Academic journal article Transnational Literature

Adolescent Occultism and the Philosophy of Things in Three Novels

Academic journal article Transnational Literature

Adolescent Occultism and the Philosophy of Things in Three Novels

Article excerpt

The association of adolescence with supernatural belief is not new. Many social research texts position paranormal belief within the liminality of adolescence - something tested and later outgrown. The particularly North American phenomena of 'legend tripping,' for instance, where 'to test [a] legend, legend trippers will often mark their visits [to sites of urban legends] with specific activities designed to invoke supernatural powers,'1 is practiced primarily by older teens and college-age youths as shown by Donald Holly and Casey Cordy in 'What's in a Coin?' and confirmed by Sylvia Ann Grider in 'Children's Ghost Stories'.2 Alison Waller's book Constructing Adolescence in Fantastic Realism similarly attests to the appeal of the supernatural in books written for and about young people. Criticism of these works, however, tends to sideline supernatural content as a site of inquiry and instead 'prioritise a rational reading of the fantastic focussing on socio-physiological development of adolescents. Magic is explained away as a purely imaginative product of awakened sexuality, and ghosts are read as fabricated alter egos.'3

This paper is not interested in 'explaining away' supernatural tropes as projections and psychological safeguards. Rather, through an examination of three novels about adolescent experience and adolescent occultism, Sonya Hartnett's 2009 Butterfly, Shirley Jackson's 1962 We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Iain Bank's 1984 The Wasp Factory, it aims to reveal the philosophical 'work' done by the narrators of these pieces of fiction. This essay demonstrates the close parallels between these novels' fictional accounts of adolescent occultism and the materialist philosophies of Walter Benjamin and Martin Heidegger. Heidegger's theories of Being, being-with, correspondence, and reference provide a structure for the discussion of the power of objects as does Benjamin's reading of auratic objects, but neither define it. This analysis aims to revivify the potential of occult modes of thought, showing that they constitute in these novels a kind of 'applied philosophy' which not only reveals the machinery of memory, history and significance underlying 'powerful' objects but flips from a receptive to a productive system of meaning making.

Sonya Hartnett's 2009 Butterfly, Shirley Jackson's 1962 We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and Iain Bank's 1984 The Wasp Factory are diverse in both their publication dates and their settings. The novels are set respectively in 1980s Australian suburbia, a small New England town in the 1960s, and a remote Scottish peninsula in the 1980s. The protagonists of the novels, fifteen year old Plum Coyle, eighteen year old Merrikat Blackwell, and seventeen year old Frank Cauldham deal with a mixture of familiar and unfamiliar problems. Plum, given the suburban setting of Butterfly, is the most conventional and deals primarily with the staples of young adult literature such as peer-group pressure, puberty, and familial troubles. Frank and Merrikat are more extreme examples, growing up in isolation from wider society and without much in the way of parental oversight. That each of these protagonists, written at different times for different readerships, seeks some measure of control over the world through supernatural means reveals the centrality of a certain occult thought to twentieth-century adolescence in the West. Each protagonist practices their own form of occultism. In each case, these practices are intuitive and idiosyncratic. Despite the diversity of their practices, each is a grounded in familiar logic and in a philosophical appreciation of objects and their immaterial weight.

The occult elements in these novels make classification difficult. The works are clearly not fantasy, being too grounded in a common mimetic reality to support that genre. The novels may better fit the definition of the fantastic, as first described by Tzvetan Todorov.4 Despite later interventions and innovations in the theory of the fantastic, as mapped by Mark Bould in 'The Dreadful Credibility of Absurd Things',5 discussion of the fantastic still centres around hesitation. …

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