What’s above the text.

There’s a funny exchange in Whit Stillman’s Barcelona. An American with time on his hands in a foreign city tells his friend that he’s been doing a lot of reading, and:

Fred: One of the things that keeps cropping up is this about subtext. Plays, novels, songs, they all have a subtext, which I take to mean a hidden message or import of some kind. So subtext we know. But what do you call the message or meaning that’s right there on the surface, completely open and obvious? They never talk about that. What do you call what’s above the subtext?

Ted: The text.

Fred: [Pause] Okay, that’s right. But they never talk about that.

Fred is right, we use the term subtext a lot without really considering its topological implications. If we think of a story or narrative as a series of layers – at the bottom, the subtext; above that, the text – is there another layer, still further out?

If the subtext is the “hidden message” which can be accessed only at one remove, through the mediating layer of the text – does this hypothetical outermost layer mediate our interpretation of the text in the same way? What might this layer consist of?

I’m not going to pretend to know anything about French critical theory, specifically the branch of it known as Structuralism. But while poking around last week for terms to help me refine Josephine Tey’s concept of Tonypandy I kept coming across references to Gérard Genette’s theory of transtextuality, which gives us a bunch of fancy words for classifying the ways texts interact with and are interpreted through their connections to the world outside the text:

  • Intertext is when a text is quoted in other texts.
  • Metatext is critical commentary on a text.
  • Archetext is the way a text conforms or doesn’t conform to the conventions of whatever genre it belongs to.
  • Hypo- and hypertext refer to a source material and its later adaptations; so, the script of the 2002 movie Spider-Man is a hypertext based on the hypotext of the character’s first appearance in Amazing Fantasy issue #15.
  • Paratext is all the text surrounding a text, including the title, back-cover blurb, and introduction; and at a further remove, author interviews, publicity materials, and ads intended to guide how readers should interpret the text.

For a good summary of how paratext can shape readers’ interpretations (written in 1963, and therefore unsullied by French critical jargon), consider the opening lines of Eric Havelock’s Preface To Plato:

It sometimes happens in the history of the written word that an important work of literature carries a title which does not accurately reflect the contents. A part of the work has become identified with the whole, or the meaning of a label has shifted in translation. But if the label has a popular and recognisable ring, it can come to exercise a kind of thought control over those who take the book in their hands. They form an expectation which accords with the title but which is belied by much of the substance of what the author has to say. They cling to a preconception of his intentions, insensibly allowing their minds to mould the content of what they read into the required shape.

Havelock is referring to The Republic, which he claims isn’t really the book of political philosophy its title would suggest; it’s really about the shift, still ongoing at the time Plato wrote, from a primarily oral to a literary culture.

Last year I wrote about how nearly all of the events we think of as the Odyssey – Polyphemus, the Lotus-Eaters, Scylla and Charybdis, and so on – are related in flashback in a few chapters in the middle of the epic. Knowing that odyssey means “a long, adventurous journey”, we read the work expecting a journey – just as readers of Plato’s Republic expect a book about politics. Someone who’d never heard the word odyssey, encountering the epic for the first time and asked what it was about, would answer not “a journey” but “a homecoming”.

***

There’s an old standup bit by Father Guido Sarducci where he talks about launching a Five Minute University, where “in five minutes, you learn what the average college graduate remembers five years after he or she is out of school.”

So for economics class, you’d learn the phrase supply and demand; for Spanish you’d learn ¿Cómo está usted? ¡Muy bien! …And so forth. The $20 fee would cover “tuition, cap and gown rental, graduation picture, snacks…everything.”

Father Guido doesn’t mention it, but we can assume that the Five Minute University would include a literature department. What would its scholars be taught about, say, Robinson Crusoe?

An island…a footprint…Friday.

FMU grads who subsequently peek into Crusoe will discover there’s a lot of unfamiliar stuff in there. In hindsight it seems inevitable that the story should be reduced to the thirty or so pages of Crusoe and Friday dwelling peacefully amid the palms – just as it seems inevitable that the Odyssey should be reduced to some sailors fighting a cyclops. But why should those thirty pages of island idyll have attained such fame, relative to what comes after – a breathless cascade of cannibals and mutineers leading to our heroes’ escape? Or what about the preceding 150 pages of Crusoe’s solitude? I have no evidence to support this, but my impression is that what people who’ve actually read the book remember best is Crusoe’s gradual conquest of his environment – fitting out his cave, taming the wild goats, shaking some loose grains out of an old sack and delightedly seeing barley sprout up a few days later. Crusoe alone seems to me inherently more intriguing than Crusoe plus one other guy; but the popular imagination disagrees.

In the 1980s J.M. Coetzee wrote Foe, a feminist, postmodern retelling of the Crusoe story. In this version, it won’t surprise you to learn, Crusoe is no longer a self-improving Christian but a slovenly misanthrope; Friday is an abused slave; and a third castaway, a woman, is written out of the narrative by the villain, Daniel Defoe himself. In Gérard Genette’s terms we would call Foe a hypertext based on the hypotext of Defoe’s classic. But in fact it’s not the text of Robinson Crusoe that Coetzee is deconstructing, but the Five Minute University summary – the hazy, somewhat inaccurate version picked up second- and thirdhand from Looney Tunes and variety show skits. [1]

looney tunes robinson crusoe jr.

Robinson Crusoe Jr., 1941, starring Mel Blanc. Image source.

Nowadays Robinson Crusoe, the novel, is a small and, perhaps, not terribly essential component of the wider Crusoe mythos. Defoe clearly identifies Friday as a copper-skinned Caribbean Indian; in the hazy popular mind he’s usually an African; the South African Coetzee found this variation more fruitful to his creative efforts, and in making it central to Foe, helped thicken the haze.

Genette’s transtextualist lexicon goes some way toward defining this haze – the insubstantial yet opaque Venerian atmosphere we have to dive through to get a clear view of the planetary surface. Most of us never get anywhere near the surface: we accept the smudge of cloud immediately in front of our viewscreen as representative of the whole thing.

But we’ve been presuming that there is a solid body at the centre of every cloud mass: a text, more or less stable: an Odyssey or a Robinson Crusoe, a comic book or a film. Whereas in fact, many of our stories are like Jupiter – clouds all the way down.

***

A few years back I came across this article by Scott Beggs endorsing the then-current internet crusade to get Spider-Man recast as a black guy. I copied this excerpt into my “Future Essay Ideas” folder:

I don’t care whether Hamlet is a Danish prince from Mexico or Mauritius or Mongolia. More than that, the central premise that leads anyone to deny that a character like Hamlet can be another race (beyond the apparently all-encompassing “white”), is a faulty one that should be dismissed with great prejudice. Which is why it’s infuriating to see people – especially decision-makers – clinging to it like it’s some kind of Get Out of Racism Free card. It’s the same argument some fans made when Idris Elba was cast as Heimdall in Thor. “Viking Gods aren’t black!” they cried, as if the statement didn’t deserve to be tossed instantly on the tall pile labeled Who Gives a Luxurious Fuck?.

I had to chuckle, because the author seemed unaware he was writing a 3000-word article proving just how luxurious a fuck he gave about the skin colour of his superheroes.

In the end, Sony and Marvel hired a young English actor named Tom Holland, who conformed to previous representations of Peter Parker as white, slim, and nerdy. Then to play Peter’s Aunt May – in the comics a white-haired old lady – they cast the forty-something and still sexy Marisa Tomei. Then in Spider Man: Homecoming they gave Peter an A.I.-enabled super-suit.

What is a character? The concept we call “Spider-Man” is a diffuse cloud of story points; it’s impossible to draw a distinct line separating the essential from the inessential. In the comics he starts out as a skinny white high school kid who lives with his aunt in Queens. He’s bitten by a radioactive spider. He feels responsible for the murder of his beloved uncle. He slings webs. He crawls on walls. He has spidey-sense. His costume is red and blue. He has money problems. He gets a job as a news photographer.

I could go on like this for a page or two. None of the above is essential. Even the most faithful adaptation will change or omit many of these details. On the other hand, if you don’t have some of these things, maybe most of them, you’re no longer doing Spider-Man.

Some story points seem more essential than others. How much does it matter that Peter Parker is a New Yorker? Couldn’t we set the story in Los Angeles instead? The radioactive spider, Uncle Ben, the Daily Bugle, all those could take place just as easily in L.A. Shouldn’t matter, right? But it does matter, if for no other reason than because our hero needs tall buildings to swing from. A West Coast Spidey might find a new and interesting means of locomotion – car-hopping on the Pomona Freeway, say. But even if Los Angeles suddenly sprouted a Manhattan-sized complement of skyscrapers I doubt any filmmaker would risk the switch. We intuit that New York means something to the Spider-Man mythos. What it means depends on our distance from and familiarity with New York. I’m sure Chinese audiences couldn’t care less which American city Spider-Man swings through, any more than we worry about where exactly in China the Monkey King‘s adventures take place.

Peter Parker’s (or Hamlet’s) whiteness means something too. The meaning is different for every audience; and every day brings a new and slightly different audience.

In the West, our most famous stories originated in a milieu where the overwhelming majority of storytellers and readers shared a common racial identity. Dr. John Watson doesn’t feel it necessary, when delineating his new roommate’s excessive leanness, piercing eyes, hawk-like nose, etc., to specify the fellow’s skin colour. In a few of his sci-fi novels Robert Heinlein plays with this assumption by offhandedly mentioning near the end that a main character is black, or Filipino, or whatever; but Heinlein was writing in the optimistic age when it was assumed that skin colour would soon recede into unimportance. It looks instead like in the future storytellers will be expected to think deeply about the meaning of the racial identities they assign their characters. Every story inherited from the old monochrome era will be re-examined under the Social Justice spectrograph: racial identity, dismissed by past generations as a trace element, will be declared the essential component of the atmosphere; and stories will present new and unexpected lucencies, while homely old patterns are lost to view.

***

I’ve been tinkering with this essay for ages, wondering whether I would ever arrive at something that could be passed off as a conclusion.

I guess I have two conflicting insights, each captured in a famous quote. The first is from James M. Cain, author of Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, and The Postman Always Rings Twice, among other novels and stories less successfully adapted by Hollywood. Cain shrugged:

There are some foods some people just don’t like. I just don’t like movies. People tell me, don’t you care what they’ve done to your book? I tell them, they haven’t done anything to my book. It’s right there on the shelf. [2]

Maybe Cain’s right. Maybe it doesn’t matter how much haze accumulates around a novel. Barring total civilizational collapse, future readers will always be able to go to the shelf and pull down the original text of Robinson Crusoe.

On the other hand, Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Mother Night that:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

While Robinson Crusoe might not change, all that semi-opaque stuff swirling above the text determines how we read it, and whether we bother to read it at all. Or to put it in Vonnegut’s terms: Our stories become what we pretend them to be.

Is The Merchant of Venice a tragedy about anti-Semitism or a comedic cross-dressing romp? Is Satan the villain of Paradise Lost, or the hero? Is Huckleberry Finn an appropriate book for kids or should it be held back till university and swathed in trigger warnings? What if Sherlock Holmes is black? What if Friday isn’t?

You can’t blame people for getting worked up about these questions. It’s true they’re punching at clouds. We live in the clouds.

M.

1. I suspect Friday became famous in part because Defoe gave him such a memorable name. Why is the Lilliput episode of Gulliver’s Travels so much more famous than his stay among the Houyhnhnms? Probably for the same reason my spell-checker accepts Lilliput while being stumped by Houyhnhnm.

2. Thirteen years ago I quoted the comics writer Alan Moore misattributing this comment to Raymond Chandler – apparently a common error.

Earlier this year I tried (and failed) to apply some numerical analysis to questions of race and representation in Hollywood. I mentioned Gulliver’s description of the immortal Struldbrugs in my 2014 review of the artsy vampire flick Only Lovers Left Alive. And way, way back in 2001 I read Robinson Crusoe for the first time and was put off by the hero’s frequent theological digressions.

Advertisements

0 Responses to “What’s above the text.”



  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s