Saturday, February 28, 2009

Tweeting Jane Austen: The Geograpy of Self

I've been thinking about time and space in narrative, how the arrow of time in fiction is not set in a single direction; that though we may speak of linear narratives, there are no such things; unlike life, we can always return to the first page and begin again. Nor, within the narrative itself, no matter how easy or difficult the story makes it for the reader to straighten out the path of time, is there any necessity for time to always move, as in the physical world, in a single direction: present, future, past may follow in any order. Direction, where all movement is one way, does not really apply to time. Take the word 'direction;' this is a spacial word, a metaphor at best when applied to time. I see in this a structural remnant of myth and the reenactment of its cycles in recurrent ritual, where time is merely another dimension--or better, 'direction' --on the cosmic map. Fiction--story telling of any kind, retains this mythical power to spacialize time and so impose on its representation of reality a fundamental and inescapable distortion. In primitive myths this distortion appears, at least to us--far removed from the worlds they created--as primarily metaphysical, but it is also psychological, social, relational, and it is this that remains when we have shed ourselves of the narratized metaphysics of primitive myth.

We've been reading Sense and Sensibility in my freshman class this past week. I've lost count of how many times I've read this book, but it never fails to engage me, to draw me in, to surprise me. How delicious those conversations of discovery--Elinor and Lucy Steele, the last chapter of Volume I, where Elinor learns of Lucy's engagement to Edward Ferrar, and first chapter of the next volume where, in conversation with herself, by an application of reality-testing and reason, she works her way through to a reconciliation with this painful discovery, from denial to self pity to anger to a saving compassionate understanding. Knowing the book, and knowing it well, only makes these passages the more moving. The experience is not unlike listening to an aria from an opera: the more familiar you are with every note and word, the more powerfully it wrenches the heart. Familiarity also creates room around the affect, a stillness apart from the emotion that makes peace between mind and emotion, where it's possible to think intensely and feel strongly in the same breath. Several trains of thought occurred to me as I was reflecting on what I'd read. While these threads seemed as disconnected at first as elements in a dream, like a dream, I felt a strong sense of unity, and was convinced this had to do with my reading of Austen.

One of those threads, in fact, had to do with dreams: how there is always a special component; how moving from room to room, or along a road, takes the place of--re-places--time. In reconstructing a dream I will sometimes see how, say--what happened on that beach beside the lake had to do with something long ago, where I spent my summers on the shore of Lake Michigan, and when I was in the apartment building searching for my room, this came from something more recent, and the water running through the hall was the past flooding into and eroding my present life. There is a geography of the mind, I thought, and in the architecture of dreams time is but another material element, occupying and defining space. In a dream, I thought, we move through time as from room to room and back again.

I played this against a feeling I had while reading the chapters I mentioned--an intense feeling of difference in the reality represented by Austen and my own, a difference of a kind that changes in social and political and economic conditions could not account for. I'm not sure I understand yet what I was sensing, but it has to do with the geography of self: That Austen's characters live in a different space, that while our biology may not have altered, something of the internal map by which we negotiate the narratives of our lives has. The myth has been radically revised. In particular, what is near and what is far has lost much of the meaning it seemed to hold and those distinctions, so important to Austen, between inner and outer reality is far more permeable and does not govern us as they do the people in her fiction. Or I should say--does not govern me. Her reality is not mine. There have been great changes in our physical world--and it is of this world we make for ourselves the map of Self. I suppose the conclusion I can draw from this is: the distortion created by the spacialization of time peculiar to Austen's day is not ours, and that writers can not pretend to borrow, without betraying their own place in reality, the formative distortion of another place and time.

Reading over what I've written, it all seems so obvious, hardly worth the trouble to describe. Even trivial. I also feel there is more to this thread if I keep following it. It does feel good to be writing here again after almost two weeks absence. That review--if you can call it that--of the Alice Munro story quite wore me out.
May the dog live to bark another day!

1 comment:

  1. This is an interesting discussion. One of the reason that I enjoy Borges is that he doesn't approach reality in a linear fashion. He encircles, encompasses and deconstructs time.