Colloques & Conferences de l'Universite Lyon 2, Modernism and Unreadability / Modernisme et Illisibilite

"What/How does the unreadable mean?": Unreadability in Ford Madox Ford's The Rash Act (1933)

Christine Reynier

Temps: 2008-10-25  02:00  – 02:30
Dernière modification: 2008-07-07


This paper means to analyse unreadability in Ford Madox Ford's The Rash Act (1933). This rarely mentioned novel, with its intricate interior monologue, its unstable and unreliable narrator and the very indeterminacy of the facts he relates, is certainly unreadable, rather than simply hermetic: it is impossible for the reader to know for certain what happened and who is who.
The meaning of this unreadability will first be examined. In The Rash Act, unreadability may well be interpreted as a mimetic rendering of the difficulties the narrator, who is suffering from some form of shock, has in understanding facts and finding the truth as well as of the reader's difficulties in deciphering the truth. Such an understanding of unreadability as resisting understanding leads us to read the text both as a "picture without a meaning", as Nancy is at the end of The Good Soldier, as well as "a picture without [one] meaning" and a writerly text which foregrounds active reading. Unreadability would therefore posit the text as difficult and as challenging the reader's ability to find "the figure in the carpet"; it would posit Ford's novel as a modernist novel, an elitist novel or an experiment in obscurantism, as the detractors of modernism would have it.
Unreadability may also be construed as a strategy of the narrator to hide the truth and his possible guilt and thus be connected to the issue of morality and the destabilising of moral categories in a post-war world racked by the early 1930's financial and economic crisis.
Even if in both cases, the unreadable induces re-readings and mis-readings, it has to do in the end with the textuality and interpretation of the text.
However, foregrounding unreadability may be a way for F.M. Ford to point out that the novel is not meant to be only read and interpreted. Unreadability may be a way of diverting our attention from the meaning of words and taking us beyond interpretation. In other words, rather than asking simply "what does the unreadable mean?", F.M. Ford seems to ask, as Shoshana Feldman will, "how does the unreadable mean?".
Exploring the answer to this second question, we shall see how F.M. Ford appeals not only to our understanding but also to our feelings and sensibility, how he operates a shift from the issue of morality to ethics and how he works towards the "re-association of sensibility" that T.S. Eliot called for.