Webs, Networks, and the Mark of Modernity

January 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

The spider’s web, though merely a collection of fine, gossamer threads, clings to human skin with remarkable persistence. Any arachnophobic who has unwittingly stumbled into an unseen web knows the composure and bravura necessary to rid oneself of the tiny insect’s claim. On the few occasions when I have had the misfortune of running into a spiderweb, I urgently swat the remnants from my face or arms, removing a weightless white residue incongruous with the overpowering feeling it elicits. Half an hour later, I still feel phantom web on the back of my neck. Usually, it’s just my own hair.

The figurative web has enveloped the human brain with no less persistence than the physical web has clung to centuries of human bodies. Our source of the arthropod classification “arachnid”, Ovid’s Arachne, metamorphoses into a spider after challenging Athena’s prowess in weaving. The tapestry Arachne weaves to prove her skill depicts the gods’ dominance over humanity as a function of rape, and subsequently, her weaving becomes the web in which she is entangled. In Origin of Species, Darwin employs the figural web as a visual representation of the interconnection between living beings, the most dominant species often being dependent upon those that go unnoticed. Before describing the severest struggle for survival, the one that occurs between members of the same species and results in natural selection, Darwin reminds us that “[p]lants and animals, most remote in the scale of nature, are bound together by a web of complex relations” (72/492). His narrative, concerned with minute, nearly unnoticeable, but ubiquitous changes, with balances on the hairpin of the most meager species, reminds us of the countless unseen beings on which humanity relies.

In George Eliot’s Middlemarch, the narrator, of necessity, must narrow the web’s metonymic signification to human interconnection, as “unraveling certain human lots and seeing how they were woven and interwoven”—for instance, noting the dependence of Mr. Brooke’s on the largely unnoticed Dagley’s, or the dependence of the Garth’s upon their eldest daughter’s income—requires that “all the light that [she] can command must be concentrated on this particular web, and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe” (141). Here the narrator assumes both the parts of Arachne, the weaver, and of Ariadne, the unraveler, the woman who leads us, by virtue of a single gossamer thread, through the labyrinth of human interaction and into light and safety.

In the first four books of Middlemarch, Ariadne is mentioned twice. The first reference frames the introduction of Dorothea, the book’s “modern day St. Theresa”, to the German artist Naumann and her re-introduction to the professionally frustrated young Englishman Ladislaw in the Vatican’s art galleries. Seeing Dorothea standing near “the reclining Ariadne, then called the Cleopatra”, Naumann recognizes Dorothea’s exquisiteness all the more by its contrast with her plain apparel, her Christian liveliness all the more by its contrast to the pagan, bare-breasted (and lascivious, if believed to be Cleopatra) subject of the statue, pictured below. This draws Naumann immediately to Dorothea as an artistic form, and he soon achieves his professional ambition to use her as a model for his work. Eliot’s second reference to Ariadne occurs when beautiful young Rosamond Vincy, the cheerful mayor’s daughter and the “flower of Mrs Lemon’s school”, begins to fear that the physician Lydgate has no serious intentions for her. The doubt makes her feel, “as forlorn as Ariadne—as a charming stage Ariadne left behind with all her boxes full of costumes and no hope of a coach” (299). When Rosamond, impeccably trained to accept praise and to entertain men—modestly, of course—believes she will be denied the wifely role, all life seems to her but a stage on which she, a poor player, struts and frets her hour.

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Ariadne, once known as Cleopatra. The Vatican. Click on image for source.

Eliot’s novel was written in the 1870s, a time when to be “really well connected” implied something far different than it does now. Less cyborg, more civility. Eliot’s interpersonal web is our internet. Yet over the course of these nearly one hundred and fifty years, our cultural fascination with Ariadne has continued. I am thinking specifically of Christopher Nolan’s critically debated 2010 blockbuster film Inception, in which Ariadne, played by a girlish Ellen Page, is the name of the “dream architect” for the inception plot. Curiously, the internet is never mentioned in Nolan’s film. Dreams and films, not the world wide web, are Ariadne’s and Nolan’s looms. (A.O. Scott aptly likens Page’s Ariadne to a “precocious sophomore in a graduate seminar” and addresses some of these themes in this perceptive review. He discusses the critical controversy here.) Like suitable wives, in Eliot’s novel, are found only in schoolrooms or homes, Inception’s expert extractor Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) finds Ariadne through academic and familial networking, seeking the “brightest and best” of his former father-in-law’s architecture students. Not unlike the “sciolistic” Causabon or the blind Milton to whom Dorothea compares him, Cobb must employ another architect because of his own inabilities—specifically, his inability to prevent his beautiful wife, Mal, played by Marion Cotillard, from ruining his dreams. Moreover, the incompetency of the film’s first architect, a male, drives Cobb to seek out another team member. The first architect’s condemns himself by switching a carpet “very definitely made of wool” for one made of polyester. It seems that Cobb needs not only an engineer, but an interior designer. He must find a woman.

Ariadne.jpg

Inception’s Ariadne. Click on image for source.

As Eliot is aware, classical Ariadne, like Arachne, was never able to “enjoy” the fruits of her labor: according to Homer’s version of the myth, after she helps Theseus defeat the minotaur and thread his way out of the labyrinth, he deserts her. In Inception, Ariadne may help construct the dream’s maze—as Dorothea assists Casaubon or Mary Garth assists Featherstone and her family—but the dream at the end of the film is not Ariadne’s. It is Dom’s. Eliot’s women, especially Dorothea and Mary Garth, who, in many ways, build the novel’s world, seek a fulfillment beyond what is available to them. Dare I call it a “professional” fulfillment? The novel is, after all, nearly obsessed with finding the right profession: for Ladislaw, for Fred, for Lydgate, for Mary’s younger brother, etc. Dorothea and Mary help men like Ladislaw and Fred navigate the professional maze to a “natural vocation,” as Dorothea puts it, yet they have no “natural vocations” of their own (37). Is this an articulation of Friedan’s “the problem that has no name”, surfacing almost one hundred years earlier in English literature? And isn’t this also Arachne’s and Ariadne’s problem, as it surfaces in classical Greek myth?

To me, someone who primarily reads Shakespeare, the years separating these women’s “occupational” dilemmas belie the illusion of modernity and the problematics of perioditization. What is the defining attribute of what we academics—in a terminological convention decidedly confusing to the rest of society—call “modern” (or, for that matter, “Victorian” or “early modern”)? When Ovid and Darwin and Eliot and Friedan and Nolan are all making their ways out of the same figural webs, when it seems that every period claims professionalization is its trademark, that every period claims science, that every period claims a new subjectivity, and that every period’s upper echelons are built on the efforts of unseen masses, what is the difference between now and one hundred thousand yesterdays ago? And why, after all these years of women and authors and workers, unseen and under-credited workers, building and unraveling our webs, would we remain like Middlemarch’s poor farmer Dagley, with “no earthly ‘beyond’ open to [us]” (398)?  Whose dream is it, anyway? Was that a web on my neck, or my own hair? I would like to see more of the Dagley’s and the Mary Garth’s, the arachnids of today’s, yesterday’s, and tomorrow’s webs, in the next four books of Eliot’s novel. Maybe then, I’ll find out.

Deann V. Armstrong

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