Possession is written on the upward slope of a technological and information revolution. Roland and Maud battle copyright laws, the power of capital and ethical dilemnas about the desirability of free information when their salaries depend on intellectual property. As scholars who are emotionally and, in Maud’s case, genealogically linked to their subjects they have to make decisions that force them to confront how they view the value of literature, information and the currency with which that information is exchanged.
I will introduce the topic of value alongside Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carriere’s discussion in This is Not the End of the Book. Eco and Carriere are both avid tome collectors and are passionate about the book as a physical object that occupies its own space. The chapter named, “Books with a will to survive” will serve as my argument’s staging ground. Eco and Carriere agree that the physical book, particularly original manuscripts, possess cultural value. Their fears that the new digital medium may prove ephemeral, impermanent or overwhelming given its lack of affirmed filtration system are interesting. National library archives are steadily being converted into online formats. Scholars and critics must now stay abreast of global trends given the widespread proliferation of academic texts during the 2000s. Eco and Carriere’s concerns about accessibility and the creation of a cultural ‘master narrative’ dictated by scientists suggest the destruction of a quality intangible and unique to literature. Concerns about accountability and reliability are outlined in Robert L. Bailey’s article “Information: The Currency of the New Millenium.”
Possession mirrors these fears ambivalently. Legitimate, verifiable sources of information are self-contained and physically traceable. The contents of the black box Cropper unearths, the sheets Roland pilfers and other various letters are presented as valuable because of their uniqueness and fragility. As displayable objects these documents lend their bearers a sense of ownership. Each character desires to be the sole proprietor of the information contained within. However, they do not want this knowledge to stay locked up forever. Maud and Roland both intend to disseminate the secrets as part of their profession and Cropper enjoys the power associated with playing gatekeeper. They want the world to know and understand the affair`s ramifications – but only at their convenience and through the filter they choose to employ. The characters’ attachment to Ash and La Motte add a hypnotic, seductive quality to the relics that makes them perform outrageous acts, but also drives the story forward. I will explore whether or not Byatt presents the relics in a consumptive light to imply that hunger for ownership over information is destructive, futile or entirely inescapable.
Eco and Carriere address the issue of information filtration in the chapter “The revenge of the filtered-out.” They suggest that the cosmos of art and criticism are moving too rapidly for any sort of canon to be developed and question the process through which our own cultural history is reflected. They also express concern that reliance on digital storage – USB sticks, internal hard drives, internet service providers – will potentially prove catastrophic. I intend to argue that such a failure is unlikely and their fears concerning the loss of access to artistic materiel is a byproduct of too much artistic material being produced for us to universally consume.
Possession articulates these issues by fleshing out the emotional nuances of its characters clearly. I will demonstrate in the text how Roland and Maud’s unwillingness to distribute the letters until they unravel the mystery themselves stems from the problems Eco and Carriere describe. Roland and Maud are both operating in an environment where many of the most obvious (and best) ideas about literary theory have been mined. At the beginning of the book Roland and Blackadder experience increasing difficulty in contributing meaningfully to the discussion about Ash. The discussion itself is clearly growing more unwieldy and obscure as academics are forced to balance their inaccessible ideas on a wobbly stack. Maud and Beatrice’s work on Christabel La Motte is frustrating because she is so poorly known – Maud feels La Motte deserves better but admires and tries to emulate her by living a life free of the compromises that effective marketing would demand. Adrienne Shiffman has written an essay titled “’Burn what they should not see’: The Private Journal as Public Text in A.S Byatt’s Possession‘” that talks about the merging of subject with self when the role of reader, author and critic become mingled that might be useful here.
I would like to explore further how Possession balances the flow of what drives our attachment to information as currency. It is true that pragmatics, such as the wealth and social status that accompanies the production of acclaimed work are elements the novel’s characters (and Eco/Carriere) find hard to ignore. But I think the desire to “own” information is mostly demonstrated by its use as a tool through which to understand and express oneself. Jennifer M. Jeffers points out in her article “The White Bed of Desire” that Roland and Maud are only able to find catharsis in each other after the intellectual fulfilment of their literary adventure creates an opening. This satisfaction extends to the reader and essentializes Byatt’s view on literature’s value for self-discovery.
Eco and Carriere probably need not be afraid that a massive electromagnetic pulse will destroy all information, especially when hard disks are compared to the frail and flammable frame of a paperback book. But the fear that information will become free and subsequently worthless is significant for those of us who construct our identities as filterers and exchangers of data. If scholars find themselves distributing opinions on a substance of little value, will society take them seriously? This might be particularly worrisome for people like the characters of Possession who, as lifelong students of others’ poetry, write themselves into their criticism as much as their subjects.
Bailey, R. “Information: The Currency of the New Millennium.” The International Information & Library Review 29.3-4 (1997): 319-31. Science Direct. Web. 22 Mar. 2013. This article is a little dated given the subject matter and I might substitute it for something superior if I can find it. However it frames my argument of information as a weapon or tool quite nicely and fits with Eco and Carriere.
Heath, Stephen. “Academia: The Value of Literature.” Critical Quarterly 41.1 (1999): 132-38. Wiley Online Library. Web. 22 Mar. 2013. This article might prove useful in discussing the relevancy of `value`in a free-information society. It presents a lot of interesting questions about academic isolation from the external world and intellectual elitism. It also discusses accusations that literary criticism around the current canon has worn out its use.
Jeffers, Jennifer M. “The White Bed of Desire in A. S. Byatt’s.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 43.2 (2002): 135-47. Taylor Francis. Web. 22 Mar. 2013. This is a text-specific article that focuses on how Byatt`s characters obsess over the colour white. There are sections that I find interesting as white can be written on – the colour white signifies a blank slate or page – a source of both intimidation and autonomy to the writer. The desire Jeffers mentions to know and ultimately merge with the text is a motivating factor in the description of my argument.
Mellard, James M. “”No Ideas but in Things”: Fiction, Criticism, and the New Darwinism.” Style 41 (2007): 1-29. Print. Byatt offers some commentary on the role of science in the categorization and postulation of literary ideas.
Piper, Andrew. “Rethinking the Print Object: Goethe and the Book of Everything.” PMLA 121.1 (2006): 124-39. JSTOR. Web. 22 Mar. 2013. This is more specific to Goethe so perhaps a better article exists. But there are big chunks in this article that discuss the temporality of literature and the challenges it faces from mass production and the internet.
Richardson, Brian. “Remapping the Present: The Master Narrative of Modern Literary History and the Lost Forms of Twentieth-Century Fiction.” Twentieth Century Literature 43.3-4 (1997): 291-309. Print. Will be useful for tying into the Eco and Carriere discussion of filtration as well as some articles pertaining to scientific and technological decision-making when it comes to cultural canon. May or may not use.