The imperfect librarians: myth and resistance in Marcel Proust, Johannes V. Jensen, Virginia Woolf, and Jorge Luis Borges
In Jorge Luis Borges's "The Library of Babel," a library containing all possible combinations of letters in 410-page books, man is the "imperfect librarian." In this parable of the failed human quest for meaning, the librarians become phantoms: they have acquired too clear a view of the chaos and unknowability of existence, and they remain helpless, incapable of even deciphering a single letter.This hyperbole provides an apt prism through which to understand Modernist mythopoesis. My central aim is to produce a comparative theoretical assessment of Modernist mythmaking by using, as primary examples, Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu, Johannes V. Jensen's Myths , Virginia Woolf's novels To The Lighthouse and The Waves, and the work of Jorge Luis Borges. My dissertation focuses neither on uncovering mythical allusions, which would entail what T. S. Eliot called a "mythical method" in Joyce, nor on dispersing myth into an endless cascade of signs in the manner of Barthes or Baudrillard.Instead, I want to tread a kind of middle ground by showing how Modernist mythopoesis operates as a paradoxical double-movement. Each author's work is metaphysically speculative: it breaks temporal boundaries, fragments "reality" into an infinite multiplicity of events, and meditates on higher forms of awareness, all in the hopes of evoking transcendent truths, of recovering shards of memory, of giving emotional meaning to the present. At the same time, however, in order not to fall prey to the chaos made accessible, each author's work incorporates certain features that actually resist their mythic momentum, such that the full extent of the transcendence reached by consciousness remains attenuated.To achieve this renunciation or dispersion, Proust uses thousands of metaphors that resist their own figuration; Jensen explodes the genre of "myth" by including a great number of journalistic and biographical sketches in his myth collections; and Woolf and Borges metafictionally highlight the arbitrariness of cognitive ordering, they disperse their characters' subjectivity, and focus their attention on miniscule, "unimportant" fragments.I conclude by exploring Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities as the postmodern exemplar and successor to this kind of Modernist mythopoesis.