Waggish

The Pale, Quiet, Episcopalian Breast: On a Phrase of Jeffrey Eugenides

The title phrase comes from Jeffrey Eugenides’ new book The Marriage Plot. I probably won’t read it. I read a bit of The Virign Suicides and didn’t care for it. My interest in Eugenides now is because this phrase is a perfect example of a style of “literary” writing that holds a lot of sway in contemporary fiction.

The TLS reviewer Edmund Gordon singled it out for praise:

Eugenides tells this story in a voice of careful anonymity and untroubled omniscience, moving between the perspectives of several of his characters and sometimes getting away from all of them together. The opening paragraph takes the form of an impersonal inventory of Madeleine’s bookshelves; later, we are told (though he himself is apparently unaware of the fact) that Mitchell’s letters to his parents are “documents of utter strangeness”, and (while Madeleine is lying hungover in bed one morning “with a pillow over her head”) that the sun is “shining on every brass doorknob, insect wing, and blade of grass” outside. For a work that employs such a majestic narrative standpoint, though, the touch is light, the tone unusually sweet. Here, for example, is Mitchell, remembering the occasion – as they were taking refuge from a toga party in the laundry room of her dorm – on which he caught a lucky, life-haunting glimpse of Madeleine’s half-exposed nipple:

It was amazing how an image like that – of nothing, really, just a few inches of epidermis – could persist in the mind with undiminished clarity. The moment had lasted no more than three seconds. Mitchell hadn’t been entirely sober at the time. And yet now, almost four years later, he could return to the moment at will (and it was surprising how often he wanted to do this), summoning all of its sensory details, the rumbling of the dryers, the pounding music next door, the linty smell of the dank basement laundry room. He remembered exactly where he’d been standing and how Madeleine had stooped forward, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, as the sheet slipped and, for a few exhilarating moments, her pale, quiet, Episcopalian breast exposed itself to his sight.

She quickly covered herself, glancing up and smiling, possibly with embarrassment.

The prose here is relaxed – almost indecently so in comparison to Eugenides’s first two books, and sometimes by any standards to the point of laziness (“the rumbling of the dryers, the pounding music”) – but fuelled by just enough hard-working detail to keep it buoyant; take the brilliance of that “pale, quiet, Episcopalian breast”, the last two adjectives of which are so unexpected, yet which fit so intimately to religious, callow Mitchell’s perspective.

The trivial objection would be to say that a breast is almost always quiet and almost never Episcopalian, but I have no problem with synecdoche. And in fact “quiet” is not particularly problematic: it may be superfluous or slightly trite (it doesn’t seem so unexpected), but it does not seem to be a distinctive artistic move.

“Episcopalian” is another matter. Superficially, it makes sense in the context of the scene, as Mitchell is apparently interested in theology and comes from a Greek Orthodox background. Yet what work is “Episcopalian” being asked to do? Here are some of the attributions that we could make from that adjective, in rough order from most plausible to least plausible in the context of the scene:

  • Merely a reminder Madeleine’s religion, a salient characteristic to Mitchell
  • Foreign, alien, not of Mitchell’s religion
  • Religious, theistic
  • Forbidden, taboo
  • Sacred, pure
  • Anglo-American, non-Greek, comfortably at home
  • Uptight or upright, proper stiff
  • Parochial, lacking central authority

These are not all entirely compatible, and some are downright unlikely in context. The word “Episcopalalian” could be taken to mean some of these, but not all of them simultaneously. The word is too overloaded. Now, as William Empson tells us, ambiguity can be a passport to richness, but not at the expense of precision. Which attributions did Edmund Gordon make that caused him to praise the choice of adjective?

(I note that “Episcopalian” is not used anywhere else in the novel. “Anglican” is used twice, but both times literally.)

I have read the surrounding text and know what sort of character Madeleine is, and that knowledge does not resolve the matter. If “Episcopalian” is merely meant to show that Madeleine is Episcopalian in Mitchell’s eyes at that moment, then the synecdoche falls apart, because there is no greater whole for which the naked breast can stand: there is no evident reason why Madeleine’s naked body should be more Episcopal than her clothed body. But if the word is meant to suggest any of the other associations, then the matter is terminally ambiguous. Why use such a word then?

“It sounded good,” may be the most obvious answer, and perhaps it is sufficient. But the use of such a word also poses a challenge to readers, forcing them to stop and assess the significance of the word, then derive the intended meaning of it. Normally, the implied meaning is fairly obvious, but Eugenides picked a word that relied on specific cultural knowledge while also being detached from any particular adjectives he might have been intending to imply, making it paradoxically more parochial and more unclear. Yet the reviewer gives praise to the use of the term, taking it as a given that even out of context, the brilliance of the term’s use shines through.

What I want to suggest is that it is exactly this additional indirection, the use of concepts once-removed from the concrete adjectival properties, is taken to be good writing. I am not sure that it is. The ambiguity we should be seeking in writing is that which opens up fissures in the relations of the characters and the progressions of their thoughts. This, however, opens up a fissure between what the writer is trying to say (whatever that may be) and what is actually being communicated.

A challenge is given to a reader by using a word like “Episcopalian,” but the solution is purely formal: figure out what more direct, concrete adjective the word could be substituting for. There is the satisfaction of having done work in reading and trying to understand the sentence, but nothing is learned. Rather, something is taken away; a word was invoked with only part of its meaning having any significance to the matter at hand. Most likely, the superficial sense is all that was intended.

Such an approach to language robs words of their power by invoking them with only a partial, vague sense of their full significance. The result is a narrowing of meaning and a celebration of cleverness over insight. Yet the additional work required may make the work seem more “literary,” all the more so if no definite answer is forthcoming.

It is not a matter of style per se. Both ornamented and unornamented prose can be free of such hollow prestidigitation. Craig Raine highlighted this passage from Adam Mars-Jones’ Cedilla that does not lose clarity in its baroque language:

A Mars bar does indeed have veins, chocolate tubes breaking the surface of the bar, as if caramel was circulating through them, supplying the nougat core with vital nutrients and access to unthinkable sensations. The whole ridiculously penile confection was alive. It was a soft hard-on. It was Cadbury’s Flake that had the fast reputation, and its adverts always portrayed Flake-eaters as oral nymphomaniacs, but the Mars bar was every bit as concupiscent.

On the other hand, the sparse, precise prose of Agnes Owens does not lose evocative power by being direct, as with this bit from Like Birds in the Wilderness:

She said that she was cold and wanted to get home because she didn’t feel well. We walked back through the park in silence. When we reached the gate where she caught the bus I asked her if she would see me the next afternoon at the same place. She sighed and said all right in a sullen manner. She allowed me to kiss her, but her lips were cold.

Both of them are writers who learned through the experience of their imagination, and not, as Robert Musil says, “with the aid of borrowed terms.”

11 Comments

  1. Michelle
    12 December 2011

    I haven’t read the novel, so I feel somewhat ill-equipped to comment on whether or not the word works in its overall context, but I’m very interested in your thoughts here. I agree with you that this type of adjective is in vogue at the moment – the jarring detail, something specific and ambiguous all at once. And you’ve raised an interesting question about whether this is a signal of good or sloppy writing. I’m going to have to think about this, and in terms of books I have read.

    But back to Eugenides – I see what you mean about Madeleine’s naked body not being any more Episcopal than her clothed body, and yet perhaps one taboo (naked breast) could lead Mitchell to another (the Episcopal faith). Is that enough for the adjective to work? That a (conscious or unconscious) fear/attraction might cause him to think of her breast in religious terms? I suppose I should stop there, without having read the book, I’m just guessing…

  2. Ray Davis
    12 December 2011

    The reference points that came to mind after reading your first paragraph and before reading the rest of your post were “intellectual chest” (from “La Dolce Vita”) and “Catholic pussy” (from life), which together suggested a distasteful fetishization along the lines of Portnoy’s shiksas, albeit less hands-on. Although it seems I wasn’t far off, I agree that the three-adjectival-paces-away tic is a reviewer’s (and workshop’s) idea of “good writing”, and I certainly wouldn’t call out this specimen for special praise.

  3. nostalgebraist
    12 December 2011

    I haven’t read the book, so this is probably off base, but here goes.

    From what I can tell, it seems almost as if Gordon is impressed with Eugenides simply for having made competent use of free indirect speech. When he says

    “the last two adjectives of which are so unexpected, yet which fit so intimately to religious, callow Mitchell’s perspective”

    the idea seems to be that it’s impressive how Eugenides has slipped so much of Mitchell’s own perspective into what appears, on some level, to be a passage of objective third-person description. But this type of thing is ubiquitous in modern fiction writing, so I’m not sure why it needs to be singled out for praise.

    But I don’t see why we should imagine that “Episcopalian” is simply “substituting for” some other word. With apologies to Ray for taking his point in a more dubious direction, is this really so different from, say, Roth’s use of “Jewish” (or “goy,” “shiksa,” etc.)? Authors use words like this in this ambiguous way because that’s a thing people actually do in everyday speech, right?

  4. David Auerbach
    12 December 2011

    Michelle: I don’t think the ambiguity can resolve itself; your interpretation is plausible but I don’t think it is conclusive. So for me the question is whether the ambiguity is a productive one or not. In this case I don’t believe it is.

    Ray: I think this specimen gets praise for being more ambiguous than most and not resolving so neatly. Ironic, given that the result is emptier.

    nostalgebraist: I’m not ruling all such use of the adjective, just taking this particular instance to be sloppy. If “Episcopal” not substituting for another word or idea, what is its purpose in this context then? I don’t think “her pale, quiet Jewish breast” would have worked any better. Actually, I sort of prefer it, now that I think about it.

  5. nicole
    12 December 2011

    I think nostalgebraist makes an excellent point about the real object of this praise: successful free indirect speech.

    And, related to this point, I’d have to admit that “[a]uthors use words like this in this ambiguous way because that’s a thing people actually do in everyday speech.”

    I would also disagree, at least mildly, that this version of the “shiksa fetishization” (to continue the analogy, which I think is fairly apt), is all that distasteful. Or, perhaps “distasteful” is exactly the right word, but distasteful doesn’t make it bad or wrong, just unpleasant.

    All that said, I would agree that this is not good writing—and almost for precisely the reason it’s being praised. Am I supposed to be that impressed with a reasonable execution of free indirect discourse? I haven’t actually read the book, so like Michelle I feel I can only comment in a limited way, but if this is the free indirect discourse I’m getting, I sort of feel like Eugenides has written a mediocre sort of character—a harsh judgment based on one phrase, I know.

    Anyway, this is all a rather long way of saying I guess that I think it’s pretty workmanlike, which means that it’s not incredibly objectionable but not all that amazing either, and the fact that it was called out as good is a little bit depressing.

  6. Balaustion
    13 December 2011

    “There are certain phrases which to use in a poem
    Is like rubbing silver with quicksilver. Bright
    But facile, the glamour deadens overnight,”

    says Merrill who goes on to describe one which “enhances, then debases how I feel.”

  7. Kevin J MacLellan
    13 December 2011

    Hi waggish,
    While I am also dis-inclined to praise sloppy writing of the kind you are referring to – the kind that employs irrelevancies and ambiguities, seemingly, for their own sake, perhaps in fealty to a reverence for novelty or verisimilitude (free indirect speech), I have to wonder here whether you haven’t (inadvertently) stacked the deck against Eugenides. Couldn’t “Episcopalian” here refer to what characterizes episcopalian churches world-wide, and what is the chief reason for being of the word, itself; namely their being ordained and presided over by bishops–an authority both foreign and tabboo, perhaps, to Mitchell? (Authority, alien-ness and taboo being each an item on your list of possible associations!)
    This oblique reference to parochial authority, I notice, comes last in your list of possible associations and is called by you ‘least plausible’. However, if it were taken to be first on the list – and it might be; I don’t see that one can claim the list to be actually representative of an objective prioritization – its own association with other items might make a better case for the writer’s use of the term. It still invokes a very abstracted relation, and juxtaposes this abstraction with a very intimate, concrete object of enduring interest, but hey, what’s wrong with that?
    As to the TLS reviewer, I can’t say whether he elsewhere in the article makes his point better or more specifically about the author’s skill. I suspect that, in the big picture, you are right about the vacuity of some workshop strategies for ‘keeping it real’, and the enervating effects on quality of critics who enable sloppy writers, but I have to say: I am not convinced that this is a good example of the species.
    As always, an interesting discussion, though, and I thank you (all) for that.
    Regards,
    kjml

  8. vivek
    15 December 2011

    I don’t get it. Episcopalian breast suggests the chalice of Holy Communion- not that my own hairy man-boobs don’t amply fill a champagne glass- but for a Greek Orthodox lad also the foundering of the Communion between Eastern and Western Christendom over some abstract theological nonsense which didn’t make an iota of difference to anyone involved but which cost countless lives. High Anglicans (Episcopalians) believe they are still part of the Roman Church and their Bishops have Apostolic Succession and so on.
    Still, I haven’t read the book and quite agree stuff like that can really get on your tits.

  9. kevin
    16 December 2011

    “This, however, opens up a fissure between what the writer is trying to say (whatever that may be) and what is actually being communicated.”

    Apropos fissures, see http://www.sunypress.edu/pdf/62308.pdf for a chuckle.

    K

  10. Owen
    19 December 2011

    “Episcopalian breast”? Irrespective of what he means, today’s most vital prose writers seldom resort to hypallage.

  11. Stephanie
    19 May 2013

    I actually read the book. I loved it. It was clear. I remember that line distinctly and found it suited Mitchell’s 22 year old personality. It didn’t cause me to pause at all, but gave me an instant backstory of their relationship.
    I am not sure why poetic elements have become taboo in contemporary literature, even in poetry. This saddens me. Novelists have to write in an increasingly remedial style to cater to an increasingly shallow audience of TV watchers and critics who don’t write novels.

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