Friday, March 24, 2006
Like Lawrence , I was initially drawn to How Novels Think by its title. I hoped to find an argument on behalf of the notion that novels do think (even if only by analogy to how people think), an analysis of fiction that would provide us with an alternate way of approaching novels beyond the traditional conceptions of fiction as either aesthetic object or a form of subjective discourse (an expression of the author’s sensibility or “ideas"). Some middle ground between the view that literary art is autonomous and the view that literary texts can be reduced to propositions or assertions. I expected to reject this alternative view, but I was nevertheless curious to see it explained.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get any of this. Armstrong never defends the claim that novels think beyond such very general declarations as this:
. . .in using displacement to explain how Victorian fiction shifts its initial emotional investments from one object to another, I attribute this mechanism neither to the individuated unconscious nor to some mass anxiety. I prefer to look a the novel as a way of thinking in its own right, the culture’s way of maintaining, upgrading, and perpetuating its most basic categories in the face of pressures that changing social conditions bring to bear on them. (83)
Not only is the “way of thinking” alluded to never elucidated, but exactly how can a novel be “a way of thinking in its own right” and also the “culture‘s way of maintaining,” etc.? Is the underlying assumption that culture thinks, and that the novel, as a product of culture, therefore thinks in its own way as well? I confess to being less aware of the newest and the latest in literary scholarship since I stopped considering myself primarily an academic, but when did what I remember as cultural studies transform itself into some new area of research into artificial intelligence? Or am I just being dense (in my residually individual way) in being unable to understand how “thinking” is being thought of in this line of interpretation?
Elsewhere (51), Armstrong writes:
. . .It is through a series of what might be called lessons, after all, that novels transform signs of an individual’s natural excess into the cultural wisdom of a citizen-subject. Rather than simply part of a curriculum that educates, we might more accurately identify the novel as the larger cultural framework within which education proper provides but one means of converting bad subjects into citizens. The novel in this larger sense cannot be pinned down to any individual novel, tradition, or institution of the novel. The novel is more like a ubiquitous cultural narrative that not only measures personal growth in terms of an individual’s ability to locate him- or herself productively within the aggregate but also and simultaneously measures the aggregate in terms of its ability to accommodate the increasing homogeneity of individuals. . . .
Talk about baggy monsters! “Cultural framework” is thus a way of identifying the novel as the culture’s mainframe, storing all of its relevant information and then “maintaining, upgrading, and perpetuating its most basic categories”? Is this how the novel thinks? But this seems more like instruction than thinking , however much the “lessons” being taught to future citizen-subjects might be formulated through some kind of sorting of ideas. Or is the “measuring” described here the essence of novelistic thought? Works of fiction duly considering the correct balance between individual desires and social needs? (Although I can’t shake the image of the novel-as-tailor, going about its business taking measurements of “growth.") Again, I am prepared to discuss the nature of literature or the effects of literature in whatever figurative language helps us to clarify the subject, but I do think the troping in a passage like this one has gotten considerably out of control.
And yet. Armstrong’s discussions of her exemplary texts are frequently interesting and illuminating, worth considering despite the book’s failure to deliver on its larger ambitions. Thus Robinson Crusoe’s “stubborn insistence on mobility affords him a setting in which that excess can spill over onto the landscape and convert what had at home been completely mapped and classified into a new form of property that expressed his own will and desire” (34); in Frankenstein, “The monster wants to belong to a community that lives by the law of hospitality with an intensity that prompts him to destroy what he cannot join. Yet there is something about his very nature that eliminates all possibility of belonging, forcing him to stay outside the community of self-governing subjects and thus remain incompletely human” (71); in Dombey and Son, “After more than seven hundred pages in which he gives us absolutely no reason to admire Dombey, Dickens asks us to pity the man precisely because he has lost his power to compete with other men and so dominate women. Dickens asks us, in other words, to see Dombey as the victim of his own masculinity” (91); and George Eliot, in The Mill and the Floss, “sets in motion two metonymic chains, one objectifying and localizing bad desire in the woman who is its object, the other redirecting that desire back toward its masculine source in a form that maintains rather than destroys the modern family. Where Bronte and Dickens relied on double heroines to accomplish this displacement, Eliot has both chains converge in Maggie [Tulliver]” (92).
In general, Armstrong’s sequential survey of the 18th and 19th century British novel provides a reasonably compelling way of understanding both the rise of the novel (however much she finds the origin of the novel in middle-class reading habits problematic, Armstrong does agree with Ian Watt that this is the novel’s origin) and the evolution within the novel of the assumptions of romanticism as they mutate into realism and back again. I don’t agree with her own rigid and politicized assumption that culture is the all-encompassing explanation of this evolution (analyses like Armstrong’s leave no room for the purely artistic decisions made by writers as they engage with the formal possibilties of their form and with the practices of their predecessors), but her account does represent a version of literary history that readers of the British novel (fiction more generally) could profitably contemplate alongside other versions. More than anything else, I finish How Novels Think feeling that the current conventions of literary scholarship (culture is all, as many theorists as possible must be invoked, criticism concerns what a text is “about,” not how it is made) has mostly ruined what might otherwise be a perfectly sound piece of real literary analysis. (Or as John Holbo puts it: “You have a simple formula: some shadowy political drama, in the form of the rise of the bourgeoisie; you have a Big Idea that is rather morally grey - radical constructivism about the subject; you have some treasure, in the form of quite nice bits of discussion of particular texts. You lash them together. What’s the point?")