Michael Meehan

Deakin University


The Word Made Flesh: Festival, Carnality and Literary Consumption


In the early eighteenth century, they understood the menace of mass, the fuller implications of transposing cultural entities into material forms, the fragile, even perilous nature of negotiations between spirit and matter. The Scriblerus Club, Pope, Gay, Swift, Parnell, Harley and Arbuthnot, still provide us with analytical models, startling and defamiliarising representations through which we may interpret and evaluate the carnal dimension, the fleshly rituals of the modern writer's festival. The principal Scriblerian production, Peri Bathous, or The Art of Sinking in Poetry (1727), constructed its probing satirical analyses in inversion of the Longinian Peri Hupsous, transcribing poetic 'profundity', poetic 'sublimity' into mass, into physical motions - how can we achieve ever greater elevation? how can we achieve greater profundity? - to be transposed into the vast epic games, the grand festival of Dulness in Pope's Dunciad, the competitions to see which poet can probe London's ditches and sewers the deepest, which poets can piss the highest:

Osborne and Curll accept the glorious strife,
(Though this his son dissuades and that, his Wife),
One on his manly confidence relies,
One on his vigour and superior size.
First Osborne leaned against his letter'd post;
It rose, and laboured to a curve at most.
So Jove's bright bow displays its watery round,
(Sure sign that no spectator will be droned).
A second effort brought but new disgrace:
The wild Meander washed the artist's face.

The transpositions are simple, the images telling all, the comic perspective subverting and seducing as we slide relentlessly towards final uncreation, universal darkness. The Dunciad deserves close reading as the epic analogue to the modern literary festival, where much diving and much pissing still abounds. With greater subtlety, though, the Scriberians also participated in the Death of the Author, with an ingenuity that has not been bettered since. The strategy, originating in a proposal from Pope to Swift for a burlesque monthly periodical offering 'An Account of the Works of the Unlearned', hatched in London in the winter of 1713-14 and perpetrated in stages over three decades thereafter, was to create a fictional, synthetic authorial figure called Martinus Scriblerus, to set him up with a biography, to publish all sorts of satirical works and works of learned folly in his name, and thence to ascribe by rumour and bogus attribution that same name to the works of their enemies, as though John Oldmixon, for example, or Hearn or Chetwood or Cibber or Dennis were just pseudonyms for Martinus Scriblerus. The Scriblerians would propagate the suspicion that whatever the likes of Oldmixon might write, and in whatever degree of earnestness, might be no more than learned nonsense, or perhaps just a parody or satire on some other text, setting up a fruitful anguish of uncertainty, instigating public bewilderment, effectively dissipating all confidence in what Roland Barthes was later to describe as the author viewed as 'theological' centre of meaning. Synthetic authorship, parody, fictionalisation of the author and systematic dispersal of authorial authority; what the Scriblerians instituted was a veritable carnival of subversion, seeding every text with the tang of parody, dispersing texts into fragments of allusion, plagiarism, repetition, transmuting earnest scholarship into high comedy.

Martin Scriblerus was potentially everywhere, subtly white-anting every literary text on the market, opening up parodies where no parody was intended, diffusing authorship beyond any theological model of control, and authorising a new and subversive mode of reading of a kind that Barthes would certainly approve. What the Scriblerus project achieved, in the fragments that did emerge through authorship and through outrageous imputation over those succeeding three decades, was an infusing of early eighteenth-century literary culture with deep scriptibilité, the 'birth of the reader' and a new kind of readerly activism, scepticism and authority, subverting all the boundaries of text and authorial control. The Scriblerian project was one where, as Charles Kirby-Miller writes in his edition of the Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus in 1950, 'definite boundaries and limits are difficult to establish' (1950, p 1): all that one read, and indeed, all that one wrote, was at least potentially, a part of the Scriblerian project.

The literary festival, I suggest as a first proposition, lives by 'carnality', by the turning of Word into Flesh, by the materialisation of culture, the manifestation of 'Real Presence'. It thrives as a kind of de-industrialisation ritual, in which the 'disembodied' and depersonalised commodity of the book, the packaged and boundaried text, is sheeted back to physical presence, and is finally authenticated by the reassuring presence of the author. The literary festival is primarily an attempt to resolve the conflict that has developed through the successful commodification and commercialisation of the literary product, on the one hand, and the rage for intimacy and authenticity, on which the taste, the consumer's desire, is largely based, on the other. The panels, the introductory addresses, the readings, the interviews, and the signings to follow are part of this same literary tight-rope walk between intimacy and commodity. The mass-packed, mass consumed product has undoubtedly suffered, as a result of its own success, as a result of mass comestibility. As John Frow has suggested in his chapter 'Signature and Brand' (2002), in Jim Collin's High Pop: Making Culture into Popular Entertainment, it is the packaging of the novel in its transportable, reproducible form that gives it its commercial capability, but which at the same time deprives it of value. The festival presence and particularly the signing, the laying on of hands, goes a distance towards the restoration of value, gives back to the commodity the 'rarity', the sense of 'singularity of performance' that is lost in commercial mass production.

At the festival, it is not just the signing that is significant; it is the signing that one has actually seen taking place, and by someone with whom one has shared a moment of intimacy, however brief. Confessions, brief but often of extraordinary intimacy, do take place over the signing tables. And we have all seen the sad spectacle of racks of 'Signed by the Author' copies languishing on the bookshop racks. What in the observed act of signing adds vitality, personality, even privacy, on the bookshop rack diminishes to a stain, a tare, reduces the book almost to the status of a marked or damaged copy. What the Festival most effectively does is to package the text and the signing together, so that all conflict between public and private is resolved. The punter communes, and then leaves, signed book in hand, in a state of Peace which Passeth Understanding; and beyond this, and all too often, in a state of mind which renders the actual reading of the book unnecessary, in that some deeper kind of 'appropriation' and affirmation seems to have taken place.

In a sense, the literary festival stands in a great tradition. The Rise of the Novel was, explicitly, the attempt to create, in literature, a consumable product - to forge a more liquid literary asset - and in this process, the festive and gastronomic model, the whole notion of digestibility, even the hint of eucharistic ritual, provide illuminating perspectives from which to understand the festival. The novel as offering a 'bill of fare', as offering, at last, a comestible, digestible mode of literary presentation; on this, Henry Fielding's exposition, in Tom Jones, is explicit and detailed. The novel is a tavern. The novel must be jointed for consumption. It must offer its own bill of fare. Fielding, thrown off the stage by the Licensing Act of 1738, denied the 'performative dimension' in writing, successfully assisted in the evolution of new forms of writing that did not require the erotic space, the real presence, for their successful consumption. The process of transformation was overwhelmingly successful. But it was, in its origins, a mode of exile, another form of Swink and Toil, and from the outset, no more than a sorry postlapsarian compromise. It did not account for the yearning. A yearning, in author, in reader, for the intimacy, the eroticism of physical enactment, not to be allayed merely by the proliferation of fleshly metaphor.

From the successful packaging of the book, we have moved, in our time, towards the effective packaging of the author. The modern festival accords with the desire of the author, in its restoration of that lost performative dimension in literary productivity, in the repeal, effectively, of the Licensing Act. It feeds upon the writer's yearning for that 'erotic space' that is still occupied by the other arts, by painting, by drama, by music. There is a good account of this in Geoff Dyer's novel Out of Sheer Rage, his rollicking account of an aborted attempt at a biography of D.H. Lawrence.

Writers always envy artists, would trade places with them in a moment if they could. The painter's life seems less ascetic, less monkish, less hunched. Instead of the austere mess of the desk there is the chaos of the studio; dirty coffee cups, paint-smudged cassette decks, drawings of the artist's girlfriend, naked, on the walls…. For the writer, work is characterized by the absolute cessation of physical movement (all movement is an evasion of and distraction from the job in hand), by a suspension of life. For the painter work means a more intense physical engagement in life, it begins with carpentry (making stretchers) and ends in glazing, varnishing and framing. Even though it thereby involves labour the painter's work - or so it seems to the writer - never seems like work. In the age of the computer the writer's office or study will increasingly resemble the customer service desk of an ailing small business. The artist's studio, though, is still what it has always been: an erotic space. For the writer the artist's studio is, essentially, a place where women undress. Van Gogh may have warned that 'painting and fucking a lot don't go together' but the smell of white spirits and paint is suggestive of nothing else so much as afternoon sex. Personally, I would love to have been a painter. (2000, pp. 150-151)

The festival accords, too, with similar desire in the reader. The link with attentive reading is there, but it is often interestingly attenuated. The questions that follow at the end of many sessions indicate that reading has been passed over, or has been incomplete, setting in motion the quest for some more intimate communication. In particular, what so many of the festival audience seem to be wanting, is to participate in a ritual of authentification, to see that the author exists, and that the book, the fiction, is rooted in that reality. This has its comic aspects. Audiences expect an authorisation of the books through an adequate reality of presence, an adequacy which may have little to do with words and ideas; because most ideas are, as Dyer suggests, 'ascetic, hunched, monkish' things, looking back to the closet rather than out onto the stage. The desire more often has more to do with performance, with Flesh rather than Word, with the demand that the author should offer some kind of dramatic correlative, some carnal equivalence to the expectations raised by the text, and of course, by the publicity material supporting both the text ('acclaimed') and writer ('acclaimed'). Writers frequently comment on the unease of readers, their nervousness that these fictions may ultimately be just that and nothing more, that the whole process is a duping, a mere artful diddling. Smoke and mirrors. Many writers, even on the podium, complain of the burden of readers' expectations in this area, of their fragile yearning hope that they will uncover, through personal contact, some fragment of truth, by anecdote, confession, admission, that will sustain the whole, that will alleviate the deep apprehension that, as Jim Crace put it in Adelaide some years ago, 'he must have made the whole thing up'.

But it is this aspect - the desire to have the writer, at least, be 'real', and to stand in a relationship of dramatic equivalence to the text - that evokes some of the most interesting aspects of festival culture. There is a form of surrogate literacy that has grown up around festivals, in which physical proximity outdoes mere familiarity with texts. 'I've not read James Ellroy, but I have seen James Ellroy. I have not read Arundhati Roy, but I have touched the hem of her garment.' Canny authors on the festival circuit respond, of course, by rising to enact their books. James Ellroy being James Ellroy is a phenomenon that almost ensures the punters will not read James Ellroy, in fear that the disembodied book will not match the Real Presence. To this, we may add our native variants, the phenomenon of the 'bright young thing' - the book-and-author as a kind of performing 'rent-a-package' - and the 'refreshingly spontaneous' anti-ritualisation gestures of your straight-from-the-shoulder Aussie larrikin writer, who mounts the podium and pushes aside his glass of water to set his stubbie and stubbie holder in its place. Which would indeed be refreshing, had you not seen an outbreak of identical forms of spontaneity at the festival before, and the festival before that. These are the true performance artists, licensed again at last, moving steadily and with deeply conscious aplomb into that mystic interplay of carnality and literacy, that eucharistic process in which the Word is Made Flesh, which is at the very heart of festival magic.

With all this - the deeply ritualised assaults on festival ritual, the contrived performances, the deeply fictionalised author authenticating his or her fictional text - the modern festival performs a powerful creating role. Those of us who organise such festivals are reminded by academic colleagues of Barthes' pronouncements, are accused of bolstering the theological illusion and all the misleading mythologies of the author as the single creating source of decipherable meaning. But the festival, at its best, is actually a mechanism for activating the creative capacities of the reader. The festival, well organised, is actually deeply narrativised, with its climax in enhancement of readerly authority and creative participation. The reading dynamic of the modern festival lies in the replacement of 'I couldn't put it down' with 'I just had to keep coming back', in the transposition of the primary strategies and dynamics of engaged reading to those of engaged listening, through drawing on most of the established principles of the rattling good yarn. Hours go into this process. Managing appearances. Organising revelations. Constructing Epiphanies. Plotting denouements. Playing, in particular, upon intermittence - the glimpse, the withholding, the further glimpse. Seeding the festival week, from the outset, with its key themes, its leitmotifs, its dominant metaphors and deep-genre characteristics, be it tragedy, comedy or burlesque, ensuring that these are sustained, re-animated, and carried through to rich synthetic closure at the end.

The festival is full of contradictions and imperfections. What I have called gestures of de-ritualisation, have become deeply ritualised. The assault on the commodity has become a commodity in itself, subject to repetition each time the liturgy is rolled forward from state to state, and from nation to nation, with remarkably little variation in format. The quest for authenticity has become the motor for a whole new kind of literary performance, more heavily 'constructed', fictionalised, narrativised in some ways than the fictive texts themselves. The characteristic overall response of the festival punter, though, is not always one of abasement before the author, whether such authors present themselves as reassuringly 'real', as in the Australian literary larrikin gambit, or, as a heavily fictionalised and most magnificently constructed entity, got up as an appropriate complement to match those expectations generated by the work. Nor is it just gratitude for specific wisdoms, specific disclosures. At its best, the punters retain the impression of a special kind of intertextual and even inter-authorial buzz, as they move steadily through the narrative of the festival, experiencing the opening up of texts, the dismantling of previously authoritative syntheses and the prising apart of resistingly coherent fictional constructs into anecdote, fragment, chance influence, random encounter. In all, I'm talking about a process in which even the superficiality and the fragmentation of the festival has a kind of virtue, in dissipating and dismantling the boundaries of the individual texts. The boundaries of the text are broken down through the reading of snippets. The borders of the text are richly traversed by anecdote. At their best, the authors' panels become forum for the exposition of authorial chance and uncertainty - 'what I was really trying to do was…' - a letting of the reader into the intimate processes of creation, into Barthes' 'multidimensional space', as the true source of writing. At its best, it is an opening up of the creative process, a passing over of power and a diffusing of scriptibilité, with its richest issue in the growing idea, as one passes through the festival narrative, that one should oneself, perhaps, in the end, 'have a go'.

There are dangers. The traditional polarities in our writing culture were literature, on the one hand, that is designed to last, and on the other, flesh, which as we know, does not. Mutabilitie. The fleshly brings with it ripeness, but it is putrescence that must follow. The upside of Real Presence is freshness, youth, and impressively crafted performances of spontaneity. The downside lies in the radical contraction of the temporal frame within which we conceive our literature. The bookshop shelf-life of most fiction is shorter than that of yoghurt. Most novels, in Australia, slip into remainder almost as their writers leave the podium. In Australia we live, one of our most distinguished writers has often lamented, in a 'culture without a backlist'. Carnality implies aging and death. What we truly risk, in these new forums of carnal literacy, is deep cultural putrescence.

Which take us back, at last, to Pope's Dunciad, where satiric transformation runs apocalyptic, where the whole of London is overwhelmed by literary festival, and where the 'materialisation', the new commodification of literature leads, in the end, not to enhanced creativity but towards total entropy, and Universal Darkness. Where putrescence hangs like a pall over the city and the odour of human faeces suffuses all. Where even literary creativity itself, which ought to be primarily the expression of mind, becomes the motion of decaying matter, where the

...Warm Third Day,
Calls forth each Mass, a Poem or a Pay:
How hints, like spawn, scarce quick in embryo lie,
How newborn nonsense is first taught to cry,
Maggots half formed in rhyme exactly meet,
And learn to crawl upon poetic feet.

The Dunciad also brilliantly narrativises the festival, as the physical journey through the London streets offers an emblem of the political and aesthetic degeneration that the 'festival' inaugurates; 'The Mighty Mother and her Son, who brings / The Smithfield Muses to the ear of Kings', portrays the culture of the Smithfield markets invading the seats of court patronage. All modes of creativity are registered in terms of 'performance', in terms of physical and fleshly equivalence, either by putrescence or by physical performance, usually of the graphically grossest kind. Until The Yawn of the Goddess Dulness exerts its final uncreating power; Mind shrinks back into Matter, and Matter, into primeval chaos.

There are limits to how far we might want to adapt Pope's apocalypse to 'fit' the modern literary festival, to how far the Scriblerian model of satiric attribution might be invoked to rebuke the emphasis on fleshly presence. They do offer, however, one of the most powerful instances of imaginative carnivalisation in all our literary culture, and ones which forge, through outrageous caricature and deep subversion, a meta-literary inquiry of a kind that takes us deep into the heart of what is happening on the festival podiums around the country. Carnival means 'Good bye to Meat'. 'Farewell to Flesh'. Festival, with its rich comestibility, its enhanced fleshly presences, is actually at war with Carnival, and it is the imaginative power and deep temporal resonance of our literature that will be the victim. The powerfully instructive but grossly materialising satire that The Dunciad offers, that pervades in infective burlesque the whole Scriblerian diaspora of satiric attribution, is premised upon invisibility, in a domain of freedom from the limitations of fleshly presence.

The successful packaging of the book has, as noted above, run over into the packaging of the author. Even anonymous authors, it would seem. We've seen some splendid instances here in Australia, of the invention of the book running one step further into the invention of the author, obscuring, as Kirby-Miller wrote of the Scriblerian activity, 'the already dubious line between authentic and spurious publication until the public became bewildered' (1950, p 29). The marketing of literature through Real Presence, no matter what strength and resonance it may draw from our forsaken eucharistic rituals (Frow, 1998) puts at risk one of the richest veins of invention in our literary culture. Given the centrality of the festival to current marketing strategies, few publishers in Australia will publish the anonymous book, or the book written under a nom de plume. The recent Clayton's version of anonymity that we saw with Nikki Gemmell - the anonymous author you have, when you are not actually having an anonymous author - is an instance of the vicissitudes of anonymous publication and the ingenuity required to have-and-to-subvert, all at once. There is a cost. The Scriblerian persona drew its great strength from disembodiment and invisibility. The 'mysterious Scriblerus' (1950, p 30), being no-one, was potentially everyone. He could potentially infiltrate, inhabit, and subvert any text. He could potentially undermine, from within, almost any attempt at authorial control, the attempt by any writer to set and define the boundaries, to construct the readerly text. The Scriblerian project aimed, as Kirby-Miller suggests, at a rich form of 'public bewilderment'; which would, in turn, generate more challenging writing, and close, sceptical and active forms of reading. The Scriblerian project, with its creative legacy in such works as The Beggar's Opera, The Dunciad Variorum, The Key to the Lock, Gulliver's Travels, and The Art of Sinking in Poetry reminds us. Let us not fear bewilderment. Let us remind ourselves, in the midst of festival, of the vast creative possibilities, the rich imaginative capabilities of disembodiment. Attach the Word too rigidly to the Flesh, and what we all lose is worlds of fine fabling within worlds of fine fabling within worlds of fine fabling.


Barthes, Roland 1975, The Pleasure of the Text, translated by Richard Miller, Hill and Wang, New York.

Barthes, Roland 1982, Selected Writings, edited and with an introduction by Susan Sontag, Cape, London.

Geoff Dyer 2000, Out of Sheer Rage, Abacus, London. Return to text

John Frow 1998, 'Is Elvis a God? Cult, Culture, Questions of Method', in International Journal of Cultural Studies, 1:2, pp. 197-210. Return to text

John Frow 2002 , 'Signature and Brand', in High Pop: Making Culture into Popular Entertainment, ed. Jim Collins, Blackwells, Oxford. Return to text

Charles Kirby-Miller (ed) 1950, Memoirs of the Extraordinary Life, Works, and Discoveries of Martins Scriblerus (written in collaboration by the Members of the Scriblerus Club: John Arbuthnot, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, John Gay, Thomas Parnell, Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford), Yale University Press, New Haven. Return to text

Alexander Pope 1965, Selected Poetry and Prose, introduction by William K Wimsatt Jr, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York. Return to text

Alexander Pope 1968, The Dunciad Variorum ( With the Prolegomena of Scriblerus London, 1729), Scholar Press, Menston.




Michael Meehan is Head of the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University. He won the New South Wales Premiers Award for his first novel The Salt of Broken Tears in 2000, and has published novels in Australia, the US and the UK. He was Chair of Adelaide Writers Week in 2000 and 2002, and writes principally in the area of eighteenth-century studies, and Literature and Law.

Back to Contents

TEXT Special Issue
No 4 October 2005
Editors: Wenche Ommundsen and Maria Takolander
General Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb