Tuesday, March 21, 2006
How Novels Think
To think about Nancy Armstrong thinking about the novel, we need to begin with Ian Watt.
In The Rise of the Novel (1957), Ian Watt argued that what made the novel “the novel” was, in the end, its “formal realism” —a realism he associated with the emergence of modern individualism. For Watt, the relationship between individualism and the novel was not one of cause and effect, per se, but his historical narrative nevertheless makes the novel come after—or, at least, out of--individualism. Thus, Daniel Defoe “expressed the diverse elements of individualism more completely than any previous writer” (62, emphasis mine); Robinson Crusoe’s “character depends very largely on the psychological and social orientations of economic individualism” (71, emphasis mine); the novel “could only concentrate on personal relations once most writers and readers believed that individual human beings, and not collectivities such as the Church, or transcendent actors, such as the Persons of the Trinity, were allotted the supreme role on the earthly stage” (84, emphasis mine); and so on. In other words, the shifting social, religious, and economic conditions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries produced a new philosophical construct, “modern individualism,” and that philosophical construct itself enabled new forms of literary characterization and narrative.
That all sounds very basic, of course. But Nancy Armstrong’s work is itself a decades-long engagement with Watt’s Rise of the Novel in general and his understanding of literary history in particular. Armstrong’s three earlier books—Desire and Domestic Fiction (1987), The Imaginary Puritan (1992; with Leonard Tennenhouse), and Fiction in the Age of Photography (1999)—not only dwell on questions of realism and individualism, but also, and even more importantly, alter the relationship between their “rise” and that of the novel. For Armstrong, novels make things happen. In Desire and Domestic Fiction, the “domestic novel” is both “agent and product of a cultural change that attached gender to certain kinds of writing” . Similarly, while “photography authorized fiction as a truth-telling medium,” fiction “had to authorize the transparent, reproducible image”—indeed, “[t]here is abundant evidence to suggest that…authors and presumably their readers were predisposed to think photographically before there were many photographs to substantiate the kind of visual description we now associate with literary realism” . Novels do not emerge from philosophical, theological, or cultural debates; instead, they at once create and are created by them. This new model of literary history elevates the novel’s cultural significance, granting it a role equivalent to that of, say, philosophical treatises. Real intellectual work, in other words, takes place in what looks like a popular form.
Armstrong’s newest book takes on, yet again, individualism and realism. Ian Watt makes only one flitting, forlorn appearance, but The Rise of the Novel haunts How Novels Think: Watt’s interest in individualism turns into Armstrong’s conviction that “the history of the novel and the history of the modern subject are, quite literally, one and the same”; similarly, Watt’s proposal that realism defines the novel finds its parallel in Armstrong’s observation that “I cannot quite believe that any novel can reach in and modify the ideological core of the genre and still remain a novel”—the “ideological core” being the “presupposition that novels think like individuals about the difficulties of fulfilling oneself as an individual under specific cultural historical conditions” . The novel invents the modern subject and, in so doing, shows that subject how to think about itself. And given that Armstrong admits to a “lifelong skepticism about the truth of individualism” (ix) in her acknowledgments, it hardly comes as a surprise that she suggests that the novel might eventually help the subject think about itself rather differently.
Armstrong sketches out a history of subjectivity that goes something as follows. In phase one (the late seventeenth to early nineteenth centuries), what Armstrong calls an Althusserian “bad subject” runs smack into contract theory. This subject—Robinson Crusoe, in Armstrong’s first case study—must learn to “harness the very aggression by means of which one expresses one’s individuality” (33), the better to subordinate his own potentially disruptive desires to the good of the whole. But being a “bad subject,” one defined by wayward modes of “self-expression,” is part and parcel of becoming a good citizen; the impulses that make Crusoe an outcast in the beginning eventually underwrite his new social position in the end. By contrast, Armstrong argues, fiction post-Austen does not reclaim the bad subject, but instead renders him a threat to be expelled, destroyed, or otherwise neutralized. Nineteenth century fiction prioritizes not the individual, in other words, but the social group. Armstrong sees this new attitude at work most clearly in Victorian attitudes to female characters; female bad subjects, she argues, must be “punished…so harshly as to persuade a readership that the very excesses that led to self-fulfillment and the illusion of a more flexible social order now yielded exactly the opposite results” (79). Moreover, such bad subjects play a more significant role: they prevent the reader from processing what, to Armstrong, appears an obvious difficulty with liberalism—namely, that men are not punished for the same excesses that doom their female counterparts.
In her penultimate chapter, Armstrong turns to late-Victorian Gothic and imperial romance, and argues that novels like Dracula or She—which she links to the debate over monogenesis and polygenesis--imagine the threat posed by the disappearance of the “boundaries distinguishing individuals” (105). In such novels, human “reproduction” (which, Armstrong argues, includes narrative self-reproduction ) finds itself faced with various forms of unnatural “repetition”; yet for humans to survive, the heroes of these novels must learn to “think like their prey” (130). Thus, while this divide may involve gender, it posits a new form of difference that transcends gender altogether. More provocatively, Armstrong argues that Stoker’s vampiric repetition actually offers a way to rethink liberal individualism. By rehabilitating the Gothic at the end of her study, Armstrong offers a riposte to Ian Watt and those who have followed him: if liberal individualism and realism go hand-in-hand, then perhaps turning away from realism and towards romance and the Gothic (thereby upending the usual critical order of things) will open up new ways of creating subjects. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, realism need not be the novel’s telos.
At the most basic level, Armstrong’s argument about changing representations of subjectivity seems unexceptionable. No Victorianist will be ruffled by the claim that Victorian fiction generally subordinates individual desires to social goods. In any event, this is the sort of overarching historical narrative that cannot really be challenged by individual examples. (Caroline Clive’s Paul Ferroll comes to mind.) Nevertheless, I couldn’t help wishing for a little more nuance at times; when, for example, Armstrong suggests that “Victorian heroines pale before the monstrous behaviors of Catherine Earnshaw, Bertha Mason, Edith Dombey, Lady Deadlock [sic], Becky Sharp, Maggie Tulliver, Tess Durbeyfield, Lizzie Eustace, and the protagonists of sensation novels” (80), I found myself wondering how all of those characters found their way into the same list. Similarly, it’s not clear how or if Armstrong differentiates novels in which individuals die (or are expelled) because liberal society fails them from novels in which individuals die (or are expelled) because liberal society must be preserved. Maggie and Tess seem to fall under the former heading, as do a number of doomed/exiled female figures from thesis novels by writers like Mona Caird, Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell, Sarah Grand, and Olive Schreiner. Armstrong might reply that such novels simply propose to extend liberal society, or reconstitute it anew, rather than offering any drastic Gothic alternative. But I wonder, nevertheless.
This last question leads me to issues more directly related to historical method. The first, quite simply, is that Armstrong’s literary-historical case rests entirely on fiction that we still read. Well, of course, my reader says. But, from a historical point of view, that’s not an “of course” at all. Non-canonical or otherwise forgotten fiction can be a foreign country; novelists do things differently there. Moreover, given how few novels Armstrong actually discusses at any length, it’s hard not to think about what her own narrative might be repressing, or at least expelling.
Perhaps more seriously, Armstrong’s choice of intellectual contexts sometimes seems a bit…random, or, at least, loose. It’s really not clear why we need to discuss Mary Shelley in conjunction with Immanuel Kant. Similarly, it’s not clear that Darwin casts as much light on Victorian attitudes to female sexuality as Armstrong thinks he does. I feel rather young-fogeyish about raising this point, but Armstrong doesn’t seem especially interested in identifying actual connections among contemporary (or, in some cases, only near-contemporary) discourses. One of the things I’ve discovered in my own work is that whole slews of authors are, in fact, perfectly capable of ignoring something that strikes the critic as absolutely relevant. Intellectual and literary history are both filled with non-existent conversations. What about thinkers less exalted, yet possibly closer to intellectual home, than Kant?
In some cases, Armstrong offers no actual evidence at all. The mind reels, for example, at this pronouncement:
Contrary to prevailing critical opinion, modern secular morality did not draw the extraordinary power it exercises to this day from any institutional religion, the Bible, or even a general sense of Judeo-Christian ethics. Its power, I believe, comes from and authorizes those works of fiction where morality appears to emanate from the very core of an individual, as that individual confronts and opposes socially inculcated systems of value. (27)
Well, disproving a negative is famously difficult. But…aren’t there a lot of philosophical, theological, and historical hurdles to leap here? Armstrong’s project largely assumes this point; it spends virtually no time demonstrating it. And no wonder, given that such a sweeping claim would require its own book. That Armstrong “believe[s]” this is not much help, under the circumstances; surely something more substantial is called for? And aren’t there novels that offer modernity a singularly non-secular morality? Do they not count at all in this scheme of things?
That brings me to the final point. Armstrong claims, as I’ve said, that novels do things. This is the sort of claim that is easy to make but difficult to prove. And to go about proving it, we need to undertake scholarly work other than close interpretations of literary texts. As historians like Jonathan Rose have pointed out, literature frequently does not do what we (the critics) think it does. Armstrong may well be right about how the novel thinks—but we still don’t necessarily know how the novel made people think.
 Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1957), 34.
 Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (1989; New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 28.
 Nancy Armstrong, Fiction in the Age of Photography: The Legacy of British Realism (1999; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 27, 126-27.
 Nancy Armstrong, How Novels Think: The Limits of Individualism from 1719-1900 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 3, 10.
[M]odern secular morality did not draw the extraordinary power it exercises to this day from any institutional religion, the Bible, or even a general sense of Judeo-Christian ethics. Its power. . . comes from and authorizes those works of fiction where morality appears to emanate from the very core of an individual
In a novel like Moby Dick, most of the clear indicators outlining the novel’s normative attitude toward its narrative are theologically or biblically framed. Even assuming that Moby Dick‘s attitudes toward individualism sprung fully formed from Herman Melville’s head, the fact that those attitudes are expressed first by an Elijah (ch.s 19, 21) who could have walked straight out of the chapters of Kings onto the streets of Nantucket should suggest that if the novel does not mine religion for themes, it at least knows which ones can be found there.
Thanks for the post, Miriam. It turns out that the one I’m just polishing off will be nicely complementary because it takes off from just the point where the mind reels, as you say. But I didn’t make the Ian Watts connection. Well, you’ll hear about it in a few hours.
Comically, my post *also* starts with just this point.
(But that’s what happens when you lead chapter 1 with a claim like this!)
Duffer’s questions, Miriam. Would it have been better if Armstrong just said she was going to revise Watt by paying attention to the gothic? And does Michael McKeon fit in anywhere here?