Dream, fantasy, and illness: exploring the carnal imaginary
This thesis addresses the predominance of visual and spatial metaphors in literary critique, which has resulted in a hierarchy of the senses that fragments and excludes the body from the reading process. In response, I aim to establish the body as a transformative, chiasmic space where the reader enters into mediation with the text. Specifically, I advocate a restorative approach to the sense of touch in the reading process, moving Wolfgang Iser’s “virtual space” of reading into an embodied space, through recourse to Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s carnal phenomenology, Richard Kearney’s carnal hermeneutics, and George Butte’s suture theory. Mobilising these theories, subsequent chapters examine Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, Anaïs Nin’s erotic short stories, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, and Mary Gaitskill’s Two Girls, Fat and Thin in light of these approaches in order to illustrate different ways that critique can move from text to body and back. In Conversations with Friends, I explore how the “double sensation” of touch can be created via a narrative voice that dramatizes cycles of fragmentation and stabilization. In Nin’s fiction flesh is treated as a chiasmic space across which self and other are encountered and entangled, but in a process that simultaneously preserves otherness, never allowing for the complete synthesis of self and other. My chapter on The Vegetarian refines these techniques of ‘carnal reading’ by proposing that the character Yeong-hye’s body is figured as a space of interpretation, and that each of the novel’s three sections exemplifies a specific approach to the body-as-text: the touch that dominates, the touch that appropriates, and the touch that reciprocates. My final chapter on Two Girls, Fat and Thin considers how Gaitskill’s depiction of trauma further undoes distance between reader and text, positioning the reader as a witness and therefore participant in the women’s story of trauma and recovery. These readings are ultimately redemptive and restorative. By returning the fully-sensing body of the reader to the critical process, and understanding the critical process as one of dual action-passion, we open up the possibility of community, healing, and collective experience in reading and critique. Further, by positioning the text as a sensual, dynamic, sometimes-mysterious other, we resist instrumentalizing or objectifying literature and create new possibilities for critique.