December 2008

It’s been a pretty crummy year for real estate, stock markets, and investment banks, but for this humble group of Victorianists gone wild (and their co-conspirators), 2008 has been very good indeed. Among our accomplishments:



from the V & A digital collection, late 19th century, Henry Stacy Marks

I meant to do a post about Bernard Madoff/Mr. Merdle when the story of Madoff’s $50 000 000 000 Ponzi scheme was breaking, but Paul Krugman beat me to it. ***Little Dorrit spoiler alert*** But now that there’s been a suicide, I suppose it might be worthwhile to point out further similarities. What Krugman and his 76 commenters thus far have picked up on is the sudden revelation of  a massive financial fraud which ruins people of all kinds. None of them mention Merdle’s real-life inspiration, John Sadleir. In fact, I was only able to find two google hits for sites connecting Madoff to Sadleir. One is an article from the London Times on the recent dramatization of Little Dorrit on BBC. The other is a blog by Professor Emeritus (of biogeography) Philip Stott. (As it turns out, Stott’s previous blogs are devoted to global warming skepticism. Check out his SourceWatch entry, including his rebuttal.) I reproduce here Stott’s conclusion to his blog post:


The Way We Lived – And Live


So, for “pecuniary crises”, plus ça change, whether in life or in literature. 


Dickens concluded the speculations of the mob about the nature of Mr. Merdle, and of his untimely death, with these uncompromising words: “the late Mr. Merdle’s complaint has been, simply, Forgery and Robbery.”


“He, the uncouth object of such wiide-spread adulation, the sitter at great men’s feasts, the roc’s egg of great ladies’ assemblies, the subduer of exclusiveness, the leveller of pride, the patron of patrons, the bargain-driver with a Minister for Lordships of the Circumlocution Office, the recipient of more acknowledgment within some ten to fifteen years, at most, than had been bestowed in England upon all peaceful public beneficiaries, and upon all the leaders of all the Arts and Sciences, with all their works to testify for them, during two centuries at least – he, the shining wonder, the new constellation to be followed by the wise men bringing gifts, until it stopped over certain carrion at the bottom of a bath and disappeared – was simply the greatest Forger and the greatest Thief that ever cheated the gallows.”


Interestingly, similar scandals surround Augustus Melmotte, the mysterious, foreign-born financier, in Anthony Trollope’s satirical novel, The Way We Live Now, of 1875. In this, just as with Dickens, Trollope is venting his spleen on the pervading dishonesty of the age, both commercial and political.


Plus ça change, indeed. “For the love of money is the root of all evil” [1 Timothy 6:10]. 

But as a not-too-close reading of the block quotation would indicate, though, Dickens there is not condemning “pervading dishonesty” or “the love of money” so much as the love of  status. Merdle is the “new constellation to be followed by the wise men bringing gifts,” having been approved of by “great men” and “great ladies.” People trusted Merdle not because they were greedy or dishonest, but because they were credulous of somebody who could receive “wide-spread adulation” from Important People.

Compare this with the recent words of a Boston businessman on Madoff:


One Boston businessman who invested in Madoff’s fund said it was marketed as an exclusive investment opportunity, where only the wealthy and well connected could gain access. The businessman said it took a full year of lobbying to become a client of Madoff, and only with the input of other large investors who helped persuade Madoff to accept his money.

“You wouldn’t imagine Ponzi artists would make it so hard to invest,” the businessman said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because, like many wealthy Madoff clients, he did not want his losses publicized.


And with an 1856 article on Sadleir in The Leader, “The Art of Sadleir’s Book-Keeping” (via British Periodicals): 

If a man looks wealthy–has good plain, but “distinguished” clothes,–comes in his brougham or on horseback,–is known to go in high company,–or especially, if he is a Member of Parliament, with a probability of entering office, the herd will always vote with him, will always show their perception of distinction by appointing him to a high post,–will make him director, manager, anything,–and will trust him with their souls.

Plus ça change? Well, Sadleir’s fraud was estimated at 500 000 pounds or so–worth about 40 000 000 pounds now, according to–i.e., only a few thousandths of Madoff’s scheme protected by regulatory dodges.

Welcome to the new nineteenth century. Rich people can still plunder the ignorant/avaricious/credulent, but on a much larger scale, and now they can even get others to do the suicide part of the job.

I can’t promise that this will be a thousand words plus post like the one’s by Anne and Alec that I’m responding to, but here goes:

I’m glad that you picked up on the touchy-feely thing, Alec. I was kind of hoping you would, since I figured (rightly) that you knew more about that stuff than me. And thanks for reminding me of Eve’s question about a “canon of anti-depressant literature.” What I might ask now in response is: “What if one’s canon of anti-depressant literature looked exactly like one’s canon of depressant literature?” Or, to get all Venn-diagrammy, what works of literature could be read both to make one more depressed and to make one less depressed, and what works of literature are inimical to anti-depressant use but imical to depressant use, and vice versa? (In Memoriam, I think we’ve agreed on, resides in that middle yonic region–and we could add anything by Beckett onto that list, I think.)

Anyhow, as is my wont, I’d like to shift the conversation back onto the question of reading in general rather than on comfort/consolation. In my title, I’m referring to that NYU/Columbia conference held earlier this year called The Way We Read Now, instigated by Sharon Marcus’s move, in Between Women away from the “symptomatic reading” that characterizes much of the work of the past twenty years or so to what she calls “just reading.” I don’t think that Marcus would suggest that we limit ourselves to just just reading, and I’d like to explore just how we can think of reading practices themselves in some kind of Sedgwickian “additive and accretive” way.

Right now, I’ve begun reading the copy of Richard Marsh’s The Beetle that I got recently. It’s gay gay gay–but sadly not in a campy way–more like the paranoid-gothic homoeroticism we know and love (with some masochian role-playing thrown in). Since I’m brain-dead and burnt-out right now, I’m reading it pretty slowly, but I’d imagine if I hadn’t just written a term paper plus read about a hundred freshman papers this week, it’d be a page-turner–which got me thinking about another non-high-literary-critical way of reading. I’m guessing that The Beetle, which is still pretty non-canonical, has crept about in the shadows of serious literary study because it is “merely” entertaining, rather than the more-than-merely entertaining works of Bram Stoker, H. R. Haggard, and Stevenson, to name some of Marsh’s contemporaries.

Of course, the line of division between the merely entertaining and more-than-merely entertaining is pretty permeable, but why not think about this business of being merely entertaining. I’m led to this train of thought by  a forthcoming article in Critical Inquiry by Sianne Ngai on the “Merely Interesting,” which I’m eagerly awaiting. Ngai’s first book, Ugly Feelings, is about the negative affects that are more niggly than their more widely discussed sisters: fear, melancholia, and rage, for example. Ngai’s current project, according to her faculty bio, is about “minor aesthetic concepts, and I wonder if we’re thinking about the ways we read now, we might want to think of our minor reading practices in addition and accretion to those more major projects of hermeneutic suspicion, comfort/consolation, and exploratory reparation. To think about these minor reading practices, we might want to think about the way we read then–not the way critics read “then,” but how we read as children. I don’t want to privilege the “innocence” of the young reader over the experienced critic who ruins novels for everybody else–I’d just like to think about all those reasons for reading that we tend to forget when all we have time to read are whatever’s related to our projects, or that are on our orals lists, or that we have to read for the classes we take or teach, or that we feel we have to read because we’ve said that we read them in conversation when in fact we haven’t.

As a kid and an adolescent, I read mostly sci-fi and fantasy (and I never read The Wind in the Willows, for shame!). I don’t think that these genres will form the basis for much of my academic work now and in the future, not that I’m ashamed of my habit, or that I don’t think speculative fiction doesn’t deserve academic attention. I’m just not as interested in it as I was–plus, it’s not all that marketable in our circles. Come to think of it, though, perhaps my reading practice as a young Victorianist is not all that removed from my juvenile addiction. I was particularly drawn to series of sf novels (besides Tolkien, Lewis, and l’Engle, I read tons of Piers Anthony, Robert Asprin, and, um, Star Wars novels–we’re not talking high-brow stuff here), all taking place in constructed worlds. But is Victorian England for me any less of a constructed world? And my point is not just the pop deconstructive one that our understanding of the Victorians is contingent upon discursive mediations and what-have-you, but that I take the same kind of pleasure in piecing together the Victorian world across all sorts of texts that I did in piecing together Middle-Earth across the Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Silmarillion, for example. So, should we have constructive reading in addition to deconstructive reading? Which I guess brings us back to the whole idea of reparative readings. But if I do make a case for undeconstruction, I’d certainly not want to make a major case for it–I think it’s far richer to understand it as a minor reading practice. (No, I can’t elaborate, because I wanted to somehow bring that whole “minor” business back into the picture somehow.)

Okay, 944 words. But it still took me way too long.

There’s a blog about it, of course! It’s called ExecutedToday. It even has a special literary section. My favorite is Captain Henry Nicholas Nicholls, executed in 1833 for sodomy. According to ExecutedToday:

A first-person narrative written in 1833 under the name of Lord Byron (who was in fact nine years dead, but whose queer identity clearly informs the work), Don Leon was a signal piece of literature: the first overt literary defense of homosexuality in English.

It opens with a scene said to be inspired by Captain Nicholls:

Thou ermined judge, pull off that sable cap!
What! Cans’t thou lie, and take thy morning nap?
Peep thro’ the casement; see the gallows there:
Thy work hangs on it; could not mercy spare?
What had he done? Ask crippled Talleyrand,
Ask Beckford, Courtenay, all the motley band
Of priest and laymen, who have shared his guilt
(If guilt it be) then slumber if thou wilt;
What bonds had he of social safety broke?
Found’st thou the dagger hid beneath his cloak?
He stopped no lonely traveller on the road;
He burst no lock, he plundered no abode;
He never wrong’d the orphan of his own;
He stifled not the ravish’d maiden’s groan.
His secret haunts were hid from every soul,
Till thou did’st send thy myrmidons to prowl,
And watch the prickings of his morbid lust,
To wring his neck and call thy doings just.

The author — whose identity is still debated — continues writing more or less autobiographically of Byron’s life, and using his illicit desires and lifestyle (with digressions into historical precedent) to defend homosexuality as ultimately natural and harmless.

I meant to leave this rambling series of thoughts as a response to Anne’s last post and to Mia’s comment about it, but I added a block quote, and I don’t know how to format those in the comment section, so now it’s its own entry.

Mia, Eve’s theory of reparative reading is exactly where I wanted to go with this question about the consolations of reading, too!

I think there are definitely some people working from a critical or theoretical perspective to understand at least aspects of the comforts and sustenance literature provides — in particular, from various margins and interstices of queer studies. Michael Moon and Jennifer Doyle, maybe. Definitely Wayne Koestenbaum — and, of course, Roland Barthes.

But Eve Sedgwick is really amazing here.

One of the questions with which Eve began that class, “Reading Relations,” was: “Is there a canon of anti-depressant literature — literature that affirms the world is alive and full and in some relation to one?”

In the context of Kleinian theory, that’s a pretty complicated relation she’s talking about, especially because the boundary between the world and oneself is so porous according to Klein.

(Feel free to skip this long-winded summary of Klein’s depressive position.) [Ed. Oh, but then you would miss out on a lot of booby talk!]  For Klein, the world is filled with objects — primarily, in her writing, mothers and their breasts, but those pretty much stand as an analogy for everything else. Inasmuch as those objects contain plenitude and are willing to nurture you with it, they are good. Inasmuch as they don’t or won’t, they are bad. In the depressive position, people realize that their good and bad objects are part of the same ambivalent object. Their fantasy attacks against the bad object therefore may destroy the good object. Also, their attempts to internalize the good object so that they have its nurturing plenitude inside them bring the bad object in too, which may destroy the good object itself and attack them from within. And the internalization itself, conceived of as devouring, may destroy the good object right out. A lot can go wrong. One of the main defenses against this anxiety is the capacity for reparation. If you can repair all this damage to the good parts of the object in question, one will come to feel secure both in its external existence (and availability to provide you with sustenance), as well as in its existence in your internal fantasy world. People moreover identify with this fantasy world (Klein calls it “phantasy” to distinguish it from daydreams). Thus, to the extent one understands one’s internal good objects to be alive and well — and one’s reparative faculties to be capable of keeping it that way — one will experience oneself as viable. That’s happiness!

In the essay in Touching Feeling Mia refers to, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” Eve hypothesizes a way of reading particularly queer texts and practices not as ironic demystifications of mainstream gender codes, à la Judith Butler, but rather as a form of reparation. Speaking of the “queer-identified practice of camp,” she writes:

The desire of a reparative impulse, on the other hand, is additive and accretive. Its fear, a realistic one, is that the culture surrounding it is inadequate or inimical to its nurture; it wants to assemble and confer plenitude on an object that will then have resources to offer to an inchoate self. (149)

She continues with  a long list of some of the different reparative maneuvers that comprise camp. This post is already redic [sic] excessive, so I’m going to just go ahead and quote that, too:

To view camp as, among other things, the communal, historically dense exploration of a variety of reparative practices is to be able to be able to do better justice to many of the defining elements of classic camp performance: the startling, juicy displays of excess erudition, for example; the passionate, often hilarious antiquarianism, the prodigal production of alternate historiographies; the “over”-attachment to fragmentary, marginal, waste, or leftover products; the rich, highly interruptive affective variety; the irrepressible fascination with experimentation; the disorienting juxtapositions of present withventriloquistic past, and popular with high culture. (149-50)

Reparative reading then can involve recognizing as reparative camp and similar practices. It can involve actually assembling and conferring plenitude on texts or objects as Eve describes. Or it can involve the more complex relation of discovering a text already to have that plenitude and working to get it into some kind of nurturing relation to oneself.

So then there’s the question of what Queen Victoria gets out of In Memoriam. Is there a reparative reading from the position of the mainstream, of being a member of a culture not inimical to one’s nurture (even of being queen of that culture)? Does In Memoriam just remind Victoria of the conventional consolations of her culture — Jesus, Christmas, hetero marriage — and thereby reaffirm or reimpose them in all their coercive and exclusionary force? And then what sort of reading resists that coercion?

On the other hand, In Memoriam is a pretty queer poem, and it practices a pretty queer sort of reparation. Gerhard Joseph’s first book describes how Tennyson uses Christ as an erotic surrogate for Arthur Hallam (irrepressible fascination with ventriloquistic experimentation; disorienting juxtapositions of present with past). Christopher Craft makes sure everyone realizes how gay that substitution is in his chapter on Tennyson in Another Kind of Love. (I mean, really, is anyone convinced by the wedding at the end of the poem? No!)

My paper for Gerhard’s class was a (pretty sophomoric) attempt to read In Memoriam as a queer, reparative text according to Klein’s and Sedgwick’s theories. The poem is filled with physically experienced meldings of separate people, with cannibalistic fantasies of feeding off corpses [Ed. !!], with Tennyson’s own reparative work to summon the specter of Hallam, who then supernaturally enlivens the rocks and trees that surround him.

In fact, as I learn from Gerhard’s book, Hallam’s whole theory of spirituality and love involves a great deal of fetishizing femininity (gender differentiating), and then internalizing and identifying with its elevating plenitude (gender blending). That process of fetishization, moreover, seems to require a good deal of Hallam’s own reparative capacity to confer resources on an object.

In Memoriam is just one example, and it would be absurd (though exciting) to claim based on it that all comforting reading is reparative — and therefore in some way queer. Clearly it isn’t. However, there does seem to be something going on here, especially among certain types of conservatives. I am interested to discover a number of these same themes and manuevers in Edmund Burke’s Philosophic Enquiry, as well as in his Reflections. Likewise, I’m fascinated by Walter Benjamin’s series of attractions to and friendships with conservative or reactionary figures like Leo Strauss and Carl Schmidt, and especially with the rich aside in which he compares Karl Krauss to Burke (without elaborating what he means).

Either which way, reading to identify with characters, as Anne posted about previously, is incredibly important for this discussion. I think Eve’s distinction in Epistemology of the Closet between kitsch attribution and camp recognition must be relevant, here. James Creech takes that distinction and runs it all the way to the endzone in Closet Writing/Gay Reading. I’ve sort of run out of steam, though, so I’m gonna leave it there.

Anyway, there’s a quick précis of what I want to do with my life.

Among the many books that I was skimming yesterday under the guise of “working on my dissertation” (before the bloom of my approved prospectus wears off) was Stephen Gill’s Wordsworth and the Victorians,which examines the Victorian reception of Wordsworth both during the last part of his life and afterwards. In the introduction, Gill recalls the experience of having looked through the files of letters at Grasmere and notes the number of letters to Wordsworth that thank the poet for having written something that helped the correspondent through a crisis or, in some other sense, saved their life. For Gill, these letters reflect “the unmisgiving directness with which many Victorians looked to literature for instruction and spiritual guidance”–an impulse that his book aims to explore “without condescension.”

Erik Gray makes what I consider to be a similar gesture in the introduction to his more recent study, The Poetry of Indifference from the Romantics to the Rubáiyát (one of the other books I looked at yesterday). His emphasis on “personal relevance” and the consolatory potential of nineteenth-century poetry emerges as an attempt to counter the way that Victorian texts especially have been read over the last fifty years of scholarship–generally as agonistic, conflicted, ambiguous, and (to a certain degree) self-deconstructing. As he notes, these kinds of readings were especially important in inventing a field of “Victorian poetry” with a value that accorded with a certain set of (largely New Critical) principles–and no one’s denying that the agonistic thing isn’t there. But Gray cautions us (and I think rightly so) against naturalizing these kinds of critical commonplaces: “Revisionist readings of Tennyson (for instance) ought not to blind us to the fact that he was not always read as a troubled and troubling poet but as a comfortable and comforting one, and not without reason.” 

Probably the most famous example of what Gray is talking about in regards to Tennyson is Queen Victoria finding In Memoriam second only to the Bible in its ability to provide comfort, and I’m sure this is also the kind of anecdote that’s been deconstructed and critiqued to the point that it descends into parody. (I would try to Google some examples, but I do have other things I need to do today and I feel like this would be something of a black hole, were I to pursue it.) And I’m sure there would be much in those files at Grasmere that would make us laugh with its bathos, obvious misreading, poorly-expressed piety, and Tiger Beat-style fawning. We need to have some sense of critical distance, particularly in this business.

And it’s precisely that critical distance (or perception thereof) that makes us (as literary professionals) look so bad to everyone else. Gill makes the typical distinction when he writes that “Within university departments of English such a mode of reading is regarded as old-fashioned at best, suspect and misguided at worst, but it is still more common, and more valued in the wider world than professors suppose.” But this, too, feels to me like a critical commonplace, and it’s one that has gotten me into a lot of fights over the years, usually with men between the ages of 35-45 who are well educated yet not academics and have a very clear idea of how I’m supposed to be doing my job and who feel free to give unsolicited advice about how I should be doing my job in social situations that would not seem to call for it, such as a group brunch or a date. (Not that I’m bitter or anything.) The only way to defend myself, I’ve learned, is to try to convince them that I also “love” literature and am not being corrupted by all that evil Theory or something. 

This is usually an exercise in frustration, and I tend to emerge from these kinds of discussions feeling slightly violated.

Some of the frustration/violation is the general “WTF?” reaction, and not the productive kind, either. But some of it is my own frustration with how difficult it can be to articulate a more complex relationship to literature that can express a variety of levels of investment–and whether or not it’s anyone’s business, particularly vis-a-vis my professional identity. These questions all share certain features of the “character identification” question. If I tell you that reading Ulysses saved my life (metaphorically, of course) during my first year in Chicago, that I derive an enormous amount of comfort from reading Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode,” and that I think that Maudcontains some of the most heartwrenchingly true descriptions of love in British poetry,* I have revealed something about myself as a person.

But isn’t it more interesting (at least to people who are not me or who are not on dates with me) to see these as critical statements as well, as much as, say Mill’s famous account of how he came out of his breakdown in the Autobiographyor some Lambeth housewife taking the time to tell Bill Wordsworth how much the Lucy poems meant to her after her child died? (As a footnote to his introduction, Gill mentions that he got a number of similar letters from readers after he wrote his biography of Wordsworth.)

And I think this is ultimately the question that both Gray and Gill invite: how can we talk critically about something like consolation or comfort that seems, on the face of it at least, to be by definition uncritical? Certainly part of this project would be historicizing consolation in the first place, particularly the kind of consolation that people expect to get from literary texts, but is there a way to do this that doesn’t involve a kind of flattening out of consolation in general? And, relatedly, am I allowed to have my literary consolations and analyze it, too? I know people who claim to only work on texts that they hate or that make them uncomfortable; I’ve never been that person myself. And I do resent the common perception that analyzing something (particularly from a theoretical standpoint**) is somehow equivalent to “ruining” it (even though I have had a couple of texts “ruined” for me in that way, namely Tess of the d’Urbervilles). But maybe I’m still overly optimistic that I can have my literary consolations and deconstruct them too.

Which is, of course, a question that will have to remain open and also somewhat disturbingly tangential to what I thought I was going to write about when I started this post over an hour ago. It feels, to some extent, like a retread of the character-identification post, though I didn’t intend it to be. Of course these things are related–perhaps we could schematically and quickly posit that self-consciously reading for the plot is the kind of “safe” alternative to plain old comfort. Yet comfort is important, and it’s complicated, not the least because our definitions of what is complicated can change so much–perhaps this is the next thing to think about?


*By which I mean mostly Part 1, Canto XI–

O let the solid ground
Not fail beneath my feet
Before my life has found
What some have found so sweet;
Then let come what come may,
What matter if I go mad,
I shall have had my day.

Let the sweet heavens endure,
Not close and darken above me
Before I am quite sure
That there is one to love me;
Then let come what come may
To a life that has been so sad,
I shall have had my day.

–and Canto XV:

So dark a mind within me dwells,
And I make myself such evil cheer,
That if I be dear to some one else
Then some one else may have much to fear;
But if I be dear to some one else,
Then I should be to myself more dear.
Shall I not take care of all that I think,
Yea ev`n of wretched meat and drink,
If I be dear,
If I be dear to some one else.

Both of these are, of course, also riotously depressing. I get that.

**I also frequently find consolation in works of “theory” as well. I love the “Envois” section of Derrida’s The Post-Card for precisely this reason.