Thursday, August 23, 2007

Compartmentalize or Only Connect?

One big theme of the Frederica Potter quartet is interconnection--Byatt takes a multidisciplinary approach to her subject, frequently alludes to other works of art, entwines her characters' relationships in surprising ways, etc. Her brain just seems to work this way--and so does Frederica's, and so does mine. But there's more to it than that, because running through the Quartet is also a theme about how these perceived connections can make you go crazy, and the only way to live in the fragmented modern world is to take it one fragment at a time. Byatt/Frederica calls this "laminations"-- layering thoughts side-by-side instead of letting them tangle.

Frederica develops this theory in a brilliant chapter of The Virgin in the Garden called "The Traveler in Dolls." At 17, she is intensely self-conscious and angry that she is still a virgin, and everything seems to remind her of that: her sister just got engaged; she's reading Racine's sexually charged play Phedre; she had a fumbling sexual encounter with a stranger, who told her a dirty story; she just stumbled upon her crush and his girlfriend in the back of a car; she's on the Yorkshire moors, which inevitably recall the passion of Wuthering Heights; and the last straw is the really phallic-looking church steeple in the distance. She feels like everything is conspiring against her, trapping her in a symbolic pattern. She has to tell herself "Wait. The fact that I'm reading Racine has nothing to do with that that steeple, or with my sister's's just a coincidence." And she realizes "one could let all these facts and things lie alongside one another like laminations, not like growing cells. This laminated knowledge produced a powerful sense of freedom, truthfulness and even selflessness, since the earlier organic and sexual linking by analogy was undoubtedly selfish. It was she [...] who had linked these creatures to each other out of her own necessity" (209-10).

This really resonates with me, because I, too, can convince myself that the world is trying to tell me something, and see only the evidence that confirms my perception. As Byatt says of another character, I have "a Jungian interest in coincidence." I get tickled by the little ones--like, today I was walking down the street trying to remember the lyrics to a Bob Dylan song, and I passed by a guy carrying a book on Dylan. But the bigger ones can drive me crazy, as they do Frederica. One day last month I felt like my life was looping back and folding in on itself, since I was working at JAW and reading Harry Potter, and two summers ago I was doing the same thing, and there are sections of Portland where every street corner holds a memory for me (Portland has a small downtown so everything clusters together), and I won't get into all of it, but I felt like I was trapped in the overlapping patterns of my life thus far. I had to stop, and pull out a notepad, and write that the world felt "unbearably weighty." And then I remembered Frederica, my new heroine, and thought I should learn how to "laminate" my life too.

I'm still not sure of Byatt's true message about connection vs. compartmentalization: her prose style links everything up into big patterns, but her characters suffer if they think that life holds a pattern for them. Byatt has fun devising appropriate character names (e.g. Frederica's violent, macho husband is surnamed Reiver, which means "plunderer") but tragic consequences occur in A Whistling Woman when Joshua Ramsden/Lamb thinks that his name foretells his destiny. I can't decide whether this is a contradiction and a flaw, or whether there is some way to resolve the two positions. Should I try to connect these opposing viewpoints? Or let them lie side by side as laminations?

No comments: