Obnoxiousness and Elizabeth Bowen’s Queer Adolescents
Obnoxiousness and Elizabeth Bowen’s Queer Adolescents
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter addresses Bowen’s obnoxious adolescents, arguing that she brings together the operations of language and the critical function of affect in questions of meaning and being, and connects what she sees as the figure of the queer adolescent in Bowen (for example, Theodora Thirdman in Friends and Relations) with the equally queer or innovative operations of her writing, with her novels as aesthetic events. It thus posits adolescence as a particular structure of feeling that, in the assemblage of (Bowen’s) novelistic writing, at once mobilizes the stylistic operations of her prose, and that determines the singularity of her writing and its aesthetic effects.
In one of her autobiographical sketches collected in the appropriately titled and posthumously published Pictures and Conversations (1974), Elizabeth Bowen writes about adolescence as a kind of affliction, a nasty disease, the ‘onslaught’ of which she herself was fortunately spared.1
I never did have adolescence at all badly. Chicken-pox, measles, German measles, mumps, whooping-cough in turn took their toll of me, and heavily, but with the last of those my afflictions ceased. Adolescence apparently, by-passed me – or if I ever did have it, I got off light … At around sixteen I dabbled in introspection, but hardly more. Tormenting nameless disturbances, conflicts, cravings were not experienced by me. I had never heard of them.2
The sentence closing this passage is telling. Bowen at once acknowledges what we have, post-deconstruction, learned to recognise as the discursive construction of (gendered) subjectivity, in one or all of its modulations (among which, crucially, at least in Western cultures, that of adolescence), and points up the complex interrelations between meaning and materiality, between signification and corporeality, in the experience of (one’s) self. Bowen takes this founding constructivist notion a step further, however, by including not only formalised thought and ideologemes into the (discursive) ‘constitutive outside’, but also that which remains ‘nameless’, that is the ‘disturbances, conflicts, cravings’ commonly associated with adolescence. Feelings one has never heard of, she appears to suggest, will not be part of one’s experience, will not go into the making of one’s self, but once one has heard of them, once they have been articulated, (p.63) they become available to one’s consciousness, either to embrace and incorporate into one’s being – perhaps more accurately: into one’s becoming – or, indeed, to be (retroactively) rejected.
Bowen’s claim to imperviousness with regard to the ‘onslaught’ of adolescence may strike readers familiar with even only a few of her works as somewhat puzzling. For throughout a writing career that spanned forty years, in which she published ten full-length novels, dozens of short stories, a history of her family, many critical and varied shorter journalistic essays, Bowen was obsessed with children and adolescents. The figure of, especially, the female adolescent is of such central importance to her work that one of its earliest permutations has occasionally been hailed by critics as a ‘prototype’ that would set the pattern for all of the author’s subsequent heroines, irrespective of their age.
Bowen’s dismissal of the phenomenon of adolescence with respect to her own pre-adult experience is thus quite remarkable, even more so because for her the distinction between fact and fiction, imagination and reality, is impossible to maintain. In her essay ‘Out of a Book’ (1946), for example, the author admits to having ‘layers of synthetic experience’ and concedes that the ‘most powerful of [her] memories are only half true’.3 Such ‘layers of fictitious memory’, she explains, are the result of the ‘overlapping and haunting of life by fiction’, a process that began for her at an early age and that clearly complicates any traditional distinction between the imaginary and the real, between fact and fiction, or, in effect, between meaning and being. Bowen’s recognition that such layers of fictitious memory ‘densify as they go deeper down’, in that they find their origins in a moment way ‘before there was anything to be got from the printed page’, additionally locates the joint emergence of these two modalities of the (experience of) self, in their very inextricability, in a moment before she could read, before articulation, and thus in a preverbal domain: in the domain of perception and sensation, rather than that of (conscious) thought or discourse. As such, the early aesthetic encounters with stories and pictures in books, quite literally constitute the ‘structures of feeling’ from which, she acknowledges, ‘today’s chosen sensations and calculated thoughts’ continue to arise.4 These reflections on the intermingling of preverbal and verbal, inarticulate and articulate thoughts and feelings indicate that Bowen’s attitude towards adolescence, in life as in fiction, is rather more complex than her emphatic rejection of its afflictions in the former may, at first glance, convey. What her comments on adolescence do indisputably suggest, however, is that feelings, as much as thoughts and ideas, are (p.64) fundamentally social in character, hence culturally present even if not fully acknowledged, and, as such, available to our experience as aesthetic objects in, among others, literary texts.
What I wish to do in this essay, then, is to bring together the constitutive operations of language (or discourse) and the critical function of feelings in questions of meaning and be[com]ing, by connecting the figure of the queer adolescent in Bowen with the equally queer operations of her writing, with her novels as aesthetic events. My purpose is to posit adolescence as a particular structure of feeling that, in the assemblage of Bowen’s writing, at once mobilises the stylistic operations of her prose and that, no less forcefully, (over)determines the singularity and materiality of her novels’ aesthetic effects.
On the one hand, I suggest, Bowen’s fascination with children and adolescents, as ‘sensationalists’, has to do with her insight into young persons’ ability to read ‘deeply, ravenously, unthinkingly, sensuously’, before the ‘brain is to stand posted between his [sic] self and the story’, and the loss of such a primary sensibility, or ‘virgin susceptibility’ is compromised – even if it is not ever fully supplanted – by the desire for meaning, for form, ‘to be unmistakably demarcated, to take shape’ as an adult human being, as a subject.5 An avowed ‘sensationalist’ herself, the author incessantly returns to that which has not become quite lost, that which can be ‘unconsciously remembered’, the ‘magic stored up in those years’, the pre-cognitive, affective dimensions of being or becoming that are essential to life: ‘[p]robably children, if they said what they thought, would be much franker about the insufficiency of so-called real life to the requirements of those who want to be really alive’.6
On the other hand, it should be noted that in her refusal to draw a clear line between fact and fiction or between imagination and reality, Bowen reverses the terms in relation to which such distinctions are conventionally cast. Her insistence on the ‘continuity … between living and writing’ hence does not mean that the characters in her novels originate in real life: ‘[i]f anything, the contrary was the case’.7 Whereas ‘persons playing a part in [her] life … had about them something semi-fictitious’, the characters in her stories, as soon as they ‘made themselves known’ to her, were ‘instantly recognisable, memorable, from then on’: ‘Nominally “imaginary,” these beings made more sense, were more convincing, more authoritative as humans, than those others, consisting of flesh-and-blood, that I had wasted years in failing to know.’8
(p.65) Trying to ‘know’ humans, then, it seems, does not work very successfully through cognitive means, on a rational level, but rather requires the imaginary, the power of the imagination, which primarily works through aesthesis in the literal sense of perception and sensation. It is this belief in, or susceptibility to her (imaginary) characters’ creative force – ‘I became, and remain, my characters’ close and intent watcher: their director, never. Their creator I cannot feel that I was, or am’ – which allows me to propose that the figure of the adolescent in Bowen’s work functions as an aesthetic object or, even, an aesthetic event; an event or force which, in its singularity, inscribes itself not only in both the content and the form of her writings, expressing itself on the narrative level as much as in the style of her prose, but also – and this is what concerns me here – imposes itself on us, her readers, in our own encounter with her novels’ unsettling operations.9
The novels are unsettling because neither Bowen’s characters nor the narratives in which they obtain are necessarily reassuring, or even fully fathomable. On the contrary, as she continues her reflections on the relation between her own childhood reading and its effects on her living/writing: ‘The characters who came out of my childish reading to obsess me were the incalculable ones, who always moved in a blur of potentialities. It appeared that nobody who mattered was capable of being explained. Thus was inculcated a feeling for the dark horse.’10 This preoccupation with the ‘dark horse’, with characters that defy explanation, has not, at least not until recently, contributed to Bowen’s critical reputation. Her stories and novels often leave readers annoyed and exasperated, frustrated with the irreducible affectations of her style and with characters and events that at once invite us to project ‘meaning’ onto them and that refuse to be captured in straightforwardly hermeneutic terms.
While considered one of the most prominent writers in Britain and the United States during her lifetime, Bowen has occasionally been dismissed as the author of modest drawing-room dramas or, as one critic would have it, ‘delicate small-scale post-Jamesian studies, mostly of children and adolescent girls’.11 In her more recent and much more thorough and appreciative study of Bowen’s novels, even Maud Ellmann cannot but admit that the author’s work is, decidedly, strange: ‘[a]lways entertaining – funny, moving, suspenseful … it is also profoundly disconcerting.’12 As Ellmann positions herself in the wake of a ‘larger reconsideration of the place of women writers on the map of modern literature’, her careful close readings, informed as they are by (p.66) psychoanalysis and deconstruction, primarily serve to contextualise Bowen’s writing in various literary traditions to ‘reveal unexpected affinities’ with some, and ‘intertextual skirmishes’ with other modernist writers – male and female, Irish, British and European.13 This overall purpose may explain why Ellmann refers what she designates the ‘arresting oddness’ of Bowen’s prose to the idiosyncratic blend of literary forms, and to the ‘reflexivity and the material intrusiveness’ of her writing style, rather than to the author’s investment in the oddball character of the female adolescent.14 In an ‘estimation’ predating the ‘overdue revival’ of Bowen’s works of the past fifteen years or so, Hermione Lee offers a less-approving gloss on Bowen’s mannered prose by, in contrast, explicitly connecting what she regards as the failure of the early novels to the ungainliness they share with the author’s favourite character-type.15 Exempting Bowen’s second novel, The Last September (1929) (even though this also revolves around an adolescent girl), from her illuminating verdict, Lee writes that ‘[t]he other early novels, like her own awkward adolescent characters, are rather affected.’16
Affected, odd, strange, awkward and disconcerting. As qualifications of both a prose style and a peculiar character obsession, these terms suggest a convergence of the figure of the (female) adolescent and the operations of a feeling that I would like to qualify as obnoxiousness. In light of Bowen’s insistence on the creative force of fiction and on the ‘continuity between living and writing’, I propose the obnoxious as an unruly and disorderly feeling that equally obtains on the level of narrative events and in the operations of her language. While I have elsewhere focused on the queer potential of the figuration of adolescence in her work, I will here foreground its operations as at once a structure of negative, uncontainable feeling – of unfeeling and of feeling anew – and as the site of unbecoming, or of becoming otherwise, that is to say a dual and ambivalent force that is expressed in the performative process of aesthetic experience.17
Obnoxiousness and adolescence would appear to go seamlessly together. Both are marked by a curious ambivalence. As a historically and culturally specific phenomenon, the inter-stage between childhood and adulthood takes up a peculiar position in our collective consciousness. The phrase ‘obnoxious adolescent’ evokes culturally sanctioned, unpleasant behaviour and wayward attitudes that in humans falling outside the category of adolescence – that is to say as a distinct period of life that we have learned to define as one of transition, in-betweenness and relative lawlessness – would (p.67) be considered unacceptable and inappropriate. Actually, in its current usage, ‘obnoxious’, my various (online) dictionaries tell me, means anything ranging from extremely unpleasant, objectionable and offensive to disagreeable, nasty, distasteful, unsavoury, unpalatable, awful, terrible, dreadful, revolting, repulsive, repellent, disgusting, odious, vile, foul, abhorrent, loathsome, sickening, hateful, insufferable, intolerable, detestable, abominable, despicable and contemptible. Yet, in combination with adolescence, things do not seem nearly so bad. I may be wrong in my assessment here, but it seems clear that ‘we’ – that is to say so-called adults in the Western cultural hemisphere – tend to accept, endure or forbear modes of being and behaviour in unruly and unwieldy teenagers and youngsters that would provoke disapproval, protest and punishment if exercised by ourselves and other members of our age group. Interestingly, these divergent assessments of the same type of behaviour can be linked to the ambivalence at the heart of the word obnoxious itself. First emerging in the English language in the sixteenth century, obnoxiousness finds its origins in the Latin adjective obnoxiosus, meaning ‘vulnerable or exposed to harm’. It is only in the seventeenth century that it – both as a word and as a state of being or a mode of behaviour – became additionally associated with ‘noxious’, in the sense of harmful, pernicious, deadly and unwholesome. Whereas, with respect to adolescence, ‘obnoxious’ thus appears to have retained its original sense, its connotations in other contexts reflect the influence of the later associations.
Such etymological ambivalence is carried over into the contemporary notion of adolescence, which, it will be clear, is (and not only in Western cultures) an equally inherently contradictory phenomenon. Socio-historically and culturally specific, adolescence is not the same as puberty. Different cultures assign different meanings to the biological transition from childhood to adulthood, and the period of adolescence may range from anywhere between ten to twenty-one years of age.
In the Grand Narratives of the West, the process of adolescence primarily serves to set subjects, male and female, on their way to a successful acquisition of one of two gender identities. Coming into one’s own as a qualified adult means to have accepted, adopted and internalised a socio-culturally viable identity as man or woman. The most immediately effective route to earning this certificate of social viability is to play one’s proper role in the plot of heterosexual romance, that is to say in somewhat less attractive but more (p.68) explicit terms, to subject oneself to the system of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’, or to assume one’s place in the ‘heterosexual matrix’.18 In one constitutive moment, the initiation into the realm of carnal knowledge, if enacted in properly binary fashion, thus at once (re)establishes ‘natural’ sexual difference and produces individual human beings in relation to its terms, that is as male and female subjects (before the law) and as ontologically stable, gendered human beings, as men and women. From the ‘invention’ of sexuality in the eighteenth century onwards, but especially since the early twentieth century, pace Sigmund Freud, and a couple of decades later, Erik Erikson, adolescence has come to be regarded as a crisis structure that serves to ‘discipline’ – in a Foucauldian sense – the relatively unor ambi-sexed child into gendered and sexualised adulthood defined in oppositional, binary terms.19 Intriguingly, in this scenario, once one has eaten from the tree of knowledge, the entry into adulthood is irreversible. And it is this, I believe, that makes the obnoxious adolescent at once so attractive and disconcerting, especially, if not precisely, in the context of novelistic writing.
In an influential and largely psychoanalytically informed essay published in 1990, Julia Kristeva embraces the ambivalence of adolescence as ‘less an age category than an open psychic structure’ that ‘opens itself to the repressed at the same time that it initiates the reorganisation of the individual – thanks to a tremendous loosening of the superego’.20 Kristeva links the open structure of the adolescent figure to the emergence of the open structure of the novelistic genre, which she describes as largely ‘tributory, in its characters and the logic of its actions, to the “adolescent” economy of writing’.21 Not surprisingly, in view of the historical coincidence of their joint emergence, it is the novel, as opposed to the epic and the courtly romance, Kristeva goes on to claim, which allows for the imagination and inscription of ‘this in-between space, this topos of incompleteness that is also that of all possibilities, of the “everything-is-possible”’.22
Where and when everything is possible, nothing is realised – or, at least, not yet. As a space of the not-yet, of the not-yet-being, of the not yet-being-anything-in-particular, and thus, as a site of indeterminacy and non-being, the figure of the adolescent is as abhorrent and repellent as it fascinating and attractive. In so-called real life the adolescent, without the protection of a relatively stabilised gendered or sexualised identity, is a decidedly queer figure, and as such at once alluring and vulnerable to harm. Yet, within prevailing systems of gender and sexuality, which critically depend on the determination (p.69) and maintenance of clearly defined and definable modes of normative being, the site of the not-yet is simultaneously insufferable and unwholesome.
Bowen’s refusal to maintain a firm distinction between writing and living, between fiction and reality, in conjunction with Kristeva’s psychoanalytically informed ideas about the adolescent novel, encourage me to take the figure of the female adolescent beyond its significance as an unruly figuration of specific aspects of normative identities. What I would like to do is to try to think about the inherent ambivalence of the adolescent, or, more particularly, of the writing of adolescence within the open structure of the novel, as a figuration of a more fundamental, if not ontological site of unbecoming, of the dissolution and loss of subjectivity, but also as a zone of great intensity, of creative potential and thus, simultaneously, as a topos ‘of all possibilities’ and a locus of impossibility. The convergence of the contradictory valences that adolescence and obnoxiousness have in common allow me to elaborate on the operation of the figure of the queer adolescent in Bowen’s work as not so much, or not only, a particular character type but, as suggested before, primarily a structure of feeling.
Obnoxiousness, unlike other forms of negative affect such as anger, aggression, aggravation, is not in-your-face: you cannot simply fight off its effects by yelling, screaming, fighting or defying it. Obnoxiousness lurks and lingers, it takes possession of you in stealthy ways, it permeates and affects you almost unnoticeably until it is simply there in you, toxic, nasty. As a structure of unpleasure, obnoxiousness contaminates, it clings. This, I suggest, is the expressive force of Bowen’s prose, as much as it is enacted by and in the figure of the unruly adolescent in her novels – most of them orphaned or with no parent in sight, and thus bequeathed upon a fictional world in which they have no clear, formally recognisable place. Funny, entertaining and moving they may be, but these figurations also produce what Ellmann senses to be the ‘arresting oddness’, the disconcerting strangeness, indeed the queerness characterising the author’s prose.
Take, for example, the heroine of Bowen’s first novel, The Hotel (1927), Sydney Warren, ‘a probable twenty-two’, described as an over-intelligent and neurotic young woman who does not really know what to do with the adult life facing her.23 The hotel on the Italian Riviera, the novel’s setting, comes across as a site immobilised in time and space and, as such, forms an adequate reflection of the protagonist’s suspension in limbo. Despite her apparent state of (p.70) dormancy, Sydney throws the entire company of British vacationers staying at the hotel into disarray by attracting a great many suitors, male and female, while remaining indifferent, appearing to be ‘subject to a deplorable kind of paralysis’ herself (p. 12). Ellmann quite rightly draws a parallel between Sydney’s ‘strange anaesthesia’ and Lois Farquar, the protagonist of Bowen’s second novel The Last September. Both girls, she maintains, are unable to ‘work [themselves] up into the passion traditionally required of a heroine’.24 Placing such inability within the overall structure of their respective narrative contexts, and within her own psychoanalytic interpretive perspective, Ellmann infers from this that these, Bowen’s first two novels, do not so much ‘lack a subject of desire’ as they ‘question the very possibility of a desiring subject’.25 Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle similarly point to the disconcerting effects of Sydney’s ‘stillness’, her ‘interior quietness’ and the pervasive atmosphere of ‘abeyance’ of the novel which, in their view, presents a ‘dissolution of writing in a dissolution of thought’.26 Underlining what I have suggested above regarding Bowen’s insistence on the ‘continuity between living and writing’, they foreground the ways in which such a ‘dissolution’ of writing in thought in the first place involves a ‘dissolution of the boundaries between so-called people in real life and characters in fiction’.27 (This line of argument will, in the course of their fascinating reading of Bowen’s novelistic oeuvre, extend to include the ‘dissolution of the novel’ as such.)
While this is clearly not her immediate intention, Ellmann’s view on Sydney’s and Lois’s ‘stillness’, on the operation of their characters as topoi of abeyance, allows us to see the function of the adolescent figure as, emphatically, not a subject of desire, but as a site of ambivalence or a structure of feeling and as such as something that ultimately remains ‘incalculable’, defying explanation and/or articulation. Lois’s anxiety, when overhearing a conversation between her aunt Myra and a friend talking about her in the next room adequately reveals both the power of language in defining meaning and being and Bowen’s ‘dark horse’ characters’ defiance of such power:
But when Mrs Montmorency came to: ‘Lois is very –’ she was afraid suddenly. She had a panic. She didn’t want to know what she was, she couldn’t bear to: knowledge of this would stop, seal, finish one. Was she now to be clapped down under an adjective, to crawl round lifelong inside some quality like a fly in a tumbler?28
(p.71) The figure of the adolescent ‘moving in a blur of potentialities’ structures but does not carry meaning and actively resists finalisation. Bowen articulates this in a comment on the protagonist of what is perhaps her best-known novel, Portia Quayne in The Death of the Heart (1938):
I have heard [The Death of the Heart], for instance, called a tragedy of adolescence. I never thought of it that way when I wrote it and I must say I still don’t see it in that way now. The one adolescent character in it, the young girl Portia seems to me to be less tragic than the others. She at least, has a hope, and she hasn’t atrophied. The book is really … a tragedy of atrophy, not of death so much as of death sleep … And the function of Portia in the story is to be the awake one, in a sense therefore she was a required character. She imparts meaning rather than carries meaning.29
As a similarly functional textual object, the figure of Sydney evokes rather than produces a response from other characters as much as from the novel’s readers. She obtains, in short, as an aesthetic object under which humans can be assembled.
This is confirmed in Bowen’s observations in ‘Out of a Book’ about her own childhood reading, that is that ‘characters in the books gave prototypes under which, for evermore, to assemble all living people’.30 As we have seen, Bowen considered figures and characters in books at once ‘more convincing, more authoritative as humans’ and, furthermore, in their incalculability and inexplicability, infinitely more compelling than actual human beings. Marking the constitutive or creative, if not the poietic power of fictional characters, these reflections suggest that it is not the possibility of a ‘desiring subject’ so much as the viability and/or desirability of subjectivity per se, that is at stake in our encounter with the figuration of adolescence qua aesthetic object.
Bowen’s writings point up the operation of what Kristeva defines as the open structure of the novel as a site of imagination and inscription: an ‘adolescent economy of writing’, in which everything is possible, nothing ever fully to be completed, a textual/aesthetic realm of indeterminacy. Instead of adopting this container model of the novel, as a space somehow already in existence but always and ever ready to be newly inscribed, I prefer to approach novelistic writing as a specific kind of assemblage, in the sense suggested by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, in their opening comments on (and in) their (p.72) book, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (2003). Generally speaking, an assemblage is any number of things (animate and inanimate, real and imaginary, material and immaterial) gathered into a single context. As such, it can bring about any number of effects – aesthetic, productive, destructive, consumptive and so on. A book equally constitutes such an assemblage with, potentially, any number of effects:
In a book, as in all things, there are lines of articulation or segmentarity, strata and territories; but also lines of flight, movements of deterritorialisation and destratification. Comparative rates of flow on these lines produce phenomena of relative slowness and viscosity, or, on the contrary, of acceleration and rupture. All this, lines and measurable speeds constitutes an assemblage. A book is an assemblage of this kind, and as such is unattributable. It is a multiplicity – but we don’t know yet what the multiple entails when it is no longer attributed, that is, after it has been elevated to the status of the substantive.31
So described, the book is an untidy mixture of parts or pieces, a ‘blur of potentialities’ in its own right, which is capable of producing a variety of effects, rather than a tightly organised and coherent whole generating one particular (set of) meaning/s. Lacking overall organisation, an assemblage can attract and incorporate all sorts of disparate elements, so that a book, qua assemblage, can itself enter into new assemblages (with readers, other books, bookstores and so on).
Bowen’s novels, in and of themselves assemblages of facts and fictions, incorporating disparate elements from both so-called real life and from the imaginary domain in which the author learned to dwell from an early age onwards, grant a privileged position to the indeterminate, the in-between space, the ‘dark horse’ figure of the adolescent. Taken as not so much a character type – or even a prototype – but as a distinct element in an assemblage with which we as readers forge our own connections with an aesthetic object that affects us in any variety of ways, but also, if not primarily, on a visceral level (obnoxiousness clings, sticks, unconsciously), the obnoxious adolescent operates as a key and, undeniably, as a creative force or function in the Bowenesque novelistic assemblage.
As a structure of feeling, a site or locus of attraction-cum-unpleasure, the adolescent in Bowen’s novels, we have seen, evokes decidedly contradictory and not always altogether positive critical responses. As a disturbing, unwieldy element in a range of different (p.73) narrative contexts such responses to the figuration of the obnoxious are neither surprising nor to be deplored let alone ‘rectified’ or ‘corrected’. After all, a book is a ‘multiplicity’ and as such enables, like all other things, ‘lines of flight, movements of deterritorialisation and destratification’ that can provoke any number of responses, produce any number of effects. The beauty of an assemblage is that it can and will always open up to new possibilities, newly ‘emergent properties’.
Thus writes Jane Bennett, in an altogether different context, about assemblages:
Ad hoc groupings of diverse elements, of vibrant materials of all sorts. Assemblages are living, throbbing confederations that are able to function despite the persistent presence of energies that confound them from within … assemblages are not governed by any central head: no one materiality or type of material has sufficient competence to determine consistently the trajectory or impact of the group. The effects generated by an assemblage are, rather, emergent properties.32
Bennett’s project, obviously, is very different from what I am trying to think about in this essay. Nonetheless, I believe that her supposition of the agency of assemblages, her proposal of material agency in order to counter the human exceptionalism that denies agency to anything or anyone not so defined is helpful to approach the agency of the character of the adolescent as a non-human yet material force in the open structure of novelistic discourse. What I have been trying to get at in the preceding paragraphs is a notion or a conception of the novelistic character as not so much a copy of a human being or a textual effect that resembles a human being, but rather as an element in an ad hoc shifting configuration, a force field or an assemblage, whose expressive actualisation is affective and, hence, ultimately aesthetic in nature.
Nowhere is this more clear than in Bowen’s final novel, Eva Trout, or Changing Scenes (1968), with its eponymous heroine as the Ur-model of many, if not all, of her obnoxious predecessors, the disparate assemblage of other wayward children and adolescent girls that space constraints, alas, do not allow me to discuss. Eva Trout, orphaned and thus at large in the world, is described as ‘larger than life’, and remains, in the words of Victoria Glendinning, ‘largely unexplained’.33 Dismissed in 1981 by Hermione Lee as an ‘illustration of Elizabeth Bowen’s late malaise’ and as an ‘unfocussed and bizarre conclusion to her opus’, Eva Trout, in the eyes of Patricia Craig, proved that at the end of her writing career Bowen had ‘let (p.74) her mannered manner run away with her’, while the novel’s ‘formidable’ heroine represents to her an ‘impossibly inflated version of the Bowen destructive innocent’.34
Several other of Bowen’s critics, including Ellmann, Bennett and Royle, and myself, have offered different, if not necessarily more reassuring assessments of the novel and the figure of its ‘amazing, gawkish and overgrown’ heroine.35 Such critical dismissals as Lee’s and Craig’s nonetheless testify to the disconcerting effects of both Eva Trout’s protagonist and the author’s prose and furthermore expose the novel’s expressive power as an assemblage whose effects are ‘emergent properties’, in which the ‘monstrous’ adolescent figure functions as ‘vibrant material’, as an ‘element’ with agentic power, rather than as a character-agent resembling a human being.
To be sure, Eva Trout is not a character with a recognisable ‘interiority’; she is not a subject endowed with thoughts or feelings, but exists, or comes into existence, exclusively in her encounters with others – that is other characters (whose thoughts and feelings we, as readers, do in fact share) and every single one of whom she leaves profoundly affected. As Henry, the young, precocious vicar’s son, points out to her:
You know, Eva … you leave few lives unscathed. Or at least, unchanged … Ethically, perhaps, you’re a Typhoid Mary. You plunge people’s ideas into deep confusion … You roll around like some blind indeflectible planet. Sauve qui peut, those who are in your course.36
To be sure, these are the words of a character who actually likes Eva and who is willing to participate in the staged event of their marriage at the end of the novel – an event that, even as a stage-act, is never realised, because Eva’s adopted son Jeremy shoots her before the pair can embark on the train that is supposed to take them on their honeymoon. Henry, young and ‘emergent’ in his own right, is interested in Eva or, rather, in how she makes him feel, a site of experience as a singular structure of feeling that is, as such, primarily aesthetic in nature.
Aesthetic experience, which need not be ‘good’, let alone edifying or ethical, as Henry’s gloss on Eva’s being makes brilliantly clear, has to do with the way we feel in response to an object. Aesthetics engages affect and singularity because it is preverbal, embodied, visceral and comes before cognition. Aesthetic experience is thus not so much subjective as it draws the subject out of her/himself. (p.75) The aesthetic encounter, in Stephen Shaviro’s words, is an ‘event, a process, rather than a condition and a state’ and, what is more, particularly relevant to what I am suggesting here: ‘[a]esthetic experience is a kind of communication without communion and without consensus.’37
As an element within the textual assemblage, a textual object in the ‘throbbing confederation’ of novelistic discourse, the figure of the adolescent in Bowen functions as a lure that draws us out, without our consensus, without communication and without communion. It remains disinterested in us, and our only interest lies in how it makes us feel. In aesthetic contemplation, Shaviro explains, ‘I don’t have particular feelings, so much as my very existence is suspended upon these feelings.’38 As a figuration of openness, incompleteness, unfinishedness or even of unfinishability – after all, the textual adolescent never grows up, never leaves the space of in-betweenness behind – the adolescent figure lures us as a ‘locus of all possibilities’, of indeterminacy, of not-yet-being, and thus, I would say, as a figure of hope. As an aesthetic object, however, the unruly figuration in the novelistic assemblage animates us with feelings upon which our existence is suspended, feelings that as subjects we cannot ultimately outlive, and thus also makes us consciously aware of the very impossibility of subjectivity, of being (anything-in-particular) as a state or condition per se. To cite Shaviro one more time: ‘[t]he subject is solicited by the feelings that comprise it; it only comes to be through those feelings. It is not a substance, but a process. And this process is not usually conscious; it only becomes so under exceptional circumstances.’39
This, I submit in conclusion, is what happens in the experience of our aesthetic encounter with the figure of Bowen’s obnoxious, queer adolescents. The figure’s utter ambivalence lies not so much in its sexual ambiguity – although this is clearly a central and undeniable aspect of both its attraction and its repulsiveness – but in its operation as a structure of feeling, as a creative agent, animating us with feelings that we have not had before (and will not have again, at least not in exactly the same way). In this experience of becoming, of becoming otherwise, we are at the same time forced to reflect on the instability, the perishability, the factual impossibility of a stable, sustainable subjectivity as such – that is to say, and to be more precise, of our own subjectivity. The unbecoming operations of the adolescent figure do not leave us unaffected and, inscribed in the open structure of novelistic discourse, provide us with the exceptional circumstances under which we become conscious of this process. An obnoxious creature indeed.
(1.) This article is reproduced with the permission of Genders where it first appeared (1.2 (2016): n.p.).
(2.) Elizabeth Bowen, Pictures and Conversations (London: Penguin, 1975), p. 53. The title Pictures and Conversations is drawn from the first page of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, whose ‘play of sense and nonsense’ invites Deleuze to call Carroll’s world a ‘chaos-cosmos’ or ‘chaosmos’ (Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, ed. Constantin V. Boundas, trans. Mark Lester with Charles Stivale (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), p. xiii).
(3.) Elizabeth Bowen, ‘Out of a Book’, in The Mulberry Tree: The Writings of Elizabeth Bowen, ed. Hermione Lee (San Diego, New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985), p. 48, p. 49.
(4.) Ibid. p. 49. I am borrowing and slightly distorting Raymond Williams’s influential concept ‘structures of feeling’ to foreground the activity of reading as a formative process, as an emergent event that always takes place in a specific present. Williams introduced the term to identify ‘changes of presence’ in society as it is lived, and as distinct from already formed institutions and ideological formations. Structures of feeling, he writes, may be ‘emergent or pre-emergent, [but] they do not have to await definition, classification, or rationalisation before they exert palpable pressures and set effective limits on experience and on action.’ See Raymond Williams, ‘Structures of Feeling’, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 132. Both these key inflections of the term shed light on Bowen’s complex investments in the phenomenon of adolescence and at the same time help us account for the uneasy and contradictory critical reception of her work.
(11.) Douglas Hewitt, English Fiction of the Early Modern Period (London: Longman, 1988), pp. 196–7.
(12.) Maud Ellmann, Elizabeth Bowen: The Shadow Across the Page (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003), p. x.
(16.) Hermione Lee, Elizabeth Bowen: An Estimation (London: Vintage, 1981), p. 58.
(p.77) (17.) Elsewhere, I make a crucial theoretical difference between feeling and affect, especially in relation to visual forms of art; see, for example, A Violent Embrace: Art and Aesthetics after Representation (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2014). In order to allow for the aesthetic productivity of precisely the ambivalence characterising both adolescence and obnoxiousness in a literary and narrative context, I here take Sianne Ngai’s lead in assuming that the difference between them is a ‘modal difference of intensity or degree, rather than a formal difference of quality or kind’. See Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), p. 27.
(18.) See Adrienne Rich, ‘Compulsive Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’, Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, ed. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell and Sharon Thompson (London: Virago, 1984), pp. 212–41; Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York and London: Routledge, 1990), p. 5.
(19.) See, for instance, Jeffrey Weeks, Sexuality, 3rd edn (New York and London: Routledge, 2010); see Sigmund Freud, On Sexuality: Three Essays on Sexuality, trans. and ed. James Strachey (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1953); Erik Erikson, Identity: Youth and Crisis (London: Faber & Faber, 1968); see Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1990).
(20.) Julia Kristeva, ‘The Adolescent Novel’, Abjection, Melancholia, and Love: The Work of Julia Kristeva, ed. John Fletcher and Andrew Benjamin (London and New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 5.
(23.) Elizabeth Bowen, The Hotel (1927; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), p. 11. Hereafter cited parenthetically as TH.
(26.) Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle, Elizabeth Bowen and the Dissolution of the Novel (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 1995), p. 2.
(28.) Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September (1929; New York: Random House/Anchor, 2000), p. 83.
(29.) Elizabeth Bowen, ‘Interview with Jocelyn Brooke’, broadcast 3 October 1950, MS (Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre, University of Texas at Austin).
(31.) Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), pp. 3–4.
(32.) Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2010), p. 24.
(p.78) (33.) Victoria Glendinning, Elizabeth Bowen: Portrait of Writer (Harmond-sworth: Penguin, 1977), p. 225.
(36.) Elizabeth Bowen, Eva Trout, or Changing Scenes (1968; New York: Random House/Anchor, 2003), pp. 196–7.
(37.) Steven Shaviro, Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), p. 4, p. 6 (original emphasis).