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Of Motion and Emotion: The Mechanics of Endurance in Peter Carey’s The Chemistry of Tears

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Abstract

Guided by J acques Derrida’s observations about the aporetic logic of the archive, this reading of Pe ter Carey’s novel The Chemistry of Tears (2012) relies on contemporary philosophical discourse about the human-thing interface to examine the correlations between pra ctices of mourning, memory, and museology as unfolded in the narrative. The central image of an automaton operates as an extended metaphor both for the metafi ctional feat of the novel, and imagination in its broadest sense, wherein we are reminded of the ethical obligations that things, especially technology, call for. Above all, Carey reveals the porosity of the boundaries between organic and inorganic substance, tethering matter to metaphysics, desire to detritus, and the present to the past.

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Article
The article explores strategies of elliptical writing in The Chemistry of Tears (2012) by Peter Carey, a novel concerned with the presentation of the processes of concealing and revealing the troublesome past and its connections with the present. It argues that, systematically oscillating between the secret and the revealed, the novel tries to negotiate its way through the palimpsest of the past to re-construct the versions so far unrepresented. The narrative introduces and then slowly fills in narrative gaps, omissions and allusions, becoming a dramatisation of the elliptical strategies of prose. The first level of the operation of elliptical strategies concerns personal stories of characters; the next is represented by larger history and its ramifications for the present; while the last includes historiography and literary tradition. In the centre of the numerous layers of the text and its parallel plots stands the central image of the automaton connected with the process of revelation and restoration: it encapsulates the novel’s elliptical strategies by filling in various textual gaps and yet simultaneously hinting at the impossibility of any such operation. Artykuł bada eliptyczne strategie pisania zastosowane w Chemii łez (2012) Petera Carey’a – powieści, która koncentruje się na problemach ukrywania i ujawniania problematycznej przeszłości i jej związków ze współczesnością. Dowodzi on, iż oscylując między tym, co ukryte i co ujawnione, powieść próbuje przedrzeć się poprzez palimpsest przeszłości i zrekonstruować jej dotychczas niereprezentowane wersje. Powieść wprowadza, a następnie wypełnia szereg luk, niedopowiedzeń i aluzji, fabularyzując tym samym eliptyczne strategie, którymi się zajmuje. Ich pierwszy poziom to dzieje bohaterów; drugi – to szerzej rozumiana przeszłość i jej konsekwencje dla współczesności; ostatni to problematyka historiografii i gry z literacką tradycją. W centrum tych licznych warstw i równoległych wątków stoi centralna figura automatu, który niczym zwornik wiąże tematy ujawniania i przywracania, zbiera w sobie eliptyczne strategie powieści i poprzez wypełnienie narracyjnych luk, jednocześnie wskazuje na niemożliwość takich operacji.
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Frank Trentmann is professor of history at Birkbeck College, University of London. From 2002 to 2007, he was director of the £5 million Cultures of Consumption research program, cofunded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). He is working on a book for Penguin, The Consuming Passion: How Things Came to Seduce, Enrich, and Define Our Lives, from the Seventeenth Century to the Twenty‐First. This article is one of a pair seeking to facilitate greater exchange between history and the social sciences. Its twin—“Crossing Divides: Globalization and Consumption in History” (forthcoming in the Handbook of Globalization Studies, ed. Bryan Turner)—shows what social scientists (and contemporary historians) might learn from earlier histories. The piece here follows the flow in the other direction. Many thanks to the ESRC for grant number RES‐052‐27‐002 and, for their comments, to Heather Chappells, Steve Pincus, Elizabeth Shove, and the editor and the reviewer.
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