Anthropology Review: “Black Inked Pearl” by Ruth Finnegan

Anthropology Review’s Jack David Eller reviews Black Inked Pearl: A Girl’s Quest by Ruth Finnegan. Review originally published on Anthropology Review.

Anthropology Review: Full Review

Mikhail Bakhtin wrote, “I live in a world of others’ words” (1986, p. 143), which is not surprising for a scholar of the novel and writing. But he was not referring only to the world of literature. “Our speech, that is, all our utterances (including our creative works), is filled with others’ words, varying degrees of otherness or varying degrees of ‘our-own-ness’….These words of others carry with them their own expression, their own evaluative tone, which we assimilate, rework, and re-accentuate” (p.89). Indeed, it is fair—and necessary—to say that all membership and participation in culture is a matter of dwelling in the words (and symbols, and actions, etc.) of others. As Danièle Hervieu-Léger said of religion (as if religion is in any way unique in this regard), it exists as a chain of memory, and that memory is passed along and preserved largely as words. In his De Profundis Oscar Wilde said it again and perhaps more forcefully and critically: “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”

Who would understand the power of words than the venerable scholar of oral literature, Ruth Finnegan? In fact she recently(2011) asked the crucial but overlooked question, Why do we quote? After a long career of distinguished scholarship, she puts her experience into a work of fiction in Black Inked Pearl, modestly subtitled ‘A Girl’s Quest’ and then much more ambitiously and accurately sub-subtitled ‘A Magical Book of Lost Love… An Epic Journey, An Ancient Mystery Reinterpreted, A Faerie Tale, A Parable, A Nightmare, A Daydream. Can a Book be an Incantation or a Spell? Espiritus, Veritas, and Dang’rous. A Work of Genius on Dream, Dementia, and Truth.’

The central dynamic of the novel is the search by a woman named Kate for a lost or abandoned love, but such a mild description hardly does justice to the text. First of all, Finnegan intentionally and extensively manipulates language. The many neologisms and unorthodox spellings “are deliberate, a play with language, allowed (it seems) to poets and verbal artists, as in, for example, Gerald Manley Hopkins’ poetry or James Joyce’s prose,” she says in the unnumbered introductory author’s note. No doubt many readers will recognize a sense of Joyce inBlack Inked Pearl. She further proudly confesses to “literary allusions throughout the book” going back as far as Homer. “Only some of the many allusions in the novel are annotated, left to my readers, if they so choose, to winkle out.” Along with idiosyncratic spellings and literary allusions, the novel is punctuated by verse, and the entire narrative “is interlaced with the eternity of love and the ambiguity between dream and reality, indicated by a style that grows more poetic, riddling and dreamlike as the story unfolds.”

Those words are a useful anticipation of what the reader will encounter. The novel begins in a more or less conventional way, but by page 12 we are getting a sense of the literary and cultural message pervading it: “Quoting, imitation, tradition, allusion, reminiscence (ah…), echoes through all literature, ritual, culture. Others’ words in speeches, religious things, high art.” It is especially fitting that this observation occurs as Kate ponders her convent school education. As the story proceeds, it becomes more surrealistic; by the middle of the book, the action seems to be taking place in or at the outskirts of heaven. She and her lost lover seek each other, drawing ever nearer as Kate waits for him. Not only does language loose its moorings but time seems to stop or curl back on itself: “Stories and voices from the past, enfolden in the ink-ed page, now it was for her to lay claim to her life present enfragranced in the past, what was to come already there, waiting for them to come, hers and not hers, past and not-past, aeternitatis specie. And as the tides follow the moon, as the winter the autumn, as the leaves fall from the trees and wither and spring out in new bud, as the earth rounds the sun or in the directionless infinity of space and time the sun circles the earth, as man has ever turned to woman and woman to man. So, like those ever-repeated words she had learned so long before, she saw the present in her past, the past in her present” (p. 274).

Do Kate and her lover reunite? It would be too ordinary to say that they did or did not. The reunion is probably beside the point, and a resolution could only bring the dreamlike tale crashing down to reality. The sense of the story is an almost unbearable intensity of love, a quest through heaven and hell in search of the human, a Joyce-meets-Dante vision in which the particular lovers are personifications of the archetype of lovers–“Abelard-Eloise, Isolde-Tristan, Guinevere-Lancelot, Euridice-Orpheus, Pelion-Ossa, Patrochus-Achilles, Dido-Aeneas” (p. 308), as she adds in the endnotes (and who besides a literature scholar like Finnegan would include endnotes in a novel?).

As these references to great literary pairs indicate, Finnegan and all of us are not only living in a world of others’ words but of others’ paradigmatic acts. We have many models of love and lovers to emulate, our own love almost always a dimmer shadow of the profound, almost superhuman love of these mythologized figures. Although Finnegan does not say so, she may also mean that at some point words fail, that emotions as poignant as love and lost cannot be fully expressed in language, at least not in colloquial language. I think this may be behind the repeated, almost obsessive, references to God from the middle of the book on. If Max Mueller called religion a disease of language, it was because sometimes we have no way to convey our more transcendent feelings other than ‘religious’ language. ‘God,’ ‘heaven,’ and such terms are less literal propositions than cries and sighs, the only words we have for emotions beyond words. I am even inclined to speculate that, if we live in a world of quotations, that ‘God’ may be the ultimate quotation, which is why we invoke it in moments of great anger (‘God damn it’), alarm (‘Oh my god’), and ecstasy (‘Oh god, oh god’).


Ruth-finnegan-black-inked-pearl-garn-pressBlack Inked Pearl A Girl’s Quest

Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-942146-16-2
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-942146-17-9
eBook ISBN: 978-1-942146-18-6
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