War and Poesis: The Failure of Mimesis and the Redemptive Uses of the Fantastic in Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan and Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West
This thesis examines the difficulties of representing, in fiction, wars that are increasingly irrepresentable because of the ways in which new technology, globalization, and our postmodern condition have complicated historical notions of time and space. I look at the ways in which the fantastic operates in Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan and Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, two texts that respond to World War II and the War on Terror respectively, to demonstrate how fantasy can make up for and transcend the limitations of mimesis in literary representations of war. In this paper, mimesis refers to the realist style of writing that dominated 19th century literature that sought to imitate – in other words, reflect and represent – reality. In mimetic literature, then, the internal world of the text should not just resemble, but be based on, the reader’s empirical reality.
In my introduction, I trace the literary-historical arc of fictional representations of war, and how the new wars of the 20th and 21st century, with their fragmented spatialities, stretched-out temporalities, and multiplicity of actors, resulted in the difficulties of “realistically” condensing into text trauma on such a large scale. I argue that non-mimetic literary representations can help us understand the subjective experience, if not the unreachable “reality,” of such events better. In other words, I argue for poesis over mimesis: the act of creating over simply reflecting.
In the next two chapters, I lay out the theoretical groundwork for the problems of representing war specifically, as well as draw on the current critical conversation in science fiction and fantasy studies to highlight two theories of the fantastic – fantasy as affect and fantasy as technique – that I later apply to my readings of Titus Groan and Exit West respectively.
In the fourth chapter, titled “Time,” I contrast the timeless yet empty rituals of Gormenghast to the overdetermined simultaneity of Exit West’s contemporary protagonists. In the fifth chapter, “Space,” I compare how Titus Groan subverts the affective power of symbolic spaces to thwart the genre reader’s expectations to how Exit West positions displacement as both liberating and dangerously anonymizing.
Lastly, in the final chapter, “Catalyst,” I synthesize the arguments I’ve made regarding fantasy as affect and fantasy as technique by focusing on ritual in Titus Groan and the door-portal as device in Exit West to demonstrate how these specific literary methods are suited to represent the wars the two texts are responding to.
Ultimately, I make the case that not only does fantasy fiction serve as a better means of representing war in literature, certain methods of fantasy are more suited to tackling certain types of wars, as the effectiveness of the breach of the fantastic in the text depends on the empirical reality of the text that has been agreed upon in the first place.