I first started thinking about this post after Wednesday’s Victorian Seminar with Catherine Robson on “one-hit-wonder” W. E. Henley’s one hit, “Invictus,” comparing its reception as a recitation poem within America to Rudyard Kipling’s “If–” and its imbrication within the English educational system. These two poems are, of course, ridiculously popular, part of which can be explained, as CR pointed out, because of the shiftiness of the “I” of “Invictus,” the “you” of “If–.”

One of the things that came up during the presentation and Q & A was the huge fissure between how we as literary critics typically think of these poems–as exemplars of Victorian imperialist manliness, liberal individualism, the stiff upper lip–and how those of the general public feel about them. Here I won’t go into the many nuanced insights that CR gave concerning the critical, institutional, national, and popular reception of these poems.What I was struck by and will fixate upon is just one particular “meaning”–their use as “inspiration.”

As I’ve mentioned before, a side effect of my dissertating has been a nasty running habit, something which caused me to spend three perfectly good hours yesterday out in the rain plodding through a long run. Among runners, and not just the plebeian masses, but up to the highest level of the so-called elites (and including my would-be sub-sub-elite self), the need for inspiration is taken seriously, whether in the form of Youtube videos, mantras, visual cues, or mock motivational posters. I’m sure that there are many runners who recite “Invictus” and/or “If” over and over again mentally (or not!) as they run.

I’m not one of those runners, nor do I wish to be–the literary critic in me forbids it. But it made me wonder just why inspiration as a feeling, or as a genre, or as a genre of feeling is so debased among us as academics. Partly it’s a brow thing–we are who we are because we eschew low-brow motivational posters and middle-brow poetry. Partly it’s because the most valued affects in the training of a literary critic are suspicion of the hermeneutical sort and disenchantment of pretty much any kind. There has of course been some pushback against the latter, but “inspiration” seems to fall outside the purview of reparative reading à la Sedgwick or critical attention to readerly attachments à la Felski.

But what if we think about readerly (or reciterly) affect in terms of genre? What genre criticism gives us is a reason why to talk about underexamined social and historical formations. Genres, especially popular ones, like sensation novels, romances, and Marvel comic books are all particularly worthy of attention from a cultural studies/genre theory point of view. We’ve grown used to thinking about and valuing popular culture–but what about popular feelings?

I’d offer “inspiration” as one such popular feeling–perhaps there are others you can think of (hint, hint, please comment, I get lonely…). Maybe there’s a whole literature on “inspiration” out there, but I have the feeling that there isn’t. Here’s one way to think about inspiration in a non-undertheorized way: I’ve been reading Lauren Berlant‘s Cruel Optimism lately, and she talks about the day-to-day crises of post-Fordian precarious life, and how what sustains us through the impasse (and/or leads to slow death) is being in the vicinity of a fantasy of a good life. Normative aspirations and aspirations to normativity. Maybe one day I’ll be somebody who could’ve been a contender. (Okay, maybe that last one doesn’t make much sense, but I thought it sounded clever.) Maybe what makes “inspiration” so powerful is its ability to hook into these fantasies: expressions not of neoliberal picked-up-by-one’s-own-bootstraps ideology but of sustaining fantasies of the future that allow us to function in the present as if we’ve got our shit together.

“The only war that matters is the war on the imagination”
–Diane di Prima

I’ve been serving on our department’s admissions committee, and have spent a lot of the last month reading, comparing, discussing, and debating applications to our Ph.D. program. I knew going into the process that this would be a somewhat nervewracking, somewhat narcissistic project. I thought a lot about those applicants I saw as coming from a similar place as me–exceptionally bright, diversely talented, somewhat idealistic, but woefully underspecialized and underprofessionalized, coming from a B.A. program. No doubt this is the type of student whose application raises red flags for readers with way more experience than me. I think I made my pet project a bit more transparent than I’d have liked–but I think my point that you don’t have to have it all figured out when you enter grad school was appreciated. (What I didn’t say was how much I object to the “Get thee to an M.A. program” argument. Especially given the economy, asking people who don’t come from a background that offers a lot of coaching for Ph.D. apps to spend tens of thousands of dollars so that they can go spend thousands of dollars again applying to Phd programs seems a surefire way to maintain the undiversity of the humanities.)

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about undergraduate education lately. I’ve also been reading Eve’s new book The Weather In Proust, which has been just delightful, especially as the terms that Eve used in speech a lot of the time when I knew her were not in Touching Feeling, but it’s all here. The reason behind this post is Eve’s description of holding environments:

The human need for air is satiable because, like the needs to drink, eat, and excrete, but unlike the libido, it is aa biological drive in the strongest sense of the term: unlike sexual desire, for example, its satisfaction is necessary to sustain individual life. And unlike Oedipally structured sexuality, it is not intrinsically organized around rivalry or mediation. The need to breathe, to eat and rink, to have one’s weight supported are nonnegotiable, but being finite and satiable, they are not zero sum: except in extreme situations, one is rarelydeprived by the satisfaction of another’s need. Balint’s interest in existential or survival-implicating functions, which he links to the weather elements–auir, water, earth, and fire–is held in common by the pioneers of object-relations psychology. Like Ferenczi and Winnicott, Balint likes to attach friendly language to such “benign” or satiable object relations–what he also calls “the harmonious mix-up,” and Winnicott calls the “holding environment”–the one where, as Winnicott hauntingly points out, it becomes possible for the infant to think about something else, something beyond the mother’s care. (“The Weather in Proust” 11-12)

A few years ago, I taught a bit of Newman’s The Idea of a University, to give a different concept of liberal arts education, one really counterintuitive to my students who thought the liberal arts curriculum as primarily in terms of providing a broad base of knowledge in preparation for a diverse range of careers. Newman’s thinking–or rather, his rehearsal of what was held to be common sense–is quite different, and very similar to the “harmonious mix-up” or “holding environment” Sedgwick describes:

Cicero, in enumerating the various heads of mental excellence, lays down the pursuit of Knowledge for its own sake, as the first of them. “This pertains most of all to human nature,” he says, “for we are all of us drawn to the pursuit of Knowledge; in which to excel we consider excellent, whereas to mistake, to err, to be ignorant, to be deceived, is both an evil and a disgrace.” And he considers Knowledge the very first object to which we are attracted, after the supply of our physical wants. After the calls and duties of our animal existence, as they may be termed, as regards ourselves, our family, and our neighbours, follows, he tells us, “the search after truth. Accordingly, as soon as we escape from the pressure of necessary cares, forthwith we desire to see, to hear, and to learn; and consider the knowledge of what is hidden or is wonderful a condition of our happiness.”

This passage, though it is but one of many similar passages in a multitude of authors, I take for the very reason that it is so familiarly known to us; and I wish you to observe, Gentlemen, how distinctly it separates the pursuit of Knowledge from those ulterior objects to which certainly it can be made to conduce, and which are, I suppose, solely contemplated by the persons who would ask of me the use of a University or Liberal Education. So far from dreaming of the cultivation of Knowledge directly and mainly in order to our physical comfort and enjoyment, for the sake of life and person, of health, of the conjugal and family union, of the social tie and civil security, the great Orator implies, that it is only after our physical and political needs are supplied, and when we are “free from necessary duties and cares,” that we are in a condition for “desiring to see, to hear, and to learn.”

It is so familiarly known to us–perhaps Newman was exaggerating a bit here, but it certainly wasn’t familiar to me, and in all the defences of the humanities I’ve seen, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything similar expressed. To think that an education in the humanities is the sole purview of those not in the grip of Necessity would rightfully be denounced as stunningly elitest. But it’s striking that the idea of a holding environment should be so thoroughly eradicated from our notion of education, especially of a liberal arts education. Nobody–liberal, conservative, reactionary, radical–is apt to emphasize that one’s basic physical needs are satiable, and are in fact satiated. We’d much rather pay attention how they may in the future not be met, or how whatever satiety we have counts little compared to all those less satiated. What if instead we concentrated not on the somethings we can teach–be it useful knowledge, job training, critical thinking, cultural capital–but on the “something else“?

Three issues I have tried to deal with here
Of methodology, genre and merit
For method – all things must begin with google
And so I google this Aurora Leigh
I find the dedication to John Kenyon
And google him in turn to find that he
Had written to the daughter of Sam Coleridge
Who replied thus: charming is this poem
But the poet has done grave injustice
To the classics that she scarce understands.
Thus Sara Coleridge echoes the father
Admonishing Aurora, “Silly Girls
Who plant their flowers in our philosophy
To make it fine, and only spoil the book!”
My next methodological step is
To read, unread, reread each flower, every
Philosophy. To read with sympathy
And then to read again, to search for men
And women, eyes and nose, highs and lows, rhymes
and prose, all those in Barrett Brownings words.
On then, to genre – Aurora Leigh is
A poem, novel, travel narrative
And autobiography complicated
By aspects of Elizabeth in two
Disparate protagonists. In this epic tapestry is woven lyric threads,
And at th’ abortive wedding in part four
There’s drama, as the wait is felt and told
By the voices of despised nobility.
Another avenue for assumed voices
Is found in the epistolary parts
That, like The Ring and Book, whose “evidence”
was written, for there were no open courts,
Aurora Leigh records, in layers of irony
Communications and their misreadings.

To novel, travelogue, and self-writing
We can add one more prose genre – criticism –
To which Aurora Leigh could well belong:
“A woman cannot do the thing she ought,
Which means whatever perfect thing she can,
In life, in art, in science, but she fears
To let the perfect action take her part
And rest there: she must prove what she can do
Before she does it” – an eternal truth
To which a presidential candidate
might testify. And so to the doing
Of poetry we see the addition
Of a saying, in the lines that bludgeon us
With meaning, and with what their meaning means.

Now to merit – shall we, as Arnold would do
Apply the touchstone method – mark this line
Addressed to Waldemar – “To love and lie!
Nay–go to the opera! your love’s curable.’”
IS this an echo or a separate note
In harmony with Shakespeare’s “men have died
from time to time, and worms have eaten them,
but not for love”? On to the next precept
Of subjective judgement. Could one have written
A proem or a povel like this one?
I think I demonstrate that I could not
My pentameter could hardly be verse.

On the canonizability of
Aurora Leigh – Mary Poovey would ask
Does this poem serve a desired or desirable
function? It serves three. It is a showcase.
It is herstory. It is pleasure. First as
showcase – what does it show? Victorians.
Xenophobic, necrophilic, also
Melancholic, anti Catholic, though the
Maenadic, hebraic, erotic side
Of Catholic Italy is contrasted
Favourably with an England “so
Clipped and rational, that if you seek
for any wilderness/You find, at best,
a park.” Other Victorianisms are
the dead mother (who is essential back
story for a writer – kill the mother,
and you have a lifetime of artistic fodder)
And the Woman Question – but more about that later
Note also fading aristocracy,
Foiled by a rising middle class. Each of
the main characters in Aurora Leigh
Is classed ambiguously – Where Ms. Leigh
Is always classed with lions, Marian
Is “stag” or “fawn”, links lower in the chain.
Aurora speaks aristocratically
When she says in disregard for food or rent,
“My soul is not a pauper; I can live
At least my soul’s life, without alms from men”
And yet elsewhere she speaks in bourgeoisie
She says to Romney that “Whoever says
To a loyal woman, ‘Love and work with me,’
Will get fair answers” Romney spirals down
In ironic fulfillment of his cause
To raze the remnants of feudal constructions
Be careful what you wish for, Romney Leigh
Marian, we hear, is quite unsuited
To housework – and in this she is indulged
By otherwise unsympathetic parents
And therein lies Marian’s odd privilege.
Physiognomically speaking, her low brow
Her neither brown nor whiteness and her hair
In Pre-raphaelite curls race her as “other”
To the quasi Saxonness of Aurora
Whose mother is Italian but blue eyed;
And for Aurora’s other attributes
Lady Maud threw down, when she was born
“ The undeniable lineal mouth and chin”

The xenophobic entail, then, is shown
To be ludicrous, and yet Aurora is
Not all England – she’s Romney’s Italy
Also, his little Chaldean who reads
His “meaning backward like [her] eastern books,
While he is from the west, dear.”

Moving on
To Herstory – like class and race, gender
And sexuality are troubled here,
As are attitudes to motherhood
and women’s art. Aurora speaks a good deal of writing
But writing is inextricable
From the gender question. On one hand,
Aurora sees herself as genderless
“As a palm tree, rather than an a lush
And overbearing vine.” The artist, thus
Is placed beyond gender, and classed above
Two sorts of mothers – Marian’s marylike sort
Note Marian’s name -derived from the virgin
And yet unisex. The other sort is
The mother whose children’s poor milky mouths
Are “Wiped […] of mother’s milk by mother’s blow
Before they are taught her cursing.” Here the charm
The lovely crap, the old mystique about
Maternal instinct and mother’s duty
Are deconstructed quite summarily
Now hear these lines, written so long before
Roe v. Wade: “I ripped my verses up,
And found no blood upon the rapier’s point:
The heart in them was just an embryo’s heart,
Which never yet had beat, that it should die:
Just gasps of make-believe galvanic life;
Mere tones, inorganised to any tune.”
When Romney speaks in Miltonic terms of
A womans’ role to cure, not cause headaches
Little does he sense he’ll be undone
Weakened, symbolically castrated by
Disability. And so as clothed
In her father’s doublet, careless of its fit,
Aurora grapples with the irony
Of doing busy work, embroidery,
That she may be useful, while inside
A lion, or a lioness – she’s not sure which
Is roaring across time to Judith Butler
About the discursive limits of sex,
this same Aurora speaks of pregnant thought
And says “poets (bear the word)”, which calls to mind
Bearing the Word by Homans, who equates
In troubling and essentialist ways, feminine art
With childbirth. This plays into the equation
Of the masculine with the intellectual
And the feminine with Mother Nature –
Aurora Leigh teems with life and nature.
In that, it falls into Romantic tropes
And scoffs Classics: “Five acts to make a play?
And why not fifteen? Why not ten? or seven?
What matter for the number of the leaves,
Supposing the tree lives and grows? exact
The literal unities of time and place,
When ’tis the essence of passion to ignore
Both time and place? Absurd. Keep up the fire
And leave the generous flames to shape themselves.”
Yet later Aurora critiques the poets who want to withdraw to the “daisies” –
she believes one should also observe
the swarthiest faces in the urban crowds:
She also critiques Byron and pope, excepting
Keats who is in touch with his feminine side
So much for childbearing and pain, now pleasure.
As A novel, ‘tis a marriage plot, a joy
For those of us who love Harlequin tales
And really, who does not? The narrative
Is formed into a ring, a wreath, a circle
By returning to the questions and inequities
Of the start. Mountains abound here and stairs
Aurora and Marian are higher dwellers
Joining the ranks of madwomen in attics,
Renaissance beloveds on pedestals
And Juliets on balconies; Romney
“Who has climbed a mountain-height and carried up
His own heart climbing, panting in his throat
With the toil of the ascent, takes breath at last,”
To be rejected. What, on god’s green earth
Do women want, asks Lacan. Leigh replies,
As Romney climbs a mountain once again
Without his sight. We do not know his face
Romney Leigh has never been described.
The objects are the women – and his gaze
Confers upon them stone wreaths and headaches.
Now blinded, he is still – as turned to stone
He has become the looked-upon, Edward
Rochester to Aurora’s Jane. When first
He popped the question, St John style, he said
To Aurora “If your sex is weak for art,
(And I who said so, did but honour you
By using truth in courtship) it is strong
For life and duty.” His proposal meets
The same fate as his brother’s from Jane Eyre
“You have a wife already whom you love,
Your social theory. Bless you both, I say.
For my part, I am scarcely meek enough
To be the handmaid of a lawful spouse.”
As blind and burnt out Rochester, Romney
Has lost the gaze that must objectify.
Leighton’s thought on this is echoed in
Aurora’s words on the panopticism
Of her old life: “Nay, the very dog
Would watch me from his sun-patch on the floor,
In alternation with the large black fly
Not yet in reach of snapping. So I lived.”
So, sightless, Romney comes to claim his bride
Disrupting the two mother family
With lengthy declarations of his sins
To which his love says, “Why, Ulysses’ dog
Knew him, and wagged his tail and died: but if
I had owned a dog, I too, before my Troy,
And if you brought him here, I warrant you
He’d look into my face, bark lustily,
And live on stoutly, as the creatures will
Whose spirits are not troubled by long loves.”
In other words, she’s changed – but note, at last,
She thinks she is Ulysses, Romney thinks
She’s his Penelope. So in some ways
Some things are left untidy but dear reader
like every good Harlequin book, this ends
with two chapters of climactic resolution
An extended declaration of their love,
And the standard linear full stop of a kiss.

It’s always the bicentennial or sesquicentennial of something, but this year’s is a biggie, as I’m sure all you long nineteenth centuryists are already sick to death of hearing–so happy 2012! (About the link–it seems totally in the spirit of Dickens to make a big capitalist hoopla over a meaningless anniversary, doesn’t it?)

Is one of my NYR’s to blog more frequently? I’m not sure yet, but I’m trying to write more in general, hoping that that will get me to write more on that little thing I’ve got to get done for those expensive three letters. So maybe you’ll be hearing more from me here? Or, more likely, here–I believe there are stages one must go through before while writing a dissertation, and one of them is to take up a hobby and spend ridiculous amounts of time on it. Mine’s running, so if you want to read about what a theoretically-minded pain slut would-be Boston Qualifier, check it out.

So, here I am, back to blogging. I actually darkened the door here not because of the new year, but because I remembered this post that I had begun, but never finished–way back in September.

Here’s what I had:

How I learned to stop bitching and love The Newcomes

For an embarrassingly long time, I’ve been reading The Newcomes, you know, one of the books W. M. Thackeray (has anybody read this Thackeray?) wrote that wasn’t Vanity Fair. It is, after all, rather long:

Not one brick, but two!

I’m reading it since it briefly mentions China 4 or 5 times in its more than 900 pages, and I need to decide whether it merits a footnote or maybe even a full paragraph in my dissertation. It’s been slow going. When I talk about it I say maybe there’s a reason why nobody reads any Thackeray except for Vanity Fair. I’m used to being completely unengrossed by Victorian novels for the first hundred pages, but WMT managed to make the pages refuse to turn all through the first volume. For the first three hundred pages or so, there’s really not anything like a plot, although that’s not stopped me from liking a novel (cf. Charlotte Mary Yonge), and it’s about a more or less happy family, but that’s not necessarily a turn-off either (again, cf. Miss Yonge). Around page 500 I thought I detected something like a plot. Now that I’m around page 300 of the second volume, I’m thinking that this is actually an enormously sad, hence great novel. In its way, it’s quite more tragical than Vanity Fair.

I had some passage in mind to illustrate the novel’s particular brand of world-weariness, something like this (“spoiler” alert):

Very likely this was the happiest period of Thomas Newcome’s life. No woman (save one perhaps fifty years ago) had ever seemed so fond of him as that little girl. What pride he had in her, and what care he took of her! If she was a little ailing, what anxiety and hurrying for doctors! What droll letters came from James Binnie, and how they laughed over them; with what respectful attention he acquainted Mrs. Mack with everything that took place; with what enthusiasm that Campaigner replied! Josey’s husband called a special blessing upon his head in the church at Musselburgh; and little Jo herself sent a tinful of Scotch bun to her darling sister, with a request from her husband that he might have a few shares in the famous Indian Company.

The Company was in a highly flourishing condition, as you may suppose, when one of its directors, who at the same time was one of the honestest men alive, thought it was his duty to live in the splendour in which we now behold him. Many wealthy City men did homage to him. His brother Hobson, though the Colonel had quarrelled with the chief of the firm, yet remained on amicable terms with Thomas Newcome, and shared and returned his banquets for a while. Charles Honeyman we may be sure was present at many of them, and smirked a blessing over the plenteous meal. The Colonel’s influence was such with Mr. Sherrick that he pleaded Charles’s cause with that gentleman, and actually brought to a successful termination that litle love-affair in which we have seen Miss Sherrick and Charles engaged. Mr. Sherrick was not disposed to part with much money during his lifetime–indeed he proved to Colonel Newcome that he was not so rich as the world supposed him. But by tyhe Colonel’s interest, the chaplaincy of bogglywallah was procured for the Rev. C. Honeyman, who now forms the delight of that flourishing station.

All this while we have said little about Clive, who in truth was somehow in the background in this flourishing Newcome group. To please the best father in the world; the kindest old friend who endowed his niece with the best part of his savings; to settle that question about marriage and have an end of it; Clive Newcome had taken a pretty and fond young girl, who respected and admired him beyond all men, and who heartily desired to make him happy. To do as much would not his father have stripped his coat from his back,–have put his head under Juggernaut’s chariot-wheel,–have sacrificed any ease, comfort, or pleasure for the youngster’s benefit? One great passion he had had and closed the account of it: a worldly ambitious girl–how foolishly worshipped and passionately beloved no matter–had played with him for years; had flung him away when a dissolute suitor with a great fortune and title had offered himself. Was he to whine and despair because a jilt had fooled him? He had too much pride and courage for any such submission; he would accept the lot in life which was offered to him, no undesirable one surely; he would fulfil the wish of his father’s heart, and cheer his kind declining years.

In Vanity Fair, life sucks because people are selfish and manipulative assholes or pathetic self-delusional fools. In The Newcomes, there’s no shortage of assholes, but there’s plenty of good-hearted people too. And even–especially when those good-hearted people get their way, everything ends up sucking all the same.

Ironicallyish, sometime in the many months since beginning the post, I encountered this quote from a contemporary review, via Nicholas Dames’ contribution to The Feeling of Reading, ed. Rachel Ablow:

The merit of the “Newcomes” cannot be judged by quotations. They are like the stones of the temple, whose beauty is in their proper places, as parts of a design. Characters are built up bit by bit, and many admirable traits depend for their effect upon the knowledge of their antecedents…

The passage I’ve chosen is fairly unremarkable on its own–but where Vanity Fair has plenty of eminently quotable zingers about the shittiness of the world in general, it’s these longer passages that put the particular world of the novel in hand into melancholy perspective that I find particularly satisfying.

I was reminded of this unfinished post now that I’m almost done Sylvia’s Lovers, advertised by OWC (and Wikipedia) as “the saddest story I ever wrote” by “Mrs. Gaskell” herself. How sad is it? Pretty damn sad. We’re talking Thomas Hardy territory here, and not just the train-wreckiness of the plot. We’ve got the working-class rural regionalisms, the aching nostalgia–although there’s not so much overcompensatory hyperintellectualism (don’t get me wrong, I heart overcompensatory hyperintellectualism–takes one to know one, innit.)

For some reason, the novel’s felt very cinematic to me (curiously enough, it seems there’s never been an adaptation). I’d love to see a long Kubrickesque travelling shot of this:

The infant was wailing and suffering with its teething, and the mother’s heart was so occupied in soothing and consoling her moaning child, that the dangerous quay-side and the bridge were passed almost before she was aware; nor did she notice the eager curiosity and respectful attention of those she met who recognized her even through the heavy veil which formed part of the draping mourning provided for her by Hester and Coulson, in the first unconscious days after her mother’s death.

Though public opinion as yet reserved its verdict upon Philip’s disappearance–warned possibly by Kinraid’s story against hasty decisions and judgments in such times as those of war and general disturbance–yet every one agreed that no more pitiful fate could have befallen Philip’s wife.

Marked out by her striking beauty as an object of admiring interest even in those days when she sate in girlhood’s smiling peace by her mother at the Market Cross–her father had lost his life in a popular cause, and ignominious as the manner of his death might be, he was looked upon as a martyr to his zeal in avenging the wrongs of his townsmen; Sylvia had married amongst them too, and her quiet daily life was well known to them; and now her husband had been carried off from her side just on the very day when she needed his comfort most.

I guess this post is my own foray into Victorian-style reviewing–long on quotation, short on commentary. There’s much more I could say and am thinking about–like how these passages work with Sianne Ngai’s discussion of tone as something distinct from what is actually represented in fiction, the play of perspective, un-close-reading, but hey, I’ve got a dissertation to write.

Last summer, I complained about slogging through pages and pages of Charles Reade’s knowing generalizations about the fairer sex in order to find out whether I would end up writing about it. Well, it turns out that I’m planning on half of a diss chapter on it, and that’s what I’m working on right now. I’ve been making believe that the author is alive and reading some biographical stuff, and it so turns out that Reade kept tons of notebooks, many on the subject of “Woman” and “Foemina Vera.” Curiously enough, instead of the normal separate spheres stuff I was expecting, “more than half the entries in this Notebook are directly concerned with androgynism” (Wayne Burns, Charles Reade [1961]). Burns writes that Reade was particularly struck by the case of

Fred, a young married woman who, with her husband’s consent, posed as his son–and so successfully that, again with her husband’s consent, she courted and became engaged to a young girl, one Miss Smith. For undisclosed reasons Fred and her husband then took Miss Smith to Moulton, where the three of them posed as father, son, and daughter, until Miss Smith’s father arrived arrived on the scene and exposed Fred for the woman she was–much to his daughter’s surprise and dismay. (195-196)

Reade’s comments are almost charming (I especially like number 3):]

Queries suggested by the meagre account on this page.

1st Why did Miss Smith lend herself to the lie   a, and, if she did, why?

2. Was plunder intended or what by the husband?

3. Is it not possible that Miss Smith supplied a certain want to this childless woman’s heart. In short that she wanted something inferior to love and cherish, and look down on; to her husband she probably looked up as he is  a blackguard, and she a woman age of Fred 25 of Miss Smith 17    The ring   B    looks ugly

4. What are the sentiments of a woman who finds the man she is deep in love in is only a woman

c can the bare discovery cure in one moment a passion that has become a habit, or is the discovery like the death of a beloved object. (196)

I’m not sure what I make of it, but is the most interesting Victorian anecdote I’ve come across in a while.

Without further ado, the new intro to the Little Dorrit section of Chapter 3.

In fact, that’s why I started out telling the story: I think I meant it as a fairly simple story about scale. Just to say how the right scale of doll for my older sister was the wrong scale for me, how I needed something chunkier. I needed, or thought I did, something with decent-scale, plastic, resiliently articulated parts that I could manipulate freely and safely (safely for it as well as me): this seemed to be the condition for my loving or identifying with the creature, even just not abandoning it. (Sedgwick, “Melanie Klein” 627-628)

I first read Little Dorrit in Eve Sedgwick’s Fall 2007 seminar on “Reading Relations.” Given all the attention paid in recent years to her notion of reparative reading, and Eve’s own attention to this scene in class, Arthur’s words to his mother soon after his return from China have a particular buoyancy for me:

“Is it possible, mother,” her son leaned forward to be the nearer to her while he whispered it, and laid his hand nervously upon her desk, “is it possible, mother, that he had unhappily wronged any one, and made no reparation?” (62, emphasis mine)

And, soon afterwards:

“In grasping at money and in driving hard bargains… some one may have been grievously deceived, injured, ruined. You were the moving power of all this machinery before my birth; your stronger spirit has been infused into all my father’s dealings, for more than two score years… If reparation can be made to any one, if restitution can be made to any one, let us know it and make it. Nay, mother, if within my means, let me make it. I have seen so little happiness come of money; it has brought within my knowledge so little peace to this house, or to any one belonging to it; that it is worth less to me than to another.” (63, first emphasis mine)

There has been no shortage of readings attuned to Arthur’s strange, vague sense of guilt, among them Wenying Xu’s argument with which I began this chapter, that his individual guilt is symptomatic of Britain’s national guilt concerning its participation in the Chinese opium trade. (We’ll need a big ole omnibus footnote here.) What if, though, we focus not on Arthur’s guilt, but on his desire to make reparation? What if, in other words, we consider Arthur not as a Foucauldian subject of power/knowledge, but a Sedgwickian reparative reader?

For Sedgwick, reparative practices originate from the Kleinian depressive position, the threshold of which is breached with “the simple, foundational, authentically very difficult understanding that good and bad tend to be inseparable at every level” (“Melanie” 637). Sedgwick’s reparative reader inhabits a world sometimes hostile, sometimes merely inhospitable, and, in recognition of the cloud firmly attached to every silver lining, undertakes a “movement toward what Foucault calls ‘care of the self,’ the often very fragile concern to provide the self with pleasure and nourishment in an environment that is perceived as not particularly offering them” (“Paranoid” 137). Noting the persistent gloom surrounding Sedgwick’s writing on reparative reading, Ellis Hanson quips in a recent article, “Just as paranoid reading can never be too paranoid, reparative reading can never be too depressed” (106).

Arthur certainly meets this criterion, having seen “so little happiness come of money,” imagining that others have not merely been wronged by his family’s business, but “grievously deceived, injured, ruined.” When he is coldly greeted by Flintwinch after his long absence, he says to himself, “How weak am I… that I could shed tears at this reception! I, who have never experienced anything else; who have never expected anything else” (48). Arthur, “lean[ing] forward to be the nearer to her while he whispered it, and la[ying] his hand nervously upon her desk,” demonstrates the fragility associated with the reparative situation.

Little Dorrit, I propose, can be read as a novel with a “reparative plot”; that is to say, it starts out from a position of psychic damage, and derives its most powerfully affective moments when the novel depicts the attempts made, in Sedgwick’s Kleinian words, “to assemble or ‘repair’ the murderous part-objects into something like a whole–though, I would emphasize, not necessarily like any preexisting whole” (“Paranoid” 128, original emphasis). If the novel is most frequently thought of as an extensive treatment of the prison in its literal, social, and psychological manifestations, of characters hemmed in, constrained, rendered immobile, a reading attuned to the reparative plot is invested not so much in the moments of liberation experienced, or in the exposure of the truth of imprisonment underlying some condition of putative freedom, but in the novel’s construction of a large and varied world in which are assembled both good and bad objects, freedom and constraint.

But what has any of this to do with my dissertation’s larger concern, China?

I’ll admit, not much. However, this reparative plot also did not figure largely if at all in Dickens’ original conception of the novel.At this stage he had selected China as Arthur’s land of exile, and part of my argument is that because of this shift in the novel’s direction, the narrative places little emphasis on Arthur’s Chinese origins after the first few chapters.

What China does contribute to the world of Little Dorrit is a sense of scale. Like young Eve Kosofsky’s desire for a larger, chunkier doll, Arthur’s trajectory might also be thought of as a story about scale. In his case, though, the scale appropriate for him is the small-scale child-body of Amy Dorrit. Near the end of the novel, alone in his prison cell, after he finally discovers that Little Dorrit has been in love with him, he thinks to himself, “Looking back upon his own poor story, she was its vanishing point. Everything in its perspective led to her innocent figure. He had travelled thousands of miles towards it; previous hopes and doubts had worked themselves out before it; it was the centre of interest of his life” (766-767).

Scale extends in two directions here. On the one hand there is the narrowing of focus, the shrinking of dimensions that accompanies Clennam’s concentration of interest on Little Dorrit. One of the chief effects of contemplating objects on a miniature scale, Susan Stewart argues in On Longing, is the achievement of psychological interiority. The moments of affective intensity guiding the novel’s reparative plot depend upon the construction of multiple layers of interiority.

On the other hand, the “thousands of miles,” the many years of Clennam’s life spent in exile, function on a macrocosmic scale. China, with its immense population, may be metonymically linked to the bureaucratic workings of the Circumlocution Office, the genteel Society of Mrs. General, and the flows of capital associated with Merdle. These faceless, alienating, disorienting institutions dwarf the individual trapped within, in contrast to the highly individuated space of tiny interiors. However, this experience of spatial alienation accentuates the moments of containment and reorientation, increases the effect of psychological interiority. Britain’s expansion outward into what was in effect a globalized economy also led to an expansion inwards.

Not just space but time as well buttresses the affective structure of Little Dorrit. Throughout Dickens’ fiction, an aesthetics of arrested temporality marks some of Dickens’ most characteristically animated prose. Stopped time is also a feature of the miniature object–and, of course, of the Celestial Empire. I thus argue that China occupies an affectively ambivalent position in the novel: it would make sense to treat China with satirical contempt, on a par with the Circumlocution Office and haute bourgeois Society, but the target of that contempt, its refusal of growth and progress, its worship of small and constricted objects and female bodies, in fact play a key role in sustaining the novel’s reparative energies.

I feel like the time since my last post has been even longer than the not-yet-lapsed Catholic’s time since her last confession. Forgive me, reader, for I have begun to dissertate.

I wish (don’t we all wish) I could say that I’ve been working so hard on my dissertation that I just haven’t had enough time to spend on blogging. Depending on how you count, I’ve averaged maybe a third of a page a day in the summer (let’s not talk about the spring semester, okay?). So obviously there have been plenty of waking hours not spent dissertating, not even spent thinking about my dissertation, but whenever I think about it, I feel guilty, boot up the old word processor–and resume flipping through the browser tabs. So, I’ll try to kill two birds with one stone (or the cruelty-free equivalent) by blogging part of the chapter I’m working on.

The chapter is about Little Dorrit, Hard Cash, and some other mid-Victorian novels that have scant references to China. Right now I’m working on the Little Dorrit section, which should be easy, since I’ve presented twice on it and received good feedback. Instead, it’s been a real slog, and most of what I write feels belaboured and dull grad student-y. I started one draft of the section that I knew was a disorganized mess but knew that I should just grit my teeth and write a shitty first draft, but that’s never really been my MO. Usually, I make a few false starts at a first draft, finally cobble something together that’s between first draft and a second draft (but still shitty), and go from there. I’m going to present my third shot here.

Let me preface this by saying that the impetus of this new intro, as you’ll see in the epigraph, and for this blog post, was my rereading of Eve Sedgwick’s “Melanie Klein and the  Difference Affect Makes” (from 2007 in SAQ–stop what you’re doing now and read it if you haven’t already–you’ll thank me). I was particularly struck this time around by her comments on the difference affect makes to what we (assuming you’re an academic, and if you weren’t I’d assume you’d stopped reading by now) do: not the already humdrum distinction between paranoid reading and reparative reading, but writing, l’écriture:

Even Freud, after all, who, unlike Klein, invested so
much of his best thought in issues of representation, had to either interpret actual creative work in diagnostic terms or bundle it away under the flattening, strangely incurious rubric of sublimation. Paradoxically, though,
this is one of the areas of Klein’s greatest appeal: she makes it possible to be respectful of intellectual work without setting it essentially apart from other human projects. That our work is motivated—psychologically, affectively motivated—and perhaps most so when it is good work or when it is true: with Klein this is an extremely interesting fact, much more so than
an ignominious or discrediting one.

Anybody who’s had to teach comp has had to say that writers write much better when they’re interested in what they’re writing. That this passage is more than a repackaging of the old cliché comes that the fact is not a truism, but extremely interesting. It’s extremely interesting to think of writing not as the conveyance of information or ideas in which one might be very interested, or even as the expression of some recalcitrant psychological state, but as necessarily an epiphenomenon of some affective position. The focus–at least the way I’m reading it–becomes not so much find something you’re interested in so you can write something better, but be mindful of the complex affective dynamics involved in your intellectual work–especially when it is good work.

Well, that’s 600 words before I’m getting to what I really wanted to blog about, and it’s 1:30am, so I’m calling it a Part I and I’ll actually blog/write the dissertation excerpt tomorrow. I swear.

I’ve been meaning to write a post about form for awhile now — long before the Columbia conference, even. It’s been on my mind for several reasons this semester. I revisited Caroline Levine’s 2006 Victorian Studies article on “strategic formalism” back in March when I was briefly transforming my dissertation abstract into a “popular religion” project for the purposes of a fellowship application (final analysis: “religion” is totally plausible, “popular” perhaps less so) and found that I’d sort of caught up with it conceptually since the last time I tried to use it. I’ve been able to see Levine herself speak twice about the form issue at two different conferences, most recently at Columbia, and we had the chance to renew our own ongoing conversation about these issues, which — among other things — in turn is helping me think about my more general theoretical investments, whether it’s time for me to start calling myself a post-poststructuralist or post-deconstructionist or some other term that expresses the appropriate relation of allegiance, belatedness, and potential for surpassing the original.

During one of our Long 19th Century reading groups, Mia asked what the difference was between form and genre. The question threw me a bit, and I probably didn’t answer it all that well because we’ve been meeting on Tuesdays, which is a teaching day for me, and getting up at 6am ensures that I will be loopy by noon. But I think the question threw me more profoundly because I don’t really even think of those two things together. (In retrospect, I realize that I’m probably the weird one.) For me, form functions more capaciously — really as a way of organizing experience, which is more or less how Levine uses it in her work — whereas genre seems more narrowly focused on content, on a certain inflection given to what is contained by the form. In some ways, it seems too narrowly literary or aesthetic, where I understand form as a more general structuring principle. But it’s possible that this distinction is at its fuzziest precisely in literature and aesthetics (especially given how we teach “genres” in intro to lit classes, which probably should be “forms”).

I was surprised, in a way, to hear myself making such broad claims for form, if only because I wondered later whether I was moving away from being able to articulate a specific function for, say, literary/poetic form. I’ve heard people ask Levine this question — and I think I probably asked it myself at one point — and it does get a little bit tricky because at some level portability of structure begins to look like uniformity of function. Levine herself is pretty straightforward that, at least in a general theoretical sense, she isn’t giving literary form a privileged or special place (though she certainly doesn’t dismiss it either). With that being said, though, her examples are frequently from literature and in the VS article she says something about literary form existing in a “destabilizing” relation to other forms. This makes a lot of sense from the perspective of the kind of work that Warwick Slinn does on 19th-century poetry and theories of performative speech. Basically, his argument (largely in Victorian Poetry as Cultural Critique but also in Victorian Poetry circa 2004) is that Victorian poetry’s specific relationship to language (especially in terms of suspending the difference between literal and figural meaning) allows it to expose the workings of other kinds of discourses, allows us to focus on what he calls “processes of signification,” how different kinds of institutions construct meaning, and so on. (Slinn doesn’t get cited as much as he should, but I do use his work as a starting point for my Maud article.)

If form is “destabilizing”–and for me a lot of Levine’s most interesting and helpful ideas have to do not so much with form itself, but with the way that *different* forms interact with each other, destabilizingly or not–I would also want to say that it is (or at least can be) enabling. This, at least, is where a lot of my work has been going as of late. I think I’ve always seen suspension this way, at least the suspension that’s been the subject of my dissertation. I realize that sounds paradoxical — it’s not exactly enabling to be mistaken for dead and buried alive — but in a more general, structural sense, suspension is enabling precisely because it allows for contradictory possibilities to interact with each other, creates a simultaneity that wouldn’t exist otherwise, and offers a kind of “container” for working through different possibilities. This is also how I’ve been thinking about religious forms — the ones I’m most interested in are the ones that enable particular kinds of engagement with faith and doubt or simply with the given conditions of one’s own life.

I don’t have a good intellectual defense for why that is right now. Among the many realizations I had at the Columbia conference, it occurred to me that I haven’t been thinking about form over the past year as much as I’ve been living it — particularly as a result of the turn that my practice of Zen meditation has taken. Zen is really into form, which is something that made me nervous for several years, but is now something that I find to be helpful, enabling, and often instructive. And it’s possible that one of the things I’ll be able to do this summer (one can dream) is start to make that more available to an intellectual articulation. For now, though, I’ll simply mention that in the Heart of Great Perfect Wisdom sutra (PDF) — one of the texts that we chant on a regular basis at the place I meditate — we find these lines: “form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. Form itself is emptiness, emptiness itself form.” This is something I think about a lot.

I’m stopping here mainly because I try to limit myself to 1,000-ish words (and because I’m self-conscious about being the only person blogging here) — I still want to work out some of my thoughts on method, function, the difficulty of talking about form in academic contexts, and why I thought it was great when Caroline Levine said during the Columbia Q&A that “it doesn’t all have to be rupture.” But you all know I can ramble. Would anyone want to have a discussion instead?

So, I found this year’s NVSA conference both incredibly entertaining and (somewhat surprisingly) moving.* This is also not to imply, of course, that NVSAs are not usually entertaining (or moving). But this one seemed to be even more so than usual. People really seemed to be going all out, particularly insofar as they created presentations that were truly multimedia in nature, and being — intimidatingly — good at it. By the end of the conference, one of my friends was like, “whoa, we really have to learn Power Point” — and he’s probably right.** But speaking for myself, at least, the challenge isn’t really learning the technical side of Power Point, but rather thinking in a more “digital” way — and I’m not sure Twitter counts.***

Beyond that, though, there were dinosaurs (and standard queer affect questions about dinosaurs) and moldy archives and cookbooks and streets — not to mention the White House-approved (no really) magic show at the banquet. These things make me of good cheer.**** Of course, these are also the parts of this conference — and any conference, really — that are the “you had to be there” moments, the ones that, well, don’t make it into the archive in the same way, the ones that maybe escape the system.

But of course these moments where we were or weren’t there are, arguably, all an archive ever really is — and our systems are always running to catch up with experience. And I think this is what I’m trying to get at when I say that the weekend was surprisingly moving, perhaps even poignant… this common thread, running through so many of these papers, so many of the efforts and projects that were represented here… this desire just to make things make sense. And all the lost possibilities that come with those efforts to arrange, understand, systematize, save, study, respond… remembering that all of those things that seem in retrospect to be so inevitable–how we organize archives, or even that we *have* archives, for instance–might not have been so at the time. (There are other stories, too–the divergence of anthropology and literary study, the time before we could conceive of dinosaurs, and so on…)

Bernard Lightman kicked off the Saturday keynote by stressing the commonalities between scientific and religious thinking–reminding  us, at least implicitly, that these two fields arose in some ways to deal with the same set of human needs: to explain and to want to be consistent, to reassure ourselves about the nature of reality, to be able to, well, make sense.  There’s something compelling (to me) about the struggle to organize experience (while also figure out how to read discontinuites, the gaps in the record–and also how to read among different mediums–the laptop and the printed page, the writing tablet of memory, even). There seems to be a real hopefulness in setting out to, say, rationalize the principles of political science according to that of geometry, to embark upon the project of distilling the best that has been thought and said.

Some of this, incidentally, is no doubt why I’ve been drawn back to strategic formalism lately, and even to some extent religion. I did have occasion to interrogate my relative lack of interest in Victorian science (save, of course, for the relatively narrow area of medical science’s debate over the signs of death). I was challenged especially by Vanessa Ryan’s talk on Herbert Spencer as a figure whose emphasis was on movement and function, not so much “what is this” but “what does this do”? I came away from that panel wondering if this sense of function is part of what still seems to be missing for me in accounts of new formalism–almost as if this is the thing that would make it really new–being able to apprehend movement as it moves, to respond to impermanence from impermanence.  And this turned out to be a version of the question I wanted to ask Veronica Alfano on Sunday before we ran out of time (and did ask her later on): if we put these short poems of Symons, these “moments” and “flashes” in motion on something like the zoopraxiscope, then what are we reading?

Perhaps another one of the questions of the weekend (in my mind) was communicability, how information is packaged and passed on, how it becomes “real ground.” From what some of the archival historians said, it almost seems like something becomes the “real ground” by not being intentionally archived… I was haunted by Paul Saint-Amour’s talk on archives and the fossil record, which raised this question of the accidental registry and problematized the very meaning of human agency (at the very least). This took on a more materialist (and Gothic) dimension in Christopher Keep’s talk on the Victorian “archive crisis” of the 1840s, the point at which it came to light that the records that secured the power of the British state were literally rotting away in basements or being sold off for 8 pounds per ton to fishmongers and jelly-makers (even though some of the paper was, as Keep put it, “too decayed even for the jelly-makers”). However, it’s clear that not every government is keeping up with its archival responsibilities, even today.

And then there’s the fragility of both system and archive: does it disintegrate if you touch it or bring it into the light? Is the magic gone if you can get your head around it? Can you laugh at the silliness but still admit later on, “I don’t know how he did that”? Marjorie Stone projected an image of Browning’s empty writing portfolio, complete with doodles and some transcribed lines from EBB. These aren’t usually the materials I work with, but that doesn’t mean they don’t make me feel something.

That brings up a question of method that I’m not going to take up here, because with the footnotes and everything I’m way over even my usual word count. (And I didn’t even get to talk about Asmodeus, the spirit of systems, or most of the papers that people gave.) But if it makes sense to end on omissions, then this might be a good ending. It was also a rather light year for literature papers–though I did feel like there was a bit more poetry than usual. But, then again, there’s always next year.

More immediately, there is tomorrow, when I head up to Columbia for the Politics of Form conference.

Wow do I love Spring on the East Coast Victorian studies circuit. 🙂

*Here I insert the usual caveats. I missed the first day. I didn’t sleep particularly well. I drank too much coffee. This is all way, way, way out of my field. Infelicities in my reporting should not reflect poorly on the speakers. I am being unsystematic and my archive is highly incomplete.

**I tweeted a link to “In Xanadu Did Kubla Khan a Stately Power Point Decree” in McSweeney’s a couple days before I left and now feel like that was a hopelessly outmoded move on my part.

***Except if it does — which was part of the point that Devin Griffiths was making in his reconsideration of  Matthew Arnold’s project of distilling “the best that has been thought and said” as a project of “Tweeting the Bible.” (I will admit, by the way, to enjoying the part where the talk was interrupted by a tweet from @Mat_Arnold. And if that makes me a geek, so be it.)  

****I liked the magic show, okay? But I will try to cut down on the footnoting.

Last week when I was hanging around the site reliving past glories, I was sort of shocked to realize how out of date my project description is – the prospectus I mention being about to hand in was approved way back in November of 2008. (I was also like, man, we’ve been blogging kind of a long time, albeit sporadically.)

So, what do things look like nearly three years, four chapters, two articles, and one pass at the job market later? I now call my project “That Willing Suspension”: Signification and the Ethics of Literary Form in 19th-century British Poetry – very dissertation-y, but doing the job for right now. Somewhere along the line I decided not to write on Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and, more recently, have decided to write a chapter on Percy Shelley. Among other things, the change suggests that I’m really trying to think this as a credible “long 19th century” project, trying to do something other than write an influence study, say, and it also has the effect of at least loosening the grip of 1855. Many of my original ideas about suspension have proved to be pretty constant and borne out in these poems (I was able to mine the prospectus for parts of my dissertation abstract, for instance). Right now, there are two central threads in all of this: suspension marks the limits of our ability to know (as in the suspension of reference or suspended animation), but it also structures a response to that uncertainty (a movement that I argue is parallel to the way that the Kantian sublime is supposed to work—the inhibition followed by supersensible awareness). And I’ve spent a lot of time, particularly as of late, trying to recover experiences of failure and falling short and consider the different kinds of efforts that people make to work through those and remain receptive to experience. Where Matthew Arnold said that poetry was a criticism of life, I’d also say that it constitutes a practice of living. You know, if I wanted to make a slogan out of it.

In the chapter I’m revising right now on Christina Rossetti, I’ve found myself talking less about “images” or “language” of suspension, less about the de Manian referential aberration, and more about techniques or practices of suspension. I’ve started to call this a shift into “method,” though I perhaps have yet to fully work out what that means. In some ways, I’m trying to draw a distinction between the willing giving-over of one’s “disbelief” (as in Coleridge) to an even more actively undertaken mental posture of engaging with an impermanent world. Part of my argument about Rossetti is that suspension is part of her ongoing practice of faith – not a doctrine, but a method of maintaining a balance between engagement and non-attachment. I’ve also been trying to use Rossetti to think about other experiences that overlap with suspension, such as the state of being “held up,” which to me suggests both exemplarity (being held up as an example) and frustration (finding yourself thwarted, prevented from moving forward). This is proving to be more complicated than I bargained for, but it may provide a way for me to get past some of the binaries I’ve been rather comfortably deconstructing over the past few years.

Through all of this, I’ve probably moved closer to formalism than I anticipated. I’m still  not sure that what I’m doing is formalism per se, but it does certainly have an affinity to the practices of strategic formalism that Caroline Levine laid out in her 2006 Victorian Studies article. I talk a lot about how suspension enables my poets to make interventions in other fields – philosophy, religion, science, and so on – which is, I think, somewhat similar to what Levine is getting at when she posits a “destabilizing” relationship between literary and other institutional forms. It’s possible that suspension is (at least partially) what happens when certain kinds of forms overlap, a kind of force field produced most strongly by poetic form when it meets, say, religious doctrine. (I feel like there must be a way to talk about this in terms of musical suspension, the dissonance produced by unexpected simultaneity … but I never quite feel myself to be on solid ground here.)

Religion itself has also become a lot more present in the dissertation. In retrospect, it seems like a fairly obvious direction for a project that deals with, say, Browning’s “Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician,” or that comes within ten feet of anything Christina Rossetti ever wrote. It’s also, of course, present in Coleridge: the “willing suspension of disbelief” is what “constitutes poetic faith.” And yet. It’s only recently that I feel like I’ve begun to consider these questions on their own terms, possibly as the central terms of this project. (And the religion thing is really the subject of another post.) We’ll see, of course, how that shakes out when I start writing about Shelley next month.