbal elaboration - is explicitly played out in the pages of Still Life. Both the narrator and Stephanie engage in this struggle. The narrator vacillates between lovingly piling up verbal comparisons and celebrating the wordless communication of Van Gogh's paintings. Stephanie works through birth by alternately imagining her body in, for example, the grip of tides and animals ("the pain, like an incoming tide, abated a little, rippled back, gathered itself and sprang, heavy", [92]) and by expressing herself as flatly as possible (as when she names her child "You" [94]). Let us first consider imagery. The most important images used to describe Stephanie's sensations in childbirth are those involving music and colour. It is unusual for Byatt to refer to music; it is one of the few fields with which she is not comfortably conversant. I think it is for this reason that Byatt does use music to describe the unique feelings of labour; for her, it is something beyond the ordinary realm of understanding. Her use of music also, again, declares her allegiance to the Romantics; Stephanie creates music metaphors because she is a reader of Wordsworth, who writes, in Book I of The Prelude: Thus far, O Friend! did I, not used to make A present joy the matter of my Song, Pour out, that day, my soul in measured strains. (Lines 55-57) Stephanie has internalized Wordsworth's images of song, and she is able to put them to work for her: "She brushed a floury hand across her brow, and pain hit her, pure and clear like a note in music, spreading up and out from the disturbance in the spine, singing, diminishing" (Still Life 86). If anything interferes with Stephanie's natural rhythms, as 49 when she is not allowed to move or is administered an enema, then the singing is "hurt and twisted" (87). It is the pain itself which sings, not Stephanie or the baby; the pain has its own voice which "sing[s] severely" (88). The use of colour to describe birth is not unique to Byatt, but Byatt's intense interest in colour extends throughout the lives of her fictional characters and through her narrative discourse in a characteristic way. Louise Erdrich also captures labour pains in colour in Blue Jay's Dance: During transition, as the baby is ready to be pushed out into life, the waves are no longer made of water, but neons so brilliant I gasp in shock and flourish my arms, letting the colors explode from my fingertips in banners, in ribbons, in iridescent trails - of pain, it is true, unendurable sometimes, and yet we do endure. (46) And even Drabble in The Waterfall cuts through the languor to report that the "colors of the scene affected Jane profoundly: they were the violent colors of birth, but they were resolved into silence, into a kind of harmony" (6-7). Byatt goes into more detail. The lines from the "Immortality Ode" which Stephanie chants to herself are simply- but absolutely-hued ones: "The Rainbow comes and goes. And lovely is the Rose" (Still Life 91). Later, "her vision filled with nasturtium pale-scarlet, and then with a curtain of blood" (92). When Will is a few days old, she looks at him through tears, "rainbow-hazed" (107) and Will himself is described as experiencing light and colour simultaneously, and is able to distinguish the golden colours of his mother's face and hair, as well as the lamp and the flowers. The meaning of Byatt's colour imagery is more difficult to interpret than the bulk of the imagery under discussion here. On the one hand, colour is associated with the primal, the "imperative" (Still Life 85) that Stephanie identifies as the way in which she must meet birth. This is especially true in the section where Byatt imagines Will's viewpoint soon after birth. According to her, colour is one of the basic and powerful 50 components of Will's first contact with the world, reminding us of the Babe's "quick" and "tenacious" faculties in Book II of Wordsworth's Prelude (see lines 237-280). But colour also seems indeterminate, so widespread in use and relatively uncontaminated by cultural affiliations (as compared to war or animal metaphors) as to be opaque. This is Byatt's goal; she has frequently congratulated Iris Murdoch on the concept of "opacity of persons" which Murdoch outlines in "Against Dryness" (20). For Byatt and Murdoch, opacity is an essential human characteristic, difficult but vital to describe. (Murdoch's theorizing of opacity of persons has not necessarily meant that her novels successfully captured it; many of her characters all too clearly "stand for" a problem or an abstraction.) It is impossible to know fully what compels people to act as they do, just as it is impossible to understand and articulate how a woman's body gives birth. This is an experience Byatt and Murdoch might say is "unutterably particular," a phrase each often uses in this discussion (see Byatt's study of Murdoch Degrees of Freedom 95; see Murdoch's essay "The Sublime and the Good" in Existentialists and Mystics 215). Stephanie recognizes that birth is an imperative and that she must somehow attempt to join her compulsion for words and books with this other compulsion. But if language and birth are equally imperative, they are also, in a way, equally ineluctable, and any attempt to encompass them must take into account this impenetrability. Thus, Byatt's depictions of music, a subject she does not understand, and colour, which is primal and impervious to definition (as she knows from her readings of Wittgenstein),7 represent themes that exist permanently beyond the experience under scrutiny and simultaneously and paradoxically capture its qualities of beauty, primacy, and inhumanity. 7 In Remarks on Colour Wittgenstein preserves 458 observations and questions about colour and perception. Buried in the midst of these is the crystalline and unusually decisive admission: "There is no such thing as the pure colour concept" (III.73). I discuss colour theory in more detail in chapter 4. 51 Stephanie's most difficult task in creating a personal language of childbirth lies in combining these metaphors with examples of the "hard idea of truth," a phrase of Murdoch's which Byatt often cites approvingly ("Against Dryness" 18). Byatt's intriguing contribution to the literary depiction of childbirth is her use of (and commentary on) these "hard" ideas - to describe childbirth in flat, unadorned, non-metaphorical terms. Drabble had attempted this in The Millstone, completely eschewing metaphorical language in the birth account, but Drabble's birth scenes in that novel and in The Waterfall lack detail and are, respectively, unhelpfully breezy and torpid, as if there were a tacit and natural agreement between mother and baby which cannot be communicated outside the relationship. (Elaine Showalter feels more positively than I do that Drabble has some success with presenting pregnancy as "a way of knowing" [A Literature of Their Own 306].) Where Byatt differs from Drabble is that her effort to bring the "thing itself (Passions of the Mind 11), the detailed and unmediated realities of the birthing body, onto the page is much more strenuous. She also avoids generalizing about "women." Thus Byatt attempts to use active description, as opposed to passive ("being delivered of) , for Stephanie's sensations: "She felt things grind, pull and tear inside her" (Still Life 88). Stephanie feels that "beneath the helpless trunk a whole wall, a box-side of flesh and cracking bone seemed to rear and expand between the bursting thing and the air" (92). It is an effort for the well-educated Stephanie to think in the "bare" and "down-to-earth" terms which Byatt wants to use (Passions of the Mind 11), and thus metaphor constantly obtrudes, as with "box-side" above. But the attempt is made to see from an unimpeded viewpoint, ideally, like a newborn; the baby Will, says Byatt, perhaps enviously, is not "capable of simile" (Still Life 107). Stephanie does realize that kind of plainness, as when she thinks, simply, "someone had to get out" (89), and when she encounters the unadorned and unexpected words "ecstasy" and "bliss" (93, 94) when she sees Will for the first time. 52 In Stephanie's second labour, plain speech is just as difficult as metaphorical had been, because "every contraction had its cross-currents of negation." She merely feels herself "a numb sack of knotted and ripped and sagging muscles that would revive to hurt" (249), and can go no further in articulating the experience. The combination of Byatt's version of Imagism, writing which she initially calls "innocent" (108), with more traditional metaphorical writing, quickly shows itself as vulnerable, both for the narrator and for Stephanie. The "recovery of the innocent eye" is impossible, whether describing a woman's sensations of birth or the way the newborn child sees the world. "We cannot think at all without a recognition and realignment of ways of thinking and seeing we have learned over time" (108) reports the narrative voice in Still Life. But neither the effective use of established forms nor the recognition of the anxiety of influence guarantees the thinker freedom from banality. The writer must additionally aim for the very highest standards of precision and accuracy, and this is one of the points at which Byatt's faith in language begins to fissure. "Make it new" cannot mean, see it free of all learned frames and names, for paradoxically it is only a precise use of learned comparison and the signs we have made to distinguish things seen or recognised that can give the illusion of newness. (108) In the search for precision, her demands are so exacting that, ultimately, she turns away from words and more definitely toward the visual, in this case the paintings of Van Gogh. The brushstrokes of what might be called Van Gogh's version of a birth story, "The Sower," are cited approvingly as "thick and solid: they are the movement of light over things, of the eye over things" (109). Chapter 7, "A Birth," concludes, not with Stephanie and baby William, but with Van Gogh, whose visual articulation of experience, according to Byatt, is finally more sustaining than the verbal element in which Stephanie and Byatt both sink and swim. Van Gogh's brushstrokes, imposed on the world of the sower, simultaneously capture it with accuracy and translate it into his own terms. 53 In Still Life Stephanie and Byatt work toward this "thick and solid" representation, mixing it with the linguistic metaphor intellectually more familiar to them. They are simultaneously verbal and visual people and have no choice but to attempt this fusion. Byatt has said that she personally can "see other people's metaphors - if there is any iconic content to a metaphor I will 'see' a visual image on some inner mental screen" (Passions of the Mind 13-14, emphasis in original). Stephanie "always won Kim's game, the objects on a tray . . . she remembered them for their quiddity, naming and denoting them in language in her mind" (Still Life 33). But in attempting to expand on this fusion of visual and verbal knowledge, Stephanie, less fortunate than her author (and unwilling to live outside society like Van Gogh), is constantly checked and thwarted by a social arena which values neither metaphor nor the "thick and solid" precision of things. The hospital practices of the 1950s do not even allow her to have books, her first and most primitive strategy for coping with birth. (Kathleen Coyne Kelly in her study of Byatt believes that the descriptions of hospital practices are among "the most harrowing sections" of Still Life \A. S. Byatt: Twayne's English Authors 65] and makes no mention of Stephanie's considerable triumphs.) Stephanie tries not to succumb to the belittling routines of the maternity ward, "a female world of endurance, diminished vocabulary, chattered conventional confidences," where everyone is addressed as "mother" or (ominously) "mum" (Still Life 95, 101). During labour she demands, unsuccessfully, to be given her copy of Wordsworth's poems, and when it is not forthcoming, she marches up and down her hospital room, chanting memorized sections of the "Immortality Ode" to herself. "The next pain, when it came, was possible to weave into the rhythm of this tramping" (90), but when the nurses order Stephanie to stop, "the pain choked again like a suffocating net, as it did when they interfered with its liveliness" (91). It is, partly, the musicality of poetry which Stephanie finds attractive as an aid in labour; if labour pains are met correctly she finds they are "pure and clear like a note in music" (86). 54 Because Stephanie is not allowed to work out fully her own methods for coping with labour, it is unclear how helpful the books that she wanted to keep with her would have been, but her small bit of success with what Wordsworth she could remember is provocative. Given time, could Stephanie have moved beyond rhythm and worked the themes and metaphors of Wordsworth or other authors into her labour? Perhaps, but it appears that the other, non-metaphorical, route would have been even more successful, as exemplified in this remarkable passage - Stephanie's plain and lucid recognition and naming of her son Will: "There," she said to him, and he looked, and the light poured through the window, brighter and brighter, and his eyes saw it, and hers, and she was aware of bliss, a word she didn't like, but the only one. There was her body, quiet, used, resting: there was her mind, free, clear, shining: there was the boy and his eyes, seeing what? And ecstasy. Things would hurt when this light dimmed. The boy would change. But now in the sun she recognised him, and recognised that she did not know, and had never seen him, and loved him, in the bright new air with a simplicity she had never expected to know. "You," she said to him, skin for the first time on skin in the outside air, which was warm and shining, "you." (94) D. J. Taylor has called these scenes "epiphanic" (After the War 255). The beauty and ecstasy of this moment, approaching the Renaissance "undissociated sensibility" for which Byatt has said she is nostalgic (Passions of the Mind 9), echoes Stephanie's courtship in The Virgin in the Garden. In that book "[d]esire lunged at them" and she and Daniel Orton turn to each other and say, simply, "I want, I want, I want" (183). In each case, the prevalence of monosyllabic words encourages in our reading starkness, breathlessness, and sharpness of focus which are particularly striking. But even this method can lose its lustre. These moments of bliss are, of course, simultaneously moments of extremity, and their rarity and danger is part of the defining quality of their worth. Ordinary living erodes and dissipates the high notes of recognition and meaning momentarily revealed for Stephanie and Daniel and the baby. The plain language of these 55 scenes, if used too often, would become cliched or inadequate; it is the surprise of calling a baby "You" that is so effective. Stephanie's latent visual abilities would need to be developed, and there is little possibility for such education in the strictly-bounded world of a Yorkshire minister's wife. She has only advanced as far as seeing the unborn baby as a "furious blunt block" (92). This sketch is original but lacks detail, shading. Even this tentative success has been eroded and dissipated by the time Stephanie enters the hospital to have her second child. This is demonstrated by the fact that she does not take poetry with her but instead Dickens's Our Mutual Friend. In the two years since the birth of Will, her marriage and her intellectual life have become more troubled, due to the demands of the baby and to the inarticulate and irritating presences in the Orton home of Stephanie's brother Marcus and Daniel's mother, Mrs. Orton. Stephanie will later explain to Daniel that she feels thwarted by the lack of opportunity to use what Daniel recognizes as her "great unopened volumes of vocabulary" (306). Right until her death, Stephanie's words "wandered loose and unused" (307); she is numbed by convention and loses touch, not only with her intellectual vocabulary, but with that which her vocabulary helps her to encompass, "her unregarded self (306). Losing the ability to connect either with words or with basic things, Stephanie does not encounter an epiphany of recognition, as she had with Will, but feels for her second child "not wonder, but protective pity." There is no bliss, beyond "a shot of pethidine" (250). Stephanie has not built on the successful experience of her first labour, but, confused, attempts to use a different book during her second labour. The combination of a physically difficult labour (an accident) and the wrong book (a defective intellectual choice) adds up to fused images of the "slowly developing nightmare of a blocked labour . . . with the sluggish Thames and its cargo of dead bodies" (249). Mary is ominously marked with a birthmark on her face and the prints of forceps on her skull. 56 The knowledge that Stephanie has gained is summed up in an inaccurate line from The Faerie Queene, which comes to her as she drifts off into a drug-induced sleep: "Ease after pain . . . doth greatly please" (Still Life 250). Thematically, there is gloom here; there is also the mechanical failure of Stephanie's fine mind, no longer able to quote poetry accurately. The line should be "ease after war," not "after pain." But if we turn to the entire stanza, we find, even more disturbingly, that what Stephanie is inadvertently remembering of Spenser is not rest, but death. He there does now enjoy eternall rest And happie ease, which thou doest want and crave, And further from it daily wanderest: What if some litle paine the passage have, That makes fraile flesh to feare the bitter wave? Is not short paine well borne, that brings long ease, And layes the soule to sleepe in quiet grave? Sleepe after toyle, port after stormie seas, Ease after warre, death after life does greatly please. (Book 1, Canto 9, Stanza 40) The reader perhaps suspects that, since this prophecy of doom occurs during a birth scene, death is waiting for one of the children. This is reinforced by the presence in the novel of the character Gerry Burtt, who comes to the Ortons for help after his wife is found guilty of the death of their baby. But it is Stephanie's own death which is anticipated. At the end of Still Life she will die of an accidental household electrocution, reaching under an ungrounded refrigerator to rescue a sparrow. Does Stephanie's failure to accurately name her experiences, and finally her failure to survive at all, occur because she is, at the simplest level, reading the wrong book, and, at another level, seeking the wrong words and the wrong images? Is this lack of success an accident, or is it symbolic of something inherently wrong in the way Stephanie has used (or not used) language and imagination? Byatt has explicitly made a case for accident and chance as important driving forces in Still Life; in the 1984 video interview with Murdoch, Byatt emphasized that the novel was about how "chance 57 operates in the world in this terrifying way and can change things overnight. All our best endeavours are subject to it." Yet it seems clear to me that Stephanie's failure is not merely accidental, but is also directly connected to her losing battle with language. At each decisive and elemental moment of Stephanie's life, one word is offered, as a signature, to convey the integral experience of that moment. The high points of her existence, the passionate courtship scene with Daniel in chapter 18 of The Virgin in the Garden and the birth of her first child in chapter 7 of Still Life, are imprinted with the words "want" and "you." The vibrancy and simplicity of these signatures give way to the grim determination evidenced by the words she says to her second child, "I'll protect you . . . I will" (Still Life 251). Stephanie's use of "will" here is merely a pale echo of the name of her first child. "Will" in the first instance symbolized a connection with poetry which held great meaning for Stephanie; in the second instance, the word's connotations of self-discipline and of a document concerning death can be heard. Furthermore, in each case, Stephanie's application of "will" to her two children hints at the degree to which her own will is being sacrificed to theirs. The last word of Stephanie's life, "altruism," to be discussed in the next chapter, halts the linguistic descent evident in Stephanie's decisive experiences - but the hope and self-awareness inherent in her use of "altruism" come too late for her. One of Byatt's purposes in Still Life was to explore the possibility of rescuing the debased or abandoned idea of the "undissociated sensibility." Writing several years later about the composition of the novel, in an essay called "Still Life / Nature morte," she discusses T. S. Eliot's analysis of Donne. Donne "felt his thought as immediately as the odour of a rose: this in practice we took to mean that he thought with, in, sensuous images" (Passions of the Mind 9). Byatt personally identifies with this immediacy of thought and image; although she makes no claims for the rest of humanity, she hints that she herself can, at times, achieve something of this sort. 58 Her fictional characters, however, undergo more profound testing. Stephanie Potter struggles to fuse mental images with words, as do Stephanie's brother Marcus and her friend Alexander Wedderburn; only Stephanie has provisional success, and that success is stunningly undermined by her accidental death. Yet Byatt clings to an idealistic hope that word and image can be combined into something immediate and imperative; she is excited about linguistic theories, discussed in "Still Life / Nature morte," which she interprets as saying that metaphor is both experience and act (Passions of the Mind 15), or, to put it another way, is the thing itself and the understanding of it. As evidenced in Stephanie's childbirth stories, however, this return to Donne's immediacy remains an untenable ideal (or an incomplete manifestation of that ideal), and Byatt's significant breakthroughs in the depiction of childbirth, using "exacting" language to denote an "exacting" event, are, in the end, limited by her own epistemological ambitiousness. 59 Chapter 2: Death So live, that when thy summons comes to join The innumerable caravan, that moves To the pale realms of shade, where each shall take His chamber in the silent halls of death, Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night, Scourged to his dungeon, but sustain'd and sooth'd By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave, Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams. William Cullen Bryant, "Thanatopsis" (1821) Dying was once a public process in the life of the individual and a most exemplary one. . . . Today people live in rooms that have never been touched by death, dry dwellers of eternity. . . . Walter Benjamin, "The Storyteller" (1936) Among Antonia Byatt's greatest written achievements is the narrative of the death of Stephanie Potter Orton in the 1985 novel Still Life. The death is a shock, and is meant to be: the reader is bound to feel affection for Stephanie, an endearing woman of exceptional compassion and intelligence. Iris Murdoch, in a filmed interview with Byatt at the time of the novel's release, said that Still Life "contains one of the most wonderful surprises which I've seen for a long time in a novel — an accident which is very unforeseen, and is like a real accident. Accidents in novels don't always feel like real accidents." The novel's title, however, does provide clues about the coming death in chapter 30. "Still life" first reminds us of painting, and the book's presiding genius is Van Gogh, whose death seems prefigured in so many of his pictures. In French, "still life" translates, more bleakly, as "nature morte" On the other hand, the phrase hints at life's continuity - ordinary life still goes on - and Byatt's readers, aware that Still Life is only the second of a proposed four volume series about the Potter family, will not expect a 60 major character to die. Or does the "still" refer to immortality - a different life still goes on? The mixed signals the title emits are an apt prelude for the complexity of responses about death that the book provides. Still Life seeks to remedy the absence of honest death in recent literature. We are an immense distance from Montaigne, who (following Cicero) said, in the 16th century: It is uncertain where death awaits us; let us await it everywhere. Premeditation of death is premeditation of freedom. He who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave. Knowing how to die frees us from all subjection and constraint. There is nothing evil in life for the man who has thoroughly grasped the fact that to be deprived of life is not an evil. (Essays I. 20) Virginia Woolf was critical of modern literature's refusal to deal directly with death and introduced Septimus Warren Smith in Mrs. Dalloway to rectify the situation, a hero to become "the new psychotic bard of death," as one critic puts it (Stewart 255). Jacques Choron believes that recent investigations "show that the average person thinks of death much more frequently than has been generally assumed" (272) but Ernest Becker and Elisabeth Kiibler-Ross disagree. As Rilke writes: "We lack all knowledge of this parting. Death / does not deal with us" ("On Hearing of a Death"). Death's face is obscured in our society, but what representations we do find are aberrant and violent. Our understanding in this century of the experience of an ordinary person dying is no more accurate than it ever was, and is probably inferior. We are not any closer to a definition of death's essential qualities. Paul de Man has called death "a displaced name for a linguistic predicament" (qtd. in Steiner, Real Presences 140). Such a definition demonstrates the debased state of our thinking about death's reality. The failure of faith in God and in language - two key components of an inquiry such as this - hampers the postmodern intellectual who seeks knowledge about death. Wittgenstein counsels us, in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922), that "Whereof one 61 cannot speak, thereof one must be silent" (189).1 St. Paul's exaltation that "Death is swallowed up in victory" (1 Corinthians 15.54) will not satisfy the unbeliever. No atheist has written anything like John Donne's meditations on death, born of his dynamic belief in the Christian resurrection. He can pity death, the "slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men" ("Death be not proud"). Donne's faith in God and the resurrection gives him the upper hand over death, contentedly containing and explaining it, as no secular interpretation can. "Why swellst thou then?" he asks death. As moving and as real as Stephanie Potter's death is for us, there is a residual force, an interfering static, in the scene which confounds explication or acceptance, and which comparison to Donne clarifies. The most concerted effort to describe a secular death leaves something undone. A large space in Still Life hums with undispersed power. It is faith, abandoned and made quarrelsome. § § § Death has been treated more fully, even more enthusiastically, in modern literature and philosophy than has birth, but the formulations are nearly always in the abstract. Death interests Schopenhauer as the inspiration of philosophy (a belief which recurs from Plato to Heidegger to Derrida). It is the "origin and aim of life" (Freud), the "mother of beauty" (Wallace Stevens), and the "most poetical topic in the world" - if it involves a beautiful woman (Poe).2 Henry James delineates death's sombre, but still abstract, mien in "The Beast in the Jungle" when death, or some other destiny which has become conflated with it, looms "huge and hideous" (Collected Stories 1898-1910 541). These methods of treating death do not elucidate the work of A. S. Byatt. When Kenneth Burke wrote "Thanatopsis for Critics: A Brief Thesaurus of Deaths and Dyings" in 1952, he itemized 15 possible "deflected" themes which discussions of death actually 'in the consideration of death, language does seem inadequate compared to music. Just one composition by Schubert, the Death and the Maiden quartet for example, delineates more of death's actuality than the listener can take in. 2Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle 39; Stevens, "Sunday Morning"; Poe, "Philosophy of Composition" 19. 62 conceal, because "death can only be an idea" and "the ubiquitous talk of death can very readily be talk of something else" (369). One cannot avoid the fact that death in literature often unites or exchanges figurative places with other forces, most famously erotic love. Wordsworth's Lucy, for example, is wedded by Death to Nature, who promises her "vital feelings of delight." Byatt, however, once termed herself a practitioner of self-conscious realism (Hass interview) and more recently, elegant empiricism (Gussow C l 1). A more direct approach to death is demanded. The reader will note the absence, in this chapter, of encyclopedic overviews of literary deaths by genre, period, or type; neither is there sustained discussion of psychoanalytic, philosophic, or religious views of death.31 will briefly touch on some of these subjects, because their various elements do inform Byatt's particular view of death. But her twofold purpose in depicting death can be discovered without draping the weeds of thanatological history and theory completely about us.4 First, Byatt aims to strip the literary experience of dying of its attendant myths, superstitions, and conventions as much as possible, and to tell it plainly. Second, she focuses our attention on a kind of death not easily assimilated into the conventional view: sudden, premature, accidental death, a kind of death for which reading Kubler-Ross or Keats may not prepare us. An essential aspect of this latter purpose is her attempt to describe death from the point of view of the dying consciousness. This is uncommon, although not as uncommon as we found it to be in our study of birth. Byatt's determination to tell death plainly is similar to the way she handles birth, and she employs many of the same strategies. She removes much of the figurative 3 Death studies are not difficult to locate. See Freud's influential discussions in Totem and Taboo and Beyond the Pleasure Principle. For an overview of philosophical and psychological issues see Choron, Brown, and Becker. Stewart is dense but occasionally illuminating on British fiction. Wheeler is important for 19th century studies. Fiedler and Kermode are influential but unhelpful with actual death. For suicide see Alvarez. Post-structuralist accounts are given in Death and Representation (ed. Goodwin and Bronfen). Feminist studies include those by Loraux, J. Todd, and Bronfen. A helpful anthology is The Oxford Book of Death, edited by D. J. Enright. 4The subject of grief is an important one in Byatt, but it concerns the living rather than the dying, and I do not treat it here, hoping that another reader will take it up. 63 language from the scene, is careful to avoid stereotypical and gendered formulations, and attempts a direct relation of body and mind experience, in defiance of traditions which construct death as a spiritual event.5 She rejects in turn most of the sentimental and mystic tendencies of the Romantics and Victorians and the black, absurdist comedy of late modern or postmodern works by Beckett or Robbe-Grillet. She seems, at first, akin to early modernists like E. M . Forster, who attempted to demystify the act of dying, while rendering it honestly. But Byatt then attempts to reinscribe the event with meaning, which complicates things considerably. § § § Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, in her influential book On Death and Dying, says that "in our unconscious, death is never possible in regard to ourselves" (2). (I am putting aside Kubler-Ross's recent mystical revisions of earlier statements about the necessity of accepting death.) This begins to explain the diverse ways writers have treated death; although we all must nominally accept our mortality, none of us have any data from our lived (as opposed to observed) experiences concretely demonstrating that end. So we furnish the subject with religious beliefs, or with fantasies and theories. Death is "always only represented. There is no knowing death, no experiencing it and then returning to write about it" (Goodwin and Bronfen 20). As with the treatment of birth, there is a marked shift in the literary depiction of death with the onset of modernism. Before this century, death scenes in literature were sites where meaning is housed, events in which fulfillment, beauty, or even ecstasy are revealed. Of course there are exceptions. Death in Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1899) is a drab thing. But in pre-modern literature it is rare to find the emphasis on the cruelty and homeliness of death that is found, for example, in the paintings of Bosch, Brueghel, and 5I separate Byatt's death scenes from her ghost scenes, treated in chapter 6. The apparently revenant Arthur Hallam in "The Conjugial Angel" and the boy in "The July Ghost" must be closely examined to determine what kind of reality they possess. Byatt allows for the possibility that they are not ghosts, but memories. 64 Goya. Jane Eyre, for example, learns who she is and acquires a fortune at the deathbed of the guilt-ridden Mrs. Reed (1847). Wagner's Tristan and (especially) Isolde die in a swoon of gorgeous melody and sexual bliss (1865). Shelley emphasizes the heroism of the dead Keats in "Adonais" (1821). Garrett Stewart, in Death Sentences: Styles of Dying in British Fiction, writes that the nineteenth-century death scene has an "often frustrated impulse toward a revelation not necessarily numinous, as in the high Romantic poem, but retrospectively illuminating" (21). So even an ambiguous suicide, like the one in Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899), resonates with freedom. But Dostoyevsky, writing in 1880, begins to subvert the conventions when he describes Father Zossima's death in The Brothers Karamazov. Father Zossima dies "in joyful ecstasy" (389) and crowds gather in excited expectation of miracles; instead the priest's body emits an astonishing stench. This loss of sanctity expands in the black comedy of Faulkner's As I Lav Dying (1930), and is examined with terrifying frankness in L'Etranger (1942). Camus opens the novel with Meursault's less than soulful thoughts on his mother's death: Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure. The telegram from the Home says: YOUR MOTHER PASSED A W A Y . FUNERAL TOMORROW. DEEP SYMPATHY. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday. (1) Later, after he kills the Arab on the beach, Meursault has trouble remembering the murder and feels "less regret than a kind of vexation" (87). Death no longer automatically earns respect and fear; increasingly it ceases to be a matter of consequence. As the twentieth century has advanced, the idea that one can make a "good death" has become drastically undermined; Cardinal Newman's ecstatic and elaborate death drama "The Dream of Gerontius" (1865) has no recent imitator. The deathbed confessions in Dickens and the dramas of unity-through-death in The Mill on the Floss (1860) or "The Blessed Damozel" (1850) have given way to unexpected and seemingly 65 pointless deaths in Forster and Beckett, ironic moments without a witness to hear the last thoughts - or even worse, moments with banal or nonsensical last words. Lawrence Langer, who in The Age of Atrocity examines mass death, concludes that the staggering numbers of "inappropriate deaths" in our time have had devastating effects on our expectation of what he calls "purposeful death." Langer writes: "The human imagination seems unable to exist without hope for a purposeful death" (15). We begin to sense this helplessness in D. H. Lawrence's The Rainbow (1915) when Tom Brangwen drowns. As Brangwen is pulled down by the water, "a great wonder of anguish [goes] over him" and then his "unconscious, drowning body" (this phrase is used repeatedly) sweeps around and around the farm (246-248). However, Tom's dead body is still "impressive, inviolable" for his wife Lydia (251). This significance will fall away by the time we encounter the dead body as joke in Robert Coover's Gerald's Party (1985). This is not the nihilism of Macbeth: "I have supped full with horrors" (V, v, 14). We enter a flattened space where death is equated with the squalid and the petty. Consider the lines of William Cullen Bryant, typical of their time, quoted at the beginning of this chapter; a mortal is enjoined to "approach thy grave / Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch / About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams." What has occasioned the shift from this calmer acceptance, this certainty or fervent hope that the unique personality continues to exist throughout the death experience? I cannot agree, with Langer, that our century is unique in atrocity. It is also too easy to ascribe this remarkable shift to the decline of religious faith; after all, God has been in question for hundreds of years, and recent generations hold no monopoly on doubt. Other factors are in evidence here. Personal identity has become a vexed question. Cardinal Newman is one of the last to write confidently of "the mansion of my soul" ("The Dream of Gerontius" 453); other Victorians, reading Darwin and, later, Freud, began to entertain serious doubts as to the provenance and substance of humanity. And in the wake of the theory of relativity, the postmodern era is marked by confusion about the 66 real nature of time. We no longer identify easily with Hugo von Hofmannsthal's Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier (1910): Often I hear [time] flowing - staunchlessly. Often I rise in the middle of the night and stop all, all the clocks. And yet one need not be afraid of it. (Act I) But the most pressing problem is language. We have been encouraged by language-based theorists to think that the arbitrary nature of language exposes death as a void, that "the radical abstraction death is pure construct, pure language" (Stewart 4). While Walter Benjamin could say in 1936 that authority was bestowed on "even the poorest wretch in dying" (333), now authoritative meanings of all kinds are suspect. Even death has lost authority and is primarily associated with absence. Freud, writing in 1913 of the deaths of Cordelia and Lear, says, "eternal wisdom, clothed in the primaeval myth, bids the old man renounce love, choose death and make friends with the necessity of dying" ("The Theme of the Three Caskets" 301). By 1972 Jacques Derrida will promote interpretation which "tries to pass beyond man and humanism, the name man being the name of that being who . . . has dreamed of full presence, the reassuring foundation, the origin and the end of the game" ("Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" 264-65, emphasis mine). "The end" for Derrida appears transparent; death is a lack, not a necessity we need to befriend. The words "that teach the rustic moralist to die" in Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" (1751) have no sacred status. Neither language nor death retains the distinction it once had. (In 1992, however, Derrida published The Gift of Death, a thoughtful and humane meditation on the complex interrelations of history, secrecy, responsibility, religion, and death, with less emphasis on the arbitrary power of language.) Of these injuries to meaning that stain the postmodern representation of death, it is this last - language - that affects A. S. Byatt, who carefully takes up the challenge of representing meaningful death. It is significant that one of the tales embedded in 67 Possession, "The Threshold," is a reiteration of the three casket theme. In this story, the Childe freely chooses the third casket, which for Freud symbolizes death. § § § One way of evaluating the effectiveness of language to inscribe death's meaning is to consider the last words of the dying. The conventions tell us that the character of the dying person is solidified, that last words are trustworthy and significant. The dying heroes and villains of Shakespeare's tragedies are not untroubled by questions, but there is a strong sense of "poetic justice" (Stewart 23) present at their deaths. (Cordelia is, for Byatt, a painful exception.) Old rascal Peter Featherstone in Middlemarch (1871-72) dies trying to make good, wanting the deserving to inherit his money, while the unredeemable Casaubon makes certain Dorothea's lovelessness and lack of fulfillment are made permanent in his will. The defining qualities of these characters are asserted at death. This happens more rarely in twentieth-century fiction. Like Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy anticipates this shift in the late 19th century, demonstrating in Anna Karenin the expectation of revelation in death scenes, and then undermining such hope. Levin, for example, is envious of his dying brother Nikolai, certain that "something was becoming clearer and clearer to the dying man which for Levin remained as obscure as ever" (528). But finally Nikolai's slowness in dying just creates irritation and exhaustion in those around him. Anna's own death is petty, grisly, and unrevelatory; at the last moment she wonders, "Where am I? What am I doing? Why?" (802). Tolstoy sets the tone for the fiction that follows. The two most surprising deaths in Forster's The Longest Journey (1907), a book Byatt cites as exemplary in its technical achievement of accidental death (Byatt/Murdoch video interview), are each marked by banality. Gerald, unexpectedly smashed on the football field, dies petulantly and without insight: "I want -1 don't want to talk. I can't see you. Shut that door" (56). In the same novel, Rickie dies wearily and blandly in a paragraph which starts off so innocuously that the unobservant reader might miss the nearly-buried sentence, "The train went over his knees" (303). Both men end in 68 failure, as does Leonard Bast in Howards End (1910), dying, baffled, in a shower of books. Leonard's last words, or the narrator's (in either case, a damning conclusion), are "Nothing had sense" (256). In Conrad's Lord Jim (1900), Jim dies "with his hand over his lips" (416), blocking the illuminating last words we are led by convention to expect. Death here is the "stupid physiological fact" Nietzsche said it was in The Will to Power (section 916). Modern death brings the buzzing of the fly to Emily Dickinson; it prompts Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot (1954) to think of erections. Thomas Mann and Henry James work at finding meaning in death, but their resolutions are ambivalent. For Aschenbach, at the conclusion of Death in Venice (1911), "it seemed to him, though, as if the pale and charming psychagogue out there were smiling at him, beckoning to him; as if, lifting his hand from his hip, he were pointing outwards, hovering before him in an immensity of promise" (63, emphasis mine). If not for that "seemed," which undermines Aschenbach's grasp of the truth, his death can be read as fulfillment. Death in the tales of Henry James is a powerful force informing and shaping lives, but often in a negative way. Death obsessions in "Maud-Evelyn" and "The Altar of the Dead" prevent the living characters from being truly alive. In "The Middle Years" death reveals small truths, but also disappointments. In James and Mann, death retains its ability to bring knowledge but its true identity is seldom fully recognized. The point is, however, that for James and Mann death does have an identity, almost a personality, which is theoretically recognizable. A recent restatement of faith that death has a powerful identity occurs in Peter Ackroyd's Chatterton (1987), in the description of the death of Charles Wychwood: He could see her outline as she bent over him, and she was encircled by light; the boy burned brightly also and, as Charles's soul left the world, their souls were shining in farewell. At that instant of recognition he 69 smiled: nothing was really lost and yet this was the last time he would ever see them, the last time, the last time, the last time, the last time. Vivien. Edward. I met them on a journey somewhere. We were travelling together. (169)6 This positive death is told from the point of view of the dying person, as is the death of Stephanie. But Ackroyd's account is marked by a Dickensian sentimentality which Byatt rejects. Closer in spirit to Byatt is Julian Barnes, who meditates on death more pragmatically in Flaubert's Parrot (1984): "When she dies, you are not at first surprised. Part of love is preparing for death. You feel confirmed in your love when she dies. You got it right. This is part of it all" (160). Barnes, like Byatt, presents the effects of death flatly, trying to find the importance of the experience using a stripped-down vocabulary. You talk, and you find the language of bereavement foolishly inadequate. You seem to be talking about other people's griefs. I loved her; we were happy; I miss her. She didn't love me; we were unhappy; I miss her. There is a limited choice of prayers on offer: gabble the syllables. (161) Barnes does not, however, attempt to represent death directly, as Byatt does. He feels too formidably the limits of language, and gives no vigorous indication that he argues with the construction of death as a void. In Barnes's first novel, Metroland (1980), his protagonist experiences feelings of unmitigated terror when, shortly after rejecting belief in God, he faces up to the idea of non-existence after death. The adolescent Chris describes being kept awake at night by "a sensation of total aloneness within your pyjamaed, shaking body; a realisation of Time (always capitalised) going on without you for ever and ever" (54). Barnes and Byatt alike refuse to retreat into religion for comfort, but for Byatt panic is never the issue. 6Compare Wychwood's five uses of "the last time" with Lear's five instances of "never." Is Ackroyd offering a slight corrective to the atheist Shakespeare? Ackroyd seems to propose a vague afterlife which, while ruling out the possibility of "seeing" the beloved again, promises some sort of unspecified eternal union. 70 § § § In A. S. Byatt's most arresting death scene, Stephanie is electrocuted by an ungrounded refrigerator at the conclusion of Still Life. She has reached under the appliance to retrieve a sparrow, brought alive to her kitchen by a cat. This shattering accident has hit Byatt's readers hard. Every three weeks or so -1 get an accusing letter from somebody, saying "How could you do that? How could you put me through that? Why did you just suddenly do that in that chapter? It wasn't prepared, you had no right, the novel wasn't going there." (Hass interview) Byatt's achievement in the remarkable portrayal of Stephanie's sudden death is made clearer by comparison with other deaths she has written. In her fiction, which straddles the Romantic /Victorian and modern/postmodern sensibilities, the reader encounters a range of deaths - accidental, suicidal, natural, symbolic - which group themselves in various positions on either side of a dividing line between purposeful and purposeless death. These deaths represent, variously, a conviction that death holds meaning and resolution (either potential or actual), and an ironic modern or postmodern refutation of this. Perhaps the simplest kind of death which Byatt treats in her fiction is death by nature. Simon Moffitt in The Game (1967) is haunted by the memory of his friend Antony Miller being devoured by piranhas in the Amazon. For Joshua Riddell in the short story "Precipice-Encurled," nature is likewise fatal; he is killed by a sudden, vicious storm while painting in the Apennines. Byatt hesitates between presenting these deaths as untroubled by higher meaning and desiring to make nature correspond to a human or moral sphere. Like her characters Marcus and Stephanie Potter, she distrusts "argument by analogy" (Babel Tower 251, The Virgin in the Garden 261); she has said, in a television interview with Michael Ignatieff, that "part of my subject matter as a novelist is the danger of endlessly arguing by analogy." Nevertheless, Byatt and her characters do not 71 stop creating analogies. They recognize the danger of seeing human behavior reflected in or punished by the natural world, but they are nevertheless fascinated by the parallels. Byatt strives but fails to provide convincing non-moral conclusions for these deaths. Plainly, piranhas do what piranhas do; yet the ensuing nightmares for Simon resonate with moral significance. Motivated death occurs more obviously in Byatt's fairy stories. In "Gode's Story" the madness and death of the miller's daughter is retribution for her capricious rejection of the sailor who loves her. The scapegoated woman cast out of her primitive village to die in the story "The Dried Witch" seems to accept her role as part of the design for her community. Similar acquiescence to death's power is remarked in "Dragon's Breath." A more optimistic expression of this theme occurs in "The Glass Coffin," in which a tailor is tested for bravery and individuality by facing symbolic death. This tale, influenced by the Grimms, upholds a traditional view that death is infused with meaning and that a clear understanding of death undeniably contributes to the value of living. Although postmodern irony is a feature of these tales, and the consciousness of the dying is not examined in any detail, they provide a useful indicator of Byatt's fundamental attitudes toward death. While some of the fairy-tales were written for characters in Possession, they have subsequently been published separately, under Byatt's name, which elevates their status beyond legerdemain. "On the Day that E. M . Forster Died" has a contemporary setting, but here death is, for the most part, likewise part of a structure of meaning to which the characters adjust themselves. Forster's death allows Mrs. Smith, a novelist, a place of her own in the pattern of English literature. In "The Changeling" the suicide of a disturbed boy actually allows another novelist, Josephine Piper, to overcome writing-block, proof of death's authoritative power. But "On the Day that E. M . Forster Died" also contains ironic retorts to the assumption that meaning is lodged in death. Mrs. Smith's dealings with the disturbed 72 Conrad, a man shadowed by mortality and madness, end in farce; and finally Mrs. Smith's exalted plans to write important fiction are quashed by the news of her own terminal illness. This ironic view of death is continued in "The Next Room." Here a protagonist is relieved by the deaths of those who have been burdens to her, but then finds that the bickering of the dead carries on just as it did in life. In this case, death has resolved nothing. Despite the current of doubt running under the surface of several stories, in Byatt's minor works significance in death is present more often than not. Her most popular work, the comic Romance Possession, continues the trend of affirmation. The last paragraph of Possession (before the Postscript) reads rather like the last act of Wagner's Gotterdammerung: the music of a world dying is mingled with the music of a world reborn. I have noticed that Byatt's conclusion is also a commentary on, and expansion of, a similar passage in Iris Murdoch's Under the Net (1954): "It was the first day of the world. I was full of that strength which is better than happiness, better than the weak wish for happiness which women can awaken in a man to rot his fibres. It was the morning of the first day" (283). In the morning, the whole world had a strange new smell. It was the smell of the aftermath, a green smell, a smell of shredded leaves and oozing resin, of crushed wood and splashed sap, a tart smell, which bore some relation to the smell of bitten apples. It was the smell of death and destruction and it smelled fresh and lively and hopeful. (Possession 551) The deaths of the poets Ash and LaMotte in Possession are integral elements of the literary detective story which Maud and Roland unravel. Death provides the impetus for Ash and LaMotte to seek reconciliation, creating satisfaction at the story's personal level; their hidden papers, preserved by the grave, allow the biographers comprehension at the textual level. The fullest comprehension is granted to the reader, who alone garners the advantages of both spheres. In Possession, the living learn from the dead - how to interpret accurately, how to write, how to live with passion. The dead are rewarded with 73 continuing existence through their written work. "Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade, / When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st," was Shakespeare's formulation of this conviction (Sonnet 18). But the optimism of Possession is, as I will argue elsewhere, deceptive; it is wise to remember that the novel is at least partly parodic. The celebratory view of the interaction of life and death does, however, find an echo in "Sugar." In this autobiographical story the narrator's dying father finds the time to construct a satisfying explanatory narrative of his life and tells his novelist daughter, "You mustn't think I mind" about dying (Sugar 232), just the sort of deathbed resolution we like to hear. A further hint of this positive attitude toward death occurs in Still Life. The paragraph is an isolated one, and obviously autobiographical, in a chapter called "Growing Things": The germ of this novel was a fact which was also a metaphor: a young woman, with a child, looking at a tray of earth in which unthinned seedlings on etiolated pale stalks died in the struggle for survival. She held in her hand the picture of a flower, the seed packet with its bright image. Nasturtium, Giant Climbing, mixed. (237) The death of at least some of the seedlings is necessary, and contributes to the health of the other flowers. But the fact that "a young woman, with a child" is faced with this incident is ominous; when death comes to youthful human beings, platitudes about the naturalness of death arrive unwanted. Byatt's treatment, then, of conventional death, death-by-nature, and symbolic or fairy-tale death usually contains large portions of reassurance, along with some ambivalence. But illumination and value is more often granted to survivors, those who find in death a puzzle solved or a pattern completed. The dying consciousness itself is not considered; its given formulations are distant, their integrity uncertain. For example, in "Sugar" we have no way of determining with confidence whether the father's deathbed version of events is truly more trustworthy than the mother's. 74 The encounter with suicide and violent accidental death in Byatt's fiction, to which I now turn, is far less reassuring. Suicide is pervasive in The Game, which is about two sisters, a novelist and an Oxford don, who have shared an elaborate childhood fantasy. It contains three important suicides: Simon Moffitt's father, the needy woman to whom Thor Eklund is providing pastoral care, and Cassandra Corbett after she reads about her "self in Julia Corbett's roman a clef, A Sense of Glory. All three suicides defy comfortable or even ambivalent readings. The suicide of Simon's father is disturbing on two levels. First, there is the macabre act itself, which the father means to be a murder-suicide (of Simon and himself) to take revenge on Simon's mother, discovered in adultery. Secondly, the teenaged Simon unburdens himself of his horror to the unsympathetic Julia, who views the situation as an absurd joke. Julia demonstrates here, as throughout the book, her inability to imaginatively place herself in the position of others, an inability that will lead directly to Cassandra's suicide. Julia Corbett is also the sort of contemporary novelist, adept with empty death, whom Byatt tacitly criticizes. Simon's tale of his father's death is marked by stammering and hesitation: "Then he took me and the dog into the conservatory one day. Things were pretty bad by then. He said to the dog, 'Come here, you,' and he - dragged her a bit - she didn't want - and then he, he shot the dog. So then he, he said to me, 'Come here,' so I -1 hid behind the water-butt, and he stood - looking stupid - for a bit, and then he gave a sort of snort and said, 'Oh, well, never mind,' in a sort of puzzled voice and he - he shot himself. And then planes of glass fell in, and potted plants dropped off the edges of shelves. One hit me. On the shoulder." Julia spread one hand across her face to choke another involuntary burst of laughter. (84) The idea of a fulfilling or peaceful death is shattered, as it is in the suicide of the woman Thor has been counselling. Cassandra kills herself in an attempt to retain dignity, after her usual strategies of retreat and emotional self-amputation fail. She wishes to stop the "overlap" not only 75 between herself and Julia, whose latest novel has turned one facet of Cassandra into a "weird heroine . . . with a steady lunatic clarity" (220), but also between herself and Simon, with whom a satisfying relationship seems impossible. In addition, Cassandra's death is the result of interference by people who force choices on her that she does not believe are tenable. The novel concludes on this note, that the characters are locked into limited roles and have few viable choices available. (This is a more complete rejection of existentialist assessments of choice than Iris Murdoch presents in her novels of the time, although many critics see Byatt and Murdoch, in the 1960s at least, as closely linked.) Cassandra's death is fulfilling only insofar as she has escaped pain. Unlike the survivors in Possession, Julia and Simon appear to garner very little insight from their brush with death. The most recent developments of the suicide motif are contained in "The Chinese Lobster," first published in 1992, and in the 1998 story "Crocodile Tears." Here, suicide is a vital option that several of the characters reserve for themselves as an escape from pain. Patricia Nimmo in the latter story is a widow who is unable to articulate her grief and instead lurks in dangerous situations, near lorries and on high rooftops, which seem to give voice to her fear and loneliness. She is finally able to tell another unhappy character, Nils Isaksen, also fleeing the realities of decay and death, of her feelings about her late husband. "When I first knew I loved him, I was terrified he would die," she says (Elementals 76); this truth-telling releases them into the future. In "The Chinese Lobster" the characters "flirt" even more obsessively with suicide, giving it optimistic colouring and positive form; Gerda Himmelblau, whose name means "blue heaven," sees death as "white, and clear, and simple" (The Matisse Stories 129). This connects, surprisingly, to the view of contentment (a white bed in an empty room) shared by Roland and Maud in Possession (291). In "The Chinese Lobster" suicidal tendencies bind the characters together in knowledge, and the kiss between Himmelblau and Perry Diss ("Hades" — the counterpart to heaven) at the story's end is a sign that they have gained strength from 76 their shared suffering. Himmelblau and Diss identify with the dying lobsters and crabs in the Chinese restaurant tank, but can also see them purely as objects. Somehow this double vision provides them with insight which they can either turn toward life or toward death. "I find that absolutely appalling, you know," says Perry Diss. "And at the same time, exactly at the same time, I don't give a damn? D'you know?" "I know," says Gerda Himmelblau. She does know. Cruelly, imperfectly, voluptuously, clearly. (The Matisse Stories 134) Choice is a more liberating conception than it is in The Game. Freud reminds us "that every organism wishes to die only in its own fashion" (Beyond the Pleasure Principle 39). The death wish, as long as it can be contained, amplifies the characters' compassion and comprehension. § § § Finally we approach the most difficult of Byatt's kinds of death, sudden accidental death.7 Byatt's attempt to capture this experience in Still Life is phenomenological, and clearly draws on the death of her son Charles in a traffic accident in 1972, and additionally on the accidental domestic electrocution she survived in the early 1960s. Writing Stephanie Potter's death by electrocution "very nearly finished me off," says Byatt (Hass interview). Not only did she force herself to face the possible feelings of her son as he died, but she re-entered her own partial electrocution. Stephanie's death is not the first of this kind. Her death is prefigured by the death of Mrs. Thone's son, briefly and poignantly mentioned in The Virgin in the Garden: Once she had understood exactly that between a good breakfast and an end of break bell a boy could run, fall, smash, twitch, stop moving forever, and 7I have not included murder in this discussion. The murder of Gerry Burtt's baby by his wife Barbara is peripheral to the action of Still Life, as are the sadistic murders in the novel-within-a-novel of Babel Tower. In Still Life Daniel Orton is helping a woman whose children were the victims of IRA violence, but details are few. These murders are not unimportant, but neither are they given sustained treatment. Fuller attention is given to the Moors Murders in Babel Tower, but the case is handled primarily as one of Frederica's "laminations" and the connection to the main narrative is tenuous. 77 begin to decay, she understood also that nothing could be undone, no air raid, no death camp, no monstrous genesis, and that the important thing about herself was that she had not much time and it did not matter greatly what she did with it. (243) Mrs. Thone's grief lurks in the background of the comic narrative of The Virgin in the Garden, hinting of the bleaker sequel. The fact of her son's death is overwhelming to Mrs. Thone, but in Byatt's mostly agnostic world this insistent fact encounters no religious presence sufficient to explain or sustain it. And so it hangs suspended, an unfinished story. Stephanie Potter's death, although recounted in more detail, has the same effect. It remains, unrelenting in its presence, even in Babel Tower (1996), the third Potter novel, which shows Daniel and all the Potters still struggling unsuccessfully with its meaning, more than six years later. Stephanie's death occurs on an ordinary day, when various people come to her, as they always have, for help. A social worker is looking for the disturbing Gerry Burtt, Clemency Farrar asks for advice about her philandering husband (Gideon, the vicar), Marcus Potter needs to talk about love. Stephanie is frustrated, helping automatically but with compassion. The sparrow brought in by the cat becomes the distillate of this semi-unwilling compassion. Stephanie wants to free the sparrow, but is aggravated by its willfulness. The entire chapter reverberates with the heightened presence of the vulnerable and unreliable human body, evidenced by Daniel's anger, Gideon's lust, Marcus's desire, and Clemency's disgust; additionally, the Orton children crave the basic physical comforts of food and parental love. Stephanie is located, or even trapped, at the center of these whirling and conflicting physical forces, which are unresolvable. In the form of a sparrow and cat, primitive or animal nature makes a deceptively mild appearance, a further concentration of unconscious physicality. This is enough to tip the balance toward destruction. Stephanie tells her son Will that it is a cat's "nature" to hurt birds, but adds that such violence won't happen "in our house . . . if we can help it" (332). 78 The access of electricity which kills Stephanie is, in one sense, the overload of physical forces within the human characters that they ask Stephanie to bear on their behalf. Her death is far more than "death by domesticity," the description of one reviewer (Barber 21). Like Cordelia, Stephanie is the one on whom others place their burdens, a casualty of a post-Christian world teeming with demanding, unacknowledged, unarticulated forces. Once a scholar and teacher of literature, Stephanie has become a mother and curate's wife, and is frustrated by her inability to use her intellectual gifts. The community uses her as a healer, needs her as the repository of their stories. But not only is she agnostic, she is out of touch with her linguistic side; her "words [wander] loose and unused" (Still Life 307). Does this absence of language, combined with lack of faith, kill her? Despite Byatt's criticism of Lawrence for placing the blame on the victims of accident, Stephanie's death does seem to be compelled, at least on a public level: I was very angry again with poor D. H. Lawrence, who said in Women in Love there are no accidents, every man makes his own fate, people get killed for reasons in themselves. And I thought this is an appalling thing to say, and simply not true. (Hass interview) This declaration notwithstanding, Stephanie is, at least partly, the victim of her community's inability to arrive at an equilibrium of body, mind, and spirit, and of its failure to articulate that quest. Still Life at this point establishes the authentic human need for religious solutions to insoluble problems. I will return to this matter in a later chapter. But Stephanie, on a personal rather than public level, does achieve some kind of resolution as she is dying, and it is that moment to which I now turn. Stephanie dies in one short, stark paragraph. She has no audience but the reader. And then the refrigerator struck. She thought, as the pain ran through her, as her arm, fused to the metal, burned and banged, as her head filled, "This is it" and then, with a flashing vision of heads on pillows, "Oh, what will happen to the children?" And the word, altruism, and surprise at it. And then dark pain, and more pain. (Still Life 334) 79 In an interview Byatt described the refrigerator which nearly electrocuted her in more murderous terms than the ones she uses for Stephanie's death. I had a bird which went under a refrigerator and the refrigerator took hold of me and started to kill me. But my first husband, who is a pragmatic sort of man, turned it off at source. Which is not what happens in the novel. (Hass interview) In the novel Byatt tries to downplay causality. She avoids metaphorical language; there is only the suggestion of the refrigerator's malevolence in the active verb "struck" and the symbolic role of the sparrow itself. Other than this, Stephanie faces her death directly when she says "This is it," much as she welcomed Will at birth by naming him "You" (Still Life 94). "Altruism" is the culmination of the moment. It is a powerful word, deliberately cited to indicate that Stephanie has "lived for others," that she knows what her life has signified, and that she has chosen this life. The word evokes Stephanie's life more positively and explicitly than "charity" or "benevolence" or even "goodness" would have. Stephanie's husband, Daniel, feels guilt after her death because she had previously complained to him of her estrangement from the intellectual vocabulary once hers: "Like what?" "Oh," she said, frivolously, desperately. "Discourse. Discourse of reason. Sophistical. Ideal - in a Platonic sense. Catalyst. Anacoluthon. Mendacious. Realism. The worst things are the words that do have meaning in the tiny vocabulary I do use, like real and ideal, words that lose half their associations . . . Don't you understand, Daniel?" "I do," he said. (306) But they never resolve the problem. Her last word, altruism, is partly a remnant of her "great unopened volumes of vocabulary" (306). It might be meant as a critical comment on the waste of Stephanie's intellectual gifts (she could have been so much 80 more than a good wife and mother), but I believe it is, instead, approbation of that very goodness. "Altruism" is an example of an influential word coined by one person, demonstrating the power of the individual to effect change and make language more precise. (It was formed, according to the OED, by Auguste Comte in the nineteenth century from various Latin and French roots.) Stephanie's last word is, in its simplicity and accuracy, an affirmation that her personal life (as opposed to her public function) has meaning which death, despite its imperative power, cannot efface. Indeed Stephanie's ability to recognize and name death in an instant ("this is it") forms an essential part of that affirmation. She does still command the vocabulary that matters. Most of the words that Stephanie claims she longs for in her speech to Daniel are much less vital than "altruism" and the altruistic acts of her everyday life which have benefited, even saved, people like Malcolm Haydock, Lucas Simmonds, Gerry Burtt, her children, and Daniel himself. After her speech in chapter 27, Daniel makes love to her, and a few more words occur to her before sleep: "Peripeteia. Anguish. Morphology" (307). These words are more urgent, and if Stephanie could have combined her altruistic life with intellectual consideration of words such as these, she would have made a contribution even greater than the considerable one she does make. Stephanie's vocabulary is an indicator of at least partial fulfillment, but it is not everything. Byatt's narrator says, somewhat sardonically, that "men have died and worms have eaten them, but not for love, nor yet for constriction of vocabulary" (307). We will be reminded, when we visit in the next chapter the love scenes between Stephanie and Daniel, of how much can be gained in abandoning language. § § § For those who seek clues about the accident to come, the novel's epigraph from the Venerable Bede is about a swallow, symbolic of a fleeting human life, and the chapter title heralding Stephanie's death repeats Bede's Latin phrase for one swallow, "unus 81 passerum." It is deeply ironic that a sparrow is the cause of Stephanie's death. In several key Biblical verses, the sparrow is the means of comparison demonstrating the greater worth of human life. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father's will. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Matthew 10.29-31) Unsurprisingly, Daniel does not choose this text for Stephanie's funeral. He focuses instead on scripture emphasizing the power of death. The words were a thin defence between him and the pit. They were an action, customary and saving, not because he any longer believed any of the more comfortable ones, but because the terrible ones spoke some of the truth of things. (Still Life 341) Daniel stops short of blaming God for electrocuting Stephanie, although that suspicion runs very close to the surface of the text when Daniel imagines a God "who held together the stones of that place, who lived like electricity in its heavier air, whose presence he sensed only rarely but who had driven him" (350). Daniel, who is not conventionally devout, has chosen the church as the most appropriate place to do good. Through the sparrow that ironically brings his wife's death instead of demonstrating her value, Daniel comes to realize the limits of his earth-bound view of life, the practical basis of his ministry. He tentatively creates a metaphor for God out of the electricity which brings death, but he creates only confusion for himself. There was more in the world, and more outside the world, than men and their small concerns; Daniel could hear it, life, beyond the thud of his own heart, the snuff of his own breath. (350) There is a text that does illuminate the circumstances of Stephanie's death for Daniel: it is not the Bible, but King Lear. The worst suffering in Lear is at the end, the accident after the resolution, the unacceptable. Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life And thou no life at all? Cordelia's death, if we imagine Cordelia and not only Lear, 82 makes that play too uncomfortable for the Aristotelian relief. We can let Lear go, gladly and gracefully, but not, if we have imagined her, Cordelia. Thoult come no more. (344) Lear leads Daniel to the realization that the crisis he faces is not the death of God or the loss of meaning: Daniel finds there is too much meaning, too much presence. The pain is larger, the end more immense than we have been led to expect. The grave fact of death, looming large in Lear and Still Life, demands to be comprehended. But how? Stephanie's small but crucial word worked for her, but Daniel did not hear it. In 1980, Daniel still seeks understanding; he metaphorically shakes his fist at death, "some looming energy-field" (StiULjfe 9). The death of Cordelia provides the structure for one of Byatt's rare poems, "A Dog, a Horse, a Rat," published in 1991 but detailing the death of Charles Byatt 20 years before. I reproduce the poem here in its entirety, because it is little known and contributes greatly to an understanding of death in Byatt's work. A dog, a horse, a rat All those red-troubled days Heraldic in my head Danced in their lively ways. The bright-eyed rat, so sleek, The dog with plume and claw The horse's hot bright neck And thou wilf come no more The terror of their life Their moving flesh, their air In nostril, lung and heart He cried, look there, look there, Fooled by a flutter, Lear -But I heard what they said As they remade my life With their plain "he is dead". None of my breaths since then Is easy or is sure Nothing I think or hear Without, thou'It come no more, A dog, a horse, a rat I see in bliss and fear Live fur and bone delight 83 Wet eye and curling ear But every breath I draw In pleasure or in pain Sings in my flesh and blood He will not come again And still, when I live most And walk in the warm air My nostrils breathe the ghost Of your warm yellow hair My skull contains the lost Breath of your yellow hair Of your burned yellow hair. There are many echoes of the death of Stephanie in the death of Charles: the yellow hair, the burning, and, particularly, the author's insistence on immediately grasping and telling the reality that "he will not come again." Byatt and Daniel desperately need to apprehend the commanding power of death, to acknowledge the presence it has. A continued presence is exactly what Byatt describes in her other poem about her dead son, "Dead Boys," published in 1994. Here she writes surrounded by unspeaking apparitions of her dead son who are "more alive than I." These are not poems about memory or (merely) about grief. The vitality of the dead boys relates to the "singing" of "he will not come again" in the previous poem. These are strenuously worked out formulations (twenty years in the making) of death's vitality, that remind us also of the electricity which kills Stephanie: what is electricity but raw power, energy that we think we have harnessed but can easily overmaster us? It is difficult to decide what to do with Stephanie's death, which occupies the heart of Byatt's fiction, and emits painful vibrations whenever one returns to it. Byatt herself has said, "I don't know what I shall do without her" (Canton 6). Stephanie's private death has a simple and distinct coda, but the swirling forces that filled the stage of her public death remain unresolved. Why is Stephanie, like Cordelia, offered as a sacrifice? If death is the end, why does so much energy from this experience still remain? The remainder demands a religious explanation: God gives death its presence, and names and contains its power. 84 Byatt has declared her agnosticism. God is "an omni-present absentee" she says in Passions of the Mind (5), yet Still Life questions that agnosticism. In her powerful depiction of Stephanie's accident, Byatt achieves partial restoration of faith in language and in death as a fundamental and meaningful element, but given the unspeaking and ongoing vitality of the "Dead Boys" and the dead Stephanie, this is not enough. Stephanie is unquestionably constructed as a religious sacrifice of some sort; if the world view presented here is truly agnostic or atheistic, why the need for a character to bear the sins of others? The full double vision achieved by the suicidal characters in "The Chinese Lobster" comes closer to a satisfactory conclusion; it combines the emotional and intellectual insight which Stephanie would have reached if she'd been given the time to analyse "Peripeteia. Anguish. Morphology." A triple vision, one incorporating the transcendent, would bring even greater accuracy. 85 C h a p t e r 3: L o v e And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. The First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians 13.2 Love is unenglish and sloppy and soft So be English and stringy and tough. If you keep yourself fit you will never want It, So give up Love. W. H. Auden, from "Give Up Love" (1937) When critics consider the work of Antonia Byatt, they usually comment on her erudition, her intertextual command of an astonishing variety of styles and subjects, and the way she combines Victorian amplitude with postmodern questioning. Less frequently do commentators note that Byatt's fiction is firmly based in realism, and that hers is a profoundly personal realism. As I have already noted, throughout her fiction Byatt determinedly and precisely examines fundamental personal events - those basic and essential human experiences which seem, in their primal enormity, to defy accurate and detailed expression. These events, as I formulate them, are birth, death, and love, and Byatt treats them with the utmost respect. She probes the apparent inexpressibility of these situations and additionally (and, in some minds, astonishingly) plumbs their depths for clues about ultimate meaning. Of these three fundamental human experiences Byatt is, rather surprisingly perhaps, most sceptical about love. Another way of expressing this might be to say that love prompts the least portion of her idealism while provoking the maximum amount of realism. In Still Life Byatt's excitement about the possibilities of extending the capabilities of language to encompass the feelings and importance of Stephanie Potter 86 Orton's birthing moment is palpable; even more powerful and moving is the section on death in that same novel, where Stephanie, while dying, grasps at meaningful words, entities she loves nearly as much as she loves her children. But when Byatt writes of romantic and erotic love, that other famous experience which apparently no one can do without, her optimism falters. Her lovers often lapse into silence; her narrators are ambivalent about the value of love. Whether Byatt's reservations are about the experience itself, or about our ability to cast its essence in language, she approaches love rarely and cautiously. For readers who are familiar only with Possession: A Romance, my assertion that Byatt is hesitant about romance will seem odd, since the appeal of that popular novel for many was its "old-fashioned" love story. But Possession is an anomaly; nearly all the rest of Byatt's fiction is deeply suspicious about romantic love. Francis Spufford, in her review of Byatt's short story collection Sugar, noted that the stories were all about "losses," including the loss of love, and even of hope (23). Love of art and literature, love of children, even love of science - these figure more prominently than erotic or romantic love. Byatt has written frequently and astutely about sex, associated in the Potter novels particularly with Frederica, but her depiction of fulfilled romantic love is confined, in over 30 years of fiction, to two couples: Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Henry Ash in Possession and Stephanie Potter and Daniel Orton in The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life. At a secondary level of significance, I include two couples in Angels and Insects (1992): Lilias and Arturo Papagay in "The Conjugial Angel" seem genuinely in love, and Matty Crompton and William Adamson embark on love at the conclusion of "Morpho Eugenia." But these romances linger on the margins of each novella, and each bears strong traces of fairy-tale. To this secondary category I also consign Roland Michell and Maud Bailey of Possession, about whose relations we do know a great deal. But throughout Possession what impresses is not their love but their avoidance of it. Their 87 situation coyly, somewhat mockingly, conforms to traditional conceptions, from the courtly love tradition to Freud, which insist that separations and obstacles are necessary components of love. Roland and Maud's1 reluctance to fall in love also provides a tart commentary on the distrustful nature of postmodern love. Maud and Roland, therefore, despite their status as the couple whose relations are given the closest attention in Byatt's fiction, do not explicate Byatt's ideas about fulfilled love as clearly as do the Ash-LaMotte affair or the Orton marriage. The Ortons have a marriage that works but is largely wordless. The affair of the poets in Possession is far more articulate; Christabel LaMotte provides the inspiration for some of Ash's most emotional poetry and he is able to tell LaMotte that she is "the life of things" (310). This is not unlike one of John Donne's definitions of love in "The Sun Rising": "Nothing else is." But the consequences of the LaMotte-Ash affair are tragic, and their separation acrimonious. Clearly, at its best, love is going to be a problem or a riddle rather than a solution in Byatt's world. I pause for a brief comment on sexual orientation in Byatt. Heterosexual desire dominates this fiction, although lesbian love surfaces in Possession and in the short story "The Chinese Lobster." Byatt has been faulted for her portrayal of lesbians in Possession (in Lorena Love Russell's thesis "Lesbian Representation in Recent Historical Fiction" and Louise Yelin's essay "Cultural Cartography"). While the jolly and energetic Leonora Stern may be vulgar, and "poor" Blanche Glover pathetic, neither lesbian is unsympathetic (more accurately, Leonora is bisexual). By way of contrast, the depiction of the ultra-hetero Fergus Wolff is much more negative. The love of Gerda Himmelblau for her female friend Kay in "The Chinese Lobster" is sincere and moving. Certainly 11 notice, on re-reading this, that I use Ash's and LaMotte's last names and Roland's and Maud's first, as if the latter were children. I am, in part, following Byatt's example, although she usually writes of "Roland," "Maud," and "Christabel," giving "Ash" alone the honour of respectful address. I use "LaMotte' and "Ash" because they display a greater maturity than the twentieth-century characters. 88 heterosexual love is the norm in Byatt's fiction, for the obvious reason that this is where her experience lies. In 1991, writing about the composition of The Shadow of the Sun in the 1950s, Byatt said she believed at the time that "men could have both, work and love, but it seemed that women couldn't" (Shadow ix). Byatt's first two novels, The Shadow of the Sun and The Game, evince the darkest suspicions about love, and those suspicions are forcefully resurrected in her most recent works, The Matisse Stories and Babel Tower. (It is possible that Frederica Potter and John Ottokar are falling in love at the conclusion of Babel Tower, but the evidence is meagre.) Characters who attempt to love are met by hopelessness and failure. Margaret Canning, in Shadow, believes first in the power of love "to invigorate and transform and illuminate," and then in love "as a last resort from dullness." She finally discovers that "both love and dullness wore forms so alien and complicated that she could not always distinguish one from the other" (22). More commonly Byatt's characters are zealous in their avoidance of love; the relationship between Roland and Maud in Possession is typical. Casualties of postmodern doubt, they are unwilling to entertain even the idea of being in love. "Sometimes I feel," said Roland carefully, "that the best state is to be without desire. When I really look at myself - " "If you have a self - " "At my life, at the way it is - what I really want is to - to have nothing." (290) When love in Byatt is not depicted in this negative manner, it is shown as descending onto an inappropriate object. It is frequently channeled into overwhelming, and often destructive, love for children. This is glimpsed within the damaging attachment between Winifred and Marcus Potter. In Babel Tower, Frederica experiences this sort of consuming love for her son Leo, demonstrated in this breathless and magnificent Jamesian sentence: 89 She is obsessed by the fear of losing Leo, a person who makes her life difficult at every turn, who appears sometimes to be eating her life and drinking her life-blood, a person who fits into no pattern of social behaviour or ordering of thought that she would ever have chosen for herself freely - and yet, the one creature to whose movements of body and emotions all her own nerves, all her own antennae, are fine-tuned, the person whose approach along a pavement, stamping angrily, running eagerly, lifts her heart, the person whose smile fills her with warmth like a solid and gleaming fire, the person whose sleeping face moves her to tears, to catch the imperceptible air of whose sleeping breath she will crouch, breathless herself, for timeless moments in the half-dark. (Babel Tower 476) Thwarted love is also sublimated, its energy transferred to religion (see Cassandra Corbett in The Game and Christabel LaMotte in Possession) and art (see "The Story of the Eldest Princess," "Art Work," and "The Chinese Lobster"). This achieves partial success; Byatt seems complacent about Freud's tenet that sublimated Eros is necessary for cultural advancement.2 \ Her description of the courtship and marriage of Stephanie and Daniel is atypical, and is the only sustained portrait Byatt provides of love that succeeds even partially. The Ash-LaMotte affair, while more intense, is swiftly terminated; LaMotte's refusal to commit to a relationship with Ash blocks our attempts to plot that love's trajectory. The Orton marriage is also open to sceptical readings; Stephanie is more reluctant than the taciturn Daniel to verbalize her love, and we are forced to read her fidelity and affection in her actions. Judging by one of C. S. Lewis's definitions of love, that "one of the first things Eros does is to obliterate the distinction between giving and receiving" (The Four Loves 137), Stephanie does seem to find a good deal of satisfaction in using generosity to express her feelings. But there is no doubt that Stephanie also experiences great frustration in love, as does Daniel. 2 Byatt reported in a New York Times interview in 1996 that one of the three new novels she is planning concerns female psychoanalysts in the time of Freud (Gussow C12). Byatt's sympathy with Freud is apparent in her 1979 book review "Charles Rycroft: The Innocence of Dreams." She says that she prefers "Freud's fleshly pessimism" and "liberating" biological thinking to the passivity inherent in Jungian archetypal theory (Passions of the Mind 289). 90 Byatt is less certain that language can encompass love, compared to the other two fundamental personal experiences (death and birth) I have been examining. She is less willing even to explore the possibilities of articulated romance. One of T. S. Eliot's rare love poems expresses the same hesitation; he writes "of lovers whose bodies smell of each other / Who think the same thoughts without need of speech / And babble the same speech without need of meaning" ("A Dedication to my Wife"). This is a poem that Byatt admires ("Amatory Acts" 913). Byatt has said, of her characters Frederica and Alexander, that "they were both in love with words and wanted to prove that you could love with words. But of course there are passions which are too powerful to be expressed with words" (Dusinberre interview 192). We have already encountered this preliminary capitulation to wordlessness in the matter of birth. But Byatt was eventually convinced that language can strongly suggest, if not contain, birth and death. The subject of love, on the other hand, surely the most extolled in the history of art, and one, at first glance, "easier" to grasp than birth or death, prompts in her an unexpected reticence. It is as if here, at last, she does ally herself with a post-structuralist view that language constructs reality; she seems to suspect that love is created by the act of naming, rather than having an independent existence. She finds this thought disturbing, and so retreats into silence. Perhaps silence is a haven from deconstructive forces. Is silence the only way to protect essence? If we accept, for the sake of argument, that silence may offer accommodation to love, we must also recognize that the opacity of silence makes love vulnerable. In silence love is difficult to locate, easily mislaid or misinterpreted. "No more speech," thinks Randolph Henry Ash to himself when he makes love with Christabel LaMotte (Possession 308). Language is not working as well for them in Eros as it did in friendship; Ash hopes that a retreat into a meaningful silence will preserve and sustain their romance. It does not work. 91 Or is language indeed the problem? Does Byatt truly believe in love at all? She hesitates to name love as one of the primary forces of life. My formulation of the "basic themes" followed in these first three chapters is not as Byatt would have it. Instead of birth, death, and love, she has said that Still Life, in particular, is an exploration of "how far one can denude language of allusion and metaphor and keep to the basic themes of birth, sex, and death. 'The thing itself, unaccommodated man' " (Kenyon 16, emphasis mine). When Byatt does write of sex, her interest is often general rather than personal. On the subject of her sex scenes, she has said, "I see [Stephanie's] sexual encounters mythologically. . . . I'm not so much interested in one relationship when I describe love-making as in the genetic order of what goes on" (Kenyon 13). In abstracting and theorizing erotic love, Byatt insists on its physical and social aspects, while ignoring the emotional. This contrasts sharply with her accomplishments in describing death and birth, which strenuously attempt to combine the physical, intellectual, and emotional meanings of an experience specifically located within a character's individuality. One does not expect the atmosphere to grow chillier in the vicinity of love, and yet that is what happens. In reviewing some anthologies of love poetry for the Times Literary Supplement in 1990, Byatt had some revealing remarks about readers who might be in love "and looking for that sense of unearthly clarity and absolute rhythm that one seems to need, however briefly, in that deluded, illuded, or disestablished state" ("Amatory Acts" 913). Kathleen Coyne Kelly, in her study of Byatt, believes that the constants in Byatt's writing are "her preoccupation with the artist, the imagination, the impossibility of love and the inevitability of loss" (14). Auden's acerbic prescription to "give up love" has found a ready response. Byatt almost seems to agree with Catherine Belsey, whose deconstructive project in Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture is 92 to interrogate the metaphysics of desire, to call into question the widespread notion that desire, however differently conceptualized by fiction, sexology or psychoanalysis, remains a fundamental and constitutive category of human experience. (8) § § § At this point, I will make an attempt at a working definition of love appropriate to a study of Byatt, aware that any definition of love which did not immediately become elusive and contradictory would be no definition worth having. As I proceed, examples from poetry begin to dominate the discussion. This is partly an accident of my own reading, but because love in Possession is so closely entwined with poetry, I think this is fitting. For Plato, earthly love at its best allows the lover to gain access to the ideal, to Beauty itself in its abstract perfection. This ideal love can encompass the physical, but will surpass it. Augustine's Christian writings in the fourth and fifth centuries widen the Platonic division between physical and spiritual love. Stendhal, in 1822, itemizes four kinds of love: passionate, mannered, physical, and vanity-love (43). Freud combined affection and sensuality in his definition of love (Belsey 43). Many contemporary thinkers ask us to discard any notions we might have that love is universal or eternal. C.S. Lewis in The Allegory of Love makes a convincing case for the theory that much of what we still take to be model romance was artificially constructed in the Middle Ages for particular historical reasons. "[Chivalry] always was [dead]: let no one think the worse of it on that account," he says (24). In The Four Loves, Lewis expands classical categories of love for contemporary Christian use; they are Affection, Friendship, Eros, and Charity, ascending in order of excellence. Nearly all the commentators on love as it was perceived before this century make claims for erotic love as the most powerful human force; most idealists, Christian or otherwise, have additionally suggested that one ought to attempt to transcend Eros, or use it as a stepping-stone to divine love. The metaphysical poets in the seventeenth century 93 provide a welcome, but brief, deviation from this pattern. John Donne's view, similar to that found in the Song of Songs, is that erotic and divine love intermingle. "Take me to you, imprison me, for I / Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, / Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me," is his address to God in Holy Sonnet 14. But after the era of the metaphysical poets, love's theorists return obsessively to division. Denis de Rougemont, in Love in the Western World, takes as his thesis "the inescapable conflict in the West between passion and marriage" (8). Like Lewis and the other scholars of courtly love, de Rougemont notes the continuing attraction, over the centuries, of transgressive or forbidden love; he claims that "the community still drives passionate love in nine cases out of ten to take the form of adultery" (16). Then, of course, there is the question of death, which rationally might seem to oppose love, but has become, poetically or perversely, fused with it. We see this in the stories of Tristan and Isolde and Romeo and Juliet, and more recently in the adulterous lovers of Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient (1992). Old patterns hold fast; as C. S. Lewis says, "whatever we have been, in some sort we are still" (Allegory 1). De Rougemont says: Love and death, a fatal love - in these phrases is summed up, if not the whole of poetry, at least whatever is popular, whatever is universally moving in European literature, alike as regards the oldest legends and the sweetest songs. Happy love has no history. (15) These classic ideas about love - its pre-eminence, its fusion with death, its links with or opposition to spiritual fulfillment - are all rejected by Byatt. In our century, modern and postmodern thought have wended their sceptical ways into the province of love. The result, especially in the concourse of scholarship, is love brought low by materialism and shot through with doubts, like other verities formerly deemed eternal.3 In a recent novel like Julian Barnes's Metroland, postmodern characters 3 That romance has a robust and relatively unchanged existence in "everyday" life is obvious. Neither have the tropes of popular romance books altered much in several hundred years. I must decline further comment on this genre, other than to say that I recognize the serious gaps between academic constructions of contemporary discourse and what is actually being desired and read. 94 obsess about the linguistic and behavioural requisites of love at the expense, of course, of the experience itself: Well, what about the simple question, again, do I love her? Depends what you mean by love. When do you cross the dividing line? When does je t'aime bien become je t'aimel The easy answer is, you know when you're in love, because there's no way you can doubt it, any more than you can doubt when your house is on fire. That's the trouble, though: try to describe the phenomenon and you get either a tautology or a metaphor. Does anyone feel any more that they are walking on air? Or do they merely feel as they think they would feel if they were walking on air? Or do they merely think they ought to feel as if they are walking on air? (125) There are portents of this anxiety and denial in Victorian literature. Long before W. H. Auden wrote in 1937, "Lay your sleeping head, my love, / Human on my faithless arm," Matthew Arnold was mourning love's waning power in "The Buried Life" ("Alas, is even Love too weak / To unlock the heart and let it speak?"). In 1862, George Meredith asks, in Modern Love, "What are we first? First, animals; and next / Intelligences at a leap" (Sonnet 30). For Meredith, love trails behind our physical and intellectual natures, and is transitory. Contemporary theory and "serious" literature have concentrated on sex, at love's expense. Many, if not most, of Anne Sexton's and Robert Graves's love poems are actually about sex (yet Byatt counts Graves as one of the three greatest love poets, with Browning and Donne [Passions of the Mind 29]). Catherine Belsey's book Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture foregrounds sex and dismisses love. Love stories have long since been relegated to the lower echelons of literature; love's supporters are lonely voices in intellectual discourse. John Bayley's voice, in 1960, echoes as in an empty room: 95 [Sex] is the part of desire which is concerned not with the individual but with the attribute and the gender, while love is preoccupied with the uniqueness of the individual. Besides, sex is ridiculous - lyrically, touchingly, or gruesomely so, but always and inescapably ridiculous. Love is not. (The Characters of Love 4-5) Bayley continues: "But surely if the realization of love means anything it must mean precisely . . . our delight in the existence of another person?" (27). There is not much delight left in contemporary discourse. One exception is the work of Roland Barthes, where love's fragments do glitter with a remainder of delight, providing the lover with mystical hope and self-knowledge: I love the other, not according to his (accountable) qualities, but according to his existence; by a movement one might well call mystical, I love, not what he is, but that he is. . . . I know more about myself than all those who simply do not know this about me: that I am in love. (A Lover's Discourse 222, 229) John Bayley's speculative "if the realization of love means anything" is telling. So too is the definition of love offered by his wife, Iris Murdoch. Love plays an important idealistic role in Murdoch's mostly-Platonic metaphysical system, but neither her philosophical nor fictional writings demonstrate a convincing vigorous faith that love can advance beyond abstraction. In "The Fire and the Sun" (based on lectures she gave in 1976), Murdoch says: "Falling in love," a violent process which Plato more than once vividly describes (love is abnegation, abjection, slavery) is for many people the most extraordinary and most revealing experience of their lives, whereby the centre of significance is suddenly ripped out of the self, and the dreamy ego is shocked into awareness of an entirely separate reality.... [A] love which, still loving, comes to respect the beloved and (in Kantian language again) treat him as an end not as a means, may be the most enlightening love of all. (Existentialists and Mystics 417) Murdoch's writings have been influential for Byatt, and it is intriguing to note the (not inappropriate) violence of this description ("ripped," "shocked") and the built-in 96 hesitations ^may be the most enlightening love of all"). In 1967, Murdoch offered an even more qualified definition, putting her pessimism up front. Love is capable of infinite degradation and is the source of our greatest errors; but when it is even partially refined it is the energy and passion of the soul in its search for Good, the force that joins us to Good and joins us to the world through Good. (The Sovereignty of Good 103) Murdoch does not dwell on joy or communion, but on the importance of laying aside the gratification of self, finding Good, and simply recognizing the other - in a discussion of Tolstoy ("The Sublime and the Good") she describes love rather severely as "the non-violent apprehension of difference" (Existentialists and Mystics 218). The theorists of love in the past, the metaphysical poets excepted, emphasize division, failure, impermanence. The theorists of love in the present discount its existence almost completely, or offer carefully limited definitions. As previously noted, T. S. Eliot believes that lovers "babble" and their words have no meaning. Maud Bailey, in Possession, holds a characteristic postmodern view: "We never say the word Love, do we - we know it's a suspect ideological construct - especially Romantic Love" (290). A. S. Byatt shares many of Maud's misgivings. § § § If we rely on poetry rather than criticism, as Byatt does in Possession, we can recover some part of an active and optimistic belief in love. Over the centuries poetry has been the site where most frequently we can encounter these descriptions of being in love: a sense of firstness, oneness, and comprehensiveness. "No one has ever loved but you and I," says Yeats in "The Ragged Wood." Anne Bradstreet, in the seventeenth century, writes, "If ever two were one, then surely we." Donne's memorably unified lovers, compared to a compass in "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," are "inter-assured of 97 the mind." In "The Sun Rising" the lovers famously become the entire world. They apostrophize the sun: and since thy duties be To warm the world, that's done in warming us. Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere; This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere. Paradox is triumphant in Donne's definitions of love, as it is in "Moods of Love" (1957) by C. Day Lewis. Lose and possess yourself therein: adore The ideal clay, the carnal innocence. Where all's miraculous, all is most real. Early in this century, Tagore captures the common notion that love transcends time and becomes eternal: "I seem to have loved you in numberless forms, numberless times, / In life after life, in age after age forever" ("Unending Love"). And of course love is transformative. This is a common theme in Shakespeare's sonnets: "But if the while I think on thee, dear friend, / All losses are restor'd, and sorrows end" (Sonnet 30). Love at its most powerful becomes synonymous with life itself We can define love backwards, as it were, by looking at C. S. Lewis's grief after the death of his wife Joy: "Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything" (A Grief Observed 11). Daniel's grief years after the loss of Stephanie matches this, defining the all-encompassing qualities of his love for her: "He feels - it is no exaggeration - his heart willing itself to stop beating, juddering in his body like an engine in trouble" (Babel Tower 46). His love for Stephanie was, seemingly, what made his heart beat, since the lack of it is powerful enough to make him "will" himself dead. The primal quality of Daniel's love for Stephanie is exceptional in Byatt. She is silent about most of the qualities poets and theorists have found in love. Part of this is, I 98 believe, accounted for by her feminism; the canon of love poetry (where most of the definitions abide) abundantly describes the experiences of men and the "universal" truths which men have drawn from their experiences. The work of Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, which has more recently entered the canon, is grimmer, differing from the norm much as Christabel LaMotte's pessimistic poems differ radically from those of Randolph Henry Ash. Rossetti's love poems, for example, rarely idealize or praise, but rather mourn or blame. Millay's sonnets ache with sarcasm. For women, it seems, the cost of love is high. Byatt's reluctance to be optimistic about love does not, however, align her with postmodern strategists, feminist or otherwise. It is clear that she is impatient with Maud's and Roland's inability to define themselves as other than "[matrices] for a susurration of texts and codes" (Possession 273). What Byatt rejects is becoming clear, but what she accepts is more problematic. A more complex model is needed, and D. H. Lawrence provides help. Byatt responds keenly to Lawrence's determination to yoke oppositions and create a radical new type of romance. Unlike Donne, Lawrence refuses to use spirituality (in any conventional way) to equalize opposition and paradox in his representation of love. Women in Love (1916) supplies one of the originating points for Byatt's Potter tetralogy. She has said: I did want to rewrite it, in a sense, with the women at the centre. Though nobody can say that Ursula and Gudrun are not very powerful images of women. It wasn't corrective in that sense, it was really taking it on. (Hass interview) Women in Love overflows with potential definitions of love, although on examination many of them define sexual union rather than love. Some are negative, like Gudrun's and 99 Gerald's "mutual hellish recognition" (272). Others are playful or bombastic. The most optimistic ones (not necessarily in the majority) are those which combine a perception of newness, unity, and speechlessness with an abandonment of selfishness (this latter the hardest for Lawrence's characters to attain). Birkin best describes these states: "He seemed to be conscious all over, all his body awake with a simple, glimmering awareness" (351). And: "we are both caught up and transcended into a new oneness where everything is silent, because there is nothing to answer, all is perfect and at one" (417). Lawrence's ideals in Women in Love have more vital existence in theory than in the reality of his characters. His poem "Fronleichnam" provides a more convincing description of love in actuality. Shameless and callous I love you; Out of indifference I love you; Out of mockery we dance together, Out of the sunshine into the shadow, Passing across the shadow into the sunlight, Out of sunlight to shadow. This "sunlight and shadow" formulation of love is helpful in reading Byatt. For Lawrence and Byatt, love is an uneasy and ultimately impossible dance, combining physical desire and emotional interdependence. The effort to sustain this state is more compelling for Lawrence than Byatt, and he also wants to believe in an ideal love more clearly than she does. She is wary about the sacrifice of individuality she believes is entailed in being part of a couple. Marriage, she has said in an interview, involves "a problem that [has] always bothered me - the problem of separate identity" (Kenyon 13). Lawrence was wary too, but unlike him, Byatt is unwilling finally to accept that the rewards of sexual love, at their best, might be adequate compensation. Byatt gives her full attention to the "sunlight and shadow" demands of love at their destructive worst. In "A Farewell to False Love" Walter Ralegh wrote of 100 A fortress foil'd which reason did defend, A siren song, a fever of the mind, A maze wherein affection finds no end, A ranging cloud that runs before the wind, A substance like the shadow of the sun, A goal of grief for which the wisest run. Byatt used this stanza as the epigraph to her first novel, The Shadow of the Sun. It also provided her title. The sun, of course, has no shadow, so therefore love, in this "false" case at least, has no substance. Ralegh and Byatt take as their subject affection which is illusory, damaging. "You have to be the sun or nothing," she comments in her introduction to Shadow (xiv). There is no place here for two lovers to give the sun whimsical commands a la Donne. But, as Ralegh hints in the next stanza of "False Love," which Byatt does not quote, the negativity of this conviction can lead the cynic to doubt even what may be trustworthy: false love prompts "a deep mistrust of that which certain seems." The habit of pessimism creeps early on into nearly all of Byatt's thinking about love. (Even Salman Rushdie is more positive; in February 1999, he wrote, "love feels more and more like the only subject" [29].) For Byatt, rosy definitions of love, like Shakespeare's "ever-fixed mark / That looks on tempests and is never shaken" (Sonnet 116), have little applicability. She does not completely refute its existence or power, but most often, she is uncharacteristically quiet about it, ambivalent. § § § When love does work in Byatt's fiction, place is an important constituent, as it is in Lawrence. A primal natural setting, something stark and ultimate, speaks for the characters, who feel that reticence is necessary. In Women in Love, Birkin and Ursula's union in a darkened Sherwood Forest is, finally, a silent one, arrived at after they have exhausted long emotional, social, and intellectual arguments about love and marriage. Their flight to unspoiled nature allows them to abandon language and achieve equilibrium. Peace for Ash and LaMotte in Possession is found in a wild setting on the 101 Yorkshire coast; away from London, they can tacitly acknowledge the centrality of their relationship. They arrive at being "quiet together" as their solution for a troubled future; Ash is puzzled by many things about LaMotte but he "could never ask" (309). In chapter 18 of The Virgin in the Garden, Stephanie and Daniel adopt Ursula and Birkin's strategy of wordlessness on the same beach that Ash and LaMotte walk. At Filey Beach Stephanie tries to speak and Daniel "could not hear; the air took her words and mixed them with its own noise" (179). Words are of necessity replaced with looks, movement, and intuition. They become "obsessed by seeing" the ocean and sun (180). "I know what you want," says Daniel (182). Although Stephanie and the narrator have doubts about this, it does seem true that Daniel sees Stephanie, who has repressed nearly all personal desires, more accurately than she sees herself. On Filey Beach, buffeted by the elements, they learn to limit their conversation to essentials. When they reach the Marine Cafe, Stephanie's thoughts are basic and optimistic: "It was open. Life was good" (177). Daniel's courtship arguments are similarly terse: "You will have to marry me," he says (181), and "I want, I want, I want" (183). While Stephanie thinks to herself "that such things slipped away whilst you tried to recognise them, died whilst you tried to find out how to keep them alive" (181), Daniel convinces her otherwise. After they make love for the first time, "she felt the limits of their bodies were not quite clear" (186), as large a concession to ideals of "oneness" as Byatt will make. Richard Todd in his Writers and their Work study of Byatt also identifies the importance of the Filey beach episodes, but he sees the presence of Eros there in mythical terms: "Whatever is it that happens to Daniel and Stephanie at Filey, they are shown undergoing a mystical experience that apparently changes their lives forever." This is "the entry of the dark god Eros into their lives" (21). According to Todd, no real claim for the "authenticity" of this experience is made by Byatt; the question as to whether these characters really experience love seems, he says (in an oddly-worded phrase), "to 102 resist any answer more direct than citation from Possession" (22). On the contrary, I see the Filey beach scenes as among the most intimate that Byatt has ever written, places where she strives to eschew allusion and write plainly and personally. The potential destructive power of Eros is not entirely absent from the beach episodes, but it does not warrant the emphasis that Todd places on it. The best natural setting allows characters who are mature to strip away social appurtenances and approach their elemental selves.4 The paradigm of this is contained within Ash's "Ask to Embla" poetry. In his Norse epic Ragnarok the first man and woman are created by Odin, Honir, and Loki on a beach, and Ask sees that Embla "was like himself, yet other; then she saw / His smiling face, and by it, knew her own - " (Possession 263). At first Ask and Embla are speechless, but later they share the naming of the world, claiming it as theirs and finding creative power in the act. We two remake our world by naming it Together, knowing what words mean for us And for the others for whom current coin Is cold speech - but we say, the tree, the pool, And see the fire in air, the sun, our sun, Anybody's sun, the world's sun, but here, now Particularly our sun. . . . (127) This is key. Ask and Embla move from silence to definitive and creative language - but outside the confines of Ash's poetry, "real" characters have difficulty achieving Ask and Embla's fulfillment. Ash and LaMotte in Yorkshire come nearest, but LaMotte's recalcitrance limits their success. She insists on reminding Ash of the obstacles which face them, and at Filey beach she, rather ominously, "sang like Goethe's sirens and Homer's" (310). Sirens in LaMotte's mythology are sympathetic rather than evil, but the unhappiness of siren figures in her writing reveals that she has no confidence, as Ash does, that women and men can overcome their separateness. Ash has deliberately chosen 4 The criterion of maturity disqualifies Simon and Julia in The Game, who undergo the beach walk but find only the corruption of dead fish, not love. Similarly nature can only bring out the worst in Gudrun and Gerald in Women in Love, showing the hypertrophic development of animalistic aspects of their characters. 103 a creation myth which he sees as untainted by gender inequality; LaMotte continues to work with myths which emphasize sexual difference. Roland and Maud achieve the important moments of silence that Ash prescribes in Raenarok. but they remain stalled at this stage through most of Possession. On days when the sea-mist closed them in a sudden milk-white cocoon with no perspectives they lay lazily together all day behind heavy white lace curtains on the white bed, not stirring, not speaking. (459) Stephanie and Daniel, in The Virgin in the Garden, also negotiate this stage, but they quickly move on to consummating their relationship, acknowledging their love, and launching their life together. More so even than Ash and LaMotte, Stephanie and Daniel achieve a unity of purpose and personality, and they do it largely without words. However, they are unable to proceed to the joint naming of their world which Ask and Embla experience. In contrast with Stephanie, Frederica Potter strives to keep separate from any man, and through a dizzying number of sexual exploits remains stubbornly immune to romance. (Frederica dallies with four men in Virgin, and with eight more in Still Life. In Babel Tower she limits her lovers to three.) She uses language to maintain separateness, never successfully negotiating the space of silence which allows Ask and Embla to emerge into a new vitality of unified language. Frederica believes that being in love makes people "more banal, more ordinary" (Babel Tower 464), and instead of seeking wholeness, she preserves the intellectual model of "laminated" experience she first developed in The Virgin in the Garden. "Things were best cool, and clear, and fragmented" (Babel Tower 315); she thinks that "she is many women in one - a mother, a wife, a lover, a watcher, and that it might be possible to construct a kind of plait of voices, with different rhythms and vocabularies" (463-4). It is significant that in Babel Tower the sceptical Frederica comes to dominate the Potter saga. Byatt has said that she herself thought of lamination "as a strategy for survival when I was Frederica's age" but 104 "I think I also have this desire to connect everything I see to everything else I see" (Tredell 69). Frederica is not capable of this sort of simultaneity; "her consciousness is too powerful and she tries to keep down her unconscious," says Byatt. "She's due for her comeuppance" (Tredell 71). For Frederica, only independence is reliable and honourable. This is amplified by her adverse experience with marriage; in Babel Tower Frederica is married to Nigel Reiver ("robber") and their mutual physical passion takes her "beyond words" (42). After her marriage to Nigel ends in violence, Frederica learns to equate oppression with the silence she has shared with him. Nigel's is a negating silence, one which wants to change and deny aspects of Frederica's personality. And when Nigel does use words, it is falsely. He says "I love you" in order to gain power over Frederica: "He has learned what a surprising number of men never learn, the strategic importance of those words" (40). In Babel Tower, Frederica comes to believe that "language fails man and woman trying to transcend it and themselves" (315). Frederica's identity is so bound up within language that she is only able to see a glimmer of love's possibilities which may be beyond language. Frederica's "chatty linguistic self (361) always talks in her head during lovemaking, and there is no hope for change until, near the end of Babel Tower, she and John Ottokar finally "make love in deepening silence" (433). John Ottokar has learned the power of silent communication with his twin Paul, with whom he had a private language of "signs and gestures" (291). There are two kinds of silence under discussion here. For Frederica, silence in love usually signifies emptiness, denial, constriction. It is true that Nigel's silence conceals deception and brutality, and that the Ottokar twins' silence also contains something destructive. But for Ash, and for Daniel and Stephanie, love's silences are inhabited, productive, generous. Byatt has special affection for Henri Matisse's painting Le Silence habite des Maisons, with its mysterious portrayal of (probably) familial love; she analyses it in her story "Art Work," finding its enigmatic silence vivid and appealing. 105 Ash writes to LaMotte that to hide his love for her in "complete silence [is] out of my power" (Possession 211); eventually his silence will evolve into eloquent language. The kind of silence he experiences is full of her presence: "I have dreamed nightly of your face and walked the streets of my daily life with the rhythms of your writing singing in my silent brain." Only the latter kind of silence leads somewhere positive, at least potentially. A phrase Byatt repeatedly uses to describe love is the one Roland and Maud agree upon at the conclusion of Possession: "Oh, love is terrible, it is a wrecker" (550). They would rather not love each other; "it isn't convenient," they say. "Terrible" love is used to describe Winifred's futile affection for Marcus (The Virgin in the Garden 88), and also Frederica's feelings for the chilly Raphael Faber in Still Life (217). Characters like Cassandra, Julia, and Simon in The Game cannot surmount their fear of love's destructive qualities; that the terror is justified is borne out in the characterization of Margaret and Anna in The Shadow of the Sun, women who are pulled under by love, who lose their individuality to men. What happens after the smash-up of love is, in a sense, the stuff of Babel Tower, although discourses of liberty command more space on the playing field of that massive novel. Love as "wrecker" has this in common with the forces which kill Stephanie Potter; both are construed in terms of electricity. Ash uses the phrase "the kick galvanic" (Possession 297) to describe romantic passion, and Roland picks up this formulation from him (162). In one of Ash's poems, Ask compares Embla to powerful falling water: "And you -1 love you for it - are the force / That moves and holds the form" (285). The galvanic force of love is the only agency with the potential to answer or equal the electricity which causes Stephanie Potter's death. But this powerful force only answers if it is properly recognized. None of the twentieth-century characters, even strong-willed Daniel, are any better equipped to comprehend the authority of love than they were able to interpret death's authoritative message. Indeed, the situation is worse. For a repressed 106 character like Maud, love's "kick galvanic" is terrifying. Here is Roland's approach in a wintry garden:" "A figure loomed black on the white, a hand touched her arm with a huge banging, an unexpected electric shock" (Possession 157). "Love, strong as Death, is dead," says Christina Rossetti in the poem "An End." Rossetti's vital Christianity provides her with a structure through which she can argue life's fundamental questions. But in Byatt's agnostic world, hardly anyone is willing to admit and work out, in either divine or human form, the implications of love, so powerful and dangerous. Randolph Henry Ash and Daniel Orton attempt to contain love's imperative force in a positive framework, but the task is too weighty for them. Daniel exists largely outside the realm of language. Ash should fare better; in his poetry, ideal lovers, given "the spark of vital heat" by the god Loki (Possession 262), gain knowledge of self through other, and preserve their difference within their union - "like himself, yet other" (263). But the conceptions of Ragnarok are simple and child-like, lacking in detail or nuance: this is a myth, after all, and the complexities of real life do not correspond to the poetry. As Ask and Embla walk down the beach on the day of their creation, their footprints are the "first traces in the world, of life and time / And love, and mortal hope, and vanishing" (263). "Love" comes in the middle of a stark list of terms which begins with "life" and ends with "vanishing," big ideas barely held together by small conjunctions. Frederica Potter is dismissive of such "connecting" with others; she finds the obsession with "oneness" in Lawrence and Forster, for example, fanciful and delusive (Babel Tower 312). Randolph Henry Ash would not agree with Frederica. The beloved becomes all things loved and lovely, he says (Possession 310), and he sees Christabel LaMotte as representing or containing all of Time. He notices her waist, thinks of her as an hour-glass, and remembers that the word for waist in Italian is "vita." His ruminations on her waist hint at an intricacy of thought which is more satisfactory than the Ask to Embla poem. 107 She held his time, she contained his past and his future, both now cramped together, with such ferocity and such gentleness, into this small circumference.... This is my centre, he thought, here, at this place, at this time, in her, in that narrow place, where my desire has its end. (312) Like Donne's lovers in "The Sun Rising," asking the sun to warm the world in warming them, Ash sees LaMotte as his beginning and his end. Alone among Byatt's characters he actively struggles with paradox, striving to yoke disparate elements, while others, with Frederica at their head, are content with fragmentation. Eventually, we must see Ash as an appealing but lonely nostalgic figure. Those who carry on his legacy, like James Blackadder and Roland Michell, are comparatively hapless. In failing to convert anyone to his idealism, Ash loses to the forces of doubt. Female characters, lacking Ash's freedom and confidence, have already been claimed by these forces. That much of Byatt's discussion of romantic love occurs in the semi-parodic Possession should give the reader pause. Her particular intentions in writing this comic Romance must be considered, for any understanding of this enigmatic portrayal of love to be possible. Byatt quotes Hawthorne's preface to The House of the Seven Gables as an epigraph for Possession. Her purpose, like his, is "to claim a certain latitude" for her material, "to present [the truth of the human heart] under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer's own choosing or creation." Byatt expects of the reader a reasonable amount of suspension of belief and some tolerance for nostalgia. In other words, she abandons the project of modified realism which characterized her first four novels. In 1993, she spoke of the writing of the first two Potter novels: I also had the idea at that time that I was very much defending realism against the rather trivial kinds of experimental novel that were then going on in England.... I don't now feel in quite the same way, that I want to go on doing what I used to call self-conscious realism. I don't feel -1 mean, I've done that. (Hass interview) 108 Possession, her post-realistic novel, is where we locate most of the evidence of the sort of love which John Donne might recognize: the lover is all, being in love changes everything, lovers feel as if they have invented the world. The other novels provide sombre alternative views, and clarify the differentiation. In The Shadow of the Sun Anna drops into love with Michael "like a stone into water, [submerging] tracelessly and altogether" (20); later, when Anna talks with her manipulative lover Oliver, they reduce "the world of art and the world of love and the sun to manageable proportions" (210). In The Game. Julia Corbett believes that love is a prison (63). Her sister Cassandra shouts at a Quaker meeting that "love will not overcome, it will not" (38), and later kills herself. In the fiction which precedes and follows Possession, the positive images of love are much weaker than the negative descriptions of suppression, reduction, and failure. And although Angels and Insects features several love affairs with happy endings, the resolutions are qualified by the fabulist nature of the book. There are, for example, hopeful aspects to the courtship scene in "The Conjugial Angel" between Emily and Richard Jesse, but there is also a deliberately cliched and arch quality about it: "His hands and skin spoke to her, he pulled like a magnet, he was strong as a tree" (242). When the Papagays are happily reunited, Lilias, once described as "of imagination all compact" (163), can only say "Arturo, Arturo" (289). There is not much evidence here of a profound philosophy of love. In The Virgin in the Garden, when Daniel marries Stephanie, he smiles with "unabated delight" (266), but she looks at him "briefly, vaguely" (259). Both Daniel and Captain Jesse see and speak plainly, bodily, and optimistically, but their language often doesn't reach their wives, whose expectations are sophisticated, their outlooks cynical. Daniel feels affection for everyone on his wedding day: "They were all right, they were in the right place" (266) is how he puts it. This formulation of love, pleasing in its small plainness, like William Adamson's erotic attraction to Matty Crompton, which is based 109 on her wrists (Angels and Insects 96,157), doesn't seem substantial enough to combat the plethora of negative opinions about love that crowd into the fiction. In "Medusa's Ankles" a woman's husband is newly attracted to her as a result of a hairstyle she detests. § § § Critics are divided about Byatt's portrayal of romantic love in Possession. Many reviews celebrated the sunniness of the book; the Times Literary Supplement is typical in its assertion that the reader can "revel in the delights of a boldly romantic narrative" (Jenkyns 213). The New York Review of Books noted that the novel is "both a mystery and a love story, and is also reassuringly complex and allusive" (Johnson 35). But Catherine Belsey sees Byatt as portraying frustrated love constructed - and constricted -by some mixture of fate and patriarchy. According to Belsey, the women of Possession are silenced, the men control point of view, and LaMotte "has lost her lover and her child" (87, emphasis mine). This is willful misreading; as I interpret the events, LaMotte has chosen to be alone, and the men of the story go out of their way to respect the freedom of the women they love. Belsey continues: Possession is a profoundly Lacanian novel, not only in its explicit invocations of Lacan's texts, and not only in its figuration of a desire which is heroic to the degree that it cannot be fulfilled, but above all in its indications to the extent to which desire is inevitable . . . [and] dangerous. (87) I disagree that the characters in Possession are ever in the grip of the "inevitable"; instead they are highly cerebral creatures who are all too conscious of their choices. For example, the potential reconciliation scene at the end of Ash's life (when various letters and explanations never reach their intended recipients) is not a drama of accident or fate, but instead is one of choice. All of the three Victorian protagonists (Randolph Henry Ash, Ellen Ash, and Christabel LaMotte) have thought through the situation carefully and know that they are responsible for their actions. 110 With Derrida, Belsey decides that "it is not possible to tell the truth of desire, or about desire" (71) or indeed about anything: "The possession of truth is not an option" (73). Belsey's reading of the unfulfilled desires lingering in Possession is not completely inaccurate, but she misses Byatt's ironic uses of contemporary theory. Jackie Buxton, more accurately, sees that Byatt is "using post-modernism - or, at least, post-structuralism" against itself (213), but what escapes both these critics is the way in which Byatt's use (or abuse) of post-structuralism builds multiple layers within the text, creating an atmosphere so archly redolent with knowingness that the excessive ironies become almost burdensome. For example, consider the concentric circles of knowledge around the existence of LaMotte's and Ash's child, Maia. The first level of Romance presents Ash, searching for his child. The postmodern irony hovering above this story is that twentieth-century scholars discover the child's existence, and they believe they hold knowledge that Ash did not. On another level is the Romance of the Postscript, in which the reader alone shares the successful conclusion of Ash's quest for his daughter. The irony here - the joke on the postmodernists - is that the scholars do not know that the golden hair Ash kept in his watch belonged to Maia, not to Ellen or Christabel. This time the Romance is apparently embellished with Realism; "this is how it was," the narrator says crisply (552). But a further irony exists in that the postmodern reader is likely to reject the closure of the Postscript. A sentence like "this is how it was" raises hackles and creates suspicions. All this, and more, is part of Byatt's deliberate structuring, and indeed my model is probably not convoluted enough. The review of Possession in the London Review of Books criticized Byatt for the "denial of human contingency" complicit in her "sweeping exercise of the novelist's providential powers" (Karlin 18). But Byatt expects her readers to exercise their own rational powers while engaging with this ironic Romance. Recognition of irony is missing from nearly all the analysis of Possession. Jackie Buxton claims that i 111 Possession does reflect the ideology of the conventional romance narrative: Roland meets Maud, they court, kiss, make love, and presumably live happily ever after. But is Love the "suspect ideological construct" Maud perceives it to be? Obviously not for Byatt, who makes it clear that Roland and Maud's romance is a productive, liberating affair. (216) This is not "obvious" or "clear" at all. Buxton sees too much affirmation in Byatt, where Belsey doesn't see enough. Byatt hints that Maud and Roland may have a future, but equally they may not.5 Byatt expects the reader to recognize at least one important aspect of the conclusion for what it is — a fairy-tale ending. She has said that adults must learn that fairy-tale predictability is a childish belief to be put aside (Byatt/Murdoch video interview). Christabel LaMotte's cousin Sabine says of critics: "I do not believe all these explanations. They diminish" (384). Byatt, with Sabine, emphasizes that meanings are more complex, contradictory, and ironic than our models allow. § § § Consider that Byatt creates, at most, two couples who are really in love. Then consider what she does, additionally, to undermine those two. The portents for Ash and LaMotte are not good from the start. In part, they are mythological creatures who are playing out a timeless scenario: the god who falls in love with a mortal woman. What good has ever come of that? Ash is identified with Wotan, the Norse god who made sacrifices so that he might have knowledge of magic runes and drink the mead of poetry. Ash re-creates, in his poetry, the first people, Ask and Embla, and the great world-Ash tree, symbol of everlasting life. The last scene in Possession clearly sketches Ash as Wotan in Wanderer guise: 5 However, in the Spring 1995 issue of Victorian Poetry, a letter appeared from "Maud Michell-Bailey" about some newly discovered fragments of LaMotte poetry. Byatt coyly provides a happy ending which is external to the novel by writing that Maud, still a scholar, is also the mother of a daughter named Rowan - and "rowan" is a kind of ash-tree. 112 There was a man, tall, bearded, his face in shadow under a wide-brimmed hat, a wanderer coming up the lane, between high hedges, with an ashplant in his hand and the look of a walker. (553) Christabel LaMotte is determinedly, even stubbornly mortal. We might say that Ash, in loving her, offers her immortality, which she refuses. "I cannot let you burn me up. I cannot," she says (213), fearing the usual fate of mortals loved by gods. Her name, like Maud's, is unalterably earthly; "motte" and "bailey" are parts of a fortification or castle. "I am a chilly mortal," she says when Ash names her "the life of things" (310). Given a designation of divinity, LaMotte refuses. Being a god, or being in love, is not rational. My mythological reading has limits. Ironically, it is the earthly LaMotte who has religious faith, while Ash is agnostic. And the negative qualities of ash (that is, the remains of a dying or dead fire) are also attached to him. But both the myth and the ironic reading which undermines it share a view of love that has failure built in. Similarly, Stephanie and Daniel offer a mixed portrayal of mythic and ironic signs. Byatt has said that Stephanie's marriage can be read as "Persephone carried off by gloomy Dis" (Kenyon 13). Like the marriage of the daughter of Ceres to Dis (or Hades), the Orton marriage is both passionate and doomed. Unlike Persephone, Stephanie is not allowed even a half-life after her accident. The love of the Ortons is not eternal, but is ended, abruptly, by a distorted, terrifying version of the "kick galvanic." It does not matter that Ash and Daniel, scaled-down versions of Wotan and Hades, have the strong wills of gods. They cannot convince LaMotte and Stephanie that love is stronger than death. Without mutual confidence, marriage does not work; this is especially true for mixed marriages between gods and mortals. § § § For all Byatt's layers of postmodern knowingness, her attitude toward love is also a very ancient one. C. S. Lewis quotes Dante as saying that "love has not, like a 113 substance, an existence of its own, but is only an accident occurring in a substance" (Allegory of Love 47). Lewis also describes Thomas Aquinas's view of erotic love as follows: "The evil in the sexual act is neither the desire nor the pleasure, but the submergence of the rational faculty which accompanies them" (16). Dante's "accident" and Aquinas's glorification of the "rational" are helpful in understanding Byatt. She is not willing to defend love as an essence with the energy she defends the fundamentals of birth and death. Like Evelyn Waugh, who in Brideshead Revisited worries about human love which sets up a "rival good to God's" (340), Byatt wonders if love impedes higher thought. Like C. S. Lewis, who apparently champions Eros and Agape in The Four Loves but is actually more convincingly attached to Philia, Byatt is more comfortable with relationships based on intellectual friendship than on romantic ties. This is evident in Frederica Potter's relationships with men, which only succeed if erotic love is left out of the equation. What is certain is Byatt's advocacy of a love of books. Like Barthes, Jackie Buxton notes, Byatt presents an "erotics of reading" (217). The novel "knows how to elicit the desire of the reader," says Catherine Belsey (86), and Caroline Webb agrees, stating that in Possession language "is both the means and the object of desire" (183). The latter eventually takes precedence over the former. C. S. Lewis learned late in life that "to love at all is to be vulnerable" (The Four Loves 169). Few of Byatt's characters are willing to embrace that perilous fact. "Love is a destroyer of cities" says Auden ("Love Letter") but he still wants it; "love is a wrecker" says Maud Bailey, and she barely seems to want it at all. The overly intellectual attitude toward love demonstrated by Julia and