Yves Abrioux approaches Woman and Men (1987) as an extended novelistic medition on cognition and action.
Vectoral Muscle in a Great Field of Process
Vectoral Muscle in a Great Field of Process
We have often sought to master the immensity and complexity of Joseph McElroy’s work in the Novel and of Women and Men (1987) in particular by applying to it a model of interpretation more or less manifestly inspired by information theory. Now, such an approach can only skirt the minute and often extravagant descriptions of percepts, affects, and bodily movements which abound in the texts of this novelist and make up the primary matter of his fiction. I undertake here to unfold an approach to McElroy’s writing which takes full account of this primordial dimension of his work. To do this, I seek support in two of Gilles Deleuze’s works on the cinema, which make possible the definition of a highly dynamic model of cognitive and action behavior, and more particularly place McElroy’s fictional invention in agreement with what Deleuze calls the “crisis of the action-image,” that is to say the implosion of norms of functional behavior. This argument covers the major part of McElroy’s work and in the end proposes a prolegomenon for a detailed reading of Women and Men now in progress.
Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men (1987) is a massive book. Its twelve hundred pages teem with characters, narrative voices, and events. Many of these pages and most of the particulars they contain are marked by a manifest degree of instability. This does not only affect the identity and function of the novel’s protagonists. It also applies to the narrative voices, which move back and forth between personal and impersonal (i.e. third-person) modes or again, within the personal pole, between first person singular and plural or first and second person. Finally, the events narrated veer from past to present or indeed to future, from the intimate to the world-historical, from historical veracity to historical fiction, from the putatively realistic to the self-evidently fabulous or incompossible.
This being so, it is probably not surprising that commentators have concentrated on demonstrating ways that the proliferating, diverse, and heavily detailed substance of Women and Men does in fact coalesce or cohere. Formal features (homologies, which Harry Mathews  refers to as “rhymes”) are thus shown to be absorbed into a process which is held to “subsume” the “substance” of the novel (Karl] 190) and indeed to attain cosmic dimensions. Excess information thus functions to generate meaning, while order emerges from disorder. In what is probably the fullest expression of this approach to date, Tom Leclair (1989) mobilizes information and systems theory, or again contemporary dynamics (in the form of chaos theory) to demonstrate McElroy’s art of “mastery.”
That such a drive to order McElroy’s fiction has become canonical is all the less surprising in that the author himself would seem to have encouraged it - indeed to have stimulated the systems-theory approach by his own references to biological and neurological processes. This, at least, is suggested by many of the comments contained in the dense and brilliant essay from which I have borrowed a title for this paper. In “Neural Neighborhoods and Other Concrete Abstracts,” McElroy tells of his acceptance, as a writer, of a sense of disorder which made it impossible for him to compose the “regular, sensitive American novel”(1975, 202) and of the resultant tensions between “plan” and “massed actualities” that his writing had consequently to resolve (203). However, he also evokes a “certain abstraction” (204) lying between these two poles, which he envisages with reference both to systems theory (that must therefore be dissociated from the alienating systematics of the contemporary world) and to narrative as such: “narrative itself is an abstraction” (213).
It is here that McElroy invokes the notion of “vectoral muscle,” coined in his novel Hind’s Kidnap (1969) to describe a form of cognitive behavior. The expression is not only striking because it combines an element of physiological causality with a geometrical description of movement, in offering an account of cerebral or neurological behavior. The term is also interesting in that it recalls the fact that muscular energy - or, more precisely, certain conjunctions of propulsion, motion, and poise, but equally of percept and affect as dynamic processes, or of motion as almost immediately consequent upon affect and percept - constitutes the very texture of McElroy’s prose. All this suggests that McElroy’s fiction engages a complex notion of embodied cognition, intimately tied to or crossed with action.
I propose to tease out this idea, with reference to the philosophical meditation on cognition and action developed by Gilles Deleuze in the reading of Henri Bergson’s Matiere et Memoire that constitutes the core of his two books on cinema (1983; 1985) and more particularly to what Deleuze, with reference both to post-war European cinema and to the nouveau roman of Alain Robbe-Grillet, calls the “crisis of the action-image” (see especially Deleuze 1985, chapter 1). My purpose will be programmatically to outline an approach to McElroy’s fiction in general, and to the challenge posed by Women and Men in particular, rather than attempt a detailed account of this novel, which would fall well outside the scope of this article.
In “Neural Neighborhoods,” Joseph McElroy states that the confidence he required “to go back to [his] own deepest senses of disorder, and to accept them” was stimulated by another of the French “new novelists” - specifically by Michel Butor’s Degres. The hero of this novel is so “engulfed by information” that, whatever “energies” and “schemes” he may deploy, he comes up against the “impossibility of comprehensiveness” and can never “assemble the record” (McElroy 1975, 203). It requires a “concentrated understanding withdrawn from the multiplication of phenomena” so as to achieve “a poise of emphasis in which one is even more conscious of pattern than of the mass of life yet not through any lessening of that mass” (213).
It is important to underline that, whatever the references to information technology, the issue here is the treatment of a “mass of life.” If, then, McElroy’s notion of abstraction has a strongly scientific flavor, it is the life sciences which are paramount. Not only does “Neural Neighborhoods” invoke chemistry in relation to biographical (non-)relations (lives “held close in a system of parallels that equals as if in a chemical sense the solution of Nature” (213); the borderline between the strictly physical and the physiological is obscured (“an existence physically absolute in a pattern that feels like a formula of final forces” ). What precisely concerns McElroy is the “gap” or “separation” between two levels of description: that of “de-personalizing” scientific discourse and that which relates to “the body and the emotions.” On the one hand, there is experience - “warm fingers”; on the other, its explanation in terms of “bones and nerves, chemical compositions, exactly connected to spine and brain in relations that can be diagrammed and formulated with a clarity like that of topographical isobars on an ordnance survey map or a coordinated grid containing an analysis of stress” (206).
The narratological problem raised in McElroy’s 1975 essay is consequently that of developing a mode of writing which “would not deny the impersonal clarities of modern systems” (whether these be “neural neighborhoods” or “systematic America” ) and might therefore use unsatirically the very styles of abstraction that are part of processes we are right to fear” (208). This is where the notion of the “vectoral muscle” fits in. A “scientific invention” for which McElroy claims credit but which he also hedges in with “sharp wit,” this “muscle” is called upon to account for “some relation” existing between “untouchable processes beneath appearance” and “the special triangular arc of movement which is part of - and an instrument for sensing persons in - a field”; it is associated with “a very immediate but also abstract field theory” (209).
The term “vectoral muscle” involves an intriguing re-description in terms of reflexive muscularity of an implicitly linear cognitive activity which, in more straightforward scientific language, might simply be called a cerebral vector. It is highly pertinent to the dynamics of McElroy’s fiction that muscle should thus replace the anthropomorphic image of the homunculus, so frequently imagined by philosophers or the popular imagination as directing cerebral activity. In McElroy’s first novel, the problem of narrative “momentum” had found expression (as opposed to an entirely satisfactory solution) in the “person” of the narrator responsible for the book’s linking chapters, who presents himself as the moving force behind the protagonist’s exertions in the field of memory and narration. If, then, A Smuggler’s Bible opens with a problematical proposition followed by a hesitant answer - “He doesn’t know what I am, but he knows I’m in him and behind him. […] I - I - am his propulsion (McElroy 1966, 3) - Women and Men will be importantly concerned with voices (suggested to be those of angels) in search of embodiment.
In contrast to such anthropomorphic fictions, a muscle is a mere body part - a function of organic (i.e. organized) activity. McElroy’s “vectoral muscle” is nevertheless not simply a handy metaphorical formulation alluding to the notion of cognitive embodiment which is increasingly being recognized as essential to the cognitive sciences. The value of this fictional “discovery” to a reading of McElroy’s novels is that it suggests a way out of the abstractness of what Tom Leclair describes as formal systematics in which “substance” is “subsumed to process” and which furthermore leads to a conflation of the purely formal definition of information developed by cybernetics (i.e. information is a statistical measure of improbability) with a positivistic notion of information as data.
I suggested earlier that conjunctions of propulsion, motion, and poise constituted the distinctive substance of McElroy’s fiction. A quick survey shows that his novels characteristically open with scenes directly involving such conjunctions, most often in association with problems of perception or cognition, so that they simultaneously raise questions relating to the corporeal boundary between interiority and exteriority. Since a single example will have to suffice here, we might as well evoke what might be anticipated to be the most unpromising one.
The protagonist of Plus (1975) is literally bodiless, having been reduced to the state of a brain orbiting earth in a scientific experiment that is also a putative solution to the consequences of extremely serious physical injury. Yet, as the repetitive and almost subliminal play on words in the first lines of the novel underlines, Imp Plus is far from having been abstracted to a cerebral machine for treating data. His cognitive and perceptual existence is entirely motile:
He found it all around. It opened and was close. He felt it was himself, but felt it was more.
It nipped open from outside in and from inside out. Imp Plus found it all around. He was Imp Plus, and this was not the start.
Imp Plus caved out. There was a lifting all around, and Imp Plus knew there was no skull. This lifting was good. But there had been another lifting and he had wanted it, but then that lifting had not been good.
He did not want to go back to it. He did not know if that lifting had been bad. But this new lifting was good.
Imp Plus knew he had no eyes. Yet Imp Plus saw. Or persisted in seeing. With sprouts, maybe.
Impulses from Earth had kept coming on the frequency like an absence of obstacle. They were messages and Imp Plus had inclined to receive them. (McElroy 1977, 3)
Note how “close” implies closure as much as proximity, how “eyes” as organs of perception give way to “sprouts” as dynamic variations affecting a surface, how “inclined” is a movement rather than a psychological state. Observe also how the distinction between “good” and “not good” is explicitly dissociated from questions of knowledge or understanding (i.e. “good”/”bad”) and directly related to a percept (of lifting). Positive and negative are qualities of affect measured by pleasure and by the pain which figures prominently in the novel. “Imp Plus,” finally, is himself all “impulse.”
The sense of disorientation (rather than disorder) which is accepted - or at the very least responded to - in the opening pages of McElroy’s novels is not provoked by the problem of coordinating tensions between detail and comprehensiveness. It involves affect or percept as motility; and also motion as immediately consequent upon affect or percept. This, then, is the circuit whose dynamics need to be analyzed. For this purpose, it is useful to turn to Deleuze and Bergson. If the latter’s analysis of the frequently almost reflex move from affectation and perception to action is what makes Matiere et Memoire (1896) relevant to contemporary theories of embodied cognition, the breakdown of this immediate association constitutes for Gilles Deleuze the “crisis of the action-image.” A consideration of this crisis, and more generally of the approach to cognition and action suggested by Deleuze’s work on film, proves of particular help in correcting the excessive abstraction of the cybernetic approach to Joseph McElroy’s fiction.
In the process of setting out a typology of “images” - principally in relation to cinema but also, as was noted above, to the post-war experimental novel in France - Deleuze conducts a philosophical meditation on cognition. There are two poles to the theoretical position he elaborates in this context: microbiology (essentially the biology of the brain) and bodily functions (organic and muscular). Let me take the neurological and the physiological in turn.
When, at the time his second cinema book was published, Deleuze was asked to state the criteria according to which he evaluated films, he answered that what mattered to him was their effect on the brain:
I think that there’s a particularly important criterion, it’s the biology of the brain, a micro-biology. […] One would consider the brain as a relatively undifferentiated matter, and one would ask what circuits, what types of circuit, the movement image or the time-image trace, invent, since the circuits do not antedate them. (1985ii, 85-86)
The same applies to all instances of creation:
It is still a cerebral issue: the brain is the hidden side of all the circuits, which can cause the most rudimentary conditioned reflexes to prevail as well as leave a chance for more creative traces and less probable connections.
The combat between creativity and reflex, which is Deleuze’s real preoccupation, doubtless requires a more sophisticated model of cognitive inventiveness than mere cerebral trail-blazing. This is precisely what the emphatically materialist analysis of cognition and action in Deleuze’s first cinema book seeks to evolve, by way of a montage of notions to which the philosopher gives the status of “images.” In briefly restating Deleuze’s argument here, I shall underline rather more explicitly than Deleuze himself does the manifest links between his approach and the sophisticated modeling of dynamical systems developed by contemporary science.
Deleuze’s starting point is what he calls movement-images, which function according to a universal physical model of reciprocal action and reaction in an a-centered world. The justification for thus applying the term “image” to all matter in movement is that Deleuze’s ultimate referent is light considered as matter and energy and taken to constitute what might be described as a corpuscular Galilean world system, or a universe of translucent photographics. If the world of movement-images corresponds to what Joseph McElroy terms “a great field of process,” my interest here in Deleuze’s materialistic world picture relates solely to the theory of cognition and action which it serves to establish.
In Deleuze’s reading of Bergson, speed differentials in the translucent world of the movement-image provoke the formation of what he calls “image centers.” These are essentially characterized by a localized slowing-down which acts as an active filter or screen. However, the emergence of an image center does not merely imply a differential between this and the movements impinging on it. The center is itself a differential milieu. It consists of gaps or intervals between action and reaction, received and executed movements. Far from being abstractly cerebral, Deleuze’s microbiology of cognition is thus entirely defined by the kind of motility imagined by McElroy in Plus.
Deleuze defines three “varieties” of movement-images in relation to the image centers of cognition and action. Firstly, a “perception-image” or percept is what forms when a set of corpuscular elements of light/matter impinge on an image center. Percepts are thus the variations produced by or as encounters with a differential center. They are therefore by definition variable. The perpetually varying movements of opening, nipping, caving, lifting, or sprouting-seeing registered by Imp Plus are percepts in this sense. What Deleuze calls “affection-images” or affects co-occur with these perception-images. They are to be understood as variations produced in an image center’s absorption of impinging actions, as it reacts internally to them. The varying degrees of “good” and subsequently of pain (as opposed to a binary understanding of good and bad) discerned by McElroy’s Imp give a sense of what is involved.
Deleuze’s association of perception and affect constitutes an extremely mobile and dynamic model of cognition. It is close to the contemporary conception of chaos as turbulent rather than informed matter - to the dynamics of the differential (differentiel), as opposed to the logic of the differentiated (differenciel). The idea of a “colloidal unconscious” developed by McElroy in Women and Men (697ff.) Is undoubtedly closer to seizing this notion of dynamical differential than is the cerebral vector of Hind’s Kidnap, or indeed Deleuze’s own notion of path-breaking.
Action as this is commonly understood - i.e. executed movement - constitutes Deleuze’s third variety of movement-image: the “action-image.” An action-image is the reaction of an image center. It follows from the arguments given above that this will not necessarily be reflex action or action and reaction. This does not, however, preclude the turbulent differential image center from producing predictable effects. Action-images correspond to recognizable types of behavior. Observing modes of action from the outside, Deleuze describes the relationship between behavior and the environment in which this occurs in terms of a movement displaying a certain regularity - i.e. as a vector following a predictable and recognizable path.
In the terms of contemporary dynamics, it might be suggested that, if the system of cognition and action constituted by an image center does indeed regularly behave in a well-defined manner, it must be that it finds itself in a “basin of attraction” [McElroy, “Attractions Around Mt. St. Helen’s”] that draws it to the observed response. This is not to suggest that one might conceivably model such a system in a realistic sense, either internally or in relation to the environment which sets its parameters at any given moment. Although there is no attempt to model its dynamics - as opposed to describe its behavior - the action whereby McElroy’s Imp Plus “inclines” to receive the “impulses” coming at him on a particular frequency does not only (as I suggested earlier) punningly redescribe a putative psychological disposition in terms of a simple rotating movement of limited amplitude - the incarnation, perhaps, of vectoral cognitive “muscle.” It also implies the necessity of feedback loops of the kind commonly found in non-linear systems.
The notion of action-images allows Deleuze to define two important forms of narrative dynamics, on the basis of the “sensory-motor links” pertaining between situations and actions (1983, 279). The first or major “formula” (224) moves form a situation, via an action which modifies this, to a new situation (SAS); the second or minor dynamic proceeds in reverse: from one action, via the situation it impinges upon or creates, to another action (ASA) (220). In the major formula, individual actions can be assimilated to functions performed by specific organs operating within a stable organism, itself defined by the framing situations between which actions merely effect transitions (“le grand organisme qui englobe les organes et les fonctions”). Conversely, in the minor formula, “actions and organs” can no longer be understood as performing straightforward functions (“les actions et les organes […] se composent peu a peu dans une organisation equivoque”) (224). Deleuze further refines this distinction into one between two types of natural dynamics. Thus, the minor mode:
It is no more the global law or integral SA (a great distance which exists only to be filled up) than a differential law AS: the smallest difference, which exists only to be crossed, to create very distant or opposable situations. (228-9)
McElroy’s fiction readily confirms this distinction between predictable - because “global” or “integral,” i.e. linear - action and the altogether less predictable non-linear dynamics produced by conjunctions of detached or dysfunctional organs, limbs, and objects. The Letter Left to Me (1988) thus begins by identifying an action occurring between two protagonists. Defined in generic terms (adult/adolescent), these reduce to recognizable functions in a commonplace scenario of everyday life. However, the transaction involves an object which immediately appears as equivocal. This has the effect of derailing the narrative before it has time to get properly started:
The woman holding, then handing over the letter to this poised, dumbfounded fifteen-year-old: is the letter also hers? She’s been busy, her hands are anything but idle here in a room of a city apartment, but today what belongs to her hands? The words are echoey-bare - a room, a city apartment - they sound rugless, not yet moved-in, don’t they? - which is not this place at all. (3)
As one part of the first protagonist’s body becomes a detached narrative element, the functional object it connects with is reduced to its material condition and the very environment in which the action takes place loses its familiar functional quality as “moved-in” place (i.e. home). The ensuing attempt to restore the regular functional logic of both the protagonists (redefined as components of a nuclear family) and the object (the letter) - “My father has written a letter to me, a letter for me” - forces a consideration of the material conditions implied by letters as functional objects. Described as a “distraction” from properly functional considerations, this meditation on the nature of letters has the effect of detaching a further element (this time, a limb or organ belonging to a piece of furniture) from the concatenation of functional relations:
He [my father] isn’t here - which is the way it is with letters, I think (like an alarm signaling my distraction from whatever I ought to be thinking about). But this letter has been here. How long? (I’m building backwards naturally.) Was it waiting for him not to be here? It’s been in a drawer of the desk right here in the living room, that open lower drawer there. (3)
The drawer as function (“in a drawer”) having thus been materialized (“that open lower drawer there”), a renewed attempt is made to re-inscribe the desk within a regular - now genealogical - narrative: “A drop-leaf desk made by an early-nineteenth-century cousin of my mother’s.” No sooner has this point been made, however, than fragments of limb and furniture begin to multiply and interact in a whirr of physical and instrumental relations:
I would sit and lean my elbow on it - write a letter, say, that I’d been reminded of more than once - though I don’t forget things - a thank-you note - which could be why I wrote it at my parents desk, on the spur maybe of being asked again. The desk reacted to me with an experienced give […]
And so on, for a further paragraph and a half, until the present action reasserts itself - or at least tries to do so, since the narrative actually takes a backward step, breaking up into alternative motions and ruining any residual expectation that it might settle into the stabilized flow of what “Neural Neighborhoods” described as the “regular, sensitive American novel” (1975, 202):
Did my mother know of my father’s letter? She didn’t need to say a thing getting up from the desk lightly and alone and turning to me in the same just and discovering motion. (I knew what must be in the envelope.) When she wouldn’t normally have gotten up. Though might turn half-way toward me in her chair as if a part of her, natural and questioning, had come into the room.
She didn’t need to say a thing. And it’s as if she didn’t. (1988, 4)
The cumulative effect of such shifts in narrative impulse and scale is such that even in a short novel like The Letter Left to Me - a work whose action is moreover embedded in such familiar organic” (i.e. functional) structures as family and college - the story-line takes a series of startling twists and turns, as it finds itself pushed along by a variety of developments virtually present in the material and institutional dimensions of the letter which at once impels and deregulates its dynamics.
The proliferation of equivocal compositions of “organs” belonging almost indifferently to the human body or its prostheses leads The Letter Left to Me beyond Deleuze’s distinction between two forms of action-images into a dynamically critical phase corresponding to the break-up of the action-image. Deleuze’s analysis of the aftermath of a comparable crisis in the context of post-war film focuses successively on the body and the brain (1985, ch. 8). The urge to read McElroy’s fiction in terms of information theory implicitly privileges the latter approach. However, my purpose here has been to suggest that his novels foreground somatic features, cognitive motility, and dynamics of body parts. What Deleuze says of the experimental French film-maker Philippe Garrel - that he transforms Oedipal triangulation (man, woman, child) into a “three-body” problem, in the astronomic sense which guided Poincare towards his ground-breaking intuitions concerning non-linear dynamics - might thus equally be applied to The Letter Left to Me. This novel, too, characteristically reduces the relations between its protagonists to a more basic level of physics (“une physique des corps fondamentaux” ).
In Deleuze’s terms, this is not at all to bypass considerations of cognition but rather to fully embody mind:
To think is to learn what a non-thinking body is capable of, its capacity, its angles of approach or postures. It is through the body (and no more by the intermediation of the body) that the cinema ties the knot with mind, with thought. (1985, 246)
For Deleuze, the critical phase in this proces occurs at the interface where posture or attitude imperceptibly become “gestus” - a notion be borrows from Brecht and generalizes to describe the species of narrative dynamic generated by the composition and concatenation of bodily movements independently of any pre-constrained narrative line:
What we call “gestus” in general, is the bond or knot, between them, of attitudes, their coordination one with another, but insofar as it does not depend on a previous history or pre-existing plot or an image-action.(250)
On film, this produces a “cinema of bodies,” as opposed to “roles,” - a dramatization of postures and attitudes that itself constitutes the plot (“une theatricalisation ou une dramatization qui vaut pour toute intrigue”[which is worth the whole plot]. By exploiting the sophisticated play with narrative voice and focalization which the novel genre has developed in the course of his history, Joseph McElroy’s fictions dramatize the problematical gap between percept and affect, and between these and action or reaction. The effect is similarly to engender a narrative dynamic from unexpected associations of disparate pieces. A reading of Women and Men might perhaps best start from the sense that in this massive novel the unstable dynamic coupling of cognitive and (re)active forces reaches what remains its acme in McElroy’s fiction. However, the uncouplings which recurrently emerge in this context are not merely the negative symptoms of a crisis in cognition and action. Once again, an analysis of the novel’s opening lines will have to suffice to indicate what is involved.
I suggested above that McElroy’s novels characteristically begin with an affect or a percept coupled with an action. This phenomenon is further accompanied by recognition of a cognitive incapacity to properly circumscribe what is going on. The acknowledgment is implicit both in the “it” of Plus and in the “something” of Lookout Cartridge (1974). In either case the unspecified referent is enigmatically tied both to affect or percept and to action. Imp Plus’s condition has been seen to involve perception as (rather than the perception of) a dynamic. Lookout Cartridge initially presents a more familiar linkage of percept and motor reaction, in which the straightforward logic of stimulus and response effortlessly expands to accommodate the more sophisticated concatenation of “signal” and “purpose.” However, in the critical environment in which this process occurs with organic smoothness, its clear-cut causal relations rapidly become skewed by the interference of a non-causally-explicit affect:
It is a silent flash in the great city’s grid […] From my height the detonation noise is a signal of light only. My cabin responds by at once easing its forward motion […]. We have a new purpose.
[…] Up in the cockpit the flash has been seen and the man in the right-hand seat is reporting it. But something is happening to our prop blades, the cadence is wrong. (1974, 3)
This “wrongness” which disturbs the dynamical “ease” as if provoked by some unexplained process of contamination spreading from the original (and initially mastered) disturbance, anticipates the “badness” that interferes with th4e sense of dynamical “goodness” in the opening lines of Plus.
Women and Men follows A Smuggler’s Bible in explicitly confronting the question of knowledge in comparably critical circumstances. The early novel opened with a disturbing, hesitantly explicated percept (“He doesn’t know what I am, but he knows I’m in him and behind him. […] I - I - am his propulsion” [1996, 3]) Women and Men voices an equally uncertain acceptance of the cognitive breakdown which accompanies an event that registers predominantly in terms of affect:
After all she was not so sure what had happened, or when it had started. Which was probably not a correct state to be in, because what had happened made the biggest difference in her life so far. Hours of life that worked her back to breaking of pain and drained it of its work when the back of her child’s head with a slick of dark hair and its rounded shoulders gave her that last extra push to free its arms still held inside her. She would tell her husband later - she knew she would - and she did tell him. She told her husband and he told others for weeks afterward. Also he had his own side to tell. She loved his excitement. Pain all in her back worked free of her at the end, dropping away into a void below, and it could almost not be recalled. This pain had been new and undreamt of. As new as the height of the young obstetrician […]. The doctor stood up between her thighs and said they were getting there. She was just with it enough to be embarrassed and so she didn’t say she didn’t want Shay down there looking. He was already there. Her baby had chanted. It had felt older last week, older than their marriage. One night he had told her with his tongue just what he would do to her when the head began to show, and she didn’t think he meant it but she didn’t tell him. Now he heard her pain. He couldn’t see it. She could see it on the blank ceiling, oh God oh blank, and it was coming to birth, that pain, and would always be there like a steady supply of marrow-to-burn mashed out of her from her skull downward. (1987, 3-4)
Almost with a shrug of the shoulders (“after all”), understanding is relegated to a failed act of retrospection, while the twin affects of pain and excitement testify to the occurrence of a pure (i.e. non-specific) dynamic or process that overwhelms the organically well-defined function of childbirth. One may be tempted to read as mere cliche - an effect of the indirect speech which is the novel’s initial mode - the unspecified, maximized difference mentioned in the second sentence (“what had happened made the biggest difference in her life”). However, a variety of factors substantially complexify matters.
Although the organically improbable observations on the baby’s age (“Her baby had changed. It had felt older last week, older than their marriage”) may doubtless be considered as pursuing the protagonist’s initial puzzlement in conventional paradoxical terms, their chronologically disruptive texture does not only underline the fluidity of time and tense which characterizes McElroy’s novel from the outset; it is also the first explicit statement of the temporal instability which seizes even the most banal and apparently insignificant of its actions. It is not impossible, in such circumstances, for bodily parts to continue to function as synechdoche, attesting to a well-defined process in which they play a non-equivocal part. This is the case of an anatomical detail omitted from the passage quoted above:
Her husband Shay’s chin hung close to her; I will always be here, his chin might have said […] (3).
Even in this instance, however, as the chin calls up a hand as a complementary component in a process of functional convergence, the body begins to fragment and its parts to proliferate:
[…] and his hand out of sight somewhere gripped hers, his hand might have been invisible for all she knew;
but then he had to see for himself what was going on at the other end and he moved down to the foot of the delivery table and he peered over the doctor’s shoulder as if they were both in it together […] (3)
Not only does one momentarily wonder whether either of the protagonists (and more particularly the husband) perhaps has only one hand. As soon as it becomes apparent that the foot which is mentioned immediately afterwards is not human but belongs to the table, a banal catachresis takes on an improbable literal force. Furthermore, while the act of peering over someone’s shoulder re-establishes a non-equivocal functional logic between limbs and organs (here of sight), the “it” of “as if they were both in it together” implicitly summons up an unnamed region of the female protagonist’s anatomy, and not just the event of delivery as such. The implied precision of “One night he had told her with his tongue just what he would do to her when the head began to show” - a formulation that echoes the notion of the husband’s chin mutely “saying” something by the mere fact of its proximity - invokes the tongue, not as an organic component in the act of speaking, but rather as a body part actively engaged in sexual foreplay. It is furthermore relevant to note how the woman’s pain becomes detached from her body. Nevertheless, it is not this metaphorical extension of parturition which most forcefully testifies to emergence of non-organic bodily functions in Women and Men.
Situated somewhat earlier in the passage quoted above, the first explicit comparison made in the novel seizes on a more enigmatic detail:
Pain all in her back worked free of her at the end, dropping away into a void below, and it could almost not be recalled. This pain had been new and undreamt of. As new as the height of the young obstetrician. (3)
One might almost gloss over this association by reading into its anecdotal arbitrariness a symptomatic measure of the absolute newness of the experience being involved. However, such a trivializing conclusion would miss the fact that, as the comparison abruptly conjoins affect (pain) and percept (height), it isolates in the latter a non-organic dimension of the human body. The fact that this improbable percept anticipates the eroticism noted a moment ago, even before the doctor takes up his position between the woman’s thighs, underlines the detachment of affect and percept from the dynamics of functional situations that operates in Women and Men.
Following up comparable leads in the novel necessitates a different order of attention to detail than that implied by the desire to obtain comprehensiveness without sacrificing the abundance of data. A careful reading of Women and Men would consequently have to show how seemingly arbitrary conjunctions of percepts and affects both determine the behavioral hesitations and improbabilities of its protagonists and give the book its particular narrative impulse. Along with a fuller consideration of the model of embodiedness thus developed by Joseph McElroy in Women and Men - and also a confrontation of this with the family, social and political “systematics” whose secret key its protagonists are as likely to pursue as its readers - this will have to await further occasion.
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