For the love of literature

Elif Batuman’s The Possessed

Most people who are interested in Literature in a theoretical or academic way have points in their careers when they encounter a personal disappointment about their object of study; a nagging feeling about the literature that fascinates them. To engage in literary criticism requires a lot of enthusiasm. Sometimes, working with literature, this enthusiastic feeling gets lost somewhere along the way. There are the books that we love, that inspired us to immerse ourselves into studying them; the problem is that they are accessible to us only within certain limits. The more we study them, the more we find out the hard way that the insights we gained could be summed up in a few facts that sometimes seem almost trivial and really have no relation whatsoever to the experience we had while reading. The actual truth about literature, it seems, remains hidden somewhere far beyond that information and it may appear strangely unrelated to all our theoretical endeavours to grasp its meanings. In situations like this, the connection between life and literature seems very fragile and unstable: sometimes we can make it work, but often we just can’t and come to the frustrating conclusion that one really has nothing to do with the other at all. In her book, The Possessed – Adventures with Russian Books and the People who read them, Elif Batuman, a literary scholar herself, deals with this problem in a new and quite persuasive way.

Batuman writes about herself as someone struggling to find her place between literary and academic circles. She manages to do this only by abandoning her previous scepticism in favour of a new attitude towards literature. This attitude leaves the modern as well as the postmodern relationship between author and text far behind. Instead of the all-constituting Cartesian Ego of modernism or the self-renouncing subject of postmodernism, I would like to define the kind of author we find in The Possessed in terms of a new, metamodern condition of the subject.[1]

Writing about The Possessed one has to face the first problem in defining its genre. The author presents it as a kind of memoir, but instead of focusing on lending her own life coherence in retrospect – which is what artistic forms of biographic writing usually do with life – it focuses on one main aspect: the author’s study of literary theory and her fascination with Russia and its literature.

In the beginning of her education, Batuman would never have dreamt of becoming a scholar. On the contrary, she thought that the only way of expressing the love she felt towards literature was to produce it herself and become a writer. She didn’t see a point in studying any kind of history, not even literary. “It was a received idea in those days that “theory” was bad for writers, infecting them with a hostility toward language and making them turn out postmodern;“[2]

In this context, theory and truth are associated with a plurality of possible interpretations and the endlessly deferred meaning of the split sign in postmodernism. Postmodernism, as Brian McHale famously stated in Postmodernist Fiction[3], has what he calls an ontological dominant and is therefore concerned with the exploration and juxtaposition of different possible worlds. In postmodernist works of art and fiction, every possible world is questioned in favour of a new one, and there is always doubt about the stability and value of any presented truths. Meaning is always in regress. A transcendent concept like beauty – that is, a concept with an undisputed, absolute value – could never attain such a central position in postmodernist aesthetics. Batuman is at first sceptical towards theory, since she feels it reduces beauty to a simple formula, but then she makes the following observation: “Why be a slave to the arbitrary truth? I didn’t care about truth; I cared about beauty. It took me many years  –  it took the experience of lived time – to realize that they really are the same thing.“[4]

Instead of feeling bored by the assumed reduction of beauty she had expected theory to cause, she finds herself sucked into the theorists’ thoughts about beautiful things, making her own love of their beauty even bigger. This enables a new stance towards the spheres of aesthetics and knowledge: the idea that Batuman is able to experience beauty through theory vanquishes the division of beauty and truth and connects them instead.

Theory opens up a possibility for her; it allows her to implement herself into literature, thus creating a new position for herself as author and subject.

Among the not very numerous theoretical texts I read as a literature major, one that made a strong impression on me was Foucault’s short essay on Don Quixote in The Order of Things, the one that likens the tall, skinny, weird-looking hidalgo to “a sign, a long, thin, graphism, a letter that has just escaped from the open pages of a book.” I immediately identified with this description because elif, the Turkish word for alif or aleph-the first letter of the Arabic and Hebrew alphabets- is drawn as a straight line. My parents chose this name for me because I was an unusually long and skinny baby[…].[5]

Foucault’s thoughts about the meaning of Don Quixote’s appearance draw a straight line between Batuman’s own enjoyment of the book and the lack of relevance to real life that she felt about it. She interprets the word Alif as a sign that refers to her name and thus to herself. By reading the text this way, she includes herself into it, making herself work as an anchor against the endless regress of meaning. With this act, she not only manages to provide her interpretation with personal significance, hence bringing life and literature a little closer together, she also moves away from a postmodern conception of sign. While in postmodern thought the sign is always split and has no definite meaning, here it is attached to an unmistakable reference and thus enriched with a distinct meaning.

After having read Foucault, the two alternatives she sees herself faced with – the dull seeming side of truth and academia on the one hand, and the apparently simple and naïve attitude of just enjoying beautiful art on the other – can be negotiated in a new way. Instead of siding with either, Batuman finds a way of connecting both. This experience helps her to find a new way of dealing with the gap between life and literature. After having encountered a heavy weighing, very postmodern doubt about the sense and coherence of her work, she makes of it something that leaves the postmodern attitude far behind. Her approach remains enthusiastic about literature, but still it is far from regressing to a simple naïveté.[6] She knows very well that her study of Russian literature, her possession, is highly specialized and of relative value. Still she continues: for the love of it.

I stopped believing that ‘theory’ had the power to ruin literature for anyone, or that it was possible to compromise something you loved by studying it. Was love really such a tenuous thing? Wasn’t the point of love that it made you want to learn more, to immerse yourself, to become possessed?[7]

With this insight all her doubts seem to dissolve. It helps her overcome the initial fear that a seemingly naïve infatuation with literature might interfere with her academic endeavours. She gives in to literature, she allows herself to become possessed and obsessed with literature. This even transcends into her own literary aspirations: “I no longer believed that novels should or could be inspired only by life, and not by other novels.”[8] Reading and thinking about novels becomes a series of events, more important to her than events in real life, that she transports into her own writing project, The Possessed.[9] She realizes that it is exactly her loving attitude towards other books that inspires her to create her own book. Her position of being possessed has nothing to do with an all-constituting subject. While she is still, of course, the author of her book and therefore constitutes the world she describes, her inspiration comes from literary works that force themselves onto her, turn her into a medium and therefore render her passive at first. Only by accepting the conditions that those other literary works propose to her, can she finally act as the kind of author she strives to be.

Her possession inspires Batuman to fuse her intuitive approach towards literature with academically relevant observations by adopting a new method in her writing:

Thinking about Don Quixote, I began to wonder about other possible methods for bringing one’s life closer to one’s favourite books. From Cervantes onward, the method of the novel has typically been imitation: the characters try to resemble the characters in the books they find meaningful. But what if you tried something different – what if you tried study instead of imitation, and metonymy instead of metaphor? […] what if you did it all yourself, instead of inventing a fictional character? What if you wrote a book and it was all true?[10]

Metonymy becomes Batuman’s method of choice and the way of satisfying her need for personal relevance in academic work. While metaphor is a figure of speech that works on some kind of similarity between what is said and what is meant, metonymy is based on contiguity between those two. In other words, in a metaphor, the literal meaning is in some way comparable to the metaphorical expression. Metonymy, on the other hand, draws on a relation of association or closeness between the actual thing and the figurative, metonymic term. Closeness and association with her objects of interest, Batuman concludes, are exactly what she has been missing. With Don Quixote as her role model, she realizes that it is possible after all to make the books you love matter in your real life: “Don Quixote, I realized, had broken the binary of life and literature. He had lived life and read books; he lived life through books, generating an even better book.”[11]

Like Don Quixote with Amadís of Gaul[12], Batuman feels charmed by the heroes of Pushkin and Tolstoy. She establishes an emotional relation of closeness and association to their books by writing papers about them and attending conferences, discussing problems like whether or not Tolstoy has been poisoned to death. She finds that this is just the kind of metonymic link she had been searching for. So, instead of regarding literature the way it is seen in postmodernism – that is, as a texture of signs that all point outwards and do not seem to lead to any definite meaning, only to even more signs – the signs that she creates and works with have gained a specific meaning.

For herself as the author, this has serious implications. In postmodernism, as proclaimed by famous poststructuralist thinkers like Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault,[13] the author is dead and replaced by a discursive author-function. In the case of The Possessed, however, the author offers severe resistance against her own disappearance. Her book is presented as a search for truth and she sets herself as a point of reference in regard to this truth. For us readers, this means that we have to accept this point of reference in order to draw sense out of the book as a whole. First, Batuman had to find a position for herself and give in to the conditions forced upon her by the literature she loves. Just like that, while reading The Possessed, the reader is drawn into Batuman’s logic of possession and surrenders to it, recognizing and understanding her position in between beauty and knowledge.

[1] I draw my notion of metamodernism from various articles and definitions in this webzine.

[2] Batuman, Elif (2010): The Possessed. Adventures with Russian Books and the People who read them, Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York, p. 10

[3] „Other typical postmodernist questions bear either on the ontology of the literary text itself or on the ontology of the world which it projects, for instance: What is a world?; What kinds of world are there, how are they constituted, and how do they differ?; What happens when different kinds of worlds are placed in confrontation, or when boundaries between worlds are violated?” Mc Hale, Brian (1987): Postmodernist Fiction, Methuen: New York and London, p. 10

[4] Batuman (2010: 10)

[5] Ibid., p. 16

[6] See Vermeulen, Tim J. and Robin van den Akker: Notes on Metamodernism, Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, Vol. 2, 2010 DOI: 10.3402/jac.v2i0.5677, p. 5: they characterize the metamodern attitude as an oscillation between “a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony[…], between naïveté and knowingness”.

[7] Batuman (2010: 24)

[8] Ibid., p.24

[9] The title refers to the initial English translation of Dostoevsky’s novel Demons.

[10] Ibid., p. 24

[11] Ibid., 17

[12] Amadís of Gaul is the hero of a famous series of chivalric novels that has been widely received during the renaissance.  In the novel, Don Quixote regards him as an example of knightly virtues.

[13] See Foucault, Michel (1977): What is an Author? The Author Function; translation Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon, In: Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, pp.124-127, and: Barthes, Roland (1977): The Death of the Author; translation Stephen Heath, In: Image Music Text; New York: Hill and Wang,  pp. 142-48

Top image:; Sarah Jamerson (Travelwyse)

Second image: Life Magazin; Photographer Nina Leen, April 1945, US