The Problem Of Knowledge In Possession English Literature Essay

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A.S Byatt's award-winning novel, 'Possession' narrates two stories that are set three generations apart, and yet are seen to run parallel to each other. It exposes the mysterious love affair of the deceased yet famous poets: Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel La Motte, and along side it develops yet another romance of the present times between Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey. In the course of the unraveling of the mysterious relationship and the development of a new relationship, Byatt unravels the various themes of the novel, one of the most important being the problem of knowledge. Through this theme, Byatt inverts the seemingly positive aspect of knowledge and shows that while being beneficial knowledge can also become problematic. She also shows how the true meaning of knowledge becomes dispersed and how knowledge becomes to be ruthlessly treated in the hands of characters like Mortimer Cropper. This paper attempts to explore the problem of knowledge that comes out through the modern biographers, mainly concerning Mortimer Cropper, Blackadder, Maud, Roland, Beatrice Nest and Leonora Stern. Through this exploration an attempt will also be made to trace how these characters become entangled in a net of problems either due to too much or too little knowledge.

One of the problems of knowledge can in fact be closely related to the biblical connotation of knowledge which narrates the First Sin of Man committed by Adam and Eve. Their transgression of the bounds laid down by God in the Garden of Eden was the consumption of the forbidden fruit of knowledge. This transgression runs parallel to that of the modern biographers. Initiated by Roland, who discovers two drafts of letters written by Randolph Henry Ash, to an unknown women, he is tempted to unravel his mysterious relationship. Having found out the women to be possibly Christabel La Motte, he begins to dig deeper and deeper into the matter, and is soon joined by other biographers. Thus the biographers transgress the bounds of privacy and intrude upon a personal and intimate relationship between the two poets; a relationship that had even been concealed from the public during its occurrence. While the biographers inquire further and further into the matter, Mortimer Cropper goes furthest in his transgression of all ethical bounds, when he decides to dig up the grave of Randolph Ash in order to excavate from it the hidden contents of a box buried within. Through their transgression, Byatt thus shows how knowledge is problematized, when individual motives get mixed up with the desire to unravel the truth. Their curiosity in fact entangles them in a complex labyrinth as more and more people become involved in the quest and as they are plagued by question after question of the mysterious relationship. Whereas the quest had merely begun with Roland in the first chapter, he is soon joined by Maud. As the novel progresses more and more people become involved including George Bailey, Cropper, Blackadder, Leonora, Fergus Wolf, Euan, Nest, Ariane, even Hildbrand, all emerging themselves inside the whirlpool. The involvement and the curiosity of all the characters thus becomes an endless labyrinth that is foreshadowed by Byatt's epigraph where she quotes Browning:

"how did you contrive to grasp

the thread which led you through this labyrinth?"

It is also worthy of note that while the biographers dig deep into the lives of the past figures through close reading of letters and journals, the Victorian figures like Ellen Ash create further problems. In the editing of Ellen Ash's journal, by Beatrice Nest, Byatt introduces yet another problem of knowledge. While her journal initially comes across as 'rambling and dull'(115), Beatrice Nest later realizes that it was written in order to 'baffle'(220) her readers. Her journal primarily talks of her household duties, and fails to reveal any sign of her sexual inadequacy. Moreover, even though she writes about the mysterious, insistent visitor (Blanche Glover) wanting to confess a matter of life and death, she does not betray her feelings of Ash's relationship with Christabel in her journal. She merely writes: 'My importunate visitor came and we talked some time. That matter is now I hope quite at an end, and wholly cleared up.' (232) Though her journal entries subconsciously become lax and toned down, however there are no explicit revelations, and a biographer with no clue about Roland Ash's secret affair would fail to bring the change into account. Thus, her journal becomes baffling in its 'systematic omission' (221) and Ellen makes it difficult for the biographers to infer her journal. This bluffing can therefore be one reason why the secret affair of Randolph Ash and Chritsabel La Motte remained unexplored, since Ellen Ash's journal does not explicitly reveal anything of the sort.

The digging further into the matter of the secret affair, arouses another problem of knowledge as the characters become gripped with a strong sense of possession of all that they are able to retrieve from the past. When Roland comes across Ash's draft of a letter written for Christabel he steals the papers from the library and later is unable to bring himself to return the drafts to their original place. He feels as if they belong to him and is unable to let go of the letters which to him appeared as if they were 'alive'. As the novel progresses this possessiveness is not only seen in Roland but also in the other biographers. While Roland and Maud had kept their quest a secret from Cropper, Blackadder, Leonara and all the inquisitive biographers, they're secret soon begins to come out into the open and they are forced to escape to a hotel in Brittany. At this time Roland leaves without notifying Val and Blackadder while Maud leaves without notifying Leonara who was visiting her and had given her means to a valuable source that would help forward their quest. Maud however contacts this source without notifying Leonara and wins access to Sabine's journal: a journal that provides information about Christabel's whereabouts in the mysterious year of 1859, when Blanche Glover had committed suicide and Christabel's whereabouts were unknown. The possessive act is confessed by Maud who says: 'All scholars are a bit mad. All obsessions are dangerous. This one's got a bit out of hand' (pg 332) Though the two are possessive of their findings, however the reader cannot help but side with them when Roland points out that 'this is our quest,' for indeed they are in it for the interest they have of the poets while the other biographers crave for the same knowledge but for selfish motives.

The incentive of Roland and Maud to uncover the mysterious relationship between Christabel and Ash lies in their realization of the change it would bring about in the interpretation of their poems. They are aware of the fact that if their discovery was notified to Cropper or Blackadder, the real motive would be lost. Indeed, as the secret is unveiled, Mortimer Cropper and Blackadder become engulfed in a possessive war. Blackadder is merely concerned with important material related to Ash, remaining in British libraries rather than having it carried off to America as was Cropper's desire. Thus these two biographers are largely concerned with the 'possession' of the material in the literal sense of the word and it is in this battle that they get lost in. John T Su comments on the possessive character of Mortimer Cropper, stating that 'Cropper certainly demonstrates no interest in the past as a source of knowledge. Collecting, for Cropper … simply serves as a means of satisfying narcissistic desires'. [1] This is also demonstrated by his attitude toward Ash's watch, as the narrator writes: "For he believed [Ash's] watch had come to him," …"that it had been meant to come to him, that he had and held something of R. H. Ash" (418). Thus for him, knowledge does not serve to enlighten but rather, it becomes a mean for material wealth.

Thus, as the novel reaches an end, we see how Cropper offers Sir George Bailey large sums of money in order to be able to possess the letters as quickly as possible and how Blackadder too attempts to make a quicker move than Cropper in possessing the letters. The two are therefore hardly seen to be concerned with the change it would bring about in the interpretation of the poems as were Maud and Roland. Though Blackadder differs from Cropper in terms of the materialistic greed of Cropper that even transcends all ethical bounds, however in the case of the letters, Blackadder is determined to have possession of them before Cropper. His determination to seize the letters before Cropper makes him forget of the true purpose of the letters and the knowledge that the letters signified. Through these biographers Byatt also criticizes the reviewers/researchers who thus mistreat knowledge rather than respecting it for its true value. It is the inclusion of Blackadder, Cropper and Leonora in the quest that turn the search from a 'good romantic form to chase and race.' [2] 

One of the problems of knowledge that is brought through the biographers can also be linked to Plato's simile of the cave. The simile of the cave, as Plato phrased it, spoke of the 'nation in its education and want of education'. [3] Through the simile of the cave, Plato propagated the concept that only a truly knowledgeable person can perceive the true form of reality rather than depend on the mere shadows seen by the prisoners.

The simile of the cave can be correlated to Possession where the biographers are in a constant quest of knowledge but are seen to be relying on mere shadows. Their knowledge of the Ash-LaMotte relationship comes through letters, some of which are missing and through journals of Ellen and Sabine, who have not documented all the events. Moreover their journals are not complete and certain pages that probably provided important information is deprived to the biographers. Most of what they retrieve is fragmented and does not record all the important events that might help the biographers reach a solid conclusion. With all their pieces of information put together, they are still left with loop holes and confusions that remain unresolved in their knowledge of the Ash-La Motte relationship. Byatt also shows how these sources were unreliable when she includes a small postscript at the end of the novel. While the biographers reach a final conclusion that Ash had never met or known about the survival of his daughter Maia, the postscript at the end reveals to the readers that Ash had in fact met his daughter for an instant and had conversed with her and also recited poetry to her.

Byatt thus suddenly ends the novel with a sudden jolt for the readers, and in the process points out that it is not possible to have complete knowledge. She points out that a reality, that was three generations old and had even been hidden from the public during the time, could not easily be grasped by the biographers. Despite the painstaking efforts of all the characters, the truth remained undiscovered and hence knowledge un-possessed. Thus Byatt also points out that in spite of all that the biographers' had uncovered their word could still not be considered as the 'final word'. Even Ash voices this in a letter where he says: 'A lifetime's study will not make accessible to us more than a fragment of our own ancestral past.'(104)

Furthermore, Byatt also points out how one always approaches reality with a pre-conceived set of beliefs, notions and ideas. This is brought out through Maud who rightly represents man's limited ability to understand truth and possess ultimate knowledge when she says: '(I)n every age, there must be truths people can't fight-whether or not they want to, whether or not they will go on being truths in the future. We live in the truth of what Freud discovered. Whether or not we like it. However we've modified it. We aren't really free to suppose-to imagine-he could possibly have been wrong about human nature. In particulars, surely-but not in the large plan' Through her Byatt shows how man is restricted within the boundaries of ideologies and theories and his explanations of truth be it psychological or philosophical are fraught with misapprehensions doubts and errors. This is also exemplified through the character of Leonora Stern, whose analysis of Christabel La Motte's poetry is primarily limited to the Freudian images of milk, water etc. 'She belongs to a school of critics who treat LaMotte as feminist or lesbian' [4] and thus her interpretation is largely seen to be concerned with sexual interpretations.

Thus, with an analysis of the incentives of the various characters in terms of their quest of knowledge, it can be concluded that the quest of knowledge can be seen to primarily benefit Maud and Roland. These two characters, are seen to grow out of their suppressive shells. While they initially evade the developing intimacy between themselves, they are nevertheless seen to gradually evolve and rise out of the lives that they had initially been bound in. Through this quest of knowledge, they discover themselves and their true feelings. Roland's dissatisfaction with Val and Blackadder dissolves and Maud learns to move on after her break up with Fergus Woolf. The quest for knowledge therefore helps them grow into better human beings and the two enter into a relationship that seems promising.

However, this growth of Maud and Roland is seen to be the only positive result that comes out of the quest of knowledge embarked upon by the biographers. The conclusion that the biographers finally arrive at in fact substantiates the age old saying that man cannot bear too much light. When Maud learns in the second last chapter that she turns out "to be [the] descendent from both…[and hence] would be the outright owner of the whole mass of documents" (503), she is immediately gripped with fatigue and expresses her desire to sleep. Thus, Byatt's novel, 'Possession' expounds upon the various complications of too much knowledge. She shows that too much knowledge can in fact become a burden, and cannot always provide one with the final answers that he seeks. Thus, Byatt ends her novel on the note that while knowledge enlightens the biographers, yet they cannot rely on their conclusions as being the final one. She shows, that while knowledge is beneficial it also creates troubles, and while it enlightens, it also evades.