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3 texts, "Grand Narratives" and the death of man

Originally posted 4/3/07

The search for an ultimate definition of man has been a primary driving force in literature. The ‘Grand Narratives’ of Truth, History, God, Reality and Self have formed the basis for western literature, as authors have sought to find order and meaning in man’s existence. Whatever the final definition of ‘Man’, and there are many, the literary definition has ultimately been sought for in ‘Grand Narratives’. Lyotard defines Grand Narratives as ‘legitimating narratives’, and whilst they may be grounded in differing ideology like Marxism, Capitalism or Christianity, they all have one goal, and that “is called universal freedom, the fulfilment of all humanity.”i The three books that I am studying for this essay can be shown to reject the ‘Grand Narrative’, and can therefore be said to represent the death of Man as constructed in pre- twentieth century literature, although if we are to concur with Lyotard and accept that the definition of Man must include a search for ‘universal freedom’, then there are ways in which these texts merely supply an alternative approach, outside of universal Truth. ‘Man’ is a polysemic term, but for the purposes of this essay I will confine any definitions to western ideology, as the texts are only representative of western literature. Some of these terms are contradictory, and this list of possible definitions of Man is not intended to be exhaustive, it is merely aimed at highlighting the subjective nature of the concept.

Aristotle said that “Man is by nature a social animal...What is peculiar to men, compared to the other animals, is that they alone can perceive the good and the bad, the just and the unjust.” Christian narrative would define ‘Man’ in one particular way. The book of Genesis, in the old testament relates a creation story, in which “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him.”ii The book continues by telling of man’s fall from the garden of Eden. This creation myth would be one aspect to the definition of Man in Western society.

More generally, Man is the sum total of all that has gone before him. He is the culmination of history, tradition, culture etc., and this tradition is recorded through language: “Language allows humankind to possess knowledge of its own origin - the most important knowledge of all, and the content of the holiest texts, since the origin of human life and the ground of meaning are both presumed in (from) God.”iii Man has been defined as the “talking animal.”iv

The expression‘The King is dead, long live the King.’ acknowledges the natural cycle of life and death, and the continuum of society in which the individual is seamlessly replaced by another individual. The present instantly becomes the past, and the King is always the King, under the terms of this discourse. If the phrase is re-written, for the purposes of this essay as ‘Man is dead, long live Man’, then we can see how one construction or definition of ‘Man’ can be exiled to the past and a new definition appears in its place. The context in which a sign is used is crucial to its meaning, if the context is changed then the meaning changes also. This opens up all writing to almost infinite interpretations and destabilises its relationship with reality. If all writing becomes a fiction, and forms the context in which we define ‘Man’, then it can be said that ‘Man’ is a shifting paradigm, an amorphous term that responds to each new text. In this way all writing is about the ‘death of Man’, not just twentieth century writing.

What is apparent from this brief examination into the definition of man is that ideology affects the interpretation of ‘Man’ by prioritising certain interpretations of history over others. All definitions of Man can be challenged through the discourse of alternative ideology. For instance, Phillip Thody says, in opposition to Christian ideology, “The same principles of textual analysis which had been used for writers such as Homer or Thucydides, showed that few of the books presented as canonical by the church could possibly have been written in their officially received form by the authors to whom the church attributed them.”v He goes further by saying, “At the same time, there was no way in which the description of creation in Genesis could be reconciled with the evidence on which Darwin based his theory.”vi

Christian ideology and the existence of God provide the basis for a significant amount of western literature, and the search for meaning. Christian teaching defines western constructions of Truth, Self and History. Man is created by God, in his image, and can ultimately find everlasting life by following his word. Christian morality has been the foundation stone upon which western democracy and western law have been built. The Holy Bible of the Christian faith can be said to have defined western Man. Jean-Paul Sartre says of The Outsider however, “Since God does not exist and man dies, everything is permissible. One experience is as good as another; the important thing is simply to acquire as many as possible.”vii The main character in The Outsider, Mersault, who is on trial for murder, refuses to accept God, even when faced with execution. For him God simply does not exist, murder is a Christian tabooviii, and the law court in which he is tried is founded upon Christian ethics. “According to [the Priest], human justice was nothing and divine justice was everything. I pointed out that it was the former which had condemned me. He replied that it hadn’t washed away my sin for all that. I told him I didn’t know what a sin was. I’d simply been told that I was guilty.”ix Camus himself remarked on the absence of universal meaning, “I do not know whether this world has a meaning that is beyond me. But I do know that I am unaware of this meaning.”x In The Outsider the main character is isolated from, amongst other things, the western definition of Man. He is an atheist and therefore his behaviour is not governed by the principles of Christian ideology. Mersault is a man without a creed, without roots, and this freedom allows him to act, even murder, without regret; “I’d never been able to regret anything. I was always preoccupied by what was about to happen, today or tomorrow.”xi Ultimately Mersault only looks forward, and thus has no history to define him.

In Virginia Woolf’s Orlando we have another example of a text that questions previous definitions of ‘Grand Narrative’ and Man.

“Aspects of Woolf’s well-documented life have by now attained the status of intertexts, which interweave with her fiction and influence our interpretation of it. There is a kind of precedent for this interweaving of life and art in Woolf’s own blurring of the boundaries between them; in her production of diaries, letters and memoirs Woolf created a kind of interface between life and text, and herself questioned the barriers between them.”xii Orlando is a text that is concerned with its own creation. It is a metanarrative in many ways, constantly reminding the reader that it is a fiction with its references to other texts. The narrative, which follows the life of Orlando from boyhood to manhood and into womanhood, covers five centuries of ‘history’ and is called a biography. The text seems to be questioning the authenticity of history, constructed as it is through the texts of historians, and being, therefore, just one interpretation of a reality that is ultimately inaccessible. If all history is thus a fiction then the ‘biography’ of Orlando has just as much validity as any other historical document. “‘I will write,’ she had said, ‘what I enjoy writing’; and so had scratched out twenty-six volumes. Yet still, for all her travels and adventures and profound thinkings and turnings this way and that, she was only in the process of fabrication.”xiii

If writing is thus always a fabrication, then the Truth is unattainable. It is the words “The Truth” that awake Orlando, from the second of his/her sleep-like trances, and she has become a Woman,xiv in an ironic juxtaposition of interpretations of Reality. The longevity and the gender swapping construct a text that defies the usual perceptions of Reality. The novel could be described as magic-realist, in the way that extraordinary events are portrayed as accepted phenomena. Whatever the genre, the novel challenges the western definition of ‘Man’, particularly the very use of the word ‘Man’ to represent woman.

The novel constantly reminds the reader that our perceptions of history are constructed from works of fiction. When talking of the society of Pope, Swift and Addison Orlando is unable to give an example of their wit but says, “They were all very witty too, (but their wit is all in their books.” xv The reliability of memoirs is also challenged; “Was this life quite so exciting, quite so flattering, quite so glorious as it sounds when the memoir writer has done his work upon it.”xvi Woolf constructs an alternative history and, by using literary intertextuality, is able to argue its worth against traditional interpretations. Her character Orlando, further challenges western construction of Man by turning him into a her whilst continuing the construction of the character in the same fashion. “Orlando had become a Woman - there was no denying it. But in every other respect Orlando remained precisely as he had been.”xvii The patriarchal construction of Man requires Woman to be fundamentally different, inferior. Woolf quite clearly questions this assumption.

Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy takes the questioning of Grand Narrative a stage further. Like the Woolf novel, this text is a metanarrative and draws attention to its own literary construction. It is also intertextual and creates a fictional character ‘Paul Auster’ who is also the real author. In fact the use of names is particularly important to this text.

The New York Trilogy is in many ways a text book example of post-structuralist theory. Within post-structuralism the signifier and the signified are linked in an infinite chain of meaning and counter-meaning. The relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary, that is there is no intrinsic reason why ‘cat’ should denote the animal in reality. Meaning is derived by way of the sign's difference from all other signs and ultimately there is no Truth. The meaning of a sign can only be expressed in terms of other signs, and the referent is thus unattainable. In The New York Trilogy Paul Auster explores this theory: Quinn introduces himself to Peter Stillman as Peter Stillman. Peter Stillman replies, “‘That’s my name,’. When Quinn says he is the other Peter Stillman, Peter Stillman replies “Oh. You mean my son. Yes , that’s possible. You look just like him.”xviii The arbitrariness of the relationship between the signifier and the signified is layed out here. Peter Stillman as a signifier refers to two concepts, and only looks like Peter Stillman on the page. The characters do not exist except as letters on the page. The novel is unfathomable, with layers of narrative voice piled nine or ten layers deep. Each section begins under the pretence of a detective novel but the answers are never exposed. In this novel the Truth is categorically not out there. Reality has ceased to exist in the fictional world and the text deconstructs western Man.

Western literature, before the twentieth century, has searched for ultimate Truths, Reality, a definition of the Self, God, and knowledge of Historical fact. The examples of twentieth century writing examined here challenge the idea that there is any intrinsic meaning to be found, and can therefore be said to be concerned with the death of Man as defined in pre-twentieth century literature. If post-structuralist theory is taken up however it could be said that all writing redefines, in however small a way, ‘Man’, and is therefore also concerned with the death of Man. If reality is always mediated through language, and one type of language is no more valid than another, then all writing forms part of the body of evidence from which an individual will construct a definition of Man, and so all writing, not just twentieth century writing, is concerned with the death of Man.

iJean-François Lyotard (1992), The Post-modern Explained (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press) p.25

iiThe Holy Bible: The New International Version (1984), (London: Hodder and Stoughton) Genesis Chapter 1 verse 27

iiiArt Berman (1994), Preface to Modernism (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinios Press) p.90

ivJonathon Barnes (1982, Aristotle, (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press,) p.17

vPhilip Thody (1996), Twentieth Century Literature: Critical Issues and Themes (Basingstoke and London, Macmillan Press) p.6

viibid p.6

viiJean-Paul Sartre (1955), Literary and Philosophical Essays (London: Hutchinson and Co. Ltd.) P.27


The Holy Bible: The New International Version (1984), (London: Hodder and Stoughton) Exodus Chapter 20 verse 13

ixAlbert Camus translated from the French by Joseph Laredo (1982) The Outsider (London: Penguin Books) p.113

xJean-Paul Sartre (1955), Literary and Philosophical Essays (London: Hutchinson and Co. Ltd.) P.34

xiop. cit. Camus (1982) p.97

xiiClare Hanson (1994), Virginia Woolf (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan Press) p.1

xiiiVirginia Woolf (1993) Orlando: A Biography (London: Penguin Books) p.124

xivibid p.97/98

xvibid p.147

xviibid p.148

xviiibid p.98

xviiiPaul Auster (1988) The New York Trilogy (London and Boston: Faber and Faber) p.84

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