Under the Parable. Hypertext and trauma in Genetis: A Rhizography

On the surfaceGenetis: A Rhizography by Richard Smyth, a hypertext story published in The Eastgate Quarterly Review of Hypertext (Fall 1996, volume 2, number 4) could be labeled a typical work from the late period of Storyspace hypertext publishing. The growing popularity of the Web put development of Storyspace in a position of catching up with multimedia capabilities of the Web. Thanks to this, apart from the allure of the visualised “hyperspace”, of multi-linear storytelling and associative argumentation, Storyspace of 1996 offered authors a set of functionalities to include sounds, images and even videos in their hypertexts. Multimedia could be displayed and played back on the reader’s machine in a stand-alone mode: a much more reliable way than over the dial up, PPP connection protocols of the early Web. Richard Smyth took most of these Storyspace affordances to their full potential in creating an engaging, multimodal, and intellectually stimulating hypertext in which the myth of creation met the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan, and where metafictional reflection combined hypertext structures with the structure of DNA in innovative ways. 

Under the surface, the neatly composed hypertext, with five clearly separated chapters, here called “plateaus”, of which each opens with its own illustration and a captivating piece of originally composed music, the work conceals a report of a tragic struggle between individual strive for self-understanding and the institutionalised protocols of suppressing it in the face of mental breakdown. I use the term “conceals” not by accident. Casual readers who sample the work by reading, let’s say, 15 lexias from each of the main chapters, are able to enjoy Genetis: A Rhizography as a collection of stories, poems and literary riffs on selected mythical themes of creation, motherhood, fertility, and as meta textual reflection on linearity without even encountering the autobiographical parts that tell the story of a young person coming to his senses while hospitalized in a mental health institution. One can stumble upon its fragments and treat them as an occasional commentary or digression. Then, at some point, a single link could initiate a downward spiral along the staircase of trauma and madness. The autobiographical parts make a lasting impact on our reading experience by turning Genetis: A Rhizography from a postmodern tale of irony, wit and intertextual extravaganza into a report on personal reconciliation with reality when someone’s accumulated knowledge and world view had been shattered. Interestingly, it is the structure of hypertext that is able to combine both of these worlds; to reveal and conceal; to serve as a bridge or as a shield, when necessary. Sometimes, there are links that are better not followed. Smyth calls them the spiral links and advices his readers accordingly. Yet are also links that can take us back from darkness to light, from despair to laughter. And hypertext, to paraphrase Michael Joyce, might be the best way to “say this”. 

Genetis. A Rhizography – Richard Smyth

Yet saying, or seeing, is not enough for Richard Smyth. The author wants to go beyond the treatment of hypertext as compositional structure into the realm of embodiment and experience; hypertext is seen as a vehicle for re-anactment of the represented world in the act of reading. In a subchapter Theory, Smyth writes: 

If theory is meant to help us see, with the purpose of understanding, then the theory of this hypertext is of a blindman, groping in his own darkness.

There may be light to see, but you cannot see. You must feel and smell and hear. You must be close. You must feel the breath of this text. You must share the breath of this text. It must sustain you in some way for you to know it as it is meant to be known. (“blinding light”)

In other parts of the reflection on writing in Genetis: A Rhizography hypertext is aligned with the language of psychosis, and seen as a “schizophrenic text”, not only in a Deleuzian, metaphorical way, but also on a more practical level as a medium of speed, fragmentation, metonymical substitutions, unconnectedness and damage (“such is”). Hypertext seems to able to accommodate this type writing more fully than sequential writing. But can it also heal? 

Genetis: A Rhizography takes its reader, and its writer, on a major quest of finding out if such healing process is possible. The fragmented, disjoined and damaged body of text can – to some extent – be put together by making connections between its “cells”, by discovering shapes these cells form into, and by finding patterns in repetitions that reader encounters on her way. The end result of these non-trivial actions afforded by non-sequentiality of hypertext is a form of totality that Smyth calls a “palace of memory”. Out of single cells, in a process of linking and grouping (Genetis), comes out a new shape (Genesis) with a renewed cognitive potential of reconfigured memories which can put a restless mind at ease and deliver a sense of completion to the reader. At least for moment…. In is strive for signifying wholeness, Smyth’s hypertext echoes Jane Yellowlees Douglas’ I have Said Nothing , Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, Kathryn Cramer’s In Small and Large Pieces, and Carolyn Guyer’s Quibbling. In all of these works, an initial trauma (on figurative or diegetic level) – of an accident, of a disjoined body, of a shattered mirror, or of a repressed memory – invites us to put the pieces back together in the act of reading, via the multiple hypertext traversals. 

Genetis. A Rhizography – Richard Smyth

What is fascinating in case of Genetis: A Rhizography, is the facultative nature encounters with trauma. Within the space of 261 lexias and 344 links only one link, and not the default one, leads to the large autobiographical section “now” on a narrative path labeled “my story”. If readers use default links, triggered in Storyspace by hitting the enter key on the keyboard, this section will remain hidden and the hypertext will cycle between five chapters: Myth, Parable, Allegory, Legend, Theory. As a result, not only two entirely different readings exist, but two different understandings of what the work represents. Only after finding out that there is a fork in “p”, the initial lexia of the Parabole chapter, which diverts us from the default sequence to the lexia “pragmatics” which initiates “my story”, one can fully appreciate the scope, depth and ambition behind Richard Smyth’s work. Finally, in “now” it becomes clear that we are invited on a voyage to the end of the night. However, within the following cluster of 30 cells of “institutional narrative” not everything is revealed, not all dots connected. It is the task of the reader to do so by coming back to segments from Myth, Allegory, Legend or Theory chapters and by making connections expressed not explicitly within the node-link structure but through accumulation of symbols and images the narrative abounds with. What to make of the big mummy with eight breasts? What is the relation between “spiral links”, the snake, the double helix of DNA and letters H and S? In any postmodern fiction these questions would contribute to a game of signification. The “institutional narrative” section of the Genetis: A Rhizography turns this game into a quest for knowledge, changes its dominant from ontological to epistemological, and in doing so brings the work closer to modernist narratives such as Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. Lowry’s cult novel is rich in symbols, myths and prefigurations (from Kabalah, numerology, ancient Mayan imagery) that signal a path out of “a stupid darkness”, which in the end is not followed. The outcome of such epistemological journey, in case of Genetis: A Rhizography , is much more optimistic. To some extent, I believe, it happens because of the choice of narrative medium that Smyth has made. In “now”, that important cell which begins the hospital section, several questions are asked, and hypertext, as form, is able to respond with positive answers: 

The question is this: can we do the work of personal recovery at the same time we are doing the work of scholarly research?

When the boundaries separating what is research from what is personal are crossed.

This is the effect of hypertext formats: the crossings.

This is the joining of two strands of institutional narrative, much like the joining of DNA: what comes together are those things that are traditionally kept apart, such that hybrids are formed. 

Remember: every individual “expression” of genetic engineering is a hybrid.

The live traversal of Genetis: A Rhizography by its author will take place on Friday, 26th of June at 10AM Pacific. Come and join us on Youtube at the Electronic Literature Lab, Washington State University, Vancouver. The traversal will be hosted by Astrid Ensslin, Dene Grigar and Mariusz Pisarski.