Tag Archives: contrapuntal

Reading Contrapuntally – Guilt and Redemption

15 Feb

Reading Wide Sargasso Sea this week, I can’t help but recall Edward Said’s point that unless we read contrapuntally, we are necessarily studying some literature at the exclusion of others. I think of this mainly because as I read, I was categorizing the novel in my head, comparing it to things that I’d read before – specifically, anything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground. This is something that I do naturally when I read, but as I did it this time it occurred to me that Said might not approve. While Notes From Underground has a place in Western canon, Garcia Marquez really does not, and by making these innate and seemingly innocent connections I realize that I was othering Rhys without even thinking. Suddenly, Said’s contrapuntal reading becomes a dangerous game – can we truly contextualize without marginalizing, or is every connection that we make between novels necessarily at the exclusion of others? 

I think that Roberto Schwarz, in his Marxist reading of Wide Sargasso Sea, provides an approach to answering this question. Schwarz links Rhys’ tone with his content and overall conceptual goals through the idea of volubility – he writes on page 17 that “volubility is the formal principle of the novel” and he conveys it through a “deliberate abusiveness of tone,” among other things (7). This idea that the novel is structured both rhetorically and conceptually around contradictory terms is striking, especially considering he sees this as a direct result of Rhys’s attempt to convey Brazil’s “cannibalistic” culture. In class, we learned that Schwarz described a cannibalistic culture as an “emptying out of what’s already hollow,” and we also discussed the idea of Wide Sargasso Sea being a “romantic novel emptied out of its form.” These thoughts seem to imply that this novel is generated on formlessness as a framework – thus allowing the paradoxes that seem to define it to arise and exist in contradictory and yet coalescent spaces. Therefore, the novel really becomes not about a culture itself, but a frameless framework for one.

In this way, rather than othering a culture when comparing Rhys to Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Dostoyevsky, it seems that we are really distinguishing a form – one that Schwarz links very closely with culture, certainly, but which also has the inherent qualities of being culture-less (or indeed, “anything-less”) simply by nature of being emptied of everything to begin with.  While I’m not sure that this gets us to the point in which I can answer my original question, I do think that one way to get our heads around the idea of truly reading contrapuntally would be to consider how much of form is culture, and how much is necessarily culture (and really, “anything”)-less.