In one of her autobiographical sketches, collected in the appropriately entitled and posthumously published volume Pictures and Conversations (1974), Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973) writes about adolescence as a kind of affliction, a nasty disease, the “onslaught” of which she herself was fortunately spared:
I never did have adolescence at all badly. Chicken-pox, measles, German measles, mumps, whooping-cough in turn took their toll of me, and heavily, but with the last of those my afflictions ceased. Adolescence apparently, by-passed me—or if I ever did have it, I got off light ... At around sixteen I dabbled in introspection, but hardly more. Tormenting nameless disturbances, conflicts, cravings were not experienced by me. I had never heard of them.
The sentence closing this passage is telling. Bowen at once acknowledges what we have, post-deconstruction, learned to recognize as the discursive construction of (gendered) subjectivity, in one or all of its modulations (among which, crucially, at least in Western cultures, that of adolescence) and points up the complex interrelations between meaning and materiality, between signification and corporeality, in the experience of (one’s) self. Bowen takes this founding constructivist notion a step further, however, by including not only formalized thought and ideologemes into the (discursive) “constitutive outside,” but also that which remains “nameless,” i.e., the “disturbances, conflicts, cravings” commonly associated with adolescence. Feelings one has never heard of, she appears to suggest, will not be part of one’s experience, will not go into the making of one’s self, but once one has heard of them, once they have been articulated, they become available to one’s consciousness, either to embrace and incorporate into one’s being—perhaps more accurately: into one’s becoming—or, indeed, to be (retroactively) rejected.
Bowen’s claim to imperviousness with regard to the “onslaught” of adolescence may strike readers familiar with even only a few of her works as somewhat puzzling. For throughout a writing career that spanned forty years, in which she published ten full-length novels, dozens of short stories, a history of her family, many critical, and varied shorter, journalistic essays, Bowen was obsessed with children and adolescents. The figure of, especially, the female adolescent is of such central importance to her work that one of its earliest permutations has occasionally been hailed by critics as a “prototype” that would set the pattern for all of the author’s subsequent heroines, irrespective of their age. I will discuss several instantiations of the typical Bowen protagonist in a moment.
Bowen’s dismissal of the phenomenon of adolescence with respect to her own pre-adult experience is thus quite remarkable, even more so because for her the distinction between fact and fiction, imagination and reality, is impossible to maintain. In her essay “Out of a Book” (1946), for example, the author admits to having “layers of synthetic experience” and concedes that the “most powerful of [her] memories are only half true.” Such “layers of fictitious memory,” she explains, are the result of the “overlapping and haunting of life by fiction,” a process that began for her at an early age, and that clearly complicates any traditional distinction between the imaginary and the real, between fact and fiction, or, in effect, between meaning and being. Bowen’s recognition that such layers of fictitious memory “densify as they go deeper down,” in that they find their origins in a moment way “before there was anything to be got from the printed page,” additionally locates the joint emergence of these two modalities of the (experience of) self, in their very inextricability, in a moment before before she could read, before articulation, and thus in a preverbal domain: in the domain of perception and sensation, rather than that of (conscious) thought or discourse. As such, the early aesthetic encounters with stories and pictures in books, quite literally constitute the “structures of feeling"  from which, she acknowledges, “today’s chosen sensations and calculated thoughts” continue to arise (MT 49). These reflections on the intermingling of preverbal and verbal, inarticulate and articulate thoughts and feelings indicate that Bowen’s attitude towards adolescence, in life as in fiction, is rather more complex than her emphatic rejection of its afflictions in the former may, at first glance, convey. What her comments on adolescence do indisputably suggest, however, is that feelings, as much as thoughts and ideas, are fundamentally social in character, hence culturally present even if not fully acknowledged, and, as such, available to our experience as aesthetic objects in, among others, literary texts.
What I wish to do in this essay, is to bring together the constitutive operations of language (or discourse) and the critical function of feelings in questions of meaning and be(com)ing, by connecting the figure of the unruly adolescent in Bowen with the equally erratic operations of her writing, with her novels as aesthetic events. In simultaneously drawing on some of her non-fictional works, I do not mean to suggest that one form of writing can and should serve as a hermeneutic source of the other; that one is “truer” than the other; or that one can find some kind of “real” Bowen in the latter that may serve as an explanatory ground for the former. Rather, by not drawing a clear line dividing fiction from non-fiction I assume that the difference between them is one of degree rather than kind. As Bowen herself submits, any form of writing is bound to be “transposed autobiography,” at however many removes. Both forms of writing form part of the expressive inscription of thoughts and feelings that jointly co-produce the author-effect of Elizabeth Bowen: a discursive and aesthetic production that is, in fact, ongoing—at least as long as readers and critics will engage with her work. My purpose, therefore, is not to speculate on the author’s “real life” (non)experience of the phenomenon, but to posit adolescence as a particular structure of feeling that, in the assemblage of Bowen’s writing, at once mobilizes the stylistic operations of her prose and that, no less forcefully, (over)determines the singularity and materiality of her novels’ aesthetic effects.
On the one hand, I suggest, Bowen’s fascination with children and adolescents, as “sensationalists,” has to do with her insight into young persons’ ability to read “deeply, ravenously, unthinkingly, sensuously,” before the “brain is to stand posted between his [sic] self and the story,” and the loss of such a primary sensibility, or “virgin susceptibility” is compromised (MT 49)−even if it is not ever fully supplanted by the desire for meaning, for form, “to be unmistakably demarcated, to take shape” as an adult human being, as a subject [emphasis in orig.] (P&C 58/9). An avowed “sensationalist” herself, the author incessantly returns to that which has not become quite lost, that which can be “unconsciously remembered,” the “magic stored up in those years,” the pre-cognitive, affective dimensions of being or becoming that are essential to life: “Probably children, if they said what they thought, would be much franker about the insufficiency of so-called real life to the requirements of those who want to be really alive” (MT 49).
On the other hand, it should be noted that, in her refusal to draw a clear line between fact and fiction or between imagination and reality, Bowen reverses the terms in relation to which such distinctions are conventionally cast. Her insistence on the “continuity … between living and writing” hence does not mean that the characters in her novels originate in real life: “If anything, the contrary was the case” (P&C 58). Whereas “persons playing a part in [her] life … had about them something semi-fictitious,” the characters in her stories, as soon as they “made themselves known” to her, were “instantly recognisable, memorable, from then on”:
Nominally “imaginary,” these beings made more sense, were more convincing, more authoritative as humans, than those others, consisting of flesh-and-blood, that I had wasted years in failing to know. (P&C 58)
Trying to “know” humans, then, it seems, does not work very successfully through cognitive means, on a rational level, but rather requires the imaginary, the power of the imagination, which primarily works through aesthesis in the literal sense of perception and sensation. It is this belief in, or susceptibility to her (imaginary) characters’ creative force (“I became, and remain, my characters’ close and intent watcher: their director, never. Their creator I cannot feel that I was, or am…” (P&C 60)), which allows me to propose that the figure of the adolescent in Bowen’s work functions as an aesthetic object, or, even, an aesthetic event; an event or force which, in its singularity, inscribes itself not only in both the content and the form of her writings, expressing itself on the narrative level as much as in the style of her prose, but also, and this is what concerns me here, which imposes itself on us, her readers, in our own encounter with her novels’ unsettling operations.
Unsettling, because neither Bowen’s characters nor the narratives in which they obtain are necessarily reassuring, or even fully fathomable. On the contrary, as she continues her reflections on the relation between her own childhood reading and its effects on her living/writing:
The characters who came out of my childish reading to obsess me were the incalculable ones, who always moved in a blur of potentialities. It appeared that nobody who mattered was capable of being explained. Thus was inculcated a feeling for the dark horse. (MT 51)
This preoccupation with the “dark horse,” with characters that defy explanation, has not, at least not until recently, contributed to Bowen’s critical reputation. Her stories and novels often leave readers annoyed and exasperated, frustrated with the irreducible affectations of her style and with characters and events that at once invite us to project “meaning” onto them and that refuse to be captured in straightforwardly hermeneutic terms.
While considered one of the most prominent writers in her lifetime, Bowen has occasionally been dismissed as the author of modest drawing room dramas, or, as one critic would have it, “delicate small-scale post-Jamesian studies, mostly of children and adolescent girl." In her more recent, and much more thorough and appreciative study of Bowen’s novels, even Maud Ellman cannot but admit that the author's work is, decidedly strange: “Always entertaining−funny, moving, suspenseful … it is also profoundly disconcerting.” Positioning herself in the wake of a “larger reconsideration of the place of women writers on the map of modern literature,” Ellman’s careful close readings, informed as they are by psychoanalysis and deconstruction, primarily serve to contextualize Bowen’s writing in various literary traditions to “reveal unexpected affinities” with some, and “intertextual skirmishes” with other modernist writers−male and female, Irish, British, and European (Ellman xi). This overall purpose may explain why Ellman refers what she designates the “arresting oddness” of Bowen’s prose to the idiosyncratic blend of literary forms, and to the “reflexivity and the material intrusiveness” of her writing style, rather than to the author’s investment in the oddball character of the female adolescent (Ellman x). In an “estimation” predating the “overdue revival” of Bowen’s works of the past fifteen years or so (Ellman x), Hermione Lee offers a less approving gloss on Bowen’s mannered prose, by, in contrast, explicitly connecting what she regards as the failure of the early novels to the ungainliness they share with the author’s favorite character-type. Exempting Bowen’s second novel, The Last September (even though this also revolves around an adolescent girl) from her illuminating verdict, Lee writes: “The other early novels, like her own awkward adolescent characters, are rather affected.
Affected, odd, strange, awkward, and disconcerting. As qualifications of both a prose style and a peculiar character obsession, these terms suggest a convergence of the figure of the (female) adolescent and the operations of a feeling that I would like to qualify as obnoxiousness. In light of Bowen’s insistence on the creative force of fiction and on the “continuity between living and writing,” I propose the obnoxious as an unruly and disorderly feeling that equally obtains on the level of narrative events and in the operations of her language. While I have elsewhere focused on the queer potential of the figuration of adolescence in her work in sexual and gendered terms, I here foreground its operations as at once a structure of negative, uncontainable feeling—of unfeeling and of feeling anew—and as the site of unbecoming, or of becoming otherwise, of queering, that is to say, a dual and ambivalent force that is expressed in the performative process of aesthetic experience.
Obnoxiousness and adolescence would appear to go seamlessly together. Both are marked by a curious ambivalence. As a historically and culturally specific phenomenon, the inter-stage between childhood and adulthood takes up a peculiar position in our collective consciousness. The phrase “obnoxious adolescent” evokes culturally sanctioned, unpleasant behavior and wayward attitudes that in humans falling outside the category of adolescence, that is to say, as a distinct period of life that we have learned to define as one of transition, in-betweenness, and relative lawlessness, would be considered unacceptable and inappropriate. Actually, in its current usage, “obnoxious,” my various (online) dictionaries tell me, means anything ranging from extremely unpleasant, objectionable, and offensive, to disagreeable, nasty, distasteful, unsavory, unpalatable, awful, terrible, dreadful, revolting, repulsive, repellent, disgusting, odious, vile, foul, abhorrent, loathsome, sickening, hateful, insufferable, intolerable, detestable, abominable, despicable, and contemptible. Yet, in combination with adolescence, things do not seem nearly so bad. I may be wrong in my assessment here, but it seems clear that “we”−that is to say, so-called adults in the Western cultural hemisphere−tend to accept, endure, or forbear modes of being and behavior in unruly and unwieldy teenagers and youngsters that would provoke disapproval, protest, and punishment, if exercised by ourselves and other members of our age-group. Interestingly, these divergent assessment of the same type of behavior can be linked to the ambivalence at the heart of the word obnoxious itself. First emerging in the English language in the sixteenth century, obnoxiousness finds its origins in the Latin adjective obnoxiosus, meaning “vulnerable or exposed to harm.” It is only in the seventeenth century that it−both as a word, and as a state of being or a mode of behavior−became additionally associated with “noxious,” in the sense of harmful, pernicious, deadly, and unwholesome. Whereas, with respect to adolescence, “obnoxious” thus appears to have retained its original sense, its connotations in other contexts reflect the influence of the later associations.
Such etymological ambivalence is carried over into the contemporary notion of adolescence, which, it will be clear, is (and not only in Western cultures), an equally inherently contradictory phenomenon. Sociohistorically and culturally specific, adolescence is not the same as puberty. Different cultures assign different meanings to the biological transition from childhood to adulthood, and the period of adolescence may range from anywhere between ten to twenty-one years of age.
In the Grand Narratives of the West, the process of adolescence primarily serves to set subjects, male and female, on their way to a successful acquisition of one of two gender identities. Coming into one’s own as a qualified adult means to have accepted, adopted, and internalized a socioculturally viable identity as man or woman. The most immediately effective route to earning this certificate of social viability is to play one’s proper role in the plot of heterosexual romance, that is to say, in somewhat less attractive but more explicit terms, to subject oneself to the system of “compulsory heterosexuality,” or to assume one’s place in the “heterosexual matrix." In one constitutive moment, the initiation into the realm of carnal knowledge, if enacted in properly binary fashion, thus at once (re)establishes “natural” sexual difference and produces individual human beings in relation to its terms, i.e., as male and female subjects (before the law) and as ontologically stable, gendered human beings, as men and women. From the “invention” of sexuality in the eighteenth century onwards, but especially since the early twentieth century, pace Sigmund Freud, and a couple of decades later, Erik Eriksson, adolescence has come to be regarded as a crisis structure that serves to “discipline”−in a Foucaultian sense−the relatively un- or ambi-sexed child into gendered and sexualized adulthood defined in oppositional, binary terms. Intriguingly, in this scenario, is that, once one has eaten from the tree of knowledge, the entry into adulthood is irreversible. And it is this, I believe, that makes the obnoxious adolescent at once so attractive and disconcerting, especially, if not precisely, in the context of novelistic writing.
In an influential and largely psychoanalytically informed essay published in 1990, Julia Kristeva embraces the ambivalence of adolescence as “less an age category than an open psychic structure” that “opens itself to the repressed at the same time that it initiates the reorganization of the individual−thanks to a tremendous loosening of the superego." Kristeva links the open structure of the adolescent figure to the emergence of the open structure of the novelistic genre, which she describes as largely “tributory, in its characters and the logic of its actions, to the ‘adolescent’ economy of writing” (Kristeva 11). Not surprisingly, in view of the historical coincidence of their joint emergence, it is the novel, as opposed to the epic and the courtly romance, Kristeva goes on to claim, which allows for the imagination and inscription of “this in-between space, this topos of incompleteness that is also that of all possibilities, of the ‘everything-is-possible’” (Kristeva 14).
Where and when everything is possible, nothing is realized−or, at least, not yet. As a space of the not-yet, of the not-yet-being, of the not yet-being-anything-in-particular, and thus, as a site of indeterminacy and non-being, the figure of the adolescent is as abhorrent and repellent as it fascinating and attractive. In so-called real life, the adolescent, without the protection of a relatively stabilized gendered or sexualized identity, is a decidedly queer figure, and as such, at once alluring and vulnerable to harm. Yet, within prevailing systems of gender and sexuality, which critically depend on the determination and maintenance of clearly defined and definable modes of normative being, the site of the not-yet is simultaneously insufferable and unwholesome.
Bowen’s refusal to maintain a firm distinction between writing and living, between fiction and reality, in conjunction with Kristeva’s psychoanalytically informed ideas about the adolescent novel, encourage me to take the figure of the female adolescent beyond its significance as an unruly figuration of specific aspects of normative (sexual and gender) identities, however. What I would like to do instead, is to try to think the inherent ambivalence of the adolescent, or, more particularly, of the writing of adolescence within the open structure of the novel, as a figuration of a more fundamental, if not ontological site of unbecoming, of the dissolution and loss of subjectivity, but also as a zone of great intensity, of creative potential, and thus, simultaneously, as a topos “of all possibilities” and a locus of impossibility. The convergence of the contradictory valences that adolescence and obnoxiousness have in common allow me to elaborate on the operation of the figure of the queer/ing adolescent in Bowen’s work as not so much, or not only, a particular character type, but, as, suggested before, primarily a structure of feeling: an affective, animate and animating force that operates on pre-verbal, pre-subjective, pre-personal levels while yet being firmly grounded in the materiality of language.
Affect, in its simplest Deleuzian definition, is the ability to affect and be affected. Affect, in his writings, is aligned with intensity, with embodied indeterminacy, and hence distinct from emotion, which is “subjective content” or qualified intensity captured and fixed in language: that which can be recognized in signifying terms and henceforth defined as personal. The fact that affect is pre- or non-personal, a state of suspense running parallel, but not reducible to sociolinguistic capture or personal psychology, does not mean that affects are presocial, however. As Rosi Braidotti proposes, “affects are the body’s capacity to enter relations—to be affected,” and such relations—“the virtual links that a body forms with other bodies" are not restricted to intersubjective forms of affective exchange (empathy, love, hatred, disgust, etcetera). Instead, they cut across the boundaries between species, allowing for multiple, nonunitary, heterogeneous flows of affect in an ongoing process of becoming (other). Obnoxiousness, in its etymological ambivalence, and especially in its association with the embodied indeterminacy of adolescence, at once evokes the state of suspense, of potential disruption, and of the emergent, a site of all possibilities, that jointly define affect or intensity.
Obnoxiousness, unlike other forms of negative affect, such as anger, aggression, aggravation, is not in-your-face: you cannot simply fight off its effects by yelling, screaming, fighting, or defying it. Obnoxiousness lurks and lingers; it takes possession of you in stealthy ways, it permeates and affects you almost unnoticeably, until it is simply there, in you, toxic, nasty. As a structure of unpleasure, obnoxiousness contaminates, it clings. This, I suggest, is the expressive force of Bowen’s prose, as much as it is enacted by and in the figure of the unruly adolescent in her novels−most of them orphaned, or with no parent in sight, and thus bequeathed upon a fictional world in which they have no clear, formally recognizable place. Funny, entertaining, and moving they may be, but these figurations also produce what Ellman senses to be the “arresting oddness,” the disconcerting strangeness, indeed, the queerness characterizing the author’s prose.
Take, for example, the heroine of Bowen’s first novel, The Hotel (1927), Sydney Warren, “a probable twenty-two,” described as an over-intelligent and neurotic young woman, who does not really know what to do with the adult life facing her. The Hotel (on the Italian Riviera), which is the novel’s setting, comes across as a site immobilized in time and space, and as such, forms an adequate reflection of the protagonist's suspension in limbo. Despite her apparent state of dormancy, Sydney throws the entire company of British vacationers staying at the hotel into disarray, however, by attracting a great many suitors, male and female, whilst remaining indifferent, appearing to be “subject to a deplorable kind of paralysis” herself (H 12). Ellman quite rightly draws a parallel between Sydney’s “strange anaesthesia” (Ellman 141) and Lois Farquar, the protagonist of Bowen’s earlier-mentioned, second novel The Last September. Both girls, she maintains, are unable to “work [them]sel[ves] up into the passion traditionally required of a heroine.” Placing such inability within the overall structure of their respective narrative contexts, and within her own psychoanalytic interpretive perspective, Ellman infers from this that these, Bowen’s first two novels, do not so much “lack a subject of desire” as they “question the very possibility of a desiring subject” (Ellman 71). Andrew Bennett & Nicholas Royle, similarly, but along different lines, point to the disconcerting effects of Sydney’s “stillness,” her “interior quietness,” and the pervasive atmosphere of “abeyance” of the novel which, in their view, presents a “dissolution of writing in a dissolution of thought.” Underlining what I have suggested above, regarding Bowen’s insistence on the “continuity between living and writing,” the latter critics foreground the ways in which such a “dissolution” of writing in thought “in the first place” involves a “dissolution of the boundaries between so-called people in real life and characters in fiction” (Bennett & Royle 3). (A line of argument that they will, in the course of their fascinating reading of Bowen’s novelistic oeuvre, extend to include the “dissolution of the novel” as such).
While this is clearly not her immediate intention, Ellman’s view on Sydney’s and Lois’ “stillness,” on the operation of their characters as topoi of abeyance, allows us to see the function of the adolescent figure as, emphatically, not a subject of desire, but as a site of ambivalence, or a structure of feeling, and as such, as something that ultimately remains “incalculable,” defying explanation and/or articulation. Lois’ anxiety, when overhearing a conversation between her aunt Myra and a friend talking about her in the next room adequately reveals both the power of language in defining meaning and being and Bowen’s “dark horse” characters’ defiance of such power:
But when Mrs Montmorency came to: “Lois is very—“ she was afraid suddenly. She had a panic. She didn’t want to know what she was, she couldn’t bear to: knowledge of this would stop, seal, finish one. Was she now to be clapped down under an adjective, to crawl round lifelong inside some quality like a in a tumbler? (LS 83)
The figure of the adolescent, “moving in a blur of potentialities,” structures but does not carry meaning and actively resists finalization. As Bowen puts it in a comment on the protagonist of what is perhaps her best known novel, Portia in The Death of the Heart.
I have heard [The Death of the Heart], for instance, called a tragedy of adolescence. I never thought of it that way when I wrote it and I must say I still don’t see it in that way now. The one adolescent character in it, the young girl Portia seems to me to be less tragic than the others. She at least, has a hope, and she hasn’t atrophied. The book is really … a tragedy of atrophy, not of death so much as of death sleep. …. And the function of Portia in the story is to be the awake one, in a sense therefore she was a required character. She imports meaning rather than carries meaning.
As a similarly functional textual object, the figure of Sydney evokes rather than produces a response, from other characters as much as from the novel’s readers. She obtains, in short, as an aesthetic object under which humans can be assembled.
This is confirmed in Bowen’s observations in her earlier cited essay “Out of a Book,” about her own childhood reading, i.e., that “characters in the books gave prototypes under which, for evermore, to assemble all living people” (MT 51). As we have seen, Bowen considered figures and characters in books at once “more convincing, more authoritative as humans,” and, furthermore, in their incalculability and inexplicability, infinitely more compelling than actual human beings. Marking the constitutive or creative, if not the poietic power of fictional characters, these reflections suggest that it is not the possibility of a “desiring subject,” so much as the viability and/or desirability of subjectivity per se, that is at stake in our encounter with the figuration of adolescence qua aesthetic object.
Bowen’s writings point up the operation of what Kristeva defines as the open structure of the novel as a site of imagination and inscription: an “‘adolescent economy of writing,” in which everything is possible, nothing ever fully to be completed, a textual/aesthetic realm of indeterminacy. Instead of adopting this container model of the novel, as a space somehow already in existence, but always and ever ready to be newly inscribed, I prefer to approach novelistic writing as a specific kind of assemblage, in the sense suggested by Deleuze and Félix Guattari, in their opening comments on (and in) their second book of Capitalism and Schizophrenia, A Thousand Plateaus.
Generally speaking, an assemblage is any number of things (animate and inanimate, real and imaginary, material and immaterial) gathered into a single context. As such, it can bring about any number of effects—aesthetic, productive, destructive, consumptive, etcetera. A book equally constitutes such an assemblage with, potentially, any number of effects:
In a book, as in all things, there are lines of articulation or segmentarity, strata and territories; but also lines of flight, movements of deterritorialization and destratification. Comparative rates of flow on these lines produce phenomena of relative slowness and viscosity, or, on the contrary, of acceleration and rupture. All this, lines and measurable speeds constitutes an assemblage. A book is an assemblage of this kind, and as such is unattributable. It is a multiplicity—but we don't know yet what the multiple entails when it is no longer attributed, that is, after it has been elevated to the status of the substantive. (Deleuze & Guattari 3-4)
So described, the book is an untidy mixture of parts or pieces, a “blur of potentialities” in its own right, which is capable of producing a variety of effects, rather than a tightly organized and coherent whole generating one particular (set of) meaning/s. Lacking overall organization, an assemblage can attract and incorporate all sorts of disparate elements, so that a book, qua assemblage, can itself enter into new assemblages (with readers, other books, bookstores, and so on).
Bowen’s novels, in and of themselves assemblages of facts and fictions, incorporating disparate elements from both so-called real life, and from the imaginary domain in which the author learnt to dwell from an early age onwards, grant a privileged position to the indeterminate, the in-between space, the “dark horse” figure of the adolescent. Taken as not so much a character type−or even a prototype−but, instead as a distinct element in an assemblage with which we, as readers, forge our own connections, within an aesthetic object that affects us in any variety of ways, but also, if not primarily, on a visceral level (obnoxiousness clings, sticks, unconsciously), the obnoxious adolescent operates as a key, and, undeniably, as a creative force or function in the Bowenesque novelistic assemblage.
As a structure of feeling, a site or locus of attraction-cum-unpleasure, the adolescent in Bowen’s novels, we have seen, evokes decidedly contradictory, and not always altogether positive critical responses. As a disturbing, unwieldy element in a range of different narrative contexts such responses to the figuration of the obnoxious are neither surprising, nor to be deplored, let alone “rectified,” or corrected”: after all, a book is a “multiplicity” and as such enables, like all other things, “lines of flight, movements of deterritorialization and destratification” that can provoke any number of responses, produce any number of effects. The beauty of an assemblage is that it can and will always open up to new possibilities, newly “emergent properties.” Thus writes Jane Bennett, in an altogether different context, in her book Vibrant Matter, about assemblages:
Ad hoc groupings of diverse elements, of vibrant materials of all sorts. Assemblages are living, throbbing confederations that are able to function despite the persistent presence of energies that confound them from within...assemblages are not governed by any central head: no one materiality or type of material has sufficient competence to determine consistently the trajectory or impact of the group. The effects generated by an assemblage are, rather, emergent properties…(Bennett 24)
Bennett’s project, obviously, is very different from what I am trying think in this essay. I nonetheless believe that her supposition of the agency of assemblages, her proposal of material agency in order to counter the human exceptionalism that denies agency to anything or anyone not so defined, is helpful to approach the agency of the character of the adolescent, as a non-human, yet material force in the open structure of novelistic discourse. What I have been trying to get at in the preceding paragraphs, is a notion, or a conception of the novelistic character as not so much a copy of a human being, or a textual effect that resembles a human being, but rather as an element in an ad hoc, shifting configuration, a force field, or, in fact, an assemblage, whose expressive actualization is affective, and hence, ultimately, aesthetic in nature.
Nowhere is this more clear than in Bowen’s final novel, Eva Trout (1968), with its eponymous heroine as the Ur-model of many, if not all of her obnoxious predecessors, the disparate assemblage of other wayward children and adolescent girls that space constraints, alas, do not allow me to discuss. Eva Trout, orphaned and thus at large in the world, is both described as “larger than life,” and remains, in the words of Victoria Glendinning, “largely unexplained." Dismissed in 1981 by Hermione Lee as an “illustration of Elizabeth Bowen’s late malaise,” and as an “unfocussed and bizarre conclusion to her opus” (Lee 206), Eva Trout, in the eyes of Patricia Craig, proved that, at the end of her writing career, Bowen had “let her mannered manner run away with her,” while the novel’s “formidable” heroine, to her represents an “impossibly inflated version of the Bowen destructive innocent."
In contrast, several other of Bowen’s critics, including Ellman, Bennett & Royle, and myself, have offered different, if not necessarily more reassuring assessments of the novel and the figure of its “amazing, gawkish and overgrown” heroine (Bennett & Royle 140). Such critical dismissals as Lee’s and Craig’s nonetheless testify to the disconcerting effects of Eva Trout’s protagonist and the author’s prose, and furthermore expose the novel’s expressive power as an assemblage, whose effects are “emergent properties,” in which the “monstrous” adolescent figure functions as “vibrant material,” as an “element” with agentic power, rather than as a character-agent resembling a human being.
To be clear, Eva Trout is not a character with a recognizable “interiority”; she is not a subject endowed with thoughts or feelings, but exists, or comes into existence exclusively in her encounters with others−i.e., other characters (whose thoughts and feelings we, as readers, do, in fact, share) and every single one of whom she leaves profoundly affected. As the young, precocious vicar’s son Henry, points out to her:
“You know, Eva … you leave few lives unscathed. Or at least, unchanged...Ethically, perhaps, you’re a Typhoid Mary. You plunge people’s ideas into deep confusion...You roll around like some blind indeflectible planet. Sauve qui peut, those who are in your course.” (ET 196/7)
To be sure, these are the words of a character who actually likes Eva, and who is willing to participate in the staged event of their marriage at the end of the novel−an event that, even as a stage-act is never realized, because Eva’s adopted son Jeremy shoots her before the pair can embark on the train that is supposedly to take them on their honeymoon. Henry, young and “emergent” in his own right, is interested in Eva, or, rather, in how she makes him feel, a site of experience, as a singular structure of feeling, that is, as such, primarily aesthetic in nature.
Aesthetic experience, which need not be “good,” let alone edifying, or ethical, as Henry’s gloss on Eva’s being makes brilliantly clear, has to do with the way we feel in response to an object. Aesthetics engages affect and singularity, because it is preverbal, embodied, visceral, and comes before cognition. Aesthetic experience is thus not so much subjective as it draws the subject out of her/himself. The aesthetic encounter, in Stephen Shaviro’s words, is an “event, a process, rather than a condition and a state,” and, what is more, and particularly relevant to what I am suggesting here: “Aesthetic experience is a kind of communication without communion and without consensus” [emphasis in orig.]
As an element within the textual assemblage, a textual object in the “throbbing confederation” of novelistic discourse, the figure of the adolescent in Bowen functions as a lure that draws us out, without our consensus, without communication, and without communion. It remains disinterested in us, and our only interest lies in how it makes us feel. In aesthetic contemplation, Shaviro explains, “I don’t have particular feelings, so much as my very existence is suspended upon these feelings” (Shaviro 13). As a figuration of openness, incompleteness, unfinishedness, or even of unfinishability (after all, the textual adolescent never grows up, never leaves the space of in-betweenness behind) the adolescent figure lures us as a “locus of all possibilities,” of indeterminacy, of not-yet-being, and thus, I would say, as a figure of hope. As an aesthetic object, however, the unruly figuration in the novelistic assemblage animates us with feelings upon which our existence is suspended, feelings that, as subjects, we cannot ultimately outlive, and thus also makes us consciously aware of the very impossibility of subjectivity, of being (anything-in-particular), as a state or condition per se. To cite Shaviro one more time: “The subject is solicited by the feelings that comprise it; it only comes to be through those feelings. It is not a substance, but a process. And this process is not usually conscious; it only becomes so under exceptional circumstances” (Shaviro 12).
This, I submit in conclusion, is what happens in the experience of our aesthetic encounter with the figure of Bowen’s obnoxious, queer/ing adolescents. The figure’s utter ambivalence lies not so much in its sexual ambiguity−although this is clearly a central, and undeniable aspect of both its attraction and its repulsiveness−but in its operation as a structure of feeling, as a creative agent, animating us with feelings that we have not had before (and will not have again, at least not in exactly the same way). In this experience of becoming, of becoming otherwise, we are, at the same time, forced to reflect on the instability, the perishability, the factual impossibility of a stable, sustainable subjectivity as such−that is to say, and to be more precise, of our own subjectivity, with, perhaps, the unassimilable of/to ourselves. The unbecoming operations of the adolescent figure do not leave us unaffected, and, inscribed in the open structure of novelistic discourse, provide us with the exceptional circumstances under which we become conscious of this process. An obnoxious creature, indeed.
- Bennett, Andrew, & Nicholas Royle. Elizabeth Bowen and the Dissolution of the Novel. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 1995.
- Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2010.
- Bowen, Elizabeth. Eva Trout, or Changing Scenes. 1968. New York: Random House/Anchor Books, 2003.
- Bowen, Elizabeth. The Death of the Heart. 1938. New York: Random House/Anchor Books, 2000).
- Bowen, Elizabeth. 1929. The Last September. New York: Random House/Anchor Books, 2000.
- Bowen, Elizabeth. Afterthought. London: Longmans, 1962.
- Bowen, Elizabeth. The Mulberry Tree: The Writings of Elizabeth Bowen. Ed. Hermione Lee. San Diego, New York, & London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985.
- Bowen, Elizabeth. The Hotel. 1927. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984.
- Bowen, Elizabeth. Pictures and Conversations. London: Allen/Lane/Penguin Books, 1975.
- Bradotti, Rosi. Metamorphoses: Towards a Materialist Theory of Becoming Cambridge UK: Polity Press, 2002.
- Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York & London: Routledge, 1990.
- Craig, Patricia. Elizabeth Bowen. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986.
- Deleuze, Gilles, & Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. 1980. Trans. Brian Massumi: Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987. Rpt. 2003.
- Deleuze, Gilles. The Logic of Sense. 1969. Trans. Mark Lester, with Charles Stivale. Ed. Constantin V. Boundas. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.
- Ellman, Maud. Elizabeth Bowen: The Shadow Across the Page. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003.
- Erikson, Erik. Identity: Youth and Crisis. London: Faber and Faber, 1968.
- Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Vol. One: An Introduction. 1976. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.
- Freud, Sigmund. On Sexuality: Three Essays on Sexuality. 1905. Trans. & ed. James Strachey. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1953. Rpt. 1977.
- Glendinning, Victoria. Elizabeth Bowen: Portrait of Writer. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977.
- Hewitt, Douglas. English Fiction of the Early Modern Period. London: Longman, 1988.
- hoogland, renée c. A Violent Embrace: Art and Aesthetics after Representation. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2014.
- hoogland, renée c. “Unconscious Undertows: Queer Perspectives on Friends and Relations.” Recharting the Thirties. Ed. Patrick J. Quinn. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Press, Inc., 1996. 82-101.
- hoogland, renée c. Elizabeth Bowen: A Reputation in Writing. New York: New York University Press, 1994.
- Kristeva, Julia. “The Adolescent Novel.” Abjection, Melancholia, and Love: The Work of Julia Kristeva. Ed. John Fletcher and Andrew Benjamin. London & New York: Routledge, 1990.
- Lee, Hermione. Elizabeth Bowen: An Estimation. Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble Books/London: Vision Press, 1981.
- Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005)
- Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsive Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” 1980. Desire: The Politics of Sexuality. Ed. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, & Sharon Thompson. London: Virago, 1984. 212-41.
- Shaviro, Stephen. Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2009.
- Weeks, Jeffrey. Sexuality. 3rd ed. New York & London: Routledge, 2010.
- The title Pictures and Conversations is drawn from the first page of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, whose “play of sense and nonsense” invites Deleuze to call Carroll’s world a “chaos-cosmos” or “chaosmos.” See Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, ed. Constantin V. Boundas, trans. Mark Lester, with Charles Stivale (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990) xiii; Elizabeth Bowen, Pictures and Conversations (London: Allen/Lane/Penguin Books, 1975). Hereafter P&C followed by page numbers. The appropriateness of this title/reference to Carroll will hopefully become clear in the course of this essay.
Elizabeth Bowen, “Out of a Book,” in The Mulberry Tree: The Writings of Elizabeth Bowen, ed. Hermione Lee (San Diego, New York, & London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985) 48; 49. Hereafter MT followed by page numbers.
I am borrowing and slightly distorting Raymond Williams’ influential concept “structures of feeling” to foreground the activity of reading as a formative process, as an emergent event that always takes place in a specific present. Williams introduced the term to identify “changes of presence” in society as it is lived, and as distinct from already formed institutions and ideological formations. Structures of feeling, he writes, may be “emergent or pre-emergent, [but] they do not have to await definition, classification, or rationalization before they exert palpable pressures and set effective limits on experience and on action.” See Raymond Williams, “Structures of Feeling,” in Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977) 132. It is both these key inflections of the term that shed light on Bowen’s complex investments in the phenomenon of adolescence and that at the same time help us account for the uneasy and contradictory critical reception of her work.
Elizabeth Bowen, “Preface to Stories by Elizabeth Bowen, in Afterthought (London: Longmans, 1962) 78.
Douglas Hewitt, English Fiction of the Early Modern Period (London: Longman, 1988).
Maud Ellman, Elizabeth Bowen: The Shadow Across the Page (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003) x.
Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September (New York: Random House/Anchor Books, 2000). Hereafter LS followed by page numbers.
Hermione Lee, Elizabeth Bowen: An Estimation (Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble Books/London: Vision Press, 1981) 58.
Elsewhere, I make a crucial theoretical difference between feeling and affect, especially in relation to visual forms of art (see, e.g., A Violent Embrace: Art and Aesthetics after Representation (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2014). In order to allow for the aesthetic productivity of precisely the ambivalence characterizing both adolescence and obnoxiousness in a literary and narrative context, I here take Sianne Ngai’s lead in assuming that the difference between them is a “modal difference of intensity or degree, rather than a formal difference of quality or kind.” See, Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005) 27.
Adrienne Rich, “Compulsive Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” in Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, ed. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, & Sharon Thompson (London: Virago, 1984) 212-41.
Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York & London: Routledge, 1990) 5.
See, for instance, Jeffrey Weeks, Sexuality. 3rd ed. (New York & London: Routledge, 2010).
See, Sigmund Freud, On Sexuality: Three Essays on Sexuality, trans. & ed. James Strachey (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1953. Rpt. 1977).
Erik Erikson, Identity: Youth and Crisis (London: Faber and Faber, 1968).
Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. One: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1990).
Julia Kristeva, “The Adolescent Novel,” in Abjection, Melancholia, and Love: The Work of Julia Kristeva, ed. John Fletcher and Andrew Benjamin (London & New York: Routledge, 1990) 5.
Rosi Bradotti, Metamorphoses: Towards a Materialist Theory of Becoming (Cambridge UK: Polity Press, 2002) 104.
Elizabeth Bowen, The Hotel (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984) 11. Hereafter H followed by page numbers.
Andrew Bennett & Nicholas Royle, Elizabeth Bowen and the Dissolution of the Novel (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 1995) 2.
Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart (New York: Random House/Anchor Books, 2000).
Interview, Elizabeth and Jocelyn Brooke, “Broadcast transcribed from a telediphone recording 3rd October 1950,” MS (Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin).
Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987. Rpt. 2003).
Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2010).
Elizabeth Bowen, Eva Trout, or Changing Scenes (New York: Random House/Anchor Books, 2003). Hereafter ET followed by page numbers.
Victoria Glendinning, Elizabeth Bowen: Portrait of Writer (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977) 225.
PatriciaCraig, Elizabeth Bowen (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986) 135.
Steven Shaviro, Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2009) 4;6.