Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Adaptations and Palimpsests

Linda Hutcheon’s A Theory of Adaptation (2006, 2nd ed. 2013) offers the term “palimpsest” to describe the way we experience adaptations.  The term usually represents a manuscript (usually written on papyrus or parchment) on which more than one text has been written with the earlier writing incompletely erased.  She identifies adaptation as a form of intertextuality, in which we experience adaptations as palimpsests through our memory of other works that resonate through repetition with variation.  A palimpsestuous adaptation is an incestuous palimpsest of the original text.

Hutcheon’s arguments have been developed by Thomas Leitch, who argues that any adaptation is haunted by traces of many other texts.  The term palimpsestuous occurs where the history of a text, although partially erased, nonetheless leaves certain traces.  Hence adaptations are repetitions, bringing together the comfort of ritual and recognition with the delight of surprise and novelty.  They are repetitions with differences, spicing up familiar ideas with new interpretations.

I wonder what both Hutcheon and Leitch would make of Rick Whittaker’s 2013 novel The Honest Ghost, comprised entirely of sentences appropriated from over five hundred books.  The author limits himself to using three hundred words per book, never taking two sentences together and never making any changes to punctuation.

The novel concerns the search of a protagonist for meaning in his (or her life).  S/he interacts with a lover called David, a lonely female (Eleanor) and a son (Joe), but can never find any sense of fulfillment.  There are certain incidents that take place; several meetings; and numerous dialogic exchanges; but we are left at the end with a sense of incompleteness.  The novel doesn’t seem to have an ending.  The technique is deliberate on Whittaker’s part, as he shows how words simply cannot sum up an individual’s emotional and physical experiences.  We may communicate with one another, but there are parts of ourselves that are perpetually unknowable: words cannot tell us anything about them.  Hence the conversations in the novel resemble a series of verbal games, in which the narrator sometimes tells us that s/he has made sense of the world, only to be frustrated a few pages later.  The conversations with the other protagonists prove equally inconclusive; no one, it seems, can enjoy a fulfilling relationship.  Perhaps the book’s most telling line occurs when one character tells the narrator to “please, please, please, please, stop talking” – suggesting that words have little or no capacity to sum up anyone’s feelings.

If such is the case, then the conventions associated with the story – the beginning, middle and end – are equally meaningless.  No one can make sense of their lives, so how can they say that their search has “ended”?

Superficially Whittaker’s technique would seem to vindicate Hutcheon’s and Leitch’s observations insofar that we are encouraged to identify the source of some (or perhaps all) of the quotes that comprise his text.  A handily provided index at the back of the volume makes this task even easier.  Looking up the quotations gives us the pleasure of familiarity, as we are introduced to a variety of sources ranging from classical texts through James Joyce and Alan Bennett.

Yet the experience of the novel is profoundly disorienting.  The text might comprise a series of familiar quotes, but Whittaker assembles them into an unfamiliar form that makes us understand two things: 1) that there is no such thing as an “original” text in any adaptation, but a variety of source-texts; and 2) that the unique quality of adaptation lies in an ability to disrupt our feelings of recognition (i.e. that we might identify the source-text) and demonstrate instead how a series of intertexts have been reshaped into a completely new literary or dramatic form.  Whittaker has created a new narrative that forces us to contemplate the shortcomings of all languages to sum up experience.  Rather we should try to look behind the words and try to contemplate what people are trying to think (even though they might not know what they are thinking themselves).

On this view, a palimpsestic text is something that challenges our tendency to look at phenomena in terms of binary oppositions (“original” vs. adapted text, for instance) and consider every text on its own terms as a new and highly suggestive piece.  Reading The Honest Ghost is not an easy experience, but one that proves highly satisfying in the end.