Manifold Utopia: The Novels of Janet Frame
Rodopi, $59.95 approx,
The appearance of the term “manifold” in the titles of two recent books on Janet Frame’s fiction suggests a current fascination with the multiple modes of consciousness shimmering in her kaleidoscopic texts. This seems apt. “Manifold” is, after all, the final word of Living in the Maniototo and could be said to provide the matrix for Frame’s life and work. In philosophy, the term “manifold” nods to Kant’s projection of an independent realm of sense impressions which remain formless until grasped in concepts, and it is this angle that Karin Hansson and Marc Delrez have developed in separate studies. In The Unstable Manifold: Janet Frame’s Challenge to Determinism (1996), Hansson draws on chaos theory to describe the manifold as a “kind of self-organizing order which lies beyond the capacity of the human brain to accept”. Now, adding a dash of Heidegger, Marc Delrez’s term “manifold utopia” refers most specifically to a particular apprehension of death.
Delrez argues that Frame’s novels present death positively: as transformation and immersion in a community of being. Here he picks up the intellectual baton from Jeanne Delbaere-Garant, who influentially divided Frame’s characters into two groups according to their attitudes toward death. “Authentic” characters orient themselves toward death as “the uttermost potentiality of man” while “adaptable” characters, ironically, maintain fixed attitudes.
Manifold Utopia thus returns to a persistent theme of Frame’s oeuvre, the interrelation between “this world” (the “scale of ordinary recognitions”) and “that world” (imagination’s Mirror City). Delrez argues that many critical responses to Frame’s texts fail to engage with “that world” on its own terms, making it instead serve a political cause – such as an attack on bourgeois society – so that “[Frame’s] preoccupation with interior realities is thus turned inside out … and regarded as an oblique rebuke addressed to her allegedly uninspired compatriots.” Delrez sets out to describe, in positive terms, the nature of this alternative reality that is the crucible of creativity.
Through a series of judicious and elegant close readings, the outlines of the “manifold utopia” become clearer. It involves, in part, a point of “exceptional memory”, which gathers up and embraces the human detritus of Frame’s socially marginal characters. Delrez nicely points out that in Owls Do Cry, for example, the broken family described in the epilogue derives more from Daphne’s leucotomy than from Amy’s death: “In a way, Amy’s death only materializes (as it were) when Daphne’s memory is forcibly erased.” Daughter Buffalo, with its final emphasis on Talbot’s leasing of corners of his memory to those he loves, also responds well to this utopian vision of a “special sanctuary for the dead”. As Delrez further suggests in a reading of The Edge of the Alphabet, the writer’s mission echoes that of the archaeologist, digging through petrified thought to locate the “fossil strata of experience” as a “repository of eclipsed existence”.
As a “vision of flux”, utopia resists codification. Utopia knows no individuality: it proposes a “compound personality … characterized by prodigious empathy with the world”. Scented Gardens for the Blind provides the focal text here. The principal characters suffer from a “partitioning urge”, symbolised by Vera’s splitting of herself into three personalities that scarcely interact. They cling to individuality as a form of protection against death, but this “rage for survival” thinly overlays a deeper intimation of a transpersonal force uniting humans across boundaries of identity.
Ironically, this ethos of diversity underlies Delrez’s thesis, but not his rather hermetic method. With minimal reference to any texts other than Frame’s long fiction and critical commentary on it (with article references ceasing at 1996), Delrez treats Frame’s prose world as a self-enclosed system, albeit one which disallows the very idea of such solipsism.
In his introduction, Delrez cuts a path through the thicket of existing criticism on Frame’s fiction with a decidedly blunt blade. Though energetically expressed, this section is one of the weakest in critical subtlety and accuracy. Delrez’s principal target is the school of thought, typical of mid-century cultural nationalism, that upholds Frame’s visionary élite as powerless victims of narrow provincialism. Frame becomes, as Frank Sargeson put it in his review of The Lagoon, “one more light to help diminish the vast region of darkness by which we are all surrounded”. By evacuating the rich inward reality of Daphne, Istina, Zoe, Milly, et al, Delrez claims, this critical approach repeats the very mechanisms of the mainstream society it purports to oppose. Gina Mercer’s sometimes wayward but often delightful monograph Janet Frame: Subversive Fictions (1994) gets summarily lumped in with social realism as Delrez dismisses feminism as “a variation on the old theme of ‘the plight of the sensitive individual in a conformist society’”.
Delrez’s off-the-cuff remark provoked a resistance in me that was only partially dispelled as I read on. Yes, arcane literary theory has been slapped on Frame’s writing, sometimes obscuring its most elemental points. Yet in rejecting ideological critiques such as feminism, Delrez creates a false polarity between the subjective/ideal and the political/material, as if the struggles for power in “this world” were irrelevant to and independent of “that world”. Quite the contrary. The definition of, and response to, the “other” – the foreigner, the mad, the animal, the poetic, the infinite, the historical, the textual, the silent, the ghostly, the unconscious – lies at the foundation of politics and justice. In this respect, Delrez seems to sell short the ethical basis of his own project.
This distaste for the political may explain why Delrez gives least attention to Intensive Care. Of all Frame’s “wise fools”, Milly comes closest to protesting against her impending death. She is fiercely material; indeed, that is why she must die under the neoliberal Human Delineation régime’s imposition of utopia (is this not a dangerous word, in Frame’s lexicon?). Furthermore, the concept of death as presence and redemption holds no purchase in this novel, sardonic to the end. Instead, an impulsion akin to the Freudian death drive presides over Intensive Care, punctuating the novel with uncanny images of blood on snow, violet eyes, and amputation. And Intensive Care presents violence as undeniably masculine in generation after generation of murder on both the military and the domestic “front”.
The bravado of Delrez’s introduction can’t be sustained in another respect: his intention to “hear” the voice of the “other”, a project which becomes increasingly complex as the book progresses. Initially, Delrez favours a coherent, if elusive, utopian vision in Frame’s novels, one that does not lie beyond description as such but only beyond “consensus-based accounts of reality”. Delrez presents himself as a kind of sympathetic technician in this respect: the careful application of a consistent interpretive methodology (close reading) will yield meanings, however tentatively, from even the most resistant textual details. Language provides the vehicle which shuttles between the known and the (as yet) unknown, as it renders “(un)consciousness … permeable to whatever may lie on the other side of accepted knowledge” (my italics).
By the mid-point of his book, Delrez has veered closer to the position that a structural limit divides “this world” from “that world”, for “in order to reach [Frame’s utopia], it would be both necessary and quite impossible to jump the wall of silence barring the path to her alternative linguistic domain.” This domain is now described as “an impossibly distant, ‘true place’ of creative self-realization”, glimpsed through “fissures in the ordinary fabric of things”. At this moment, Delrez’s stance approximates to that of the critical antagonists he had earlier positioned himself against, those who argue that discussion of “that world” cannot be isolated from institutions such as language, psychiatry, literary criticism, or patriarchy.
In his concluding chapter, however, Delrez arrives at a subtle mediation between his two prior positions, a kind of “sensitive diaphragm” based on the dual capacity of the written word to both convey and constrain communication. Frame’s fictions “stand for the most part on a plane of print-bound expression which falls short of the untold medium of transformed consciousness about which she fantasizes”, a situation which “invites neither ontological doubt nor epistemological nihilism but, if anything, a concentration of anticipated meaning”. To paraphrase (if I have understood the point correctly): one must hold faith that full meaning is always about to arrive, while equally maintaining that the essence of such meaning lies in deferral itself. This is the domain of enlarged “cognitive scope” that Delrez’s text describes and even enacts, in the sense that his initially programmatic approach becomes more nuanced by the closing chapter.
Manifold Utopia extends studies of Frame considerably. Delrez’s location of Frame’s oeuvre within paradox, flux, and transformation allows him to be receptive to particularities in her writing. He doesn’t let textual details slip away, but nor does he press meanings into the kind of interpretive cookie-cutter that he rightly identifies in some earlier Frame criticism. Despite weaknesses in critical method, Delrez engages with the ambition and intellectualism of Frame’s texts, attempting, as they do, no less a project than the re-vision of human subjectivity.
Jennifer Lawn teaches in the School of Social and Cultural Studies at Massey University’s Auckland campus.