Read from January 8th to February 10th, 2014
The history of modern English literature … can be seen as an oscillation in the practice of writing between polarized clusters of attitudes and techniques: modernist, symbolist or mythopoeic, writerly and metaphoric on the one hand; antimodernist, realistic, readerly and metonymic on the other.
This is, in a nutshell, what The Modes of Modern Writing is about: demonstrating that the Modern English writing oscillates between two poles: metaphor and metonymy. David Lodge uses Roman Jakobson’s distinction between the two aspects of the language: one to be found on the selection axis, hence, metaphoric, the other on the combination axis, hence metonymic and synecdochic. These terms could be reinforced by Roland Barthes’ dichotomy of readable (readerly) and writable (writerly) texts and are, in the author's opinion, more appropriate than the usual antithetic distinction between modernist and realistic literature (for modernists claim their literature is the truly realistic one).
Of course, this distinction could be used to reconcile not only various groups of writers, but also distinct periods in a writer’s creation, since
…there is not a distinction between two mutually exclusive types of discourse, but one based on dominance. The metaphoric work cannot totally neglect metonymic continuity if it is to be intelligible at all. Correspondingly, the metonymic text cannot eliminate all signs that it is available for metaphorical interpretation.
After establishing the premises, the critic proceeds to demonstration by reviewing some modernist writers. Among them, the most interesting observations, in my opinion, concern James Joyce and Virginia Woolf’s. In both there is a transition from metonymic to metaphoric: Joyce’s “Dubliners” is mostly metonymic and “Finnegans Wake” metaphorical. As for Virginia Woolf, there is a similar technical difference between "The Voyage Out" and "The Waves". However,
Virginia Woolf’s metaphorical mode is correspondingly different from Joyce's. It might be said that whereas his writing aspired to the condition of myth, hers aspired to the condition of lyrical poetry.
Consequently, modernists, and even antimodernists and modern writers who are only tangentially modernists seem to oscillate between metonymic and metaphoric poles of writing.
But what about postmodernists? Well, as the last chapter of the study implies, even when you find metonymic and/or metaphoric traits in their works, it is quite impossible to classify their work based on this dichotomy. Postmodernism, defined by Barth as a literature of exhaustion, reveals a world often closed to reader’s interpretation efforts, and it is futile to look for the pattern in the carpet, anyway. Characterized by contradiction, discontinuity, randomness and excess, it short-circuits either metaphor and metonymy, by playing one against the other. The danger lies, the critic warns, with those books that rely only upon defying the established rules, since the moment the rules disappear, they are prone to disappearing, too:
Postmodernism cannot rely upon the historical memory of modernist and antimodernist writing for its background, because it is essentially a rule-breaking kind of art, and unless people are still trying to keep the rules there is no point in breaking them, and no interest in seeing them broken.
What else to add? Oh yes, some ideas, in no order whatsoever, that I liked and hope to use someday:
- there are texts that are axiomatically literary – they cannot be classified elsewhere, even though their value is secondary (e. g. Love Story ☺);
- realism is so good in depicting repression because it is a mode of writing derived from consciousness, daylight, ego;
- “… literature written in metonymic mode tends to disguise itself as nonliterature”;
- the gratuitous obscenity of some scenes in William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch could be explained by the confusion (instead of choosing) between metonymic and metaphoric;
- Finnegans Wake escapes both criticism and reading in full (I oversimplified, but it’s funny nonetheless!);
- Philip Larkin is a metonymic poet.
Overall, an extremely rewarding reading, by the same David Lodge who never disappoints me with his beautifully organized ideas, his strong arguments, his clear and “readerly” style, his tender irony.