The Wake and the Manuscript, a novel by Ansgar Allen, reviewed by Adnan Bayyat

The Wake and the Manuscript is a literary artifact pronouncing and protesting the inherent toxicity of education from cradle to grave. The brooding thesis, expounded through the prism of quasi-fiction, holds that “to become educated is to become sick.” Education purportedly “takes the fabric of life and tears it up and shits it out.” This countercultural position is juxtaposed against the conceit of education as the pathway to enlightenment, freedom, salvation, redemption, and health. The unopposed optimism and “dignity of education” are said to confer the educated “shadows longer than [they] deserve.” They legitimate the all-consuming academy as a secular cornerstone of society, which in turn, indoctrinates, celebrates the sacrifice of human life at the altar of adults’ indulgent “drivel,” and voids those with incongruent views “down a back passage” as exhausted minds that “reek of failure.”

The scene is aptly set at a funerary wake where the contrived opposition of education as health versus education as illness is played out through labyrinthian “mind travel” across medieval and modern constructs of Western ideology, within a “fragment of time.” Dialogic vignettes are elicited as the unnamed protagonist, a mourner, peruses the titular magnum opus of the deceased, which, he claims, imitates his writing and plagiarizes his interests. Driven by introspection and objectivity, he begrudgingly resigns himself to an endless task of comparative analysis, vowing to expunge the parochialisms of the church and of culture imposed upon them in childhood so as to disinfect his writing from what he considers to be the consequent “non-thought” of his late peer. To my mind, the mourner and the deceased are a single being experiencing a symbolic death or an exorcism in stripping out the subjectivities of the former self. Indeed, their distinct voices arguably represent two irreconcilable states of a dissociative identity in crisis: 1.) The mourner, an affected academic, personifies and reproduces institutional violence for veneration (ableist, misogynistic, elitist). 2.) The deceased, an honorary academic, embodies the limitations of the human condition and the internalized frustrations of an imposter.

The symptom of splitting is further derived from the comical reiterations of the narrator’s ostensible “distaste for Freud”; the “biographical opportunism” reflecting the shared histories and habits of both characters; the distribution of memory that facilitates the playful misplacement and rewriting of manuscript drafts; and the confessions of complicity in the demise of the deceased that implicate the assimilation of a performative identity. The separation effectively transposes the otherwise invisible struggles and implications of a conflicted disposition into nuanced inter-relational dynamics that are more easily expressed and understood when enacted by two individuals. It is worth noting, however, that Allen strategically constructs the protagonist as a cruel and callous villain who masquerades as all that constitutes the institution of education. The unapologetic conviction and relentlessness with which this normative identity reproduces violence reinforces the misimpression of authentic representation. It impels us to uncritically align with the victimized and ostensibly defenseless voice of dissent, that of the deceased. Only as the two voices later unite in their criticism of the university does it occur that both are necessarily conceived in the same nihilistic image. While this does not preclude their truth-telling, it confirms the marginal positioning and fundamental purpose of the book to inspire radical change—a destructive utopia.

References to the title Extinction are perhaps a homage to Thomas Bernhard’s subtle influences which are present in the imagery, humor, style, and themes of Allen’s book. There are anecdotes, cathartic repetition, and evocative metaphors throughout the text that speak to “the disease built into education” and that of “will.” Namely, the self-infliction and exploitation of one’s suffering perversely rationalized as learning or self-improvement; the destructive addiction to the consumption, (re)production, and dissemination of knowledge romanticized as a mark of integrity, commitment, intellectual prowess, influence, capital, or an escape from civilized life. It is argued that “education is the ultimate and terminal form of virtue signalling.” The paradoxical solution proposed is to “educate against education,” potentially towards “nothing,” which suggests destroying the conceit of education as an “organising idea”—the buried root of society’s ills. This sobering, yet purportedly widespread, pessimism may in the long-term make way for sociocultural recovery and rehabilitation. Educated culture is thus tasked with mobilizing a “treacherous retreat,” teaching the “work of withdrawal and contraction” as its last function.

The interplay of language and sensation brought through the consistent use of scatological imagery effectively triggers repulsion from, and resistance towards, education. Meconium, shit, and dysentery convey the intoxication that awaits all who succumb to this “system of person formation.” While “back passage” is used to describe the physical architecture, “back-fill” denotes source references and bears a connotation of contempt for existing knowledge in its semblance as waste or fecal matter. Both phrases epitomize the reduction of human labor and the lived experience by the corporate academy. The empty promise to “back-fill,” indicating a retrospective effort to support knowledge claims with research, arguably symbolizes resistance towards the normative surrendering of intellectual property to the hierarchy of educated culture for arbitrary validation. It also arrests the bureaucracy of academic form, from which the author escapes not least through his choice of genre, vernacular, and structure. As illustrated by my readings, Allen’s approach to writing invites and stimulates more equitable, permissive, and thus productive conversations, wherein subjective interpretation is not foreclosed by fear of external judgment or being “wrong,” and responses may include creative ideas not necessarily anticipated by the text. This makes for an enjoyable experience.

To conclude, I return to the book’s underpinning theme of activism and contemplate whether or not challenging a source of significant and chronic suffering in the guise of fiction undermines the campaign for social justice. Does it highlight or trivialize the lived-experiences and thesis presented? I also question, more broadly, the extent to which literary culture engenders change. Does it suffice to exist as a marginal outlet for venting frustrations, or an output borne out of necessity to capitalize on one’s own suffering—more exploitation (publication), more violence? While it may reach the intended audience, is it one that serves the cause? The book leaves me wondering whether writing a review to inform is in itself an act of violence, of intoxication, of education. That said, the book is an empowering read for anyone disillusioned by the promise of education.

The Wake and the Manuscript, by Ansgar Allen. Anti-Oedipus Press, December 2022. 176 pages. $16.95, paper.

Adnan Bayyat is a Jordanian-British pracademic, designer, and musician. He holds a PhD in Education from the University of Sheffield, and a Master’s degree in Fashion Innovation and Entrepreneurship from the University of Salford. His activist scholarship advances the campaign for equity in the teaching and learning of mathematics at upper key stage two, through the use of transdisciplinary and creative pedagogies.

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