Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

'The Uncreating Word': Janet Frame and 'Mystical Naming'

Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

'The Uncreating Word': Janet Frame and 'Mystical Naming'

Article excerpt

In her first novel Owls Do Cry (1957) Janet Frame shows the sisters Daphne and Francie Withers imagining a bicycle by taking turns to name its parts - the dynamo, the taü-Ught, the headUght and so on.1 Diane Caney has suggested that the girls are like Shakespeare's Prospero, using words as magic speUs2 rather as they seem to have been used in Frame's own famüy, where (Frame teUs us), they 'were revered as instruments of magic'.3 Caney then foUows the trace to Vincent O'SuUivan's use of Barthes's Writing Degree Zero and the possibüity of 'a dreamed-of language' and an 'Adamic world' in which language would no longer be aüenated'4 - in which the girls' naming would make an actual bicycle, presumably, and thus confirm the retrieval of a prelapsarian realm in which word and world have not faUen apart after all, where we have not been thus consigned to the unsatisfactory present and its used-up, inauthentic language.

Frame's apparent nostalgia for such a realm, evident throughout her writing, has been most fuUy addressed by Marc Delrez in Manifold Utopia: the Novels of Janet Frame (2002), where he describes it as Utopian, a desire for an ideal state to be achieved through 'a new language for humanity'.5 In pursuing his argument, Delrez in effect divides Frame's principal characters into two groups, what we might caU the seekers and the sought. The first group encompasses the dupUcation of narrators and protagonists Uke Daphne in Owls Do Cry (1957), characters who share Frame's self-reflexive attitude towards how we write and speak: Istina Mavet, the psychiatric patient in the second novel (1961); Zoe Bryce, the artist manqué 'va. the third, together with Alwyn and Aisley Maude in the fifth and Malfred Signal in die sixdi; Turnlung, an actual artist in the ninth, together with Mavis Halleton in the tenth, and die oddball imposter-novelist Dinny Wheatstone in the final novel, where we also find the literary critic Mattina Brecon. These are characters whose business is with language and whose urge is to understand what they see.

The second group, die sought, represents what the first group wants to understand, and involves characters located beyond die pale of customary language use, through disablement, autism, age, forms of elective mutism, lycanthropy and so on. In Faces in the Water (1961) there are a female midget and a near-mute childwoman; in The Edge of the Alphabet (1962) a man with Down's syndrome; in Scented Gardens for the Blind (1963) the mute, autistic Vera/Erlene Glace; in Intensive Care (1970), the 'doll-normill'6 Milly Galbraith; in Uving in the Maniototo (1979) the lycandiropic Martin twins and the lycandiropic Adelaide; and in The Carpathians (1988) die autistic Decima James (Manifold Utopia pp. 69-74). Through their dislocation from customary language, these 'privileged instruments of exploration' and 'recoverers of experience,' as Delrez describes die second group (Manifold Utopia p. 69), are agents of what he describes as 'decreativeness', a process involving 'the knack of unlearning customary words and prevalent knowledge' (Manifold Utopia, p. 70). The state of 'knowing nothing' (Manifold Utopia, p. 71) thus achieved is what Edelman and Turnlung see in the innocence of the buffalo they visit at die Central Park Zoo in Daughter Buffalo (1972), the idea for which may have been born in the giant sloth at the Natural History Museum and the 'prehistoric companions' Frame told John Money in 1960 she used to visit there, 'when I am depressed and would like to get rid of all human beings from the earth and return to the time before speech and words and complexities ...'.7

Delrez sees Frame's situation of her fiction at the meetingpoint of the animal and die human - human and wolf, human and buffalo, human and dogs, and so on - as tilting her writing away from the present and its unsatisfactory, phatic use of language, and, through tooth and claw, towards an ideaUsed, prelapsarian 'form of linguistic utopianism' (Manifold Utopia, p. …

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