Volume IX, Number 2, Fall 2013


"A Review of Presences and AbsencesTransdisciplinary Essays" by Anna Kérchy

Anna Kérchy is a Senior Assistant Professor at the Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged, Hungary. She has a PhD in Literature from Szeged University and a DEA in Semiology from Université Paris 7. Her research interests include intermedial cultural representations, the post-semiotics of the embodied subject, interfacings of Victorian and postmodern fantastic imagination, gender studies, women’s art, and children’s literature. She authored a book on Angela Carter’s body-texts, and (co)edited collections on postmodern reinterpretations of fairy tales, the literary fantastic, the iconology of law and order, and the cultural history of Continental European freak shows. Email:


Presences and AbsencesTransdisciplinary Essays
Editors: Katarina Labudova, Nóra Séllei
Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2013.
ISBN13: 978-1-4438-4984-5
ISBN: 1-4438-4984-7

 

This exciting volume contains select papers from the international conference Presences and Absences organized in 2011 by the English Department of the Catholic University in Ružomberok, Slovakia. The theme and the transdisciplinary methodology guarantee a certain continuity with the institution’s previous conference and proceedings which tackled the complex issue of literary ambiguity (Kathleen Dubs, Janka Kascakova, eds. Does It Really Mean That? Interpreting the Literary Ambiguous. Cambridge Scholars, 2011). As the preface points out, the current collection regards the intricate intersection of presence and absence as a specific kernel of ambiguity.

The volume productively embraces ambiguity in so far as it refuses to close down final meanings and remains open to a multitude of interpretative perspectives. Its greatest merit is bringing together a great variety of different academic approaches ranging from literary, linguistic, and cinematic to theological, historical, and anthropological analyses which all manage to shed a new, innovative light on manifestations of absences in presences, and of presences in absences. The lack of specific subdivisions or chapter-headings seems to indicate an editorial intention to encourage each reader to find his/her way within the labyrinthine structure of the volume.

The book offers sixteen studies authored by an international team of emerging scholars and established academics from five prestigious Slovakian, Hungarian, and French universities. The table of contents reflects the editors’ professional interests. Accordingly, readers of this collection will certainly benefit from Nóra Séllei’s and Katarina Labudova’s expertise in feminist literary criticism and their resulting sensitivity to the gender equality required for the (re)making of a balanced literary history – attested by the simple fact that out of the ten essays dealing with literature, six discuss texts authored by women writers. Moreover, ten of the volume’s contributors are female scholars, most of whom reflect on specifically feminine representational strategies and express feminist concerns. This qualifies as a relatively rare delight for readers because canon formation is still too often controlled by masculine hegemonic interests and patriarchal technologies of truth production.

The first thematic unit contains three articles with a focus on linguistics, more specifically, a cognitive case study of English modals (written by Péter Pelyvás), an analysis of pragmatic markers in naturally-occurring, scripted and non-native discourse (authored by Bálint Péter Furkó), and an examination of highlighted and hidden contents in a genre chain characterizing recontextualization in headlines (as seen by Danica Malekova).

Moving on to another discipline, the two essays on cinematic representations of absence illustrate the impressive spectrum of cutting-edge cultural critical, theoretical stances the volume adopts: the first, written by György Kalmár, is a post-Lacanian psychoanalytical reconceptualisation of the subject-in-crisis as featured in the horror film classic A Nightmare on Elm Street is nested at the heart of the collection side by side with Judit Mudriczki’s essay on the ethical and legal treatment of indigenous people, stolen generations and cross-cultural reconciliation in Baz Luhrmann’s blockbuster, Australia. Needless to say the conclusions drawn can be put into the service of literary scholarship in both cases, too.

With belles lettres shifting into the center of attention, several contributors trace the shapes blank spaces and refreshing presences occupy within poetic genres. The individual case studies explore, among others, the quest for God and religious devotion in Anne Bradstreet’s personal poetics (Jaroslav Marcin’s text), heliotropism as a textual strategy and visual design in Arthur Symons’ symbolist poetic enterprise (Éva Gyöngy Máté’s essay), and empty spots as metonyms of transcendental existence and the non-verbal realm of death in Philip Larkin’s poetry (István D. Rácz’s study).

The academic essays which analyze absence in the novelistic form and prose writing are just as colorful as the previous ones. Via a unique interdisciplinary wedding of deconstruction, psychoanalysis and postcolonial theory, spectral presences are revealed as structural absences endowed with a semblance of agency by the quasi-prosopopoeic figure of the ghost who ‘embodies’ “a metonymic presence of the other (usually configured as the past) and the deficient presence of the present” (126) ―all in Tamás Bényei’s essay on turn-of-the-century ghost stories authored by M.R. James and Charlotte Riddell. In Eszter Ureczky’s symptomatic analysis of the layers of medicalization and gendering in Pat Barker’s historical novel, the traumatic memory of the Great War and the cultural construction of ‘shell shock’ as a male malady are convincingly read along the lines of wounds inflicted in the national image of British patriotism and the war ethos. Janka Kascakova’s close-reading of a Katherine Mansfield short story “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” approaches the volume’s central research question from a multiplicity of viewpoints, problematizing the overwhelming aura of the author in biographical criticism, the ambiguous voice of the unreliable narrator, and the questionable romanticization of minorities, Māori people and children. A subtle take on Virginia Woolf’s The Years by Nóra Séllei argues that “the turn to realism” reflects a special engagement with the literary past revealing an intertextual quality that can be regarded as a paradigmatic problem of presence and absence, insofar as the evocation of a previous text can never entail its full presence because of the insufficiency of allusions and the new context’s necessary transformation of the hypotext.

Mythical structures are scrutinized by further two essays: Katarina Labudova studies how Margaret Atwood’s speculative fictional play with what if questions tackles serious political, social, religious and environmental dilemmas within the frames of post-apocalyptic retellings of Biblical myths of creation, reproduction, extinction, and flood, while Angelika Reichmann scrutinizes John Cowper Powys’s self-reflexive metafiction on the ambiguously dysfunctional functioning of myths in (late) modernist writing that reprocesses heathen and Christian versions of the Grail vision from the Arthurian cycle along with the Passion, the Chronos legend and the mytheme of the Golden Age. Furthermore, historically informed rhetorical analyses of narrative strategies explore intriguing issues such as how the postmodern pastiche of Victorian genres correspond to the uses of the arabesque as an ornamental and literary device in Sarah Water’s fiction (pointed out by Boglárka Kiss) or how funeral sermons function as meeting points between the here-and-now and the hereafter in Antebellum African American culture (as convincingly demonstrated by Cécile Coquet-Mokoko).

Presences and Absences Transdisciplinary Essays is definitely of great interest to a wide range of academics, students of humanities, but also to a more general readership interested in the way in which our cultural representations are influenced by changing notions of presences and absences, and in the manner in which these can contribute to the totality and lack of, or surplus of meanings.