MD Kerr

The Thing Itself

Intro      Writing       Les mots et les noms       The unspeakable Other       Painting       Mathematics       The Thing Itself       Bibliography

The Thing Itself: introduction

Still Life, the second novel in A.S. Byatt's tetralogy (The Virgin in the Garden, 1981; Still Life, 1985; Babel Tower, 1996; and A Whistling Woman, 2002), is a dense and highly theoretical work, both novel and philosophical treatise, drawing on an array of disciplines and frequently contradicting itself. Its primary obsession is how to represent the thing itself, so that it is itself and nothing more. This problem of representation and the thing itself has a long philosophical tradition and could be fruitfully addressed through many schools of thought. This thesis will consider it through Byatt's Still Life and through post-structural theory, concentrating on the work of Julia Kristeva. I have chosen this theory as much for its flaws as for its usefulness, not as a filter with which to illuminate the text (although that is what it will seem to do at first) but as a body of writing addressing the same problem, to be analysed in conjunction with Still Life. The impossibility of representing the thing itself lies at the heart of post-structural theory, yet applications of this theory continue to dominate Anglo-American scholarship on contemporary literature without addressing this fundamental stumbling block. Kristeva's notion of the semiotic is one attempt to resolve this, and as such requires evaluation, not just application. Parts one and two of this thesis analyse Still Life's claims about the relationship between words and things, and how the basic principles of post-structuralism can clarify its contradictory positions. Part three addresses the same contradictoriness in the theory itself, and one of its attempts to resolve this internally: Kristeva's semiotic. The dilemma proves to be inherent in language, and so parts four and five respectively consider two alternate media that Still Life offers as potentially more successful: painting, and mathematics. For the purposes of analysis, this thesis carved up Byatt's text in two ways: it treats the arguments as synchronous; it largely disregards the unity of the chapters and the form of their arrangement. In other words, it suspends both chronology and context, in order to unravel the arguments put forward.