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Who Put the Blood in the Oranges?

John Hawkes and the Reading of The Blood Oranges1

by Bertrand Gervais and Anick Bergeron
Université du Québec à Montréal

Published in French as: Gervais, Bertrand and Anick Bergeron (2001), "Porté disparu... John Hawkes et la lecture des Oranges de sang," Poétique, vol. XXXII, no 128, pp. 487-505.

What part does the writer play in the readings of his text? The question seems naive; the case, already closed. Since Roland Barthes’ declaration concerning the death of the Author in 1968, we agree upon the fact that his role is minor. He is said to have no credibility, reduced to being but a visitor within his text, a figure in the carpet, a character made out of paper (Barthes, 1986).

This death has imposed itself as a theoretical principle. As developed during the second half of the twentieth century, methodologies in literary studies stemming from structuralism and other textual theories have shared this conception of the text defined as autonomous; the author has gradually been set aside, no longer considered a convincing voice in the text’s understanding and interpretation. And the growing number of departments and graduate programs in language and literature, the development of scholarly journals (both traditional or on the Internet), the increase of university and professional readers, which have furthered the development of even more complex reading practices, have confirmed the validity of such a principle.

But is the author’s death genuine? It is a symbolic gesture, liberating the reader to do what he pleases with the text. Has it changed his behavior in any important way? Judging how criticism and literary reading have worked during the past three decades, we must acknowledge that this declaration of the author’s death has not affected reading practices as such. In situations of commentary and literary reading, we find that readers have continued drawing information and interpretative keys from authors, the voices of these authors adding themselves to other sources of knowledge on the text. As dead as they were known to be, authors were only... reported missing. And what had been taken away from them in theory, that is, in text theory, was handed back to them in reading situations. We contend that, despite the declaration of their death, authors have been present all along.

According to Maurice Couturier, if by “overlooking the author”, the works of the first narratologues and text theorists have considerably increased our knowledge of the novelistic text, “the anti-author activism is useless”, and it is time to “question the structuralist and deconstructionist processes which, by disqualifying the author figure, have authorized scientific or pseudo-scientific arrogances, and many delusions” (1995, 19). John Halperin shares the same opinion, declaring that “[i]t is time to put the author [...] back into literary studies” (1988, 67).

In fact, the example we set out to study in this article stems from the hypothesis that the return of the author is already a given fact – at least within critical discourses –, that the boundaries separating authors from readers are already opened, letting through anyone interested. If, as Roland Barthes suggested, the birth of the reader had to be “requited by the death of the Author”, the development of the former seems to have come through with the rebirth of the latter.2

But such a rebirth is possible, among other things, because authors can compete with their readers: they master the same critical discourses. Often indeed, they have equivalent background and come from the same university programs as their readers (or from creative writing programs); they more or less know the same theories and methodologies, the same principles. They are therefore quoted more and more often since they are familiar with the same tools. Some authors know as well as their readers which theories will be used to comment their work: think of Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, Tony Morrison, Rikki Ducornet, etc. Literary postmodernism, for instance, relies on a mixture of complex narrative strategies and of critical discourses developed in the past decades, in fields such as contemporary literary and social theories. Some readings and interpretations are anticipated or even provoked by interviews and essays.

To convey the place an author can occupy in the reading of his text, in a contemporary context, we will develop one example in depth: the interventions of John Hawkes on his 1971 novel The Blood Oranges. We will see that these interventions have held an important role in the critical and interpretative discourses about his novel. They have even perverted some of the novel’s facts, causing readers to commit a surprising reading error. Yet, we are not talking about a marginal writer, nor of amateur critics. Hawkes is an important avant-garde writer of the second half of the twentieth century, on whom many thesis and monographs have been published. An author who drew a lot of attention, all the more so since his novels confront us with important reading problems. Indeterminacies are numerous, and the coherence often seems to be on the verge of collapsing. Such texts require complex interpretations and reading strategies. The important role Hawkes held in the evaluation of The Blood Oranges is maybe a symptom of the difficulty readers have of filling the gaps while describing a text. The risk of misinterpreting it or simply of forgetting some important aspects, which could invalidate the reading, is great. What hypotheses can one use in interpreting such texts? How can one be certain of their legitimacy? Who else but the writer can suggest an answer that will allow the gaps to be filled in an efficient way?

Who Put the Blood in the Oranges?

It is quite common to see writers involved in the reading of their works. We can simply remember Vladimir Nabokov’s interventions: his comment on professor Botkins introduced a third figure in the debate to know who, of John Shade or Charles Kinbote, was responsible for the “hoax” in Pale Fire. In the same way, John Hawkes’ triad on sexuality, which includes The Blood Oranges, Death, Sleep and a Traveler and Travesty, has become a triad because its author designated it as such (Hawkes, 1976). Critics simply followed his lead.

A lot has been written about this triad: the author himself has commented on it in numerous interviews. Thus, the readings of the three novels were influenced by his comments. To mesure Hawkes’ impact, we will look at how critics treated an indeterminacy found in The Blood Oranges, as well as the role played by the author in subsequent interpretations. The specific scene concerns the death of one of the characters, Hugh. In Humor of Blood and Skin, an anthology of novel excerpts preceded by brief introductory notes, Hawkes summarizes his novel:

[...] Cyril, a self-styled “sex-singer,” tells the story of how he and his wife Fiona seduced another couple in a barren village in a hot “mythical” mediterranean world known by Cyril as Illyria. Hugh, a one-armed photographer of what he calls “peasant nude,” is a comic and bitter Malvolio who refuses until too late the advances of Fiona; Catherine, the fourth member of this quaternion, and Hugh’s wife, is the bovine mother of their three children. (1984, p. 164.)

Hawkes also mentions that after this quaternion, Hugh hangs himself, Catherine drifts in a catatonic state and Fiona leaves Illyria with Catherine’s three children. Cyril, impotent after this series of catastrophes, stays on the island, where he tries to regain his old power of sex-singer and to recover Catherine’s love while telling their story.

Hugh’s death is a turning point in the novel. But it is also a problematic moment, built on a fundamental indeterminacy. The scene has brought about diverging interpretations, many opposed readings. In fact, Hugh’s death has been depicted either as a suicide or an accident, depending on the value given to the author’s comments, who did not stay passive... To show what is at stake, we will first present Hugh’s death as it appears in the novel. We will then look into the interpretation given by Hawkes in various interviews, which will lead us to study the novel’s reviews and readings, in their interpretation of this death.

The novel is made up of fragments which don’t respect, in their sequence, a chronology. We come and go from past to present, events passing by according to an emotional and symbolical logic, rather than a factual one. When the narration starts, Hugh’s death is already a fait accompli (from the first pages on, Catherine is presented as his widow), but the reader will encounter this scene at the end of the text only. It is presented in two parts. In a first segment, after Hugh’s funeral, Cyril talks to Catherine, insisting on “the accidental nature of Hugh’s death”, explaining that it was “an accident inspired, so to speak, by his cameras, his peasant nudes, his ingesting of the sex-song itself. It was not our shared love that had triggered Hugh’s catastrophe.” (1971, 211). According to Cyril, Hugh’s death depended only on him. And he completes his explanation by insisting on the fact that it is certainly not a suicide (211). At this point of our reading, we can only believe him, the circumstances still being unknown to us. They will appear some fifty odd pages later. Fiona, worried about Hugh’s absence, drags Cyril in the photographer’s studio, where they make their macabre discovery: Hugh is hung. Fiona unsuccessfully attempts to save him. She tries to lift the body in order to reduce the rope’s tension, but nothing works. Cyril describes the scene:

[...] Yes, Fiona and I were competitors for Hugh’s life from the first moment we intruded upon the scene both of his art, as he called it, and his death. And I too was active, except that I saw in a glance that the rope was much to thick and much too tight for Fiona’s courageous efforts, no matter how sensible they were on the surface, and understood at once what Fiona in all her intensity and devotion could not perceive – that our only hope was to cut him down immediately. So rather than join her in the corner, where now she was making soft agonizing sounds of comfort, I turned instead to Hugh’s enormous homemade worktable and with a single heave cleared it of pans, traps, labyrinthine pieces of equipment, glass-stoppered bottles. Quickly I dragged it into position beneath the great rusted hook which, like a beckoning iron finger, held the end of the rope. And noting the open eyes, the smile on the open mouth, the sweat still fresh on his pitted brow, the glossy photograph clenched in his good hand, the white feet side by side and suspended only a few inches from the floor, quickly I stood on the table and freed the rope and helped Fiona lower him gently, swiftly, to the bare floor that was now Hugh’s crude temporary bier. (266)

Here, we have all the reasons in the world to believe Hugh committed suicide, even if Cyril insists on the accidental nature of this death. Therefore, at the end of the segment, Cyril repeats his argument: “ At least it was an accident. At least he wasn’t trying to kill himself...” (268), he explains to Fiona. And she responds: “ It was bound to happen. If not now then later” (268). Nothing, however, seems to confirm the accidental nature of this death. Hugh hangs on a rope in his studio and very few indications lead us to think this could possibly be a mistake. In fact, the first reviews all talk about suicide, without exception. And it is only from the moment when Hawkes claims during interviews that Hugh’s death is, on the contrary, an accident, that the idea appears in critical discourses.

In an interview published in 1975, John Kuehl questions the fact that Hawkes doesn’t consider Cyril to be responsible for this death, responsible in the sense that his attitude would have pushed Hugh towards suicide. The author answers:

He didn’t cause Hugh’s death at all. Hugh dies because his solipsized sexual impulses and his puritanism were finally too strong even for Fiona. In other words, the action of the novel is Hugh’s resistance to Fiona, which climaxes in his forcing the chastity belt upon Catherine, which in turn precipitates Cyril’s major effort to convince Hugh to accept Fiona’s love. But after the argument in the grape arbor, which Cyril wins, there follows a long idyllic period in which the four characters are actually intermingling their loves, as the jacket says. What’s left out is that all this time, while Hugh is finally knowing Fiona sexually, he has nonetheless still been experiencing his own inner solipsized sexual life through his photographs and that dangling rope. [...]

Hugh doesn’t mean to kill himself. He means to undergo a partial hanging in order to experience sexual release, but he slips and thus accidentally dies. I meant the death of Hugh to trick the reader into thinking of it as a moral judgment on the multiple relationships – but to me it is not. Hugh’s death is thoroughly absurd. (Kuehl, 1975, 168-169)

Hawkes maintains two surprising ideas. First, that Hugh undergoes partial hanging to achieve sexual pleasure. The novel doesn’t present any scene where Hugh indulges himself in this rather uncommon activity (and the few textual fragments which could validate this hypothesis are minimal and scattered throughout the novel; we will address this later). Furthermore, the author says he has voluntarily omitted certain details to lead the reader on the wrong path. Accordingly, this supposes two readings of the novel: a first where we would be fooled by the idea of a moral judgment; and a second where the outcome would be our belief in the hypothesis of partial hanging and accidental death. The axiology is then reversed. The sexual extension advocated by Cyril is no longer condemned by suicide; it becomes the paradise it used to be and which Hugh’s deviant practices had nearly tarnished. Yet, as adequately shown by the critics published before the interviews’ publication, no one accesses the second conclusion without Hawkes’ help. No one admits the straightening of these values.

Hawkes’ statements suggest a surprising conception of the text. There is that which is written and which the reader can understand while reading the novel; and there is that which is not present in the text, but which is as important. Following this logic, the text is not an autonomous object, something which exists independently of its author’s intentions. It represents only partially what is at play, what the novel is, as if it couldn’t exist without marginal notes, without comments which would clarify its axiology and desired effects. Hawkes talks of his text as a trap. A trap so well set that readers don’t understand they got lured into it. A trap, in fact, of which we must reset, very artificially, the mechanism.

In subsequent interviews, the author maintains his point of view. Talking about the scene where Cyril and Catherine assist to the launching of a boat, he says: “It is the moment when the narrator is resuming his relationship with a woman whose husband had died inadvertently, not by suicide but inadvertently, because of the sexual relationship between the two married couples.” (Hawkes, 1976, 268) In another interview, he gives more details. While being questioned on Hugh’s “apparent” suicide, Hawkes answers:

But he’s not a suicide. I tried to make clear in an earlier interview that Hugh’s death is not a suicide at all but an act of coupe courte—sexual fulfillment through pseudo-hanging. He makes a mistake and dies, but he dies from his own solipsistic, not in any kind of moral reaction to Cyril. (Emmet and Vine, 1976, 168)

The author insists: Hugh’s death is not a suicide, but an accident ensuing from a sexual practice: coupe courte, a practice borrowed from the Marquis de Sade’s universe. In an interview given to Santore and Pocalyko, he claims that “[...] all the while Hugh is involved with Fiona, he nonetheless daily performs coupe courte. He goes through a pseudo-hanging in order to give himself the ultimate sexual release—which is described in Sade’s Justine—while he is looking at a photograph that he himself has taken.” (1977, 181) It is interesting to note that, in this interview, Hawkes admits his character’s death creates an interpretive difficulty. But he still maintains the accidental death argument, acknowledging a textual clumsiness and proposing a solution:

[...] Hugh didn’t mean to hang himself. He was simply trying to have a superb private ejaculation. Now the reason that you can’t tell that from the novel is that we have only Cyril’s word for it; but as my student pointed out, I could have given Hugh something like a little bench to stand on for his ritual. If that object had not been far from his feet, we would then know that he died by accident, because someone who intends to commit suicide by hanging will kick the object—the bench—far out of reach so as to be absolutely certain to die. One little detail would have changed the entire interpretation of his death. (1977, 181-182)

The solution given by Hawkes to lead us to the accidental death hypothesis appears to be, to say the least, lame. The presence of a stool doesn’t rule out suicide totally. At best, it creates doubt... As of concluding Hugh hung himself inadvertently while practicing coupe courte, there is a step we cannot take alone.

The text is imperfect, at least in the author’s eyes. Since it doesn’t command the desired readings, Hawkes attempts to correct it. He invents a second text, a substitute for the first which, this time, answers perfectly his poetic. What is surprising is the number of critics who have followed Hawkes in this public re-writing. Starting in 1975, the year of Hawkes’ first statement on the accidental nature of Hugh’s death, coupe courte has taken up suicide’s place.

What’s left out ...

The first period of reception, and perhaps every readers’ first reflex, maintained suicide as the cause of Hugh’s death. These readings precede, for the most part, the publication of the interviews (and when they are subsequent, and interviews appear in the bibliography, no mention is made in the analysis of this precise case). The argumentation always gravitates around the same elements: Hugh doesn’t share Cyril’s sexual ideal; he is traditional and monogamous while a lifestyle, far from his own habits, is imposed to him. Lois A. Cuddy believes that feelings of guilt and remorse are the very foundations of Hugh’s world, and they ruined him (1975, 18). The pressure Hugh suffers from is declared unjustified. For Gerard Weales, the novel tells “[...] the story of two couples who become, briefly, a community of shared sexuality, hetero only, which collapses in disaster when the reluctant one of the four—a male member, to use a locution that might have dropped from the narrator's lips—unable to face the psychological (spiritual?) pressure of the openness implicit in such an understanding hangs himself.” (1971-1972, 729) Hugh’s character is simply not meant to answer Cyril’s plans. As Charles Moran specifies, “Hugh is self-destructive, misogynous, misanthropic, onanistic, jealous, possessive” (1971, 842). Joseph James opposes the character to Catherine (Hugh’s wife) who participates fully in the narrator’s pagan sexual rites and games (1977, 795).

The critics generally oppose the masculine characters present in the novel. Michel Turpin says that Hugh is the “chthonian character”, the counter-hero, Thanatos, while Cyril would be Eros (1986, 106). And it is he who is responsible for Hugh’s death: “Hugh’s death, if it provides him with his definitive otherness, is also the sign of Cyril’s radical alienation: [..] he carries in him the wound of the always absent other, carries his own death, his irreducible difference, a fermenting agent for his worries.” (1986, 107) Lawrence Thornton articulates it otherwise, but the argument remains the same: “whether Hugh should or should not cling to the traditional sexual morals he believes in is less important to the novel than the fact that Cyril forces his vision onto Hugh and in doing so kills him” (1984, 189). When Cyril is not accountable for this death, it is Hugh’s character that is at stake (Clark, 1978, 21).

In this perspective, Cyril’s statements on the accidental nature of this death cannot be taken into consideration, or they appear as ways of refusing all responsibility. Hugh, explains Turpin, “breaks the coherence within Cyril’s world, introducing a causality which implies the latter, and which he refuses.”(1986, 106) Cyril cannot accept Hugh’s suicide because it sets forth an implacable and annihilating critic of his dream of heavenly sexual extension. And that is very much as Hawkes had understood it! Viviane Forrester had identified the same stakes: “Fiona seduces him, but [Hugh] evades Cyril’s schemes; and when they succumb, he dies immediately, hung, destroying carefully threaded networks, while the leader, relentless in his catastrophic innocence, only affirms that Hugh “was not trying to kill himself.” (1973, 13) Some authors give no justification, simply stating his suicide (La Polla, 1983; Klein, 1977).

The accidental death theory surfaces in the mid-70’s. It is the second period of reading, contaminated, in a way, by the interviews Hawkes has started to give. As a matter of fact, the explanations and justifications reflect the author’s words. It is an “absurd” accident or gesture, will exclaim Ziegler (1983, 208) and Hornung (1981, 170); a supposedly accidental death (Steiner, 1977, 128; Rosenzweig, 1982, 154). Often, critics elaborate on the type of accident Hugh had. Enid Veron specifies that Hugh achieves orgasm by pseudo-hanging, which leads to his death (1977, 67). According to Jeffrey Laing, Hugh “achieves sexual gratification by hanging himself from a noose amidst his life-denying, photographic collection of peasant nudes” (1977, 126). Some critics don’t even mention the interviews, but the majority quotes or includes them in their bibliography. One of them leaves it all up to the author. Tobin therefore states that Hawkes version, since it is the author’s, is the right one. And the first critics of the novel who didn’t have this information, “who did not have the benefit of the author’s corrections” (1987, 296), are simply faulted!

A familiar portrait can be extricated from the last critical posture. Hawkes’ novel is incomplete, his statements are essential to the text’s correct understanding... In fact, the trap placed for the reader seems to have been too efficient, since no one even realized a trap was set prior to the author’s rectifications.

The interviews help us pass from the first stage of reading to the second. Of the experience of the novel, what the first critics said based only on the text itself, we have passed to an informed reading, one which has taken into account the already-said comments. This explains a posture such as Ferrari’s, who sets forth Hawkes will to mislead the reader: “Cyril selects and interprets his material in accordance with his theory, and at the same time, Hawkes purposely places the scene in which Hugh accidentally hangs himself immediately after the one in which he finally makes love to Fiona in order to fool the reader into interpreting Hugh’s action as a moral judgment on Cyril’s attempt to institute sexual multiplicity.”(1995, 96) Such an interpretative posture becomes possible only when the author’s comments have been totally assimilated. The novel is read with an additional textual component: “Hawkes elicits sympathy for Hugh to the extent that the reader could mistake Hugh’s hanging as a moral judgment against Cyril.” (1995, 98) But the only way to elucidate this misinterpretation is to evaluate it in the light of a truth, established by the source of authority on the text which is its author.

Hawkes’ propositions taint all the readings which have been made of the novel, even those which try not give way to integrating those elements. We are then set in total ambiguity. Pierre Gault, for example, never mentions that Hugh’s death is an accident. He simply says that Hugh hangs himself (1984, 192), but he does refer to the character’s sexual practice: “In the face of Hugh’s corpse, still holding in his hand an erotic photo which catalyzed his last orgasm, Cyril has well lost his autonomy, and accessed a disorder he cannot master. Before this foreigner of which the last gesture was to imagine the obscure links between death and desire, Cyril has recognized in himself the signs of a symbolic order which he believed, narcissistic thought, he could avoid.” (1984, 201) Jack Byrne, on the other hand, talks of a “possible suicide”, no more than that (1983). His hesitation leads us to believe that the accidental death possibility has questioned what would never have been problematic otherwise. Lesley Marx discusses Hugh’s sexual practice by saying that: “[I]n the act of coupe courte, he brings life, sex and death to an extremity of consciousness, but unlike Sade’s libertine, passes through the void. Surrounded by the darkness of his room and the collection of nudes, he dies amid the icons that shadowed his life.” (1997, 69) But contrarily to other critics which note Hugh’s sexual choices, she still talks of suicide twice (1997, 71, 74). It seems as though she took from Hawkes’ reading what sounded coherent, rejecting the rest.

Two critics propose the two interpretations simultaneously. After quoting Hawkes, John Kuehl states: “Accidental or intentional, Hugh’s death occurs in an appropriate setting, for the studio overlooking the canal aligns him with the retarded natives.” (1975, 135) C.-J. Allen minimizes the importance of the cause of Hugh’s death: “Whether his hanging is a suicide as most commentators have understood, or an accident in an act of autoeroticism as Hawkes claims he intended, is less important than its destruction of Cyril’s tapestry.” (1979-1980, 583) Yet the cause of this death changes the novel’s interpretation. Suicide makes Cyril responsible, while the accident exonerates him, Hugh becoming a killjoy, a hypocrite and puritan who spoils Cyril’s “tapestry”.

In two other cases, critics even talk about accidental suicide. Heide Zeigler says that Hugh “commits more or less an accidental suicide” (1989, 66). Later on, she mentions this suicide is “questionable” (1989, 68). The slightly paradoxical expression of accidental suicide is not of Hawkes doing. At least, not directly. It also appears in a question addressed to Hawkes by Santore and Pocalyko: “How can there be an accidental suicide?” (1977, 181) In his response, Hawkes doesn’t repeat the paradox. The two interviewers will use it again in the following questions, referring to the condemned suicide of Cassandra, to the “accidental suicide” of The Blood Oranges and to the deliberately planned suicide in Travesty. If Santore and Pocalyko partly justify the paradox with the types of suicide occurring in Hawkes’ work, Ziegler repeats it as well without even explaining it. Anne Claus also uses the expression in her comparative analysis between The Blood Oranges and The Good Soldier3 by Ford Maddox Ford. She presents Hugh’s death as an “accidental” suicide (1978, 183). This reading even influences the interpretation she makes of Ford Maddox Ford’s novel, since she says the following about the narrator’s wife: “Florence, sensing that Edward’s wandering affections are turning from her to Nancy Rufford, commits “accidental” suicide [...]” (1978, 182) We have here a true contamination of one reading to the other. If, within Hawkes’ novel, the accidental nature of Hugh’s death isn’t questioned, (Fiona and Catherine accept Cyril’s arguments on this issue), Florence’s suicide is clearly stated in Ford’s text.

At the other end, two critics have questioned Hawkes’ interpretation. Hence, Donald Greiner refuses the accidental death theory. In fact, when Comic Terror: The Novels of John Hawkes was first published in 1973, the interviews were not available yet. But he chose to confront Hawkes’ reading in the new 1978 edition. He stresses that “there is only the slightest hint that Hugh’s death might have accidentally occurred during indulgence in one of his masturbational (sic) fantasies” (1978, 238) Even if Greiner doesn’t refer directly to Hawkes’ statements, his comment clearly acknowledges the author’s argument and states his own disapproval.4 Steven Abrams also believes the novel doesn’t support Hawkes’ reading. He sees a few clues alright, but they become relevant only when Hawkes intervenes. Abrams concludes that we cannot come to Hawkes’ solution without his help. “[...] masturbation by partial hanging is not such a common idiosyncrasy that the reader would be likely to think of it himself. Cyril’s clues, even given the support which the text supplies, are simply not explicit enough.” (1978, 108) Abrams emphasizes the fact that the author deliberately tried to fool his reader (he is referring to Kuehl’s interview). In fact, Hawkes has done it so well that his reader’s can’t even find the coupe courte solution themselves. Yet is this solution really worthy? Is it convincing and plausible? Who really knows what is at play?

The Rope, the Stool and the One-Armed Man

The reference to a sadian intertext in the case of coupe courte, this asphyxiating sexual practice, reveals Hawkes’ implicit, perhaps unjustified influence upon his readers. This intertext doesn't seem obvious within the novel; in fact, it only appears when the author brings it up. This can easily be proven because it comprises at its core a translation mistake, a mistake constantly repeated by critics. That is to say that critics have relied on the author’s words without even verifying the original text to see, consequently, the mistake which was committed.

In Sade’s Justine, strangulation is first and foremost a treatment inflicted upon the heroin by Roland, her torturer of the moment. Justine stands on a stool, a rope around her neck, a cutting billhook in hand. Roland holds a piece of thread tied to the stool. When he pulls the thread, Justine must use the billhook to cut the cord, failing which she will die hung. Obviously, she gets no pleasure out of this experience; it is rather Roland which enjoys his power. He will repeat the game with Justine and Suzanne, who will die. We learn that the game is called “coupe-corde”. Coupe-corde rather than coupe courte, as Hawkes had mentioned. In the English version of Sade’s novel, the expression used is “cut-the-cord” (Sade, 1990, p. 685). The error comes from Hawkes, or from the people who transcribed his words during the interviews. As for the critics, they all systematically use coupe courte.5 That the borrowing is declared or not, the author figure is necessarily revealed by this mistake, and, with it, its hegemony on subsequent readings.

But let us return to Sade’s novel. The experience is repeated a third time, but it’s Roland who puts the rope around his neck. He informs Justine of the process:

“You will do to me everything I did to you; I’ll strip; I’ll mount the stool, you’ll adjust the rope, I’ll excite myself for a moment, then, as soon as you see things assume a certain consistency, you’ll jerk the stool free and I’ll remain hanging; you’ll leave me there until you either discern my semen’s emission, or symptoms of death’s throes; in the latter case, you’ll cut me down at once; in the other, you’ll allow Nature to take her course and you’ll not detach me until afterwards.” (1990, 687)

Justine is quite surprised at the pleasure Roland takes at this little game. At this point, many details need to be looked into in order to compare Sade’s text with Hawkes’. First off, in Sade’s work, two people are needed to play cut-the-cord. With a good bit of imagination, we can see someone doing this alone, yet the experience is somewhat more complicated. Also, the sadian imaginary has accustomed us to these types of scenes, described in length. In Hawkes’ novel, the action is implicit: the reader arrives on the scene after Hugh’s death. The only clue for an accident is granted by Cyril, in his conversation with Fiona. But its true nature is not explicit in the novel. In fact, Cyril being the only narrator of these events, his point of view can easily be questioned.

A few clues have been scattered in the novel. Cyril states, long after the discovery of the corpse, that “[...] his pain, at least, is a pain I have never known. Not for me the red threads around the neck, the pillow in the open mouth, the ruptured days, the nights of shouting, the nights of trembling on the toilet.” (58, our emphasis) These red threads can indicate strangulation, but the text insists mostly on jealousy (Hugh’s, not Cyril’s), jealousy which could be the cause of a suicide. The other textual moments which would meet the accidental death theory can also be interpreted as clues indicating suicide: the allusions to the fact that Hugh died because of love, the memory of his head in a knotted rope, the reference to his secret life. We also know he sometimes masturbates, since Cyril witnesses it. But masturbation is a familiar practice which we cannot associate to peculiar sexual activities such as cut-the-cord. The chastity belt could, possibly, evoke a sadian universe. But Hugh uses it upon Catherine to signify his discontent, not by perversion. In short, the sadian intertext and the accidental death theory don’t really appear at the surface of the text.

There is an evident gap between what the novel contains and what the author thinks he said and tries to rectify swiftly. Yet, considering the important number of critics that maintain the accidental death theory, we are in our right to wonder about the impossibility to see the accident within the novel. Is it a case of critical stubbornness? A refusal to read what is however present? We will answer that the readings taking into account the accidental hanging only appear after the publication of the first interview. Moreover, the accident is detailed in length in the articles, while it is only implicit in the novel. The arguments in favor of this possibility quickly leave the novel’s boundaries to concentrate on the interviews, the epitext. Furthermore, a fact has been omitted by all critics, systematically. And this detail makes the accidental hanging not improbable, but strictly impossible: Hugh is one-armed.

We can hardly imagine how Hugh could have simultaneously set the rope around his neck, masturbated and held the picture of the nude peasant in his hand. Of course, if he was touching the ground, the action would have been possible. But the text is precise about it: Fiona puts her hands around his waist to detach the corpse, and Cyril places a table under him: that is to say he is quite high up. In fact, the space around Hugh seems empty of any object he could have used to climb, since Cyril needs to bring the table much closer. There is a windowsill, maybe, which is close by. We can see it clearly: even the question of suicide becomes problematic for a one-armed man in this particular setting. As for cut-the-cord, it becomes highly improbable.6

The fact that most critics have overlooked this detail is not innocent. It seems as though, wanting to justify Hawkes’ interpretation, we had forgotten to review the text and its details. But this also shows the importance critics gave to the author figure concerning the meaning attributed to the text.7 What is surprising in such a context is the negligence of the author himself, who doesn’t think of his own character’s morphology. To insure the moral value of his novel, to show the mechanism of his trap, he comes to forget what he has really invented. And readers to follow him in his disarray. We learn that the author’s words have more value than his writings. His opinions are more important than the facts.

Reported Missing?

If the author is dead, is it a case of suicide or of accident? And was the declaration precipitated? The example of The Blood Oranges and its readings show that, far from the realms of literary theory where this death has served as a defining principle, literary critics have not followed suit. They have let authors continue to play an important part in their work’s reception, suggesting readings, resolving enigmas, even proposing interpretations.

The model of a simple dichotomy between writing and reading, between creative and interpretive processes, is clearly too simple to account for the demands and constraints of literary readings. The boundaries between authors and readers dissolve as soon as both consent to play the same game. From the moment when authors accept, for instance, to go on the critics’ own territory, filling in crucial indeterminacies, sharing knowledge on important aspects of the text. Everything can be used to read a text, including the authors’ words... Especially if they share their readers’ discourse, accept the same rules. John Hawkes clearly did this, behaving as much as an author than as a professor (for thirty years, he taught literature at Brown University), discussing formal aspects in his novel, suggesting interpretations, understanding the theoretical problems raised by his text and willing to explain his poetics. And we have seen how his interventions did orient the readings, identifying an intertext (Sade’s Justine), privileging a specific hypothesis, etc.

But John Hawkes’ interventions only represent one moment in the reading of The Blood Oranges. Studying the critical discourse on the novel allows in fact to illustrate how interpretation evolves over time, how external as well as internal factors intervene in the reading of a text, and how, once an opinion is forged, it can gradually become an fact, even though it is misconstrued (a one-armed man surreptitiously becoming ambidextrous). Readings superimpose one another, at times taking us away from the text, then bringing us closer again. And we are made to understand that the text rarely comes on its own. It is draped in comments and readings, competing to gain the upper hand, sometimes serving, sometimes disserving it.

The different moments of The Blood Orange readings’ are a good example of this. An initial interpretation was proposed. To this were added the author’s comments, who tried to make some adjustments. In fact, his interventions created a strange “dysfunction” within the readings (Charles, 1995). The trap did not function as planned – nobody read Hugh’s death as accidental —, and Hawkes tried to correct its mechanism. But this was achieved only through a complete disturbance of the text. It’s the coupe courte: an explicit dysfunction, simultaneously an incorrect reference and a negligence. Strangely enough, this dysfunction was integrated in new readings, the suicide transformed into an accidental death. Some readings did echo the totality of the process, or placed themselves in precarious balance (Greiner, for example). We can even add our own intervention to the list, deposing a new stratum on top of the others.

We did not set out to conduct a criticism of these interpretations, but stumbled upon the dysfunction created by Hawkes’ interventions and the interpretive community (Fish, 1980) they identified. And a question quickly arose: how could everybody forget this simple and explicit fact, this truth of the text that a naive reader notes and remembers immediately, but that scholarly readers seem to have lost in their discussions and analysis; this banal and ineluctable fact that Hugh only has one arm?

The text, argues Michel Charles, “is what we comment; there is no text, but rather an interaction between the text and its comments” (1995, 47). Whether these comments come from the readers themselves or from the author, brought in the process. There is no blood in the oranges. There never was. However usual the metaphor has become, a pigment does not make a fluid.


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1. Translated from French by Nancy Costigan. The research was made possible by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

2. The author and its rebirth (Burke, 1992), are the objects of more and more research: indirectly, with the works on new autobiographies, enunciation theories, intimate literatures, correspondences, critical editions; directly, through researches on the function-author (following Foucault’s initial thesis [1969]), the author figure (Gass, 1984 ; Bonnet, 1985; Couturier, 1995) on the author within society (Lönnroth, 1984; Wayman, 1991; Gallant, 1992), on the institutional, mediatized or even implicit author (Booth, 1961) and within narratology (Ziegler, 1986). Antoine Compagnon have proposed an extensive survey of this debate and the role of the author in literary studies in Le démon de la théorie (1998, p. 51-110).

3. The epigraph of Hawkes’ The Blood Oranges is taken from Ford’s novel: “Is there any terrestrial paradise where, amidst the whispering of the olive leaves, people can be with whom they like and have what they like and take their ease in shadows and in coolness?” The comparison between the two novels are differently defended whether we accept the suicide or accident possibility. In one of the cases, we answer Ford’s question negatively; in the other, we say yes.

4. He adopts a similar position concerning the interviews in a subsequent essay, Understanding John Hawkes, Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1985.

5. Except one, who actually uses “coup court”, (Weisenburger, 1983, 158), adding to the initial mistake.

6. Let us say a few words of the novel’s movie adaptation by Philip Haas (1977), which can be integrated with the lists of readings and comments on the text. In this movie, Hugh’s death is presented as an accident. But a certain coherence is established in the movie, which is absent in the text. Therefore, the sequence shows Hugh hanging, inches from the ground. His legs are bent, and we easily understand that he could simply move to touch the ground. The photograph is not in his valid hand, but on the ground before him. And his shirt is stained at his genitals’ level by what could only be sperm. Also, Fiona makes a quick comment on the nature of the pleasure Hugh obtained by doing this. We could not say if the figure is clear for someone who doesn’t know the novel’s critics. It however appears to be quite coherent in accordance with the accidental death possibility; we believe that, as in the novel’s case, it doesn’t sustain itself, and Hawkes’ comments (or even that of the critics which repeat them, implicitly or explicitly) are necessary to get to this interpretation.

7. The Blood Oranges is not the only novel which creates reading misunderstandings. The two other novels of his triad also present uncertainties discussed, later on, by Hawkes. In Death, Sleep and a Traveler, one of the characters disappears at sea. Before Hawkes commented this event, the disappearance was considered enigmatic, insolvable. After the interviews, it’s Allert, the novel’s narrator, who is responsible of this disappearance. If the novel doesn’t show the same technical impossibility as in The Blood Oranges, it is still certain that Allert’s murder is presented only from the moment when Hawkes’ interviews are published. In Travesty, the narrative’s ending is an accident imagined by the story’s narrator, who is also driving the car. Here, the figure is inverted. Hawkes states that the accident imagined by the driver is the same as that which occurs at the end of the text. But most critics refused this eventuality, arguing among other things the fact that the novel could not be a monologue by someone who is killed in an auto accident immediately afterward.

original text 2001 / posted with the permission of Bertrand Gervais and Anick Bergeron 2008-04