Tim MacGabhann. Short Text on Parody

How has the practice of imitation (or parody etc.) affected your creative writing?

I only ever seem to parody writers who intimidate me. During a Literature of the Americas course, I found myself reading Longfellow’s sonnets after the manner of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and Keats. It felt to me as though he was trying to truncate these fathers’ bodies and achievements into a sonnet shape that he could leap over, into his own diction. It felt a bit sad, because they were quite humourless, and ostensibly tributes, so there was a dispiriting passive-aggression to the whole enterprise. But it did prove a fairly useful thing to write parodies of what I felt were hegemonic voices in the Irish literary present, like Michael Longley and Seamus Heaney.

I always tended to target bigger names, belonging to men, because I was pretty deep in a Freudian sort of agon with that whole thing. Harold Bloom may have all sorts of problems as a thinker and a critic, but I remain attracted to his idea that  ‘poetic influence…is necessarily the study of the life-cycle of the poet-as-poet’.[1] While his remark perhaps tends towards the sweeping – a poetic career incorporates more than just a battle with one’s literary forefathers – it has some telling resonances when sounded against Heaney’s relationship with Kavanagh.  Bloom identifies ‘a corrective movement’ in an ‘influenced’ poet’s poems, ‘which implies that the precursor poet went accurately up to a certain point, but then should have swerved, precisely in the direction that the new poem moves’.[2]  Later in one’s career, a ‘mature’ or ‘strong’ poet (I quibble with these adjectives: they’re a bit redolent of locker-room masculinity for me) engages in what Bloom would call ‘completion and antithesis…by so reading the [parent-poet] as to retain [their] terms but mean them in another sense, as though the precursor failed to go far enough’.[3]

Even in its liberatory aspects, I found Bloom’s theory of influence claustrophobic, as though there were no escape from one’s biographical ‘fathers’ (and they were always fathers, as it seemed to me: why was that?). But a course on Shakespeare (which I find ironic, given that he’s sort of the ultimate Big Daddy of English-language literature, more or less no matter where you’re from) gave me a way out, because a fascination with how the likes of Marlowe and other near-contemporaries of his had stitched their texts in and around received texts from Ovid, or Holinshed, or Herodotus, but with a sense of linguistic glee and freedom that seemed at odds with the psychoanalytic wrestle Bloom was serving up to me. I looked hard for a long-term agon in Shakespeare, but found only an early skirmish with Marlowe’s Machiavellian anti-heroes that was mostly thrown off by the time of Richard III, and finally, as it seemed to me, done away with in that tragedy. The metallic, end-stopped quality of Marlowe’s pentameter starts to get worked nice and supple by around this point, and I felt as though this was a kind of assimilation of Marlowe’s heavier line.

When I talked about this in tutorials or with the lecturer teaching the course, Prof. Amanda Piesse, I was told that the apparently deep and playful knowledge of classics was more because playwrights were looking back on work they’d been rote-taught at school, and how their handling of diction had come from imitative essays in the voices of Plutarch, Herodotus, et cetera. This was a bit of a revelation for me. There was a coldness to their approach that appealed to me, the irony or boredom or whatever you want to call it acting as a kind of prophylaxis against the ‘influence’ within the original texts. So this felt like a permission slip of sorts, to ‘imitate’ these heavy guys out of my system, a bit like that anecdote about Pynchon, where he’d vanish periodically in his final year of college, popping his head into his tutor’s office to say, ‘Sorry I haven’t been here: I was busying mastering Faulkner’, and then Woolf, and then Hemingway.

By ‘mastering’, it seems he meant mocking parodies: a lot of which, I think, a lot of V., for example, is made. I didn’t think there was a chance of ‘mastering’ anything by writing imitations, but I do also play quite a lot of music, especially guitar, and I think my way of learning to find my own language on the fretboard by listening out for the unique signatures of, say, Albert King or Albert Collins or Rory Gallagher or what have you felt like something I could apply to writing. I wasn’t trying ot absorb a philosophy or a vision: just a sound. Once I figured out that much of a writer’s signature is patterned after their sonics (and I was very influenced in this by Tom Paulin’s The Secret Life of Poems, which felt like an easier explanation of what Julia Kristeva was saying in her La révolution du langage poétique), I felt like I could more or less go for it.

By the time I got into UEA, I’d been writing parodies for many years, so a course dedicated to the subject felt at once familiar in its initial directions, and exciting in its unfamiliar directions. The latter steered me into an understanding of style as a symptom, in the Lacanian sense. What can’t be assimilated into a smooth, bland mastery of language is, essentially, style, because style is a neurotic rattle at the edge of speech, something unassimilable, unsmoothable, a permanent serration, not capable of being polished away. In this sense, style resembles the sinthôme of Jacques Lacan’s final, twenty-third seminar on Joyce, considered by people like Éric Laurent to be something of a climax to psychoanalytic thought, in which what cannot be cured can at least be used, or converted into a site of enjoyment (jouissance) for its own sake.

In this text, Lacan speaks of Joyce’s style as an expression of a neurotic desire for order, one that he carries ‘so far through his artifice that one wonders whether he isn’t a Saint, the saint homme’[4]. There’s a pun here between symptôme, or the first complaint that brings a patient to the divan of the analyst, and ‘saint homme’: holy man, or some kind of shaman. Adopting what cannot be worked through in analysis becomes, according to Éric Laurent, a style of being – ‘a matter of incarnating the object in a unique way’.[5] Think of this as an analytic version of ‘le style c’est l’homme même’: we are what we can’t cure. Taking this further, the limits of what is curable in ourselves becomes the lineaments of our style – because, if this could be assimilated, then it would be invisible.So the style of a writer is, for Lacan, the site of their symptom (sinthôme), but also the marker of their uniqueness: the neurotic rattle which tells us who is talking.

Later, in Seminar XXIII, Lacan extends the last syllable of saint-homme into Saint-Thomas, after Aquinas, a father of the church. ‘In this way,’ he says, ‘a successful psychoanalysis shows that one can also do without the Name of the Father.’ By making the style of another part of our own literary body, we become identical with it: become, in a sense, our own literary fathers.[6]

If the sinthôme, or the initial symptom, then, is a trace left by our traumatic experience of the father’s body, then its usage becomes the marker under which we form our own churches, or schools of thought, or styles of writing, or relationships with the mother that is language. That serrated edge of style may be a scar, but it’s also a scar from which a print of the originary weapon can be taken, and thus a blueprint for its reuse in cutting a way out from under the various literary fathers piled on top of the beginning writer. But I don’t think we can understand the shapes of our own stylistic scars until we’ve caressed or consumed the shapes of various other literary scars on the bodies of work that we can parody, reduce, and expel from ourselves.

A self, Lacan reminds us, is constructed out of imitation: so, too, are our literary selves, which are at least as multiple as the various guises we weave, don, and discard on throughout our day. This cannibalism may seem like a deepening past taboo of the Freudian agon of Bloom, but this is, of course, precisely my issue with Bloom: his sense of passive-aggression, or masochistic absorption. The style can be turned outwards, as aggression, to cut a back exit from the pressures of literature as received at our beginnings. I think the more styles that are consumed and expelled via parody, the sharper our own instruments for cutting a way out of literature and language and back to our own most private utterances. It’s quite tiring to think in this way, but it’s quite tiring to think in any way at all, and I find that there is a borderline with serenity to be found in the particular grain of tiredness that comes from reducing our forebears to so much imaginative protein that can be sheared off the bone (I should add that I’m a vegetarian, so I’m not sure where all of this is coming from). The back exit is not much, I know, but a back exit will do, where none other is available, and when you’re in the Hell of speech, as Dante reminds us.


How has parody affected your understanding of literature?

Parody gives me faith that there is a way out of literature. Language is a big mirey Hell of muck and miscommunication, and we’ve fallen into it, through all fault of our own, even if that fault may be forgotten to us. Literature is basically a set of tunnels dug by other people to escape from that deep earthy choke of speech that surrounds us on all sides. As I said above, parody gives us a lot of blueprints for finding our own cutting instruments to find a way out of or at least through the mulch. I haven’t seen any light at the other side of what I am digging, and I don’t really expect to, but the fiction of that occurrence coming to pass seems, for now, a serviceable enough fiction with which to keep myself going: until I find some other lie, of course.


[1] Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973, (pp.7-8).

[2] Ibid., (pp.13-14).

[3] Ibid., (pp.13-14).

[4] Jacques Lacan, ‘Joyce the Symptom’, in The Lacanian Review: Hurly-Burly, Delights of the Ego, Issue 5: Summer 2018, pp.13-15; here, p.15

[5] Éric Laurent, ‘A Portrait of Joyce as a Saint Homme’, in The Lacanian Review: Hurly-Burly, Delights of the Ego, Issue 5: Summer 2018, pp.19-31, trans Russell Grigg; here, p.21

[6] Jacques Lacan, Seminar XXIII. Le sinthôme, quoted in Éric Laurent, ‘A Portrait of Joyce as a Saint Homme’, p.30.


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I had been setting essays on Renaissance sonnets for a number of years. Students were producing solid, competent analyses (mainly low to mid-2:1) but the majority of the essays were dealing primarily with the matter or narrative of the sonnet, insofar as a sonnet has a narrative, rather than attending to matters of form – the thing which makes a sonnet a sonnet.

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