domingo, 5 de octubre de 2008

Prisoners of ideology - Angels and Insects by A. S. Byatt

Angels and Insects is an intriguing pair of novellas. At one level it examines the complexities of human relationships, especially those incorporated within marriage and the family. It identifies tension, dissipates it, anticipates expectations and then seeks resolution of conflict when they are not realised. In Morpho Eugenia, William, a suitor, pursues his beloved and she becomes his wife. They breed with regular success, but there is a darkness that separates them in their marriage, a darkness that becomes light when William comes home from the hunt unexpectedly.

In The Conjugal Angel we enter a spirit world. For the inhabitants of the world, the spirit reality is as tangible, as rational a universe as any other. It is a world with familiar landmarks that reveal themselves easily to the accepting mind. Powerfully and engagingly interpreted by an influential writer, their significance enters the participants´ assumptions, their existence never questioned.

Angels and Insects is set in the mid-nineteenth century and, as such, deals with concepts, both social and intellectual, which are quite foreign, quite removed from those of the contemporary reader. In Morpho Eugenia, we have a scientist exploring the revolutionary ideas of evolution and applying these not only to the natural world he researches, but also the private human world, both physical and emotional, that he inhabits. Needless to say, his radical ideas are not shared by many close to him. In The Conjugal Angel, we encounter a group of people motivated by a reality they all share. But, for the contemporary reader, it is a reality that is utterly foreign, its literature and its analysis both apparently bogus in today’s judgment.

Thus, eventually Angels and Insects is a novel about ideology. It illustrates how ideological assumptions about the nature of existence can drive an individual´s and a society´s approach to life, and how it can convince people of the truth of illusion, or vice versa. And in considering the works of contemporary poets, Angels and Insects illustrate how the literature of an age can become suffused with its ideology and, indeed, how this can feed back into the substance of life to reinforce assumptions.

As ever, A S Byatt´s use of language is virtuosic, making the process of reading Angels and Insects a delight throughout. It is an ambitious project which almost achieves its design. The shortfall, however, becomes a frustration.

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Angels and Insects

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