EESE Review # 7
Are Little Red Ridinghood's Sisters
Really Postmodern?
- Fairy Tale and Romance
in Contemporary English Literature

F.W. Neumann (Erfurt)

Hannah Jacobmeyer. Märchen und Romanzen in der zeitgenössischen englischen Literatur. Münster etc.: LIT, 2000. 220 pp.

This study on the renaissance of fairy tale and romance under the auspices of postmodernism, which is one of the principal feature of late twentieth-century literature, is based on a meticulous survey of both research on folk literature and postmodern epistemology or ontology. This makes the book a very reliable introduction to the genre in any given period.

Jacobmeyer's approach is embedded in the discussion of genre and expectation, and, more prominently, in the network of intertextual relations. This kind of positivistic groundwork seems to be a prerequisite for the definition of any postmodern work of literature. The third issue discussed in this methodological framework, and which is equally revealing, concerns the tension between the pre-modern tradition of the fairy tale and its re-emergence. Ritual and repetition appear to be the best mould for conveying the ideology of postmodernism, as the autor concludes: When we have become familiar with and duly lost our faith in any 'Lyotardian' meta-narrative, only repetition remains plausible, which is often playful. Thus, the "pre-modernism" inherent in romance and fairy tale is a feature widely felt to be "postmodern" (201). The reader may agree to what Zipes said on the "Changing Function of the Fairy Tales": they persist, indeed, in being a "cultural institution" due to the level of moderate experimentalism where self-referentiality and conventional realism are merging (202 f.).1

Surprisingly, in this comprehensive study of postmodern genre and intertextuality, traditional categories of literary criticism still loom large. Postmodernism is considered a quasi-metaphysical entity. This becomes obvious when she remarks on how far individual works fulfil the requirements of postmodernism or when she, as I understand, regrets that Angela Carter and other writers appear to falter when matched with radical feminism, which is supposed to be a tenet of true postmodernism. This reminds one of the fact that in former times critics were prone to discuss how far a work was pervaded by romanticism or by the baroque. This sort of applied platonism or idealism preoccupied generations of critics especially in Germany. Anyway, as we have to come to terms with the recent past in criticism, the battle for imposing the terminology, i.e. the critic fighting for public recognition of his own definition of postmodernism, is still raging and, as an ongoing concern, has left its mark in Jacobmeyer's study.

However, any reader who follows Jacobmeyer across the fields of fairy tale and romance will get a deeper understanding of one of postmodernism's greater achievements. We come to appreciate the close-reading practiced on pieces by prominent authors such as A.S. Byatt, Rushdie or Angela Carter. This book includes sound methodology (Pfister's "taxonomy" of intertext, above all),2 which any student of literature will appreciate, and produces lucent insight into the workings of postmodern fairy rale and romance, which make it a powerful small book on a central cultural issue. If so, it is suggested that 'Lacanian' desire, the fulfilment of which must be forever postponed being the true realization of "différance", and endless textuality meet. Accordingly, closure never occurs in romance. This is the keystone of the approach underlying this study. Apart from puzzling the scholar, the sole function of intertext is its potential of meaning, which, from the ontological point of view, is located in-between the signs. The more significants are piled on each other for generating significance, the more the latent significance of the void [between text and intertext] itself grows. We are to develop an awareness that the immediacy of meaning cannot possibly include the desire for it. Romance, which aims at postponement is intended to be performed in a space never to be reached, the phenomenon of which is shared by intertext. It is "in-dicible, inter-dite", in-between the said, as intertext is produced in-between the carriers of significance.3 In line with this assumption widely shared by critics nowadays, the most interesting chapters are those devoted to the case studies of Graham Swift, Barbara Cartland, A.S. Byatt, Salman Rushdie, Tanith Lee, and Angela Carter.

  • Graham Swift: Ever After

    The reading of Ever After is based upon a comprehensive compilation of intertextual references, which, as a whole, form a collage in the context of postmodern romance. According to postmodern theory, into the depth of which we are taken from the start, their purpose is to articulate desire: both the nature of it and the longing for the ability to give expression to the unexpressible in whatever shape. As Jacobmeyer argues, the epistemological quality of the quest by the unheroic and extremely contemplative descendants of Hamlet for the appropriate father-figure will provide the consolation of literature - and not of philosophy, as there is hardly any in postmodernism - to overcome the contingency of life. (75)

    Concomitant with the mainstream of postmodern literature, the quest structure of Swift's romance is extended to the level of metafiction and language philosophy for the purpose of giving 'substance' to the individual. Whatever the aimlessness of the intellectual's quest and the morbidity conveyed by this novel, its urgency renders it authentic. Jacobmeyer concludes that the novel's continually suggesting meaning and coherence is entirely due to the traditional elements of romance and, even more so, to the intensity and plenitude of life in the moment of death, which reminds the reader of the most forceful lines of Keats' poetry (80-81), as life and death are indissolubly connected. This is coordinated by a narrator who declares himself unreliable. As Catherine Belsey aptly commented upon intertextuality in Love Stories in Western Culture (1994): "Desire alludes to to texts - but in order to efface its own citationality. It thus draws attention to its elusiveness, its excess over the signifier. Desire is what is not said." (86)

  • Barbara Cartland

    In the Cartland chapter the question of romance being so popular among women in particular is raised by the traditional formnula of "new symbols to represent their own desires" (89). This is just a side issue beween romance and fairy tale, though, as a cultural phenomenon, it is equally significant. Both the characters in fiction and their female readers indulge in glamour and sexual excitement, while consummation is being postponed. Thus romance thrives on the tension between being and want (91), i.e. deficient being - according to Lacan, endless postponement is the desire of the unnamable. As Zelda Provenzano has remarked, Cartland readers are unwilling to confront sexuality as such, so that "Cartland's lack of pornographic filigree has earned her over 400,000,000 readers." (92), however conventionalised these stories are.

  • Byatt, The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye

    It is hard to decide whether the character of the Djinn originates from dream or from neurosis. However fascinating the playfulness and the richness of intertextual references one would not expect in the context of romance and fairy tale, the essence both of the intertext's and of the tale's sharply focussing on love, sex, and death is reductive rather than all-encompassing.

  • Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories

    Haroun is caught and kept prisoner on the ship of darkness which rides over the centre of the "Old Zone: This is the source of narration and thus logos surrounded by the holistic principle of the ocean. In Derrida's terms, logo-centrism means phono-centrism, as the act of narration is priviledged in Western culture. However, the source itself remains in darkness, apart from Haroun's "unio mystica", as one critic suggested, which is an experience beyond speech. If this kind of epiphany is attained, as the fairy-tale experts will call "Glücksinstanz"4 or in Virgina Woolf's "moments of being", modernism means rationalism at its most mystic level and postmodernism, consequently, will be supposed to be the reverse of it. Jacobmeyer draws the conclusion that Rushdie's narratives are still determined by a eurocentric habitus, or, at least, by the residual effects of it (162). Ontologically, any of the fictional worlds created by Rushdie's narration will necessitate order being imposed upon existence: "The world is for Controlling", as Haroun is told, which could have been written in the Bible, or is it plain existentialism?
    Tanith Lee, Wolfland

    Lee's tale on Wolfland was first published in Fantasy & Science Fiction (1980) and reprinted in her Red as Blood or Tales from the Sisters Grimmers (1983) and collected by Jack Zipes for one of his volumes devoted to the most famous figure in world literature.5 This modern version emerges as a tale about matriarchy written in defence against masculine violence and the order of society build upon it. Whatever the gothic setting, the werewolf-grandmother, who is definitely not "masculine and overpowering"6 nor sexually devouring stands for matriarchy as a humane and pragmatic order of society. The potential of intertext which operates in this tale is highly communicative and it is by no means tragic, as the genre would have required. Thus, as Jacobmeyer concludes, the postmodern scepticism against 'meta-conventions' gives rise to new forms of creation (178).

  • Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber

    As many of the tales written by Angela Carter are a notable success, this book is duly to terminate with a reading of the Bloody Chamber. At the level of allegory, the "Country" of marriage will be decoded as the place of conjugal sexuality, female isolation, awareness (in the bloody chamber), as the battle of the sexes, as emancipation and divorce. At the level of intertext, the tale negotiates its meaning between Charles Perrault's Bluebeard and de Sade's Minski. Whatever the hypertrophy of sexual fantasies provided by literature, this is the narration of a rather neurotic, or provocatively and subversively ironic female initiation under the rules of decadent patriarchy in the context of fin-de-si&&egarve;cle intertextual references. Accordingly, Carter's postmodernism excells in deconstructing the traditional ethics of the West, and diverse cultural periods merge into ambiguous pieces of literature (193).

To conclude, Jacobmeyer succeeds in conveying an excellent 'morphology' of postmodern fairy tale and romance. She exactly displays the qualities of a premodern genre reshaped under the conditions of media society. The conclusions drawn from the very detailed coverage of a phenomenon which is by no means marginal in postmodern culture will frame the ongoing debate. However, as her concepts of postmodernism and intertext are restricted to the disciplined methodology of literary scholarship, cultural analysis might provide further readings. If ambiguity pervades late twentieth-century literature, this will prompt the question whether postmodern excess should be read rather as a symptom of a failure of confidence, perhaps rendered obsessive by unextinguishable desire, than just a fashion in literature. The very concept of "intertextuality" cannot be understood without thinking about the function which literature may have in reflecting the mentality of the society concerned. Its communicative potential and its dialoguicity are, first of all, an intellectual pastime in an epistemological void. In the cultural setting of the late twentieth century, intertext, which was revived by the founding fathers of literary modernism, had become the craze among elitist writers - modernism was definitely so - busily scribbling it down against the rising tide of semi-illiteracy and electronic pictorialism in an age of surfeit of information and of the deluge of data. Or, as one TLS critic recently put it when reviewing Peter Ackroyd's Clerkenwell Tales (2003): "the self-conscious acceptance of writing as recycling literature."7 It does not seem pointless to argue that ambiguity and even a lack of confidence sell. The notorious instability of the postmodern self will be duly compensated by the stable amount on the monthly cheque.

1 Jacobmeyer is referring to systems theory as conceived by Gerhard Plumpe, Epochen der modernen Literatur. Ein systemtheoretischer Entwurf (Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1995), and by Christoph Reinfandt, Der Sinn der fiktionalen Wirklichkeiten. Ein systemtheoretischer Entwurf zur Ausdifferenzierung des englischen Romans vom 18. Jahrhunderts bis zur Gegenwart (Heidelberg: Winter, 1997).

2 See Manfred Pfister, "How Postmodern is Intertextuality?" Ed. Heinrich F. Plett, Intertextuality (Berlin/New York: de Gruyter, 1991); "Konzepte der Intertextualität". Eds. M. Pfister and Ulrich Broich, Intertextualität. Formen, Funktionen, anglistische Fallstudien (Tübingen: Niemeyer).

3 "Die Beanspruchung des Intertexts kommt zustande durch den Wunsch nach Bedeutung - Bedeutung, die eben nur zwischen Zeichen liegt. In dem Maße, in dem ein Signifikant auf den nächsten gehäuft wird im Bemühen, Bedeutung zu generieren, wächst der Intertext als unsichtbarer, bedeutungsvoller Zwischenraum. Das Bewußtsein von der Unmöglichkeit einer vollen Präsenz zusammen mit dem Begehren nach einer solchen Präsenz findet Ausdruck in der Form der Romanze. Das Ziel, das in der Romanze verfolgt wird, schiebt sich immer weiter hinaus: Romanze spielt - und das hat sie mit dem Phänomen der Intertextualität gemeinsam - in einem nicht erreichbaren Raum. Sie ist "in-dicible, inter-dite", zwischen Gesagtem, wie auch der Intertext zwischen Bedeutungsträger entsteht." (59)
In Elisabeth Bronfen's terms, "l'excitation [...] dans l'espoir" works as follows: "This double concern, on the one hand an appeal made to literature to satisfy our desire for coherent representations of the world and coherent life stories coupled on the other hand with a self-conscious knowledge of the impossibility of such coherence, is precisely the double bill that the romance directly fits." "Romancing Difference, Courting Coherence: A.S. Byatt's Possession as Postmodern Moral Fiction", Eds. Rüdiger Ahrens and Laurenz Volkmann, Theories and Functions of Literature (Heidelberg: Winter, 1996), 121.

4 See, e.g., Bernhard Paukstadt, Paradigmen der Erzähltheorie: ein methodengeschichtlicher Forschungsbericht mit einer Einführung in Schemakonstitution und Moral des Märchenerzählens (Freiburg: Hochschulverlag, 1980).

5 See Jack Zipes, Don't Bet on the Prince. Contemporary Feminist Tales in North America and England (Aldershot: Gower Publishing, 1986), and, more widely acknowledged, Zipes (ed.), The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood. Versions of the Tale in Sociocultural Context (London: Heinemann, 1983).

6 Jacobmeyer is referring to Lillian M. Heldreth, "Tanith Lee's Werewolves Within: Reversals of Gothic Traditions", JFA 2 (1989), 17.

7 Stephen Abell, "The visionary nun of EC1", TLS August 1, 2003, 19.