A. S. Byatt's Possession(1990), Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda (1988), and Graham Swift's Waterland (1983) all take place in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and they seek to reconcile the nineteenth- and twentieth-century views of the nature of narrative. Byatt's own "People in Paper Houses," quotes B. S. Johnson's claim that "'the nineteenth-century novel' was finished by the outbreak of the First World War...Its wrongness is that it tells a story -- and 'telling stories is telling lies'" (19-20). In the nineteenth century, Romanticism celebrates the wholeness of vision gained by exploring the fantastic and the supernatural; in the twentieth century, postmodernism insists upon the fragmented narrative as a more accurate reflection of unruly life. Byatt, Carey, and Swift compare these two narrative traditions in light of one enduring archetypal narrative: the fall from innocence to knowledge.
A. S. Byatt's Possession considers the fall from innocence as a state of imaginative possession. In this moment of possession, the writer's imagination becomes other by fusing with the world exterior to the writer: "No longer a feature of the passive mind, the tabula rasa of Locke and Hartley, the imagination is here the active agent, shaping the world as it finds it, creating it anew with each vision" (Miyoshi 47). According to Jill Clayt0on, the nineteenth-century Romantic writer understood this moment as crucial to creativity but also acknowledged its destructive, demonic aspect:
As Coleridge puts it, the imagination "dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create" (Biographia Literaria1:304)...In its disruptive phase the Romantic imagination can usurp all the other elements of the poet's world, but such moments are necessarily brief. The "light of sense / Goes out," Wordsworth writes in his most important comment on the visionary power of the imagination; "but with a flash that has revealed / The invisible world." (Prelude 6.600-2). (Clayton 5)
This flash illuminates narrative: "when a narrative becomes 'other,' it grows vivid, concrete" (13). This incarnation of the imaginative idea is Byatt's chief objective in Possession.
Byatt depicts the imaginative possession of two university scholars like herself, Roland Michell and Maud Bailey, who uncover the secret love affair between two Victorian poets (Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte) whom they eventually imitate by falling in love themselves and in Roland's case, by beginning to write poetry. Byatt becomes the last link in a chain along which the act of creative possession is enacted and deferred. Byatt initiates this series in the distant past of pagan myth: Possessionbegins with Randolph Ash's "The Garden of Proserpina," the first of Byatt's ventriloquist acts within the text.
Byatt inflects the myth of Proserpina with a dual symbolism. Intellectually, the instant of imaginative possession enables a creative synthesis; physically, the instant of sexual possession incarnates the idea of simultaneous destruction and regeneration. In "The Garden of Proserpina," Randolph Ash sets the stage for both of these moments:
At the old world's rim,
In the Hesperidean grove, the fruit
Glowed golden on eternal boughs, and there
The dragon Ladon crisped his jewelled crest
Scraped a gold claw and sharped a silver tooth
And dozed and waited through eternity
Until the tricksy hero, Heracles,
Came to his dispossession and the theft. (4)
Byatt dispossesses the past and blends it with the present in her novel, thus creating a cyclical time scheme. Like Proserpina, Byatt rises from the "old world's rim," the garden of the underworld, to the present, only to descend once more (Proserpina rises from the underworld every six months and therefore she is associated with springtime and regeneration).
In Possession, the cyclical exchange of past and present and generation and destruction represents a fall from the Victorian conception of linear time:
[Michael] Young argues that Western ideology has shaped a "metronomic society," stubbornly linear and perceiving cyclical time as a threat which robs us of our sense of progress and individuality...This linear bias, as Walter Houghton recognizes in The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830 to 1870, particularly emerges in the metronomic narrowness of the Victorian age: never before had men thought of their own time as an era of change from the past to the future. (Shinn 1)
Darwin's theory of evolution and Auguste Comte's philosophy of Positivism "rang the death knell to the ages of theology and metaphysics and proclaimed scientific sequential order as the new religion of humanity" (168). The Victorian rise of the scientific sequential order causes a fall in the individual's conception of life: the "linear certainty of death as our 'real' future overshadows the cyclical, thereby hiding the vital, iterative part of its own constitution (Young 5)" (Shinn 167). Byatt conflates this Victorian moment of fragmentation with contemporary postmodern conceptions of narrative.
At risk of losing "our sense of progress and individuality," Byatt renews the cyclical conception of time and thus renders the conflation of past and present a positive moment instead of a negative one. Randolph Ash's view of his time is indeed postmodern in its "linear exhaustion" and its lack of a unifying grand narrative:
In PossessionByatt downplays Ash's perception of the "smutty" accretion of knowledge and instead emphasizes his sense of the enduring dual nature of knowledge ("our greatest spur...To good and evil"). To accommodate this dual nature of knowledge within her text, Byatt resurrects the Romantic narrativity of Coleridge.
The truth is -- my dear Miss LaMotte -- that we live in an old world -- a tired world -- a world that has gone on piling up speculation and observations until truths that might have been graspable in the bright Dayspring of human morning...are now obscured by palimpsest on palimpsest, by thick horny growths over that clear vision...The scribe of Genesis did well to locate the source of all our misery in that greed for knowledge which has also been our greatest spur -- in some sense -- to good. To good and evil. We have more of both those, I must believe, than our primitive parents. (Byatt 181)
Coleridge's poem Christabel, which gives Byatt's Christabel her name, appropriately unites the creative and sexual moments of possession. Christabel casts the moment of possession as an instance of discursive paralysis. Although "Coleridge defines the imagination as a power that blends and unifies discordant qualities" (Clayton 5).
These moments are "necessarily brief," but they represent the ability of idea and incarnation to cancel each other out at the height of their powers.
the balance is a delicate one: the more baffled the poet, the more desperately he reaches for oneness, and the tighter he holds to his vision, the greater his awareness of discrepant reality. In an unfortunate irony, it is this Romantic atmosphere of apparent fusion of all being that refracts the poet's vision and breaks his self-image in two. (Miyoshi 49)
In Christabel this ability has important ramifications for narrative. "In extreme cases, the connection between visibility and otherness can make the world of a novel seem not merely visible but opaque" (Clayton 13). In Coleridge's poem, Christabel is possessed of the spirit of Geraldine, who symbolizes the destructive and regenerative power of knowledge (and hence the idea) and momentarily erases Christabel's power of utterance. Geraldine's presence usurps Christabel's narrative space. At the same time, Coleridge portrays Geraldine as a nurturing presence, "a mother with her child" (Coleridge ll. 298-301). After the moment of self-obliteration has passed, Christabel finds that she has acquired the knowledge of wholeness. She has encountered the power of imagination and understands it as good and evil: "Such giddiness of heart and brain / Come seldom save from rage and pain" (ll. 675-6). The union of opposite forces carries the promise of wholeness and the threat of self-effacement. Incarnated on a sexual level, the ambiguity of this union accounts for Roland's and Maud's fear of possession.
Like Alfred Lord Tennyson's Maud, Byatt's Maud is "icily regular, splendidly null." Although "sexual encounter is the traditional metaphor for knowledge" and "the apprehension of unity is the act of imagination" (Watson 189), Maud stubbornly separates sexuality and knowledge. In Roland's and Maud's study of Ash and LaMotte, Maud also feels "urged on by some violent emotion of curiosity -- ...curiosity, more fundamental even than sex, the desire for knowledge" (Byatt 92). In one scene before Roland and Maud fall in love, Roland proves the intensity of this desire. In order to prime himself for conciliatory sex with his girlfriend at the time, Roland fantasizes about Randolph Ash's wife Ellen. Thinking about her own last lover, Maud recalls their unmade bed as an "empty battlefield" and agrees with Freud that "desire lies on the other side of repugnance" (63). At the price of her own wholeness, unwittingly rendering herself "null," Maud only acknowledges the self-obliterating aspect of sexuality and fiercely dissociates her physical attractiveness from her intelligence: "She considered her perfectly regular features in the mirror...The doll-mask she saw had nothing to do with her, nothing" (64). Like her ancestor Christabel, Maud's character is possessed of the fairy Melusine and the goddess Diana, both of whom are commonly considered as emblems of female self-sufficiency.
Yet Byatt interrogates this self-sufficiency. Forever aware of her own fictiveness, Byatt parodizes the moment when both Melusine and Diana strike down men who have seen them in their bath. As Maud comes out of the shower, she catches Roland peeping in the keyhole. As a postmodern re-visioning of Melusine and Diana, Maud represents her society's eagerness to "possess the Past, while the contemporary level of Byatt's novel reveals that instead we are possessed by that Past" (Shinn 177). Like postmodern society itself, Maud meditates on her own fragmentation:
Maud realizes eventually that she must consent to a mutual possession in which her past and present assert equal claims to each other, as do she and Roland.
Narcissism, the unstable self, the fractured ego, Maud thought, who am I?...It was both a pleasant and an unpleasant idea, this requirement that she think of herself as intermittent and partial. There was the question of the awkward body. The skin, the breath, the eyes, the hair, their history, which did seem to exist. (Byatt 273)
As Byatt restores the cyclical conception of time to her narrative at the cost of the narcissistic linear conception, she risks and enriches her characters's selves by transforming "dialogic confrontations [with the past] into conversationswhich expand the understanding of each participant by exposure to the 'other' perspective" (Shinn 181). Interestingly, Beatrice Nest, one of the most self-effacing characters in the text, uses this word as well: "Beatrice hated writing. The only word she was proud of in this correct and dull disquisition was 'conversation,' which she had chosen in preference to the more obvious 'dialogue.' For such conversation Beatrice would have given everything, in those days" (Byatt 127). Maud finally participates in sexual conversation with Roland. Byatt conflates their lovemaking with Heracles's theft of the apples from the Garden of Proserpina, thus cyclically ending the novel where it began:
In the morning, the whole world had a strange new smell. It was the smell of the aftermath...a tart smell, which bore some relation to the smell of bitter apples. It was the smell of death and destruction and it smelled fresh and lively and hopeful. ( 551)
Byatt follows this sexual possession with a postscript: Randolph's and Christabel's illegitimate child Maya (the name of the Hindu goddess of illusion) ironically represents the shattering of her parents's enchanted world. Maya (who prefers to be called the more down-to-earth May) unwittingly meets her father in a cornfield and forgets to relay her father's poetic message to her mother (whom she believes is her aunt). Byatt's postscript shows this symbolic Persephone in her cornfield. May represents springtime and the starting and ending of Byatt's cycle -- the reversion to innocence after the fall.