Review: Mindful of Greek: Select Fictions of Kenneth Burke, Norman Douglas, and Albert Camus by Donald L. Jennerman. Reviewed by Greig Henderson.

Jennermann, Donald L. Mindful of Greek: Select Fictions of Kenneth Burke, Norman Douglas, and Albert Camus. Monon Publications, 2019. 81 pp.

Reviewed by Greig Henderson, University of Toronto

Professor Emeritus of Classics and Humanities at Indiana State University, Donald Jennermann is both an erudite linguistic scholar and an astute literary critic.  He is one of the founding members of the Kenneth Burke Society, and—along with other devotees of Burke like William Rueckert, Wayne Booth, and Denis Donoghue—he produces work that is elegant, sophisticated, and insightful.  The man of letters with his humanist values and liberal imagination is certainly an anachronism in our day, but the current trend toward reparative criticism is oddly in sync with what liberal humanists used to champion.

The new wave of contemporary criticism rejects both the depth model and the hermeneutics of suspicion that goes with it.  Styles of disenchantment such as symptomatic reading, ideological critique, and new historicism are seen to be passé.  Reparative styles of criticism supplant paranoid styles, and critics like Rita Felski and Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick have proposed, in different words, that literature is equipment for living rather than equipment for debunking and politicizing.   “We know only too well,” Felski writes, “the well-oiled machine of ideology critique, the x-ray gaze of symptomatic reading, the smoothly rehearsed moves that add up to a hermeneutics of suspicion.  Ideas that seemed revelatory thirty years ago—the decentered subject! the social construction of reality!—have dwindled into shopworn slogans; defamiliarizing has lapsed into dogma.”  In a similar vein, Sedgewick maintains that the hermeneutics of suspicion is a “quintessentially paranoid style of critical engagement; it calls for constant vigilance, reading against the grain, assuming the worst-case scenario, and then rediscovering its own gloomy prognosis in every text.”

I do not believe that symptomatic and reparative approaches to criticism are mutually exclusive.  Burke, after all, is no stranger to excavating the hidden depths of the text and engages in both negative and positive hermeneutics, in demystification as well as in restoration.  However, I do believe that stressing the reparative is a welcome corrective, for, as Jennermann is well aware, even if we sometimes feel compelled to interrogate and indict works of art, we also look to them for catharsis and transcendence, for solace, release, and replenishment.  What Felski calls enchantment matters “because one reason that people turn to works of art is to be taken out of themselves, to be pulled into an altered state of consciousness.”

Anesthesia is an altered state of consciousness that is in the foreground of Jennermann’s first chapter, “With Greek in Mind: Kenneth Burke’s Last Short Story.”  In this story, “The Anesthetic Revelation of Herone Liddell,” Burke deals with what Jennermann calls “the theme of health, body and soul, mind and memory, and the apprehension of their interconnectedness.”  The protagonist of the story experienced an almost fatal fall during childhood and suffered afterwards from recurrent nightmares.  Now as a middle-aged man, Liddell fears the anesthesia he must undergo prior to a minor operation.  In his mind “the fall and the anesthesia both feed his ensuing fear of death…He has lost touch with reality.  The anesthetic troubles his sleep; he has no control, just as he had none as a boy falling.”

For a classical scholar like Jennermann, the name Liddell has luminous significance.  Editor of the formidable Greek-English Lexicon, Henry George Liddell was a consummate word-man and thus an apt surrogate for Kenneth Burke.  “Herone,” Jennermann suggests, paronomastically evokes “her own” and cryptically alludes to Burke’s second wife, Libbie, his “first and most trusted critic,” a helpmate who found her own consummate word-man in her husband.

Jennermann’s detailed and nuanced reading of the story resists summary, but it succeeds brilliantly in showing how the optative, the anesthetic, the oneiric, the thanatoptic, and the revelatory interfuse in the symbolic action of the narrative.  As a grammarian, he connects these aspects of the narrative with the Middle Voice, a concept that Burke uses in his explanation of George Herbert Mead’s philosophy of the act.  Jennermann notes that the middle voice is “a complex feature of the ancient Greek verb.”  Mediating between the active and passive voices, “verbs of the middle voice function almost as reflexives and indicate an action that is done by and for the subject itself.  As an aesthetic term, the middle voice pertains to the innate power of a poem or a story to bring itself to completion, by and for itself, and in terms of itself.”

This is a major insight.  At the core of Burke’s story are Liddell’s reflections on the human ability to learn and acquire language, language being what he calls the grace that perfects nature.  At its purest, Liddell suggests, language eschews referentiality.  As he puts it, the rhymes of Mother Goose, who

in her archetypal perfection, may be as near as poets qua poets ever get to Heaven.   Poetry could not say something, while remaining pure.  Poetry can be pure only when  it attains the sheer gestures and tonalities of itself, being statement but ‘in principle,’   Utterance in the Absolute . . . signifying sound and fury, full of nothing.  At the farthest  reaches of the mind, there can be but the undirected feel of language, going beyond  doctrine to grammar, beyond verbs to the paradigms of verbs, loving verse most for its  bare prosody, needing meaning only because by shades of meaning, we increase the  subtlety and range of accents.

Such archetypal perfection is akin to what Burke elsewhere calls pure persuasion, “the saying of something, not for an extraverbal advantage to be got by the saying, but because of a satisfaction intrinsic to the saying.  It summons because it likes the feel of a summons.  It would be nonplussed if the summons were answered.  It attacks because it revels in the sheer syllables of vituperation.”   Taking delight in language for its own sake, Burke recognizes the cathartic power of linguistic exercising, a kind of cleansing achieved just by getting something said.

The second essay, “Kenneth Burke’s Poetics of Catharsis,” first appeared in Representing Kenneth Burke.  Since it is well known to most Burkeans, I shall not give it the detailed consideration it would otherwise merit.  Seeing catharsis as religious and ceremonial purification on the one hand and medicinal and psychological purgation on the other, Jennermann explores the connections among language, tragedy, catharsis, homeopathy, and scapegoating.  As Burke reflects, “tragedy might well be said to appeal not merely by resolving a conflict but rather by causing us somehow to re-enact this conflict.  Thus to be ‘cured’ of a ‘disease’ that we already have we should first be subjected to much a heavier attack of the disease.”  Whereas ostracism seeks allopathic removal of the source of civic pollution, tragedy, in a more homeopathic fashion, seeks “to provide a remedy for the pollution by aggravation of the symptoms under controlled conditions designed to forestall worse ravages of the disease.”  Burke does not see how “one can get around the fact that ‘tragic pleasure’ involves sympathetic meditation of the suffering undergone by persons not ourselves.”  It thus is grounded in “vicarious sacrifice” and the “scapegoat principle.”

The third essay, “Freudian Aspects of Burke’s Poetics,” points out that symbolic action is often symptomatic action.  In “Freud and the Analysis of Poetry,” Burke divides the verbal act into three components: dream, prayer, and chart.  On the level of dream (“the unconscious or subconscious factors in a poem”), symbolic action is symptomatic action and plays a compensatory or therapeutic role.  It has an author-regarding element and is expressive, either directly or indirectly, of his or her psyche. The dream component involves the psychological and expressive elements embedded in a text.  On the level of dream, an obsessive pattern of engrossments and avoidances expresses itself as a cluster of interrelated images, which in turn implies a structure of interrelated ideas.

As waking dreams, texts express the obsessions and evasions of their authors, what engrosses or captivates them as well as what they are at pains to evade or avoid.  Writers’ burdens, Burke avers, are symbolic of their style, and their style is symbolic of their burdens.  Jonathan Swift, for example, unveils an excremental vision, a revulsion toward materiality and the flesh.  In Gulliver’s Travels, human beings are portrayed as Yahoos, filthy animals who throw excrement at each other. With Nathaniel Hawthorne it is his ancestral guilt, his obsession with the sins of the father, with the racist persecution of Native Americans and the religious persecution of Quakers and witches. With Franz Kafka it is his paranoid vision of bureaucracy and authority, his fear of the father figure, his oedipal burden.

Dream, then, as Jennermann suggests, is both thematic and tropological.  Metaphor is the trope of condensation, and metonymy is the trope of displacement.  Condensation involves a fusion of unconscious desires whereas displacement substitutes the socially acceptable for the socially unacceptable.  Freud maintains that the manifest content of a dream or text has a smaller content than the latent dream or text.  Condensation is brought about by fusing latent elements into a single composite image, an image with multiple meanings.  Objectionable and unacceptable thoughts are thereby disguised.  In legal decision making, for example, graphic descriptions of sexual deviancy allow judges to combine disgust and desire at the same time, thereby fusing the reprehensible with the titillating and allowing us voyeuristic and perhaps vicarious pleasure in learning about all the ways people may deviate from the supposed heterosexual norm of reciprocal, affectionate sexual behaviour.  Displacement replaces a latent element not by a component part of itself but by something more remote.  As Freud suggests in one of his case histories, the plucking of bright yellow flowers may disguise and equal the fantasy of deflowering a young girl given to wearing yellow outfits. 

Burke's point, as Jennermann makes clear, is not to endorse uncritically Freudian psychology but merely to use it a frame of reference for his consideration of the text as dream.  Seconding Burke, Jennermann argues that the problem with psychoanalytic interpretation is that it deploys an essentializing rather than a proportional strategy, treating the nucleus of fantasy as an origin or essence at the centre of the text instead of seeing it as but one ingredient in the overall motivational recipe.  In regarding language as symbolic action in the multi-levelled Burkean sense, one looks not for originary causes but for the proportion of grammatical, rhetorical, and symbolical ingredients.  The text as dream—the symbolic—is simply one of these ingredients; it is not the essence of the literary act.  Thus it would be as great an error to regard dream as the origin or centre of the literary act as it would be to disregard the rich suggestiveness of psychoanalytic interpretation.

The third chapter, “Catharsis in Nerinda: Homeopathic to Aesthetic,” exploits the rich suggestiveness of psychoanalytic interpretation.  The tale of Nerinda is written in the form of diary kept by a highly neurotic and somewhat sympathetic young man slowly going mad.  As his mind deteriorates, he becomes obsessed with a young woman’s life-like cast now kept in a museum he repeatedly visits at Pompeii.  A victim of the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius, she has been immortalized in the plaster cast and becomes the object of the young man’s love.  He imagines she came from the sea, and she tells him in a dream that she is Nerinda, daughter of an ocean king.  The diary ends with his homicidal fantasies, and we learn from a local newspaper that a museum guard has been murdered, the plaster cast has been destroyed, a suspect has been arrested, and the body of our narrator has been found in the harbour of Castellammare.  What interests Jennermann is how the author, Norman Douglas, has boldly fused the forms of mythic folktale and psychotic diary.  “In so doing, he created a formal tension between one of the most communicative of literary arts, the folktale, and one of the most private or potentially alienated of literary forms, the diary of a madman.  The resolution or aesthetic catharsis is achieved symbolically through the union of Nerinda and the narrator in the waters of the Bay of Castellammare.”  Both Douglas and Jennermann live in a lush intertextual universe, and Jennermann expertly reveals how Strindberg’s Inferno, Maupassant’s Horla, and Fouquet’s Undine interinanimate and inform the symbolic action of Nerinda

The final chapter, “Camus’ The Fall in Light of Tolma,” focuses on the symbolic action of writing the story and the interior narrator’s description of that process.  Tolma, an effort requiring great daring, represents “a writer’s inner need to take severe risk in the exercise of his craft.”  In The Fall, the narrator, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, boldly risks undermining the veracity of his own narrative.  He says to his unnamed narratee that when he talks “it’s very hard to disentangle the true from the false.”  As Jennermann suggests, no matter how authentic or inauthentic the narrator is, he desperately needs an audience.

In his “Introduction to the Study of the Narratee,” Gerald Prince notes that all fiction presupposes not only (at least) one narrator but also (at least) one narratee, the narratee being someone whom the narrator addresses.  Narrators “are novelistic constructs as are the individuals to whom they speak and for whom they write.”  Everyone distinguishes the narrator of a novel from its author.  Few people concern themselves with the narratee. 

In The Fall Clamence’s narratee is supposedly a lawyer visiting Amsterdam.  “It is only by studying the reactions of Clamence’s narratee,” Prince maintains, “that we can know whether the protagonist’s arguments are so powerful that they cannot be resisted, or whether, on the contrary, they constitute a skillful but unconvincing appeal.”  As Jennermann points out, the narratee remains silent, and we cannot know for sure whether Clamence is addressing another person or an alter ego.  We glean from his remarks that the narratee, not unlike himself, is a middle-aged, bourgeois, Parisian lawyer who knows about Dante and the Bible.  As the story progresses, we infer that Clamence senses resistance in his narratee.  He protests too much and at times appears to be rattled and discomfited.  By the end, he may not be defeated, but he is not triumphant either.  If his world view and values are not completely false, neither are they unequivocally true.  Maybe he has not lived as he should have.  

Jennermann concludes that if one looks “at La Chute as if there were an accompanying para-chute, one detects an ironic form of intended self-rescue, in a sense, a homeopathic exercise.”  The tale “can then be seen as a means of protection against a fall from great heights,” as a substitutive form of symbolic action.  But, given “its ironic narrative style” and “spiritually sordid topos,” it can also be seen as a preparation for a real act, its conditions being “suitable for a mariner’s tale, one that seeks cathartic redemption, not as was the case for Coleridge’s mariner for a crime seemingly committed against nature and the divine, but, in Camus, the completion of the negative, for an action not taken, namely the refusal to attempt a rescue of a most probable suicide.”  Clamence suggests clemency, but the author’s sentences taken in their entirety may point towards what ends up being a life sentence at best, an act of self-immolation at worst.

Jennermann deepens his analyses by adding a narratological ingredient to the overall motivational recipe.  As I have noted elsewhere, the curious thing about narrative theory in the critical corpus of Kenneth Burke is its virtual non-existence.  Though Burke repeatedly notes that story is a duplication of sensory experience and that narrative is what human beings add to speechless nature, his writings contain little if any sustained analysis of narrative technique, little if any discussion of narrative perspective and narrative voice.  Indeed, Burke conspicuously ignores what makes narrative narrative–temporality, focalization, narrators, narratees, and so forth.   Jennermann does not ignore what makes narrative narrative, and his discussion of perspective, voice, interior narration, and the like is all the richer for including a narratological dimension to supplement his concern with cathartic redemption and the homeopathic principle.

I have barely touched upon the book’s charm, much of which derives from its abundance of etymological insight and its seemingly effortless display of classical learning, learning that is worn lightly by the author.   Jennermann shows that the rewards are many if we look to literature for catharsis and transcendence, for solace, release, and replenishment.  In his hands, literature and criticism are indeed equipment for living. One might go so far as to hope that reports of the death of liberal humanism are greatly exaggerated.

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