EESE Review # 6

Stefan Horlacher.
Visuality and the Critique of the Visual in the Works of John Fowles
Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag 1998

This study on contemporary literary epistemology hinges upon pattern of visuality inherent in writing. Visual perception, observation, recognition, ignorance, estimation and interpretation are the key issues of nearly any text in Fowles's works. The author himself, however, never acknowledged this pervading feature of his works, as he was higly critical of the pictorial media. Academic criticism has so far disregarded the importance of the visual epistemology in Fowles, with the rare exception of Lynne Veith in an article published by Modern Fiction Studies (1991). Thus much remains to be investigated, in particular the hierarchy and function of the pictorial media in the context of narration. It might be significant to be reminded of the fact that Fowles so frequently resorts to metaphors of visuality, which are to support the "proto-existentialist" quest for whole sight (p. 1 f.). Fowles once denounced the armchair viewer as "a pair of eyes chained to a seat." In spite of sharing Fowles views on time-consuming TV, the critic is tempted to assume that there is an unacknowledged desire to venture into the powerful interaction of image and word, which seems typical of late 20th century civilisation.

Apart from current literary theory including feminist criticism, Horlacher draws support mainly from Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology. The first part is devoted to the phallic gaze and its various implications in The French Lieutenant's Woman, the second part focusses on the existential dimension of the artist viewing the world; on reading the third part, however, one would certainly agree to re-considering Daniel Martin as possibly one of the most important pieces of cultural analysis and critique of contemporary media society.

In Fowlesian narrative strategy, male visual perception is bound to fail (The French Lieutenant's Woman):

"Under the full range of male eyes gazing like spotlights, the (female) protagonist becomes more and more invisible and visionary and dazzling due to the multiplicity and to the overlaying of exposures produced by her impressions and images. An empty space of meaning is thus opened up for contradictory readings. But it is not only the multiplicity of gazes which change Sarah out of all recognition. The gaze itself proves faulty and is revealed, through Grogan and Charles, to be the projection by an optical system blurred by hormone imbalance. Its failure is evident not only at content level, but, due to its restrictive point-of-view technique, it makes the reader take part in it. If the reader relies on the different takes, he will be unable to escape the constructs of the imagination which are an inept description not only of female "reality". The reader will be caught in a labyrinth of misleading apearances. The reader is being manipulated by the narrator and, the male reader at least, is thus in danger of falling victim to his own gaze, his own projections and notions of womanhood which result from phantasmal male stereotypes and which blur the distinction between reality and fiction."1

In "The Ebony Tower", the underlying symbolic plot transforms the whole text into a dynamic ekphrasis or a pictorial literary model of Breasley's paintings. Breasley incorporates Fowles's concept to give the body subject status in perception which means existence. The body's entire knowledge, which is normally left untold but always implied, comes to the fore. The artist aims at a 'world moment' or, more traditionally, 'moment of being' in order to overcome all the patterns of expressions determined by civilisation. (339) The apotheosis of the corporeal as the true realm of the soul and the concomitant turning to pre-linguistic truths, however, must as inevitably remain a matter of doubt as the merging of art and world in the text to which the rapidly changing settings of the paintings provide a mutual comment. Horlacher concludes that, obviously, the text in its entirety works against the access to brute being which Breasley so vehemently strives for. Following the precepts of current literary theory, he adds the point that the text must be identified as its own meta-text. The ensuing paradox will remind the reader of Iris Murdoch's order, however unstable, imposed by consciousness upon brute being.

In his longish novel Daniel Martin Fowles took up media critique and thus anticipated approaches which became fashionable in the 1980s and 90s. Martin's creative praactice evolves from picture to writing. First of all, the book mirrors the techniques of script-writing which is based upon visual structures. It circles around the motifs recorder by film and literature and around myth and realism. Different levels of narrative merge. Surprisingly, this is Folwes at his best, whenever he attacks English and American society as being determined by their respective 'scopic' economies. As TV and Hollywood produce a mindless surface vision of reality (Baudrillard's 'hyperreality' and 'simulation'), Englishness now means to escape from the "present, camera, reality" and the "continual evasion of the inner self" (Daniel Martin). Pictures refer to pictures, the basic structures of human communication are lost. Both England and America are devastated by the pictorial media.

Is there a possible redemption from simulation? Fowles dreams the dream of the humanist. In conclusion, Horlacher quotes from Svetlana Alpers book on seventeenth-century Dutch painting to reconciliate writing and the picture. In order to hammer home the message, the author chose to print the following in bold face: "Paradoxical though it may seem, Rembrandt makes images that show us that ut us the word (or the Word) rather than the world seen that conveys truth." This study may indeed become an eye-opener for re-assessing Fowles as one of the most important writers on late 20th century culture.

Fritz-Wilhelm Neumann (Erfurt)

 1"Im Zentrum des Arsenals männlicher Scheinwerferaugen wird die Protagonistin durch die Multiplizität und Übereinanderbelichtungen der von ihr präsentierten Impressionen und Bilder zunehmend unsichtbarer, visionärer und blendender, um schließlich zu einer zur widersprüchlichen Interpretation aufrufenden Leerstelle zu werden. Doch nicht nur die Multiplizität der Blicke trägt zu Sarahs Unerkennbarkeit bei. Der Blick selbst erweist sich als fehlerhaft und wird anhand von Grogan und Charles als Projektion einer hormonell verzerrten Optik decouvriert. Deren Fehlschlagen manifestiert sich nicht nur auf der Inhaltsebene, sondern bezieht, bedingt durch die perspektivierend-kanalisierende Erzähltechnik, auch den Leser mit ein. Verläßt sich dieser auf die einzelnen Einstellungen, so bleibt er in nicht nur der weiblichen 'Realität' inadäquaten Imaginationsgebilden und Vorstellungen gefangen. Er scheitert in einem Labyrinth falscher appearances. Vom Erzähler manipuliert, droht zumindest der männliche Leser Opfer seines eigenen Blicks zu werden, seiner eigenen Projektionen und Frauenbilder, die als männliche Phantasmen vorgeprägten Stereotypen folgen und vom fließenden Übergang zwischen Realität und Fiktion zeugen." (334)