April 2010

I heart NVSA conferences – I always come away feeling very happy to be a Victorianist and feeling super-inspired about my own work, even when I’m not giving a paper. As may have been clear from my last post-mortem, I’m kind of a fan of going to conferences just to hang out. And, as I discovered this past weekend, I’m even  more a fan of hanging out at conferences when they don’t involve three hours on the train punctuated by an hour on the platform at Rahway. (I borrowed my partner’s car to get from his house to Princeton, marking perhaps the first time in my life where I’ve driven to an academic event.)

The train ride came later, of course, and much of the following notes had their origin on my Monday midday commute back to New York. As usual, it’s highly selective and very stream-of-consciousness for the most part, characterized as well by the fact that I wasn’t at the first day, missed a bit of the keynote panel on Saturday morning, and was clobbered by a sugar crash during the after-lunch panel. I probably should have skipped the Official Princeton University Chocolate Chip Cookie. But anyway. It being NVSA, all of the papers were generally awesome and interesting – and they don’t need me talking about them to make them so. And onward:

So, Fighting Victorians. More accurately, it was an examination of both fighting and the ways of not fighting, of the boundaries of fighting – when, for instance, it becomes violence. Discussions of the displacement of aggression onto the worlds of commerce and economics, but also – at least implicitly – into areas of the social and the religious. How we avoid wars, but then also avoid talking about wars once we’re in them. Jonathan Farina’s paper on “thrash talking” was largely about the ways that the Victorian novel talks about fighting (a kind of periperformative, in Eve Sedgwick’s sense?) without actually coming to blows. (It’s a fun exercise to think about all of the duel scenes and duel scenes manqués that you can recall from Victorian literature.) Also, fighting as a mode of knowing, a physicalized epistemology that comes to be replaced by an increasing valuation of knowledge at a distance. We saw Newman in two poses: the fighter, drawing inspiration from the image of Deborah in the book of Judges or Jesus driving the moneylenders out from the temple, criticizing the lukewarmness of his age (a common theme in many of other papers) and suggesting that faith needed both hope and fear to be what it is (Lawrence Poston). But we also had Newman as a poet of conciliation, using poetic form to soften what had previously been devastatingly controversial (his ideas on purgatory from Tract 90) – and becoming a bestseller in the process with the Dream of Gerontius (Rebecca Rainof). Not specifically about fighting but more relevant for my interests was the idea of Newman’s purgatory as suspension with progression – a suspension without suspense. You know you’re saved, as someone in the audience (I think it was probably Herbert Tucker) said, there’s no doubt that you’re saved. As I realized looking at the passage from the handout later, there’s also no suspense about whether you’re dead – it’s possible that one of the very consolatory things about this poem is that it uses the language of uncertainty about the signs of death to set up and emphasize the fact that the speaker is unquestionably dead – a way of bringing suspension back under control, as it were. Religion also came up specifically around the Mormon question, which raised for Britain the question of what actually constitutes a religion, specifically one formed within the horizon of common memory and seemingly founded on the literal reproduction of older religious models (Sebastian Lecourt). Later, there were vampires used to personify the effects of capital on the working class (Jessica Kuskey), severed hands as both incontrovertible signs of colonial violence and a disturbing reminder of how even the most unequivocal marker of identity could be detached from its context (Aviva Briefel).

I think there’s still more to be done on the difference between fighting and violence. While violence certainly came up in a number of papers, I think a “violent Victorians” conference would have been quite different, darker. There’s something more comfortable about fighting, in a way, since it suggests that something’s fighting back – perhaps more of a sense of containment than is allowed by the word “violence.” Not unrelated, I think, was the relative absence of women as textual producers, historical actors, or even literary characters. Apparently, women don’t fight – even though the cover of the conference program was a Gibson drawing of a married couple experiencing “their first quarrel.” This absence was remarked on at Sunday’s wrap-up. With the exception of a “bloodthirsty” passage from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Casa Guidi Windows (Richard Bonfiglio) and an anecdote about resistance among teenage girls to regimes of institutional violence in an Irish workhouse (Anna Clark, a discussion I came to late on Saturday morning), there really wasn’t a lot of talk about women – even women who get fought over. I’m sure some of this is luck of the draw with what the program committee got, but I was somewhat surprised not to see, say, a discussion of Tennyson’s Princess Ida or some of the more startling passages in Christina Rossetti, not to mention marital strife, domestic violence, abusive mothers, and so on. Makes me wonder if there’s something else going on. Also makes me wish I’d been in a place in the fall where I had enough time to come up with an abstract. Which is always the way, of course.

That’s all for now. I’m going to do a separate post later on about Alex Woloch’s paper on the keynote panel. It’s sort of an outlier here, but it does continue some of the discussions that were talking place at the “Why Teach Literature Anyway?” panel at MLA.

So I spent today’s ride on the North Jersey Coast Local looking through Thomas Blackburn’s 1967 study of Robert Browning’s poetry. It’s a book that somehow came across my radar a few weeks ago, enough so that I interlibrary loaned it and then completely forgot that I had done so — enough that I was completely surprised when I got the email saying the book was in.

I still haven’t quite figured out why this book was so important. I have, however, stumbled across what’s obviously a forgotten gem of Browning scholarship.  Some examples:

“Browning’s admirers have not been remarkable for their subtlety. Perhaps it is just their lack of subtlety which has attracted them to some aspects of the poet, for when he is off-form he is a bird of the same feather and shares their heavy obviousness of thought and feeling. Time may well be an acid in which bad verse and bogus critical opinion dissolves, but the process is a lengthy one. Robert Browning has not been dead for a hundred years and around his great poems there is an exceptionally thick rind of bad work for the acid of time.”

“No doubt Baudelaire’s angst and syphilis were as effective in keeping his work clear of rubbish as a post in the Board of Trade. All Browning had was Elizabeth Barrett.”

“Unfortunately, though In Memoriam was extremely popular the public had an equal relish for Tennyson’s sentimental and didactic verse. The poet’s wife was a piece of human litmus paper. He had only to dip the devoted creature into some new poem and her change of color would suggest its value – in current market prices, not unfortunately in terms of poetry.”

On the “climax of … falsity” in Browning’s “Christmas Eve”: “…the poem’s supposed vision of Christ; a vision described in terms which would delight the heart of any producer of a super-technicolor film about Jesus; and was probably no more a part of the poet’s actual experience than the ascent of Everest.”

Those, at least, were the highlights I was able to record in my iPod while I was on the train. I’m sure I missed many other gems because I was skimming. I do think that the problem of a good poet writing bad poetry is an interesting one, and I think that we do tend to shy away from discussions like that in our contemporary criticism. On the other hand, I’m not sure that anyone who relies so much on the “thick rind” metaphor for bad writing (that’s an image that crops up with rather alarming frequency) gets to criticize other people’s poetic process.

In other news: it’s NVSA time! Inaugurating the lovely season of Victorian-tasticness that culminates in the CUNY Victorian Conference. I’m a bit sad to be missing the Pickwick Papers reading tonight, but I’ll be driving (!!) over to Princeton in the morning for a full day of panels and the big banquet. Now that I have a WordPress app installed on my iPod, anything is possible — depending on whether Princeton’s generous with the wifi.