Techniques of subversion in modern literature


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Techniques of subversion in modern literature transgression, abjection, and the carnivalesque
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Booker, M. Keith
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Geschichte 1900-1990   ( swd )
English literature -- History and criticism -- 20th century   ( lcsh )
American literature -- History and criticism -- 20th century   ( lcsh )
Literature and society -- English-speaking countries   ( lcsh )
Deviant behavior in literature   ( lcsh )
Social norms in literature   ( lcsh )
Dissenters in literature   ( lcsh )
Carnival in literature   ( lcsh )
Subversion   ( swd )
Literatur   ( swd )
Aufsatzsammlung   ( swd )
Roman   ( swd )
Transgression   ( swd )
Geschichte   ( swd )
Englisch   ( swd )
USA   ( swd )
bibliography   ( marcgt )
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Includes bibliographical references (p. 274-290) and index.
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M. Keith Booker.

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Booker, M. Keith.
Techniques of subversion in modem
literature : transgression, abjection, and the
carnivalesque / M. Keith Booker.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-8130-1065-9
1. English literature-20th century-History and
criticism. 2. American literature-20th century-
History and criticism. 3. Literature and society-
History-20th century. 4. Social problems in
literature. 5. Carnival in literature. I. Title.
PR478.S57B66 1991
820.9'355-dc20 91-15888

Quotations from Shame by Salman Rushdie, copyright
1983 by Salman Rushdie, reprinted by permission of
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Quotations from The Satanic
Verses by Salman Rushdie, copyright 1988 by Salman
Rushdie; from Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon,
copyright 1973 by Thomas Pynchon; and from Nights
at the Circus by Angela Carter, copyright 1984 by
Angela Carter, reprinted by permission of Viking
Penguin, Inc. Quotations from Mulligan Stew by Gilbert
Sorrentino, copyright 1979 by Gilbert Sorrentino,
reprinted by permission of Grove Press, Inc. Quotations
from The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles,
copyright 1969 by John Fowles, reprinted by
permission of Little, Brown and Company. Quotations
from Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, copyright 1937 by
Djuna Barnes, reprinted by permission of New Directions
Publishing Corporation. Quotations from Orlando by
Virginia Woolf, copyright 1955 by Leonard Woolf,
reprinted by permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.

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Acknowledgments ix
Introduction: Is Literary Transgression
Stupid Stuff? 1
1 Postmodernism in Medieval England: Chaucer,
Pynchon, Joyce, and the Poetics of Fission 20
2 Beauty and the Beast: Dualism as Despotism
in the Fiction of Salman Rushdie 49
3 The Dynamics of Literary Transgression
in Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew 72
4 Transgression without God: Sexuality, Textuality,
and Infinity in The French Lieutenant's Woman 102
5 "The Penis He Thought Was His Own":
Castration as Literary Transgression 132
6 What's the Difference?: The Camivalization
of Gender in Virginia Woolf's Orlando 162
7 Women in Love and War: Lesbianism as
Subversion in the Fiction of Monique Wittig 186
8 Abjection and the Carmivalesqe: Transgression
in Nightwood and Nights at the Circus 210
Postscript 244
Notes 249
Works Cited 274
Index 291




Numerous individuals read all or part of the manuscript and
offered valuable suggestions for improvement, including Cheryl
Herr of the University of Iowa and Marsha Bryant, Caryl Flinn,
Anne Jones, Brian Richardson, Malini Schueller, and Al Shoaf,
all of the University of Florida. Alistair Duckworth also belongs
in this latter group, but deserves special mention for his encour-
agement to me in developing this manuscript and for his help in
bringing it to fruition. Similarly, I would like to offer special
thanks to Beth Schwartz for her valuable comments on Virginia
Woolf and for originally bringing the work of Angela Carter to
my attention. Finally, I would like to acknowledge most of all
the contributions of my old mentor Brandy Kershner, who not
only read all of the manuscript (most of it more than once), but
offered inestimable support and encouragement throughout my
stay at Florida.
Chapter 1 was originally published as "Postmodernism in
Medieval England: Chaucer, Pynchon, Joyce, and the Poetics of
Fission" in Exemplaria 11.2 (1990): 563-94. Chapter 2 was orig-
inally published as "Beauty and the Beast: Dualism as Despo-
tism in the Fiction of Salman Rushdie" in ELH 57 (1990): 977-
97. Chapter 3 was originally published as "The Dynamics of Lit-
erary Transgression in Gilbert Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew" in
Essays in Literature 17 (1990): 111-30. Chapter 4 was originally
published as "What We Have Instead of God: Sexuality, Tex-
tuality, and Infinity in The French Lieutenant's Woman" in
Novel 24 (1991). I would like to offer my thanks to these journals
and their editors for permission to reprint these essays here in
revised form.

Whenever you see a board up with "Trespassers will be
prosecuted," trespass at once.





According to one of the central myths of Judeo-Christian cul-
ture, human existence as we know it began in a fundamental act
of transgression, in the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the
Garden after their violation of God's ordinance against the eat-
ing of the forbidden fruit. But, as Adam tells Dante in Paradiso
XXVI, it was not the fruit itself that was significant in this
primal transgression: '4fe cause of my long exile did not lie /
within the act of tasting of the tree, / but solely in my trespass
of the boundary" (lines 115-17). Dante's Adam further empha-
sizes the-ymbolic nature of this primal breaching of God's law
by suggesting that the resultant fall from grace was largely a
linguistic one, that the confusion of languages usually associ-
ated with the Tower of Babel in fact dated all the way back to the
Original Sin:

The tongue I spoke was all extinct before
the men of Nimrod set their minds upon
the unaccomplishable task; for never
has any thing produced by human reason
been everlasting-following the heavens,
men seek the new, they shift their predilections.
That man should speak at all is nature's act,

but how you speak-in this tongue or that-
she leaves to you and to your preference.
(lines 124-32)

Since the original Fall, human language has been charac-
terized by a divinely imposed gap between signifier and signified
that leads to the proliferation of multiple tongues, as no lan-
guage has claim to direct representation of reality. But it is God's
will that language be this way, and Dante, trusting that God's
will is good, eschews the ostensible linguistic stability offered
by Latin as the official language and writes his poem in the
vernacular. Stated otherwise, if the Incarnation renders the Fall a
fortunate one (as Dante believed), then it must render the ar-
bitrariness and mutability of vernacular language fortunate as
well. Dante takes advantage of this good fortune to construct a
poem the richness of which is made possible by the very poly-
semy of vernacular language.
This essential relationship between poetry and the fallen con-
dition of human language can also be discerned in the work of
that other great poet of the Fall, John Milton. In one of the most
curious phenomena of Western literature, Milton sets out to
"justify God's ways to man," then gives us Paradise Lost, a
poem whose most memorable element is the courage and gran-
deur of that archtransgressor, Satan. At first glance (given the
popular notion of Milton as devout Christian poet), this appar-
ent privileging of Satan would seen inadvertent. Yet Milton's
thinking was profoundly transgressive. He was a fiercely anti-
clerical, radical heretic and a committed political revolutionary.
Indeed, as Christopher Hill points out, much of Milton's fascina-
tion with the story of the Fall comes about because he saw the
fallen state of mankind as the only explanation for the failure of
the Puritan Revolution (345-53). There were, then, certain par-
allels between the abortive heavenly coup of Satan and the failed
secular revolt of Cromwell. But, like Dante, Milton also saw
strong linguistic implications in the fortunate Fall. R. A. Shoaf
notes the way in which Milton poetic tropes suchasDaa-
phor are only poss language result-
ing from the allr fact, poetry itself is only possible in a
postlapsarian world: "Thus Milton traces poetry back to an ori-
gin in the Fall-an origin, that is, in confusion" (Milton 67).
To both Dante and Milton transgression is a necessary prereq-


uisite to poetry. Richard Kearney, in his survey of the history of
the human imagination, goes even farther. He suggests that
imagination itself is possible only after the Original Sin. More-
over, he notes that this perception is not limited to Judeo-
Christian culture, as the birth of the imagination in Hellenic
myth can be traced to Prometheus's transgressive bestowal of
fire upon humanity. In both Hebraic and Hellenic traditions,
"imagination is characterized by an act of rebellion against the
divine order of things while it empowers man to imitate
God, it does so by means of an unlawful act" (80).
Transgression and creativity have been inextricably linked
throughout the history of Western culture. And since at least the
time of the Russian Formalists, it has been common to suggest
that the transgression of boundaries is an essential feature of
literariness. But the Russian Formalists were principally con-
cerned with the ways in which literature violated the expecta-
tions brought about by the dominant conventions of literature
itself. Their critics, such as Mikhail Bakhtin, have argued that
the Formalist treatment of literature as a "closed, purely literary
series" (Bakhtin and Medvedev 159), prevents the exploration of
the truly important transgressive energies of literature, which
are directed not at other literature but at dominant institutions
and ideologies in the real world of politics and history. There is
exciting potential in this suggestion that literature can in fact
have a genuine political impact, and it is no accident that
Bakhtin has risen to such prominence in contemporary literary
criticism, where history and politics have become privileged
terms and where adjectives of boundary crossing like "hybrid,"
"interdisciplinary," and "multigeneric" reign supreme.
Amidst this hubbub, the notion that literature can be gen-
uinely transgressive in a political sense has risen from anathema
to apotheosis, a development that is, in general, to be applauded.
However, given the apparent ease with which transgression has
been adopted as an "official" mode of literary discourse in recent
years, one might legitimately ask what it is that is being trans-
gressed against in transgressivee" literature. Many of the works
that have been acclaimed as politically effective in this century
have been so difficult and complex that only professional schol-
ars seem to be able to recognize their radical potential, while
these scholars themselves tend to work within a heavily institu-
tionalized university environment that has itself-especially in


North America-proved remarkably ill-suited as a locus for po-
litical action.
Clearly, the question of transgression in literature is difficult
and complex, dealing with the function and purpose of litera-
ture, the impact of ideas upon institutions, and the interactions
between culture and politics. This situation is made all the
more arduous by the difficulty in even defining transgression.
After all, even the most transgressive works of literature do not
in general immediately send their readers into the streets carry-
ing banners and shouting slogans. Transgressive literature
works more subtly, by gradually chipping away at certain modes
of thinking that contribute to the perpetuation of oppressive
political structures. As a result it is virtually impossible to doc-
ument the actual political power of literature; about the only
hard evidence we have of such a power is the terror with which
totalitarian regimes have traditionally regarded literary works
that they deemed dangerous.
Despite such difficulties, there seems to be a growing convic-
tion among literary scholars that literature can serve legitimate
and useful purposes that go far beyond mere entertainment. Lit-
erature itself has made such suggestions for quite some time.
One of the important poems in the early development of modern
poetry is a interesting piece by A. E. Housman intriguingly en-
titled "Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff." In the poem, a happy-go-
lucky tavern dweller chides the poet Terence for including un-
pleasant and troubling images in his poetry. Poetry, argues this
worthy, should be amusing and gay: Terence should "pipe a tune
to dance to" instead of his melancholy rhymes.
Terence's reply amounts to the formulation of a theory of the
poetic and its purpose. He argues that poetry has far more impor-
tant things to do than stimulate gaiety. After all, he explains in a
memorable couplet, "malt does more than Milton can / To jus-
tify God's ways to man." It is, according to Terence, the function
of poetry to be troubling, to present images of painful reality.
Invoking the example of Mithridates, the mythical king who
drank small doses of toxin to build an immunity against the day
his enemies would seek to poison him in earnest, Terence argues
that the fictional painful images presented in poetry prepare us
to deal more readily with real pain when it comes along.
Housman/Terence is making this proposal in the waning
years of the nineteenth century, at the very dawning of the mod-


em age in literature, and the modern writers who followed him
seem to have taken his advice to heart. There is certainly no
shortage of troubling images in modem literature, whether they
involve Virginia Woolf's Septimus Smith falling to his death
impaled upon fence railings or Thomas Pynchon's apocalyptic
00000 rocket falling upon the heads of us all. But what does
Housman's adumbration of the Mithridatic function of litera-
ture have to say about the implications of such troubling fic-
tions? For those of us who are interested in finding a genuinely
subversive political potential in works of literature, Housman's
poem might suggest that transgressive fictions can provide im-
ages that will inspire and equip us to effect transgressions in the
real world. But one could also interpret the poem in the opposite
way. Perhaps such fictions simply help us to tolerate injustices,
sublimating our transgressive impulses into literature while
pursuing a course of political quietism in the real world.
In this study I examine the work of a number of authors,
ranging from Petronius, the ancient Roman, to contemporary
postmodernists such as Salman Rushdie and Angela Carter, all
of whom share a tendency-to break rules, transgress boundaries,
destabilize hierarchies, and question authority of various kinds
in their work. My point is not that such literary transgressions
occur; no one doubts that they do. The important question is
how these transgressions function and whether they matter in
the real sense of contributing to genuine social change. I have
relied on a number of recent theoretical discourses to provide
frameworks for my exploration of the dynamics of literary trans-
gressions, including especially the notions of the carnival as put
forth by Mikhail Bakhtin and of abjection as put forth by Julia
One of the methods I use to identify the transgressive energies
of various texts is to seek elements in those texts that relate to
Bakhtin's description of the carnivalesque spirit or to the tradi-
tion of Menippean satire, the genre that Bakhtin finds to be so
thoroughly infused with the carnivalesque. The Bakhtinian con-
cepts of carnival and of dialogism do, in fact, provide an ex-
tremely useful starting point for my readings of these texts. The
notion of carnival, however, suffers from the same doubleness as
Housman's suggestion of a Mithridatic function of literature.
Despite the significance of the carnival as an arena for the stag-
ing of subversive energies, one must not forge tat e carnival


itself is in fact a sanctioned form of "subversion" whose very
purpose is to sum a ahnd defuse the social tensions that
might lead to genuine subversion-a sort of opiate of the mass-
es. Terry Eagleton is only one of many who have pointed out this
fact: "Carnival, after all, is a licensed affair in every sense, a
permissible rupture of hegemony, a contained popular blow-off
as idistihiiiig and relatively ineffectual as a revolutionary work
o ari"' (148, Eagleton's emphasis). Eagleton's critique is particu-
larly relevant here because it calls into question both the valid-
ity of the carnival as a symbol of subversion and the political
force of works of art in general.
The notion that a certain amount of authorized transgression
can actually enhance the power of authoritarian regimes is one
that literary works have themselves sometimes explored. In
Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler, the Director
General of the State Police Archives in the dictatorship of Ir-
cania seems to acknowledge the power of transgressive literature
when he complains that even his efficient organization cannot
control what happens during the act of reading:

this is the limit that even the most omnipotent police force cannot
broach. We can prevent reading: but in the decree that forbids
reading there will be still read something of the truth that we
would wish never to be read .... (240, Calvino's ellipsis)

Yet even in Ircania a modicum of transgressive literature is
tolerated, because the state needs objects against which to "jus-
tify constantly the existence of its repressive apparatus" (236).
This kind of toleration of transgression is openly expressed in
Samuel R. Delany's science-fiction novel, Triton, in which the
small settlement on Neptune's moon includes within its con-
fines an "unlicensed sector," where all official laws are sus-
pended. But in this zone of authorized transgression, unofficial
laws arise instead, preventing anarchy. Moreover, law enforce-
ment officials are among those given carte blanche in this sector,
where they can thus pursue criminals with unlimited violence
and vigor. These unlicensed sectors are provided by the official
government precisely to allow potentially dangerous energies to
play themselves out, a strategy that contributes to the remark-
able ability of Triton's pluralistic power structure to withstand


and absorb transgressions of all kinds. It is, we are told, a "politi-
cally low-volatile society" (148).
Eagleton relates his comment on the carnival to "the mutual
complicity of law and liberation, power and desire, that has
become a dominant theme of contemporary post-Marxist pessi-
mism" (149). As far as revolutionary works of art are concerned,
such pessimism seems justified. While some critics of postmod-
ernism believe it to be the most transgressive current in contem-
porary art, others have argued that the movement is not trans-
gressive at all, but in reality acts to reinforce the very norms it
purports to oppose. For example, Gerald Graff has argued that
postmoderism's exposure of the fictionality of what we con-
ceive to be reality is not transgressive, but conservative of the
current social norm. He suggests that postmoderism's "con-
ventions of reflexivity and anti-realism are themselves mimetic
of the kind of unreal reality that modem reality has become.
But 'unreality' in this sense is not a fiction but the element in
which we live" (180). Probably most important among such crit-
icisms is Fredric Jameson's critique of the complicity between
postmodernism and the values of late consumer capitalism, a
complicity "which consistently affirms the identity of post-
modernism with capitalism in its latest systematic mutation"
("Marxism and Postmodernism" 373).
Linda Hutcheon has responded to such critics as Jameson in
works like A Poetics of Postmodernism and The Politics of
Postmodernism. Her argument centers on the importance of par-
ody in postmodernist art and suggests that while it is true that
the voice of dominant culture sounds in postmodernist works,
that voice is continually placed in dialogue with more subver-
sive and transgressive voices. Thus, in a reversal of the situation
of Calvino's Police Director, who feels that oppression must
have something to oppress, Hutcheon argues that postmodernist
works include dominant ideologies because transgression must
have something to transgress against.
Hutcheon's subtle and interesting arguments are informed by
a variety of theoretical resources, including Bakhtin. It is not
entirely coincidental, then, that Hutcheon's model of the "para-
doxical" and "duplicitous" nature of postmodernist parody
gives it some of the dual character of the Bakhtinian carnival.
This duality becomes even more complex in our contemporary


cultural climate, where it is increasingly difficult to tell the
good guys from the bad guys. According to Bakhtin much of the
subversive force of carnivalesque literature derives from the
intermingling of elements of official "high" culture with the
"low" culture arising from folk sources; folk culture is associ-
ated with liberation and emancipation while official culture is
associated with repression and tyranny. But in today's high-tech
mass-media society one might argue that mass culture is no
longer determined by the "folk," but instead by programming
decisions made in corporate boardrooms. Such perceptions led
Adomo and the Frankfurt School to a position on culture almost
diametrically opposed to that of Bakhtin, in which they sug-
gested that the mind-numbing effects of mass culture reinforced
the status quo, while some (though not all) radically experimen-
tal "high" modernist art contained a genuine subversive poten-
By now, however, the modernist works that Adorno admired
have largely become institutionalized as "great works," and the
transgressive projects of experimental art seem to have become
increasingly ineffectual. Matei Calinescu notes the way in
which avant-garde art was crippled as a subversive force in the
1960s because the bourgeois society that it sought to disrupt
simply appropriated it as a popular entertainment:

The avant-garde, whose limited popularity had long rested
exclusively on scandal, all of a sudden became one of the major
cultural myths of the 1960s. Its offensive, insulting rhetoric came
to be regarded as merely amusing, and its apocalyptic outcries were
changed into comfortable and innocuous cliches. Ironically, the
avant-garde found itself failing through a stupendous, involuntary
success. (120-21)

The plight of avant-garde art in the 1960s is emblematic of the
remarkable ability shown by bourgeois society throughout its
history to absorb and appropriate whatever subversive energies
are directed against it. Since the 1960s, for example, the prevail-
ing society has shown its Nietzschean "plastic power" in the
rapid academic institutionalization of such potentially subver-
sive critical approaches as Marxism, feminism, and deconstruc-
tion. Such subversive critical languages have virtually become
the official mode of discourse in the academy (where it has be-


come almost totally unacceptable not to sound subversive),
while the academy itself has remained remarkably unchanged.
Calinescu points to another instance of this kind of appropria-
tion when he suggests that "avant-garde" has by now been rele-
gated to the status of an "advertising catchword." Indeed, both
"high art" and subversion have become thoroughly inscribed in
mass culture in the past few decades. MTV, the music video
network, continually broadcasts a message of youthful rebellion
against he tired old values of corporate America-sandwiched
between commercial messages from the American corporate gi-
ants who underwrite these broadcasts. And as I am writing this
introduction the American fast-food conglomerate Burger King
is proudly announcing its transgressions against the norm with
a multi-million-dollar advertising campaign featuring the slo-
gan "Sometimes You've Gotta Break the Rules."
This appropriation of transgressive rhetoric by the dominant
forces of bourgeois culture is complicated even further by cer-
tain prevailing cultural myths of individual defiance of author-
ity. Everyone, it seems, would like to think of herself as boldly
going where no one has gone before. Even Garrett Deasy, the
antediluvian schoolmaster in Joyce's Ulysses, proudly proclaims
to Stephen Dedalus that "I have rebel blood in me" (26). If there
is a central founding myth of bourgeois society, it is the legend
of the independent, rebellious individual; one might even view
Milton's Satan as the prototypical bourgeois hero. In America
such myths seem particularly strong, probably because of the
formative impact of a particularly individualistic brand of Prot-
estantism on American thought and because most of our na-
tional myths arose during a nineteenth century dominated by
Romanticism. Thus the central American image of heroism is
one of the rebellious individual, a sort of Byron of the Wild West.
But nothing could be more conventional or conformist than this
highly stylized (and strictly apolitical) notion of transgression,
as witnessed by the fact that the major avatar of this figure in
our recent history has been none other than that tough-talking,
straight-shooting hombre Ronald Reagan, who parlayed a fierce
opposition to Big Government into the leadership of the Biggest
Government of them all.
No wonder that advocates of radical change are feeling pessi-
mistic these days. But this is not to say that genuine transgres-
sion is impossible, only that it is difficult and that (in terms of


literature) we should examine ostensibly transgressive works
very closely for hidden complicities with the powers-that-be.
This sort of examination has formed a central part of the three
most transgressive critical movements of recent years. Marxist
criticism has long been centrally concerned with the exposure of
the false consciousness embedded in the ideologies of various
works; feminist criticism has revealed the prevalence of gender
discrimination in many of our "great works"; and deconstruc-
tion has demonstrated the logocentric thought that lies at the
heart of so much of our literary/philosophical tradition.
These sorts of critiques are valuable, even vital, and we have
learned a great deal from them. However, a more affirmative
strain in all three of these movements has emphasized the ele-
ments of literary works that appear to understand and attack the
evils of capitalism, sexism, and logocentrism. These positive
assessments are valuable as well, though they have all shown a
disturbing tendency to become prescriptive and normative,
eventually leading back to negative critiques of works that do
not conform to the newly prescribed norms.
Given the difficulty with which works of art achieve any
kind of authentic transgression in our modern cultural cli-
mate, perhaps the time has come for transgressivee" critics to
take a more affirmative stance toward artworks, to help them
along, as it were, by reading them in a manner that highlights
and emphasizes transgressive elements. Perhaps it is time to
focus on the ways in which works are subversive, rather than
on the ways they aren't, even if critics have to supply addi-
tional transgressive energies of their own to supplement those
of the work.
Several projects in recent years have already proposed such
transgressive modes of reading. In deconstruction, the emphasis
placed by Paul de Man and others on the way in which many
texts tend to deconstruct themselves is certainly a start. One
might point out that texts have a curious way of effectively
deconstructing themselves only after a sufficiently subtle reader
has pointed out the ways in which they do so, but this discovery
only highlights the role of the reader and critic in activating the
subversive potential of a text. In Marxist criticism, the impor-
tance of the reader in effecting literary transgression has been
strongly emphasized in the work of Tony Bennett:


The task which faces Marxist criticism is not that of reflecting or
of bringing to light the politics which is already there, as a latent
presence within the text which has but to be made manifest. It is
that of actively politicizing the text, of making its politics for it, by
producing a new position for it within the field of cultural relations
and, thereby, new forms of use and effectivity within the broader
social process. (167-68, Bennett's emphases)

But perhaps the most extensive examples of transgressive
reading have arisen in feminist criticism. Feminist critics, per-
ceiving themselves as outside a male-dominated tradition, have
mounted a number of effective assaults on the ramparts of that
tradition. For example, Judith Fetterley has argued that Ameri-
can literature has traditionally been strictly a man's world,
positing a male position for the reader that females had no
choice but to occupy if they were to be able to read at all. Fet-
terley's project is to oppose this tendency, reading as a woman
despite the demands of texts that she do otherwise, and there-
fore revealing the invidious ideologies of gender that inform
those texts. She argues a highly subversive potential for her
project: "To expose and question that complex of ideas and my-
thologies about women and men which exist in our society and
are confirmed in our literature is to make the system of power
embodied in the literature open not only to discussion but even
to change" (xx).
It is important to note that Fetterley is perfectly willing to
admit that texts written by male writers can be of positive use
to feminist readers. Other feminist critics (especially in Great
Britain and America) have concentrated on women writers,
seeking to reveal the positive transgressive energies embodied in
women's texts that have largely been ignored by the patriarchal
literary establishment. Still others (especially in France) have
concentrated on studies of subversive alternative modes of
"feminine" expression (whether employed by men or women) in
their attempts to liberate the transgressive energies of literature.
The work of a number of poststructuralist, Marxist, and femi-
nist thinkers greatly informs my work here, although I have
attempted to avoid identification with any one critical ap-
proach. As Jim Collins repeatedly stresses in his recent book
Uncommon Cultures, dominant culture is itself multiple; what


Collins refers to as "heretical activity" must be pursued on
various fronts. There are many kinds of oppression, and while
different oppressive ideologies may have many things in com-
mon, they also vary in important ways. The real-world eman-
cipatory struggles against oppression based on class, gender,
race, religion, and so on may be very differently oriented, and
reading strategies intended to support these struggles may re-
quire different orientations as well. Moreover, in attempting to
formulate strategies of transgressive reading, we must maintain
a self-critical awareness of possible alternative strategies, lest
transgressions become mere proscription and one mode of domi-
nation simply be replaced by another. There is a social worker in
Delany's Triton who explains to a troubled teenager in that so-
ciety of sexual heteroglossia that "anything, to the exclusion of
everything else, is a perversion" (304).
This insight, though meant to apply specifically to sexuality,
is strongly in accord with Bakhtin's insistence on the dangers of
monologism and on the ultimate tyranny implied in the priv-
ileging of any one point of view above all others. However, it also
interestingly indicates the dangers of unrestrained pluralism,
because that, too, would be a "perversion." It is also true that
any attempt to take multiple political stances is in danger of
degenerating into the taking of no stance at all. It is here that the
specific targeting of transgressive energies once more comes to
the fore: plural strategies of subversion can only be effective if
employed against specific targets, rather than being employed
merely for the sake of pluralism itself.
In this study I present a number of examples of the reading
strategies one might use to release the transgressive energies of
particular texts. I approach these texts from a number of per-
spectives, including Marxist, feminist, and poststructuralist
ones. By doing so I employ a very general notion of transgression
as the disruption of hierarchies, taxonomies, or limiting sys-
tems of all kinds. Nevertheless, I do not valorize transgression
for the mere sake of transgression, but will suggest that literary
transgression has genuine political force only when it is carried
out against a highly specific target. In literature, at least, a rebel
without a cause is no rebel at all.
If there is a common thread in the kinds of transgressions that
I examine in this study it is the very simple idea that political
oppression can only exist in the presence of some distinction


between the oppressor and the oppressed. Systems of classifica-
tion and categorization will therefore loom large in this study,
and the strategies by which dominant groups seek to define
dominated groups as Other (and as inferior, undesirable, etc.)
will be a constant object of inquiry. It is for this reason that the
notion of the carnival is so important to my readings here, be-
cause the carnival is above all a place in which such hierarchical
distinctions break down. In particular, the carnivalesque em-
phasis on the physical aspects of human existence, on things
like sex and excrement and death, has great transgressive poten-
tial. These aspects of life are common to us all, male or female,
white or black, capitalist or worker, king or peasant. As a result,
they reveal the basic commonality of human experience and the
fundamental factitiousness of all systems of rationalization for
the exclusion or oppression of particular marginal groups. At the
same time, the numerous stark contrasts typically found in car-
nivalesque texts prevent this dynamic from leading to a mere
effacement of difference.
Because of the problems noted above, however, I employ the
notion of "carnival" in a strictly metaphorical sense. This use of
the carnivaiissoimewhat more general than that of Bakhtin, and
is much closer to the view espoused by Peter Stallybrass and
Allon White, who generalize the Bakhtinian "carnival" into
their notion of "transgression," which involves a violation of
the rules of hierarchies in any of a number of areas, including
iterarygenres anud conventions, psychic forms, the human body,
geogiiphical space, and social order. Stallybrass and White sug-
gest, moreover, that a transgression in any one of these catego-
ries of hierarchies has important consequences in the others as
well. In their opinion, then, "the idea of carnival as an analytic
category can only be fruitful if it is displaced into the broader
concept of symbolic inversion and transgression" (18).
Stallybrass and White particularly emphasize the way in
which oppressed mrgal groups are systematically identified
with aspects of existence (death, excrement, etc.) that are
dem-'eiiunpleasant by the dominant group, which in turn seeks
to distance itself from such facts of life through oppression and
rejection of the group with which those facts are identified. This
process is one of which modern authors such as Thomas
Pynchon have shown a profound understanding. For example, in
Gravity's Rainbow Pynchon neatly summarizes the tendency of


white dominant culture to associate excrement with death, and
to associate both with dark colors in a dynamic that provides
support for racism. The flushing of excrement out of sight down
sparkling white ceramic toilets thus becomes a metaphor for the
exclusion of blacks from full participation in white society:

Shit, now, is the color white folks are afraid of. Shit is the presence
of death, not some abstract-arty character with a scythe but the stiff
and rotting corpse itself inside the whiteman's warm and private
own asshole, which is getting pretty intimate. That's what that
white toilet's for. You see many brown toilets? Nope, toilet's the
color of gravestones, classical columns of mausoleums, that white
porcelain's the very emblem of Odorless and Official Death. Shinola
shoeshine polish happens to be the color of Shit. Shoeshine boy
Malcolm's in the toilet slappin' on the Shinola, working off
whiteman's penance on his sin of being born the color of Shit 'n'
Shinola. (688)1

Such reminders of the darker side of human existence con-
stantly lurk in the margins of Pynichon's" texts, anid iare-cilsely
related to what Juiiai irsteva has described iii Poweis o-TfH ror
as the "abject." Indeed, abjection and the carnivalesque repre-
sent two different (potentially tranisressive) reminders of-the
aspects of life that dominant culture systematically seeks to
repress. Abjection and the camivalesque are two sides oTtie
same coin, two different expressions of the animal and mortal
side of humanity: in the first case, we are reminded that we are
animals and therefore must die; in the second, we are reminded
that we are animals and therefore might as well live while we
can. In either case the reminders so provided are common to us
all and therefore tend to deconstruct all systems of social hier-
In essays on authors such as Geoffrey Chaucer, Thomas
Pynchon, James Joyce, Salman Rushdie, Gilbert Sorrentino, John
Fowles, Virginia Woolf, and Monique Wittig, I explore various
strategies for reading texts to highlight the transgressive,
boundary-crossing energies embodied in them. The topics of the
carnival and of the abject are present if marginal in all of t'-ee
essays; they come to the fore in my final essay on Djuna Barnes
and Angela Carter. In all of these essays I particularly seek to
explain exactly how and why the text being read is (or is not)


effectively transgressive. It is important to keep in mind, how-
ever, that in cases of literary transgression, much of the trans-
gressive energy must come from the reader. I outline reading
strategies that are designed to identify and accentuate the trans-
gressive potential in various works, but different strategies yield
different results, and no one strategy is ever the "right" one to
use in a particular case.
Any number of texts could have been chosen to illustrate my
points, and at this point I should probably explain why I chose
the texts I did and why my own book is organized the way it is.
First, in keeping with the theme of the transgression of category
boundaries, I wanted a diverse set of texts that would defy neat
categorization. I wanted a group of authors that many readers
might be surprised to find together in one critical book. So the
authors and works I chose constitute a mixture of gender, genre,
style, nationality, and political orientation. Note, for example,
that the authors included in my chapter titles include one medi-
eval Englishman, one male Irish "modernist," one female Brit-
ish "modernist," one American female "modernist," and a vari-
ety of contemporary authors including one British female, one
French lesbian female, one Indian-British male, one British
male, and two male Americans.
I particularly chose the work of Chaucer to begin my book
because I wanted to render problematic any neat identification
between transgressive literature and the postmodern, though
the two categories are highly correlated. For some time I wa-
vered between Chaucer and Shakespeare for use in this temporal
transgression, but finally settled on Chaucer because of the clear
way in which his work effected a confrontation between the
kinds of transgression associated with the Bakhtinian concepts
of carnival and polyphony and those associated with the Der-
ridean concepts of polysemy and free-play of the signifier.2
Chaucer's work, despite its different historical context, enters
nicely into contemporary theoretical dialogues, as well as show-
ing some interesting similarities to the work of modem authors
such as Joyce and Pynchon.
I chose Salman Rushdie as one of my authors largely because
of his inherently transgressive cultural position. Rushdie is nei-
ther an Indian writer nor a British writer; his work falls into (and
refuses to fall into) both categories, and it is the hybrid character
of his background that is more important than either individual


element. Moreover, Rushdie, as a Muslim apostate, bears a
transgressive relationship to his own religious background, sim-
ilar to that occupied by Joyce relative to Catholicism, except
that Rushdie's dialogue with Islam is more complex due to the
marginality of Islam itself in Indian culture. As a result Rushdie
tends to have particularly well-focused targets in his transgres-
sive work. I placed him directly after Chaucer because I realize
the parallels that I draw between Chaucer and modem authors
are in danger of obscuring the importance of specific position-
ing within a well-defined social, political, and historical con-
text, while the importance of specific positionality in Rushdie's
work is especially clear. Also, the element of Rushdie's work
on which I focus-his attacks on dualistic thinking-follows
nicely on the subversion of taxonomies and categories that I
discuss in the Chaucer chapter.
I chose to look next at Gilbert Sorrentino because I felt that
my discussions of Chaucer and Rushdie were beginning to make
transgression sound all too easy. All one had to do was write in
an unorthodox fashion, challenge a few received ideas, and effec-
tive transgression would be achieved. While it is my goal to
focus on positive transgressive aspects in the works I read, Ifeel
it is important to discuss possible ways in which a text might
fail to achieve transgression. Sorrentino's book is stylistically
brilliant. It's also one of the most enjoyable and hilarious texts
I've ever read. But it strikes me as unsatisfying on a political
level and as failing to achieve any genuine transgressions. I
wanted to explore the reasons that Sorrentino's work strikes me
in this way, and to compare it with the works of other authors
(such as Joyce, Pynchon, Perec, O'Brien, etc.) whose work does
strike me as being effectively transgressive.
I follow Sorrentino with a chapter on John Fowles because, on
the surface, Sorrentino's work is the most formally sophisti-
cated of any of the works I study here, while Fowles's is probably
the least. Yet I find considerably more transgressive potential in
Fowles's book, which in itself raises some interesting questions.
The French Lieutenant's Woman has been dismissed by many as
"mere" popular literature, thus allowing me to explore the issue
of "high" versus "low" culture, and perhaps to problematize
that distinction. The particular subject matter of Fowles's book
also raises some important issues for transgressive readers, such


as history, sexuality, and gender. Further, Fowles's book indicates
the importance of transgressive reading because it ultimately
fails to make a successful feminist statement, while at the same
time raising issues that suggest ways in which a feminist critic
might use the book as a starting point for productive feminist
At this point in my book, I decided to depart from the practice
of concentrating in each chapter on a particular author or work,
and instead to focus on a specific issue using the works of many
different authors. I did this partially for the express purpose of
transgressing against the organization of my own book, which
seemed to me in danger of becoming overlogical. But I also did it
because my argument concerning the use of castration images
in literature depends upon multiplicity, upon the fact that
castration has been used as a literary device many times and in
many ways by many different authors. I chose castration as a
theme because of its frequent appearance in literature and be-
cause it has so often been the focus of the kinds of impoverish-
ing, vulgar Freudian readings that I wanted to call into question.
I also chose it because it brings the issue of gender to center
stage, and gender is the most important area of transgression to
be confronted in the remainder of the book.
I turned from the issue of castration to Virginia Woolf's Or-
lando because of the obvious metaphoric parallel between
castration and Orlando's transformation from male to female.
Orlando is perhaps the classic text of gender transgression in
modern literature. But it also raises a number of other important
issues, such as history (both literary and in general), and thereby
indicates certain relationships between these issues and the is-
sue of gender. Orlando also bears some interesting intertextual
relationships to its sister text, Woolf's A Room of One's Own,
one of the Ur-texts of modem feminist criticism.
Monique Wittig seemed an obvious choice for a book of this
nature, because her work is so openly transgressive. The Wittig
chapter directly follows the Woolf chapter because the two au-
thors have so much in common. Both are engaged in openly
feminist projects, and both pursue these projects in highly liter-
ary ways, particularly through parody of the male literary tradi-
tion. Many critics have seen Wittig's work as adumbrating a
new feminine mode of writing, and I felt that reading Wittig


through Woolf would help to dispel such readings. In a formal
sense, Wittig's work falls directly in line with mainstream mod-
ernism, and she shares much in terms of writing technique not
only with Woolf, but with male writers such as Joyce and
Pynchon as well. But there is something very different about
Wittig relative to, say, Joyce, and that difference has to do with
the specificity of her social and political position. Wittig's own
status as a dedicated Marxist lesbian feminist makes her work
ideal for the exploration of the importance of specific position-
ing in transgression.
Finally, I conclude with a chapter on Djuna Barnes and Angela
Carter because a comparison of these two writers so nicely illus-
trates the dialogue between abjection and the carnivalesque that
permeates, however obliquely, all the other texts in this book.
Barnes and Carter continue the interrogation of conventional
roles that is pursued by Woolf and Wittig. Barnes's Nightwood is
a text that derives most of its transgressive force from the abject
energies so central to it, supplementing those energies with car-
nivalesque elements that always threaten to break through into
the text. Carter's Nights at the Circus, on the other hand, de-
rives most of its energy from the carnivalesque, yet gains added
power from the suggestion of abject elements just below the
As a final precautionary note, let me also stress that I am not
seeking in this study to propose methods for separating "good"
(i.e., effectively transgressive) texts from "bad" ones. For one
thing, such a method of hierarchical classification is precisely
the kind of system that transgressive works deconstruct. For
another, all works of literature have some transgressive poten-
tial, even when they appear to be fully in complicity with domi-
nant ideologies. Because literature tends to exaggerate the
effects and ideas it imports from its cultural and historical con-
text, such works can expose contradictions and "seams" in dom-
inant ideologies that might not otherwise be apparent. More-
over, comparative studies of such works are useful to highlight
by contrast the power of works that are effectively transgressive
in a more direct sense. The kind of transgressive reading I shall
propose is designed specifically to counter the tendency of domi-
nant groups to reject and exclude marginal groups and associ-
ated negative images. To oppose this tendency the transgressive


critic should operate in a mode not of rejection, but of appropria-
tion, garnering any and all texts that she can use to further the
message of transgression. Given the difficulty of initiating any
genuine social change, politically committed critics can use all
the help they can get.






There is a character in Barry Hannah's short story "Love Too
Long" who shares with us reminiscences of his days as a student
at Bakersfield Junior College:

I'll tell you what I liked that we studied at Bakersfield. It was old
James Joyce and his book The Canterbury Tales. You wouldn't have
thought anybody would write "A fart that well nigh blinded
Absalom" in ancient days. All those people hopping and humping
at night, framming around, just like last year at Ollie's party that
she and I left when they got into threesomes and Polaroids. (11)

Hannah is having his own particular brand of Southern-fried
postmodernist fun here, of course, and the passage serves as an
effective deflation of the pretensions of high culture. But it also
suggests certain basic similarities between the time of Chaucer
and our own unsettled times. Perhaps these similarities render
the confusion of Hannah's character understandable; after all,
Helen Cooper has recently demonstrated that there are in fact a
number of parallels between the work of Joyce and that of
Chaucer. But similarities between medieval poetry and the work
of Joyce should surprise no one. As Shaun complains of his
brother Shem the Penman, Joyce's principal representative in


Finnegans Wake: "He's weird, I tell you, and middayevil down to
his vegetable soul" (423.27-28).'
On the other hand, if Joyce's work harks back to the Middle
Ages, it also just as clearly points forward to postmodernism.
Richard Pearce has argued that modernism and postmodernism
differ not in the texts themselves but in the expectations that
readers bring to those texts. Joyce is just as postmodernist as, say,
Pynchon: "It is only that revolutionary writers like Joyce had to
be read in a conservative way" (Pearce, "What Joyce" 43). Pearce
then suggests that reading Joyce in the light of Pynchon helps to
unleash the truly radical potential of Joyce's texts.
Elsewhere, Pearce continues this same argument, suggesting
that reading Joyce through Pynchon is especially illuminating
for an understanding of the lack of closure in the ending of
Ulysses. Viewing Molly's final speech as an epilogue, Pearce
then compares this ending to the epilogue at the conclusion of
Pynchon's V. He suggests that this use of an epilogue structure
leads to the expectation of closure, which is then subverted: the
epilogues may in fact be parodies of epilogues ("Pynchon's End-
Among other things, Pearce's argument calls into question the
definition (or even existence) of "postmodernism"-and the
term should be used with care. Moreover, if Pearce can argue
that Ulysses is postmodernist because it ends with an epilogue
that does not neatly wrap up the rest of the text but instead calls
it into question, what are we to make of something like the
ending of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, or even of the retrac-
tion at the end of The Canterbury Tales? After all, it seems
reasonable to conclude that if Joyce has much in common with
Chaucer, and Pynchon has much in common with Joyce, then
Pynchon might have something in common with Chaucer. In
short, just how far does Pearce's point extend? If reading modern-
ism through postmodernism sheds new light on modernist
texts, what about the texts that precede modernism? Can read-
ing Chaucer through the optic of postmodernism illuminate his
texts as well?
It should be particularly interesting to compare the dynamics
of transgression in postmodernist and medieval texts. According
to Bakhtin, the purest spirit of the carnival arises in medieval
folk culture, reaching its highest transgressive potential in the
works of late medieval authors such as Rabelais. Meanwhile,


many have seen postmodernism to embody a resurgence of the
carnivalesque spirit. William Spanos, for example, essentially
equates postmodernism with the carnivalesque of Bakhtin (193).
That medieval and postmodernist texts do have much in com-
mon has been persuasively suggested by Robert Jordan, who
notes that "Chaucerian narrative, in highlighting its textuality,
its composed quality or 'literariness,' invites primary emphasis
on the verbal medium" (16). Jordan then parallels the reflexive
concerns with language and with poetic technique shown in
works such as the House of Fame to similar concerns in post-
modernist metafictional writers:

The fiction that is usually designated postmodern or experimental
or avant-garde-beginning with Joyce and including Nabokov,
Borges, Beckett, Barth, Pynchon, and many others-is largely
preoccupied with its own nature as fiction. It is largely preoccupied,
that is to say, with the theoretical questions we have come to
associate with the House of Fame. (25)

In his emphasis on Chaucer's self-conscious concerns with
language and poetic technique, Jordan has no doubt identified
what, for the modern reader at least, must be the most exciting
aspect of Chaucer's project.2 However, he also suggests (without
exploring the implications in detail) that this metafictional con-
cern is not purely formal, but relates to Chaucer's general histor-
ical and cultural moment as well. Thus, to Jordan, Chaucer's
poetics of uncertainty reflects the general outlook of his time,
"a fragmented and problematic outlook, an uncertainty about
fundamental truths" (2). Similarly, Gordon Leff writes of the
"overall loss of coherence" in the late medieval worldview,
which led to a "new openness which complemented the loss of
system involved in the redrawing of conceptual boundaries"
(11). Thus, one might argue that Chaucer's poetics resembles
the poetics of postmodernism because the unsettled character of
his times so much resembles that of our own. As Ernest Moody
puts it: "our age of analysis has brought us to a point compar-
able to that of six hundred years ago, when the cosmological
and metaphysical framework, within which philosophers had
worked for a thousand years, had been dissolved beyond repair"
There are, then, valid historical reasons to expect that inter-


testing results might be achieved by reading the work of Chaucer
from the perspective of postmodernist literature. In fact, there
are a number of ways in which postmodernist literature can be
used to illuminate various aspects of the Chaucerian text. Jordan
suggests that the "sympathetic resonance" of Chaucer's poetics
with postmodernism derives from its being a "wonderfully flex-
ible and expansive poetics, fundamentally heterodox, open to all
modes of discourse, and indifferent to strictures of orthodoxy"
(172). In short, both Chaucer and the postmodernists tend to
transgress boundaries, destabilize hierarchies, and question au-
thority of all kinds. In this chapter, I shallexplore the ways in
which Chaucer's texts share with postmodernism a highly crit-
ical attitude toward all systems of hierarchy and taxonomy,
whether those systems be social, political, literary, or linguistic.
Reading Chaucer through postmodernist authors such as
Pynchon and Joyce demonstrates that his language escapes sys-
tems of linguistic and literary hierarchy, just as the hetero-
glossic richness of his texts parallels the postmodernist ques-
tioning of social and political hierarchies. These two aspects
of the potential subversive force of literary discourse can be
roughly associated with the phenomena of polysemy (especially
as described by Jacques Derrida) and of polyphony (especially as
described by Bakhtin). Thus, the links between Chaucer and
postmodernism also involve parallels between Chaucer's atti-
tude toward literature and many of the central developments in
modem literary theory.3 Chaucer's work proves that polyphony
and polysemy are not identical and interchangeable. At the
same time, as the notion of "transgression" put forth by Stal-
lybrass and White would indicate, polyphony and polysemy, as
two separate forms of subversion, are not independent but are in
fact intimately related. Thus, among other things, a postmod-
ernist reading of Chaucer suggests certain parallels between the
project of Derrida and that of Bakhtin.

One of the difficulties with reading Chaucer through postmod-
ernism is that postmodernism itself is a rather problematically
defined entity. Perhaps here I am in danger of repeating the
ignotum per ignocius of Plato in "The Canon's Yeoman's Tale."
However, I believe that the texts of Chaucer and of postmodern-


ism can illuminate each other so that one might gain a clearer
view of postmodernism itself. Many attempts have been made
to describe the salient features of postmoderism, and I do not
have room to review those attempts here.4 One of the more
useful characterizations, I think, has been the suggestion by
Jean-Francois Lyotard that the modem can be defined as "any
science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse
... making explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the
dialectics of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emanci-
pation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of
wealth" (xxiii). In contrast, Lyotard defines the postmodern in
terms of "incredulity toward metanarratives. This incredulity is
undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences: but that prog-
ress in turn presupposes it" (xxiv). For the purposes of this chap-
ter, I will use this "incredulity toward metanarratives" as a
starting point for my view of postmodernism. I will, in fact,
extend this definition to suggest that it is the essence of post-
modernism to call into question systems, hierarchies, and tax-
onomies of all kinds.
A tremendous amount of subversive energy can be generated
through this sort of radically skeptical project. All human sys-
tems of hierarchy and categorization are artificial and conven-
tional. As a result, the forcing of people (and ideas) into such
systems requires a tremendous amount of social and political
"energy." To use a Pynchonian scientific metaphor, it might be
compared to the huge amounts of energy required to bind to-
gether the various components of the atomic nucleus. But, as we
in the twentieth century are all too painfully aware, the awe-
some force of these nuclear binding energies can be released by
splitting the nucleus apart through nuclear fission. Similarly,
the "binding energies" required to hold together artificial sys-
tems of taxonomy and hierarchy can also be released through
the fission of such systems.
On a linguistic and philosophical level, this sort of radical
questioning has its modem roots in the program of transvalua-
tion of values undertaken by Nietzsche and its most prominent
current avatar in the deconstructive project of Derrida. Clearly,
language itself is our most powerful and immanent system of
classification and taxonomy, so this nuclear metaphor would be
expected to pertain particularly to language. In this respect, one


can see that literary language is specially situated to unleash the
binding energies of all language.
The energetic effect of poetic language can be visualized by
reference to Jakobson's model of language as existing along two
different axes, which might variously be figured as paradigmatic
and syntagmatic, selection and combination, or metaphor and
metonymy. Granted, Jakobson's structuralist model of metaphor
and metonymy existing as two separate and opposed poles of
language is precisely the sort of circumscribing system that the
poststructuralist linguistic theory of Derrida is designed to un-
dermine. However, Jakobson's model is a useful schematic start-
ing point for understanding the energies inherent in polysemic
language: According to Jakobson, it is the essence of poetic lan-
guage that the paradigmatic, or selection, axis is forced onto the
axis of combination. This forcible projection not only endows
poetic language with additional binding energy, but also renders
it unstable, like the nucleus of a radioactive element. Poetic
language takes on an aura of strangeness that calls attention to
itself and leads to a release of energies through proliferation of
This model of poetic language is clearly metaphoric, and
should not be taken too literally. However, the model is useful
and can be taken one step further. What, for example, would
occur if an additional projection were performed? What would
happen if the axis of combination, now charged with the addi-
tional energies of the axis of selection, were itself to be projected
back onto its own origin? In this case, both axes would be col-
lapsed onto a single point, and the linguistic energy levels thus
obtained would be maximized.
But is such a situation possible? And if so, what would such a
situation represent? In the most general case, it would simply
represent the word. After all, a single word always exists at the
intersection of these two axes, with the potential for metaphoric
and metonymic connections already built in. All words contain
the "binding energies" of polysemic language, just as all atomic
nuclei are held together by their own binding energies. However,
most nuclei are quite stable, and their energy is never spon-
taneously released. Similarly, most words do not in themselves
appear to present an especially immediate danger of polysemic
decay. They must be destabilized in some way in order for their


energies to be released. Literary language (and certainly all trop-
istic language) represents a step toward such releases of energy.
However, at the level of the single word, it would appear that the
strongest potential for a release of such energies occurs in that
time-honored device, the pun.
The pun openly announces that it contains both metaphoric
and metonymic energies. The pun highlights the ambiguity of
the selection process of language by refusing to let that selection
come to rest; it is a single word that is in fact more than one
word. Similarly, the multiple meanings of the pun word cast
different meanings upon the other words in the immediate con-
text, confusing the combination process as well. The resultant
instability of meaning along both of Jakobson's axes is then anal-
ogous to the instability of the nucleus of a radioactive isotope,
and the pun is thus among the most efficient means of releasing
the stored metaphoric and metonymic energies of language.
Once these mutual energies are released through the action of
the pun, explosions of meaning spiral outward from the origin
much like the chain reactions that can be initiated from the
decay of a radioactive nucleus. As Umberto Eco puts it, "the
quarrel between metaphor and metonymy can generate a flight
to infinity, in which one moment establishes the other, and vice
versa" (73). It is here, in this paradoxical "Strange Loop" rela-
tionship between metaphor and metonymy, that Jakobson's
view of metaphor and metonymy as separate poles begins to
collapse.5 Clearly, there is more involved in this situation than a
simple conflation of the two poles in a "metaphorization" of
metonymy or "metonymization" of metaphor. In fact, metaphor
and metonymy become a striking example of the sorts of de-
constructed opposition that have figured so prominently in
post-Derridean critical discourse, illustrating the way in which
deconstruction neither reverses nor simply collapses hierarchies
but in fact dynamically destabilizes them in such a way as to
demonstrate the ultimate instability (radioactivity?) of all such
From this discussion, it then comes as no surprise that puns
are prominent features of postmodernist discourse, Derrida's
own work being a notable example. Samuel Beckett's declara-
tion that "in the beginning was the pun" (Murphy 65) and
Pynchon's suggestion that there is "high magic to low puns"
(Lot 49 129) stand as central examples of the importance of the


pun to postmodernism. But Chaucer, too, is an inveterate pun-
ster. Some of his puns, in fact, are quite famous, perhaps most
notably the mention of "ars-metrike" in "The Summoner's
Tale" (line 2222). Besides being terribly apt (and funny) this par-
ticular pun nicely demonstrates the boundary-crossing potential
of the pun, combining a reference to high culture (arts) with a
reference to what Bakhtin calls the "bodily lower stratum"
(arse). One might compare here how Pynchon often constructs
puns and metaphors, mixing meanings from highly divergent
disciplines or social strata. Thus, in one of the most often cited
passages from The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa Maas meditates on
the old sailor whom she befriends:

She knew, because she had held him, that he suffered DT's. Behind
the initials was a metaphor, a delirium tremens, a trembling
unfurrowing of the mind's plowshare.... Trembling, unfurrowed,
she slipped sidewise, screeching back across grooves of years, to
hear again the earnest, high voice of her second or third collegiate
love Ray Glozing bitching among "uhs" and the syncopated
tonguing of a cavity, about his freshman calculus; "dt," God help
this old tattooed man, meant also a time differential, a vanishingly
small instant in which change had to be confronted at last for what
it was, where it could no longer disguise itself as something
innocuous like an average rate; where velocity dwelled in the
projectile though the projectile be frozen in midflight, where death
dwelled in the cell though the cell looked in on it at its most
quick. (128-29)

As Porush points out, Pynchon's technique here (which is a
sort of strange combination of pun and metaphor) is extremely

[W]e find ourselves tangled in a metaphor having one word (dt)
standing for two vehicles, which in turn may act metaphorically
with respect to each other and which both imply several tenors ....
Finally, the passage is highly self-commenting or reflexive, leading
us to grapple with a metaphor that is partly about metaphor itself.

In particular, the conflation of the DT's of the alcoholic and
the differential, dt, of calculus creates a dialogue that calls into


question the privileged position that scientific discourse tends
to occupy in Western post-Enlightenment society. Similarly,
Chaucer's "ars-metrike" pun calls into question the privileged
status of the arts of measurement. This pun also directly illus-
trates the affinity of Chaucer with postmodernism, because
Flann O'Brien deploys precisely the same pun in his At Swim-
tvo-Birds, in which we find Dermot Trellis heading up a stair-
way directly behind a young servant girl, the stays in whose skirt
obscure the "aesthetic" potential of the view: "Ars est celare
artem, muttered Trellis, doubtful as to whether he had made a
pun" (314).
Trellis (or at least O'Brien) has made a pun indeed, and a
double one at that: not only does he reproduce the pun from
Chaucer, but the original Latin phrase already contains an em-
bedded pun, since "celare" (to hide) resonates with "caelare" (to
engrave, i.e., to make obvious).7 Thus art simultaneously in-
volves both a hiding and a declaration of art, as O'Brien demon-
strates by employing a subtle pun, then explicitly calling atten-
tion to it.8
Despite their generally comic effect, it would seem that puns
are serious things. Indeed, despite the low regard in which puns
are sometimes held, they do represent an explicit baring of
mechanisms that operate at the heart of all language. The poet
James Merrill has described the effect well, noting that the pun

is suffered, by and large, with groans of aversion, as though one had
done an unseemly thing in adult society, like slipping a hand up the
hostess's dress. Indeed, the punster has touched, and knows it if
only for being so promptly shamed, upon a secret, fecund place in
language herself. The pun's objet trouve aspect cheapens it
further-why? A Freudian slip is taken seriously: it betrays its
maker's hidden wish. The pun (or the rhyme, for that matter)
"merely" betrays the hidden wish of words. (quoted in Moffett 118)

Of course, one could argue that the above puns on "ars" are
relatively stable and well controlled, and do not lead to an exten-
sive proliferation of meaning. After all, it is theoretically possi-
ble to control even a nuclear chain reaction within a properly
designed device. On the other hand, just as the O'Brien pun is at
least double, so too does the "art" in Chaucer's pun evoke both
the art of measurement and that other metrical art, namely po-


etry. Even these relatively tame examples of puns that seem well
within the realm of authorial control show the beginning of a
proliferation in meaning. This proliferation calls into question
the ostensibly well-ordered system of rules and conventions
that defines our use of language. We obtain here a fleeting look
into the abyss, resulting in Pynchon's "trembling unfurrowing
of the mind's plowshare."9 Attridge describes the potential
power of this destabilization of the "grids" of language by the
pun, noting that

to obtain a glimpse of the infinite possibility of meaning kept at
bay by those grids, to gain a sense that the boundaries upon which
our use of language depends are set up under specific historical
conditions, is to be made aware of a universe more open to
reinterpretation and change than the one we are usually conscious
of inhabiting. (Peculiar Language 208)

Attridge points out the way in which Joyce's language in Fin-
negans Wake is particularly powerful in this respect, contrasting
it with the relatively tame puns employed, say, by Pope. In fact,
Attridge suggests that Joyce's Wakean neologisms be classified
not as puns, but as portmanteaux. Portmanteaux they are, but
my "radioactive" model of the pun would suggest that Joyce's
words are in fact decaying puns, linguistic isotopes so unstable
that they have already begun to come apart, thus calling particu-
lar attention to their instability. As a simple example, consider
the way in which Joyce conflates "purpose" with the French
"pourquoi" to produce "pourquose" (meaning "why") (18.31).
On the surface, this wordplay would seem gratuitous as the two
words have roughly the same meaning. However, if we think in
the opposite direction, viewing "pourquose" as coming apart
rather than being put together, we can see that its multilingual
decomposition calls into question the normal boundaries be-
tween languages. It thus demonstrates the arbitrary and artifi-
cial nature of all linguistic conventions.
Finnegans Wake may be an extreme example of the power of
the pun, but R. A. Shoaf has recently noted that Chaucer and
other medieval poets also recognized and utilized the violent
linguistic energies inherent in the pun. "Puns," says Shoaf, "are
about power-puns are power-and they unsettle those who
want to be in control, to be on top of things" ("Play of Puns" 44).


He then discusses specific examples of puns from Chaucer's
poetry to demonstrate the effects achieved thereby. Shoaf's con-
cern is with polysemy, not polyphony, and his discourse deals
with literary, not political matters. However, his appreciation of
the potential transgressive violence of the pun goes a long way
toward demonstrating its potential political force. He argues
that, for Chaucer, "the pun is a device for delaying, interrupting,
or otherwise frustrating closure. Often when a character insists
on closure and its unisemy, a restriction of meaning, a pun
emerges to suggest polysemy and a ludic re-opening of the text"
("Play of Puns" 45).
Clearly, Shoaf is pursuing an insight quite similar to that
which Attridge pursues in relation to Joyce. In fact, this de-
stabilizing effect is precisely what puns are all about. Shoaf dis-
cusses this punning tendency as an aspect of what he refers to as
"juxtology," through which medieval poets link up all sorts of
diverse concepts. He notes that these links are made largely
through the offices of language itself:

Medieval poets .. knew full well that language is "in charge."
Juxtologists, as I like to think of them, they recognized that words
yoke themselves together, and together with things, in the most
unpredictable ways.... they understood that language exceeds
man's grasp and that that's what heaven is for. ("Play of Puns" 45)

This sort of process by which language "takes charge" is pre-
cisely what I have attempted to describe by my image of nuclear
decay. Once that first radioactive pun is set free, it can then
initiate an ongoing chain reaction of semantic effects beyond
human control or intervention. One of Shoaf's favorite examples
concerns the reaction of Dorigen in "The Franklin's Tale" when
she learns from Aurelius that the rocks have apparently disap-
peared from the Aast of Britanny:

He taketh his leve, and she astoned stood;
In al hir face nas a drope of blood.
She wende never han come in swich a trappe.
"Allas," quod she, "that evere this sholde happe!
For wende I never by possibilitee
That swich a monstre or merveille myghte be!
(lines 1339-44)


Shoaf demonstrates that "astoned" in line 1339 is a pun
meaning both "astonished" and "turned to stone," the latter
(especially with the reference to a "monstre" in line 1344) call-
ing forth the episode of the Medusa in canto IX of Dante's In-
ferno. Of course, once this connection is made, the general Dan-
tean motif of usingturning to stone as a metaphor for literal and
all-encompassing interpretation is evoked as well, adding a spe-
cial richness to "The Franklin's Tale." The dissemination of
meaning thus runs rampant through the Dantean text, connect-
ing to other instances of stony interpretation as well, such as
that of Count Ugolino in Inferno XXXIII.'1
The reference to Dante in Chaucer's pun may well have been
intentional. But the chain reaction of meaning ultimately acts
to escape all questions of authorial intention. Thus, for exam-
ple, this same pun also evokes Wallace Stevens's "The Man on
the Dump," where Stevens, too, attacks the notion of a totalized
meaning that shuts off renewal and therefore ends up in the
trash. He thus questions the idea that poetry can ever reach a
final truth, engraved in stone:

Is it to hear the blatter of grackles and say
Invisible priest; is it to eject, to pull
The day to pieces and cry stanza my stone?
(Collected Poems 203)

The answer, of course, is no, because with Stevens "it must
change." Once the poet's stanza becomes stone, it hardens into a
fixed meaning that comes to mistake itself for truth.
Obviously, such connections can be made virtually endlessly
once authorial intention is escaped in this way. Here again
Chaucer's text parallels Finnegans Wake, which, as David Hay-
man points out, "belongs to a class (not a genre) of works which
invite the reader to perpetuate creation" ("Some Writers"
177).11 But perhaps most important in the proliferation of mean-
ing from this radioactive pun is that the potential connections
of the pun "astoned" radiate internally through the rest of
Chaucer's text itself. For example, a connection is also made to
the philosopher's stone of "The Canon's Yeoman's Tale." The
magical chicanery perpetrated upon Dorigen thus resonates
with the alchemical shenanigans of that tale, and the general
theme of professional trickery in "The Canon's Yeoman's Tale"


highlights the betrayals and double-dealing that occur in "The
Franklin's Tale." Moreover, given the sexually charged context
of Dorigen's astonishment, the semantic explosion that ema-
nates from "astoned" inevitably extends to the stalwart
"stoons" of the Nun's Priest that Harry Bailly blesses in the
epilogue to "The Nun's Priest's Tale."12 In this case, being "as-
toned" thus implies that Dorigen is, as we might say in post-
modem vulgar parlance, fucked-and potentially in more ways
than one.
Overt puns such as those on "ars-metrike" and "astoned"
provide especially obvious examples of the semantic imperti-
nence with which Chaucer's language challenges accepted sys-
tems of linguistic orthodoxy. But just as radioactive elements
tend to contaminate the more stable elements around them, so
too does this "radioactive" language tend to extend (in a very
Joycean way) into more apparently stable Chaucerian language
as well. For example, it is a commonplace of Chaucer criticism
to note the irony that adheres in Chaucer's often using the same
terms to describe different pilgrims to very different effect. A
good example occurs in his use of the word "worthy" to describe
the noble Knight, the corrupt Friar, and the lusty Wife. Thus,
early in the "General Prologue," we have the description of the
Knight (who comes first in the catalogue of descriptions here,
just as he will later be the first tale-teller):

A Knyght their was, and that a worthy man,
That fro the tyme that he first bigan
To riden out, he loved chivalrie,
Trouthe and honour, freedom and curteisie.
(lines 43-46)

This description, coming so early in the prologue, is as yet
unaffected by the descriptions of the other pilgrims. However,
the terms in which the Knight is described, perhaps most espe-
cially the term "worthy" are already "double-voiced," already
colored by a sideward glance at the discourse of the romance/
epic tradition. The fact that such terms are obvious cliches of
this tradition calls their sincerity into question. Knights are
"worthy" by convention, so calling a knight worthy is simply
redundant and can convey little descriptive force-unless, of


course, it is sarcastic. Thus, Chaucer's entirely conventional
language here already hovers on the brink of mockery.
The semantic instability of the Knight's "worthiness" is fur-
ther increased when, after a long description of the Friar's cor-
ruption, we are promptly informed that "This worthy lymytour
was cleped Huberd" (line 269). And the Wife of Bath is charac-
terized by worthiness as well:

She was a worthy woman al hir lyve:
Housbondes at chirche dore she hadde fyve,
Withouten other compaignye in youthe-
(lines 459-61)

Here, then, we have the Wife's worthiness juxtaposed with a
hint at her promiscuity, which renders the description ironical
and echoes the suggested "wantownesse" of the worthy Friar. In
particular, the worthiness of the Friar and of the Wife (who rep-
resents precisely the sort of aleatory principle that the Knight so
abhors), calls into question the worthiness of the Knight. More-
over, the use of the same word in such different contexts calls
specific attention to the way in which the same word can have
multiple meanings. The word "worthy" is clearly "double-
voiced" in the Bakhtinian sense, though its doubleness is of an
unusually obvious kind that converts it into a sort of pun.13
This "hybrid" pun illustrates how polysemy in Chaucer is not
a purely linguistic effect, but often has social and political im-
plications as well. In fact, the radical and subversive energies of
all language are unleashed in the pun in such a way as to demon-
strate that the true transgressive force of polysemic language
(per Derrida) can be quite similar to the force of polyphonic
discourse (per Bakhtin). Stallybrass and White note that the pun
is a form of "what Bakhtin calls a grammatica jocosa whereby
grammatical order is transgressed to reveal erotic and obscene or
merely materially satisfying counter-meaning" (10-11). Thus
Arthur's evaluation of the Bakhtinian carnival gives a special
place to the pun, which

violates and so unveils the structure of prevailing (pre-vailing)
convention; and so it provokes laughter. Samuel Beckett's punning
pronouncement "In the beginning was the Pun" sets pun against


official Word and at the same time, as puns often do, sets free a
chain of other puns. So, too, carnival sets itself up in a punning
relationship with official culture and enables a plural, unfixed,
comic view of the world. (1, cited in Stallybrass and White 11)

This suggestion of a relationship between formal linguistic
transgressions and political and social transgressions highlights
the fact that Bakhtinian politics are inescapably linguistic, just
as deconstructive language (because of its attacks on systems
and hierarchies of all kinds) is inescapably political.14 Moreover,
medieval authors seem to have recognized this relationship be-
tween polysemy and polyphony, long before the advent of
Bakhtin and Derrida. After all, Dante has Adam point out that
the fundamental sin of man was the "transgression of the sign,"
suggesting that linguistic impertinences can be used as a figure
of rule breaking in general.15 This relationship highlights the
way in which the linguistic emphasis of Bakhtin's project pro-
vides a critical perspective for the reading of Chaucer (and of
postmodernism) that goes far beyond the carnival per se.16 Still,
it is in the polyphony of the openly carnivalesque nature of
much of Chaucer's (and Pynchon's) work that the social and
political force of his texts can be seen most clearly. Indeed, it is
the textual environment created by the openly social nature of
the polyphonic juxtapositions of different voices in this work
that lends an inescapably social and political dimension to the
polysemic nature of the language in these texts as well, prevent-
ing it from collapsing into mere formal play.

It is central to the Bakhtinian carnival (and to the more general
concept of transgression) to have representatives from different
social and political strata thrust together in the same physical
and social space in such a way that normal hierarchies and class
distinctions are rendered ineffective, or at least unstable. This
juxtaposition of various voices allows for a polyphonic dialogue
that highlights the differences among social groups and gener-
ally calls into question the assumptions that would hold certain
groups to be ascendant over others. Given this situation, I would
suggest that one of the clearest examples of such carnivalistic


juxtapositions in all of literature-occurs in the gathering of vari-
ous pilgrims in the "General Prologue" of The Canterbury
Tales. Here we have twenty-nine (or so) representatives of di-
verse social categories, ranging from noblemen to "cherls," from
cooks to clerics, and from lawyers to wives. Indeed, all major
social groups in Chaucer's England are represented, and the op-
portunities for dialogue would appear to be tremendous.17
The gathering of Chaucer's pilgrims provides an excellent il-
lustration of the source from which the fission of boundaries
gains its energies. Chaucer's heteroglossic gathering of pilgrims,
by allowing a dialogic interaction among different social groups,
provides an opportunity for such fission to occur through the
clashing of different systems, just as the particles in the atomic
nucleus are split apart by bombarding them with other particles.
Furthermore, Chaucer's egalitarian plan of allowing the pilgrims
to tell their own tales provides an effective framework within
which the various discourses can be highlighted in turn, assur-
ing that these sorts of interactions do indeed occur.'8
The clashes of discourses that thus occur in The Canterbury
Tales are highly reminiscent of the dialogic effects that form one
of the most striking features of the fiction of Pynchon. In works
such as Gravity's Rainbow one finds the languages of science,
technology, psychoanalysis, government, and religion engaged
in a complex dialogic struggle with the languages of movies,
jazz, locker rooms, bars, and comic books. This interaction gen-
erates a polyphonic force that powerfully calls into question all
systems of authority and totality through a vivid demonstration
of the alternatives that those systems necessarily exclude.
Similar examples of social and political dialogue occur in The
Canterbury Tales. Indeed, the total amount of dialogic interac-
tion in the Tales is virtually unlimited; the overall design of the
work is such that any tale can potentially interact with any and
all of the others, depending upon connections to be made by the
reader. Thus Cooper compares the Tales to Joyce's Ulysses in
terms of the various patterns of cross-references and allusions
that permeate the entire work (152). However, Chaucer does
take steps to assure that especially promising dialogic interac-
tions are highlighted, the clearest example of this technique
being in the juxtaposition of the tales of the Knight and the
Miller in the beginning of Fragment A. The Knight-Miller dia-


logue is then essential to a demonstration of the relevance of
using Pynchon and postmodernism to illuminate the dialogic
energy of The Canterbury Tales.
Reading Chaucer through Pynchon gives "The Knight's Tale"
a crucial position. As the first tale, it is set up as an embodiment
of the kind of authoritarian, monologic discourse that all of the
other tales, if only by their sheer diversity, would seem to call
into question. (Of course, all the tales also call one another into
question, as I have noted above.) It is entirely appropriate that
the Knight, who enjoys the highest social status of all of the
pilgrims, should be the first to speak. And the nature of his tale
is clearly designed to reinforce that status. "The Knight's Tale,"
derived from the tradition of the romance/epic, is itself a thor-
oughly conventional tale delivered in a highly authoritarian
mode of discourse. Control is at the heart of the Knight's text,
and disorder, disruption, and alien voices of all kinds are scru-
pulously circumscribed. They are excluded to such an extent, in
fact, that the tale self-consciously calls attention to its own
authoritarian status. Once this is done, the tale is already teeter-
ing on the brink of undercutting itself; a too-zealous exclusion
of alien voices emphasizes that such voices do in fact exist.
There is a nagging sense of doubt attached to the authenticity
of the Knight's ascendancy from the very beginning of his tale.
After all, he is ostensibly chosen to speak first not because of his
social status, but through a drawing of lots. His initiatory role
thus derives either from sheer chance or from a bogus move on
the part of Harry Bailly in determining the outcome of the draw-
ing. In either case, the legitimacy of the Knight's social primacy
is immediately called into question. Once the Miller thrusts
himself into the order of telling directly after the Knight, dis-
rupting a succession (exploding a hierarchy) that might logically
be expected to proceed next to the Monk, then there is little
hope that authority of the Knight's position can remain stable.
The robust, carnivalistic discourse of the Miller serves to high-
light the sterility and inauthenticity of the discourse of the
Knight and provides a striking and immediate example of pre-
cisely the sorts of voices that the Knight is excluding from his
text. Once that example is offered, the Knight's discourse is un-
avoidably contaminated by that of the Miller; it inevitably turns
into a parody of itself. Then, the heteroglossic piling up of tale
upon tale, style upon style, and point-of-view upon point-of-


view as the work proceeds can do nothing but further undercut
the stability of the Knight's position.19
The motif of the drawing of lots powerfully calls attention to
what is perhaps the strongest tension between the Knight and
the Miller: the question of chance. The Knight, seeking to rein-
force political hierarchies and strengthen social boundaries, is
clearly threatened by the notion of chance occurrences of any
kind. The Miller, on the other hand, joyfully accepts the aleatory
as one of the richest and most productive parts of life. The alea-
tory nature of "The Miller's Tale" is emphasized by the freedom
that Chaucer's text specifically gives the reader in approaching
it. We are granted, in fact, permission to skip over "cherlish"
tales such as that told by the Miller entirely:

And therefore, whoso list it nat yheere,
Turne over the leef and chese another tale;
For he shal fynde ynowe, grete and smale,
Of storial thyng that toucheth gentillesse,
And eek moralitee and hoolynesse.
("Miller's Prologue," lines 3176-80)

Aside from the fact that this suggestion is fairly likely to
assure that the reader will in fact read "The Miller's Tale," this
passage clearly endows the entire work with a playful structure
that is in fact reminiscent of a number of the works of postmod-
ernism. One thinks here of such examples as the crossword puz-
zle structure of Milorad Pavid's Landscape Painted with Tea, the
loose-leaf novel of B. S. Johnson, or Julio Cortizar's Hopscotch,
which includes suggested alternative orders in which the chap-
ters are to be read at the reader's option. In this light, it is
entirely appropriate that the intended order of the various frag-
ments of the Tales remains in question. Perhaps the reader
should choose his own order.
But this granting of freedom to the reader is more than a
formal effect. It introduces an aleatory component that poses a
powerfully subversive threat to the stability of systems and tax-
onomies, and not just in the medieval world. In fact, it is perhaps
through the contemporary fiction of Pynchon that we can most
clearly understand the stakes that are involved in the opposition
between determinism and chance in Chaucer's tales of the
Knight and the Miller. Pynchon's fiction mounts nothing less


than an all-out assault on the governing ideological systems
of our time. In particular, Pynchon is concerned with the ways
in which certain dehumanizing and deterministic modes df
thought act to limit human freedom. To Pynchon, the deter-
mined is always equated with the authoritarian and the mono-
logic, an equation that Chaucer's Knight clearly illustrates.
Complexity and diversity, on the other hand, are associated by
Pynchon with the aleatory, and the aleatory is in turn associated
with freedom.20
Pynchon approaches this problem in any number of ways. One
of the most striking occurs in Gravity's Rainbow, with the op-
position that he sets up between the two colleagues, Ned Points-
man and Roger Mexico. Both men are engaged in psychological
research at the "White Visitation," but here the similarities
end. Pointsman is a devoted disciple of the discourse of deter-
minism, a Pavlovian behaviorist who believes that response
must always follow stimulus in a strictly determined and pre-
dictable way. Mexico, on the other hand, is a statistician, a be-
liever in probabilities, willing to grant that occurrences in the
world contain a stochastic component that makes strict predic-
tion of events impossible. Pynchon's text does not explicitly and
unequivocally condemn Pointsman or privilege Mexico. Rather,
it allows the two of them to interact in a dialogic confrontation
that produces its own energy:

If ever the Antipointsman existed, Roger Mexico is the man.... in
the domain of zero to one, not-something to something, Pointsman
can only possess the zero and the one. He cannot, like Mexico,
survive anyplace in between. Like his master I. P. Pavlov before
him, he imagines the cortex of the brain as a mosaic of tiny on/off
elements.... One or zero.... But to Mexico belongs the domain
between zero and one-the middle Pointsman has excluded from
his persuasion-the probabilities.
(Gravity's Rainbow 55)

But, of course, once this dialogue is set up, Mexico wins by
definition, because he can live with opposition, can accept the
contrasting voice of Pointsman. Pointsman, on the other hand,
seeks to suppress all alien discourse, so the very presence of that
discourse represents his defeat. Pynchon's treatment of this con-
frontation is highly informed by the World War II setting of the


book, and deals extensively in the terminology of twentieth-
century life. However, I would suggest that the Pointsman-
Mexico confrontation bears some striking resemblances to the
similar dialogue that develops in The Canterbury Tales between
the Knight and the Miller.
Chaucer's Knight, like Pynchon's Pointsman, cannot live in
the excluded middle. He is obsessed with the desire to render all
of life explicable. He is, in fact, in many ways the prototype of
the modern scientific mentality that Pynchon so thoroughly
calls into question.21 Just as Pointsman holds up his hero Pavlov
as the embodiment of scientific order, the Knight holds up
his own hero, the Duke Theseus, as a similar embodiment of
worldly order. In fact, it is in his admiring description of Thes-
eus that the Knight provides us with the clearest statement of
his system of values:

The destinee, minstre general,
That executeth in the world over al
The purveiaunce that God hath seyn biforn,
So strong it is that, though the world had sworn
The contrarie of a thyng by ye or nay,
Yet somtyme it shal fallen on a day
That falleth eft withinne a thousand yeer.
For certainly, oure appetites heer,
Be it of were, or pees, or hate, or love,
Al is this reuled by the sighte above.
This mene I now by myghty Theseus.
(lines 1663-73)

The Miller's exuberant deflation of social decorum is highly
similar to Mexico's opposition to the Pavlovian behaviorism of
Pointsman. Mexico's appeal to statistical rather than deter-
ministic science seems to lack the camivalistic exuberance of
"The Miller's Tale"; in point of fact nothing could be further
from the truth. Pynchon is nothing if not outrageously explicit
in his deflation of the pretensions of high culture. Late in the
book, for example, Mexico bursts into a high-level board meet-
ing, attended by "Phi Beta Kappa keys, Legions of Honour, Or-
ders of Lenin, Iron Crosses, V.C.s, retirement watchchains,
Dewey-for-President lapel pins, half-exposed service revolvers,
and even a sawed-off shotgun under the shoulder there" (636). In


short, the assembly includes all the accoutrements of establish-
ment power (including the last, which shows how sinister that
power can be)22 whose classical equivalents one might expect to
find on any given evening in the banquet hall of the castle of
Theseus. Mexico then shows his contempt for all these symbols
of social status in a manner that the Miller might appreciate :the
"poker-faced men" around the table discovering much to their
dismay that he has "unbuttoned his fly, taken his cock out, and
is now busy pissing on the shiny table" (636).
Later, Mexico and the inimitable Pig Bodine arrive at a formal
banquet only to discover that they themselves are intended to be
the "surprise roast" that will serve as the main course. They
then save themselves through the power of subversive and alea-
tory discourse-and of abjection. In particular, they strike back
with their vivid descriptions of possible side-dishes such as
"snot soup," "menstrual maramalade," and "clot casserole"
(715). Like all carnivalistic discourse, this discourse turns out to
be contagious, and various members of the audience chime in
with contributions such as "puke pancakes," "hemorrhoid
hash," and "ringworm relish" (716). These evocations prove suf-
ficiently unappetizing to rout the entire gathering, and Mexico
and Bodine escape unscathed.
The distinguished gentlemen who sit around the meeting
table in the first example above are the modern literary de-
scendents of the twelve monks who gather around the spokes of
a cartwheel at the end of "The Summoner's Tale" in order to
sniff their fair shares of the cherl's fart. Similarly, the battle of
disgusting discourses in the second example strongly echoes the
carnivalesque technique through which Chaucer suggests a
clear parallel between the formal chivalric weapons of Arcite
and Palamon and hende Nicholas's "fart that well-nigh blinded
Absolom." All of these cases, of course, very clearly illustrate
the emphasis on the "bodily lower stratum" that Bakhtin sees as
being so central to the carnivalesque spirit of Rabelais.
From a modem perspective, the subversive effects of "low"
culture when placed in contact with "high" culture are probably
more obvious in Pynchon than in Chaucer, if only because
Pynchon's contemporaneity renders the various languages more
readily recognizable. Reading Chaucer through Pynchon thus
sheds new light on certain debates in traditional Chaucer crit-
icism. For example, Derek Brewer presents a strong argument for


Chaucer as a subversive opponent of official culture, reveling in
Bakhtinian polyphony amid a culture characterized by plurality
and breakdown in official norms and standards, a breakdown
that Chaucer clearly encourages. Larry Scanlon, on the other
hand, argues that Chaucer's social attitude was one of intense
(though critical) Christian conservatism. Reading Chaucer
through Pynchon, I would suggest, tells us nothing whatsoever
about Chaucer's attitude in this matter. It does, however, tell us
a great deal about the effective nature of Chaucer's text, and that
nature is clearly of the sort described by Brewer rather than that
described by Scanlon.
Scanlon, in fact, anticipates me here. He suggests that our
failure to recognize Chaucer's conservatism comes from the
"modem humanist tradition to equate critical self-conscious-
ness with its own ideological predispositions" (64). In other
words, he suggests that Chaucer is only subversive if read on
modem terms. Scanlon clearly believes such reading to be an
error, but reading Chaucer on modern terms is precisely what I
am trying to do. In fact, that may be the only kind of reading to
which we, as modem readers, ultimately have access, try as we
might.23 Moreover, the example of Pynchon demonstrates very
clearly the way in which mixing discourses from different social
strata is inherently subversive of the "higher" discourse in a way
that ultimately escapes all questions of authorial intent.
Scanlon suggests that, in "The Nun's Priest's Tale," Chaucer's
use of the discourse of the fabular narrative is employed as a sly
means of reinforcing the discourse of Christian doctrine. Read-
ing Chaucer through Pynchon (and through Bakhtin) suggests
that no such reinforcement is possible. The secular, carnival-
esque language of the fable inherently acts to undercut and de-
stabilize the authoritarian discourse of the Church, whether
Chaucer intended to do so or not.
Consider that key moment at the end of "The Nun's Priest's
Tale" when we are encouraged to see the relevance of the tale to
our own lives by an appeal to Christian authority:

For Seint Paule seith that al that written is,
To oure doctrine it is ywrite, ywis;
Taketh the fruyt, and lat the chaf be still.
(lines 3441-43)


Donaldson recognizes the ironic twist here, suggesting that
the real moral of the tale is precisely the chaff that these lines
would seem to have us ignore (88). Still, Scanlon tells us that
"Sincere or ironic, this much is clear: these lines portray an
attempt to appropriate Christian authority" (49). I do not believe
this much is clear at all, and I would suggest that the lines in fact
parody the claims of a Christian authority that, in Chaucer's
day, was already becoming corrupt and decadent. Scanlon, mean-
while, admits that we are here authorized by Christian tradition
to appropriate any and all texts. I would suggest that the mono-
logic authoritarianism evidenced by such blind and single-
minded appropriation is called into question by the hetero-
glossia of The Canterbury Tales as a whole, and that Chaucer's
text here parodies the tradition of such appropriations. Consider
the actual passage from Paul to which these lines refer:

For whatever was written in former days was written for our
instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the
scriptures we might have hope. (Romans 15.4)

Scanlon presents an intelligent discussion of the appropriative
tradition in Christianity (which followed the lead of Paul) and
suggests that Chaucer is taking his place in this tradition. How-
ever, it is clear that Chaucer's statement is far more sweeping
than is that of Paul. In fact, it can be read as a parodic reduction
ad absurdum of Paul's statement. Chaucer's text appropriates
Paul's, turning it against itself, and demonstrating the folly of
any system that would seek to silence (even by absorption) all
opposing voices. Once Christianity starts to appropriate every
text in sight, we will soon find our religious authority based not
on the Word of God, but on tales of cocks and foxes-or of a cock
and bull.
The above "quotation" from Paul is given special significance
in The Canterbury Tales by being repeated in Chaucer's ending
retraction. It is here that the real force of this appropriation of
Paul becomes fully evident. Obviously, if it is true that "Al that
written is" is written "to oure doctrine," then there can be no
chance of tales that "sownen into synne." Thus, the very exis-
tence of the retraction radically undermines the suggested uni-
versality of Christian appropriation. Furthermore, the conspicu-
ous inclusion of the statement of such appropriation within the


retraction itself very clearly calls attention to this fact and in
turn undercuts the retraction. The retraction, like all palinodes,
does not erase the tales that "sownen into synne," though it
may place them under erasure. In a sense, the retraction merely
reactivates the carnivalistic energies of such tales and under-
scores the existence in the Tales of voices that oppose the he-
gemony of Christian doctrine, while doing so within the dis-
course of that doctrine itself. But this sort of destabilizing
ending brings me back to where I began, with Pearce's com-
parison of Pynchon and Joyce. The special effectiveness of such
contradictory endings highlights the way in which subversion of
closure can have a special force in terms of transgression of
hierarchies. Indeed, the avoidance of closure is closely related
to the effects of polysemy and polyphony that I have been dis-

The palinodic technique embodied in Chaucer's retraction was a
common one in medieval literature. Jeremy Tambling, for exam-
ple, discusses the frequent use of palinodes in Dante, noting
precisely the effect I have described here in relation to Chaucer:
"These palinodes suggest re-writing, rather than development,
discontinuity rather than consistency, and qualify unitary
truths with the sense of liability, doubleness, and difference"
(132). Furthermore, Tambling argues that the use of palinodes in
Chaucer is merely an aspect of the general oscillation of tones
and voices within his work, so that "the palinode is with him a
literary type, a mode of writing which need have nothing of
sincerity about it" (133).
Interestingly, a similar type of "unstable" palinode turns out
to be a very common feature of postmodernist literature as well.
The unstable palinodic endings of Chaucerian works such as
the Tales and Troilus and Criseyde bear clear similarities to the
nonclosure of endings such as those employed by Pynchon, the
"anti-epilogue" noted by Pearce at the end of V. being a clear
example. Pynchon makes especially good use of the reader's
expectation of an ending in The Crying of Lot 49. Ostensibly
modeled on the genre of the detective story, all of Lot 49 seems
oriented toward an epistemological solution of the mysteries at
hand, but no solution is ever given. Actually, at least one mys-


tery is solved in the end, that being the meaning of the enig-
matic title. This revelation acts to heighten our expectations
concerning the importance of the stamp auction, but we go with
Oedipa Maas to the final auction in search of critical clues to
the central Tristero mystery only to find that the book ends as
the auction begins, leaving us stranded.
Chaucer, in The Canterbury Tales, has a special opportunity
for dealing with questions of endings, because each individual
tale has an ending of its own. Some of these endings are trun-
cated by interruption, achieving an effect of incompleteness
quite similar to that achieved by Pynchon in The Crying of Lot
49. However, it is in the tales that apparently do close that
Chaucer displays his most subtle (and powerful) subversions of
closure. "The Knight's Tale," with its neat ending, is again a
principal target. Generically, this tale has much in common
with those later told by the Wife of Bath, the Squire, and the
Franklin. But the Wife's tale, with its hidden internal polemic
against the sexual exploitation of women,24 reaches closure only
by an exaggerately arbitrary means.25 "The Squire's Tale," with
its hyperbolic use of romance devices, demonstrates the inau-
thenticity of the romance tradition, and reaches no closure be-
cause it is interrupted by the Franklin. The Franklin then pro-
ceeds to tell a tale whose underlying theme of corruption and
betrayal shows the rotten core that lies at the heart of the world
of chivalry embodied by the Knight. It, too, closes in a clearly
artificial manner. The effect of the dialogue among these gener-
ically related tales is to expose the falseness of the Knight's
position and to reveal that the closure of his tale is in fact an
arbitrary and impoverishing imposition of political power.
The lack of closure in such "conclusions" is especially strik-
ing because of the significance that attaches to endings in gen-
eral. However, in its more general aspect, closure involves far
more than simply the sense of an ending. It also involves the
establishment of stable interpretations all through the reading
process. For example, Gravity's Rainbow contains palinodic os-
cillations throughout, constantly teetering on the brink of on-
tological chaos. Situations are presented, then retracted, then
presented again, to the point where it is nearly impossible to tell
what is "really" happening from what occurs in dreams, para-
noid fantasies, drug-induced hallucinations, and so on. We see
Thanatz's memory of Blicero becoming unstable: "Of course it


happened. Of course it didn't happen" (667). Or, in the midst of a
discussion of drug-induced dreams, Tyrone Slothrop tells us,
"A-and who sez it's a dream, iuh? M-maybe it exists" (699). In
fact, Brian McHale argues that the technique of putting charac-
ters, places, events, and so on "under erasure" is a central feature
of postmodernist fiction. He then calls Slothrop the "most spec-
tacular" example of a character who is himself placed under
erasure (105).26
Perhaps the best-known postmodernist example of this tech-
nique occurs in the fiction of Samuel Beckett, where statements
are constantly being made, then immediately withdrawn or con-
tradicted. This effect can be particularly striking when (like the
retraction to The Canterbury Tales) it occurs at the end of a
work: it leaves the reader suspended in uncertainty. Thus Beck-
ett ends Molloy with "It is midnight. The rain is beating on the
windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining" (176). And we
have the famous ending of The Unnameable: "I can't go on, I'll
go on" (414). Wolfgang Iser discusses this aspect of Beckett's
work, and suggests that it "results in a total devaluation of lan-
guage by accentuating the arbitrariness with which it is applied
to the objects it seeks to grasp" (165). The end result is that all
arbitrary systems are called into question, releasing an energy
whose effect is "to set the self free to pursue a course of endless
self-discovery" (178). In other words, it releases creative energy
as it destabilizes systems of taxonomy by demonstrating their
artificial and conventional natures.27
In Chaucer, this kind of ongoing and continual lack of closure
is clearly related to the instability of meaning that results from
the polysemy and polyphony of his texts, as Shoaf notes in his
discussion of Chaucer's puns. In The Canterbury Tales, this
effect can be particularly related to the clashes among genres
that occur in this work. As Barbara Herrstein Smith points out
in her general discussion of poetic closure, an effect of closure in
a poem is intimately related to a perception of structure on the
part of the reader. This perception is closely related to the ge-
neric expectations that the reader brings to the poem from his
previous experience with other poems of the same genre (29-
30). In The Canterbury Tales, however, the genre constantly
changes, and the reader is never allowed to develop a coherent
set of expectations with which to perceive a stable view of the
poem. The most obvious modem analogue to this effect would


be Ulysses, where Joyce's constant changes of style and genre
from one chapter to the next subvert any attempts at univocal
interpretation. But authors such as Pynchon derive a tremen-
dous amount of mileage from the subversion of genre expecta-
tions as well, as I shall discuss in more detail in Chapter 7.
This sort of subversion of closure through denial of the read-
er's generic expectations is more obviously a literary effect than
a political one, and it is certainly true that many of the clashes
that occur in The Canterbury Tales are literary rather than so-
cial, at least on the surface. I would suggest, however, that these
literary clashes are not innocent; indeed, they parallel and mir-
ror the social ones. Just as the work entails a juxtaposition of a
heterogenous group of pilgrims from various social strata, so too
does it include a wide range of literary styles and genres. David
Benson has recently presented an extensive discussion of this
aspect of the Tales: "After opening with the startling contrast
between The Knight's Tale and The Miller's Tale, Chaucer goes
on to offer the reader an astonishing mixture of themes, genres,
and narrative styles. The holy occurs next to the shameless and
slapstick farce next to learned sermons" (20).
Thus, one of the systems of hierarchy and taxonomy that
Chaucer calls into question is that involving literary genres.
Benson appears headed here for a rather Bakhtinian approach,
but he never takes that step, limiting his discussion to stylistic
features and opting not to explore the social and political im-
plications of those features. But a Bakhtinian analysis (espe-
cially with the notion of carnival replaced by the more general
notion of transgression or fission) reveals that such implications
can be strong indeed. As Stallybrass and White note, "the rank-
ing of literary genres or authors in a hierarchy analogous to
social classes is a particularly clear example of a much broader
and more complex cultural process" (2).
This mutual implication of social and literary hierarchies is
especially clear in Chaucer. Cook, in discussing the carnivalistic
aspects of the "General Prologue," notes:

Each pilgrim represents a form of life; each gravitates towards one
domain or another of medieval culture: the courtly, the pious, the
carnivalesque, or some admixture of these. These are so many
styles, but not in an exclusively literary sense: we need to extend a


sense of style to include allegiance to particular beliefs and an
implicit conception of social relations. (178)

But of course this conflation of literary and social dialogue in
Chaucer is not surprising from a Bakhtinian perspective. Ge-
neric clashes are at the heart of Bakhtin's notion of Menippean
satire, the genre (or antigenre) that best exemplifies the car-
nivalesque in literature. One might compare here Derrida's clas-
sification of his own Glas as a work of Menippean satire:

I think that a text like Glas is neither philosophic nor poetic. It
circulates between these two genres, trying meanwhile to produce
another text which would be of another genre or without genre. On
the other hand, if one insists on defining genres at all costs, one
could refer historically to Menippean satire, to 'anatomy' (as in The
Anatomy of Melancholy), or to something like philosophic parody
where all genres-poetry, philosophy, theater, et cetera-are
summoned up at once. (In McDonald 140-41)

The multiplicity of genres included within the Menippean
satire, then, acts to call into question the status and authority of
all genres, and (by implication) of all systems of hierarchy. This
inclusion of multiple genres (of which The Canterbury Tales is
an excellent example) is one of the ways in which the Menip-
pean satire maintains a subversive polyphonic force, never al-
lowing itself to settle into a single univocal interpretation.
Thus, the multigeneric character of the Tales can be seen as
another of Chaucer's techniques for the avoidance of closure.
Sklute sees Chaucer's entire career as building toward this form,
which well suited his distaste for closure: "the entire form of
The Canterbury Tales suggests, finally, that for Chaucer conclu-
sive meaning in literature is neither possible nor desirable"
(137). Sklute indicates that the structure of the poem, which is
potentially infinitely expandable through addition of more tales,
allows it to be endlessly open. I would argue, however, that the
poem is already endlessly open, even without the potential for
more tales. "Conclusive meaning" is always already under-
mined merely by the complex and dynamic dialogue that occurs
among the existing tales.
The polysemic and polyphonic nature of The Canterbury


Tales and of works of postmodernists such as Pynchon power-
fully contests the imposition of impoverishing univocal mean-
ings in the process of reading literature. However, I have sug-
gested throughout this chapter that the destabilizing process of
reading these texts has implications that go far beyond the liter-
ary, extending to the ways in which we make meaning in all
aspects of life. In the next chapter, I shall explore the work of
Salman Rushdie, a contemporary author whose work is
centrally informed by the transgression of boundaries and de-
construction of hierarchies in a way that particularly empha-
sizes the political implications of these literary techniques.






One of the most telling and significant passages in all of the
complex fiction of Salman Rushdie occurs in his discussion of
the game of "Snakes and Ladders" in Midnight's Children. This
passage illustrates Rushdie's ability to evoke memories of child-
hood with a tenderness and nostalgia that rival Proust or Nabo-
kov. It also shows the way in which Rushdie so effectively em-
ploys images from popular c ture in the construction of his
highly literary actions, as "Snakes andadders s
~h-hei~a cnp-1 taice to the structure of Midnight's
C dren. Inthis simple children's game, alternatives are clear
n Tuniproiilematic. Ladders lead up and are good; snakes send
one sliding downward and are bad. But Rushdie's narrator, the
harried Saleem Sinai, notes the way in which this apparently
innocent game figures a much less innocent tendency toward
dualistic thinking in general:

implicit in the game is the unchanging twoness of things, the
duality of up against down, good against evil ... metaphorically, all
conceivable opposition, Alpha against Omega, father against
mother. (Midnight's Children 167)


In Rushdie's world, however, things are never quite so simple,
and Sinai finds that such neat polar opposition inevitably fall

but I found, very early in my life, that the game lacked one crucial
dimension, that of ambiguity ... it is also possible to slither down
a ladder and climb to triumph on the venom of a snake. (167)

This crucial element of ambiguity and multiple possibilities,
emphasized as it is by the self-contradictory Shandean narrative
excesses of Sinai himself, becomes in fact central to the entire
book. But, like Tristram Shandy, Sinai is actually quite charm-
ing in his contradictoriness, and, as Maria Couto points out, his
inconsistency "enhances one of the novel's most engaging
qualities-its pervasive tone of uncertainty" (62). In the case of
Midnight's Children this theme is linked in an obvious way to
the use of Tristram Shandy as a narrative model, but in fact all
of Rushdie's narrators operate much in the same way.' For exam-
ple, the narrator of Shame explains his ability to be unbothered
by apparent contradiction: "The inconsistency doesn't matter; I
myself manage to hold large numbers of wholly irreconcilable
views simultaneously, without the least difficulty. I do not think
others are less versatile" (267).
Certainly it would be egregiously naive to take statements
made by any of Rushdie's rhetorically complex narrators for the
opinions of Rushdie himself, although recent events indicate
that one might have a difficult time explaining that fact to cer-
tain Islamic fundamentalist elements.2 Still, this Nietzschean-
Whitmanesque mode of acceptance of contradiction might serve
not only as a central theme of Shame, but of all Rushdie's fic-
tion. His fiction consistently embraces contradicti
intl l rth ao onic over the mono-
logic. One of the clearest ways in w c it does so is by carefully
conistucting dual oppositions-like the snakes and ladders of
Sinai's children's game-only to deconstruct those opposition
by demonstrating that the apparent polar opposites are in fact
interchangeable and mutually interdependent. This deconstruc-
tion of opposition functions as a transgression of the bound-
aries societies (especially authoritarian ones) maintain to define
themselves.These boundaries exclude others; thus, transgress-
ing them has highly political implications.


Rushdie's major novels are all highly political. In Midnight's
Children he traces the history of a group of children born at or
near midnight on India's day of independence from British rule,
paralleling their stories very directly with that of the Indian
Republic and including some very topical attacks on Indira
Gandhi and other Indian political leaders. He also evokes the
richly heteroglossic world of Indian culture in vivid fashion, and
builds his plot around real events such as the partition of India
and the resulting conflicts over that partition. In Shame he con-
tinues this motif, setting the novel in Pakistan and telling the
story of Pakistan's oppressive political structure via a highly
self-conscious metafictional narrative written in the tone of a
fairy tale, a tone that eerily contrasts with the subject matter.
And in The Satanic Verses-which in a sense combines the
intense cultural vividness of Midnight's Children with the os-
tentatious artifice of Shame-he addresses very directly the cul-
tural legacy of British imperialism as it affects the plight of
modem-day immigrants, as well as exploring the complicity be-
tween authoritarian political thinking and the ideology of re-
ligion. In all of these books, Rushdie's incessant assault on total-
itarianism involves attacks on dualistic thinking.
The most obvious way in which Rushdie launches his attack
on dualistic thinking is through the use of paired characters.
The most important characters tend to be shadowed by doubles
in Rushdie's texts. A good example of such pairings involves
Saleem Sinai and his alter ego, Shiva. Sinai is ostensibly the hero
of the book, even if he is a heroin a decidedly ironic way. The
sinister Shiva, on the other hand, is presented as the very em-
bodiment of evil. These two opposing characters were both
ominously born at the stroke of midnight on India's day of inde-
pendence from British rule, one to the well-to-do Sinai family,
one to a family of paupers. But the two infants were in fact
switched at birth by Mary Pereira, the Sinai family ayah who
sought to impress her Marxist boyfriend with this bit of prince-
and-the-pauper subversion of social hierarchies. In a sense, then,
Sinai is "really" Shiva, and Shiva is "really" Sinai, so that the
polar opposition is rendered severely problematic.
Rushdie continues this motif of paired characters in Shame,
though more complexly, because in Shame there is no single
major character on whom to focus. As a result there are a num-
ber of important pairings in this later novel, including Iskander


Harappa and Raza Hyder, Harappa and Maulana Dawood, and
Rani Harappa and Bilquis Hyder. In The Satanic Verses, however,
the text again centers on a single pairing, in the persons of
Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, though Rushdie builds
on that pairing in an extremely sophisticated way: "For are they
not conjoined opposites, these two, each man the other's shad-
ow?" (426). The use of such character pairings is quite common
in modem literature, of course, and one immediately'thinks of
the doppelgiinger of Nabokov, or of pairings such as Stephen-
Bloom or Shem-Shaun in Joyce. However, Rushdie (like Joyce)
goes much deeper in his deconstruction of opposition than the
questioning of apparent differences between separate characters;
he delves into the interior of the individual psyche itself.3
In John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman the narrator
suggests that a tendency toward dualistic thinking was the
central characteristic of Victorian England, which makes "the
best guidebook to the age very possibly Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"
(289). Indeed, Stevenson's classic tale of the duality of human
nature stands as a strong literary paradigm of dualisms in
general. It is appropriate, then, that Rushdie's Shame (a text
that deals so extensively with the theme of duality) should adopt
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (along with its fairy-tale counterpart,
Beauty and the Beast) as a central intertextual model. Musing
on the possibility that a Beast may in fact lurk inside the Beauty
who is Naveed "Good News" Hyder, Rushdie's narrator imag-
ines a nameless "Great Poet" explaining the impossibility of
such a conjunction:

As Mr. Stevenson has shown in his Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, such
saint-and-monster conjunctions are conceivable in the case of men;
alas! such is our nature. But the whole essence of Woman denies
such a possibility. (Shame 173)

This statement, of course, is made with typical Rushdie irony.
A central plot line of Shame involves the literal transformation
of Naveed's beautiful sister Sufiya Zinobia Hyder into a beast
who hypnotizes and seduces young men, then rips off their
heads with superhuman strength.4 Rushdie carefully indicates
the parallel between Sufiya Zinobia and Stevenson's hero, refer-
ring to her marriage to Omar Khayyam Shakil as "[h]er transfor-
mation from Miss Hyder into Mrs. Shakil" (188). Names are


usually significant in Rushdie, even if ironically so: Omar
Khayyam, for example, never writes a line of poetry. Here, the
phonetic parallel between Jekyll-Hyde and Shakil-Hyder is
quite obvious, though the pairing is (not insignificantly) re-
versed: Sufiya Zinobia is a beauty as Hyder, a beast as Shakil.5
The kinds of human-beast transformations undergone by Suf-
iya Zinobia Hyder enact a fundamental transgression of the
boundary between human and animal. Such transgressions rep-
resent a favorite Rushdie motif. In Midnight's Children, Saleem
Sinai is at one point used as a "man-dog," employed by the
Pakistani "Canine Unit for Tracking and Intelligence" to sniff
out enemies with his redoubtable nose.6 The Satanic Verses ac-
tually features a number of such human-beast transgressions,
the most striking of which is the mysterious metamorphosis of
Chamcha into a devilish goatlike beast. And when the trans-
formed Chamcha participates in a mass escape from the hospital
where he is confined, he enters a nightmare vision inhabited by
all sorts of similarly metamorphosed creatures:

Chamcha glimpsed beings he could never have imagined, men and
women who were also partially plants, or giant insects, or even, on
occasion, built partly of brick or stone; there were men with
rhinoceros horns instead of noses and women with necks as long as
any giraffe. (Satanic Verses 171)

Bizarre as they may seem, these kinds of transformations are
quite central to the Menippean tradition to which Rushdie is
such a clear heir. As Mikhail Bakhtin notes, "[t]he folktale im-
age of man-throughout the extraordinaryvariety of folkloric
~ narratives-always orders itself around the niQOs of transfor-
mation and identity" (Dialogic Imagination 112). The classic
work of Menippeanluifi i-iman-atimalie os i pois Apuleius's
The Golden Ass, and the transformation of Chamcha into a
goatlike beast parallels the transformation of Apuleius's Lucius
into an ass in a number of important ways. Like Chamcha, Lu-
cius undergoes considerable hardship and severe mistreatment
while in this animal state, but later regains his humanity. In-
deed, Rushdie acknowledges his debt to his great Menippean
predecessor for this motif by having Muhammad Sufyan quote
from Apuleius upon seeing the transformed Chamcha for the
first time (Satanic Verses 243).


Bakhtin notes that such transformations allow representation
in shorthand form of the development and changeofheindi -
ual as he goes through life: "Metamorphosis serves as the basis
tor iodofportraying the whole of an individual's life in its,
more important moments of crisis: for showing how an indiyid-
eacomes otha. than what he was'" (Dialogic Imagination
115). Thus, such metamorphoses powerfully question the view
of the self as a stable, self-contained entity by showing the dras-
tic changes that the self can undergo in the course of life.7JMore1
over, the resultant confusion between human and animal brings
about a transgressive reminder of certain abject, animalistic as-
\ pects oi humannature tt society generally attempts to re-
\pess.8 The ability of the self to be transformed into something
that formerly seemed totally alien to itself interrogates the
boundary between self and other, challenging the validity of
even that fundamental duality.9
In Rushdie, the boundary between self and other is always
problematic. His characters tend to be complex, multiple, and
highly variable, and he emphasizes the manifoldness of identity
in numerous ways. Thus Saleem Sinai explains the difficulty of
relating his life in any simple way by the fact that he, like Whit-
man, contains multitudes: "Consumed multitudes are jostling
and shoving inside me" (Midnight's Children 4).
In The Satanic Verses Rushdie again employs this image of
jostling multiple selves, this time enhanced by one of his many
allusions to popular culture:

0, the conflicting selves jostling and joggling within these bags of
skin. No wonder we are unable to remain focused on anything for
very long; no wonder we invent remote-control channel-hopping
devices. If we turned these instruments upon ourselves we'd
discover more channels than a cable or satellite mogul ever
dreamed of. (519)10

Finally, he even states this multiplicity clearly in terms of a
deconstruction of the opposition between self and other:

Because a human being, inside himself, is anything but a whole,
anything but homogeneous; all kinds of everywhichthing are
jumbled up inside him and he is one person one minute and
another the next. (Midnight's Children 283)


This instability of identity, we are told, occurs because people
tend to blend together "like flavours when you cook" (Mid-
night's Children 38). Such a mixing of identities is particularly
explicit in Shame during the gestation of Omar Khayyam
Shakil. One of three sisters is bearing him (we never learn the
identity of the father), but the other sisters are so close that they
share the experience with her, helping her to bear the stigma of
unwed pregnancy: "twin phantom pregnancies accompanied the
real one; while the simultaneity of their behaviour suggests the
operation of some form of communal mind" (13). The commu-
nal nature of the identity of these three sisters is so strong, in
fact, that no one can tell the real pregnancy from the phantom
ones, and neither the reader nor Omar Khayyam ever learns
which of the three sisters is his true biological mother. And
years later, when the sisters begin to argue over Omar Khay-
yam's fateful birthday wish to be allowed to leave their barri-
caded home and enter the outside world for the first time, they
discover that such arguments are made difficult because even
they have reached the point where they cannot tell themselves

they had been indistinguishable too long to retain any exact sense
of their former selves .. and of course this confused separation of
personalities carried with it the implication that they were still not
genuinely discrete. (Shame 36)

Finally, in The Satanic Verses, all identities are radically un-
stable, with most of the characters being shown to bear ar-
tificially created identities that they themselves have largely
made up: "Fictions were walking around wherever he went,
Gibreel reflected, fictions masquerading as real human beings"
(Satanic Verses 192). This artificiality of identity is particularly
strong in the case of Chamcha, who has made up his name,
changed his voice, even changed his face in order to try to fit in
better in Britain." As a result, his identity is hopelessly multi-
ple, as emphasized by his professional role as the "Man of a
Thousand Voices and a Voice": "Once, in a radio play for thirty-
seven voices, he interpreted every single part under a variety of
pseudonyms and nobody ever worked it out" (Satanic Verses 60).
Of course, as a result of such artificiality, his identity is also
highly changeable:


When he was young ... each phase of his life, each self he tried on,
had seemed reassuringly temporary. Its imperfections didn't matter,
because he could easily replace one moment by the next, one
Saladin by another. (Satanic Verses 63)

Later, the narrator suggests that the fundamental difference
between Chamcha and Gibreel may in fact be that Chamcha
undergoes his various changes in identity willingly, but that
Gibreel seeks (unsuccessfully) to maintain his "true" self. But of
course in Rushdie there is no "true" self, and this dual opposi-
tion is fated to break down:

this sounds, does it not, dangerously like an intentionalist
fallacy?-Such distinctions, resting as they must on an idea of the
self as being (ideally) homogeneous, non-hybrid, "pure",-an utterly
fantastic notion!-cannot, must not, suffice. (Satanic Verses 427)

One of the most vivid representations of this theme of unsta-
ble identity involves Saleem Sinai in Midnight's Children, who
is physically (or at least so he believes) cracking and fragmenting
into pieces. Saleem also serves as a particularly apt figure of the
instability of identity because he is literally not himself. Se-
cretly switched at birth with the infant who grows up to become
the sinister Major Shiva, he is brought up by parents who are not
his own. Moreover, his parentage is doubly contestable: his real
biological father is the Englishman William Methwold, not the
husband of his biological mother. Clearly, to Rushdie (as to
Joyce's Stephen Dedalus) paternity is a legal fiction, but Rushdie
even expands this principle to make maternity a legal fiction as
Questionable parentage is one way in which Rushdie calls the
illusion of identity into question. In Shame we know the iden-
tity of neither of Omar Khayyam's parents. Meanwhile, both
Iskander Harappa and Naveed Hyder are revealed to be of il-
legitimate parentage, and this theme is most strikingly empha-
sized in the scene in the women's dormitory where the hus-
bands enact conjugal visits en masse under a cover of darkness
so absolute that proper pairing is highly doubtful. As Rani tells


who would know if her real husband had come to her? And who
could complain? I tell you, Billoo, these married men and ladies are
having a pretty good time in this joint family set-up. I swear, maybe
uncles with nieces, brothers with their brothers' wives, we'll never
know who the children's daddies really are! (Shame 75)

But if the very idea of a stable, unified self is revealed by
Rushdie to be a fiction, then the Romantic notion of the self as a
basis of authority or source of truth must be a fiction as well.
This attack on the authority of the individual in Rushdie is
particularly evidenced by his narrators, who are extremely unre-
liable, being not only inconsistent and contradictory, but often-
times downright mendacious. Saleem Sinai closely ties his nar-
rative to events in actual Indian history, yet gets dates wrong,
confuses causes with effects, and fabricates information when
he has no facts. He even invents entire episodes, such as the
death of Shiva, though he later confesses to his invention:

To tell the truth, I lied about Shiva's death. My first out-and-out
lie-although my presentation of the Emergency in the guise of a
six-hundred-and-thirty-five-day-long midnight was perhaps
excessively romantic, and certainly contradicted by the available
meteorological data. (Midnight's Children 529) .

In this passage, Saleem admits a lie, claims it was his only
one, then immediately admits (though more obliquely) a second
lie. The net result is an evocation of the liar paradox: the reader
finds it impossible to reach any satisfactory conclusion as to
what in the text is true and what is false. Moreover, by tying his
text so closely to history, Rushdie suggests that the authority of
all of our representations of the past may be somewhat question-
able. Sinai explains his lie about Shiva in a way that has omi-
nous implications concerning the construction of history in

I fell victim to the temptation of every autobiographer, to the
illusion that since the past exists only in one's memories and the
words which strive vainly to encapsulate them, it is possible to
create past events simply by saying they occurred. (Midnight's
Children 529)


The authority of Sinai's narrative is further undermined by
the way in which he himself calls attention to flaws in his own
narrative. Admitting that he has given the wrong date for they
assassination of Gandhi, Sinai then muses on the implications
of this error for the rest of his narrative, again with a reference to
the authority of history:

Does one error invalidate the entire fabric? Am I so far gone, in my
desperate need for meaning, that I'm prepared to distort
everything-to re-write the whole history of my times purely in
order to place myself in a central role? (Midnight's Children 198)

Rushdie continues his questioning of the authority of both
narrative and history in his later novels as well. In Shame the
intrusive narrator repeatedly reminds us of the fictionality of his
story, emphasizing that fictionality with a variety of fantastic
elements, yet tying it closely to the actual history of Pakistan as
well. For example, as Raza Hyder plots the overthrow of Iskander
Harappa, the narrator steps in:

Well, well, I mustn't forget I'm only telling a fairy-story. My
dictator will be toppled by goblinish, faery means. "Makes it pretty
easy for you," is the obvious criticism; and I agree, I agree. But add,
even if it does sound a little peevish: "You try and get rid of a
dictator some time." (Shame 284)13

In addition, the self-conscious fictionality of the narrative is
directly linked to the artificiality of our constructions of history.
This connection is particularly reinforced by the Pakistani set-
ting, as Pakistan itself is an artificially created country that
came into existence only with the partition that occurred with
India's independence from Britain. As a result, Pakistan is a
country whose history must be fabricated from scratch:

To build Pakistan it was necessary to cover up Indian history, to
deny that Indian centuries lay just beneath the surface of Pakistani
Standard Time. The past was rewritten; there was nothing else to
be done. (Shame 91)

This phenomenon of rewriting is one that occurs again and
again in Rushdie's fiction: we are given an account of events,


then that account is retracted and we are given an alternative,
contradictory account. The reader thus finds herself very much
in the position of Shame's Raza Hyder, who, having assumed
the presidency of Rushdie's mythical version of Pakistan, is
haunted by opposing voices. In his right ear, he hears the voice of
the dead Muslim religious fanatic Maulana Dawood; in his left,
the voice of Harappa, Hyder's deposed predecessor: "God on his
right shoulder, the Devil on his left" (Shame 263). This motif
evokes the well-known cartoon image in which the central
character is torn between the contradictory advice of a winged
angel on the one hand and pitchfork-bearing devil on the other.
In Rushdie, however, such an evocation is not surprising; he is
probably rivalled only by Thomas Pynchon as a contemporary
poet of cartoons, comic books, and commercials. There is
clearly a carnivalesque aspect to this juxtaposition of cartoon
imagery with serious political and religious issues, a suggestion
that the way we typically deal with those serious issues may not
be so far removed from the silliness of cartoons as we would like
to believe. Moreover, the Harappa-Dawood dichotomy shows
that even the distinction between God and the Devil is not a
pure-and-simple one. In Shame we find that Harappa commits a
number of atrocities, but definitely has a good side as well.
Meanwhile, the holy man Dawood is a cruel and sinister (if also
patently ridiculous) figure.
Of all the dual opposition that are called into question by
Rushdie's fiction, this one between God and the Devil may be
the most powerful, as the recent violent reaction of Islamic fun-
damentalists to The Satanic Verses strikingly demonstrates.
The dualistic opposition between Gibreel Farishta and Saladin
Chamcha moves to a decidedly theological plane as Gibreel
spends much of the book in the throes of a transformation (may-
be) into his namesake the archangel, while Chamcha is being
transformed (maybe) into a goatish devil. Amid the general
postmodern ontological confusion of the book, however, it is
impossible to develop any satisfactorily stable understanding of
the exact meaning and status of these problematic transforma-
tions. Moreover, the "devil" Saladin is generally treated more
sympathetically and humanly than is the "angel" Gibreel,
though it is perhaps Saladin (whose intentional subversion of
the relationship between Gibreel and Alleluia Cone leads to the
deaths of both lovers) who commits the most devilish act in


the book. In short, it is ultimately impossible to decide who is
the "good guy" and who is the "bad guy." Such opposition
simply do not apply in Rushdie's world.
The action of The Satanic Verses occurs on a number of differ-
ent ontological levels, and the angel-devil dichotomy repre-
sented by Gibreel and Saladin is reproduced in a number of ways
throughout the book. Even the prophet Muhammad (here, Ma-
hound) seems unable to tell angels from devils. He ascends
Mount Cone and receives, presumably from the archangel
Gibreel, "permission" to accept the female deities of the city of
Jahilia as secondary gods in order to facilitate the conversion of
the people of the city to Islam. He recites this revelation in verse
to the people of Jahilia, but then later receives a second revela-
tion from Gibreel telling him that the first had been a trick on
the part of Satan. Therefore, he is forced to issue a palinode
retracting those first Satanic verses.14 But this retraction, like all
palinodes, cannot fully erase the earlier verses, though it may
place them "under erasure." In a sense, the retraction merely
reactivates the carnivalesque energies of those earlier verses,
much like Chaucer's retraction at the end of The Canterbury
Of course, the very use of the name "Mahound" participates
in this confusion. Again, names in Rushdie's fiction are charged
with significance. The name "Mahound," like so much in Rush-
die, was apparently derived from the Western literary tradition.
"Mahound" appears in various guises both in medieval mystery
plays and in Spenser, but always as a sort of diabolic figure..To
make matters more complicated, the narrator suggests that the
prophet himself has chosen to use this diabolic name as a means
of disarming his opponents:

Here he is neither Mahomet nor Moehammered; has adopted,
instead, the demon-tag the farangis hung around his neck. To turn
insults into strengths, whigs, stories, Blacks all chose to wear with
pride the names they were given in scorn; likewise, our mountain-
climbing, prophet-motivated solitary is to be the medieval baby-
frightener, the Devil's synonym: Mahound. (Satanic Verses 93)

Thus, the use of this name for the prophet Muhammad empha-
sizes the indistinguishability of the divine and the diabolic in
Rushdie's latest book.15


All of this is complicated in that the reader shares Mahound's
confusion: we, too, cannot tell God from Devil, Gibreel from
Satan (who, after all, is a former archangel himself). In fact, even
as Mahound issues his palinode, that palinode is itself subverted
by the text:

Gibreel, hovering-watching from his highest camera angle, knows
one small detail, just one tiny thing that's a bit of a problem here,
namely that it was me both times, baba, me first and second also
me. From my mouth, both the statement and the repudiation,
verses and converses, universes and reverses, the whole thing, and
we all know how my mouth got worked. (Satanic Verses 123)

This statement not only illustrates Rushdie's frequent and
effective use of film imagery and terminology (again a la
Pynchon), but also effects a deconstruction and mutual implica-
tion of opposition that would do Derrida proud. Angel and devil
here are not opposites at all, but one and the same. Moreover,
Gibreel's speech shows how the Satanic verses recited by Ma-
hound serve as an internal duplication of Rushdie's text as a
whole. That text works constantly in a mode of statement and
retraction. In the very beginning of the book, we are presented
with the spectacle of Chamcha and Farishta conversing and sing-
ing as they fall from an aircraft that has exploded at high alti-

Let's face it: it was impossible for them to have heard one another,
much less conversed and also competed thus in song. Accelerating
towards the planet, atmosphere roaring around them, how could
they? But lets face this, too: they did. (Satanic Verses 6)

Or, as we are repeatedly reminded throughout the book, "it was
and it was not so, as the old stories used to say, it happened and
it never did" (Satanic Verses 35).16
This palinodic mode of narration serves to heighten the confu-
sion of the reader. Faced with the choice between so and not so,
real and not real, the reader is thwarted in his efforts to reach a
comfortable solution. Such either-or, yes-no choices are con-
stantly subverted within Rushdie's overall assault on polar logic.
This manipulative mode of narration is another Rushdie trade-
mark. His work tends to feature unreliable, intrusive narrators


who openly break the frame of the fiction to reveal the processes
of composition, disturbing any attempts at a naturalistic re-
cuperation of those fictions, even though the bulk of the narra-
tion may proceed in a largely naturalistic mode. Thus, in The
Satanic Verses, we do indeed know how Gibreel's "mouth got
worked." Like everything in Rushdie's fiction, it got worked by
the narrator. In Satanic Verses the narrator is less overtly manip-
ulative and intrusive than in Midnight's Children (where the
narrator is also the main character) or Shame (where the narra-
tor continually reminds us that we are reading a fiction that he
made up). However, he is still an important figure, always pull-
ing the strings; the identity of the narrator is one of the puzzles
the reader encounters in negotiating the book.
Very early on (on the second page of the book), the narrator
challenges us to guess his identity: "Who am I?" he asks. "Who
else is there?" he responds (Satanic Verses 4). Soon afterward, he
repeats this same question, after presenting the song of Farishta
falling through the sky: "Of what type-angelic, satanic-was
Farishta's song? Who am I?" (10). But in The Satanic Verses it is
never possible to reach a comfortable distinction between an-
gelic and satanic, and the narrator here implicates his own iden-
tity in this same unanswerable question. Like Mahound, the
reader of Rushdie's book cannot tell if the words she receives are
of divine or of diabolic origin.
There are many indications in the book that the narrator is, in
fact, Satan. For one thing, the title itself points in that direction.
We also have specific hints: "I know; devil talk. Shaitan inter-
rupting Gibreel. Me? (Satanic Verses 93). Later, the narrator
compares his own fall to that of Chamcha and Farishta: "You
think they fell a long way? In the matter of tumbles, I yield pride
of place to no personage, whether mortal or im- (133). From
such passages, the narrator's Satanic identity seems quite clear.
Yet, later in the book Gibreel sees a vision of God himself,
though it is a vision of a rather unimpressive, bearded, balding
God with the appearance of a "myopic scrivener," who curiously
seems to look a lot like Rushdie. We find, however, that this
vision is the narrator. In The Satanic Verses God and Satan are
indistinguishable, irrevocably intertwined, and the narrator
himself does nothing to clear up the confusion: "I'm saying
nothing. Don't ask me to clear things up one way or the other;
the time of revelations is long gone" (Satanic Verses 408).


Clearly, Rushdie's attacks on the authority of texts and his
attacks on the authority of religion are closely related, as well
they might be: religions commonly base their authorities on
central texts. It is not surprising, then, that one of Rushdie's
central assaults on textual authority has as its target the Koran,
the authoritative text of Islam. The Koran was supposedly dic-
tated to Muhammad by Gibreel, but we already know that Ma-
hound has difficulty distinguishing Gibreel from Satan. If he
mistakenly accepted Satanic verses once, how do we know that
he won't do so again? Moreover, Mahound in turn dictates the
revelation of scripture to his scribe, called (appropriately
enough) Salman. But Salman, concerned over Mahound's patri-
archal insistence on the submissiveness of women, begins to
wonder if the prophet has his own less-than-pure motives for
this insistence. So he decides to put Mahound to the test, alter-
ing the dictation slightly, only to discover that Mahound can't
tell the difference:

Here's the point: Mahound did not notice the alterations. So there I
was, actually writing the Book, or rewriting, anyway, polluting the
word of God with my own profane language. But, good heavens, if
my poor words could not be distinguished from the Revelation by
God's own Messenger, then what did that mean? (Satanic Verses

Or, as Salman later states, "It's his Word against mine" (Sa-
tanic Verses 368). By challenging the authority of that ultimate
monologic word, the Word of God, Rushdie (like Bakhtin) em-
phasizes the inherent dialogic power of words. No word can have
unquestionable authority, because all words inherently contain
the potential echoes of responses from opposing voices. This is
not, however, to say that language cannot be used in the service
of despotism; it can. In Shame Rushdie's narrator specifically
links Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan to political oppres-
sion, and especially to the oppressive potential of official lan-

So-called Islamic "fundamentalism" does not spring, in Pakistan,
from the people. It is imposed on them from above. Autocratic
regimes find it useful to espouse the rhetoric of faith, because
people respect that language, are reluctant to oppose it. This is how


religions shore up dictators; by encircling them with words of
power. (Shame 278)

But if language can be used in the interest of oppression, it can
also be used to oppose that oppression. Against the oppressive
authoritarian language of the dictators, Rushdie opposes his
own language of freedom and multiplicity. Thus, in an article
printed in the New York Review of Books, Rushdie notes that
the uproar over The Satanic Verses is "a clash of languages"
("The Book Burning" 26).
Because of the inherent dialogic potential of language itself,
the seemingly clear linguistic opposition between the sacred
and the profane is in Rushdie not so simple after all. Moreover,
by questioning the authority of such seemingly truth-based
texts as history and the Koran, Rushdie even confounds so sim-
ple an opposition as that between the true and the false, the real
and the not-real. The difficulty of this distinction is highlighted
by the way in which Rushdie's self-consciously literary fiction
engages in a direct and intense dialogue with the social and
political issues of the real world. Whether it be political oppres-
sion in Pakistan or religious fanaticism in Iran, the targets of
Rushdie's anti-authoritarian satire are not only modes of philo-
sophical speculation, but also living, breathing autocrats.
Shame, for example, unashamedly depicts the tumultuous his-
tory of Pakistan, from its formation in 1947 up to the time of the
writing of the book, while at the same time continually pro-
claiming its own fictionality. The narrator explains:

The country in this story is not Pakistan, or not quite. There are
two countries, real and fictional, occupying the same space, or
almost the same space. My story, my fictional country exist, like
myself, at a slight angle to reality. (Shame 23-24)

This theme of two contradictory realities occupying the same
space is a favorite one in Rushdie's fiction. Much of the premise
of Grimus, for example, involves a science-fiction-like specula-
tion on the existence of alternate dimensions within the same
space. In Shame he uses this same idea to describe the duality of
Sufiya Zinobia Hyder, noting that "the edges of Sufiya Zinobia
were beginning to become uncertain, as if there were two beings


occupying the same air-space, competing for it, two entities of
identical shape but of tragically opposed nature" (Shame 259).
But if two "tragically opposed" entities, two incompatible and
contradictory alternative realities, can occupy the same space,
then the very notions of "identity" and "reality" are called into
question. The narrator of Shame, realizing the volatility of the
material with which he is dealing, expresses his gratitude that
he is not writing a realistic novel. As a result, he will not have to
mention certain controversial real-world issues, which he then
promptly lists. Then he notes what a good thing it is that he
does not have to include this material (which he has just in-
cluded) in his book:

By now, if I had been writing a book of this nature, it would have
done me no good to protest that I was writing universally, not only
about Pakistan. The book would have been banned, dumped in the
rubbish bin, burned. All that effort for nothing! Realism can break
writer's heart.
Fortunately, however, I am only telling a sort of modern fairy-tale,
so that's all right; nobody need get upset, or take anything I say too
seriously. No drastic action need be taken, either. (Shame 72)

The ironic humor of this passage is obvious in the context of
the book, but in light of the recent "drastic action" taken by
Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini in response to The Satanic Verses,
this passage takes on a rather chilling quality.17 This action, in
addition to providing a dramatic instantiation of Rushdie's
questioning of the boundaries between fact and fiction, also
spectacularly illustrates why Islam so often surfaces in Rush-
die's fiction as a symbol of monological thought. Time and
again, Rushdie emphasizes the fact that Islam is the religion of
one God, a monotheism that forms a particularly striking sym-
bol in the context of heteroglossic, polytheistic India. As recent
reactions to Rushdie's work so vividly demonstrate, it is charac-
teristic of certain fanatical devotees of this particularly single-
minded religion to be totally intolerant of all alternative modes
of thought. This intolerance of otherness amounts to an opposi-
tion between self and other of the type that Rushdie relentlessly
challenges in his fiction. For example, the narrator of The Sa-
tanic Verses indicates that such opposition are related to the


tendency to see God and the Devil as two separate and opposing
forces rather than as related parts of the same force. He then
presents textual evidence to argue that such a separation has no
basis in older religious texts: "This notion of separation of func-
tions, light versus dark, evil versus good, may be straightforward
enough in Islam... but go back a bit and you see that it's a
pretty recent fabrication" (Satanic Verses 323).
Still, it is important to recognize that Rushdie's enemy is not
Islam itself, but dogmatism in general (read "oppression"), just
as Nietzsche opposed the dogmatism of Christianity more than
any particular tenets of the Christian religion. Indeed, Rushdie's
thought seems to resemble that of Nietzsche in many key
ways.18 But Rushdie's deconstruction of polar opposition as a
means of challenging monological authority has a number of
parallels in modem critical discourse. From Nietzsche's trans-
valuation of values to the deconstructive project of Jacques Der-
rida, a number of modern thinkers have argued that the dualistic
thinking so central to the history of Western civilization has
tended inevitably toward the establishment of hierarchies: one
term in a pair is privileged over the other so that what is "good"
becomes defined by its difference from what is "bad." Dualistic
thinking thus allows complex issues to be reduced to questions
of black-and-white, good-and-bad. It allows the identification of
the opposition as the Other, as evil, and provides a justification
for the violent oppression of that opposition.19
In Shame Rushdie demonstrates that this tendency toward
hierarchical dualisms is in fact not restricted to the West. One of
the most striking and important effects of his fiction in general
is the way in which it obfuscates the popular adjective "West-
ern" that has come to be associated (generally in a pejorative
sense) with so many political, philosophical, and historical con-'
cepts in recent years. But that is as it should be. In Rushdie,
simple dual opposition such as East versus West are never to be
trusted. One of the ways in which he breaks down this distinc-
tion in Shame is through his use of the French Revolution as an
intertext for the various coups and other incidences of political
violence in modern-day Pakistan. Rushdie evokes Georg Bilch-
ner's play Danton's Death, which depicts the apparently polar
opposition between the French revolutionary figures Danton
and Robespierre, linking that opposition to an epicureanism-


puritanism dialectic model of history. But then, in exploring the
sympathies of the play's audience with these two figures, he
discovers that the opposition is not a simple one at all: "The
people are not only like Robespierre. They, we, are Danton, too.
We are Robeston and Danpierre" (Shame 267).20 Further, he uses
this insight to confound a similar political opposition in Shame
itself: "Iskander Harappa was not just Danton; Raza Hyder
wasn't Robespierre pure-and-simple" (Shame 267).
But of course nothing is ever "pure-and-simple" in Rushdie's
fiction, and the manifoldness of his vision links his work not
only with the line of modem philosophy that runs from Nietz-
sche to Derrida, but also to the carnivalesque Menippean liter-
ary tradition within which he writes.21 Within this tradition,
Rushdie's clear predecessors are authors such as Rabelais, Swift,
and Sterne, while his modem-day company includes such mem-
bers as Joyce, Pynchon, and Giinter Grass.22 Central to the work
of all of these writers (and to Menippean satire in general) is a
questioning of traditional authority, and particularly of tradi-
tional forms of logic, forms that depend greatly on dualistic
opposition (especially the Aristotelian principle of noncontra-
diction) for their structure.
Julia Kristeva outlines this philosophical aspect of Menippean.
satire (and its moder-day heir, the "polyphonic novel"noting,
that "Meip ean discourse develops in times iton
against Aristotelianism, and writers of pol ph n
to dipprove o the very structures of official thought founded
S ogic ["Wvord" 85. isThls- ejection o f-AistotIeian-
ism leads, according to Kristeva, to the rejection of a whole
panoply of related concepts; the notions of "identity, substance,
causality and definition are transgressed so that others may be
adopted: analogy, relation, opposition, and therefore dialogism
and Menippean ambivalence" (86). But to Kristeva there is more
at stake than abstract ideas in the philosophical subversion in-
herent in the polyphonic novel. It is characteristic of Menippean
satire to be invested with political force, to be a satire of some-
thing, and literary works in the Menippean tradition tend to be
intensely involved with the sociohistorical moment in which
they are produced. "Disputing laws of language based on the 0-1
interval, the carnival challenges God, authority and social law;
in so far as it is dialogical, it is rebellious" (79).


The challenge to God that Kristeva mentions here particularly
emphasizes her contention that the subversive force of the mod-
ern polyphonic novel differs from that of its Menippean forerun-
ners in one important way:

In the Middle Ages, Menippean tendencies were held in check by
the authority of the religious text; in the bourgeois era, they were
contained by the absolutism of individuals and things. Only
modernity-when freed of "God"-releases the Menippean force of
the novel. (85)

To Kristeva, then, it is precisely the loss of monologic authority
associated with the Nietzschean death of God that energizes the
modem polyphonic text. In this sense, Rushdie's work is para-
digmatic of the genre as Kristeva defines it. Not only is his work
intensely involved with its real-world context, but that involve-
ment quite often explores alternatives to the concept of theolog-
ical authority.
Rushdie, however, is not an antireligious writer.23 Like Nietz-
sche before him, he rejects religious dogmatism while at the
same time recognizing that human beings have a fundamental
need for beliefs and values. There is a character (Aadam Aziz) in
Midnight's Children who, having lost his religious faith, experi-
ences the sensation of a hole at the heart of his very self. Rush-
die himself admits that he, too, has suffered such an experience
of loss: "Unable to accept the unarguable absolutes of religion, I
have tried to fill up the hole with literature" ("The Book Bum-
ing" 26). Rushdie's fiction, then, can be seen as his contribution
to the development of alternative myths for the modern age.
Similarly, the narrator of Shame acknowledges that an alterna-
tive to the myth of fundamentalist religion is the development
of new myths. He unabashedly recommends three such myths
derived directly from the Western Enlightenment: "liberty;
equality; fraternity" (Shame 278).
Rushdie's contention is not that we should not have faith, but
that each of us should have the freedom and opportunity to
explore and enact his own faith in his own way. Rushdie is an
apostle of freedom, proclaiming the creed that none of us can be
truly free as long as any of us remain oppressed. In this regard, it
is significant that he has become more and more concerned with
the oppression of women in Islamic society. After all, the male-


female distinction is among the most important of the dual
opposition that Rushdie consistently attacks, and as long as
women are oppressed, men cannot have true freedom either:

Repression is a seamless garment;ia society which is authoritarian
in its social and sexual codes, which crushes its women beneath the
intolerable burdens of honour and propriety, breeds repressions of
other kinds as well. Contrariwise: dictators are always-or at least
in public, on other people's behalf-puritanical. So it turns out that
my "male" and "female" plots are the same story, after all. (Shame

Rushdie clearly recognizes that the ideals of liberty, equality,
and fraternity are myths instituted for pragmatic purposes and
does not attempt to render them universal truths. Still, despite
his questioning of the stable, unified subject and despite a some-
what modern (though not radical, by feminist standards) sen-
sitivity to gender issues, his basic political vision seems in-
formed by a remarkably traditional liberal humanism, garnered
straight from the slogans of the French Revolution. All of this
seems pretty unobjectionable, even cliched, by Western stan-
dards, yet at the date of this writing Rushdie remains a marked
man, sentenced to death by Khomeini for the transgressions
committed against Islam in The Satanic Verses (even though
Khomeini himself has since died).
Khomeini's seemingly bizarre reaction to The Satanic Verses
emphasizes the profoundly contextual nature of Rushdie's fic-
tion, and of transgressive literature in general. In order to be
transgressive, literature must have something specific to trans-
gress against. Rushdie's fiction, viewed narrowly within the
Western tradition, is inventive and provocative, but does not
appear to be especially radical or subversive. Viewed from the
Islamic perspective of Iran or Pakistan, however, the deconstruc-
tion of dualities and concommitant questioning of authority
inherent in Rushdie's fiction are so powerfully subversive that
Khomeini has declared that Rushdie must die.
Preposterous as it seems from our Western perspective, Kho-
meini's death sentence would apparently be in perfect accor-
dance with Muslim law, except that the simple-minded Ayatol-
lah hermeneutics used to reach this verdict (clearly based upon
techniques of reading the Koran as the univocal Word of God) are


incapable of dealing with the rhetorical complexities of a text
such as The Satanic Verses. Apparently Khomeini has not
heeded Rushdie's narrator's warnings against the "intentionalist
fallacy," but then it is also a pretty safe bet that Khomeini hasn't
read Wimsatt and Beardsley, or (for that matter) The Satanic
Verses itself. In any case, this attempt to literalize Barthes's
death of the author in the case of Rushdie indicates that there is
a quite tangible real-world relevance for both literature and liter-
ary studies.25 This relevance, in fact, is one of the prime points
made by Rushdie's fiction, even without the Ayatollah's "help."
In fact, Rushdie sees the very notion that literature might be
divorced from real-world political issues as an illusion arising
from the comforts of advanced Western societies:

In the rich, powerful societies of the West, it is possible to exclude
politics from fiction; to treat public affairs as peripheral and faintly
disreputable. From outside the West, this looks like the sort of
position one can only take up inside a cocoon of privilege. ("The
Empire" 8).

Rushdie's encounter with Khomeini highlights graphically
(and frighteningly) the interrelatedness of literature and politics
outside that Western cocoon of privilege. Rushdie has declined
to seek the safety of that cocoon, and one can only hope that his
courageous literary attacks on the real-world despotism of re-
gimes such as Khomeini's have not placed him in the position in
which George Miranda of The Satanic Verses sees Gibreel's last
controversial religious movie as having placed Gibreel: "Looks
like he's trying deliberately to set up a final confrontation with
religious sectarians, knowing he can't win, that he'll be broken
into bits" (Satanic Verses 539).
The specificity of Rushdie's targets, whether they be Muslim
fundamentalism in general, or specific authoritarian regimes in
Pakistan or Iran, provides an important insight into the mecha-
nism of literary transgression. Rushdie's deconstruction of op-
positions and transgression of normal boundaries is genuinely
subversive largely because of the specificity of these targets. Of
course, a transgressive reader might be able to marshal the les-
sons of Rushdie's fiction against other targets as well, but in
general transgressive reading is greatly facilitated when the text
itself already posits a target. In the next chapter I shall look at


Gilbert Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew, This recent text, although
possessing an extreme diversity of styles, generic multiplicity,
and avant-garde technique, does not fully succeed as a transgres-
sive work-largely because it seems to lack specific social and
political targets.





One reviewer of Gilbert Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew called the
book a "suicide-kit of modernism," though perhaps it might
have been equally descriptive to refer to it as a tool-kit of post-
modernism. Sorrentino's book displays a broad and impressive
array of fictional devices and techniques that have come to be
identified either with postmodernism, or metafiction, or both.
Clearly the book is technically impressive, but one is tempted to
ask if it is not too impressive, placing it in severe danger of
collapsing into an empty formalism that is all style and no sub-
stance. On the other hand, one could argue that style is the
substance of this book, and so on, until the arguments become
more and more circular and confused, collapsing back onto
themselves in a midden heap. It is precisely because of such
difficulties that Mulligan Stew would seem to be an ideal text
within which to explore the fundamental question of the ef-
ficacy of postmodernist metafiction as a transgressive form.
Sorrentino's book appears a prime candidate for transgressive
reading, if only because it openly violates so many conventions
of fiction. Though the book has a plot (actually several plots, on
different ontological levels), that plot is of relatively little impor-
tance. The book roughly concerns the efforts of struggling writer
Antony Lamont to pursue his craft, especially in the writing of a


ridiculous detective novel in which Martin Halpin attempts to
decipher the clues concerning the death of Ned Beaumont. But
Mulligan Stew is really the story of the construction of Mulligan
Stew from bits and pieces of the literary tradition. It consists of a
bricolage of different styles and genres, constructed by patching
together a variety of heterogenous documents, including letters,
a scientific treatise, a play, pornographic poetry, notebook and
journal entries, a detective novel, magazine articles, and so on.
Even the characters are taken from other books. By leaving the
seams between these patches so openly exposed, Sorrentino
challenges the paradigms of realistic fiction and the ideology
upon which they are based. The question, however, is whether
Sorrentino's quest for obviousness goes so far that it undercuts
his own project.
Charles Altieri sees modernism as perhaps the apex of the
humanist tradition, as a movement that "seeks to bring individ-
uals and the culture to more complete, more fully humane uses
of human energy." Postmodernism, on the other hand, grows out
of the failure of this vision, out of an environment in which "it
has become almost impossible to believe that culture as we
know it can be a creative force awakening humanity to its own
possibilities" (Enlarging the Temple 38). Elsewhere, Altieri
notes the way in which modernist poets (particularly Stevens)
sought to give us a means of envisioning our own nobility, while
in the postmodern era, "few of us, I suspect, escape dramas of
self-reflection where we try to distinguish those assertions
about ourselves in which we can take pride from those that end
in self-parody" ("Why Stevens Must Be Abstract" 89).
Altieri's assessment of the postmodern condition can lend
considerable insight into the trials and tribulations of postmod-
ern literature. Caught up in this atmosphere of skepticism, the
postmodern author faces a difficult quandary: how to make a
useful contribution to society in a time when a spiraling sense
of irony ultimately threatens to turn any statement she might
make into a mere parody of itself. This tendency toward self-
parody would seem to be particularly acute in overtly metafic-
tional works, given that (at least on the most obvious level) such
works are principally concerned with themselves.
Presumably, metafiction reveals in an obvious way the inner
workings of a mechanism that is in fact constantly ticking away
inside of all fiction. As such, it can tell us a great deal about the


assumptions and conventions that we bring to the reading of
fictional texts in general. Thus John O'Brien (echoing Viktor
Shklovsky's famous discussion of Tristram Shandy) argues that
Mulligan Stew

is a typical novel in that it acts more or less as a paradigm of what
fiction is and does. The codes, conventions, and languages of
fiction, displayed in all their artificial splendor, form the novel's
very substance. Mulligan Stew is a primer for the reading of novels.

O'Brien goes on to argue for a strict separation of art and life in
reading Sorrentino's novel, and his invocation of the Russian
Formalist Shklovsky raises the question of the transgressive
power of Sorrentino's text. There seems little doubt that Mulli-
gan Stew can tell us a great deal about fiction, but can it tell us
anything about anything else? The Russian Formalist model of
literary history gives a central role to transgression: literature
evolves as new rule-breaking works come along to redefine the
literary. But, as Bakhtin (among others) has pointed out, this
Formalist notion of literary evolution tends to divorce itself
from events in the the world outside of literature, being con-
cerned only with the "intrinsic, immanent laws of the develop-
ment of forms within a closed, purely literary system" (Bakhtin
and Medvedev 159).1 Bakhtin's point is that no strict separation
between literature and the society around it is possible. It is
obvious that Mulligan Stew does not mirror nature in a referen-
tial way; nonetheless those "codes, conventions, and languages
of fiction" have a great deal to do with the codes, conventions,
and languages that operate in the world outside of fiction as
well. If nothing else, we as readers approach the text with our
own preexisting tool-kits of interpretive techniques, techniques
that derive not only from our previous encounters with fiction,
but also from our interactions with the world at large. Yet
O'Brien's formalist approach to the metafictional text would
seem to seal such texts off from the real-world experience of the
reader and to deny them any valid social or political force. At
one point, for example, he states that in art the "sole purpose is
to be beautiful" (71). Such an attitude is not unfamiliar in
twentieth-century criticism, of course, as the obvious example
of the New Critics immediately shows. But it is an attitude that


much of postmodernism has come to challenge. William Spanos

The objective interpretive methodology of modernism, in other
words, is grounded in an ideology sealed off from dialogic
encounter. A postmodern hermeneutics, on the other hand,
recognizes, with Heidegger, that there can be no presuppositionless
understanding of literary texts. (224)

Spanos here seems in danger of confusing modernism with the
New Criticism (and he is certainly not alone); nevertheless his
point concerning the situatedness of all readings and of all texts
is important. We do approach texts with presuppositions, and
one of the most powerful functions of metafictional texts is to
challenge those presuppositions, making us examine and ques-
tion the validity of culturally inscribed assumptions that we
might otherwise mistake for universal truths. But is it possible,
through form alone, for a text to mount a genuinely transgres-
sive force?
Spanos's emphasis here on dialogic encounter shows the influ-
ence of Bakhtin on his vision of postmoderism; at one point he
essentially equates the postmodern with Bakhtin's concept of
the carnivalesque (193). Indeed, Bakhtin's work provides a num-
ber of insights into the potential political force of metafictional
texts such as Mulligan Stew. In particular, Bakhtin teaches us
that a text's concern with its own status as a linguistic artifact
can have profound implications for the world outside of the text.
He notes, for example, that the "auto-criticism of discourse is
one of the primary distinguishing features of the novel as a
genre" (Dialogic Imagination 412). Further, he goes on to dis-
cuss different forms that this auto-criticism might take, includ-
ing a type that "introduces an author who is in the process of
writing the novel" (413). Bakhtin correctly identifies this kind
of auto-criticism with the Formalist concept of the "baring of
the device," and it is clear that this phenomenon corresponds
quite closely to what is going on in modern metafictional texts.
Moreover, Bakhtin's suggestion that such self-examination is
central to the novel as a genre (particularly what he terms the
"Second Line" novel) places such metafictional texts at the very
heart of the process through which novels interrogate the vari-
ous languages and discourse structures that constitute the con-


temporary social and historical moment in which they are pro-
To Bakhtin, language is always interested, always invested
with ideological force. Any work that seeks to explore the work-
ings of language investigates the ideological climate of its world:
"In the novel formal markers of languages, manners and styles
are symbols for sets of social beliefs" (Dialogic Imagination
357). As a result, self-referential fiction is not only relevant to
the real world, but perhaps considerably more so than so-called
realistic fiction, which on the surface appears to engage that
world more directly. In contrast to his rival Georg Lukacs,
Bakhtin implies that "realistic" fiction (roughly associated with
the "First Line" novel) merely operates in complicity with exist-
ing authoritarian value structures, and thereby can have only a
conservative political force. Meanwhile, works that interrogate
their own modes of discourse call existing value structures into
question at a fundamental level, and thus have the potential for
instigating significant changes of attitude and viable social re-
The relevance of Bakhtin's arguments to Mulligan Stew is
obvious even on a cursory reading. Though the book is impossi-
ble to summarize simply, its principal structural device is the
depiction of a writer writing a novel, in this case Antony La-
mont in the process of writing his unfortunate Guinea Red
(later retitled Crocodile Tears). Moreover, Mulligan Stew re-
minds us time and again that the main issue in the book is
language itself. A Bakhtinian reading of Sorrentino's book, then,
would seem to offer great promise for an exploration of the po-
tential political force of the work. At first glance, the book
seems indeed to be an almost ideal Bakhtinian novel of linguis-
tic subversion. On the other hand, the extremity of its metafic-
tional technique recalls Altieri's comments about postmodern-
ist self-parody and makes one wonder whether Mulligan Stew
really subverts anything other than itself. Spanos, for example,
banishes Sorrentino from his republic of postmodernist authors,
claiming that his emphasis on form itself "tends to reappropri-
ate the logocentric spatial form of early modernism in an even
purer way" (259). Sorrentino, apparently (like certain political
figures who might be accused of being so left-wing that they are
right-wing, or vice versa), is so postmodernist that he circles the


globe of literary history and winds up back in the camp of the

The novelist-narrator of Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds
makes it clear that he has little use for the Great Tradition of
realistic fiction, noting that "the novel should be a self-evident
sham to which the reader could regulate at will the degree of his
credulity" (33). Further, he offers the following advice to other
would-be authors of modern literary works:

The entire corpus of existing literature should be regarded as a
limbo from which discerning authors could draw their characters as
required, creating only when they failed to find a suitable existing
puppet. The modern novel should be largely a work of reference.
Most authors spend their time saying what has been said before-
usually said much better. A wealth of references to existing works
would acquaint the reader instantaneously with the nature of each
character, would obviate tiresome explanations and would
effectively preclude mountebanks, upstarts, thimbleriggers and
persons of inferior education from an understanding of
contemporary literature. (33)

While it is true that the narrator's friend Brinsley (playing
Lynch to the narrator's Stephen) immediately muddles this
statement with his response of "That is all my bum," it is also
true that this passage stands as a striking summation of the kind
of allusiveness that has characterized many modern literary
works. Most obvious among these is O'Brien's text itself, but
this method of composition by appropriation brings to mind the
works of a number of other authors, among whom James Joyce
and Thomas Pynchon immediately leap to mind. But the work
that has perhaps taken this advice most to heart is Mulligan
Stew, a text that (significantly) makes extensive use of both
O'Brien and Joyce as intertextual fodder. Antony Lamont, for
example, is lifted directly form the pages of At Swim-tvo-Birds,
as are his sister Sheila and his archenemy Dermot Trellis.
Sorrentino's book spectacularly instantiates O'Brien's narra-
tor's program for the modern novel, not only blatantly lifting its


characters, settings, and motifs from other novels, but even ap-
propriating its very language from other sources, resulting in a
dazzling montage of parody, pastiche, and outright mimicry of
everything from "high" literature to cheap detective fiction to
newspaper reports to pornography. Indeed, an (appropriately)
unidentified voice in a section of Mulligan Stew labeled "An
Anonymous Sketch" launches a vitriolic attack on an unnamed
novelist (presumably Lamont, but obviously Sorrentino as well),
accusing that novelist of a variety of offenses, including plagia-

Borrowing? Aye! From the base, the sublime, from the low to the
high this thief took his ore. Reading a read of a novel he'd pull out
a phrase or a line; he ransacked the news; squeezed out the juice
from advertisements; was pleased when a song had a word he could
use; in the blues he perversely found humor; from Natchez to
Mobile he ranged, from the shining mind of heaven to the
primordial ooze. A persistent and underground rumor ran thus: that
with unparalleled insolence he stole his very characters-all of
whom (but of course) were invented by better than he. (261)

This passage describes the method of construction of Sorren-
tino's novel quite well, as its very title might indicate. After all,
a mulligan stew is distinguished precisely by its being prepared
from whatever ingredients happen to be on hand. This self-
conscious statement of his own appropriative technique places
Sorrentino firmly in the tradition of Joyce and O'Brien. David
Hayman even invokes a similar culinary metaphor to describe
Joyce's method of composition, noting that: "Like a thrifty
housewife, Joyce used the stock and ingredients from yesterday's
soup to flavor today's casserole" ("Ulysses" 15). Indeed, the
above attack on plagiarism from Mulligan Stew may itself be
borrowed from Joyce. It sounds suspiciously similar to some of
Shaun's libelous descriptions of his brother Shem (and of Joyce)
in Finnegans Wake:

One cannot even begin to post figure out a statuesque ante as to
how slow in reality the excommunicated Drumcondriac, nate
Hamis, really was. Who can say how many pseudostylic shamiana,
how few or how many of the most venerated public impostures,


how very many piously forged palimpsests slipped in the first place
by this morbid process from his pelagiarist pen? (181.34-182.3)

Among other things, the method of composition employed by
Shem (and by Joyce and Sorrentino) powerfully calls into ques-
tion the traditional view of the author as creator and source of
meaning in a text. As Gerald Bruns notes, "Mulligan Stew is a
celebration of doubtful authorship; that is, it takes plagiary as
its theme, and plagiarisms of various sorts are among its most
telling ingredients" (96). Most important, Mulligan Stew sug-
gests that perhaps all authorship is necessarily a plagiarism of
sorts, even in texts that purport to be original.
The work of Bakhtin contributes to an understanding of this
view of authorship as inheritance rather than creation. In his
important late essay "The Problem of Speech Genres" Bakhtin
outlines his theory of the utterance as the basic unit of actual
speech practice. However, unlike the parole of Saussure to
which it is often compared, every utterance belongs to a specific
speech genre, with certain generic conventions constraining the
form that the utterance might take. Furthermore, these generic
conventions imply specific worldviews and ideological invest-
ments. Thus, the utterance is inevitably implicated in the con-
temporary social and political moment in which it is produced.
All utterances are thus profoundly historicized, and historical
changes in language are closely linked to historical changes in
the world at large. As Bakhtin puts it: "Utterances and their
types, that is, speech genres, are the drive belts from the history
of society to the history of language" (Speech Genres 65).
Bakhtin's dynamic historical view of the utterance implies
that all utterances within a specific genre are produced in a
dialogue with previous utterances in that genre. Any speaker (or
writer) is thus inevitably not only expressing his own ideas, but
repeating and responding to the ideas of others as well:

He is not, after all, the first speaker, the one who disturbs the
eternal silence of the universe. And he presupposes not only the
existence of the language system he is using, but also the existence
of preceding utterances-his own and others'-with which his
given utterance enters into one kind of relation or another (builds
on them, polemicizes them, or simply presumes that they are


already known to the listener). Any utterance is a link in a very
complexly organized chain of other utterances. (Speech Genre 69)

This understanding of the profound historicity of all language
use supports the view of historical embeddedness and situated-
ness of all discourse that Spanos and others have described in
relation to postmodernism. No text is produced in a vacuum;
each exists as part of an entire social, historical, and cultural
moment. This being the case, it is clear that the Romantic no-
tion of the artist-creator does not provide an accurate descrip-
tion of the actual mechanics by which texts come to be. By
openly foregrounding the inherited nature of the cultural and
linguistic materials with which he constructs Mulligan Stew,
Sorrentino calls attention to the fact that authorship is a social,
rather than individual phenomenon. Of course, the view of
author-as-creator is profoundly ideological and linked to the en-
tire Western tradition of the stable, unified subject. Any work
that attacks this conventional theological model of authorship
would then appear to have considerable subversive potential.


Unfortunately, it turns out that subverting the traditional image
of the author is not nearly so easy to effect as it might at first
appear. In Mulligan Stew, for example, one can see a number of
devices that call attention to the discourse of the book's coming
from a variety of sources. Antony Lamont, for example, stands
in the text as a dramatized figure of the author who loses control
of his text. Indeed, the "Like Blowing Flower Stilled" chapter of
Guinea Red / Crocodile Tears-in which a bizarre Elizabethan
ghost (with an occasional hint of Irish brogue) confronts and
terrifies Martin Halpin-seems to have arisen literally out of
the pool of intertextuality without authorial intervention. La-
mont, now totally paranoid, finds the completed chapter on his
desk, and concludes that it must be part of the plot against him:

I did not write this chapter.
Typed on my machine. My paper. No notes, no rough drafts, no
corrections. A perfect, finished copy.
They of course have done it. (400)


Lamont's disclaimer of authorship can be attributed to his
growing insanity, of course, but it is interesting (though not
ultimately interpretable) that Halpin himself agrees:

Lamont could not have done this. But then if he didn't, who did?
And if nobody did it? What then? (401)

Curiously, though, Lamont's difficulties are almost too literal.
He seems to be a vision of the traditional author twice removed,
functioning not so much as a parody of the conventional author-
creator as a parody of a parody of such an author. The dialogue
here circles back on itself, and the net result may be that the
traditional view of the author is actually supported by Sorren-
tino's depiction of Lamont. Similarly, despite all the technical
devices that call attention to the "borrowed" nature of Mulligan
Stew, it is Sorrentino himself who would seem to be in charge of
marshaling these devices; the sheer technical brilliance of the
book has a way of turning back on itself, emphasizing the central
importance of an author who is capable of such artistry. We
laugh as Lamont loses control of his text, but somehow we feel
that Sorrentino is firmly in command of his.
Of course, the author is in a double bind here. One is re-
minded of the myth of the invisible modernist author, made so
by a work whose technical virtuosity theoretically effaced all
"brush-strokes," all evidence of the maker's hand. But of course
this very virtuosity itself calls attention to the artist's work. In
many ways Mulligan Stew represents a sort of extension of this
phenomenon ad absurdum, so that the real target of Sorrentino's
"plagiary" is not the myth of the author-as-creator, but the myth
of the autonomous text that stands apart from any authorial
presence. As such, it would again seem to emphasize, rather
than efface, the presence of the author in the text. The book
makes some interesting points about authorship, but these
points are not ultimately subversive ones.
In an era after Barthes and after Foucault, the decentered
model of authorship posited by Sorrentino is common currency.
Even his especially direct depiction of Lamont's authorial tra-
vails is no longer unusual. Books about the writing of books
have become extremely common in this century. Alastair Fowler
suggests that "the most outstanding fictional genre of recent
decades has surely been the poioumenon, or work-in-progress-


novel-the narrative of the making of a work of art" ("Future of
Genre Theory" 294). Fowler notes that this "new" genre has
roots that go back at least to Steme, but that "as a prominent
genre it is distinctively modern." In short, by the late 1970s,
Sorrentino's "radical" treatment of authorship seems to be
highly conventional.
If Mulligan Stew does mount an attack on conventional no-
tions of the unified subject, that attack consists not so much in
its questioning of the role of the author as in its treatment of
character. After all, the characters in a fictional text are the most
obvious representations of that text's attitude toward subjec-
tivity and therefore provide the most direct means of com-
munication with the reader's own attitudes. As H6elne Cixous
puts it, "through 'character' is established the identification cir-
cuit with the reader: the more 'character' fulfills the norms, the
better the reader recognizes it and recognizes himself" ("Char-
acter" 385).
But the identification between reader as unified subject and
character as representation of the same is clearly an ideological
one, related to the entire tradition of realism. Cixous goes on to
note that

[t]he ideology underlying this fetishization of "character" is that of
an "I" who is a whole subject (that of the "character" as well as
that of the author), conscious, knowable; and the enunciatory "I"
expresses himself in the text, just as the world is represented
complementarily in the text in a form equivalent to pictorial
representation, as a simulacrum. (385)

Presumably, any text that challenges traditional notions of
characterization will challenge traditional notions of the sub-
ject as well; Cixous mentions Virginia Woolf's The Waves and
Joyce's Ulysses as specific examples of such challenges (389).
Mulligan Stew clearly opposes the notion of characters as
whole, autonomous subjects as well. Donald Greiner notes Sor-
rentino's contempt for the conventional notion of "rounded"
characters, arguing, for example, that "Sorrentino, the real nov-
elist, makes the point that Martin Halpin is not a round charac-
ter about to walk off the page or even a flat character about to be
forgotten, but merely language" (107). Indeed, at one point late
in the text "Martin Halpin" is forced to play both his role and


that of "Ned Beaumont," who has already fled the text due to
his frustration at Lamont's authorial incompetence. Curiously,
though, Greiner finds the figure of Lamont nonetheless convinc-

While laughing at Lamont, we do visualize him, care for him. He
may not walk off the page, but he is there in the page, a fictional
character who struggles with his own characters much as we
struggle with Sorrentino's. We care about Lamnont because we hear
his voice and read his language even as we are always aware that he
is no more than a construct of words which the real author
consciously manipulates. (106)

I do not agree with Greiner's assessment of the reality of La-
mont; it seems to me that by borrowing both characters from
other texts (Halpin is taken from Finnegans Wake just as La-
mont is taken from At Swim-ITwo-Birds), Sorrentino grants both
characters an equal (and equally artificial) ontological status. As
a result, Sorrentino's characterization loses much of its power to
trouble the reader and to make her question her conception of
her own identity. A comparison with At Swim-7To-Birds is
helpful here. In O'Brien's book, the ontological levels are clearly
layered, or nested. The unnamed narrator provides a level of
"reality" that within the world of the text corresponds to the
reader's own reality. Trellis is one level "down," being created by
the narrator, while Lamont and friends are still farther removed,
being created by Trellis.
But of course we realize that Trellis is no more real than
Lamont. By extension, the narrator is no more real than Trellis.
Here is where O'Brien's text achieves its troubling power: the
reader has identified the narrator's reality with her own. The
result is an ontological transgression that leads to the infinite
and vertiginous situation known in recent critical discourse as
the mise en abime. The relationship between the mise en abime
and meditations on ontology was recognized early on by Borges,
who uses the play-within-a-play in Hamlet as an illustration of
the effect in his essay "Partial Magic in the Quixote" (193-96).
Borges does not use the term mise en abime, which had not then
come into general use in the discussion of literature,2 but he
notes that the same effect was produced by Josiah Royce in 1899
in discussing the case in which a map is traced in the soil of


England-a map so detailed that it includes itself, and so on to
infinity. Borges then relates this situation to the unsettling
effects of certain works of literature:

Why does it disturb us that the map be included in the map and the
thousand and one nights in the book of the Thousand and One
Nights? Why does it disturb us that Don Quixote be a reader of the
Quixote and Hamlet a spectator of Hamlet? I believe I have found
the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a
fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers and
spectators, can be fictitious. (196)

O'Brien's text achieves precisely this effect of making us ques-
tion our own reality. Sorrentino's text, however, does not. Even
though Halpin is a character in Lamont's book, it is blatantly
clear to the reader that both are equally fictitious. Both charac-
ters are merely linguistic constructs, both lifted from other
works of literature. This coequal status is emphasized late in the
text when Halpin, trying to be both "himself" and Beaumont,
becomes indistinguishable from either Beaumont or Lamont.
All three are hopelessly intermixed in the linguistic texture of
the book.
Sorrentino's "experimental" writing also again loses force
from having too many predecessors: O'Brien, Pirandello's Six
Characters in Search of an Author, and Queneau's The Flight of
Icarus. A fictional character's leaping out of the text and into
reality has already become a stock device. Still, Greiner's com-
ment on the "reality" of Lamont here is a monument to the
power of the convention of reader identification with the char-
acters in a text. Fully cognizant of Sorrentino's attack on the
notion of realistic characters, Greiner still finds Lamont oddly
believable. In fact, he goes on to suggest that Sorrentino's frag-
mented characters reflect the fragmentation of the modern
world, so that the apparently nontraditional characterization in
Mulligan Stew in fact has a mimetic function (106-7). Obvi-
ously, the phenomenon of reader identification with fictional
characters will vary from reader to reader and from character to
character, though a recognition of the linguistic nature of
character helps to show why such identifications do seem to
follow certain broad trends rather then being totally subjective.
This notion of the linguistic construction of character is


prominent in contemporary critical discourse, and bears directly
on the conceptions of subjectivity argued by such theorists as
Bakhtin and Lacan. Such conceptions provide powerful chal-
lenges to conventional models of the subject, and works such as
those of Joyce and Woolf provide ample evidence that literary
works can provide similar challenges. But to be truly effective,
such representations of character-as-language must attack con-
ventional characterization at the root level of language itself.
Discussing Joyce's strategy of characterization in Finnegans
Wake, Derek Attridge suggests:

If Joyce is truly to undermine character as personage, then, he must
also undermine character as sign. This is most obvious in the case
of the proper name: if the word under which character traits are
assembled retains its transcendent discreteness, coherence, and
uniqueness, the essential identity of character will survive all
vicissitudes of behavior. ("Joyce" 155)

But it is precisely this kind of fundamental Joycean subversion
of the word as a bounded, knowable entity that Mulligan Stew
lacks; as a result its characterization is not ultimately subver-
sive. Joyce presents us with characters that teeter on the brink of
roundedness, characters in whom we want to believe, but in
whom we cannot finally believe because the language itself de-
nies all our attempts to get a grip on them. We are lured-
certainly in Ulysses, but also in Finnegans Wake-into an at-
tempted recuperation of Joyce's characters on realistic terms,
but then frustrated in those attempts. Greiner's comments on
Lamont aside, most readers would not be tempted to read the
characters inlMulligan Stew as realistic. It is simply too easy to
recuperate Sorrentino's characters as amusing artifacts of tex-
tual play; his characterization is not troubling, and therefore
not ultimately subversive. In fact, Greiner himself notes as
much, arguing that, confronted with Sorrentino's obviously ar-
tificial characters, "any intelligent reader does not complain but
laughs" (107).3

If Sorrentino's attacks on the integrity of the author and of
character are not finally effective, it is still possible that his


mulligan-stew method of text construction can itself be politi-
cal. After all, such a piecemeal and fragmentary mode of con-
struction has the potential to comment powerfully on tradi-
tional authoritarian concepts such as wholeness and fullness of
presence. Critics have noted this method of construction in
many modem texts, sometimes linking it to Levi-Strauss's con-
cept of bricolage. The bricoleur is a sort of junk man who ran-
domly collects odd items without any particular plan, and then
uses those diverse materials as the need arises. L6vi-Strauss sees
this technique as analogous to the way in which myths are often
constructed: "Now, the characteristic feature of mythical
thought, as of bricolagee' on the practical plane, is that it builds
up structured sets, not directly with other structured sets but by
using the remains and debris of events ... odds and ends in
English" (21).
It is fundamental to the evolution of a myth that the bricolage
character of its original construction becomes lost, so that its
final form appears natural and inevitable. A text such as
Mulligan Stew, however, refuses to let this sort of naturalization
occur. By specifically calling attention to the arbitrariness of its
method of construction, it asks us to consider whether the other
texts we encounter (literary or otherwise) are not in fact con-
structed in a similarly arbitrary fashion, regardless of how natu-
ral and well made they might seek to appear.
Because of this ability to challenge assumptions about the
natural or "logical" way in which texts are supposed to be com-
posed, the concept of bricolage has gained considerable promi-
nence in recent critical discourse. Jacques Derrida has related
his own methods of composition to those of the bricoleur, and
even suggests that, due to the "necessity of borrowing one's
concepts from the text of a heritage which is more or less
coherent or ruined, it must be said that every discourse is bri-
coleur" ("Structure" 255). In this vein, Derrida speaks of the way
in which his texts are quite literally "assembled":

I insist on the word "assemblage" here.... The word "assemblage"
seems more apt for suggesting that the kind of bringing-together
proposed here has the structure of an interlacing, a weaving, or a
web, which would allow different threads and different lines of
sense or force to bring others together. (Speech and Phenomena