The Productions of Time: A Study of the Human Imagination. McGill-Queen's University Press
On the dust cover of The Productions of Time, one reads,
Myth criticism flourished in the mid-twentieth century under the powerful influence of Canadian thinker Northrop Frye. It asserted the need to identify common, unifying patterns in literature, arts, and religion. Although it was eclipsed by postmodern theories that asserted difference and conflict, those theories proved incapable of inspiring solidarity or guiding social action. The Productions of Time argues for a return to myth criticism in order to refine and extend its vision.
This is an ambitious project, mirrored in the size of the volume, 449 pages. There is a curious dialectics in it, because its two strongest points—namely, the text’s wide scope of reference and its desire to intervene in current critical debates—are precisely what renders this extensive endeavour a failure.
Michael Dolzani uses a mandala as a model to map out the whole of the human imagination; this mandala is made of two concentric circles, the external one revolving on transcendence and identity (above) and immanence and difference (below), and the inner one representing a cyclical version of time and the cardinal markers, North, South, East and West (xvii). These two circles are cut by five horizontal levels, those of the Spiritual World, Paradisiacal World, Ordinary World, Otherworld, and the Unground. The text is logically divided into four main parts: “First There is a Mountain: The Vertical Axis Ascending,” “There is a Season: The Cycle,” “The Eye Begins to See: The Horizontal Axis,” and “You Want It Darker: The Vertical Axis Descending.” The mandala’s movement is explained in the introduction: “Part 1 concerns the emanation from a central Monad of a vertical axis between two poles,” those “of Identity and Difference” (xiv). Part 2 “examines the inner circle representing the cycles of natural time. It distinguishes between the unfallen and the fallen states of the natural world” (xv-xvi). The third part deals with the “horizontal axis of linear time, within which may occur the process of recreation of a previous vision” (xvi). The last part, finally, “follows the vertical axis downward, first from ordinary reality to the Otherworld that underlies it, then further to the realm of the unthinkable and unspeakable realm of Nothing, the Nadir.” The aim “of the book is to build up a vision of eternity from the ruins of time, including the ruins of texts” (5).
Each of the four parts is subdivided into sections, which carry out the work of analysis almost as separate units. Since it is the mandala which organizes the presentation, not chronology, geography, or any other parameter, this means that the same writers may appear in different parts of the book, and that they can be combined in whichever way Dolzani deems adequate. The Productions of Time allows itself to mobilize not only the whole of Western literary tradition, but also all of the world’s mythology and mass culture to boot. Taking a page at random, one finds mention, in this order, of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa; Blake’s Four Zoas; the films The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Saw, and Hostel; Roman circus; Elizabethan and Jacobean drama; Titus Andronicus and King Lear; Lynch’s Blue Velvet; Dante’s Inferno; and Lord Dunsany’s “Two Bottles of Relish”(156). The book is full of interesting insights, and Dolzani’s erudition is stunning in the process of adducing examples and suggesting connections to embody the mandala’s movement; there is, however, a serious formal flaw in the argument, inasmuch as each subsection offers an ad libitum choice of artifacts for analysis. Since there is no closed set from which examples can be adduced, since strictly speaking there is no corpus, but rather everything that has been written or orally transmitted, the result is a highly subjective arrangement, which proves to be an artificial selection leading to superficial interpretations. An unsympathetic reader would have no difficulty thinking of a myriad of counter-examples for every argument Dolzani formulates. Ultimately, one learns more about the author’s yearning to make sense of it all than about the world, humanity, cultural production, or any other grand structure of meaning.
The other positive aspect of The Productions of Time is its willingness to participate in current debates by way of a critique of poststructuralism, which is rightly considered to be in crisis. But since the remarks on Derrida & Co. are subsumed under the mythical frame, the confrontation is always too fast and never receives enough space. Furthermore, poststructuralism is treated as a monolith, its internal differences and tensions being consistently silenced in the text. The purpose of this settling of accounts is to reach universality, something literary criticism has lost: “It may therefore be time for those of us in literary and cultural studies to retool our rhetoric. The idea that we are in all this together, that we are all interconnected, may be due for a new hearing” (18). How this ambition is frustrated in the text can be noted by the way the pronoun “we” functions in it. By the project’s logic, it should be able to encompass us all, but by the way it is used in the book it expresses the opposite. Phrases like “as we can see” do not address the reader, but on the contrary work as a compositional device to join objects and claims proposed by the author. “We” is a purely rhetorical, empty signifier.
As for the analytical categories, I have three short observations. First, they are far from neutral and already bring in themselves the content that they were supposed to find in the object. The Fall is not a concept that can go without saying, but must be questioned as highly culturally specific. Second, the book wishes away fundamental philosophical problems: the subject-object split cannot be revoked at will, because it is constitutive even for that thinking which proposes their union. Third, “time” in the book’s plot is not a character, for it does not bring about change; rather, it works as a backcloth in which eternity manifests itself.
To conclude, then, The Productions of Time stages a sad dialectical reversal. That which started as an attempt to reach the utmost degree of universality approaching the human imagination as such, and thus furnishing the means to the reunification of critical discourse, ends up as a whimsical, idiosyncratic, and in the last instance sterile exercise evincing more than anything the hollow supremacy of the subject.
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