Intradiscursive Environments:

myth, metaphor and musicality in contemporary fiction
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June 2004, Brussels (Belgium)



1. INTRODUCTION: freedom to find meaning                                      


In this paper, the argument is set out so that the notions of myth, metaphor and music are explored as contrasting ways to structure narrative, often combined in what I have called ‘intradiscursive environments’, a term which contrasts to the notion of ‘interdiscursivity’ which I have discussed in an earlier paper.[1]  The foundational thesis on which this article is based is taken from a theoretical school referred to in a broad sense as ‘reception theory’, referring to the Barthesian notion where the significance of the text depends on the active participation of the reader.  The common approach to post-modern works is to divide them into one of two camps: works that make use of parody and self-reflexivity (common in comedy), and works that accent their ‘worldliness’ or interculturality.  Hutcheon argues that both of these qualities exist in an uneasy and problematising tension (1989: 18).  Intradiscursive works require an openness to both of these approaches, as well as a number of others which highlight the use of myth, metaphor and music to achieve some form of transcendence, a notion not typically connected with traditional forms of ‘postmodernism’.  In this article I intend to draw attention to an alternative way of analysing recent texts which achieve this wide combination of different perspectives especially thanks to a positive attitude towards oral cultures and the way they have learnt to remember, communicate and inculcate their own works of ‘literature’ which can only exist in the minds of individuals because they are either nomads and cannot drag books around, or are in all other senses ‘illiterate’.  Both Lessing and Ondaatje use their knowledge of these cultures to create enormously powerful works because of their application of this knowledge.  Chatwin’s work called The Songlines is also important in providing us with a basic background to the way oral cultures perform these tasks, using the example of the Australian Aboriginal culture.


In this paper, the argument is set out so that the notions of myth, metaphor and music are explored as contrasting ways to structure narrative, often combined in the intradiscursive environments discussed in more detail below.  After introducing the way reality is presented in these novels in the form of ‘schizologic’, the whole concept of the breakdown of temporal structures and the adoption of archetypes and myths is related to the Aboriginal sense of ‘dreaming’.  Specific instances that correlate the Australian Aboriginal sense of textuality are then presented to help make sense of ‘intradiscursivity’.  This leads to a discussion of the correlation between Ondaatje and Lessing’s work and nomadic, oral or preliterate cultures, and then specific expressions of these cultures in textual forms such as the ‘Songlines’ spread spatially across Australia or their dynamic illustration of texts by drawing abstract (‘musical’) figures in the sand while they relate their tales.  Before the conclusion, the notions of temporality and spatiality in acts of storytelling are discussed and the parallels with Lessing’s space are introduced; this is an opportunity to structure the complex set of hermeneutical approaches.  The conclusion concentrates on introducing some of the major themes and interdiscursive forms adopted specifically in Ondaatje’s work.


2. DREAMS & DREAMING: bridge between fiction & reality                    


Myth, metaphor and musicality are all important tools in the literature of the Aboriginals who created a time known as ‘the Dreaming’ or ‘Dreamtime’ when the world was ‘created’, literally ‘sung into existence’ by a wide variety of mythical creatures who fell into sleep after the dreaming was finished and transformed into the landmarks spread across Australia which the Aboriginals consider sacred.  In both The Memoirs of a Survivor and The English Patient, dreams become a bridge between fiction and reality; dreams become a metaphor for the whole writing process and the unique relationship created between a book and its reader.  In discussing her own work, Lessing mentions the many different levels of meaning a text can have, and that our attitude to the text can cause its meaning to be ‘volatile’ in the sense that when we return to a text after a period of time, we will find new levels of signification that have resulted from us changing and not the text.  In correspondence, she demonstrates an important linking of reception theory emerging in the French poststructuralist school, pointing this out to the reader who received the letter in the early 80s:


"Have you not had the experience of reading a book perhaps when very young and thinking it boring, but later, finding it full of meaning?  The book hasn’t changed, you have …” 

(Lessing, 1983: 1)


To emphasise this, as an example, she points out the fact that the director[2] who made the film version of her book Memoirs… took on the project primarily because he saw it as being involved with ‘the bomb’, and that the saving grace of the film—the presence of Julie Christie—was also because she thought it was a statement on nuclear war which was a larger issue of controversy then than it is now.  It may not have been Lessing’s initial intention to point this out—Lessing never once refers to a bomb or any form of nuclear technology—but she refuses to say that this is the ‘incorrect’ interpretation of her book; the Work has very much transformed into the dynamic Barthesian Text.[3]  Reception theory instituted by Barthes describes such texts as being inherently ‘readerly’ in that the benefit of doubt is given to the reader who is welcome to form their own textual constructions.  Lessing notes that an object or a story can mean more than one thing: “It can have many” and that a given text “can mean one thing at one time in a person’s life and another at another” (Lessing, 1983: 1).  I will be looking at some of these possible meanings, some things I believe that we can learn by approaching intradiscursive works from a certain angle, in this case an anthropological one in terms of the cultures of the people being written about and their attitude towards language, communication and the unique ways they perceive reality.


Reality becomes the means on which to paint a number of ‘dream-like’ discourses which I propose link together to make sense if a Lacanian ‘Schizologic’ is applied; dreams have a freedom from temporality and spatiality; a dream logic does not necessarily follow the rules of the ‘signifier/signified’ in a Saussurian sense.  In dream logic, realities from the distant past, or even an unknown archetypal past, can return suddenly and interact with figures of the present or a possible future.  Jameson describes Lacanian logic for the schizophrenic as follows:


"Lacan describes schizophrenia as a breakdown in the signifying chain, that is, the interlocking syntagmatic series of signifiers which constitutes an utterance or a meaning. The connection between this kind of linguistic malfunction and the psyche of the schizophrenic may then be grasped by way of a two fold proposition: first, that personal identity is itself the effect of a certain temporal unification of past and future with one's present: and, second, that such active temporal unification is itself a function of language, or better still of the sentence, as it moves along its hermeneutic circle through time."

(Jameson, 1997: 26-27)


The reader becomes forced to slip into such a logic if the work is to be ‘understood’; it is thanks to an appreciation of temporality in this way that works of this type can be appreciated.  An important example of an ‘archetypal’ theme taken from Lessing’s Memoirs… is the symbol of ‘the wall’ that presents ‘the survivor’ (who remains unnamed during the entire work) with an opportunity to move between two essentially dream-like realities, even though one, that of the apartment and the city, seems to obey the rules of temporality in the way traditional reality does.  The English Patient, however, is on a constant temporal move as we are presented with contrasting fragments from the lives of the different characters; sometimes in the form of tales, memories or actions in the present tense occurring dynamically and poetically.  Similar to Billy Pilgrim in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, the characters seem to get ‘unstuck in time’ and we are ultimately not sure where dream reality begins and temporal reality stops.  This is part of the magic of all these books who use, among other things, dream logic to create an ‘intradiscursive’ form of communication.  The following symbolic example taken from the temporally free space ‘behind the wall’ in The Memoirs of a Survivor is a powerful example of symbolic logic in action; the room in the ‘constantly changing’ building behind ‘the wall’ is a symbolic representation of real-life problems; a metaphoric representation of the need to ‘clean up’ after the destruction of war has taken place, a feminine desire also represented by many of the female characters in Slaughterhouse Five:


"Moving through the tall, quiet white walls, as impermanent as theatre sets, knowing that the real inhabitant was there, always there just behind the next wall, to be glimpsed on the opening of the next door or the one beyond that, I came on a room, long, deep-ceilinged, once a beautiful room, which I recognized, which I knew (from where, though?) and it was in such disorder I felt sick and I was afraid.  The place looked as if savages had been in it; as if soldiers had bivouacked there.  The chairs and sofas had been deliberately slashed and jabbed with bayonets or knives, stuffing was spewing out everywhere, brocade curtains had been ripped off the brass rods and left in heaps.  The room might have been used as a butcher’s shop: there were feathers, blood, bits of offal.  I began cleaning it.  I laboured, used many buckets of hot water, scrubbed, mended.  I opened tall windows to an eighteenth-century garden where plants grew in patterns of squares among low hedges.  Sun and wind were invited into that room and cleaned it.  I was by myself all the time; yet did not feel myself to be.  Then it was done.  The old sofas and chairs stood there repaired for the cleaners. I walked around in it for a long time, for it was a room large enough for pacing; and I stood at the windows, seeing hollyhocks and damask roses, smelling lavender, roses, rosemary, verbena, conscious of memories assaulting me, claiming, insinuating.  One was from my ‘real’ life, for it was nagging and tugging at me that the pavements where the fires had burned and the trees had scorched were part of the stuff and the substance of this room.  But there was the tug of nostalgia for the room itself, the life that had been lived there, would continue the moment I had left.  And for the garden, whose every little turn or corner I knew in my bones.  Above all, for the inhabitant who was somewhere near, probably watching me; who, when I had left, would walk in and nod approval at the work of cleaning I had done and then perhaps go out to walk in the garden

(Lessing, 1982: 39-40)


Lessing introduced into the world of literary studies the notion of ‘inner-space’ which refers not only to the complex events that occur within the unconscious, but also the spiritual journeys and how they relate to her character’s developments in the ‘real’-world.[4]  Here additional influences from Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis can be felt.  It should be noted, however, that Lessing has also used the notion of ‘inner-spatiality’ as a metaphor for the relationship between spatial, temporal and psychological approaches to help communicate aspects of non-verbal, mythical and musical discourses.  It may sound complex, but as demonstrated above this multiplicity of meanings is an important part of the significative process in both The Memoirs of a Survivor and The English Patient; the precise intention is to intertwine possible ‘interpretations’ of contrasting discursive environments so that it is impossible to untwine them in a coherent fashion and provide a single interpretation, as traditional literary studies often tries to achieve.  This is perhaps intended also as a ‘slap in the face’ to the orthodox ‘literary’ and/or ‘colonial’ environments which both works are sensitive to; in Memoirs… problems are shown through the inefficient way it crumbles as society begins to no longer rely on it.  Ondaatje expresses this by commenting on the positive aspects of nomadic cultures, although no judgements are made favouring either of the two contrasting cultural groups.  There is no doubt, however, that the Aboriginal notion of ‘dreaming’ is a way to make sense of the use of ‘dream’ realities and the adoption of mythical and sometimes universal symbolic systems.  I refer to this when it is adopted in literary works as intradiscursive environments.  Such environments are used to present the multi-levelled signification, the archetypal myths which we are given the freedom to apply to our own life in our own way and at the same time to adopt dynamic ‘musical’ structures; these are all ways of adopting discourse I compare to the ‘oral’ or ‘nomadic’ cultures which are typified in a positive way within the novels in question. 


Another important structure which is typical of Aboriginal ‘dreaming’ tales, both novels (particularly The English Patient) and other nomadic or oral cultures involve forms of story-telling that make use of both words, sounds and sometimes even augmentation of the narrative which can only be considered in terms of the ‘realisation’ of the text in a dynamic spatial and temporal environment.  The non-verbal and the musical of ‘inner-space’ become the means to realise mythical and universal themes, and it is discussing this thematic area where writing and musical experience become indivisible in the dynamic sense of Barthesian jouissance.



3. MUSICALITY & MYTH                                                                    


As demonstrated by Ong in his influential work Orality and Literacy, oral cultures, whether they lived in the ancient past or the present, music and ritual remain important communicative processes; cultures are able to retain their culture thanks to the complex metaphors within myth.  Because they can’t record their culture in a written form, alternative forms of ‘knowledge transferral’ are adopted; what I call ‘communicative musicality’ is often used as a tool to remember their ‘cultural texts’ in the form of rhyme and song. Undoubtedly, Lessing’s African roots and her knowledge of the nomadic cultures that live there were influential to her creation of the contrasting cultural groups present in this novel.  The importance of myth within her work can also be ascribed to the influence of the writings of Shah and notions specific to Sufi mysticism.  This particular approach evokes simultaneously a truly philosophically inquisitive attitude to reality and the importance of myth.


Myth can and has been related to musicality, particularly in the structuralism of Lèvi-Strauss.  Lèvi-Strauss’ approach to the analysis of myths discounts their narrative form in favour of identifying their component parts, in the spirit of the Russian Formalism of his mentor Jakobson. The ‘mytheme’ he developed is analogous to the phoneme in linguistics which he considers to be a purely differential and contentless sign. These elements are linked by the principles of metaphor and metonymy, of syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations. The language of myths is, then, an unconscious one, rather similar in his view to that of the genetic code: far from being the consciously-created stories of individual narrators, they operate in men’s minds without them being aware of the fact, helping to explain the return of archetypal mythical content in potentially unrelated cultures displaced from each other in a temporal and/or spatial sense. Lévi-Strauss and Music: Music has provided a significant analogy, for example in The Raw and the Cooked where the temporal unfolding of music (and by analogy the narrative unfolding of myths) is subordinate to the structural principles which unite a piece of music, and link it to other pieces.


As far as myths are concerned, Lessing’s adoption of archetypes or archetypal structures related to specific aspects concerning the development of the Self and the Other can be traced back to early influence from Freud and Jung who were delving their ways into the human psyche through psychoanalytical means.  Later, Lessing would find other, less ‘orthodox’ or at least traditionally accepted means through her adoption of the mystical Sufi teachings find an equally interesting way into the psyche.  Singleton discusses the importance of myth to providing individuals with social lessons.


"For example, in a contemporary society of individuals alienated by their private egos, humankind needs the lesson of traditional myth, which is social rather than personal; it affirms the solidarity of mankind and the patterns that are common to everyone.  And myth is more emotional than conceptual, as is most literature: the image replaces argument.  As dreams alert one to psychic imbalance, Lessing uses myth as antidote and warning, a signal that modern society has taken the wrong path in turning away from older wisdom.”

(Singleton, 1977: 69)


There are many important aspects of myth that in an intradiscursive sense refer across the board to different types of human experience.  One of the most important involves the temporal journey which one takes, connecting music and narrative in a unique way.  Poetic language, with its rhythmic structures, is the most common way to compare music and poetry, although the nature of temporality itself, the concept of getting from one place (the beginning) to the another (the end, climax or finale) which is shared by both narrative and music, a universal form of intradiscursive communication appearing in epic narratives such as the Mahabharata or Homer’s poetic works like The Odysseus.  Lessing suggests that there are ancient forms of narrative, symbols and myths which still remain part of the psyche, and it is through ‘dreaming’ and other ways of exploring that ‘Other’ part of our consciousness can provide us with access to that information. In addition to this temporal aspect that relate to how the story is told or the music is played, the narratives themselves share important aspects some of which are considered to be universal and cross intradiscursive boundaries.  Chatwin describes the nature of these narratives:


"Every mythology has its version of the 'Hero and his Road of Trials', in which a young man, too, receives a 'call'.  He travels to a distant country where some giant or monster threatens to destroy the population.  In a superhuman battle, he overcomes the Power of Darkness, proves his manhood, and receives his reward: a wife, treasure, land, fame.”

(Chatwin: 241-2)


The nature of myth reminds us one of the common points connecting narrativity and musicality: temporality.  In many of their traditional functions, a temporal journey is made, often following structures that are recognisable from other works.  Usually both a musical and a literary narrative begin with an opening move through a development and then reach a climax.  This is in no way universal; some forms of music (such as the Javanese) are cyclical in nature, just as narrative can involve alternative structural elements such as recurrence, but still occidental readers generally have a set of expectations towards both types of temporal experience. Argyros comments on this function: given the universality of narratival structures, both in everyday discourse and in the myths, cosmologies and fictions generated by all human futures, we must assume that the world is sufficiently causal to offer a species able to present it in narratival forms a selective evolutionary advantage (Argyros, 1991: 662).  Argyros also points out the fact that human time and narrative are essentially futural in that they thrust us towards the future in every moment we realise; according to Argyros, this makes humans “the most flexible and generalized biological organism” (ibid. 664).  Like Heidegger’s Dasein, every moment as it is realised thrusts us into the future, propelling us towards what will come, suggesting another comparison between music, time and narrative. 


For many theorists, however, musicality is something associated with modernity because of the common realisation ‘art for art’s sake’; music shares an abstract and often non-referential function; Lodge comments on the fact that one of modernism’s favourite slogans was the assertion that “all art constantly aspires to condition of music – music being, of all the arts, the most pure form, the least referential, a system of signifiers without signifieds, one might say” (1981: 5).  The type of ‘musicality’ that interest us here consists of our innate abilities to make sense of an environment in a musical fashion; it is considered as one of the entirely contrasting ‘discourses’ which intradiscursive works can allude to.  Musicality functions as a basic human cognitive process from birth, providing us with the skills to be able to move sympathetically through time with an other, assisting us in making ‘musical’ sense of our environments, and our experience here that much more pleasurable.  Musicality can be present all around us; it changes the way we perceive experience (e.g. if we look at four chairs around a table, we experience it as a pattern). I call this ‘Communicative Musicality’.  The elements of Communicative Musicality are pulse (the use of regular timing in vocalisation and gesture to allow co-ordination of interaction), quality (the use of shape and timbre in the pitch contours of vocalisations, and shape of bodily gestures, for establishing reciprocity) and narrative (the combination of pulse and quality in the joint-performance between people).  Because of the presence of ‘Communicative Musicality’ in Lessing’s work, it often attracts musicians (Lessing: 1997).  The English Patient Ondaatje also demonstrates a ‘musical’ fashion in the poetic way the narrative is presented.  There are of course the many times where musical works are referred to, and where he comments on the musical nature of language.  The very nature of the poetic presence of the present tense also feels at times highly ‘musical’.


In my recent book on Music as Episteme, Text, Sign & Tool (2002), I defined musicality as tool that can help people perceive of temporality and spatiality, and that cultural difference set in different spatial environments can produce very different ‘musical’ tools.  Chatwin, in his conversation with a Russian-Australian immigrant, suggests that the Anglo-Saxon episteme does not know how to encompass space, explaining why most white Australians avoid the desert—what will be described as an essentially ‘rhizomatic’ structure—in order to live in staid environments where lots of other like-minded people live. 


" 'Pity we didn't get here first,' he said.

'We the Russians?'

'Not only Russians,' he shook his head. 'Slavs, Hungarians, Germans even.  Any people who could cope with wide horizons.  Too much of this country went to islanders.  They never understood it.  They’re afraid of space.

'We', he added, 'could have been proud of it.  Loved it for what it was.  I don’t think we’d have sold it off so easily.’ ”

(Chatwin: 142)


We could also add that the musical sense of ‘space’ so integral to Aboriginal musicality, then, makes the vastness of the land far easier to encompass.  In this work, I try to suggest that Lessing and Ondaatje try to use music and mythology in an intradiscursive sense to encompass space.  It is interesting to note that the word melody itself comes from the Greek word for ‘limb’ (melos), suggesting that melody was initially associated with movement, and possibly nomadic cultures.


For Australian Aboriginals, there is an essential connection between temporality, spatiality, music, song and existence; during the ‘dreamtime’ the ancestors ‘sung’ the world into being – it is thanks to a complex set of songs spread across the geographical space that makes up Australia that Australia exists at all.  Each of these ‘songs’ refers to ‘geographical references’ and music is essentially “a memory bank for finding one’s way about the world” (Chatwin: 120)   I hope to demonstrate how Lessing, Ondaatje and others make use of some of this wisdom to create narratives which contain so much more than simply the set of words which they consist of.  It is thanks to intradiscursivity that a work moves from being simply a novel with a set of themes to being unexplainably ‘sublime’ in the postmodern sense.



4. INTRADISCURSIVITY: model for sensual knowledge                                   


When there are more than one communication form used simultaneously, requiring the reader to think ‘polyphonically’, then the user is not only crossing discourses, but entire communication systems.  Intradiscursivity is common in poetry, where the reader is required to approach the language on at least two levels, the first, the contents of the poem, and secondly the way the text is structured, i.e. if it rhymes, what sort of rhythm it creates, and if not, what other aesthetic systems are used to piece the words together.  Forster refers to this aspect of language in novel writing as the ‘rhythm’ (Lodge, 1981: 6), although in realistic works this aspect is usually hidden from the reader in the light of the narrative and the politics of the plot which receive prominence.  Intradiscursivity implies a union, however, between the different discourses, a unique relationship which leads to the reader gaining a greater insight into a work’s expression, some of which are inexplicable with words alone.  In the works we’ll be looking at the author makes use of devices which lay an alternative accent on two or more contrasting forms of discursive communication, suggesting the adoption of ‘intradiscursive environments’ to represent states not expressible in traditional forms of narrative.  The major texts I’ll be looking at include Ondaatje’s The English Patient, Lessing’s, The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974), and Chatwin’s The Songlines.  In works like The English Patient, and Memoirs of a Survivor (one of the works belonging to her ‘inner-space’ period), the authors demonstrate their belief that it is through the voices of those who have ‘alternative’ ways of interpreting reality (such as Kip in The English Patient) that many of the truths ‘rational’ society attempts to block out are leaked back into our society like those present in myths and fairy tales.  The non-verbal and the musical of ‘inner-space’ fiction and the dream-like combination of contrasting narratives in The English Patient become the means to realise mythical and universal themes.


I have labelled these narrative structures intradiscursive because they involve more than just the intertwining of a number of discourses simultaneously; they point constantly outside the text towards totally contrasting forms of discursive communication, as I hope I have already demonstrated in the introduction above; the ultimate intention is to develop towards a ‘radical hermeneutics’ to encompass such texts.  Intradiscursive refers means and methods of interpretation which communicate, often simultaneously, on planes such as the musical and mythical.  Referring to a new approach to text where the ‘reader’ is empowered in the dynamic process of literary semiosis, Barthes created the ‘authorly’ and the ‘readerly’ axis between which texts could be interpreted; the more towards the authorly, the more power the author has over interpretation and signification, whereas in readerly textuality, the reader interacts with the text, and is seen to provide his or her own set of significations.  Intradiscursive texts, however, are ‘radically’ readerly, requiring a ‘radical’ textuality[5] when considered in this fashion, and I will be attempting to demonstrate how this is realized in the works mentioned above.


Perhaps a notion which helps make better sense of the interdiscursive acts which connect simultaneously a number of different levels of discourse are the journeys taken across Australia in Aboriginal myth; Chatwin demonstrates that the artworks are ‘action paintings’ in the sense of abstract expressionist painters who take a physical journey.  Their artwork is characterised by dots and lines which signify different steps on the journey and the places reached.  McGregor, further, discusses the importance of the structure of aboriginal narratives while they are told; Aboriginals simultaneously draw dots and lines in the sand while they are telling the stories as described below:


"Most of us have heard an artist describe the meaning of his painting in terms of the movement of mythical beings between places (usually waterholes), which are represented by the concentric circles, along paths represented by the interconnecting lines.  At various points along the journey things happen: secret/sacred corroborees or ceremonies are held, other groups of beings are met, and/or conflicts of various sorts take place.”

(McGregor, 1987: 20)


This means that forms of Aboriginal textuality are essentially influenced by both the active motion of illustration and the spaces they evoke.  McGregor also discusses other disparate points which help the text signify to aboriginals which are related to the complex temporal nature of the textuality which has a number of time segments running simultaneously, in addition to the active involvement of the reader in the story who draws the lines and segments in the sand to provide an extra level of significance to the listeners.  Here the term ‘journey’ can be considered on a number of different temporal, spatial and physical levels.  This notion is confirmed by Chatwin: “… so the Aboriginal mother makes drawings in the sand to illustrate the wanderings of the Dreamtime heroes” (Chatwin: 23).  In another important discussion bringing the notions of musicality and mythology together in a unique way uniting it with the important Aboriginal ‘journey myths’ or Songlines, Chatwin comments upon the journey-like nature of Aboriginal narratives, and he also compares the spatiality of Australia to a musical score:


"In theory, at least, the whole of Australia could be read as a musical score.  There was hardly a rock or creek in the country that could not or had not been sung.  One should perhaps visualize the Songlines as a spaghetti of Iliads and Odysseus, writhing this way and that, in which every ‘episode’ was readable in terms of geology.”

(Chatwin: 16)


5. RHIZOME: nomadic cultures and the nature of the desert                                 


One of the basic topics that interests Lessing in all three works is the role of language in the formation of human identity in both an epistemological and an ontological sense.  In the three works being discussed, she presents this interest in contrasting ways, in all cases accepting language as an important means of symbolic representation which is realised by contrasting cultures in different ways.  She discusses, however, far more than simply the words as symbols of objects, but the complex ways culture use these symbolic systems to perpetuate their culture.  An excerpt from a letter she sent suggests that Lessing has a broader interest beyond these three novels in language and cultural perpetuation.  Here she suggests that our ‘language’, the basic unit on which our epistemological system is based, restricts the way we confront our world:


"Someone said recently that perhaps this starts in the nursery with: A stands for Apple.  B stands for Bee.  The infant’s mind (our minds) are perverted from that moment.  A is for apple, arsenic, anguish, aptitude, Allah, the Almighty, animal and anthrax, and so on.”

(Lessing, 1983: 2)


Verbal language is evidently significant to Lessing, and as in earlier works, she demonstrates her legacy to the great tradition behind occidental writing, although in these novels something which cannot be depicted in this way is represented; verbal language in a traditional sense is transcended and the reader is left to make his or her decision about what actually starts when the language stops.  Although Lessing has been considered a ‘feminist’ by her critics, she does not intend it to be one of the levels communicating interdiscursively from a woman’s perspective or her as other.  She does not share Iragary’s opinion, for example, that language is a tool for man’s pleasure or suggest that silence and/or music (like in the work of Duras[6]) are the outlet of true femininity; man and woman alike have the power to achieve transcendence through communication systems such as language and music. For Lessing, then, it is clear that the limits of language are translated in different ways by a variety of methods deeply embedded in what I will define as a ‘rhizomatic’ structure of the human subconscious: when words stop, metaphor can begin.  From fieldwork in Indonesia and my knowledge of Aboriginal Australian cultures, metaphor is evidently an essential part of preliterate, partially literate and nomadic cultures.  Language becomes the means for metaphor, and the words for the songs, but it is thanks to the intradiscursive level that this translinguistic approach can be comprehended.  This is, perhaps, a radical development on Barthes’ notion of ‘readerly’ texts where the reciter and the participants dynamically work together to produce a meaning-bearing textual environment. 


Deleuze & Guattari first describe the rhizome in terms of natural metaphors, not linguistic, although a language itself can be a rhizome if it is not considered in terms of a Saussurian Parole (an ideal linguistic whole); they present first the ideal image of the ‘tree’ which has formed a sturdy foundation for occidental culture since the Middle-Ages, just as the equally ideal concept of the ‘roots’ heading in the opposite direction have helped us form foundational ideas relating to subjects such as the genealogy of a family.  The rhizome, however, is everything which the tree in all its forms, is not.  According to Deleuze & Guatari, bulbs and tubers are rhizomes, and “even some animals are in their pack form” such as rats (1987: 6-7).  A rhizome may be broken as it is made up of lines, whereas the ‘tree’ cannot as it is made of up points which have been mapped; it demands, therefore, being put back together in the same way it was taken apart.  The ‘tree’ is very much the ideal ‘made out of reality’ whereas the rhizome is a practical realization of the far more complex structures put out by reality itself.  If a rhizome is ‘broken’, it will start up again on “one of its old lines, or on new lines (ibid: 9).  We form a rhizome with our languages, but also with other less predictable systems, such as viruses, structures we don’t necessarily have control over.  An interesting and important notion is that of the book.  According to Deleuze & Guattari, the book doesn’t produce an ‘image’ of the world, or map out a set of points; it has a dynamic relationship with reality in a textual sense: the book forms a rhizome with the world it ‘reproduces’.  Music, which can also be seen as a type of discourse, is a rhizome.  When it is realised as musicality in an environment, there is no other way for its dynamism to receive expression, but even when it is coded in a structure that attempts to ‘arborify’ it (turn it into a ‘tree model a la Deleuze), it ruptures these codes (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987: 11-12).  Music is a map, it is the entire discourse; a score attempts to be its tracing which is another important term from Deleuze & Guattari.  The tracing is an attempt to arborify a rhizome: “it has organized, stabilized, neutralized the multiplicities according to the axes of significance and subjectification belonging to it” (ibid: 13).  When it thinks it is reproducing a rhizome by copying something else, it is only copying itself; even though ‘postmodernism’ in the works it is expressed and the interdiscursive form it makes use of may be a rhizome, our interpretations of it in many ways can never become much more than ‘tracings’. 


According to Deleuze & Guattari’s model, the landscape of the East and the West are also rhizomatic contrasts in that the ‘forest’ of Europe is the ‘tracing’ whereas the plateau-like structures emblematic of the East is very much a rhizome.  I would like to suggest that the all encompassing nature of the desert, such an important part of The English Patient, as well as the nomadic cultures that live within it, are very rhizomatic in structure.  The desert is very much a system ‘in action’; it cannot be ‘photographed and reproduced’ in the way static landscapes of the West can; in this novel, the total loss of the plane when it is literally ‘stolen’ by the dynamism of the desert (and eventually returned) is an important plot device.  For Deleuze & Guattari, a rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always “in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo" (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987: 25).  As the author makes clear in his use of the present tense and of situations involved with the ‘now’ such as bomb defusing, The English Patient has one foot in Dasein and the other in ‘story-telling’ so important to nomadic cultures. As illustrated in Ondaatje’s novel, the ontology of the desert is one of constant change; it is unpredictable and in motion.  What is one day a plain can become a mountain; what one day supports you can bury you the next; it is a frighteningly unpredictable environment. 


"I have lived in the desert for years and I have come to believe in such things.  It is a place of pockets.  The trompe l’oeil of time and water.  The jackal with one eye that looks back and one that regards the path you consider taking.  In his jaws are pieces of the past he delivers to you and when all of that time is fully discovered it will prove to have been already known.”

(ibid.: 259)


Oral culture in a similar fashion, such as the Bedouin in The English Patient, are very much part of the rhizome.  The way they communicate, pass on knowledge; they way they make use of their memories to inculcate information to following generations, follows a totally contrasting set of rules to that of ‘literate’ culture of the west, often leading as it has to intercultural misunderstanding.  The intention is to demonstrate how Ondaatje uses intradiscursivity to make this rhizomatic environment accessible to his readers.


Memoirs of a Survivor, paying its tribute to those who want give up their existing ‘permanency’ and hit the road in a nomadic lifestyle, is also very much involved with a similar rhizomatic ontology.  Emily’s longing to be carried, at least according to Chatwin, is another instance of the important desire to be in motion: apparently scientific tests have proved that the motion involved with carrying a baby and walking is what will essentially put it to sleep, explaining the ‘rocking of the cradle’.  Chatwin suggests that this migratory urge as an essential part of being human:


"Could it be, I wondered, that our need for distraction, our mania for the new, was, in essence, an instinctive migratory urge akin to that of birds in autumn?"

(Chatwin: 181)


6. CONCLUSION: The English Patient as intradiscursive model                                           


To conclude this article, I would like to comment on the subtlety of intradiscursive processes made use of in Ondaatje’s The English Patient.  It refers to alternative communication systems through describing the way other cultures are able to pass on and retain enormous amounts of knowledge, often thanks to their other senses, including smell and taste.  An important part of intradiscursivity is involved with making use of the other senses, and although this may be impossible in the novel form, evoking sounds, smells and tastes is the next best thing.  Interculturality is also significant in this regard to intradiscursivity; by providing an insight into how another culture works, new concepts about communication are passed on to the reader. 


"The Bedouin were keeping me alive for a reason.  I was useful, you see.  Some there had assumed I had a skill when my plane crashed in the desert.  I am a man who can recognise an unnamed town by its skeletal shape on a map.  I have always had information like a sea in me.  I am a person who if left alone in someone’s home walks to the bookcase, pulls down a volume and inhales it.  So history enters us.  I knew maps of the sea floor, maps of the sea floor, maps that depict weaknesses in the shield of the earth, charts painted on skin that contain the various routs of the Crusades.”

(Ondaatje: 18)


The character stuck in a burnt and broken body of The English Patient is important because he has a special and remarkable skill, one that allows him to truly understand concepts like knowledge transferral in oral cultures and the desert itself; alienated from western culture, he is continually drawn back to the desert which remains until the end un unexplainable enigma.  Books are used as tools to act metaphorically to describe some of the inner-workings of the characters.  The English patient’s book is none less than The Histories by Herodotus of Parnassus; this is an interesting choice because it comes from the bridge between the cultures of the literate Ancient Greece and the inhabitants of the desert. It is however made more ‘oral’ by the patient himself who has filled his volume with pieces of his life, becoming with it a rhizome.


Essentially, the book is about telling-stories, sometimes tragic ones, and remembering them, sometimes incorrectly; it concerns the rhizomatic nature of human memory.  When he is finally able to relate the story of Katherine’s death, he does so with imagery from oral cultures.


"I leaned forward and with my tongue carried the blue pollen to her tongue.  We touched this way once.  Nothing happened.  I pulled back, took a breath and then went forward again.  As I met the tongue there was a twitch within it.

Then the terrible snarl, violent and intimate, came out of her upon me.  A shudder through her whole body like a path of electricity.  She was flung from the propped position against the painted wall.  The creature had entered her and it leapt and fell against me.   There seemed to be less and less light in the cave.  Her neck flipping this way and that.

I know the devices of a demon.  I was taught as a child about the demon lover.  I was told about a beautiful temptress who came to a young man’s room.  And he, if he were wise, would demand that she turn around, because demons and witches have no back, only what they wish to present to you.  What had I done?  What animal had I delivered into her?  I had been speaking to her I think for over an hour.  Had I been her demon lover?  Had I been Madox’s demon friend?  This country—had I charted it and turned it into a place of war?

It is important to die in holy places.  That was one of the secrets of the desert.  So Madox walked into a church in Somerset, a place he felt had lost its holiness, and he committed what he believed was a holy act.”

(Ondaatje: )


By providing us with insights into alternative cultures, and thanks to the musicality evoked through the poetic structure of the work, The English Patient becomes a sublime piece of literature that communicates in ways that transcend the word alone.  Both The English Patient and The Memoirs of a Survivor adopt intradiscursive environments and to this end become sublime works of communication.










BARTHES, Roland (1982a) “The Death of the Author,” in: Image Music Text, S. Heath (trans.), Fontana Paperbacks, London: 142-148.


BARTHES, Roland (1982b) “From the Work to the Text,” in: Image Music Text, S. Heath (trans.), Fontana Paperbacks, London: 73-81.


DELEUZE, G. & GUATTARI, F. (1987) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.


CHATWIN, Bruce The Songlines


FOUCAULT, Michel (1990) The History of Sexuality: Volume 1 – Introduction, Random House, New York.


FRIEDBURG, Anne (1993) Window Shopping: cinema and the postmodern, University of California Press, Berkeley.


HUTCHEON, Linda (1989) The Politics of Postmodernism, Routledge, London & New York.


JAMESON, Frederic (1997) Postmodernism, or, the cultural logic of late capitalism, Duke University Press, Durham.


LACAN, Jacques (1977) The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth.


LASKEWICZ, Zachar (2002) Music as Episteme, Text, Sign & Tool, Saru Press, San Francisco & Brussels.


LESSING, Doris (1982) The Memoirs of a Survivor


LESSING, Doris (1983) Letter to Prof. Dr. Bryant Stokes: 1-2.


LESSING, Doris (1997) Personal letter to Dr. Zachar Laskewicz: 1.


LEVI-STRAUSS  (?) The Raw and the Cooked


LODGE, David (1981) Working With Structuralism: essays and reviews on nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature, Routledge, London.


LYOTARD, Jean-François (1983) The Postmodern Condition: a report on knowledge, Manchester University Press, Manchester.


McCREGOR, (1987)


MULVEY, Laura (1989) Visual and Other Pleasures, MacMillan Press, Houndmills.


VONNEGUT, Kurt (1969) Slaughterhouse Five



[1] Name of article here.

[2] David Gladwell, Memoirs of a Survivor (

[3] Barthesian reference.

[4] It is interesting to note that on the back-cover of Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle also refers to the fact that the author has been in and out of ‘inner-space’.

[5] Refer to Tel Quel and personal significations of these terms.

[6] A couple of works here from Duras.





© May 2008 Nachtschimmen Music-Theatre-Language Night Shades, Ghent (Belgium)*
Send mail to zachar@nachtschimmen.eu with questions or comments about this website.

September 27 2013.



Major Writings