The Arrogance of Academia

10 January 2006 at 9:26 pm Leave a comment

In Possession, Byatt shows the arrogance of academics.  I’m only half-way through the book and it’s apparent that she means to poke fun at the work of English departments, with their various critical theories and methods for reading and making meaning.  The premise of the book is that a series of letters between a famous 19th century poet (male) and a reclusive, possibly lesbian poet, is discovered almost by accident and turns the known scholarship on the two writers on its ear.  There is a long passage “quoted” from one fictional scholar named Cropper, for instance, that demonstrates a certainty about the poet’s inner life in regards to the love he has for his wife.  The title of Cropper’s fictional biography of the poet “Ash”–The Great Ventriloquist–becomes a metaphor of how scholarship works in general:  the scholar uses the writer as if a ventriloquist’s dummy and fills his or her texts with his or her own voice. . . . The correspondence shows that Ash had fallen in love with the reclusive LaMotte, who had become his Muse. 

This would be a perfect book to teach in an undergraduate literary theory course, though I believe Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy might remain the absolute perfect book for this purpose. . . . Possession is brilliant, though, insofar as it includes the poems and stories and scholarship written by the characters and shows how these texts are produced.

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Entry filed under: academia, books.

A.S. Byatt’s POSSESSION Investigating/Inventing New Metaphorical Concepts

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