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Recent Trends in Narratological Research

John Pier

Parody as a Practice for Postmodernity

Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth


Parody has become a particularly important feature of postmodern narrative for the simple reason that parody resists singularity. All parodic narrative is doubled narrative: there is a story, but also activity that undermines that story; there is anecdote, and its antidote. Parodic form thus suits an age that suspects master-narratives. Once important as a literary form in classical literature, parody fell out of favor in modernity for various cultural reasons. Postmodern parody thus exercises old tools in the service of a new conjugation that reformulates the objectified world of humanism and history. In the process, postmodern artists transfigure classical parody

Texte intégral

  • 1 This essay was first written for the European Journal of English Studies (EJES) volume on "Parody, (...)

1As a literary form and rhetorical trope, parody has a venerable history: in classical literature and rhetorics; in the great precursor of the Western novel, Cervantes's Don Quixote. But it has become a particularly important feature of postmodern narrative for the simple reason that parody resists singularity. All parodie narrative is doubled narrative: there is a story, but also activity that undermines that story; there is anecdote, and its antidote.1

2Parody thus makes the fundamental paratactic gesture of postmodern discourse. To recap what I take to be generally understood, discourse is the broad term that applies to any differential system of meaning and value, that is, any system that acts like language as Saussure conceived it, even though its signs may consist of garments, or bodies, and not words. In differential systems of value that constitute discourse, then, syntactic relations have the power to produce (statement, unity, meaning) while paratactic relations run (as the term suggests) parallel to the syntactic and productive sequence, remaining within sight of, but heterogeneous to it. In postmodern narrative the classical genre or trope (Gr. parodos; L. parodia) expands out of all recognition into anthematic development that multiplies many times the doubling gesture of parody.

3This para prefix marks the characteristic doubling feature of parody, para meaning alongside of, heterogeneous to. In classical terms, parody literally is the precursor or parallel ode. In modern terms — that is, in the terms of post-medieval Europe — the agendas of art, as of politics, and science, were to establish a world of difference mediated by common denominators, especially those all-important media of modernity, time and space (Ermarth, 1983, 3-97). In modernity, therefore, parody, did not have the importance it had in earlier writing. To the modern empiricist mind, in human as well as physical science, the term "parody" could seem to modernity to imply little more than a faintly unsavory undercut, a weak form of humor or joking, a sallow form of satire lacking the cultural agreements that enable satire's wit and edge. In the discourse of modernity, then, parody's doubling capability lacks opportunity.

4But in a post-modern era, this doubling power — the power of implicating alterity (altern-ity) whatever the agenda — becomes pre-preeminent: not just in the critical vocabulary of recent decades, but in the cutting-edge art of the time, beginning with famous examples such as Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi (1896) and Joyce's Ulysses (1922). Such works undermine single narratives in the broadest cultural sense of narrative: the narratives of order and identity and project across the range of practice. Parodic form thus suits an age that suspects master-narratives.

5Postmodern writers, whether their medium is words, or stone, or sound, or celluloid, find in parody a useful tool precisely because the convention denies priority to any single narrative. The most fully achieved examples of pluralized plots and exfoliating styles of postmodern parataxis transcend anything that might be recognized as classical parody and turn into something quite uniquely postmodern. In the hands of accomplished artists, parody becomes a means for reconstructing the world. Parody has "play" or scope in postmodernism because it undercuts singular narrative; and parody itself is play-ful in the sense that it is a form that pluralizes the possibilities, the play, of systems. Postmodern parody thus exercises old tools in the service of a new conjugation that surprises and takes on the objectified world of humanism and history. In the process, postmodern artists transfigure classical parody.

6The title of this essay invokes a cinematic incident as a kind of marker for the way in which this full exfoliation of postmodern discourse is related to those older, simpler parodic forms. The marker incident I have in mind occurs in Steven Spielberg's film, Close Encounters of A Third Kind (U. S. 1977), where the alien spacecraft first communicates to a spellbound (and reassured) crowd of earthlings by sounding a sequence of several notes, each accompanied by a different colored light — a kind of outer space son-et-lumière — and then proceeds to fuller and fuller orchestration of those relationships. The initial, apparently tentative sequence of notes acts as a kind of instruction, a set of finger exercises for the more massive deployment. The first tentative five or six notes repeat and repeat, as if slowly iterating an alphabet or practicing a scale; then less tentatively and in pairs, trios, and harmonic intervals; and then beyond harmonic intervals and eventually into an immense, textured sound that swallows up initial details and even discernible sequence in a massive orchestration including an equally complex lightworks display. Classical parody is a bit like those finger exercises by aliens: a basic narrative alphabet or format for sequence that then can be transformed beyond recognition by more complex and inspired usage.

7My argument builds on those established in several important recent studies. Margaret Rose's ground-breaking work (1979) traces the history of literary parody to its classical roots, compares it with satire and irony, and discusses its new value in the twentieth century. She demonstrates most importantly the epistemic value of parody (chap. 4 "The Parodic Episteme") and the role of twentieth-century parody in the crisis of representation (Rose, 1979, 128-34) where, unlike satire's attempt to re-inforce a code, the text involves an uncertain "dialogue" between codes; and she also invokes the surrealist painters, especially Magritte, as cross-disciplinary instances of parody at work.

8Acknowledging Margaret Rose's important work, Linda Hutcheon (1985) goes on to argue for a broader respect for the pragmatic complexity of parody in twentieth-century writing and for a critical response respectful of the complex "aesthetic realities" (116). Hutcheon uses both visual arts and music alongside literature to suggest the broad cultural range of expression in which parody's variety can be discovered. She argues that parody occurs in many quite different media and often for quite different ends (99). Her student, Martin Kuester (1992), adds among other things the important point that parody need not necessarily be humorous, by which I take him to mean that its life-affirming pleasures go beyond the kind weak joke that I mentioned above as a possible interpretive tendency in the project of modernity. He treats parody as a special case of irony; others treat it, especially in its fullest forms, as almost consonant with, or as a special case of postmodernism (Lyotard, 1984; Ermarth, 1992). In any case, parody is one of the para-powers that have emerged into contemporary usage (paratactic, parataxis, parallax), if not always yet into dictionaries and encyclopedias.

9Because these differences in usage depend on the cultural and historical context in which terms like "parody" or even "postmodern" function, a brief historical reprise is in order. It should be noted in particular that the problem of parallel worlds was recognized and explored long before contemporary parody developed its particular strengths. It was a primary cosmological problem for seventeenth-century astronomy and theology as they dealt with the Copernican revolution and its implicit recognition that many "centers" compose the universe — as many as the (uncountable) number of planetary or galactic systems. After the seventeenth century, while this problem remained and, for that matter, still remains, the cultural activity of modernity in politics, art, and science all tend to focus primarily on the production of common denominators between systems: especially the common denominators of neutral time and neutral space as they were constructed after the Renaissance and Reformation, and later, and most poetically, the fictional "aether" of Victorian science.

10In the twentieth century when, as Derrida says (1978), "language invaded the universal problematic," the problem of parallel worlds becomes discursive. As Julio Cortàzar puts it, residence in a language means residence in a reality, where the term "language" includes not just verbal enunciation, but usage in any of the myriad sign systems with which we enunciate, reinscribe, and revise our social, psychic, political, cultural lives. Thus, the problem that parody enunciates in narrative form is the postmodern problem of parallel discursive worlds: a problem of relationship and adjustment within a condition of constantly multiplying "codes."

11Having rapidly sketched a cultural and historical horizon, I want to turn to my central point, which concerns the variety of postmodern parody's possible deployment. It cannot be overemphasized that parody in the hands of the most accomplished contemporary artists far transcends anything evident in its classical forms. And it cannot be said too often that the problems of postmodernity, enunciated in part by philosophers and theorists, have been most fully expanded and explored by artists, writers, filmmakers, and architects broadly interested in cultural value. Theorists could improve their position, and avoid priestly language, by taking a few more cues from the likes of Magritte, Borges, Duras, Buñuel, Jost, Nabokov, or Frank Gehry.

12In what follows I will take works by two such artists to show how full deployment of parody provides the postmodern utmost in complex value: first, Vladimir Nabokov's exquisite little novel, Transparent Things (1972) and then Jon Jost's film, All the Vermeers in New York (U. S. 1990). These works take parodic form to lengths so delicately judged that we might want to find a new term for their achievement, one that acknowledges the vibrant moral quality of play. I am conscious in undertaking to "unpack" these texts, that I am reducing to mere analytical words, for the sake of a common cause, what is sublimely superior to mere analysis or to a single discursive language. These are not works for those still (still?) interested in plot-and-character or, worse, in what an artist "means."

13I approach Transparent Things with special trepidation. This novel, always delightful to re-read and to teach, is particularly difficult to write about because its values — in the sense that painters or musicians use the term "values" — tend to float in a kind of mobile arrangement that does not submit to standards of evidence and meaning-production.

14Its in-between values always involve discursive shifts as the sequence moves from one contained series to the next, each containing elements of the others in a kind of musical arrangement, but none developing the kind of contextual unity in which such elements could function as "evidence."

15The parodic element develops exponentially from the parallel texts of the Person plot on the one hand, involving events in the life and death of Hugh (sometimes pronounced "you") Person and, on the other hand, the shifting paratactic style whose patterns run alongside that (vestigial) plot. The Person plot involves an indefinite number of years (chronological time is unimportant) and four trips between New York and "so-called Switzerland" in which the young man pursues his desire and, incidentally at the end of Chapter 11, manages to bed the exotic Julia.

16The other dimension of the book belongs to the distinct narrating voice, delighting us with conjunctions that have nothing to do with those of Person's pilgrimage, or with the usual narrative climaxes, and that is at odds with the whole narrative convention of life as a pilgrimage (invoked by the Person plot). This narrative medium of the novel, with its distinct voice and interests, runs parallel to the Person plot not so much to undermine it, though it does do that, but to amplify it in ways that demonstrate to readers, if not to the hapless Hugh Person, what worlds of pattern and pleasure are available to anyone willing to digress.

17Transitions between these two levels of narrative are particularly marked in the shift between chapters 11 and 12. Chapter 11 ends with Hugh and Julia's assignation in the same bachelor's flat on East Sixty-fifth where, coincidentally, she had met an earlier lover, now dead in a distant war.

She (Julia) noticed that the close mirror as seen from the bed reflected exactly the same still-life arrangement, oranges in a wooden bowl, as it had in the garland-brief days of Jim, a voracious consumer of the centenarian's fruit. She was almost sorry when upon looking around she located the source of the vision in the folds of her bright things thrown over the back of a chair.
She canceled their next assignation at the last moment and soon afterwards went off to Europe. In Person's mind the affair left hardly anything more than a stain of light lipstick on tissue paper — and a romantic sense of having embraced a great writer's sweetheart. Time, however, sets to work on those ephemeral affairs, and a new flavor is added to the recollection.
We now see a torn piece of La Stampa and an empty wine bottle. A lot of construction work was going on.


A lot of construction work was going on around Witt, scarring and muddying the entire hillside upon which he was told he would find Villa Nastia. Its immediate surrounding had more or less been tidied up, forming an oasis of quiet amidst the clanging and knocking wilderness of clay and cranes. There even gleamed a boutique among the shops forming a semicircle around a freshly planted young rowan under which some litter had already been left, such as a workman's empty bottle and an Italian newspaper. Person's power of orientation now failed him but a woman selling apples from a neighboring stall set him straight again. An over affectionate large white dog started to frisk unpleasantly in his wake and was called back by the woman. (Nabokov, 1972, 36-37)

18So many things are going on in this transition, that the reiterated sentence can seem almost like a welcome anchor, except that it occurs with two completely different meanings in two completely different and parodically related dimensions of the book. One is the Person pilgrimage, and the other the narrative discourse itself composed of language calling attention to its constructive power. That power, what's more, comes from a creative addition to experience. Time does not add up in terms of results; instead, it adds value ("flavor") to recollection.

19"A lot of construction work was going on" matter-of-factly begins Chapter 12, and the litter already present under the freshly planted rowan provides some unaesthetic interference for Hugh's pilgrimage (and some quiet amusement for observers of Switzerland, where construction cranes are as typical as alps.) But this matter-of-factness is not single or simple: it translates the philosophical musing at the end of the preceding chapter, in which the constructions of memory — and their mechanisms — are likened to a cubist collage. Time reduces the ephemeral: the "mere" material environment carelessly noted by Hugh Person can and for him will carry intensely important meanings. Aesthetic construction appears here over the shoulder of and as an echo for more mechanical apparatuses. The cubist construction of Chapter 11 ("a torn piece of La Stampa and an empty wine bottle") returns to its elements in Chapter 12 ("a workman's empty bottle and an Italian newspaper").

20That allusion to painting in turn belongs to a series of references to imaginative construction that has only its most recent iteration in the (apparent) still-life associated by Julia in memory of her Jim, and mistaken in a mirror reflection that makes a canvas bowl of oranges from the folds of her orange blouse. Orange, in its turn, has its own frequency in the novel, appearing elsewhere in various fires occurring in book titles and hotels, and in some crucial orange peels by the side of a crucial trail. The "apples" (Chapter 12) introduce another theme with another set of frequencies into this already-crowded range, where selling "apples" echoes (yabloni) "apple trees," and "apple green" (apron, shutters) where the "apple" theme crosses the more insistent "green" theme ("reptile green" ink, skis; "green wine," "glossy green nylon" and, especially, the "green skier figurine"). Even the white dog from this passage frisks through more than once, re-appearing like Odysseus's Argos when Person much later (encouraged by his psychiatrist) makes his final ill-fated pilgrimage to find his past.

21These brief passages iterate only a tiny number of the myriad themes echoing through the text, with its avalanches, lavender, windows, Giulias/Juliets/Julias, texts, marginalia, trails, digressions, colors, strangling, transparencies, transitions, hillsides, not to mention various Nabokovian anagrams and alliterations. Each detail invokes the others, sometimes singly, sometimes in duos and triads, and in compounds with increasingly ineffable resonance. This other world, as Nabokov says in The Gift (1963), "surrounds us always and is not at all at the end of some pilgrimage" (322).

22This universe of delight-in-digression Hugh Person fatally ignores, intent instead on his obscure object of desire. "What had you expected from your pilgrimage, Person?," asks the narrative voice in the penultimate chapter. The answer is, "a moment of contact" with an "essential" presence (chap. 25). But that doomed search leads directly to death. Or rather, to what the wiser narrative voice calls, "the mysterious mental maneuver needed to pass from one state of being to another" (chap. 26) The narrative universe of language, with its worlds of pleasure, lies like a gigantic planetary system outside the purvue of gloomy Person as he pursues his pilgrimage: it is like the "noise" that his system cannot translate but ours can, especially with obvious encouragements like the transition between Chapters 11 and 12.

23These two dimensions of the novel, the plot and the play, comment on each other, each requiring a different "act of attention." Hugh Person chooses one, while readers of Nabokov's multivalent sequence are encouraged to favor the other. The Person plot, with its helpless and rarely satisfied desire, occupies a parallel position to the other, more imaginative sequence superimposed on it by the powers of language and art. The novel is a training exercise for novices on how to sustain those powers, as Chapter One explains.

When we concentrate on a material object, whatever its situation, the very act of attention may lead to our involuntarily sinking into the history of that object. Novices must learn to skim over matter if they want matter to stay at the exact level of the moment. Transparent things, through which the past shines!
Man made objects, or natural ones, inert in themselves but much used by careless life (you are thinking, and quite rightly so, of a hillside stone over which a multitude of small animals have scurried in the course of incalculable seasons) are particularly difficult to keep in surface focus: novices fall through the surface humming happily to themselves, and are soon reveling with childish abandon in the story of this stone, of that heath. I shall explain. A thin veneer of immediate reality is spread over natural and artificial matter, and whoever wishes to remain in the now, with the now, on the now, should please not break its tension film. Otherwise the inexperienced miracle-worker will find himself no longer walking on water but descending upright among staring fish. (Nabokov, 1972, 1-2)

24When we concentrate on the moment — for example in transition between Chapters 11 and 12 — so many frequencies and anthematic arrangements are simultaneously present, each with its own past, that keeping all that in view requires a discipline likened to walking on water. To slip away in pursuit of one, or to sink into a single "meaning" would be to lose the rhythm (another figure from the novel) by grasping at one of its elements. The novice tries that, and sinks. The experienced miracle worker, however, learns to perform that "mysterious mental maneuver required to pass from one state of being to the next"; it involves a kind of suspension in which multiplied dimensions — including especially the "past" — shine through. In pursuit of his singular desire, however, the inexperienced Person breaks the tension film.

25Transparent Things is the ultimate narrative demonstration that less is more. Its play of elements, multiplied many times from the few instances mentioned here, seems to encompass the universe, yet occupies only one hundred pages; the 26 chapters composing it alternate between two and six pages each. Where poor Person clumsily attempts to grasp the past, to relive it or retrieve what he thinks is its essence, the parodically distanced reader, staying "on the now," recognizes the past as a vital part of each present arrangement. The parodic element in such a text is not singular, but instead a constant and virtuoso act of language running multiple parallels to the (Person) plot. Its resonances contrast entirely with Person's narrowing determinations. Nabokov develops the parodic gambit into a complex system of paratactic constructions, orbiting themes, multiple frequencies, exfoliating digressions. For the character, Person, and his pilgrimage, and for a range of workmen from house builders to readers, a lot of construction work is going on.

26A similar development of parodie form appears in the 1990 film, All The Vermeers in New York (U. S.), directed by Jon Jost. For those not yet familiar with this cinematic jewel, a meagre starting point is this description from one U. K. program guide (Radio Times, Jan./Feb 1997) which introduces it as: "a subtle and often moving story of unfulfilled love, in which the pace and emptiness of modern life is contrasted with the serenity and beauty of the paintings by Dutch artist Jan Vermeer hanging in New York's art galleries." With an added note about the problematic role of money, this might stand as a decent description of the film, except for one thing: it does not mention the camera. The art. The substantial construction of alternative discourse.

27The parody here resembles that of Nabokov's novel: style comments on so-called "plot" by diversifying its holdings. The very values lamented in the so-called plot remain vigorously present in the filmic sequence. I say "so-called plot" because the sequence here includes so much, much more than "plot" and "character," those values imported from drama that were already inadequate for describing narrative in 1800 and that are certainly inadequate for describing film. The real "plot" here is a doubled and even multiplied sequence in which the (supposedly tragic) "failure of love in the modern world" is a lot less important than the happy, contradictory, and erotic (that is, life-sustaining) tensions between sight, sound, and explanation running in multiple parallels through the sequence. To allege contrast between the "serenity of Vermeer" and the "emptiness of modern life" actually makes very little sense, once we take into consideration the visual delight of this film. The director and editors have constructed an articulation of sight and awareness that links the film directly (not thematically or allegorically) with Vermeer, especially in its treatment of light and of object relations in space, in its respect for details of ordinary life, in its encroaching but (this is important) non-tragic awareness of finitude, including that ultimate finitude of death.

28The film operates various codes simultaneously: camera motion, the sound track, Vermeer's canvasses, the vestigial "love" plot. The basic parodic form here consists of the commentary available in-between the two primary narrative codes of plot, and camera. Upon this is built a rich and textured set of values, in the painter's sense of "value."

29The first code concerns plot and a world of meaning-value in which two protagonists, a struggling French actress ["Anna"] and a burnt-out New York broker ["Mark"], meet in the Metropolitan Museum of Art through their common interest in Vermeer. They meet thereafter in a cafe, and again in an unspecified number and kind of meetings (amounts of chronological time are unimportant) wherein the keynotes are a certain good will and lack of communication. The self-consciously alienated personae each pursues some obscure object of desire, seeking elusive identity in a Chekhov character, a Vermeer, a face; or seeking an identity apart from investments; or seeking to "own" an elusive value by competing in commodities markets or art markets (how is this show/currency selling? who is buying? let me buy in); or hoping to find love through a common obsession with Vermeer. This plot, and its outcome, remains episodic.

30The other narrative code, which comments on the first, belongs to the camera. In the manner of parody, this second code runs parallel to the first and, by its very existence, produces mutual tension and commentary between codes. The camera moves around New York with apparent ease and delicacy, but always with restraint, never sweeping to heights or magnifying distances. This lens can make even the New York skyline look like a Vermeer: reduced from heroic materialism to a configured space by wide-angle lens and late-afternoon sun.

31This camera's frame and motion rigorously limit the visual horizon, and thus the expanse of neutral space in which heroics usually become possible. But this limit does not confine: like Nabokov's narrative language, it opens up a seemingly infinite world of possible sequences, codes, and values. The actual frame almost always remains portrait-sized, featuring a head or profile, respecting a figure's precarious importance, and rarely taking in more than one person at a time or even whole bodies.

32With one or two exceptions at crises, when it creates alarm by panning up, the camera moves laterally; its lateral motion slow and contained, resting momentarily on a detail before it moves laterally again, often retracing its course back over now-familiar details. Its gravitational field remains an individual head or profile, where it usually comes to rest, but its motion takes in a range of objects in enclosed spaces. For example, in one sequence in an apartment room, the camera laterals left from a stockinged foot propped on a bed by a girl on the floor reading, then to postcards, trainers, a bit of woodflooring in a herringbone pattern, photos, magazines, the rumpled edge of a blue bedspread; then it laterals back along the same course, this time to the sound of weeping. No zooms, no rapid breaks, no insistence on connection, no explanation of grief.

33In short, and like Nabokov's language, this camera concentrates on the details of life that "plots" tend to use carelessly — a discarded shoe, a jet stream against almost-indifferent blue, a low-level view of a polished marble floor, the bases of apparently huge marble columns in an institutional lobby, a kind of sound, a certain angle of light. This lens appreciates painterly values of color and intensity, of configured space and proportion. While the central figures pursue their obscure objects of desire, a world of beauty lies about them, disregarded. Like Hugh Person, these characters remain interesting insofar as they show some awareness of that Other world, represented to them in this case by Vermeer. They miss the resemblance of their own world to that of the artist, but the camera picks it up for us.

34This description of the film's parodic structure, however, hardly does justice to the richness, that is, to the aesthetic (that is, the moral) value of the sequence. Like the thematic iterations in Nabokov that provide texture but avoid meaning, Jost's various visual themes recur and vary gently, just perceptibly, doubling their possible value. Money, for example, is a common currency, and perhaps the root of evil (as one character muses), but it is also actual bills in a bundle, interesting in themselves and creating no desire: money is investments, but there are more kinds of investments than monetary ones; money raises questions of value, especially in the markets for selling, buying, and trading in currencies or in art.

35As in Nabokov's novel, the camera here pays affectionate attention to things much used and unnoticed by careless life. Floors, for example, or windows: wood floors in herringbone-patterns, grained marble floors, marble parquet floors in black and green; and windows in paintings, in apartments, in cafes, or conspicuously absent in commodities trading centers. As in Nabokov's novel, multiple themes exfoliate: artists — a painter, a singer, an actress — who appear not as icons or as mythologized producers of desirable objects, but as ordinary talented people with ordinary problems; pictures in museums and galleries, re-incarnated in photographs and on postcards, the framed view that emphasizes the frame. In varying frequencies, objects and gestures occur and re-occur: glossy hair, telephones, upholstery, doors, platform railings along a quay or atop a skyscraper, muted colors of rose, grey, white, and beige; gestures of going through a door, looking over a shoulder, at a Vermeer.

36A sequence of etched sounds, and of equally etched silences, adds dimension to this multi-dimensional visual sequence: contemporary jazz, running water, awkward voices, footfalls in a deserted museum, traffic on upper Fifth Avenue, a single low-register note with two voices, piano and cello, barely discernable, then moving into atonal, then harmonic, and again atonal relationships. The recurrences sustained by such elements vary in their mutual complexities: the same kind of thing over and over again like a novice practicing, and yet developed to such a degree that elements disappear into something more massively fused.

37This cinematic achievement is aesthetic in the full sense of being saturated with value. The aesthetic achievement is profoundly qualitative. In the so-called plot, on the other hand, death haunts everything in the form of quantitative measure: "numbers, I'm sick of numbers," says the broker who wants to give it all up and opt for what he hopes will be love, for his Anna who has a face as beautiful as a Vermeer. His "I'm dying," on the day when his currencies investments begin to plummet, punctuates a sequence in which death, or figures of it, have been a factor increasingly. "Mark" hates being atop a skyscraper and looking at all those people all at once: "it's like being dead." The emphasis falls on numbers of dollars, numbers of people, numbers of transactions that dissipate quality. The sequence then becomes a sustained search for qualitative results to escape from the realm of quantity and death.

38The camera entirely reverses these plot emphases, parodying them perhaps, except that the sequences and commentaries are too complex for this term. Its torque and vitality depends on what is fragile, unnoticed, perishable. Whereas in the "plot," death is Big but unimportant, life is small, perishable, and very important. What "plot," relegates to margins and irrelevance, the camera recovers as exquisite in its finitude; nothing large or grand can equal the small things for vitality. Life by definition has qualities, or "values" in the painter's sense of value. With motion, light, passing contact, a magazine, a discarded shoe, a lot of construction work is going on, constantly creating a useable past. Material objects "much used" (as Nabokov puts it) "by careless life" become "transparent things, through which the past shines." This calm universe of aesthetic value parodies, that is, it renders amusing and even trivial the plot of loss and alienation.

39The parallel codes in Jost's film threaten to meet near the end, where the so-called plot brings the broker to the point of saying "I love you," before he collapses from too much quantity. His Anna, his obscure object of desire, responds to the call, but the irony remains. The message reaches an answering machine, and he dies before she reaches him and before he learns that her plans did not include him. The last word on value is delivered by opaque Anna's voice-over:

There is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be fastidious, to be polite, even; nor make the talented artist consider himself obliged to begin again a score of times a piece of work, the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his body devoured by worms. Like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much knowledge and skill by an artist who must forever remain unknown and is barely identified under the name, Vermeer.

40In this film, as in Nabokov's novel, the exquisitely meaningless details of ordinary life are all that remain of "reason." And they are enough.

41Both these texts, novel and film, use alphabetical elements to constitute slowly a discursive universe, deploying those elements in evermore complicated systems of relationship. Both use parodic form to deny priority to a single sequence or narrative. The doubled and redoubled sequence always presents alternatives to any particular selection, until the selective act of attention itself becomes the focus of interest, especially as it resides in between systems.

42These are the "in-between" values that call to mind the discursive "writing" Cixous describes as the basis of renewal: "working (in) the in-between... without which nothing can live, undoing the work of death" (Cixous, 1975, 883). These postmodern parodic texts that negotiate shifts between parallel systems and sequences achieve exactly that kind of discursive in-between "writing." Parodie undercut is only the rudimentary beginning of this pluralizing format in which the original parody gets subsumed in the vibrant play of values that constitutes the chief moral quality of this art.

43Postmodern parody makes quite complex new demands on attention and recognition. Such texts as those discussed here preserve particulars from erosion by "meaning" so that they can function, in their particularity and discreteness, as the basis for a new kind of order: one that reorders relations between present and past, that constitutes such new orders entirely by differential relationships. Such sequences, in novels or in film, leave a residue of intensely felt value that, like linguistic value in Saussure's sense, exists quite apart from, and even prior to, all established meanings. Such texts, such "writing," insist on value in a new sense that is systemic, profound, adequate.


Works cited

Primary sources

Jost, Jon, 1990. All the Vermeers in New York (U. S.)

Nabokov, Vladimir, 1972. Transparent Things. New York: McGraw Hill.

— 1963. The Gift (Dar, 1937-38). Trans. Michael Scammell and Vladimir Nabokov. New York: G. P. Putnam and Sons.

Secondary sources

Cixous, Hélène, 1976. "The Laugh of the Medusa," Trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen ("Le rire de la Méduse", L'Arc 1975). Signs, vol. 1, no. 4, pp. 875-93.

Derrida, Jacques, 1978. "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," in Writing and Difference (L'écriture et la différence, 1967). Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 278-94.

Ermarth, Elizabeth Deeds, 1983. Realism and Consensus, the English Novel. Princeton: Princeton UP.

— 1992. Sequel to History: Postmodernism and the Crisis of Representational Time. Princeton: Princeton UP.

Hutcheon, Linda, 1985. Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth Century Art Forms. London: Methuen.

— 1994. Irony's Edge: The Theory and Politics of Irony. London: Routledge.

Kuester, Martin, 1992. Framing Truths: Parodic Structures in recent English and Canadian Historical Novels. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois, 1984. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (La Condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir, 1979). Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Theory and History of Literature, vol. 10. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

Rose, Margaret, 1979. Parody/Metafiction: An Analysis of Parody as a Critical Mirror. London: Croom Helm.


1 This essay was first written for the European Journal of English Studies (EJES) volume on "Parody," ed. Prof. A. Nünning and appears relatively unmodified here. My thanks to Ansgar Nünning and the editors of that journal, Catherine Belsey, Herbert Grabes, and Jean-Jacques Lecercle for their permission to publish here in G.R.A.A.T. Thanks also to the several audiences on whom I tried out these ideas and this film and who gave me valuable feedback, particularly in Hungary at Debrecen and in Scotland at Glasgow and Stirling Universities.


Saintsbury Professor of English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. She has published two multidisciplinary books on the humanist cultural construction of time (Realism and Consensus, Princeton, 1983; 2nd ed. Edinburgh, 1998) and on its contemporary cultural reconstruction (Sequel to History, Princeton, 1992), as well as two other books on nineteenth-century British cultural narrative (George Eliot, essays, translations, novels, 1985; English Novel in History, 1840-1895, 1997). She has contributed to various journals and several collections on women and writing, on nineteenth-century literature and culture, and on contemporary writing and culture. Her current projects include a cultural history of the American west, an analysis of the political consequences of postmodernity, a feminist essay on method, and a collection of essays on the future of universities

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