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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Jane Austen's Anamorphism

Diane Reynolds's return to the rhetorical fray in Janeites and Austen L has helped to spur discussion of Jane Austen's letters even further, and one of her several comments prompts me to elaborate as follows on the anamorphism of Jane Austen's novels, meaning, that there are two parallel fictional universes in each novel, the revealed (or overt) story, and the shadow story.

[Diane] "The genius of Jane Austen is that she lends herself to both readings. Her novels remind me of the Psych 101 picture, that, depending on how you look at it, is a young, beautiful woman or an old hag."

That is a famous modern example, Diane, which, as you suggest, had its roots in psychological testing (I think that one is from the Rorschach test), and, as I will argue below, it has partial applicability to Austen's novels.

The other good example, which is always given in the visual arts, is the famous Holbein painting The Ambassadors, where, when viewed face-on, you see a blurry image in one corner of the painting, but which, when viewed from one particular vantage point off to the far side, is then seen to be a skull. And there have been many less famous paintings over centuries which follow the same concept. There is one, of one of the English kings, in the National Portrait Gallery in London, where they direct the viewer to the one point of view where you can see the covert image. That was great fun to experience in person.

I claim that many of Shakespeare's plays are anamorphic in this same way, and Shakespeare explicitly invoked this idea of anamorphism in the famous speech about perspectives by the character Bushy in Richard II.

Norman Rabkin is one of the minority of Shakespeare scholars who have written about Shakespeare's anamorphism, and his favorite example is the so-called Henriad, which begins with Richard II and ends with Henry V, as to which Rabkin drew the analogy to the famous rabbit/duck figure-ground image. You can either read these plays as depicting the maturation of Henry as a noble patriot, or the maturation of Henry as a Machiavellian monster. Rabkin argued, and I agree, that this duality was entirely intentional on Shakespeare's part.

If my first book about Jane Austen is successful, my second book will be about the anamorphism of Shakespeare in general, and Hamlet in particular--Hamlet is, to me, Shakespeare's Emma---the most perfect embodiment of his anamorphic artistry.

And finally, getting back to Jane Austen---- I speak about the anamorphism of her novels in all my talks, naturally--in Portland, where my topic was Mrs. Tilney's mysterious fever as postpartum puerperal fever, I pointed to the discussion among Henry, Eleanor and Catherine atop Beechen Cliff, looking out on the city of Bath. Read it, you will see Jane Austen's ultra-sly version of the Bushy speech from Richard II, in the discussion of perspective.

And in a hundred other places in her novels, Jane Austen winked to the reader about her anamorphism. She knew exactly what she was doing, and her hand is as sure in Northanger Abbey as it was in Emma, evidencing (to me) that all the first three novels, despite having been originally written before the age of 25, were extensively revised by her after she was 35, i.e., after she had figured out how to create anamorphic novels with a sure hand.

My most important point, however, is that Jane Austen's shadow stories are completely independent of the revealed (or overt) story--they each use the same characters, but in the shadow story, the events which matter most are the very events which seem trivial or "filler" in the revealed (or overt) story. The revealed stories are pretty much from the primary heroine's perspective, the shadow stories are pretty much from the shadow heroine's perspective.

So the Ambassadors is a good example for illustrating the importance of point of view in seeing the two versions of Austen's stories--but the young woman/hag image is also a good example for illustrating the importance of paying extra attention to particular details in seeing the two versions.

And these two examples work together. The image of Willoughby as stalking Marianne in the first part of the novel popped into my head spontaneously in July 2002, but then I instinctively used that altered perspective or point of view in order to help me spot the textual clues which, in hindsight, were what led me to that spontaneous idea in the first place, but where not consciously visible without that altered assumption about Willoughby.

So in the revealed story, Willoughby is not stalking Marianne, but in the shadow story, Willoughby is stalking her--parallel fictional universes.

I also meant to add one more point about the idea of an unreliable narrator, because Austen's narration is at the center of her creation of anamorphism. Most people assume that an unreliable narrator means that you don't know whether to believe what the narrator says or not, and it would seem to generate chaos, if you have to decide on reliability at every point in the story.

However, that is absolutely not the case, and the reason is that Austen's narrator is meant to be taken in one of two completely different ways--like a fork in the road that begins on Page 1 of each novel. If you _consistently_ read the novel with trust that the narrator is a straight shooter who tells you all you need to know, and don't vary that approach throughout your entire reading, then you get the revealed (or overt) story.

But....if you _consistently_ read with trust that the narrator is a serpentine trickster who who makes you think you've been told all you need to know, but also winks about the part that has been concealed in plain sight, and you don't vary that approach throughout your entire reading, then you get the shadow story.

The word "consistently" is the key--you see the shadow story when you rely upon the narrator's _un_reliability, i.e., if you assume, for purposes of viewing JA's complex word "painting", the narrator's unreliability--a "reliable unreliability" if you will.

Just as you are not going to see the skull in The Ambassadors if you keep moving around here and there, you have to plant yourself firmly in one spot and view the entire painting from that skewed perspective.

What I have found is that many Janeites have glimpsed one piece of the shadow story of each novel and tried to integrate that piece into the revealed story. The most well known example is Edith Lank's article in Persuasions 20 years ago when she claimed that Miss Bates is actually Harriet Smith's mother, but there have been many others.

My most important discovery was realizing that you can't do that, without creating a monstrous elephant, which has a monkey's ears or a crab's claws. You should strive to either see a 100% elephant or a 100% kangaroo, and don't mix up the two!

Cheers, ARNIE

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