chapter
12 Pages

Introduction

Venetian blinds are useful for blocking out sunlight but probably of limited interest to most people. The history of the manufacture of porcelain figurines may excite porcelain collectors but not many others. The aristocratic infighting during what is known as the Wars of the Roses may strike you as a dull and now irrelevant phase of English history. Yet after reading Alain Robbe-Grillet’s La Jalousie ([1957] 1977), Bruce Chatwin’s Utz (1988) and Shakespeare’s history plays, you may not think of blinds, porcelain or the Wars of the Roses in quite the same way. This is not to say that you will become a collector of blinds or fascinated by the technical details of their construction. That is because the Venetian blind in Robbe-Grillet’s book is not so much interesting in itself, but as a metaphor for the obstructed voyeurism of an obsessively jealous mind (in French la jalousie can mean blind as well as jealousy). The blind is vehicle, not tenor, albeit an apt vehicle. But now, when I see a blind, I sometimes flickeringly think ‘jealousy’, ‘obscured vision’ or ‘overpowering emotion’. As a result of reading Robbe-Grillet’s novel, blinds have been anthropomorphized. They have come to inhabit a world of human significance. What Robbe-Grillet does to blinds, Chatwin to porcelain and

Shakespeare to the Wars of the Roses, is what literature in general tends to do, namely to make us care about things for which we might previously have had little care, by investing them with human emotion and placing them in a vividly realized context that we are tacitly asked to recognize as ‘human’ (the hard question of how we might more explicitly recognize the human will be discussed at length in Chapter 3). Or else, in the case of phenomena by which we may already be engaged, literature – speaking once again generally for the moment – can deepen the nature of that engagement. Jealousy, for example, may or may not be a human universal, but its shelf-life has been sufficiently long for us to be able to recognize it as one likely area of human interest. Robbe-Grillet’s novel, like Shakespeare’s

Othello (performed 1604-5), not only invites a simple act of recognition (‘that’s jealousy’), it deepens our understanding of jealousy’s emotional and psychological power by showing it to be the cause of a crisis in the relationship between mind and world, and between consciousness and consciousness. The obsessively jealous imagination anxiously inhabits the gap between perception and reality: ‘By the world,’ Othello says to Iago, ‘I think my wife be honest, and think she is not. / I think that thou art just, and think thou art not’ (Shakespeare 2005: 3.3.388-90). The dream (or nightmare?) of transparency, whereby one consciousness is so umbilically joined to another’s that communication seems redundant, is ruined by jealousy and the green-eyed monster’s insinuation that we might, after all, be strangers to one another. This is something that Shakespeare’s and Robbe-Grillet’s albeit quite different treatments of jealousy make us think about, and not just in the abstract, but from inside the experiences of jealousy that they simulate. Jealousy, that is to say, is embodied, made flesh, in the person of Othello and the narrator of La Jalousie. This book examines literary works of widely differing periods and

genres in order to explore the interest and significance they hold for us as human beings. Hand in hand with the intention of examining the human meaningfulness of literature is the aim of developing a critical vocabulary that enables us to think about that meaningfulness with some degree of precision, as well as subtlety. I want to rescue for the academic study of literature, literature’s human significance, interest and appeal; these are things that literary critics and theorists can sometimes forget or obscure, or from which they can place themselves at a sceptical distance. But I also want to rescue talk of a text’s ‘human’ power or relevance from vagueness. In brief, the purpose of the book is to put the academic study of literature back in touch with the way many ordinary readers read, for ‘human interest’, while developing some critical terms for describing and analysing the nature of that human interest. This statement of the book’s intentions is stark, so I will spend most of the rest of the introduction fine-tuning it, while teasing out the cluster of issues, implications and challenges that it entails.