Crossing the Shadow-Line

The Literature of Estrangement

Martin Bock


Literary Criticism / General
170 pp. 6x9

read the full text of the book

Open access is better with open dialog. Click here to leave or read comments and critiques of the book.



Our culture conditions us to perceive the world in ways consistent with its own teachings: we interpret the world through a system of common values based on the mores, religion, mythology, symbolism, and literature of our culture. In Crossing the Shadow-Line, Martin Bock explores the work of several writers—Christian and non-Christian—whose works are heretical in the sense that they explore ways of seeing and knowing the world that depart from the characteristic modes of perception of a predominantly Christian culture.

While the dream vision and similar visionary experiences have long been part of the Christian literary tradition, major writers of the Romantic period such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas De Quincey used the imagery of opium visions in their poems and prose fantasies. These works are characterized by exaggerated sensation, an animistic world in which the landscape comes alive, and hallucinatory visions in which time and space are elastic. The extraordinary way narrators or characters see the world estranges them from their culture and they become, in effect, heretical visionaries.

In later writers, from the French Symbolists to certain modern British and American novelists, these visions become conventionalized in the disorienting journey. Unlike the circular journeys of the Christian tradition, the journeys described by Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, Djuna Barnes, and Malcolm Lowry are disorienting linear voyages. The character or narrator who journeys into the heretical landscape remains permanently estranged from his or her culture.

In addition to showing how nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers portray unusual sensations during the disorienting voyage, Crossing the Shadow-Line explores how writers use style and structure to reflect the psychological or social disorientation of the characters or narrators. Many writers use digression or competing texts, such as the poetry and accompanying prose gloss of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, that disrupt the normal reading process and thereby subvert our culture’s linguistic system. Such sytlistic or linguistic “tricks” change the normal reading process and create for the reader the same kind of dizzying quality experienced by the narrators or characters.

Crossing the Shadow-Line offers a revision of the traditional literary canon, since it suggests that the symbolist tradition, while contemporary to the Romantic movement, remains separate from it and anticipates some of the conventions of the modern movement. The book suggest how this heretical tradition expands the horizon of the reader who, with the author, crosses a shadow-line of experience into a landscape of extraordinary sensations and experiences.

Martin Bock is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Minnesota, Duluth.