I prefer beginnings. There is such promise, or the chance of early escape. But when is the beginning?
Where – or when – does a literary text begin? This question raises a series of fundamental problems in literary criticism and theory? Does a text begin as the author puts his or her first mark on a piece of paper or keys in the first word on a computer? Does it begin with the first idea about a story or poem, or in the childhood of the writer, for instance? Or does the text only begin as the reader picks up the book? Does the text begin with its title, or with the first word of the so-called ‘body’ of the text?
An Introduction to Literature Criticism and Theory
Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle
I’ve just never found this style of thinking very useful. A “beginning,” as it relates to the creation and consumption of texts, isn’t a natural kind term. It’s not a description of a brute physical fact. So we’re in the realm of stipulative definitions, and we should choose the one that makes the most sense given the circumstances or our interests in this or that inquiry. But that’s just me.
Of all the questions I have of literary texts, it is their beginnings and origins that fascinates me most. What properly constitutes a beginning? I do accept that this sort of literary analysis is unnecessary to an appreciation of literature, and may be considered geeky.
Is there a particular text that lends itself nicely to this question?
Both ‘Bennett and Royle’ and Edward Said deconstruct the beginning of The Waste Land to interpret how a literary text challenges the concept of beginnings. The poem’s highly allusive content and the Pound influence make it rich for this type of analysis. As ‘Bennet and Royle’ demonstrate, “the beginning of the poem is no longer the first stroke of the pen or keyboard.”
Ulysses also comes to mind. To ask where or when Joyce began his story is to raise a fascinating sequence of questions about the identity of author, city, text and reader.