The Beginning

An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory - Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle 2016

The Beginning

When will we have begun?

Where — or when — does a literary text begin? This question raises a series of fundamental problems in literary criticism and theory. Does a text begin as the author puts his or her first mark on a piece of paper or keys in the first word on a computer? Does it begin with the first idea about a story or poem, or in the childhood of the writer, for instance? Or does the text only begin as the reader picks up the book? Does the text begin with its title, or with the first word of the so-called ’body’ of the text?

We will try to begin with a poem. John Milton’s great epic Paradise Lost (1667) begins by returning to the beginning:

Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit

Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste

Brought death into the world, and all our woe,

With loss of Eden, till one greater Man

Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,

Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top

Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire

That shepherd, who first taught the chosen seed,

In the beginning how the heav’ns and earth

Rose out of chaos: or if Sion hill

Delight thee more, and Siloa’s brook that flowed

Fast by the oracle of God; I thence

Invoke thy aid to my advent’rous song,

That with no middle flight intends to soar

Above th’Aonian mount, while it pursues

Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.

This extraordinary opening sentence is all about beginnings. Thematically, it establishes the poem to be about the first disobedience of Adam and Eve which ’Brought death into the world, and all our woe’. But it is also about itself as a beginning: it assures us that this is the first time that such a project has been attempted (’Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme’). It is as if the opening to a poem could be the equivalent of a moon-landing — one small step for John Milton … Rather differently, the opening sentence is about itself as a beginning in the sense that it is asking the ’Heav’nly Muse’ for inspiration. It is about the way that poems are conventionally thought to begin — in inspiration. This produces a strange paradox of beginnings: the origin of the poem, inspiration, comes after the beginning of the poem. In other ways, too, Milton’s opening unsettles any simple notion of opening or beginning. Not only does the poem talk about a beginning (the eating of the fruit of knowledge) but it also refers to a future return to a time before that beginning (’regain the blissful seat’), a restoration which will be both the beginning of a new age and a repetition of a previous state.

There is another way in which this beginning is not a beginning: it repeatedly refers us back to other texts. Milton refers to Moses (’That shepherd’) in the belief that he ’taught’ the children of Israel the creation story — in other words, that he wrote the opening books of the Old Testament. In this respect, the muse that Milton’s poem addresses and invokes is a second-hand muse. Contrary to its claims to originality, this opening echoes and alludes to various other openings. ’Of man’s first disobedience … Sing Heav’nly Muse’ repeats the conventional apostrophe of such classical openings as Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid; ’In the beginning’ repeats the opening to the Gospel according to St John (’In the beginning was the Word’), and so on. Finally, the very syntax of Milton’s sentence displaces the beginning of the poem, in particular by holding back the main verb of the sentence — ’Sing’ — until line six.

Despite the complications of Milton’s opening, however, at least it tries (or pretends to try) to begin at the beginning, rather than in the middle. Beginning in the middle — in medias res — is the other way to begin. One of the most famous beginnings-in-the-middle is Dante’s opening to The Divine Comedy (c. 1307—20):

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita

mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,

che la diritta via era smarrita.

(Midway in the journey of our life I found myself in a dark

wood, for the straight way was lost.)

There are at least three different middles here: the middle of ’our life’, the middle of a dark wood, the middle of a narrative. Dante conflates life, journey and narrative, and suggests the uncanny terror of beginning at such a moment of middling. In particular, the uncanniness of ’mi ritrovai’ suggests the hallucinatory terror of (re-)finding, of retrieving oneself. But Dante’s opening might also suggest that there are no absolute beginnings — only strange originary middles. No journey, no life, no narrative ever really begins: all have in some sense already begun before they begin. But this is not to say that we can do without the concept of the beginning. Where would we be without a beginning? Where would a text be?

The paradox of the beginning having already begun is wittily presented by Laurence Sterne in the opening of his novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759) in terms of both the beginning of a narrative and the beginning of a life:

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider’d how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concern’d in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost:—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me. (5)

This opening is a comic version of Philip Larkin’s equivocal opening line to his poem ’This Be The Verse’ (1974): ’They fuck you up, your mum and dad’. Tristram Shandy complains because his parents were thinking of something else at the moment of his conception and he is afraid that in consequence his whole life has been fucked up. As his uncle Toby remarks a few pages later, ’My Tristram’s misfortunes began nine months before ever he came into the world’ (7). Tristram Shandy famously confronts the intractable problem of how to end an autobiography: such a text can never catch up with itself because it takes longer to write about life than it takes to live it. In this sense, no autobiography can ever end. But Tristram Shandy is also about how to begin — how to begin at the beginning — and how we begin.

If beginnings always have a context and are therefore determined by what comes before, the opening to Tristram Shandy also makes it clear that, in turn, beginnings determine what comes after. This is true of literary as of other beginnings: beginnings augur, acting like promises for what is to come. Such is the force of many well-known literary beginnings. The opening to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) is apparently unequivocal: ’It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’ (1). This sets the stage for the whole novel. The topic is marriage, the tone is ironic. Austen proclaims the values of universalism (’a truth universally acknowledged’), while satirizing them: what is acknowledged as a truth for upper middle-class men in early nineteenth-century England is not necessarily acknowledged universally. Before going on to provide an ’Explanatory’ note on its dialect, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer’s Comrade) (1885) begins with a ’notice’:


Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.


At once witty and baffling, the sentence is both an entrance and a barrier to the novel. It reads something like the sentence ’Do not read this sentence’, in that it both acknowledges that readers do try to find motives and morals in narratives, and comically prohibits such a reading. Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851) is also framed by a number of what Gérard Genette calls ’peritexts’ (Genette 1997) — by a contents page, a dedication, an ’Etymology’ (of the word ’Whale’) and ’Extracts’ (several pages of quotations about whales) — before it begins with the famous words ’Call me Ishmael’. Satirical prevarication and pedantry, combined with blustering assertiveness, characterize the whole novel. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928) opens (after a dedication, preface, contents page and list of illustrations) with a sentence that equivocates by appearing not to do so: ’He — for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it — was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters’ (13). The sentence begins a book about a person of uncertain or variable gender in a tone of strange uncertainty, with a suggestive mixture of decapitation and castration. By appearing not to, this opening sentence, like the novel as a whole, subtly undermines conventional ideas about gender identity. The first sentence of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915) is sheer heart-tugging seduction: ’This is the saddest story I have ever heard’ (7). It is the sort of sentence from which a novel might never recover. And Proust’s famous understated opening to Remembrance of Things Past (1913—27) implies that there is no single beginning: ’Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure’ (’For a long time I used to go to bed early’, 13). A studied reflection on the past, a sense of intimacy, the power of habit and repetition are what characterize Proust’s 3,000-page novel. As these examples suggest, one of the peculiarities of literary openings is that they are never single. The openings to Huckleberry Finn, Moby-Dick and Orlando produce multiple beginnings through their ’peritexts’, but the other examples also present more than one beginning: The Good Soldier suggests both a story and its retelling (as well as other stories that are not as sad), while Proust’s opening gives a sense that narrative begins in repetition, that no single event can be said to be a beginning.

As we have begun to see, one of the ways in which a literary text multiplies its beginning is through the deployment of peritexts — titles, subtitles, dedications, epigraphs, introductions, ’notices’ and so on. A classic example would be the opening of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). Before we arrive at the first words of Eliot’s poem we encounter a series of multilingual hurdles. To start with, there is the title. The title, like all titles, is uncertainly poised between inside and outside. It both names the poem, as if from outside, and forms part of that poem. ’The Waste Land’ both refers to a place or predicament — post-1918 Europe, for example — and names the strange ’land’ that Eliot’s poem creates (like a waste land, the poem is full of debris from the past, fragmentary memories and quotations). Next we encounter the Latin and Greek of Petronius: ’Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: Σίβυλλα τί Θελεις; respondebat illa: άποθαυειυ Θέλω’ (’For once I myself saw with my own eyes the Sibyl at Cumae hanging in a cage, and when the boys said to her “Sibyl, what do you want?” she replied, “I want to die”’). As an epigraph, this quotation too may be said to be both inside and outside the poem, both a commentary on and a part of the text. The next hurdle is a tribute in Italian to Ezra Pound: ’il miglior fabbro’ (’the better craftsman’). Pound, as editor, was responsible for much of the final shape of Eliot’s poem and therefore is in part the craftsman of what follows. Even this tribute is a quotation: it comes from Dante’s Purgatorio and is in this sense, too, both part of Eliot’s poem and not part of it. Finally, there is a subtitle: ’1. The Burial of the Dead’. This is a quotation from the Anglican burial service. Then we have what appear to be the first words of the poem:

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain. (ll.1—4)

But in fact these lines are a pastiche or reworking of the opening to another poem, Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (c. 1387—1400):

Whan that April with his shoures sote

The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licour,

Of which vertu engendred is the flour. (ll.1—4)

In these and other ways, Eliot’s poem displaces its own beginning. The beginning of the poem is no longer the first stroke of the pen or keyboard. Through emphatic effects of intertextuality (including quotation, allusion, reference and echo), Eliot’s poem suggests that originality, the notion of beginning as singular, definable, stable is severely problematic. To ask where or when Eliot’s poem begins is to meet with a series of questions concerning the identity of the author, the text and reader, and finally of the Western literary tradition generally.

The Waste Land may seem to be unusually concerned with questions of origins and their displacement. But the kinds of effects of intertextuality that this opening explores are in fact fundamental to literary texts more generally. Literary texts, that is to say, are always constructed by and within a context or tradition. In his well-known essay ’Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1919), Eliot himself argues that ’No poet, no artist of any art, has his [sic] complete meaning alone’: rather, what is important is the poet’s ’relation to the dead poets and artists’ (Eliot 1975, 38). A poem, novel or play that does not in some sense relate to previous texts is, in fact, literally unimaginable. The author of such a text would have to invent everything. It would be like inventing a new language from scratch, without any reliance on already existing languages. In this sense, intertextuality (the displacement of origins to other texts, which are in turn displacements of other texts and so on — in other words, an undoing of the very idea of pure or straightforward origins) is fundamental to the institution of literature. No text makes sense without other texts. Every text is what Roland Barthes calls ’a new tissue of past citations’ (Barthes 1981, 39).

Two of the most compelling and most persistent myths of literary texts concern their origins. The first is the idea that the most important aspect of any reading is an imagined meeting of the reader’s mind with that of the author — an idea that exemplifies what has been known, since a famous essay of that name (1946 rev. 1954), as the ’intentional fallacy’ (the mistaken belief that what the author intended is the ’real’, ’final’ meaning of the work and that we can or should know what this is (see Wimsatt and Beardsley 1995)). But if we cannot know the beginnings of a text in terms of what is available to us on the page, how much more difficult it would be to discover the origins of the thought which impels the text. Does an author know where these thoughts come from? Are they in fact thoughts (conscious, coherent, consistent)? Whose ’thoughts’ do we read when we read the beginning of The Waste Land? Eliot’s, Chaucer’s, Pound’s, Petronius’s, Dante’s? Are they still the poet’s thoughts if the poet is said to be ’inspired’? The second common myth involves the priority given to an individual reader’s first reading of a text. According to this myth, all literary criticism involves a corruption of the original ’experience’ of reading. Once upon a time (so this myth goes) we were able to read a novel (by Charlotte Brontë, say, or J.K. Rowling) and have a completely unadulterated reading experience, unsullied by any critical thinking or complexity. But although we often talk about literary texts as though they have been subjected to only one reading, we all know that this is in many respects simply a convenient fiction. Roland Barthes, in his book S/Z (1970), makes a point about the act of rereading as ’an operation contrary to the commercial and ideological habits of our society’ and suggests that it is ’tolerated only in certain marginal categories of readers (children, old people and professors)’ (Barthes 1990b, 15—16). Professors include Roland Barthes, of course, and it is part of his aim to question the very idea of a single or first reading. Rereading, he argues,

contests the claim which would have us believe that the first reading is a primary, naïve, phenomenal reading which we will only, afterwards, have to ’explicate’, to intellectualize (as if there were a beginning of reading, as if everything were not already read: there is no first reading … ). (Barthes 1990b, 16)

Once again, Eliot’s The Waste Land suggests some of the complexities involved in a first reading. If the opening to Eliot’s poem refers to Chaucer’s, then when can we properly be said to read ’April is the cruellest month’? Surely we must reread it, once we have read it, with Chaucer’s words in mind. In which case the first reading is inadequate. Less dramatically, perhaps, the same may be said of any other literary text: every reading (even a so-called ’first reading’) is at least in part a learned or programmed response, conditioned by other and others’ readings. In this respect, reading critically is, in T.S. Eliot’s words, ’as inevitable as breathing’ (Eliot 1975, 37).

The present book is, fundamentally, about questions of origins, about beginning. It is concerned with how we might begin to read, to think about and write about literary texts. In particular, the book is about those uncertain origins — the author, the reader and the text — none of which can ever be taken for granted. Neither author nor reader nor text finally or properly constitutes a beginning. As with ’beginning literary studies’ (which we have begun now, haven’t we?), the idea that everything begins with the author or with the reader or with one particular text is both deeply compelling and deeply false.

Further reading

The now classic exploration of literary beginnings is Edward Said’s Beginnings (1975), a challenging but exuberant and theoretically astute exploration of openings, originality and origins in literature and theory. A more recent and perhaps more accessible book on beginnings is A.D. Nuttall’s Openings (1992), which eschews theoretical discussion in favour of a concentrated focus on a small number of classic literary openings. On intertextuality, see Graham Allen’s very readable Intertextuality (2011) and Mary Orr’s rather more specialist Intertextuality (2003); and see Daniel Chandler’s chapter on intertextuality in Semiotics: The Basics (2007), which is also available online at Also of interest in this context is Julie Sanders’s Adaptation and Appropriation (2006). There has been an enormous amount of work in recent years on questions of originality and plagiarism in literature, much of it rather specialized, but see, in particular, Margaret Russett, Fictions and Fakes (2006), Hillel Schwartz, The Culture of the Copy (1996), and Françoise Meltzer, Hot Property (1994). For a brilliant if sometimes polemically anti-theory approach to the question of allusion, see Christopher Ricks, Allusion to the Poets (2002). On the origins of creativity, see Timothy Clark’s difficult but inspirational book The Theory of Inspiration (1997).