New Course: The Séance of Reading

curs Cousineau

Lecturer: Prof. Thomas J. Cousineau (Washington College/ IRH-ICUb Visiting Professor)

The course will take place in May, during the visit of Prof. Thomas Cousineau.

For registration please contact Prof. Cousineau, tcousineau2 (at) washcoll.edu

This seminar is the latest phase of a project that began several years ago when I read American literary critic Kenneth Burke’s assertion that an author’s quest to produce the perfect work is inseparable from his fashioning the perfect victim.  Burke’s claim intrigued me for two reasons: first, I had never previously thought of the protagonist of a literary work as its author’s “victim”; second, his applying the concept of “perfection” to both the protagonist and the work itself suggested the possibility of the latter being in some way the uncanny double – or doppelgänger –of the former. Burke’s remark also led me to see the story of Daedalus and Icarus in  a new light, with Icarus as the perfect victim and Daedalus’s craftsmanship as the perfected work.  The fact that both Daedalus and Icarus are guilty of transgressing the laws of the gods — Daedalus by “turning his mind to unknown arts” and Icarus by “taking his path higher” – suggested  the possibility  of seeing the father and his son as doubles of each other, notwithstanding the very different outcomes of their transgressive intentions.

My work on this project recently entered a further stage when I discovered, quite  by chance, “The Ballad of Master Manole, a legend in which the inseparability of the perfect victim  (Manole’s wife, Ana) and the perfect work (the Monastery at Curtea de Arges) – already hinted at in the story of Daedalus and Icarus – becomes entirely explicit.  This legend likewise foregrounds the idea – only implied, once again, in the Greek legend — that the perfect victim is also the master’s scapegoat: Manole himself is threatened with death by  Prince Neagoe, a punishment that is, however, displaced upon his wife.  Mircea Eiade’s argument in his Commentaires sur la Légende de maître Manole that Manole’s wife does not simply die but lives on in in a “camouflaged” way in her husband’s work — her physical body transformed by her sacrificial death into what Eliade calls an “architectural body” – further reinforces the notion of the perfected work being the uncanny double of the perfect victim.

Throughout the seminar, we will explore – using as our touchstones a classical Greek legend known everywhere and a folk ballad known largely within Romania – the surprising ways in which selected masterpieces of modernist writing stage the disguised return of the doppelgänger (a human figure in the work of the German Romantics and their offspring) by mirroring their protagonists, not in the form of human beings who shadow them, but in  carefully crafted works that transform their victimage into  literary triumphs. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby – whose title refers ambiguously both to a protagonist who dies a sacrificial death and to the novel in which Gatsby’s failure to “fix everything the way it was before” survives in a camouflaged way thanks to Fitzgerald’s own masterful  “fixing” – will serve as a reassuringly familiar starting point that our “séance of  reading” will then seek to render uncanny.