Academic journal article Style

The Mirror and the Labyrinth: The Further Ordeals of Character and Mimesis

Academic journal article Style

The Mirror and the Labyrinth: The Further Ordeals of Character and Mimesis

Article excerpt

The current neglect of fictional character as a subject of study probably originates in our having had a surfeit of it in the era of psychological criticism. A more timely explanation is that there is no way to talk about character without treating it as a mimetic representation, and mimesis, if anything, is even more embattled these days than character. Somehow narrative, like Mother Courage, has thrived in these wars though literary events are equally illusory and fraught with the same problems of referentiality. Undoubtedly, narrative has gained the favor it has because it poses none of the "human" pretentions to identity or selfhood aroused by character. Indeed, as Peter Brooks says (a propos of Rousseau), identity "can be thought only in narrative terms, in the effort to tell a whole life, to plot its meaning by going back over it to record its perpetual flight forward, its slippage from the fixity of definition" (33). Character, by contrast, bids to be taken as something that remains steadily itself through the thick and thin of plot, and therefore it constitutes an ideal target for deconstruction: that is, for prying loose from the rock of its self-certainty "by the positive lever of |its own~ signifier" (Derrida lxxvii).(1)

I want to address this issue by looking at two complementary cases in which character and mimesis are "put into question" on just this ground of fixity of definition. I am under no illusion that character can, or even should, be rescued in our affections (after all, as Edmund says in King Lear, "men are as the time is"), but it is tempting at least to examine what is being questioned, what may and may not be "fixed" in the character construction, and why mimesis is so troubling to postmodern critics. In the end, I suspect it all comes down to whether one chooses to regard character (and mimesis) as an affective contract between reader and author based on a (naive?) belief in shared experience or as a "tissue of signs, an imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred" in the very writing that would constitute it (Barthes, Image--Music--Text 146). Obviously these are mutually exclusive philosophies of reading, perhaps even the extremes among "schools" of readers today. Even so, they are parasitic on each other in interesting ways. For example, the character illusion is composed of signs, but these disappear as signs and reappear as mimetic features much as pigment disappears in the features of the portrait "beyond"; signs, in their turn, can only be seen as signs if one maintains some sense of what they are signifying: that is, a mimetic illusion. In either case, it is a symbiotic dependency. The latter is clearly the more difficult trick, for sign and illusion are constantly changing places as one's frame of reference alters, whereas most readers would be as surprised as Monsieur Jourdain to learn they had been reading signs all their lives.

This problem is illustrated perfectly in my first text, J. Hillis Miller's essay on character in his new book Ariadne's Thread: Story Lines (1992). The essay is based on work appearing as far back as the early 1980s, but Miller tells us that it has been "thoroughly recast, augmented, and revised to reflect |his~ present understanding" of the subject (xviii). So we have a relatively up-to-date opportunity to examine the deconstructionist position on literary character, less so on mimesis, that "fiercely maintained and yet manifestly absurd theory . . . still imperturbably, or almost imperturbably, assumed by many critics and readers today" (99). But the problem is still there: one cannot go into the fictional labyrinth without encountering word creatures that have certain alluring resemblances to real people. As Miller puts it, "If I speak or write of fictional characters as if they were real people, have I not myself passed through the mirror into the wonderland of fiction?" (30). Nevertheless, "to read a novel properly," even for deconstructive purposes, one must temporarily allow oneself to be seduced by the mimesis into taking the characters as real even though character is finally nothing more than "a fluid assemblage of fleeting catachreses" as opposed to "a fixed personality" (117). …

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