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Introduction – Joseph Flanagan

The Electronic Journal of the Department of English
at the University of Helsinki

ISSN 1457-9960

Volume 3, 2004

Literary Studies

© 2004 Joseph Flanagan




That literary theory and criticism is characterized by its eclecticism has been a truism for a long time now. Fifty years ago, scholars may have differed about methodology, but they agreed that criticism should explicate difficult literary texts and correct the reader’s aesthetic taste. Today, there is little consensus about what even counts as literature, let alone how and why we should read it. For some, this lack of a consensus is worrisome; they prophesize that literature will go the way of Latin. For others, the sheer diversity of approaches is a sign of the strength and vitality of the field. They see the current eclecticism as a natural response to the demands and challenges of the new century.

This issue of Helsinki English Studies is good evidence in favour of the latter sentiment. Many contributors (especially myself) have taken advantage of a departmental series to present work that is more tentative, speculative, and exploratory than that found in peer-review journals. This issue is thus not a definitive statement but more a snapshot of the wide and ever-changing interests of the staff and the postgraduate students.

Juuso Aarnio kicks off the issue with “Scientific Genius and Contemporary Biography: James Gleick’s Genius and Sylvia Nasar’s A Beautiful Mind.” Aarnio notes the tendency of the genre to both mythologize and de-mythologize its subjects. The biographies of Richard Feynman and John Nash he examines both debunk certain Romantic notions of “genius” while still preserving the basic “myth” of the heroic individual working in isolation from his (and I use the male pronoun advisedly) peers. Venla Oikkonen takes a similarly critical stance to representations of madness in “Mad Embodiments: Female Corporality and Insanity in Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.” Oikkonen explores how madness is often presented in Western culture as both a refusal of women to submit their bodies to male control as well an impairing physical illness in which women lose control over those bodies. She suggests that we look to Frame’s and Plath’s fictionalized autobiographies to see how such representations affect female patients’ self-perceptions of their illness as well as the larger cultural forces that equate madness with an “untamed” female body.

The next set of papers examines the ontological status of fiction. In “Habitable Worlds and Literary Voices: A. S. Byatt’s Possession as Self-Conscious Realism,” Merja Polvinen presents a theory of the novel as a form of “self-conscious world making.” She examines how Byatt’s novel advocates a critical form of mimetic realism, one that captures the chaotic fluidity and dynamism of reality as it is experienced in the late twentieth century without succumbing to the epistemological nihilism of the postmodern novel. Bo Pettersson’s “The Geography of Time Remembered: Richard Brautigan’s Autobiographical Novels” resurrects critical attention on a once-popular, but now little-read writer to challenge the way some postmodern critics have emphasized the metafictional over the referential not only in Brautigan’s work but also in post-war American fiction more generally.

The final set of papers explores problems associated with colonialism, multiculturalism and immigrant society. Mark Shackleton’s “More Sour than Sweet? Food as a cultural marker in Timothy Mo’s Sour Sweet, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath her Feet” tackles the question of whether the popularity of Chinese and India food in the British diet is a sign of cultural imperialism or cross-cultural acceptance. He explores, for example, how Smith, Mo, and (to a lesser extent) Rushdie associate the “linguistic domestication” that translates a word like Gobhi Aaloo Saas into Go Bye Elo Sag with the “gastronomic domestication” that presents “curry” – a British invention – as an authentic Indian spice preparation. In “Solitude Experienced inside the Group; Physical, Social, and Psychological Isolation in Bharti Mukherjee’s Wife, Jenni Valjento investigates the different forms of isolation that are faced by an immigrant who does not feel at home in either the native or the host country. She reads Mukherjee’s novel as representing a cruel paradox faced by female immigrants: they become even more associated with the private home than their peers in India, yet their private actions are continually scrutinized by a watchful public panopticon. My own paper, “What’s History without the Empire? The Colonial Death Drive in The Waves,” explores how Virginia Wolf’s novel presents the end of the Empire as signifying the retroactive transformation of English history from a narrative of imperial affirmation into its uncanny Other: the colonial death drive.

One of the joys of being an editor is seeing an article develop from its embryonic form to its final completion. I would like to extent a heart-felt thanks to the contributors for their hard work and dedication.

Joseph Flanagan