Obsolete Objects in the Literary Imagination:
Ruins, Relics, Rarities, Rubbish, Uninhabited Places, and Hidden Treasures,
by Francesco Orlando,
Yale University Press, 528 pages, $45
We keep repressing Freud, and he keeps cropping up again. In the early days of his influence on literary studies, his theories proved particularly pernicious, sending scholars scurrying after phallic symbols and psychoanalyzing authors. The heyday of those unproductive applications of psychoanalysis has long since passed, but there are still a few Freudian or neo-Freudian scholars around. The best of them wear their training lightly, combining what has endured in psychoanalytic theory with other approaches to literature. One of the most deservedly influential among such scholars, in Europe if not yet in the United States, is Francesco Orlando.
Indebted not only to psychoanalytic criticism but also to semiotics, with its tendency to divide complex language into binary categories, Orlando avoids one of the pitfalls characteristic of the theory-crazed 1970s and 1980s: the tendency to see theory as paramount, and the literature to which it is applied something of an afterthought. Certainly Orlando has a systematic bent. In Obsolete Objects in the Literary Imagination, he devises an elaborate framework to categorize passages from the whole sweep of Western literature: poems, novels, short stories, plays, essays, memoirs, and letters-whether in Latin, Greek, Italian, French, Spanish, English, German, or Russian. To his credit, he starts not with this framework but with reading, nearly always in the works’ original languages. He is a sensitive reader, and he seems to have read almost everything.
Orlando’s prose trips lightly along in neither the book’s original Italian nor its English translation. A casual reader flipping through the pages of Obsolete Objects might well drop the book immediately upon finding sentences like this, on cabinets and attics in Kafka’s The Trial: “Their symbolic value, which I identified as exceptions to the worn-realistic, would suggest a sinister-terrifying superimposed on the desolate-disconnected, if only hallucinatory objectivity were not different from metaphorical subjectivity.” One cannot blame the translators for such prose; their touch is deft enough, as when they translate Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli’s idiomatic “naturale un cavolo” (literally “natural a cabbage”) to render it “Natural schmatural.”
For that matter, Orlando’s sentence is not as incomprehensible as it appears. Once the reader understands that those hyphenated pairs of adjectives name categories in his quirky taxonomy of nonfunctional objects in literature, and once one learns what those categories entail, the going gets easier. The book’s subtitle explains what the author means by the nonfunctional: “Ruins, Relics, Rarities, Rubbish, Uninhabited Places, and Hidden Treasures.” Orlando isolates twelve types of writing about the nonfunctional, each of them deriving from one of the bifurcating branches of a neat semantic tree. These twelve categories are “strategically arbitrary”: strategic, in that they reveal patterns of thought stretching across temporal, linguistic, and generic boundaries; arbitrary, in that other ways of carving up the material might reveal other patterns.
Obsolete Objects, then, has a comprehensive feel, but the tidy symmetry of the semantic tree is really illusory. Good works of literature, with all their knobby particularity, resist systematic analysis. Still, in order to talk about them at all, we need to impose some sort of order on the welter of relevant texts. Despite their unwieldy names, Orlando’s categories seem as good as any.
His dozens of examples for each category demonstrate that, at about the time of the French Revolution, Western literature reached a turning point, after which writing about the nonfunctional took on particular urgency. For Orlando, the odd prominence of the nonfunctional in Western literature after the late eighteenth century signals a Freudian “return of the repressed.” Of course, for Freud, what the individual drives into the unconscious does not stay there; it emerges in disguised form. Orlando sees an analogous process working broadly in Western literature. In an age increasingly devoted to technological progress, all that we have tried to put behind us emerges disguised as the ghostly remains of a past that refuses to die.
While the forces at work here may smack of a Jungian “collective unconscious” shared by all humanity, Orlando’s analysis depends on the vagaries of history. It is only under certain conditions that each of his categories flourishes. The book, then, turns out to be as much about the history of ideas as it is about psychological constants. Orlando proves a trustworthy historical guide, but he demands patience. As he puts it, while some might throw lightning flashes at his categories and the interrelations among them, he prefers to hold a candle and move slowly, illuminating every surface.
Seven of Orlando’s categories of the nonfunctional in literature developed in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. The other five have been with us from antiquity. The “solemn-admonitory” mode, for example, offers a reminder that even great civilizations pass away. There should be no cause for offense, then, when one of us dies. More than two thousand years ago, Sulpicius brought the point home in a letter of condolence to his heartbroken friend Cicero, whose daughter Tullia had died. The letter, in effect, tells Cicero to buck up: Even great cities like Aegina, Megara, Piraeus, and Carthage “now lie prostrate and ruined before our eyes. . . . What! We tiny men are indignant if only one of us dies or is killed, although of necessity our life is brief, when in one little space so many corpses of cities lie thrown down?”
In the Middle Ages, the memento mori eclipsed the solemn-admonitory mode. While an admonition such as “Remember, O man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return” sounds like the solemn-admonitory, the point of the memento mori is to contemplate worldly death in order to fit oneself for otherworldly life in communion with other eternal souls, not somehow to find comfort in the commonality of our mortal lot.
With the Enlightenment, the solemn-admonitory revived, stripped of its Stoic underpinnings and its Christian alternative. For Diderot, it became a solitary cri de coeur. After chastising the young painter Hubert Robert for including so many human beings in a painting called Ruin of a Triumphal Arch and Other Monuments, Diderot says: “The ideas that ruins awaken in me are great ones. . . . I see the marble tombs crumble into dust, and I do not want to die! And I want to exempt a weak tissue of fibers and flesh from a universal law that is executed upon bronze! A torrent drags nations, one upon another, to the bottom of a common abyss; I, I alone claim the right to stop at the edge and to fend off the surge that flows beside me!”
Even in an eighteenth-century Christian poem like Edward Young’s epic Night Thoughts, the best passages evoke a brooding sense of gloom. Young replaces Diderot’s “I, I alone” with “we,” but the sentiment here is secular:
What is the world itself? Thy world-a grave.
Where is the dust that has not been alive
The spade, the plough, disturb our ancestors;
From human mould we reap our daily bread.
The globe around earth’s hollow surface shakes,
And is the ceiling of her sleeping sons.
O’er devastation we blind revels keep;
Whole buried towns support the dancer’s heel.
The Romantics would soon develop such despairing melancholy into a sort of cult (think Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther), but on the whole the solemn-admonitory was transmuted into what Orlando calls the “venerable-regressive”: the mode most characteristic of the historical turning point. In 1802, when Chateaubriand published The Genius of Christianity, revealed religion had been widely discredited by the philosophes for decades and actively persecuted for a decade. In his sustained apologia for Christianity, Chateaubriand hurls a cry of protest against the state-sponsored desecration of the basilica of Saint-Denis, centuries-old burial site of French kings. In what Orlando calls the Reign of Terror’s “supreme national oedipal gesture,” the tombs were desecrated by official order, the remains of the kings heaped into a common grave. Chateaubriand exclaims: “They exist no longer, these sepulchers! Little children have made sport with the bones of mighty monarchs: Saint-Denis is deserted; birds have used it as a place of passage, grass grows over its shattered altars.”
The venerable-regressive retained its force only during the second half of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth. After 1848, Chateaubriand’s impassioned veneration of Christian art devolved into irony. In Anatole France’s The Elm-Tree on the Mall, for example, the prefect’s wife tells the priest Guitrel of her passion for antiques: “She told him that she dreamed of a drawing-room with old copes and old chasubles, and that she was also on the lookout for antique jewelry. He answered that priestly vestments indeed offered precious models for artists, and that was proof that the Church was not the enemy of the arts.” This short-lived mode, the “prestigious-ornamental,” ended with the First World War.
More lasting has been the “prestigious-fictitious,” handled by Flaubert with characteristic irony and served up straight today in the advertising world. In Flaubert’s unfinished novel Bouvard and Pécuchet, the two men wonder what style would best suit their new garden. There are so many to choose from: the “Romantic genre, which distinguishes itself by evergreens, ruins, tombs”; the “terrible genre,” replete with “hanging rocks, broken trees, burned-down cabins”; the “grave genre,” which offers “a temple to philosophy. Obelisks and triumphal arches characterize the majestic genre, moss and caves the mysterious genre, a lake the dreamy genre. There is even the fantastic genre,” with “a wild boar, a hermit, several tombs, and a boat which detached itself alone from the shore, to lead you into a boudoir, where jets of water streamed over you as you lay on the sofa.”
A great deal of the pleasure of reading Obsolete Objects derives from simply coming across such passages-hundreds of them. It is a pleasure Orlando clearly shares. But he cannot resist the urge to make all the texts fit into his elaborate scheme, no matter how recalcitrant they may be.
Here and there he registers his uneasiness with the project. He calls the book’s longest chapter “Twelve Categories Not to Be Too Sharply Distinguished,” but he distinguishes them sharply even in explaining that some passages point in two or more directions at once. He says it is appropriate to take “half-seriously and half-jokingly the precision of this belated structuralist exercise,” but he takes the precision seriously-so much so that at times the exercise becomes more trouble than it is worth.
Even so, Orlando casts a bright light on the obscure patterns of literary history. In doing so, he reminds us, again and again, of how much depends on our willingness to listen to the eloquent voices of the past.
Bryan Crockett is a professor of English at Loyola College in Maryland.