Getting Rid of "Needless Painful Knowledge": The Flight from Trauma in Graham Swift's Shuttlecock (Part 1/3)

Stef Craps, Research Assistant of the Fund for Scientific Research - Flanders (Belgium) (F.W.O.), Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium []

  1. In Shuttlecock, his second novel, Swift rewrites the defeat in which The Sweet Shop Owner ends as an apparent triumph while yet remaining true to the basic set-up established in his first novel. Whereas The Sweet Shop Owner is the story of an ageing shopkeeper, Willy Chapman, who commits suicide to free himself from the desolation and abandonment in which a sustained investment in reality-denial has landed him, Shuttlecock presents us with a distressed thirty-something police archivist - by far the youngest of all Swift's male protagonists - who seems to find redemption through the very strategies of denial responsible for Willy's predicament. The novel bears witness to a protracted attempt on the part of the narrator-protagonist, who sings the virtues of suppressing traumatic knowledge, to dissolve - rather than to solve - the problems diagnosed by the earlier novel. The validity of this distinction is borne out by Swift's later work, starting with Waterland, which reveals all attempts to exorcize the problem of trauma to be doomed to backfire and takes up the search for alternative, more fruitful ways of dealing with the issue.

  2. Flirting with the genre of the Bildungsroman, advocating a return to nature, appealing to the power of the imagination and making explicit reference to the notion of the pathetic fallacy, Shuttlecock clearly demands to be read against the background of romanticism. In fact, according to Wendy Wheeler, both The Sweet Shop Owner and Shuttlecock are centrally concerned with the problem of "Romantic symbolism" (106). In the former novel, which tells a story of "Romantic 'failure'" (Wheeler 114), this engagement takes the form of a critique. Indeed, the protagonist's fantasy of achieving "symbolic unity" is rudely shattered by his estranged daughter's refusal to return home: "Willy's search for a final Romantic patterning - a final symbolic concordance between objective world and subjective Idea - comes to nothing" (Wheeler 114-15). This failure is redeemed, however, in Shuttlecock, one of Swift's most "closed" novels, in which "Symbolic unity ('love') is achieved" through "the healing power of nostalgic memory" (Wheeler 118, 123, 122). While Wheeler appears to take the novel's idyllic happy ending on its own terms, interpreting it as the all-out success it purports to be, my reading will focus on textual elements which allow it to be seen as a disturbing cop-out from the problem of coming to terms with life in a disenchanted world.

  3. Shuttlecock is the story of a man identified only as "Prentis" who works as a senior clerk in the "dead crimes" department of the London police archives. He is a family man in his early thirties, with a wife, Marian, and two sons, Martin and Peter. Two years prior to the novel's action, Prentis's father ("Dad") suffered some sort of breakdown which left him speechless and confined to a mental institution, where his son pays him regular visits. Prentis is engaged in three separate struggles, which turn out to be intricately related. On the home front, he tries to assert his mastery over his wife and kids by acting the family tyrant. At work, he is hoping to gain the upper hand over his inscrutable boss Quinn, who appears to take sadistic delight in assigning him complicated cases which are impossible to resolve on the basis of the limited information at his disposal. Finally, as the son of a World War II hero, Prentis is tormented by feelings of inferiority and inadequacy. During the war, his father - a handsome, successful, happily married, highly regarded and socially well-connected engineer - had been active as a secret agent in France. Dad later wrote about his war experiences in a book entitled Shuttlecock (after his spy code-name), which for the best part of the novel Prentis is busy rereading.[1]

  4. Shuttlecock's plot is based on the model of the traditional Bildungsroman, which charts a young person's transition to maturity and harmony. This generic affiliation is inscribed in the protagonist's very name: he is an apprentice who has to undergo some kind of learning process to attain mastership. Prentis announces this ambition at an early stage in the narrative, which is rendered in the form of a diary. The novel opens with Prentis's memories of the way in which as a child he used to torture Sammy, his pet hamster. His recollection of the unfortunate animal's attempt to escape its tormentor's grasp by digging a tunnel in the garden - "Needless to say, I punished it severely" - leads on to the following reflection: "Now let me tell you something. We are all looking for a space where we can be free, where we cannot be reached, where we are masters" (36). Recurring several times at key moments in the text, the image of the burrowing animal which has found protection from persecution in nature accurately captures the ideal of freedom which the novel's protagonist aspires to.

  5. At the start of the narrative, however, Prentis experiences his own condition as one of bondage, alienation and unfreedom. Feeling put upon and oppressed by two domineering paternal presences - Dad and Quinn - he finds himself in much the same position as his childhood hamster, i.e. that of a captive at the complete mercy of a powerful master. His abusive behaviour towards his family is explained as a pathetic attempt to compensate for his powerlessness in the office and his nagging sense of unworthiness and weakness vis-à-vis his father's apparent heroism and strength: "Underneath everything, they know that I am essentially a weak man. That's just the trouble. [. . .] So all this show of strength means nothing" (11). Prentis is a man who lives in discord with the world. Describing himself as being in a state of "constant dissatisfaction" (72), he clearly finds his own situation deeply problematic. He is alienated from his wife - "My wife is afraid of me, she does not know me" (100) - and his relations with his sons, which are characterized by "non-communication" (211), "aren't exactly harmonious" (53) either. Haunted by a sense of personal inauthenticity, Prentis also feels alienated from himself. He regrets being unable ever to "act simply or straightforwardly" (8) and describes his actions in terms of scenes in a "performance" which he "can't do anything about" (10). As if reduced to an instrument of forces outside of himself, he cannot seem to help acting against his own wishes: "And these days it seems that I too, for some inexplicable reason, for some spiteful reason, because what I really want to do is precisely the opposite, am choosing to stay indoors when we could go out" (54).

  6. Not only is Prentis alienated from his family and from himself, but he also feels estranged from nature. There is a strong sense in the novel that we have become so far removed from nature that nature now seems "something foreign" (153) to contemporary society. It is a matter of some concern to Prentis that the subject of Nature Study has been dropped from the curriculum at his sons' school: "From what I gather from Martin and Peter, Nature Study is not a subject they teach any more in primary schools - and that, I can't help thinking, is a bad thing" (33). He disapproves of his sons' alleged appetite for the unnatural, which he infers from their fascination with the Bionic Man, a robotic hero who "bears no relation to anything natural" (10), and from their preference for watching TV over playing "healthy games" on the common: "All this simply isn't natural" (54). Even during his own schooldays, however, when Nature Study was still on the curriculum, Prentis perceived nature as "a rare and mysterious commodity" (33), "some precious lost treasure": "Above all, it was something quite separate and distinct from me" (34).

  7. This theme of exile from nature also pervades those passages in which Prentis contemplates his sexual relationship with his wife. He informs the reader that "it's a long time since I've experienced with Marian that thing called 'ecstasy' or 'fulfilment'" (72). It emerges that their love-making is a far cry from the simple, spontaneous sexual pleasures which in Prentis's mind are associated with proximity to nature and which he claims to have enjoyed in the early years of his marriage to Marian. He envies the "easy contentment" (73) of the sparrows and the ducks whom he observes copulating, with natural simplicity, on the guttering and on the common. He regrets having fallen away from this primordial natural state, and goes to great lengths to recapture it:
    And sometimes that is just how I see it with Marian and me: a little careless, unadorned instant, like the sparrows; a little flutter of wings and hearts: at one with nature. Perhaps it was like that once, long ago. For Marian and me. For all of us. But now we have to go through the most elaborate charades, the most strenuous performances to receive enlightenment. Because that is the goal, don't mistake me - enlightenment. All nature's creatures join to express nature's purpose. Somewhere in their mounting and mating, rutting and butting is the very secret of nature itself. And when, night after night, I conduct my sexual experiments with Marian, for ever modifying the formula, it's with the yearning that one day it won't just be sex, but enlightenment. (73)
    In what he calls a quest for "enlightenment," Prentis subjects his wife to strenuous, contorted bedroom gymnastics involving the use of "certain 'manuals'" and articles from sex shops and mail-order catalogues (73). All this artificial paraphernalia is meant to help him achieve "some ultimate thing that always seemed elusive" (73), i.e. enlightenment conceived as a redemptive return to the state of nature.

  8. By the end of the novel, alienation appears to have ceased. Prentis closes his narrative with an evocation of an idyllic family outing to Camber Sands, a beach on the English channel, one bright spring Sunday. The entire scene seems designed to convince the reader that Prentis is (once again) a man at one with himself and his surroundings. For one thing, Prentis claims to have undergone a "transformation," as a result of which his family allegedly no longer "doubt or disbelieve what they see" (209) when he comes home from the office. No longer the "complete sham" (95) he used to be, he purports to coincide with his true self again. As a result, family harmony appears to have been restored. In marked contrast to the former "days of non-communication" (211) with his sons, Prentis establishes what looks like a harmonious relationship with them. He even enjoys a "deadly-earnest" (219) cricket match with Martin and Peter, who in the past did not show "the slightest interest" in cricket and "stubbornly refused to enter the spirit of the game" (53) when Prentis forced them to come out and play with him.

  9. To his wife, Prentis imagines coming across as "a reformed man: the man I was, years ago, before Mum's death and Dad's breakdown, before the kids grew up" (210) - i.e. in the idealized, supposedly non-alienated first years of his marriage to Marian. In fact, the trip to the seaside on which Prentis takes his family explicitly commemorates their early married life. While their sons frolic in the sea, Prentis and Marian make happily spontaneous love in the dunes at Camber Sands, just as they used to do when Martin was still a baby.[2] Renouncing the "pointless sophistication" (219) which had reduced their sex-life to "A sham, a mockery" (75), they have uncomplicated sex in the sand, "quick as sparrows" (219) in case someone might appear over the crest of the dunes. Another significant natural image - besides that of the copulating sparrows - which is reinvoked in this connection is that of the burrowing animal: "All those laborious bedroom antics, to return at last to burrowing in the sand" (219). By the end of the novel, Prentis seems to have successfully overcome alienation and achieved the longed-for state of freedom which was unavailable to him at the outset. As if to underscore his attunement with his surroundings, he sees his own nakedness reflected in the dune-landscape, which he describes as "naked" like "human flesh" (220). The "soft-gold hues and gentle contours" of the dunes in turn remind him of his hamster and of his original reason for wanting it. The novel ends with Prentis's recollection of "the magical words Mr Forster had spoken when I was a boy (Peter's age): 'a piece of nature'" (220).[3]

  10. The communion with nature evoked in Shuttlecock's final pages is anticipated in the penultimate chapter, which consists of only two sentences which are thus given special significance. Prentis asks Marian, who has a habit of talking to her plants, whether she believes in the pathetic fallacy: "That it's really a fallacy, I mean?" (215). As Wheeler points out, "Like his wife's behaviour, the question suggests Prentis's dawning sense of the possibility of continuity between things which seem divided (here the human and the natural worlds and, by implication, Prentis and his wife)" (121) - a possibility which is actualized in the novel's concluding chapter. It seems to me that the notion of the pathetic fallacy, which is explicitly invoked at three key points in the text, constitutes a useful starting point for a critical reflection on the redemptive trajectory governing Prentis's narrative. As is well known, the phrase was originally coined by John Ruskin in his book Modern Painters to decry the tendency of certain literary artists to ascribe human characteristics, traits, feelings and dispositions to non-human organisms or inanimate objects. Such ascriptions, Ruskin argues, "produce in us a falseness in all our impressions of external things" (1278). An "error" which the mind admits when "affected strongly by emotion," the pathetic fallacy distorts our perception of things as they are in reality (Ruskin 1278). The first example of this practice which Ruskin mentions - only to condemn it as "very untrue" (1278) - is taken from an unnamed poem by (the equally unnamed) Oliver Wendell Holmes: "The spendthrift crocus, bursting through the mold / Naked and shivering, with his cup of gold" (qtd. in Ruskin 1278). The attributes of nakedness and gold imputed to the crocus - "its yellow is not gold, but saffron," Ruskin objects (1278) - both recur in Prentis's anthropomorphized description of the dunes at Camber, which is itself a blatant case of the pathetic fallacy.

  11. Though - pace Ruskin - the pathetic fallacy is arguably endemic to literature as such, it is generally associated with the work of the romantic poets, who used it extensively to indicate a feeling of oneness with nature and a sense of the unity of being. To gain further insight into the specific use to which this notion is put in Shuttlecock, I will turn to Stanley Cavell's discussion of the pathetic fallacy as integral to the project of romanticism, which he conceives as essentially a response to the "Kantian settlement." Kant had described his philosophical settlement as limiting knowledge by making room for faith. Moreover, in limiting knowledge, he effectively secured it against the threat of scepticism and the powers of dogmatism. In Kant's scheme, the only thing that can be known with certainty is the phenomenal world, the world as we perceive and understand it. That which causes these phenomena, the thing-in-itself or noumenon, lies beyond the bounds of perception and so is unknowable and incomprehensible. As Cavell points out, Kant introduced the irreducible dualism between phenomenon and noumenon in an effort to "strike a bargain between the respective claims upon human nature of knowledge or science and of morality and religion" (31). For Kant, the human being lives in two worlds at once, "in one of them determined, in the other one free, one of which is necessary to the satisfaction of human Understanding, the other to the satisfaction of human Reason" (Cavell 31-32). As phenomenon, the human being is subject to causal laws; as noumenon, he or she is free. According to Cavell, one "romantic use" for this idea of two worlds lies in its accounting for "the human being's dissatisfaction with, as it were, itself" (32). Indeed, it appreciates "the ambivalence in Kant's central idea of limitation, that we simultaneously crave its comfort and crave escape from its comfort, that we want unappeasably to be lawfully wedded to the world and at the same time illicitly intimate with it" (Cavell 32). Kant's ambivalent settlement offers up the insight that "the human being now lives in neither world, that we are, as it is said, between worlds" - a condition which Cavell characterizes as the endemic "worldlessness" or "homelessness" that is of a piece with the modern condition (32).

  12. Disappointed with the Kantian settlement, romanticism sets itself the task of "bringing the world back, as to life" (Cavell 53). The assumption is that the world made available to us by Kant's faculty of the Understanding is dead. Cavell quotes Coleridge's Biographia Literaria: "all the products of the mere reflective faculty partook of DEATH" (qtd. in Cavell 44). The romantics' quest for "the recovery of the world," which may present itself as "a new creation of our habitat" (in Wordsworth and Coleridge) or as "the creation of a new inhabitation" (in Blake and Shelley), hinges on an acceptance of "animism, represented by what seems still to be called, when it is called, the pathetic fallacy" (Cavell 45, 53). Thus, romantic poetry seeks to recuperate "the intimacy with the world" which we are denied under the Kantian regime (Cavell 65). If the Kantian bargain with scepticism can be described as "buying back the knowledge of objects by giving up things in themselves," then romanticism's bargain with the Kantian amounts to "buying back the thing in itself by taking on animism" (Cavell 65).

  13. The romantic recourse to the pathetic fallacy is inspired, then, by the idea - which, according to Cavell, romantics "would be lost without" - "that the world could be - or could have been - so remade, or I in it, that I could want it, as it would be, or I in it" (35). As a matter of fact, the gulf between the world of determinism and the world of freedom postulated by Kant's critical philosophy was a matter of great concern to Kant himself as well. In the Critique of Judgement, which completes the trilogy of the great Critiques, Kant looks into the possibility of an ultimate union of the two realms. The general aim of the third Critique is to construct a bridge which would unify the heteronomous faculties of the understanding and reason and thus restore the unity of philosophy and, consequently, the unity of the subject who is the bearer of these faculties. Having claimed, in the introduction, that the realm of freedom is meant to influence the realm of nature, Kant goes on to suggest that the experience of beauty can bridge the gulf which separates them. In Section 59, he famously declares that "the beautiful is the symbol of the morally good" (qtd. in White 179). The central faculty through which the sensible and the supersensible can be reconciled would be the imagination. As David White comments in "On Bridging the Gulf between Nature and Morality in the Critique of Judgment," "the imagination - in a manner which, again, Kant does not discuss in any further detail - somehow allows an individual when judging aesthetically to enter that distinctively Kantian supersensible ground which underlies the freedom essential to morality and is also an essential factor in the nature of beauty" (186). The pathetic fallacy, of course, is one way in which the imagination manifests itself in literature - a privileged medium for the exercise of this faculty. However, as White's obvious vexation with the lack of argumentative clarity in the third Critique would seem to suggest, the imagination's ability successfully to mediate between nature and morality remains at the level of a hypothesis rather than an established fact in Kant.[4]

  14. Vastly less cautious than the Critique of Judgement in its affirmation of the power of aesthetic judgement to underwrite the harmony of the faculties, however, is Friedrich Schiller's On the Aesthetic Education of Man, which draws on Kant's work to develop a concept of aesthetic education that has proved massively influential. As Marc Redfield points out, "In Schiller the aesthetic becomes a supremely synthetic moment, an instant of freedom balanced between the binary oppositions of the empirical and the ideal - the 'sensuous drive' and the 'formal drive' of the Aesthetic Education - a synthesis that provides man with 'a complete intuition of his human nature' and 'a symbol of his accomplished destiny'" (20-21). This destiny unfolds as the progress from a "naive," sensual aesthetic to a "sentimental" interiority, defined - in Schiller's essay "Naive and Sentimental Poetry" - as the self-conscious quest for a return to the naive, and thus as the motion towards an ideal state of aesthetic synthesis: "We were nature [. . .] and our culture, by means of reason and freedom, should lead us back to nature" (qtd. in Redfield 21). According to Schiller, the evolution of poetry or aesthetic form is by definition also that of humanity: "This path taken by the modern poets is, moreover, that along which man in general, the individual as well as the race, must pass" (qtd. in Redfield 21).

  15. Aesthetic education plays a pivotal role in this process, which is meant to heal "the split within man" and to restore "the totality of our nature" (Schiller 45, 43). The itinerary which this education - or Bildung - is to follow, is described by Schiller in the following passage:
    Every individual human being, one may say, carries within him, potentially and prescriptively, an ideal man, the archetype of a human being, and it is his life's task to be, through all his changing manifestations, in harmony with the unchanging unity of this ideal. This archetype, which is to be discerned more or less clearly in every individual, is represented by the State, the objective and, as it were, canonical form in which all the diversity of individual subjects strive to unite. (17, 19)
    Thus, the acculturation or Bildung of an individual by definition models a political process. The full realization of Schiller's "ideal man" would take place as the emergence of the notorious "Aesthetic State" evoked in the final pages of the Aesthetic Education. Though the state, like the individual, will always remain underway towards full self-realization, Bildung, as an aesthetic event, demands phenomenal manifestation: "this is to say that it requires a figure, a Bild, exemplifying and prefiguring the identity underlying Bildung's difference and deferral. In the concordant discord of history, then, certain subjects and states can, indeed must, become exemplary" (Redfield 50). It is thus "inherent in the logic of aesthetic education" that Schiller's treatise should regress from "the universalist promise of its title" to "the less democratic model of history" suggested in the text's conclusion, which talks of the Aesthetic State existing as "a realized fact" only in "some few chosen circles" (Redfield 50-51).

  16. It is this aspect of Schiller's work which led Paul de Man to argue that Schiller's aesthetic humanism is in fact latently authoritarian and thoroughly sinister. Indeed, in his lecture entitled "Kant and Schiller," de Man suggests a direct link between Schiller's notion of the Aesthetic State as the telos of Bildung and the fascist state as envisaged by Joseph Goebbels. Schiller's alleged misreading of Kant and his consequent inordinate investment in the aesthetic as a way of bridging the gap between nature and morality thus seems to lead to serious political consequences. In "Aesthetic Formalization: Kleist's Über das Marionettentheater," de Man argues that the trajectory of Schiller's aesthetic theory, which exemplifies the idea "of innocence recovered at the far side and by way of experience, of paradise consciously regained after the fall into consciousness," represents "one of the most seductive, powerful, and deluded topoi of the idealist and romantic period" (267). De Man's critique of what he calls "aesthetic ideology" seeks to expose the ominous political tendencies with which the kind of aesthetic thought set forth by Schiller is seen to be infected. Interestingly, the notion that modern alienation can in any way be "overcome" or abolished is also dismissed as a dangerous fantasy by Slavoj Zizek, who argues, in The Sublime Object of Ideology, that man has to "come to terms" with his separation from nature if the worst is to be avoided: "man as such is 'the wound of nature', there is no return to the natural balance; to accord with his milieu, the only thing man can do is accept fully this cleft, this fissure, this structural rooting-out, and to try as far as possible to patch things up afterwards; all other solutions - the illusion of a possible return to nature, the idea of the total socialization of nature - are a direct path to totalitarianism" (5).
[ Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Works Cited ]


[1] To mark the distinction between Dad's Shuttlecock and Swift's identically titled novel, italics will be used for the former, bold type for the latter. [Back]

[2] Earlier on in the narrative, Prentis recalls this period as one of pure bliss and fulfilment in harmony with nature: "do you know what I felt when each of them [i.e. Martin and Peter] came into the world? I felt: life is very simple and complete. And there was a time even when the boys were small, when Marian and I used to make love, quite spontaneously, in the open air - in fields, amid ferns, in secluded parts of beaches - when we went out at weekends" (76). [Back]

[3] Interestingly, the novel's final phrase, "a piece of nature," which ostensibly celebrates Prentis's own successful return to the pure state of nature, effectively undermines this entire undertaking. If "nature" were indeed a state of plenitude and undivided unity, the notion that "a piece" can be isolated from it would be impossible to conceive, as it suggests that nature is internally differentiated and fragmented. The very use of this term thus implies that nature does not exist as absolute presence but is always already marked by difference, always already alienated from itself. [Back]

[4] In fact, the Critique of Judgement can be and has been read as the diagnosis of a failure. According to Garrath Williams, for example, "Kant finds no theoretical bridge across that 'great gulf fixed' between free and sensible realms [. . .]. Kantian judgment fails to cross this barrier, to discern reason and freedom in the world of appearances" (118). [Back]

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Last modified: 7th May 2003