Cousineau, Thomas. Ritual Unbound: Reading Sacrifice in Modernist Fiction.
Thomas Cousineau's Ritual Unbound: Reading Sacrifice in Modernist Fiction provides a provocative set of Girardian readings of five modernist novels: The Turn of the Screw, Heart of Darkness, The Good Soldier, The Great Gatsby, and To the Lighthouse. Cousineau shows that these novels not only work to demystify scapegoating by defending "a solitary protagonist who has become the target of communal violence" (17), but they also, ironically, threaten to remystify sacrifice, often by inviting us to sympathize with first-person narrators who themselves are anxious to shift guilt from themselves and onto others. Of the five novels, To the Lighthouse is most resistant to remystification, in part, Cousineau argues, because of its omniscient narrator; yet, as he observes, the novel has nevertheless coaxed many a reader into scapegoating Mr. Ramsay or Charles Tansley.
Then, in the final twist of his intricate readings, Cousineau also contends that, beyond these remystifications, all these novels offer the form of "an imaginary solution to the intractable problem of creating in the real world a non-sacrificial community" (18). Relying on Girard's distinction between a scapegoat in the text and a scapegoat of the text, Cousineau shows how, while these narrators tend to shift who we see as a scapegoat in the text, the texts overall avoid making scapegoats, but only if we read these books with great care, focusing on "the objective pattern of events of the novel, as distinct from the narrator's perspective on them" (29). Cousineau's nuanced readings provide further evidence that sacrifice is a pervasive and central theme of modernist fiction and challenge conventional critical wisdom on these novels, especially The Great Gatsby.
In his reading of The Turn of the Screw, Cousineau argues that the governess fashions the ghosts of her precursors Peter Quint and Miss Jessel into villains because she considers them rivals for the affection of the children in her charge. Her jealousy drives her to over-read the meaning of their ghostly appearances until she has vilified them without sufficient cause. But in the novel's frame tale, James provides a model of rivalry that does not turn violent. Douglas, who reads the governess's account, must follow the successful ghost story of his precursor, Griffin. Cousineau suggests that by freely acknowledging the priority of his precursor, Douglas defuses the rivalry. This in turn undercuts the impulse to scapegoat the rival and by contrast exposes this impulse in the governess.
Cousineau finds a similar pattern in Heart of Darkness. He argues that Marlow creates Africans and women as a foil to European men, and thereby scapegoats them, yet he finds that the novel as a whole offers scenes in which we can see for ourselves that Europeans have their own "unspeakable practices." (Cousineau might have taken this point further: Conrad also gives Africans some "European" virtues: restraint, courage, and physical beauty.)
In his third and fourth chapters, Cousineau uses elements of Girard's theory of mimetic desire to inflect his readings of the scapegoat patterns in The Good Soldier and The Great Gatsby. In his reading of The Good Soldier, Cousineau argues that "Dowell had wanted his story to be about the scapegoating of Edward by an unfeeling community" but finally it proves "to be about his own desire to model himself, in however a desultory or cheerless fashion, upon Edward" (100). Similarly, Cousineau argues that Nick elevates Gatsby and makes him the sacrificial victim of Daisy and Tom, upon whom he heaps opprobrium. Meanwhile, Nick himself is unaware that he has used Gatsby as a surrogate "through whom Nick will experience romantic adventures vicariously while avoiding their potential lethal consequences" (112). Cousineau's claim is based on his original and provocative reading of Nick as a "panderer" who brings Daisy and Gatsby together and therefore shares responsibility for Gatsby's death.
Finally, Cousineau suggests that To the Lighthouse best demystifies scapegoating by setting up apparent scapegoats in Mr. Ramsay and Charles Tansley but then having other characters redeem them in their thoughts. In the case of Tansley, Lily explicitly acknowledges that he has functioned as a "whipping boy" for her. And Cousineau suggests that Lily's painting process, which threatens to exclude her artistic precursors, actually involves "the formation of a fellowship that implies the loss of distinction between 'he' and 'she' ... [and] now represents the possibility of a non-exclusionary relationship with the other" (162).
One of Cousineau's central contentions seems to be that all these books are ambivalent about their scapegoatings. But if ambivalence is a key feature of these novels, chances are it will be hard to read these books very far in a single direction without running into some countervailing evidence. In a few cases, simply widening the range of evidence to be taken into account casts doubt on some of the important aspects of Cousineau's readings.
This is true, for example, of Heart of Darkness where Marlow often seems just as aware as Conrad that there are no easy oppositions between Europeans and Africans, or even women or men. One scene that Cousineau does not mention is that in which Marlow heads back down river and his crew opens fire on the Africans on the bank, including Kurtz's mistress. The idiocy of this assault and the bravery of the African woman's defiance are clear to Marlow and confound any easy use of Africans and women as negative foils. Another sign that Marlow does not simply oppose Africans to Europeans based on the "unspeakable practices" of the Africans is that Marlow clearly prefers the morality of Kurtz, who has participated in these acts, to the morality of the Europeans who perpetrate the "grove of death."
In his reading of The Great Gatsby, Cousineau suggests that Nick wishes to remain unsullied by sexual desire and thus pursues it vicariously through Gatsby, but Cousineau makes this argument by ignoring Nick's romantic relationship with Jordan Baker, in which he engages deeply enough to cause him genuine emotional pain. At the very least, Cousineau's innovative reading of Gatsby would be far more persuasive if he could acknowledge Jordan as someone Nick desires. But instead, Cousineau pursues the case against Nick with the sort of single-minded zeal for which he chastises some of the narrators of these books. Yes, Nick is complicit in bringing Daisy and Gatsby together, but that does not necessarily make him morally responsible for every eventuality that follows that meeting. Cousineau himself acknowledges in another context that too many choices must be made by other characters before Gatsby can die: Gatsby and Daisy's decision to flee the scene of the accident is one; Wilson's desire for revenge is another; and there are more. Nick's moral superiority, arguably, does not rest on a false sense of his own perfection combined with a willingness to blame others, as I think Cousineau suggests, but on his instinct to put on the brakes, a salient metaphor in this novel, to limit his faults, while others keep driving.
But, as any student of scapegoating knows, certain exclusions are inevitable. Overall, Cousineau has successfully shown the intricacies and ambivalences in the way these novels represent sacrifice.
ANDREW MOZINA, Kalamazoo College
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|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2006|
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