Book Reviews -- the Mutilating God: Authorship and Authority in the Narrative of Conversion by Gerald Peters

By Morefield, Kenneth R. | Style, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

Book Reviews -- the Mutilating God: Authorship and Authority in the Narrative of Conversion by Gerald Peters


Morefield, Kenneth R., Style


Gerald Peters. The Mutilating God: Authorship and Authority in the Narrative of Conversion. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993. xii + 178 pp. $29.95 cloth.

Gerald Peters applies Giambattista Vico's theory of the history of writing to conversion narratives in The Mutilating God, in an attempt not merely to classify Paul, Augustine, Rilke, Joyce, and Orwell, but also to answer the question, "Why do such totalizing conventions as the conversion narrative persist?" (11).

Before he can answer that question, however, Peters first validates his project by outlining his critical theory, and applies close readings of autobiographical literature in an attempt to show that as a tradition which unifies a relativistic society, conversion narratives do "persist." His introduction contains more than an introduction of his "allegory of personal development" (2): it also includes a useful defense of his psychoanalytic approach using the theories of Paul de Man and Jacques Lacan to buttress his project against the charge that a unified self cannot be found across historical boundaries.

This defense provides one of the many significant aspects of Peters's work. Given the increasing attention devoted to historicist and cultural studies, it is interesting to note how Peters feels that he must justify a psychoanalytic approach: "[Psychoanalysis] offers an epistemology which allows for the reintroduction of the subject (the reading consciousness) into knowledge" (16). Similar motivation seems to underlie Peters's use of Northrop Frye. By focusing on Frye as the secondary source for the history of writing as a series of Viconian phases, Peters shows how his own use of these phases falls safely within the field of literary criticism rather than anthropology or culture studies.

Having preempted critics of his technique, Peters goes on to divide conversion narratives into hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic phases, using Frye's adaptation of Vico as a rough model. It is from the hieroglyphic phase that Peters gets his title, since in that phase the conversion process consists of anthropological accounts of conversion where writing on the body becomes a mark of initiation. In the hieratic phase the physical initiation is replaced with a spiritual conversion, in the demotic phase a confession, but each transformation contains a repudiation of the old self and hence a mutilation of body, mind, or personality.

As indicated by his title for part I, "Authorizing Inscriptions: Prefiguring the Freudian Text," Peters wants to do more than simply apply Vico's paradigm: he wants to extend it. Psychoanalysis provides the fourth phase in the process of legitimizing the self. Modern novelists or autobiographers create a "totalizing narrative" of their own rather than merely conforming to an established tradition (60).

Part II, "A Matter of Life and Death in the Psyche: Incorporating the Freudian Paradigm," is where Peters switches from theoretical to practical criticism. Containing detailed analysis of Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Rilke's Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge (often referred to as Journal of My Other Self), Peters attempts in part II to create a fourth phase of history in writing beyond the hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic phases. A fourth phase, concerned with creating a new authority, is necessary because "a rational, historical account could not in itself legitimize a unity of subjectivity" (65). Peters believes that the rise in subjectivity "led to the crisis of authority at the turn of the century which affected the major writers of the period" (65).

This modern subjectivity provides a clue for the answer to Peters's question about why totalizing narratives persist. The answer is because, even though the demotic phase of writing has destroyed belief in an external unified authority, the need for psychological justification continues to prompt attempts at self-definition through writing.

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