"New Mechanistic Analyses": Postmodern Strategies in Swift's Waterland

Jessica Leader '97 (English 168, 1996)

Like Oscar and Lucinda, Waterland questions the viability of the idea of history itself. When Lewis, the Headmaster at the school at which Tom Crick teaches, announces his plan to trim the history department, Crick is catapulted into questioning his existential groundings. History, says, Crick, is what he stands for (Swift 21), but Lewis's claims of wanting to "[e]quip [students] for the real world" (23) take precedence. Crick's student Price echoes Lewis's opinion, roundly asserting that "What matters...is the here and now. Not the past" (6).

In trying to combat his students' attitudes, and to show the importance of knowledge of the past, Crick casts aside much of his syllabus of the French Revolution in favor of his own stories. First, he shows, history exists in the present. He asks his students,

"'Who will not know of the mud of Flanders? Who will not feel in this twentieth century of ours, when even a teenage schoolboy will propose as a topic for a history lesson the End of History, the mud of Flanders sucking at his feet?'" (19)

Further, Crick insists, it is not the strictly-defined discipline of history that's crucial; instead, that everything that has ever happened affects their lives -- much like the over-arching lesson of Oscar and Lucinda. Crick finishes a portion of his ancestors' chronicles by saying,

"'And that is how, children, my ancestors came to live by the River Leem. That is how when the cauldron of revolution was simmering in Paris, so that you, one day, should have a subject for your lessons, they were busy, as usual, with their scouring, pumping and embanking.'" (16)

In other words, in order that Crick's students study the discipline of past with him, certain historical antecedents must have taken place.

That which cannot be readily observed has its own fundamental place in the formation of the present, such as "the slow and arduous process, the interminable and ambiguous process...of land reclamation" (10). Even fairy-tales, certainly nothing real (Crick emphasizes with irony), have an impact -- they did on the students' history teacher, which is what spurred him to became one in the first place. Crick emphasizes the importance of such stories by starting many of his own accounts, "'Once upon a time..." (7, e.g.). His students think that he's trying to put himself into history (6), but he's showing them that he's already in it, as are they.

Having expanded the discipline of history to include the personal, Crick also allows for the possibility that such study is akin to shadow-boxing, asking,

How many of the events of history have occurred...for no other reason, fundamentally, than the desire to make things happen? ...there's no saying what heady potions we won't concoct, what meanings, myths, manias we won't imbibe in order to convince ourselves that reality is not an empty vessel. (41).

In fact, for all of the importance of the present, "...most of the time the Here and Now is neither now nor here." (61). However, in the face of all this, "man...is the story-telling animal" (62), who is impacted by, and impacts, history. Waterland demonstrates how the portioning off of some tales of the past as History and others as mere personal memoir is invalid, that all of the past is worthy of attention. In so doing, Waterland problematizes history as a metanarrative.

Waterland is written as a synchronic narrative, in that events happen all at a moment, without reference to time, like scientific phenomena. Crick's first-person account dips back and forth between the present (1979) and many pasts -- events from his childhood; the history of his ancestors; the evolution of the Fens; and the French Revolution. Lyotard characterizes emphasis on synchronicity as a chief element of postmodernity, in contrast to diachronic or historical narrative, which examines development over time. When transmitting scientific information, we cannot say, "first there is the nucleus, then there is the cell" -- the phenomena are synchronic. The use of synchronic is, here, another way of casting off metanarrative. Both are characterizing elements of postmodernity, in that we see "the retreat of the claims of narrative or storytelling knowledge in the face of those abstract, denotative, or logical and cognitive procedures generally associated with science..." (Jameson xi). Per Jameson's description, Waterland recognizes and exposes the fact that

"the [diachronic] narratives' reference may seem to belong to the past, but in reality it is always contemporaneous with the act of recitation. It is the present act that on each of its occurrences marshals in the ephemeral temporality inhabiting the space between the 'I have heard' and the 'you will hear'" (Lyotard 22).

Indeed, the narrator of Waterland self-consciously occupies the space of the "ephemeral temporality". Like Oscar and Lucinda, then, Waterland employs postmodern narrational strategies in looking at the past.

In both cases, the novels' narrative techniques support their overall messages. In postmodernism, "the old master-narratives of legitimation no longer function..." (Jameson xi-xii). Diachronic narrative, for Lyotard and other postmodern theorists, is an outdated construct, whose primary result is the production not of stories, but of the listener's interpolation into the social structure (Lyotard 21). In contrast, the "concept of 'structural history...implies that the fundamental reality is that of the synchronic structure, and that history is a secondary reality formed by successive structures" (Hawthorn 39). Crick's insistence on the importance of the present is partially reminiscent of the cause-and-effect of diachrony, but the present he emphasizes is not an essential one, it is just the moment they happen to be in. Novels that throw off traditional narrative as an unreliable metanarrative by implication problematize other time-honored metanarratives, showing that no structure has any real importance, except relationally. Examples of other master-narratives include religion and history, which are in flux in these two novels. By using postmodern narrative tropes, Carey and Swift show the temporality of their characters' points of anxiety, giving us an over-arching perspective on all crises of knowledge, past and present.

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