Literature in the Ruins

By Crockett, Bryan | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, March 2007 | Go to article overview

Literature in the Ruins


Crockett, Bryan, First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


Literature in the Ruins OBSOLETE OBJECTS IN THE LITERARY IMAGINATION: RUINS, RELICS, RARITIES, RUBBISH, UNINHABITED PLACES, AND HIDDEN TREASURES by FRANCESCO ORLANDO Yale University Press, 528 pages, $45

Reviewed by Bryan Crockett

WE KEEP REPRESSING Freud, and he keeps cropping up again. In the early days of his influence on literary studies, his theories proved particularly pernicious, sending scholars scurrying after phallic symbols and psychoanalyzing authors. The heyday of those unproductive applications of psychoanalysis has long since passed, but there are still a few Freudian or neo-Freudian scholars around. The best of them wear their training lightly, combining what has endured in psychoanalytic theory with other approaches to literature. One of the most deservedly influential among such scholars, in Europe if not yet in the United States, is Francesco Orlando.

Indebted not only to psychoanalytic criticism but also to semiotics, with its tendency to divide complex language into binary categories, Orlando avoids one of the pitfalls characteristic of the theory-crazed 1970s and 1980s: the tendency to see theory as paramount, and the literature to which it is applied something of an afterthought. Certainly Orlando has a systematic bent. In Obsolete Objects in the Literary Imagination, he devises an elaborate framework to categorize passages from the whole sweep of Western literature: poems, novels, short stories, plays, essays, memoirs, and letters-whether in Latin, Greek, Italian, French, Spanish, English, German, or Russian. To his credit, he starts not with this framework but with reading, nearly always in the works' original languages. He is a sensitive reader, and he seems to have read almost everything.

Orlando's prose trips lightly along in neither the book's original Italian nor its English translation. A casual reader flipping through the pages of Obsolete Objects might well drop the book immediately upon finding sentences like this, on cabinets and attics in Kafka's The Trial: "Their symbolic value, which I identified as exceptions to the worn-realistic, would suggest a sinister-terrifying superimposed on the desolatedisconnected, if only hallucinatory objectivity were not different from metaphorical subjectivity." One cannot blame the translators for such prose; their touch is deft enough, as when they translate Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli's idiomatic "naturale un cavolo" (literally "natural a cabbage") to render it "Natural schmatural."

For that matter, Orlando's sentence is not as incomprehensible as it appears. Once the reader understands that those hyphenated pairs of adjectives name categories in his quirky taxonomy of nonfunctional objects in literature, and once one learns what those categories entail, the going gets easier. The book's subtitle explains what the author means by the nonfunctional: "Ruins, Relics, Rarities, Rubbish, Uninhabited Places, and Hidden Treasures." Orlando isolates twelve types of writing about the nonfunctional, each of them deriving from one of the bifurcating branches of a neat semantic tree. These twelve categories are "strategically arbitrary": strategic, in that they reveal patterns of thought stretching across temporal, linguistic, and generic boundaries; arbitrary, in that other ways of carving up the material might reveal other patterns.

Obsolete Objects, then, has a comprehensive feel, but the tidy symmetry of the semantic tree is really illusory. Good works of literature, with all their knobby particularity, resist systematic analysis. Still, in order to talk about them at all, we need to impose some sort of order on the welter of relevant texts. Despite their unwieldy names, Orlando's categories seem as good as any.

His dozens of examples for each category demonstrate that, at about the time of the French Revolution, Western literature reached a turning point, after which writing about the nonfunctional took on particular urgency. …

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