|. . . Austen|
|. . . 1999-12-10|
You can tell by the jarring sound of "Zukofsky" in The Trouble With Genius : Reading Pound, Joyce, Stein, and Zukofsky that Bob Perelman is better read than most academics. He's also better to read: his observations are sensible and accurate.
But those being observed are "Modernist," and Perelman is "Postmodernist." And, apparently as a result, his tone is one of such versatile hostility that no book could escape censure. He holds the proselytizing rhetoric of critics against the writers' own works, and he's pissy about these four writers in particular 'cause they weren't able to meet the supposed "Modernist" ambition of perfect synthesis of every conceivable human goal. He provides a brilliant short introduction to the unique virtues of Ulysses and then claims that the lovely object he just described is proof of Joyce's ineptitude.
But it's not all that clear that such weirdly individualistic writers as Joyce, Stein, and Zukofsky actually ascribed to the dopey ambitions Perelman posits, except inasmuch as any working writer has to deal with them: Sure, we got to try to do the best we can think of doing, right? And that can get pretty inflated before it gets punched down. And what we end up with is never quite what we thought we were doing, but sometimes it's still OK, and we can at least try to have a sense of humor about the yeasty smell.
After that performance, Perelman's sequel book, a collection of upbeat reviews mostly of his fellow Language Poets, is about as convincing as the happy ending the studio slapped onto Face/Off. Despite their own lunatic ambitions, Perelman's compeers don't piss him off the same way Joyce, Stein, and Zukofsky did. Why? 'Cause they're "Postmodern" and so they're smart enough to undercut their own claims to textual mastery.
The trouble with that is that The Trouble with Genius spends most of its time showing how those stuck-up Modernists also undercut their own claims to textual mastery. I mean, out-of-control-ness is pretty much what you (and Perelman) notice in the second half of Ulysses or in almost anything by Stein or Zukofsky, and it's pretty fucking arrogant to claim that such a pleasurable (and obviously labored-over) effect is attributable to blind error with those guys any more than it is with Ron Silliman or Susan Howe -- or with Melville, Dickinson, Austen in Mansfield Park, the indomitable bad taste of Flaubert, or the wild line-to-line mood swings in Shakespeare, for crying out loud.
At the end of the book, Perelman says that blanket-statement theorists, snippy critics, and it-is-what-it-is poets are playing an unproductive game of paper-scissors-rock. Probably that's a fair assessment, at least when any of them are responding to professional challenges by the other players. But who except a rhetorically worked-up poet would say that a poem was a rock (let alone say that Ezra Pound was the Alps)? Who but an allegiance-drawing theorist would announce in print that any theorist was in any conclusive fermez-la-porte! sense correct?
What Perelman leaves out of his game and out of his book is the possibility of the reader. And publishing gets to be a pretty sad affair without an occasional appearance by that self-satisfied little cluck.
|. . . 2000-02-09|
Not Going to See the Movie Comment: I was too young to deal with Mansfield Park the first time I read it, and I can't picture a living commercial movie director who isn't. Maybe if Kubrick had been interested in women, he could've managed it instead of Barry Lyndon. Maybe the Hitchcock of Vertigo and The Wrong Man could've, if he didn't mind having another flop.
But probably it's best left to an uncommercial experimenter like Valeria Sarmiento, 'cause it's never going to be a popular story: it's too unpleasant to seem charming and too pleasant to seem important. And unless you maintain that sour-and-sweet balance between the character of poor fostered-cousin Fanny Price and the voice of Jane Austen, you might as well throw the book back onto the Unfilmable shelf.
In fact, they're her only real supporters for most of the book; they want nothing less than to be her Fairy Godmother and Prince Charming. But a Cinderella whose self-worth is based on moral rectitude won't have truck with black magic no matter how much bippity-boppity-boo is sprinkled on it. And, this being Cinderella's story, the villains are not only spurned but punished for their worldly, witty, forgiving ways.
There's no sense of hypocrisy in all this, mind. Instead, we're led to posit an otherwise undetectable particle distinct from both the protagonist and the narrative voice: the human being that produced them.
While Fanny suffered in the attic of her foster mansion,
it seemed as if to be at home again would heal every pain that had since grown out of the separation. To be in the centre of such a circle, loved by so many, and more loved by all than she had ever been before; to feel affection without fear or restraint; to feel herself the equal of those who surrounded her....In the most harrowing sequence of the novel, our little Lisa Simpson gets stuck with her wish:
It was the abode of noise, disorder, and impropriety. Nobody was in their right place, nothing was done as it ought to be.Insofar as a family circle exists, its centre turns out to be a newspaper, since a TV would've been anachronistic. But mostly the circle is untraceable under the dirt, and the snobbish side of Fanny quickly and definitively wins out over the sentimental side. After all, snobbery is fed by a constant flood of evidence, while sentiment is fed only with infrequent scraps.
Mansfield Park is well-nigh unique (some of Hammett's work aside) in celebrating the narrowing of horizons. Far from incorporating new friends and experiences, Mansfield Park ends with the expulsion or death of virtually all characters other than Fanny and her mate. But "my Fanny, indeed, at this very time, I have the satisfaction of knowing, must have been happy in spite of everything." She didn't mind her chains after all. She just didn't want them yanked.
.... to complete the picture of good, the acquisition of Mansfield living, by the death of Dr. Grant [Fanny's father-in-law], occurred just after they had been married long enough to begin to want an increase of income, and feel their distance from the paternal abode an inconvenience.Once the titular estate is completely emptied, the two religious caterpillars are able to cocoon happily ever after.
And that's OK by me, since I like Fanny almost as much as the villains and the narrator do. But then I wouldn't be all that popular in movie theaters either....
2015-06-09 : Regarding the "narrowing of horizons," Josh Lukin adds a contender:
You'd be surprised at how many people think We Have Always Lived in the Castle ends happily (Although I guess Constance's horizons aren't broad at the start, however much she wants to imagine that they are).And, following up:
I had in mind the feminist readings that say, Yay, productive community among women, for which one has to pretend that Constance likes where she ends up as much as does her sister, rather than having to relinquish all her hopes and become a '60s homemaker, as it were. Reflecting on it, I guess it's no surprise that some readers trust Merricat so much that they miss that part.
|. . . 2000-04-30|
In (guarded) praise of irony
A couple months back, a reviewer of that Dave Eggers book wrote something about how she'd never seen such emotional material treated ironically.
That's very sad (sad ha-ha, not sad strange), because the only possible excuse for irony is emotion, and too much of it. "The world is a comedy to those who think; a tragedy to those who feel"; and irony's all that's been left to the softhearted analytical human being since Socrates at the latest. That's why stupid irony is exactly the same thing as unfeeling irony.
I regretfully admit that there's plenty of stupid irony around these days, probably because irony is the easiest thing to fake, its "Oh, I didn't really mean that" an easy refuge for the cowardly fool.
But beware, brother, beware: to don a suit of armor when you're just planning to wash dishes or go shopping is to invite great expense. If not injury. If not both (e.g., "Seinfeld"). Use only as a last resort; believe me, you'll get to the last resort soon enough.
I also admit that at first (or at disgusted and exhausted) glance, irony seems utterly antithetical to art ("art" being best described as "No, I meant to do that").
The trick is to stand firmly behind your transparently hollow words and (except of course when evading legal action) cheerfully admit to fully believing each and every empty idiocy you've recorded.
If you can call that a trick.
For those who have been made self-conscious of hubris in the mere act of expression, irony is pert near unavoidable. Thus, most of the women writers on my shelves are masters of the form in all its moods, from Behn and Austen through Bowles and Barnes to Russ and Fowler, criminy, Brontë & Brontë & Brontë & Olive Moore & Patricia Highsmith & Flannery O'Connor & Edith Wharton, it gets kind of creepy, doesn't it? Thus also the tactic's popularity with such resigned-to-failure types as Stendhal and Flaubert, Romantic rapscallions like Byron and Pushkin, and most sane twenty-somethings.
Here, for example, we actually witness the most beautiful of Nature's tender miracles, the birth of an ironist:
"It is wonderful -- stupendous to consider, how a man who in his own mind is cool, witty, unaffected and high-toned, will disgust and mortify himself by every word he utters or act he does, when he steps out of his skin defenses." -- Henry Adams, age 25So don't let anyone tell you that irony isn't hip anymore. It's as hip as it ever was.
|. . . 2002-06-19|
Is there one who understands me?
Thanks to Aaron for becoming the second person to notice that I'm Cordelia.
The first person was Christina La Sala, who tried to get me to watch Buffy back in 1997 by playing up that Thalia Menninger angle. But in those early days I was very shallow and thought the show was simply not presentable. I only really became part of the gang in the third season -- which is still my favorite, although the most recent one might've supplanted it in my affection if they hadn't transplanted the ridiculous Magic-Is-My-Anti-Drug plotline from some hell-dimension version of Buffy onto the shoulders of the Real Life show -- and only very recently and while losing all my viewers have I started getting migraines and pregnant and mature and stuff.
Errata: One who should know assures us that, despite our evident admiration for Cordelia, we are not in fact ourselves Cordelia.
We are instead 50% Anya, 20% Willow, 15% Imperfectly-Supressed-Bad-Willow-Confronting-Giles, and 15% Xander-Driving-the-Dream-Van-with-Willow-and-Tara-in-Back.
We regret any inconvenience.
|. . . 2003-11-16|
Francis in the Army Corps of Engineers
Our too-infrequent correspondent Jessie Ferguson:
> it always seemed to me that agreement on the existence of some sort ofIt's true that the humanities don't support the law of noncontradiction. And I'm down with that; I'm an aesthete, not a logical positivist.
> outside world that had to be referred to was basically healthy. At least
> I've known some pretty sane science majors.
this is very true -- to the point of cliche? hm. i was reminded of it recently at a coffeehouse where some professor was holding office hours at a nearby table, going on and on about poststructuralist social theory. i don't hold theoretical discussions against people -- theory certainly has its place -- but i was particularly struck thinking later about the lack of real-world applications of the theories by their proponents. part of the trouble is that there is not a push for consensus among theorists or researchers in the social sciences, whereas there is in the natural sciences. there is no sense that it's "just fine" that people would do entire lifetimes of work on the same problems, taking completely divergent approaches and making incommensurable assumptions, in the sciences, because one of those sets of assumptions & approaches must be better than the other -- or else, by definition, you're looking at two different sorts of problem. so it's highly inefficient because people can waste so much time staking out their theoretical territory rather than working towards a shared body of knowledge. this is fine, i think, in fields which concern, say, pure aesthetics rather than praxis -- there doesn't have to be a Grand Unified Theory Of Jane Austen -- but it would be *helpful* if there were some very general consensus about how people are conditioned by social norms, for instance. if you didn't have completely different assumptions about human behavior being made by marxian sociologists and classical economists, both doing current work, both contributing & producing research papers, winning awards, being allowed to train other sociologists and economists or influence policy or what have you. in terms of any sort of reality, can these two (hypothetical) accounts really *both* be accurate?
to put it another way: if you ask me about the research i'm doing in biology and i say, well, i'm examining the ability of receptor x to respond to events y and z and i'm about to present the work at a conference, it would be pretty strange if i added that no matter what i said, five out of ten people were going to disagree with me -- but so what. or even something like having a paper in spectroscopy read by a particle physicist who would then declare that it was right from a chemistry perspective but wrong from a physics perspective. these things don't really happen. yet i think the "you have your story, i have mine" reply is fairly common in the social sciences and the socially-conscious humanities...
this is probably why people who do work in the humanities and actually care about the work they do get into trouble emotionally -- the only ones i've seen having a good time with it are the ones who are completely mercenary and basically see graduate school or the professoriate as a means to maintaining class privilege without the burden of a corporate job/lifestyle. by that i don't mean any disrespect. not much, anyway. to be honest, i wouldn't weep if some of those sinecures dried up -- i have a hard time believing anyone has a right to a life of the mind when it's so often a thinly disguised right to be economically supported at barely-sustainable levels at the expense of people who are no less talented or perceptive.
which... sigh... makes me sound like a socialist again. but i think it is hard fucking work enlightening people and there isn't any point in getting credit for doing it halfway... i think there is a benefit to social and cultural theory, but that in the current state of academia very few people benefit from it -- compared to the countless many who are directly affected by the Cato Institute and the World Bank and other organizations of interest to theory-loving goons. and i don't see that i have much power to change that.
so no, i don't know that i'm turning my back on the humanities themselves. i'm not writing any more papers on how milan kundera is a bastard, though.
Still, it seems only fair that when we resign the duty of logical coherence, we should also give up our right to the rhetoric of indefinitely extendable "proof."
The little mystery we've been considering here is is just how empty most stuff published as humanities scholarship is. Not necessarily how foolish, or misguided, or self-conflicted it is, but how much nothin' fills the journals, and how much one nothin' tastes like another no matter what the trademark promises. Goofy Grape or Choo Choo Cherry, who can tell?
Ferguson's comparison helps clear that up for me. We can plod along in the sciences, filling crannies, verifying results or their lack, and so on, and still be producing something even if it's not discipline-shattering. But there are no negative results in the humanities: I can't construct an experiment that will convincingly prove that Lacanian analysis has nothing useful to tell us about the novels of William Dean Howells. Which leaves plodding-along humanities scholars able and prodded to demonstrate nothing-to-say one individual case at a time.
I'm afraid that Ferguson's probably also right to call this hard-won insight a cliché. Francis Bacon anticipated it, for one:
But the Idols of the Theatre are not innate, nor do they steal into the understanding secretly, but are plainly impressed and received into the mind from the play-books of philosophical systems and the perverted rules of demonstration. To attempt refutations in this case would be merely inconsistent with what I have already said: for since we agree neither upon principles nor upon demonstrations there is no place for argument. And this is so far well, inasmuch as it leaves the honour of the ancients untouched.In "the academic Left," we see the dispiriting spectacle of a holy crusade conducted against the Idols of the Marketplace for the Idols of the Theater.
And in the plays of this philosophical theatre you may observe the same thing which is found in the theatre of the poets, that stories invented for the stage are more compact and elegant, and more as one would wish them to be, than true stories out of history.
It's not much of a match.
|. . . 2004-05-03|
Photo by Juliet Clark
For those who've been wondering at what point your arms would be long enough to box with God, my calcuations place the Holy Button at 12' 8½" (or under).
Are you sure that's the possessive genitive? Could be made of the dry bones of the divine fallen. -pf
Or it could be a dental prosthetic swapped from deity to deity, like Walter Brennan's in Red River. Time for another schism, I reckon!
Long enough with a reasonable expectation of holding your own to box etc...
More conditions, eh? What next? "Your weight class too light to box..."? "Your trunks the wrong color to box..."? Listen, you just set the date and the purse and my boy will be there.
What's that in metric?
So, what'd you think of the Jane Austen Book Club?
I thought I'd better buy and read a copy. And I still think so. The author's appearance at Cody's on 4th St. this Saturday at 7 PM seems like a good time to get the process started.
You gonna bring Big John Kerry with ya? Or is he too busy denouncing Abu Gharib? High noon right here. Unless I get a call from dispatch. Or my lumbago starts up again.
Let the record show that I received this challenge at 1:36 PM. Typical.
A final commentator ties everything up in pretty red ribbon:
Jane Austen Fight Club
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a bloody beating.
|. . . 2004-06-21|
Anyhow, I'd like to end with the quote that summed up the book for me, and a question. Here is the quote."We had, most of us, also lost our mothers. We spent a moment missing them. The sun was blooming rosily in the west. The trees were in full leaf. The air was bright and soft and laced with the smells of grass, of coffee, of melted Brie. How our mothers would have loved it!"Here is the question: Is this the bathetic, Windham Hill mishy-mosh I think it is? Or is it brilliantly satiric writing, of the quality of, say, the Onion?
Although I found this stumblebum pas de deux painful to witness ("Such a relief to reveal my obtuseness publicly," one of them sighs near the end), it's fun to tip their lines into Fowler's compilation of Jane Austen reviews. In particular, their uneasiness with Fowler's apparent attempt to have her cake and eat it too would seem to disqualify them from enjoying not just Austen but any ambitious fiction from Cervantes (satire made chronicle) to Richardson (titillation made redemptive) and Fielding (mock-heroic made heroic), to Stendhal's and Flaubert's social tips from the clueless, and on towards Beckett's attenuated can't-go-on and the leftover genre hashes that intrigue John Holbo.
Oh foolish book clubbers, having the cake we eat's what fiction is for.
Also, speaking of Jane Austen, how do you feel about Clueless?
It and Persuasion are my favorite adaptations to date, although neither are a 100 Super Movie au maximum.
|. . . 2005-09-18|
No government which executed so many citizens could be called "limited," but Elizabethan England was certainly privatized: Constantinople's "British ambassadors" were directly employed by the Levant Company. Government's role was to coordinate espionage networks, corporal punishment, military action, proclamations of religious intent, spectacular patronage, and highly profitable monopolies by and for the benefit of the powerful few. Delivering arms to yesterday's or tomorrow's enemy helped finance the looting of today's. Power was centralized and capricious, the middle class kept in line by a mix of fear and feverish speculation. Life was spent in display and exited in debt. Expressions of charity, unlike professions of faith, were left strictly to the individual conscience; long-lived consciences learned to be flexible in their professions.
Marlowe's play fantastically alters a siege that took place the year after his birth. Obviously, some alterations were part of his job as a playwright with a scene-chewer to feed. Speculatively, some were due to religious-economic war with Catholic empires and Anglo-Turkish conspiracies against Malta.
Given these backgrounds, what strikes me about the play isn't its cynicism, or its plea for tolerance, delivered by neo-con Machiavelli himself:
I crave but this,— grace him as he deserves,
What strikes me is who's been added and who are missing.
The addition, of course, is Barabas.
In Marlowe's alternative history, Barabas gives the Maltese governor the trifecta of his dreams: Barabas provides an excuse for the governor to steal all his possessions, purportedly to pay off an urgent debt which is then reneged on; Barabas blocks an embarrassing interfaith marriage between the two families; Barabas delivers a valuable hostage into the governor's hands and is then neatly deposited down his own trapdoor.
In Marlowe's real history, there existed Jewish (or quasi-Jewish) agents who played all sides against each other. But it was a thoroughly British relative of Marlowe's own Lord Strange who engineered the time's most Barabas-worthy betrayal. And the English (like the Maltese) managed to eke out some profit through these wicked middlemen before discarding or slaughtering them.
Who're missing are the English.
Absent Protestant characters, the play's taken-for-granted pro-Christianity and its boisterous anti-Catholicism clash scene by scene. On the one hand, the Jew's daughter assuredly gains redemption by joining a convent and the Maltese victory is thanks "to Heaven"; on the other, the monks are money-grubbers and the nuns are whores. In Wilson's formula, Barabas somehow stands for the English point of view — and yet the governor of Malta is clearly meant to be cheered by the English audience — and yet the Catholic Maltese were (in Wilson's theory) Marlowe's patrons' chief targets.
Such awkwardness has its uses.
Since the Christian governor cheats Turk and Jew twice over, when Barabas advances arguments like:
Thus, loving neither, will I live with both,
It's no sin to deceive a Christian;
No one disputes his points. Instead, they bring up less ambiguous issues, such as his people having been cursed by God, or his having poisoned a nunnery. In doing so, they've been relieved of the responsibility of making his arguments themselves. They reap the benefits of tacit agreement while avoiding the danger of overt advocacy.
By having the Jewish villain espouse doing business with heretics, Marlowe avoids the propaganda problem that worried Edward Barton. By having the Jewish villain commit such horrendous crimes, Marlowe insinuates by contrast that doing business with heretics isn't so heinous.
These "love the sin but hate the sinner" narratives are familiar enough. We're titillated; we condemn; all's well.
Sometimes such narratives smuggle out otherwise uncommunicable signals. It's Snowflake's Choice: a narrative which dehumanizes or no narrative at all. The envelope cuts both the sender and the recipient; the envelope may even be poisoned; still, the urge to communicate finds outlet.
But Marlowe apologists should limit their liberatory claims. No gaybasher was ever stricken by remorse at the memory of the insane killer in Laura. And Marlowe's choice of a Jewish scapegoat for capitalist sins doesn't undo medieval anti-Semitism or Counter-Reformation anti-Semitism so much as anticipate nineteenth and twentieth century anti-Semitism.
Similarly, the play's Christian-and/or-Catholic awkwardness reminds me of the awkwardness a later generation of privatizing profiteers faced while constructing a "Judeo-Christian" pseudo-identity which permitted relations with "good" (that is, profitable) non-Judeo-Christians, at least until such heretics could be cut out of the picture....
And the play's solution isn't far from theirs: Justify a war for profit as a war on terror.
* * *
I began this essay in an approved New Critical monogamous literary relationship: individual reader and individual work, in bed alone with the covers drawn up. Maybe spiced a bit mendaciously by fantasies about the author. All very legitimate and, in this instance, very unsatisfying.
By opening our sheets to encompass the work's political and economic context, vague background texture snapped into vibrant focus. The relationship became intriguing.
Well, that's my problem, not Marlowe's. And so to solve it I had to broaden the scope again, to my own — to the reader's — political and economic context.
In doing so, although I strayed from what might be called "appreciation", I don't think I dragged in arbitrary matter. The extent to which The Jew of Malta is depiction, indirection, prediction, or coincidence is unascertainable, but Marlowe himself opened this purse of worms. His play becomes more interesting when politically contextualized because his play was to some unknown degree a political act — not only a depiction of Realpolitik but an example of it.
* * *
Some time ago CultRev requested "brief statements about what we think the role of politics in the study of literature might be." This one wasn't very brief, I'm afraid. Particulars are my statement, and particulars take a while.
Thanks to some gruesome reaction of genetics and environment, I'm an unapologetic aesthete. (OK, I apologize sometimes, but it doesn't do much good.) Art is central to my metaphysics, ethics, and even (shamefully) my politics. It's the lightbulb the world revolves around.
However, I revolve with the world. To an absurd extent, my essay on Lubitsch's final movie and my edition of The Witlings were prompted by last autumn's American elections. In the case at hand, if I'd wanted to write about shallow trash on purely aesthetic grounds, I would've chosen John Marston, the English Renaissance Trey Parker.
And the light's not confined to the bulb. "Politics" can clarify what would otherwise remain obscure, solve puzzles or remove the blinders of arrogance. If we ask readers to imaginatively ally themselves with those heroic canonical authors, why not promote imaginative alliances with their circumstances? If it's not cheating "literary value" when we explain The Jew of Malta's vocabulary or the conventions of blank verse, or when we treat a haphazardly published assortment of poems and commercial scripts as evidence from which to deduce a fascinatingly singular Marlovian mind, how could anyone protest when we explore the political and economic conflicts at the dirty heart and fingertips of the play? If students bitch about Jane Austen's lack of interest in colonial injustice, we might remind them of their baggy jeans' provenance. If they snub Thomas Jefferson, we might point out the profitability of their state's prison system.
There are other roles for "politics", I know — maybe I've been displaying them myself; you tell me — bulking up one's blinders, deploying righteousness as an ornamental shield for ignorance....
I just don't think they're as useful in the study of literature.
|. . . 2007-01-02|
A more exact way of putting the analogy would be "Ignoring the penal system now is like ignoring slavery then." Which is why in literary discussions (as distinguished from political, historical, or economic discussions), I've usually raised it when meeting questions like "How dast Jane Austen not protest the slave trade?" and "How could rakes maintain a class-based definition of rape?"
But don't I wish a contemporary "abolitionist" movement could grow the clout of more middle-class-ish interest groups? Don't I want future readers and viewers to regard us with Whiggish contempt? Of course.
Don't I think ear-catching statements in the prophetic declarative at the MLA make a good move in that direction? Beats me. I understand effective activism about as well as I understand the weather, or knitting.
Josh Lukin provides evidence that the answer to my final question should have been "Yes."
|. . . 2009-06-22|
It's cruel of F. P. Lock (as blurbed on Broadview's back cover) to suggest that readers contrast Fenwick to Jane Austen. As Terry Castle gleefully revenged, Fenwick the moralizing primer-writer never broke or scuffed the cheap toy characters and incidents of moralizing melodrama.
But she did at least have the courage to throw them away. Fenwick lived a life unconducive to smugness, and despite the risibly artificial details of her novel's course, I was shaken awake by the final kiddie boatride over the falls. The book's moral center, admired and feared by all, could be no more priggishly rigid than she is and still condescend to human involvement (and the novel frequently insists that hygenically avoiding human involvement lands one in worse scrapes still), but despite all her considerable ingenuity, her outrageously sound instincts, and her remarkable freedom of movement, she's correct to blame herself for the book's particular surprise unhappy ending. Fenwick energetically pursued the secret that virtually all novelists (including Austen) wisely, professionally, refuse to divulge: that we can never be good enough.
|. . . 2009-08-01|
"Omniscience for Atheists: Or, Jane Austen's Infallible Narrator"
by William Nelles, Narrative 14.2 (2006) 118-131
Nelles first demonstrates the critical power of statistical methods, then demonstrates their critical shortcoming: we can only maintain "distant reading" by maintaining our assumptions about what's being read. He launches from a bit of received wisdom: Although all Jane Austen's novels feature godlike omniscient narrators, Austen matured from an openly intrusive and manipulative authorial voice to a disciplined use of third-person-limited and free indirect discourse. From Samuel Johnson to Henry James, as the trebly cited formula goes. Stats don't back it up:
Just as a play has a certain number of speaking parts, so an Austen novel has a certain number of what we might call "thinking parts," characters whose consciousness the narrator reveals to us. Given the critical narrative outlined above, one might expect to see that number start out very large and narrow down to a single central consciousness. If one measures omniscience quantitatively, as Booth suggests, counting how many minds the narrator has access to, then Persuasion, in which the narrator reveals the consciousnesses of ten characters, is no different from Emma, in which she also reads the minds of ten characters. But not only is there no progression from Emma to Persuasion in this regard, there is no pattern of progression at all in Austen's novels: Northanger Abbey has ten thinking parts, Sense and Sensibility twelve, and Mansfield Park thirteen. Only Pride and Prejudice, with nineteen thinking parts, stands out.
Rather than resting on this uphoistery, however, Nelles takes it as a guide to closer reading, and finds a circular map to accompany his flat graph:
Oddly enough, an Austen narrator can only read minds within a radius of three miles of her protagonist; this is specified as being precisely the distance from Longbourn to Netherfield and also from Kellynch Hall to Uppercross Cottage. And even this level of privilege occurs rarely. Normally the narrator can only read the minds of characters within sight or hearing of the protagonist. Austen's narrator is under house arrest, and the protagonist of the novel is her ankle bracelet.... In every other case of telepathy in Pride and Prejudice — and these are numerous — the character whose mind is being read is within Elizabeth's audiovisual field. This degree of spatial restriction hardly seems consonant with handbook definitions of omniscience.
Just how mortal is Austen's storytelling voice?
An Austen narrator is not just bound by a "now" at the end of the story that she can't see beyond; she is also bound by the "now" of the action she is narrating moment by moment, and is prohibited from looking ahead to future events even if they will occur before the narrator's final "now".... Furthermore, an Austen narrator also has limited access to past events, seldom extending beyond the protagonist's childhood....
[Wayne Booth protested] "One objection to this selective dipping into whatever mind best serves our immediate purposes is that it suggests mere trickery and inevitably spoils the illusion of reality. If Jane Austen can tell us what Mrs. Weston is thinking, why not what Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax are thinking?"
My response would be that it's easy to tell what Mrs. Weston is thinking, and difficult to tell what Frank and Jane are thinking. Within about twenty pages we learn that Emma has long since figured out Mrs. Weston's thoughts.... Not only does Emma know what Mrs. Weston is thinking, everybody who knows them knows what she's thinking, and Emma knows what all of them are thinking. Indeed, Mrs. Weston only hopes to conceal her thoughts "as much as possible".... Not every person is so easily read, however. Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax are good at blocking telepathy. When Emma tries to read Jane's mind during an evening at Hartfield, she is forced to concede, "There was no getting at her real opinion. Wrapt up in a cloak of politeness, she seemed determined to hazard nothing. She was disgustingly, was suspiciously reserved." Knightley is similarly stumped, because she does not have an "open temper." Recognizing that Jane's manners are designed to prevent her mind being read, Emma says to Mrs. Weston, "Oh! Do not imagine that I expect an account of Miss Fairfax's sensations from you, or from any body else. They are known to no human being, I guess, but herself," and our human narrator is of course included....
The template for the narrator in Austen is not at all a Godlike omniscience, but a very human skill: the ability of a perceptive and thoughtful person, given enough time and sufficient opportunity for observation, to make accurate judgments about people's character, thought processes, and feelings. Austen's protagonists are markedly less fallible by the end of the novel as they narrow the gap between their growing reliability of judgment and the infallibility of the narrator. Conversely, the narrator shares many of the characters' limitations of mobility. Like her protagonists, she can observe and analyze, but not foresee or control, social and personal outcomes; like them, she cannot really act upon her knowledge — possessing it must suffice. At the risk of making my conclusion too simple and obvious, the model for Austen's infallible narrators is not God in heaven, but Jane Austen, more or less as she describes herself in a letter to Cassandra, written about the time she begins working on Emma: "... as I must leave off being young, I find many Douceurs in being a sort of Chaperon for I am put on the Sofa near the Fire & can drink as much wine as I like."
Austen moved beyond open parody and Johnsonian discourse by returning to the novel's epistolary roots, writing as a friendly-but-detached on-the-scene reporter. In the fiction of Richardson and his direct successors, the most reliable narrators are either villains (who know the score because they're manipulating it) or tragically ineffective (guessing at events without being able to change them). Austen abstracted the pleasing activity of first-hand gossip from the distracting husk of the at-hand teller.
|. . . 2011-05-15|
Imagining Minds: The Neuro-Aesthetics of Austen, Eliot, and Hardy
by Kay Young, Ohio State, 2010
Young earns her blurbs: you could hardly find a purer product of citational discipline then this compare-and-compare of three canonical novelists, several well-established academic critics, and snippets from a tall stack of popular cognitive science and psychology books — but mostly William James — assembled with affable deafness to any intrastack squabbling. Nor do pop-explicators and novelists ever disagree; nor does any reader find any novel disagreeable.
"It really makes no difference what it is that is to be proved by such means." Still, by the end, I was convinced that nineteenth-century English fiction writers and recent Anglo-American purveyors of generalized anecdotes share many notions of human nature.
The Man Who Mistook His Dad For The Law: And Other Bad Calls
|. . . 2013-01-01|
Long before 1993, I'd thought of art(-in-the-most-generalized-sense-possible)-making as a human universal, and since I don't believe homo sapiens was formed de limo terræ on the sixth day by that ginormous Stephen Dedalus in the sky, I must perforce believe the inclination to have evolved(-in-the-most-generalized-sense-possible).
But scientists' applications of neuroscience, neural nets, and comparative zoology to art were sheer inanity, and with a few very welcome exceptions the "neuro-aesthetics" and "evolutionary turns" which migrated to humanities journals and popularized books catered no better fare. As Paul Bloom put it in a recent issue of Critical Inquiry:
Surely the contemporary human's love of literature has to have some evolutionary history, just as it has a cultural history, just as it has an instantiation in the brain, just as it emerges in the course of child development, and so on. Consider, as a concrete example, the proposal by the English professor Lisa Zunshine. She argues that humans have evolved a taste for stories because they exercise the capacity for social reasoning or theory of mind. Suppose, contrary to my own by-product view, Zunshine is correct. Why should this matter to your average Jane Austen scholar (to use a common synecdoche for English professors everywhere)? It would seem to be relevant in exactly the same way as finding that stories are processed in a certain part of the frontal lobe — that is, not at all.
While literary critics can safely ignore those interested in theories of the origin and nature of stories, the converse isn't true.
To a published-or-perished team-player, my little biographia literaria may sound naïvely promiscuous: tacking to each newly prevailing wind without a glance at the charts, discarding yesterday's party allegiance in the face of today's confident campaign ad.
I swear, however, this ever unrulier tangle springs from one integrated ground, albeit of well-manured soil rather than bedrock: a faith born at pubescence in the realization that mumbling through Shakespeare's King John was a different thing, a different incarnate thing, than speed-reading Isaac Asimov or Ellery Queen; a faith which developed through adolescence and reached near-final form by age twenty.
This chapel's sacrament is aesthesis, sense-perception, rather than "high art":
For it is false to suppose that a child's sense of beauty is dependent on any choiceness or special fineness, in the objects which present themselves to it, though this indeed comes to be the rule with most of us in later life; earlier, in some degree, we see inwardly; and the child finds for itself, and with unstinted delight, a difference for the sense, in those whites and reds through the smoke on very homely buildings, and in the gold of the dandelions at the road-side, just beyond the houses, where not a handful of earth is virgin and untouched, in the lack of better ministries to its desire of beauty.
But honest attention to sensibility finds social context as well as sensation. Words have heft; the color we see is a color we think. And art(-in-the-most-general-sense-possible) wins special interest as a sensible experience which is more or less bounded, shared, repeatable, and pre-swaddled in discourse.
Pluralism is mandated by that special interest. Any number of functions might be mapped into one chunk of multidimensional space. Integer arithmetic and calculus don't wage tribal war; nor do salt and sweet. We may not be able to describe them simultaneously; one may feel more germane to our circumstances than another; on each return to the artifact, the experience differs. But insofar as we label the experiential series by the artifact, all apply; as Tuesday Weld proved, "Everything applies!" And as Anna Schmidt argued, "A person doesn't change because you find out more." We've merely added flesh to our perception, and there is no rule of excluded middle in flesh.
Like other churches, this one doesn't guarantee good fellowship, and much of the last decade's "aesthetic turn" struck me as dumbed-down reactionism. But The New Aestheticism was on the whole a pleasant surprise. Its reputation (like the reputation of most academic books, I suppose) is based on a few pull-quotes from the editors' introduction; the collection which follows is more eclectic. Howard Caygill sets a nice Nietzschean oscillation going in Alexandria, Gary Banham's "Kant and the ends of criticism" nostalgically resembles what I smash-&-grabbed from the display case back in college, and Jonathan Dollimore snaps at ethical presumptions with commendable bloodlust.
The contributors keep their disagreements well within the disciplinary family, however. They cite Adorno, Kant, and Heidegger very frequently, Wilde once, and Pater never, and disport themselves accordingly. After all, Adorno was a contentious fussbudget and respectable role model, whereas Pater was an ineffectual sissy.
Till at a corner of the wayWe met with maid Bellona,Who joined us so imperiouslyThat we durst not disown her.My three companions coughed and blushed,And as the time waxed later,One murmured, pulling out his watch,That he must go—'twas Pater.- "The Traveller" by Arthur Graeme West
Adorno might have been happy surrounded by worshipful li'l Adornos; a majority of such as Pater, "the very opposite of that which regards life as a game of skill, and values things and persons as marks or counters of something to be gained, or achieved, beyond them," would be the heat death of the world. But there's more to existence than procreation, and aesthetes, at least, should appreciate the value of one-offs and nonreproducible results. We can no more say that Derrida "proved" Searle wrong than that Bangs "proved" the Godz brilliant musicians or Flaubert "proved" us all doomed to follow Frédéric Moreau. That doesn't mean Derrida was therefore best when dishing unset Jello like Glas and Lester Bangs was therefore best when writing fiction and Flaubert was therefore best avoiding emotionally hot topics. Every flounder to its own hook.
If false dilemmas and heroic battles against empire or barbarism are what's needed to drag some white bellies to the surface, well, that's no more ridiculous a procedure than constructing imaginary villages with real explainers in them. I wouldn't presume to say it's all good, but it is all that is the case.
giddy upon the Hobby-Horse
Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Aw, come on, horsey! Please, horsey? Please, whoa. Purty please? Doggone it now, horsey! Won't you please whoa?
Has Dollimore gotten less irritating since his days of applying Godwin's law to literature? ("Here essence and teleology are explicitly affirmed while history becomes the surrogate absolute. If we are used to finding this kind of utterance in our own cultural history it comes as something of a shock to realise that these were the words of Alfred Bäumler, a leading Nazi philosopher writing on race." etc etc)
He kicks off with Hesse, so probably not.
Dollimore kicked off Radical Tragedy with Hesse as well! So this is a rerun, I gather.
A preview of the third edition intro, looks like.
|. . . 2013-02-17|
As a admirer of Latin, Samuel Johnson Englished its syntax. As an admirer of Johnson, Jane Austen Englished his English. The dialect became a language. It got a navy.
|. . . 2013-03-18|
Mrs. Paradise,1 leaning over the Kirwans 2 & Charlotte, who hardly got a seat all Night for the crowd, said she begged to speak to me. I squeezed my great Person out, & she then said ‘Miss Burney, Lady Say & Seal3 desires the Honour of being introduced to you.’
Her Ladyship stood by her side. She seems pretty near 50, at least turned 40,— her Head was full of Feathers, Flowers, Jewels, & gew gaws, & as high as Lady Archers,4 her Dress was trimmed with Beads, silver, persian, sashes, & all sort of fine fancies; her Face is thin & fiery, & her whole manner spoke a lady all alive.
‘Miss Burney, cried she, with great quickness & a look all curiosity, I am very happy to see you,— I have longed to see you a great while,— I have read your Performance, & I am quite delighted with it! I think it’s the most elegant Novel I ever read in my life. Such a style!— I am quite surprised at it: I can’t think where you got so much invention.’
You may believe this was a reception not to make me very loquacious!— good Heaven! I did not know which way to turn my Head.
‘I must introduce you, continued her Ladyship, to my sister,— she’ll be quite delighted to see you,— she has written a Novel herself!— so you are sister Authoresses! A most elegant thing it is, I assure you,— almost as pretty as yours,— only not quite so elegant. She has written two Novels,— only one is not so pretty as the other. But I shall insist upon your seeing them. One is in Letters, like yours, only yours is prettiest. It’s called the Mausoleum of Julia!’5
What unfeeling things, thought I, are my sisters! I’m sure I never heard them go about thus praising me!
Mrs. Paradise then again came forward, & taking my Hand, led me up to her Ladyship’s sister, Lady Hawke, saying aloud, & with a courteous smirk ‘Miss Burney, Ma’am, Authoress of Evelina.’
‘Yes, cried my friend Lady Say & Seal, who followed me close, it’s the Authoress of Evelina! So you are sister Authoresses!’
Lady Hawke arose & Curtsied. She is much younger than her sister, & rather pretty; extremely languishing, delicate, & pathetic; apparently accustomed to be reckoned the Genius of her Family, & well contented to be looked upon as a Creature dropt from the Clouds!
I was then seated between their Ladyships, & Lady S. & S., drawing as near to me as possible, said,— ‘Well,— & so you wrote this pretty Book!— & pray did your Papa know of it?’
‘No, Ma’am, not till some months after the Publication.’
‘So I’ve heard!— it’s surprising!— I can’t think how you invented it! there’s a vast deal of invention in it! And you’ve got so much humour, too!— now my sister has no humour,— her’s is all sentiment,— you can’t think how I was entertained with that old Grandmother & her son!— ’
I suppose she meant Tom Branghton for the son.
‘Lord, how much pleasure you must have had in writing it!— had not you?’
‘Y — e — s, Ma’am.’
‘So has my sister,— she’s never without a Pen in her Hand,— she can’t help writing for her Life,— when Lord Hawke is Travelling about with her, she keeps writing all the way!’
‘Yes, said Lady Hawke, I really can’t help writing. One has great pleasure in writing the things,— has not one, Miss Burney?’
‘Y — e — s, Ma’am.’
‘But your Novel, cried Lady Say & Seal, is in such a style!— so elegant!— I am vastly glad you made it end happily. I hate a Novel that don’t end happy.’
‘Yes, said Lady Hawke, with a languid smile, I was vastly glad when she married Lord Orville! I was sadly afraid it would not have been.’
‘My sister intends, said Lady Say & Seal, to print her Mauseoleum, just for her own friends & acquaintances.’
‘Yes, said Lady Hawke, I have never printed yet.’
‘I saw Lady Hawke’s name, quoth I to my first friend, ascribed to the play of “Variety”.’6
‘Did you indeed! cried Lady Say, in an extacy,— sister!— do you know Miss Burney saw your name in the news papers about the Play!— ’
‘Did she? said Lady Hawke, smiling complacently, But I really did not write it: I never writ a Play in my life.’
‘Well, cried Lady Say, but do pray repeat that sweet part that I am so fond of,— you know what I mean,— Miss Burney must hear it,— out of your Novel, you know!’
Ly H. ‘No, I can’t,— I have forgot it.’
Ly S. ‘O no,— I am sure you have not,— I insist upon it.’
Ly H. ‘But I know you can repeat it yourself,— you have so fine a memory,— I am sure you can repeat it.’
Ly S. ‘O but I should not do it Justice!— that’s all, I should not do it Justice!’
Lady Hawke then bent forward, & repeated ‘If when he made the declaration of his Love, the sensibility that beamed in his Eyes was felt in his Heart, what pleasing sensations, & soft alarms might not that tender avowal awaken!’
‘And from what, Ma’am, cried I, astonished, & imagining I had mistaken them, is this taken?’
‘From my sister’s Novel! answered the delighted Lady Say & Seal, expecting my raptures to be equal, it’s in the Mausoleum!— did not you know that!— Well, I can’t think how you can write these sweet Novels!— And it’s all just like that part!— Lord Hawke himself says it’s all Poetry!— For my part, I’m sure I never could write so. I suppose, Miss Burney, you are producing another? A’n’t you?’
‘O, I dare say you are! I dare say you are writing one at this very minute!’7
Mrs. Paradise now came up to me again, followed by a square man, middle aged, & hum drum, who, I found, was Lord Say & Seal,8 afterwards from the Kirwans, for though they introduced him to me, I was so confounded by their vehemence & their manners, that I did not hear his Name.
‘Miss Burney, said Mrs. P. — , Authoress of Evelina!’
‘Yes, cried Lady Say & Seal, starting up, ’tis the Authoress of Evelina!’
‘Of what?’ cried he.
‘Of Evelina!— You’d never think it!— she looks so young!— to have so much invention, & such an I elegant style! — Well, I could write a Play, I think, but I’m sure I could never write a Novel.’
‘O yes, You could if you would try; said Lady Hawke, ‘I assure you.’ ‘O no, I could not! answered she, I could not get a style! — that’s the thing, I could not tell how to get a style! — & a Novel’s nothing without a style, you know!’
‘Why no, said Lady Hawke, that’s true But then you write such charming Letters, you know!’
‘Letters? repeated Lady S. & S. simpering,— do you think so? — do you know I wrote a long Letter to Mrs. Ray just before I came here!— this very afternoon!— quite a long Letter!— I did, I assure you!’
Here Mrs. Paradise came forward with another Gentleman, younger, slimmer, & smarter, & saying to me ‘Sir Gregory Page Turner,’9 said to him, ‘Miss Burney,— Authoress of Evelina.’ At which Lady Say & Seal, in fresh transport, again arose, & rapturously again repeated ‘Yes,— she’s Authoress of Evelina! Have you read it?’
‘No,— is it to be had?’
‘O dear yes!— it‘s been printed these 2 years!— You’d never think it!— But it’s the most elegant Novel I ever read in my life! writ in such a style!’
‘Certainly, said he, very civilly, I have every inducement to get it. Pray where is it to be had? every where, I suppose?’
‘O no where, I hope!’ cried I, wishing at that moment it had been never in human ken.
My square friend, Lord Say & Seal, then putting his Head forward, said very solemnly, ‘I’ll purchase it.’
Lady Say & Seal then mentioned to me an hundred Novels that I had never heard of, asking my opinion of them, & whether I knew the Authors: Lady Hawke only occasionally & languidly joining in the discourse. And then, Lady S. & S., suddenly arising, begged me not to move, for she should be back again in a minute, & flew to the next Room.
I took, however, the first opportunity of Lady Hawke’s casting down her Eyes, & reclining her delicate Head, to make away from this terrible set,— & just as I was got by the Piano Forte, where I hoped Pacchierotti would soon present himself, Mrs. Paradise again came to me, & said, ‘Miss Burney, Lady Say & Seal wishes vastly to cultivate your acquaintance, & begs to know if she may have the Honour of your Company to an Assembly at her House next Friday? And I will do myself the pleasure to call for you, if you will give me leave.’
‘Her Ladyship does me much honour, but I am unfortunately engaged.’ was my answer, with as much promptness, as if it had been true!10— FB.
- Frances Burney to her sister, Susanna Burney Phillips,
February or March, 1782,
from The Early Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney: Vol. 5 1782-1783,
ed. Lars E. Troide & Stewart J. Cooke
Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.