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Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

From novel to literary history…

Posted by Miriam Burstein on 05/28/09 at 04:01 PM

As Dave Mazella and John Holbo have already noted Breeding‘s literary quality, I want to start off with some literature: Jenny Davidson’s first novel, Heredity (2003), which yokes together eighteenth-century Gothic tropes, the parallel-plot historical novel (popularized by A. S. Byatt), and an SF twist on fertility treatment.  Elizabeth Mann, the novel’s updated sentimental Gothic heroine--given to cutting, no-strings sex, and drinking instead of tears, fainting fits, and extempore versification--gets her hands on a manuscript containing Mary Wild’s account of her life with Jonathan Wild, the notorious eighteenth-century criminal and thief-taker.  Elizabeth, in London writing fake reviews for a low-rent tourist’s guide, decides that she “find[s] Jonathan Wild sexy” (5) after an afternoon contemplating his skeleton; soon obsessed with Wild, Elizabeth’s equal fascination with Mary’s story spurs her to declare that “I want to have Jonathan Wild’s baby.  Well, not exactly his baby: his clone” (100).  Research becomes erotic, a fantasy of knowing the past in the Biblical as well as the intellectual sense.  At the same time, though, Elizabeth’s project (which leads to various disquisitions on the history of genetics, DNA, IVF, and so forth) sounds dangerously Gothic instead of historical: she wants to revive the past through a figurative act of necrophilia (no matter how dressed up in the appropriate scientific garb).  Elizabeth wants to throw herself across the cultural and temporal gap between herself and her subject, achieving presence through what turns out to be a highly clinical (and hardly pleasurable) form of sexual union.  Romancing the dead has definite drawbacks.  In her desire for the dead, Elizabeth shuttles back and forth between identifying with Wild’s first wife, an apparently saintly ex-prostitute also named Elizabeth Mann, and the gingery Mary who replaces her. For that matter, her obsession with Wild replicates Wild’s own obsession with his Elizabeth Mann; in good Gothic fashion, the narrative’s figurative hauntings keep doubling.  Ultimately, Elizabeth’s longing for the past turns out to be an attempt at escaping herself by creating “a child that would have nothing of myself in it” (222)--a revelation that emerges once Davidson pulls the rug out from under Elizabeth in good Radcliffean fashion, taking away the SF explanation for her pregnancy and substituting a far more rational (and more obvious) one in its place.  The ultimately hopeful ending requires Elizabeth to acknowledge both the self she has tried to erase and the sheer pastness of the past: listening to the traces of Mary’s voice does not, after all, allow Elizabeth to “complete” what Mary and Elizabeth Mann could not do, nor does it enable her to stretch the boundaries of life and death.  As the novel’s closing quotation from an eighteenth-century newspaper suggests, the past cannot be undone, and refusing to acknowledge it--Mary “hadn’t the heart” to incorporate it into her story (231)--alters nothing. 

Reading Breeding against Heredity, one suspects at first that Elizabeth Mann’s eroticized vision of history exerts a strong pull.  Davidson describes her work as “plunging into a vast sea of eighteenth-century materials and welcoming the sheer disorientation that accompanies such an act of self-immersion” (6) and “patterning the material not so much like a monograph as like an oratorio or a grand country dance” (12).  For both reader and writer, Breeding’s figures for the past turn out to be physical, even sensual: we dive into historical difference so as to be overwhelmed, dizzied, shocked, even as we also dance and play.  Still, unlike Elizabeth, Davidson has no interest in replicating the past in the present: if anything, the book’s “partial” nature highlights the extent to which a certain kind of scholarly desire for “completion” is itself a doomed obsession with the dead.  (Middlemarch‘s Mr. Casaubon rears his skeletal head.) Breeding is unapologetically fragmentary and incomplete, even within the limited confines of the monograph (a scholarly genre that usually combines a narrowly delimited field of research with intense detail).  By the same token, it reminds the reader that even the use of periodization obscures partiality: we are not reading about “the eighteenth century,” but about “the eighteenth century” in Britain, with some occasional excursions to America (colonial and USA) and France.  In fact, in its cheerful disregard for all sorts of chronological boundaries--we’re off with Shakespeare one moment, the Bell Curve the next--Breeding casts itself as the anti-monograph.  Nevertheless, while Davidson’s avowedly anti-Whiggish project encourages the reader to think that the present could have happened otherwise, the book does succumb at the end to the possibility of historical use-value.  Thus, concluding her discussion of the eighteenth-century elocution movement, Davidson comments that the story offers “a cautionary tale about breeding and its shibboleths, one that remains highly relevant to our own time” (196).  This moment suggests the pull not so much of the monograph, but of history’s extremely traditional role (well predating the eighteenth century) as a source for lessons in civic virtue.  Indeed, the conclusion, with its cautious advocacy for Galen’s interest in “perfectibility” as “a way of throwing off the tyranny of low expectations, for ourselves as well as for others” (204), reinstates history’s role in thinking about ethics and morality--a role that has not exactly gone by the wayside over the past few decades.  This, I think, is Breeding‘s equivalent to the “Radcliffe” moment: after challenging the reader’s expectations about the forms of scholarly inquiry, the book nevertheless ends up reaffirming some very traditional notions about why historical scholarship is not only useful, but necessary. 


Aha! So you’ve found the didactic moment in this book.  I can’t tell if you sound disappointed or satisfied by this type of conclusion.

By dave mazella on 05/29/09 at 12:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A very lovely post - you have described in a flattering way the sense in which _Breeding_ (as the title suggests) is a sequel to _Heredity_, just as my second novel, curiously, is a sort of sequel to my first academic book (chiasmus!).  I feel that an argument can be pursued only so far in one medium, and then it behooves one to switch to another (if there is such a thing available) - the novel and the academic book seem to me in this regard deeply complementary, and I have been surprised more academics don’t take advantage of that fact.  I suppose the argument-driven (or inquiry-driven) language I use, though, reveals that at heart I am more scholar than novelist…

By Jenny Davidson on 05/29/09 at 10:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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