Materialities of Myth
By Daniel Fraser.
Philip Terry, Tapestry, Reality Street, 2013
‘Wanted: a needle swift enough to sew this poem into a blanket.’ — Charles Simic
Storytelling, myth, folklore, narrative: the art of fiction’s multitude of masks is also composed from a range of materials. Stone tablets, wax, cloths and scrolls: it is not just the 21st Century—with the transition from the codex to the eBook, including various intermediary hybrids—that has seen a great shift in the materiality of texts. In fact, the media of myth and fiction are in continual flux; overlapping, diverging and superimposing themselves and re-presenting storytelling in a new light even as some forms of media fall back into shadow.
Philip Terry’s novel Tapestry retells the process of the embroidery of the Bayeux Tapestry in an invented Middle English. The book focuses on the lives of the nuns tasked with embroidering the tale—whose own autobiographies are supposedly hidden amongst a number of the tapestry’s subsidiary figures. Each nun in turn explains their own personal additions to the fabric and how they relate to their history and experience of the Norman Conquest. But these experiences are semi-fantastical and are continually interwoven with elements of Aesop’s Fables, fairy tales and classical mythology, among others.
Oulipan tricks and intricacies abound: from the recurring April fool’s fish motifs; to the Sisyphean circularities of Harold playing himself in a play which re-enacts his own escape; from the visceral ‘batalles’ textually removing the I (eye) from Bataille; to the reconstituted fairy tales which pepper the nun’s autobiographies. The layered formal framework adds convoluted threads which put pressure on the authenticity of the narrative with amusing but sometimes unnecessary flourishes. These distractions are underpinned by something more interesting however: an uncomfortable examination of the constraints of the shifting modes of narrative presentation. And it is here that the novel truly stretches past its formal constraints, allowing the process of ‘fabrication’ (both literal and metaphorical) to be continually interrogated.
The linguistic connections on a basic level between writing and weaving/sewing are obvious and the polysemy of words like ‘thread’ and ‘weave’ in their relation to both media are ubiquitous. Of course puzzles and the labyrinthine, of which this form of literature is so fond, also have their own overt connotations in this regard. Life and sewing, narrative and sewing, death and sewing are all held in relation by the three Moirai: Atropos, Clotho and Lachesis—the three fates from Greek mythology, who apportion life and death through the process of spinning thread. The word moira from which their names are derived originally referring to an object which has the power to decide over life and death.
Beyond any symbolic interpretations or narrative flourishes the power of the work is in the thread itself: in the material, the process, the medium.
Tapestry is certainly aware of this, and as soon as the gimmicks are picked at and warped, things begin to fray. Early on in the novel there occurs a scene where a dying man is described as being thrown: ‘lyk a hundr, into a ravine.’ This allusion to the last line of Under the Volcano reveals a relation which undermines the network of symbols, tricks and circularity. Like those of Lowry’s narrator, these theatrics are ultimately futile, delusional and hallucinatory. By their very nature these codes and arcs, these ‘experiments’, can only lead to emptiness. The constant co-ordination of signs and codification of symbols which both produce and connect the multiple narrative levels ultimately undermine them. They lack authenticity, they fail, and are revealed to be as corrupt as the myth-mash of St. Eustace and Punch and Judy in Riddley Walker (a novel to which Tapestry bears some considerable resemblance).
Tapestry is playing with the Derridean notion that the marginalia can be more important than the main text. At the surface level of the nun’s orations the point is obvious: their own lives and experiences have been hidden by them in the margins of the Bayeux tapestry. But the real deconstructive interrogation lies not in the marginalia of what the nuns have sewn, but at the boundaries of what Terry has written.
In the space around these boundaries the novel pulls apart its own referents, zeroing in on the essential absenteeism of writing by highlighting the temporal dissonance between Philip Terry’s book Tapestry and the period described by that text. For example, in the tale which partially mirrors the story of the witch Circe, the book’s narrator alludes to this similarity, questioning the authenticity of what her companion has just said. However, in an earlier tale one nun describes helping three blind deserters who are hidden away in a tower. She mentions that one of them grows very long hair which she uses to climb up to them with provisions. When she needed him to let it down she would shout up:
This reference to the Grimms’ fairy tale of Rapunzel exposes the wound which it seeks to suture. The fact that this reference is not picked up on by the narrator in the same way as the Circe reference is obvious: Rapunzel was first published in 1812, several centuries after the creation of the Bayeux Tapestry. This reference exists in a completely alternate time. Rather than the allusion being available for identification by a character, a hierarchy is revealed. This particular episode’s status as analogous to a popular fiction is only available for identification by the reader.
This reference, though equally obvious as that of Circe, has been reinserted into the past through the creation of a fiction. As such it calls into question not the authenticity of the story of Pox being told by the nun or that of Terry’s novel but of texts themselves. A Copernican turn is thus enacted, away from the intricate narrative operations and back upon the medium of storytelling itself: turning its gaze toward the very notions of history, autobiography and fiction.
This may be best understood in filmic terms. For example, one might imagine a perilous scene in which a lover is holding the hand of a cowboy who has fallen into a ravine and, before she lets him fall to his death, screams ‘I’ll never let go.’ Authenticity is questioned in both cases; however it is the latter example which is ultimately the more unsettling. The former’s bombast ultimately propagates nothing beyond questioning the text’s own internal relations and verisimilitude. The latter however questions the space external to the text (or whether there can be such a space) much more effectively, incongruently delineating multiple texts and problematizing the medium’s use as a method of storytelling at all.
The unreliability of the medium of oral re-presentation is one of the most easily identifiable themes at the naïve level of the story even before taking into account the unstable metamorphic Middle English being spoken. Elsewhere writing, more specifically the chronicle being composed by the book’s narrator, is repeatedly undermined and described as inadequate. Despite this inadequacy it persists.
Then there’s the fact that the word tapestry itself is a case of mistaken identity. The work known as the Bayeux tapestry is actually a work of embroidery; yet a tapestry it is denoted and a tapestry is how it is usually referred to. The difference between these two types of needlework is that a tapestry is woven from scratch whereas embroidery is produced via a process of agglomeration to a pre-existent base. When the nuns finish their work they remark that tapestry has ‘no signature’, no cogent style, it is a mishmash of differing levels of skill, opposing views on composition and colour selection. It is in this sense, palimpsest: this practice of overwriting texts was often used by monks in the Middle Ages as a process of destruction or sanctification. Secular parchment being overlaid with the ‘truth’ of God’s word.
This doubling of collectivisation further stretches the idea of directing thought and reference through stylistic means to absurdity. Art is always contaminated; it lies beyond the oxymoron of formal experimentation, which cannot quarantine it no matter how complex a maze it may construct. Even the hermit alone writing on top of the mountain is using the medium of language which itself is collective. Art’s own inherent absurdity and its connection to death, which is so close and direct that one may subsume the other, needs no obfuscatory mire of symbols. Its complexity lies in the maddening simplicity of the relationship. It just needs fabric, or paper, ink, or thread, paint, strings. In other words, materials.
These materials do not exist in a hierarchy where the cloth is subservient to the thread; they exist as a dynamic system of material elements which create a field which is the text. This text is always unstable and uncertain as it requires the interjection of the reader. These notions of textual instability and hybridity may be coming to the fore in reaction to the proliferation of the electronic forms of text but Tapestry, at its best, highlights the text’s essential status as multimedia object throughout its history. Hypertext happened a long time before HTML. It problematises the use of geometric frameworks of symbols and the re-combination of myth by utilising them and exposing their tendency to miss the otherness and, crucially, the inadequacy inherent to art. Whatever the medium, the building of a maze is just a mechanism for ignoring the fact that the ground on which it is built is always moving. Beneath lies a bottomless cavern.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, November 19th, 2013.