The Text and the World

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

The Text and the World

All of the chapters in this book are, in different ways, about the relationship between texts and the world. How do texts represent the world? Where does a text begin and end? Is an author an inhabitant of the world or the creation of a literary text? To what extent is history a kind of text? And what implications does this have for thinking about literature? Can literary texts do things to the world as well as simply describe it? These are some of the questions with which we engage in this book.

The relationship between literary texts and the world has been a central problem in criticism and theory at least since the fourth century BC when Plato banished poets from his imaginary Republic for allegedly misrepresenting the world. The very phrase ’the text and the world’, however, immediately presents a questionable distinction: its very formulation presupposes a difference between a text on the one hand and the world on the other. This distinction is, of course, a very common way of thinking about literature: it is implicit in a certain understanding of mimesis or imitation, and in notions of realism and naturalism, and of representation, as well as in metaphors which suggest that literary texts offer a window onto the world or (in Hamlet’s words) hold a mirror up to nature. All of these ways of thinking about literary texts start from an assumed separation of the literary work, the text, from the world. They imply that a literary text is not, in essence, part of the world. Actually, over the centuries, writers have been trying to drive a stake into the heart of this assumption: the text—world dichotomy is like a vampire that will not lie down. The latest and most persistent of these vampire-killers are called poststructuralists. Poststructuralism (including new historicism, deconstruction, certain forms of feminism, postcolonialism and queer theory) consistently undermines the very terms of this text—world dichotomy. Michel Foucault puts the point pithily in a way that is clearly influenced by the nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: ’if language expresses, it does so not in so far as it is an imitation and duplication of things, but in so far as it manifests … the fundamental will of those who speak it’ (Foucault 1970, 290). Poststructuralists ask what it means to say that a literary text is different or separate from the world. Should we not say, rather, that such texts actually make up our world? How can an act of inscription or an act of reading not be part of the world? Is there a world without such acts? In a later chapter, we look at the ways in which texts may be considered as performative, as acts of language which themselves do things, as well as just talk about things. In this chapter, we shall explore the idea that literary texts are acts that destabilize the very notion of the world and that disturb all assumptions about a separation of world from text.

In order to elucidate this proposition, we might consider Andrew Marvell’s great seduction poem ’To His Coy Mistress’ (1681). In this poem, the speaker addresses his ’coy mistress’ and attempts to persuade her to go to bed with him:

Had we but world enough, and time,

This coyness, lady, were no crime.

We would sit down, and think which way

To walk, and pass our long love’s day.

5 Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side

Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide

Of Humber would complain. I would

Love you ten years before the flood:

And you should, if you please, refuse

10 Till the conversion of the Jews.

My vegetable love should grow

Vaster than empires, and more slow.

An hundred years should go to praise

Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze.

15 Two hundred to adore each breast:

But thirty thousand to the rest.

An age at least to every part,

And the last age should show your heart:

For, lady, you deserve this state,

20 Nor would I love at lower rate.

But at my back I always hear

Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near:

And yonder all before us lie

Deserts of vast eternity.

25 Thy beauty shall no more be found;

Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound

My echoing song: then worms shall try

That long-preserved virginity:

And your quaint honour turn to dust;

30 And into ashes all my lust.

The grave’s a fine and private place,

But none, I think, do there embrace.

Now, therefore, while the youthful hue

Sits on thy skin like morning dew,

35 And while thy willing soul transpires

At every pore with instant fires,

Now let us sport us while we may,

And now, like amorous birds of prey,

Rather at once our time devour,

40 Than languish in his slow-chapped power.

Let us roll all our strength, and all

Our sweetness, up into one ball:

And tear our pleasures with rough strife,

Thorough the iron gates of life.

45 Thus, though we cannot make our sun

Stand still, yet we will make him run.

As soon as we ask even the simplest questions about this poem we come up against the problem of representation, the problem of the relationship between the text and the world. Perhaps the most obvious question that we would want to ask is whether the poem should be read as really a poem of seduction: is the speaker the same as the poet and, if so, is this text really addressed to a woman Andrew Marvell knew? Or should we understand the speaker to be a fictional construction, and the addressee to be an invention of the text? Most readings of the poem assume that the latter is the case, that rather than attempting to seduce a woman, this poem presents a fictional dramatization of such an attempt. In this sense, it may seem that the poem is categorically separate from the ’real’ world and from ’real’ people. But this poetic attempt at seduction does not just take place between a fictive woman and the poem’s speaker. In various ways, ’To His Coy Mistress’ challenges our thinking on fiction and the real. For example, regardless of whether the mistress is conceived as real or fictive, the poem has effects on us. In particular, such a poem can be considered as performative — in the sense that it performs an act not so much of sexual as of textual seduction. It tries to entice us to read and to read on and to draw us into another world — a world of reading that is both fictional and real.

But Marvell’s poem does not stop here. It can be shown to engage with the world through the use of a number of specific discourses. The seduction is mediated not only by reference to other kinds of literary texts (poems of seduction, love poems, the blazon, the carpe diem or memento mori motif and so on), but also in terms of other kinds of discourse (biblical, classical, colonial, philosophical, scientific, military). In this respect, the poem could be seen as an example of what the Russian critic M.M. Bakhtin calls ’heteroglossia’, in that it embraces a series of overlapping codes and discourses. This complex jumble of discourses positions the text in relation to ’the world’ — even if we try to read the poem as simply fictional.

Indeed, rather than thinking of texts on one side and ’the world’ on the other, we might reflect on the idea that everything human that happens in the world is mediated by language. Language, as Jean-Jacques Lecercle puts it, ’always reminds us that it, and no one else, is speaking, that whenever we believe we rule over our words, we are in the grip of an unavoidable but nevertheless delusive illusion’ (Lecercle 1990, 265). In this context we could attempt to clarify the notoriously controversial statement by Jacques Derrida, in his book Of Grammatology (1976, 158, 163), that ’There is nothing outside the text’. This much quoted and much misunderstood slogan is, in fact, a misleading translation of the French sentence ’Il n’y a pas de hors-texte’, which is perhaps better rendered as ’There is no outside-text’. The latter version is preferable because it is easier to see that it is saying something credible. When Derrida makes this statement he is talking about reading. His point is not that there is no such thing as a ’real world’ but that there is no access to the real world of, for example, Marvell’s poem, except through the language of the poem. In other words, there is no reading of ’To His Coy Mistress’ that is not dependent, precisely, on language: the ’real world’ of the poem is the poem. We cannot go beyond or transcend the text to Marvell’s coy mistress since our only access to her is through the poem. But Derrida is also making a larger, more difficult claim, arguing that there is no way to conceive, imagine or even perceive ’the world’ without stubbing our toes on the question of language. Put very crudely, Derrida suggests there is no access to ’the world’ except, in the broadest sense, through language. ’Language’ here need not be simply verbal, but may include everything that works as a system of signs. Even without words, for example, seduction is an affair of language — there is the language of eyes, gestures, touch, a complex olfactory system, and so on. Derrida and other theorists of deconstruction, then, regard the text—world opposition as untenable if also perhaps unavoidable. In this respect, to criticize Derrida for a kind of unalloyed textualism that cannot account for power or politics is to fail to recognize the extent to which political, social, economic and historical forces are bound up in language itself, in discourse, in representation.

Some of these points may become clear if we take a closer look at a few details of Marvell’s poem. The poem explicitly plays upon an opposition between text and world. It begins by claiming that if there were ’world enough, and time’, the speaker would spend many hundreds of years praising the woman’s beauty. Thus the opening verse-paragraph immediately establishes an opposition between words and deeds, between talking and making love, between language and the body — between the text and the world. And, in a self-consuming rhetorical gesture, the poem argues against any more discourse, any more talk. It argues for the disposal or rejection of speech in favour of action — the action of the joining of two bodies. In this sense, the whole poem may be read in terms of a conflict played out between the text and the world, an attempt to go beyond its own discourse to the body of the woman. At the same time, however, the poem appears paradoxically to suggest that this separation of text and world is itself impossible. The poem culminates in a rejection of speech or discourse and in a militaristic metaphor for the violent exchange between two bodies (’Let us roll all our strength, and all / Our sweetness, up into one ball: / And tear our pleasures with rough strife / Thorough the iron gates of life’). But this final rejection of speech in favour of action simply results in silence, the end of the poem: it does not, cannot, go beyond talk to the body of the woman. For the speaker, there is no escape from talk, language, discourse, no pure body without, outside of, this poem.

Nevertheless, at various points in the poem, the speaker does attempt to point beyond language, to refer to the woman’s body — here and now. At the beginning of the third verse-paragraph, for example, he describes a blush which suffuses the woman’s body:

Now, therefore, while the youthful hue

Sits on thy skin like morning dew,

And while thy willing soul transpires

At every pore with instant fires,

Now let us sport us while we may…

What we might call the poem’s ’fiction of immediacy’ (the sense that the speaker is addressing a woman who is present and that the action of this poem takes place in ’real time’) becomes fully apparent at this point, as the speaker refers directly to the altering state of the woman’s body. In addition to the insistent deixis of ’Now … Now’, this sense of immediacy is generated through complex rhetorical strategies. For example, the blush or sweat which ’transpires / At every pore’ is read as a sign of the inner ’fires’ produced by the ’willing soul’ of the woman. In its most direct reference to the woman’s body, at this ’instant’, here and now, the poem is highly figurative. The complicated metaphoricity of these lines, their sheer insistent textuality, dissolves any illusion of corporeal presence. Moreover, as we have suggested, the speaker interprets the woman’s blush just as we interpret his lines. The fiction of immediacy in Marvell’s poem, the reiterated force of the ’now’, is derived above all, perhaps, from the extraordinary turn that occurs at the start of the second verse-paragraph: ’But at my back I always hear / Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near’. This ’always’ evokes the constant imminence of something, an unceasing urgency and apprehension that is always there, always ’hurrying near’, regardless of whether we are reading or making love, writing or fighting.

’The text and the world’ names a false opposition. Texts cannot but be part of the world. To talk about texts as ’representing’ reality simply overlooks ways in which texts are already part of that reality, and ways in which literary texts produce our reality, make our worlds. In this respect we may be prompted to ask what is at stake not only in the narrator’s but in Marvell’s and in Western culture’s representations of the female body. In particular, we might ask what is involved in the violence embedded within Marvell’s figuration of the woman as a body and as dead — as a corpse. What is the relationship between aesthetic and erotic contemplation in this representation on the one hand and its imagining of the woman’s death on the other? In her influential book Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic (1992), Elisabeth Bronfen has explored the multiple ways in which patriarchy figures the conjunction of femininity with death and the aesthetic, and the fact that the female body as an object of aesthetic contemplation is also bound up with a certain violence towards femininity, towards women. According to this thinking, the very status of Marvell’s poem as a ’classic’, as a showcase poetic urn in the imaginary museum of English literary history, its reproduction in classrooms, lecture theatres, anthologies and in books such as our own, produces and reinforces the cultural construction of ’woman’ as allied with death and with the aesthetic. Indeed, Bronfen would argue that such a poem and its reception have a crucial social and cultural function since, like other representations of the death of a beautiful woman, the poem exemplifies patriarchy’s repression of the fact of the (male) subject’s own death by the displaced representation of that death in the ’other’ (the woman). The linguist Roman Jakobson famously defines the ’poetic function’ of language as ’a focus on the message for its own sake’ (Jakobson 1960, 365), and the critical tradition has tended to respond to Marvell’s poem in just this way, reading it as a self-reflexive, autonomous work of art which transcends the interests of the world. But if instead we read it as a powerful and influential expression of the cultural construction of femininity, we see that the distinction that is embedded in our chapter title — between the text and the world — has dissolved.

Further reading

Edward Said’s The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983), especially the title essay, persuasively argues the case for saying that ’a text in being a text is a being in the world’. Another classic argument for a similar position is contained in the work of Raymond Williams, whose 1961 book The Long Revolution (1992) was important for British cultural materialism in particular. Eric Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (2003), first published in 1946, is a wide-ranging and influential account of realism and representation in Western literary culture, while Roland Barthes’s Mythologies (1972) demonstrates the cultural construction of ’reality’ or ’nature’ in fascinating analyses of anything from soap powder to wrestling. Roger Fowler’s Linguistic Criticism (1986) takes a linguistic perspective on questions raised in this chapter. Whiteside and Issacharoff, eds, On Referring in Literature (1987) collects a number of essays on the problem of reference in relation to literary texts. For a challenging but brilliant exploration of questions of mimesis and the materiality of writing, see Tom Cohen’s Anti-Mimesis from Plato to Hitchcock (1994). Alongside and rather more accessible than Bronfen’s Over Her Dead Body (1992) is Peter Brooks’s lucid and thought-provoking Body Work (1993), which also considers the representation of bodies — especially female bodies — in nineteenth- and twentieth-century art and literature. For two powerful and very different accounts of writing and/through the body of a woman, see Luce Irigaray, ’This Sex Which is Not One’ (1985) and Hélène Cixous, ’The Laugh of the Medusa’ (1990). Another way in which the ’world’ is articulated in literature is investigated in ecocriticism: see Chapter 18, below, on this question and see especially Coupe, ed., The Green Studies Reader (2000), for debates on the question of representation in this context.