Looking for clues

by Rob Horning

24 July 2008


I have read Pierre Macherey’s Theory of Literary Production several times now, and I still don’t think I understand what he’s talking about. Either that, or I can’t grasp why it matters. But while re-reading it this time, I was also reading what seems to me a highly “produced” text, an Agatha Christie murder mystery, Evil Under the Sun, and this helped illustrate for me what I think Macherey is getting at.

Macherey is at pains to point out certain critical fallacies, which in his view obscure the literary object and prevent critics from generating “objective” or “scientific” observations about it. (Why deriving such knowledge is important remains unclear to me, but I may be an irredeemable philistine when it comes to “scientific” cultural analysis of the Althusserian school. Seems part and parcel of the dream of breaking through “spontaneous ideology.”) One of these fallacies (the “normative fallacy”—if I were Macherey I would be sure to italicize it) involves critics trying to restate the message of a text in their own boiled-down formulations. “Criticism proposes to modify the work in order to assimiliate it more thoroughly, denying its factual reality as being merely the provisional version of an unfulfilled intention.” Such critics are intent on replacing the literary work with what Macherey characterizes as an idealized (and falsifying) version—one that has decoded the literary text and rendered it in unambiguous language, into crystalline commentary. But no language is ultimately unambiguous; every new formulation is subject to interpretation and so on, so this is a fruitless process (“critical works which attempt to put questions about the nature of discourse when they themselves are really discourse in disguise,” writes Macherey), but nevertheless a seductive one, as it places the critic closer to the truth, mediating between the author and the true essence of the ideas that the author was trying to communicate.

From the point of view of the normative fallacy, literature is a matter of stalling the reader’s recognition of the message, staging a bunch of distractions and transpositions and using elliptical or periphrastic ways of expressing things so as to make a text out of something that the critic, after the fact, expresses in its essence. Literary works are just belabored or cryptic ways of getting ideas across.

Of course, mysteries are structured like this—the author stages a bunch of delaying tactics to prevent our seeing who committed the crime, and our pleasure comes from that protraction, from the sinkhole of time opened up within the simple details of a crime. “The detective story offers the best example of this disappearance of narrative,” Macherey explains. “It is constructed entirely around the possibility of this prophetic reading which completes the story at the moment of its abolition.” In a sense, the detective is the critic, who retells the whole story in succinct form at the end, replacing the version we just experienced before as we read. So in Evil Under the Sun, Hercule Poirot explains away the entire book in the last two chapters and the function of all the clues Christie had so carefully planted earlier. He tells the story straight, while Christie had wound in all these distractions, detours, and misleading feints and red herrings. It gets very meta, because Christie has Poirot seem to criticize the ineffectiveness of her own imaginative conceptions earlier in the book. What we thought were just lame, lazy plot and character devices were actually clues—they were unconvincing because they were the inventions of the failed criminals, not of Christie, and Poirot was able to deduce the criminal intent from these cliches that we could only ascribe to Christie herself (a neat trick that would seem to insulate Christie from being judged for her own literary merits). “First of all there were certain preliminary scenes,” Poirot says, describing how the criminals prepared their crime. “A conventional jealous wife dialogue between her and her husband, Later she played the same part with me. At the time, I remember a vague feeling of having read it all in a book. It did not seem real. Because, of course, it was not real.” So what are we, reading a book of fiction ourselves, supposed to make of that evidence? Everything in the book reads like something you’d only encounter in a mystery novel. How can we distinguish? We can’t share the ground from which Poirot judges what is real and what is not.

Mysteries fit the theory of composition Poe put forward in “The Philosophy of Composition,” which Macherey wants to expose as being absurd, if not an actual joke Poe was playing in inviting readers to take it seriously. Poe argues for a teleology in literary works—the end is preconceived and all of a texts elements are designed to produce that end—“every element should contribute to the conclusion.” Poe claims that “it is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition—that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequences of a mathematical problem.” So, Macherey notes, the artist is supposed transcending spontaneity, only the reader is experiencing spontaneous responses—the reader experiences ideology, the writer orchestrates it. And the critic who translates the work into its intentions stands even further outside ideology, exposing how ideological discourse works.

If you buy into Poe, everything in a work is intentional, and good critics can presumably read out the intention of every detail by working backwards from the achieved effect. That is what Poirot does at the end of the novel, collecting all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle and placing them properly, as the hackneyed metaphor Christie works into the text would have it. A character doing a jigsaw puzzle tells Poirot, “I do think the people who make puzzles are kind of mean. They just go out of their way to deceive you.” Obviously Christie is venting some criticism she must have heard often. Poirot replies the his crime solving “is a little like your puzzle. One assembles the pieces. It is like a mosaic—many colors and patterns—and every strange-shaped little piece must be fitted into its own place.” By analogy, the text is conceived as a complete picture, and Poirot’s assemblage of the pieces is the narrative we experience in reading. 

But what Macherey argues is that it would be silly for literary critics to proceed in the same way as Poirot, deducing the proper meaning of every piece. He argues that this would be a “radical misunderstanding of the writer’s work,” and that a text is “never a coherent and unified whole”—there are always multiple things being suggested at every moment in the text, by every analyzable aspect, and these things are often moving us in different directions simultaneously.

If I understand Macherey correctly, he is saying that what is interesting or significant about a book like Evil Under the Sun is the stuff that Poirot can’t explain in his summation, the aspects of the book that aren’t integrated into his construction of the completed jigsaw puzzle. The excess, so to speak. These are details that prolonged the narrative but had nothing to do with the crime; they just helped perpetrate the novel itself—give it character types, make the motives plausible, provide the backdrop of normality on which the relevant anomalies in the criminals could be registered. In this excess, we can catch a glimpse of ideology, which Macherey, following Althusser, suggests is otherwise inarticulable. As they see it, ideology is lived in, a habitus—tangible, not merely a characteristic of certain statements or positions. Rather it enables ideas to be formulated and expressed, and can’t be expressed directly in language without again being masked or distorted. But literary texts, in their roundabout approach to rendering lived experience, capture something of it, pin enough of it down to make it subject to analysis: “The spontaneous ideology in which men live (it is not produced spontaneously, although men believe that they acquire it spontaneously) is not simply reflected by the mirror of the book; ideology is broken, and turned inside out in so far as it is transformed in the text from being a state of consciousness. Art, or at least literature, because it naturally scorns the credulous view of the world, establishes myth and illusion as visible objects.” It manages to “present ideology in a non-ideological form,” in what ideology enables it to say and what it inhibits.

So what is left over in Evil Under the Sun after Poirot is finished giving the official solution to the book? Quite a lot, actually. What’s particularly jarring are the superfluous suspects, who are given reasons to kill that are convincing enough within the context of the novel but then are dropped as irrelevant red herrings once the real killer is revealed. But if one of these alternate suspects was the guilty party, the novel wouldn’t change much at all. The motives are purely on the level of surface, one as significant as any other. Whether the woman was murdered by her stepdaughter or a drug-smuggling ring makes no difference in the world of Evil Under the Sun. The suspects are perfectly interchangeable, like the cards in a game of Clue. The implication of this is that there is always a superfluous amount of evil, that crime in the culture she depicts is overdetermined, but at the same time utterly arbitrary. No deeper implications can be inferred from the occurrence of any crime; each is isolated from larger social problems or deeper psychological insights.

But the main thing is the sexism—after the crime is solved, Christie is at pains to deprive the working woman character of her job, marrying her off to the husband of the dead woman, who was killed basically because she was a vain and pathetic attention-seeker. (Christie basically leads us to believe that she deserved to die.) This betrothal was utterly unnecessary to the mystery aspect of the novel, but it ties together other assumptions animating the plot about a woman’s place and her proper aspirations. Working women are essentially no different than criminals, cold-bloodedly calculating how they can prey on the world for gain. They should instead be at leisure, prettified trophies for the vacationing men to ogle at their own leisure (their attention should not be co-opted by ostentatious female vanity). If they become ornaments, they might be spared the unpleasant business of having murderous motives assigned to them. 

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