Wednesday, March 22, 2006
Thinking about novels thinking
I’d like to begin, as custom requires, by thanking my hosts for the invitation to participate. It’s not every day that one’s readership jumps a decimal place or two.
Jonathan Goodwin invited me to participate in this event because he remembered that I’ve assigned How Novels Think this semester in a course on temporality in modern British narrative. The course has a mixed enrollment of graduate (MA) and undergraduate students; all the undergrads are English majors, and most are seniors. The book is required for graduate students, and recommended for undergrads. I chose How Novels Think for a few main reasons:
- The book is clear and (relatively) jargon-free.
- Though the claims offered on the novel’s behalf are a bit overheated, they nonetheless help show why people still might care about novels now two hundred years old.
- Armstrong also shows the utility of certain contexts, though she also doesn’t overwhelm readers with a detailed scholarly apparatus. (I can always give interested students more bibliography.)
- Finally, and most important, the method of How Novels Think is quite different from my own, and so that tension helps orient interested students to debates in the discipline, which in turn helps them find topics to write about.
Students who have reported back about their experiences both reproduce some of these reasons (which I’d not previously shared) and, interestingly, some of the concerns aired by Miriam, John, and Lawrence. And one student even has started reading some of the novels he hadn’t already read, because he doubted her reading of Tess. As a teaching text, then, the book’s value can hardly be overstated.
What follows is less a proper review than an examination of two loosely related problems or areas of interest, plus by a brief coda. This way, perhaps, even those who haven’t read How Novels Think might have a springboard into the discussion.
Part I: Psychoanalysis and the Novel
It is perhaps not surprising that a book which takes up narrative, individualism, the gothic, and the family discusses Freud. Armstrong argues—in my view correctly—that Freud and the canonical nineteenth-century novel are preoccupied with similar concerns, and indeed imagine similar kinds of individuals. (As Ray Davis put it in comments earlier, psychoanalysis is thus “narrative literature by other means.”) However, in a move that by now Valve readers will find familiar, Armstrong gives this claim its most forward-leaning form: Freud “ensured that the subject’s personal history would reproduce that of the novel. With Freud, therefore, the individual comes, in theory, to recapitulate the history of the novel, as it rethought its youthful aggression in light of the increasing responsibilities of adulthood and empire” (9, emp. added). I don’t want to bore readers with a recitation of doctrinal arguments within psychoanalysis as they might or might not engage How Novels Think. Let’s just say that Armstrong asks therefore to do an awful lot of work in this quotation. For if psychoanalysis has any point, it is surely that the subject and the individual aren’t identical. To adapt Jonathan Lear’s language, within psychoanalysis “the subject” is, as it were, the remainder of “the individual.”
As I’ve said, this post shouldn’t turn into an argument about psychoanalysis. Instead, I want to raise a point about form. Here’s Armstrong on Freud’s utility for her project:
Indeed, an argument can be made that Freud transformed the figures that I will use to distinguish various epochs in the history of the modern novel—excess, ambivalence, displacement, and repetition—into the tropes through which the unconscious expresses itself. Writing during the early twentieth century alongside the modernists, Freud set out to discover inside the individual many of the same turns of cultural thought that at once brought the individual into being and limited its existence in the interest of a community composed of similar subjects. (9)
While one could make this argument, one could also of course argue the reverse: That Armstrong argues from Freud’s tropes back into a history of the novel. It’s thus hardly surprising that Freud bears a familial resemblance to Victorian novelists. The invocation of Freud here, though, raises less a question about psychoanalysis than it does about genre: Are these tropes peculiar to the novel? Does, say, ambivalence or displacement play no role in Tennyson’s poetry? Doesn’t Browning’s fascination with excess help distinguish his monologues from Romantic lyrics?
These questions have a couple of different implications. First, as Lawrence, Miriam, and John have all suggested, How Novels Think only lightly justifies its causal claims and contextual interests: Can we really say that the novel caused the modern individual to emerge, at least on the evidence offered in a single book? (And look: Armstrong’s pretty upfront about the speculative nature of these claims, noting that these essays emerged from a series of talks, and so they should be taken as mapping a field for future inquiry, not as providing definitive proof.)
Beyond this, though, is a question about whether psychoanalysis is really a species of narrative. (At this point I might as well acknowledge that I have elsewhere argued that psychoanalysis is mostly interested in narrative because narratives almost always go astray. For example, Freud once explained that he always begins by asking his analysands for a history of their symptoms because they cannot actually give him one.) Given the circular nature of Armstrong’s claims here—both novels and psychoanalysis are the cause and effect of one another—this presents a certain difficulty. It’s that difficulty that I’ll address in the finale.
Part II: Flogging Dead Horses
Nothing says “day 2” of a multi-day, multiple-author book review like repetition, so forgive me for returning to a passage at which Miriam and John have already balked:
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)
Thus begins chapter 1. As Miriam has noted, demonstrating this claim would actually require its own book or more, and would still leave unexamined the manifest role of modern nonsecular morality. And as John has argued, it’s somewhat difficult to be certain exactly what ground the first sentence of this passage stakes out. These concerns aren’t trivial. For the moment, though, let’s pass over the first sentence in silence and focus on the second, wherein the key novels are those in which “morality appears to emanate from the very core of the individual.”
A chief concern of the introduction and first chapter of How Novels Think is to show that individualism, as construed by modern liberalism, constantly and anxiously wards off threats to individuation. And so the introduction shows how theories of mind such as associationism and sensibility implicitly threaten the ascendancy of the modern individual. On Armstrong’s argument, the cultural work of the novel is to create individuals, who incorporate these external elements and locate them within themselves.
Within this context, the passage that is our focus here thus makes a bit more sense: As the beginning of Chapter 1, it asserts that what is true in philosophy is also true of morality: modernity names a process by which that which was once external becomes so thoroughly internalized that it is experienced as a part of oneself. How Novels Think contends that mainstream British realism constantly works to support this internalization, in part through a complex engagement with the gothic.
It is of course somewhat beside the point to introduce a counterexample against an axiom so provocative as Armstrong’s. But consider this brief passage from an early review by George Eliot:
The master key to revelation, is the recognition of the presence of undeviating law in the material and moral world—of that invariability of sequence which is acknowledged to be the basis of physical science, but which is still perversely ignored in our social organization, our ethics and our religion. It is this invariability of sequence which can alone give value to experience and render education in the true sense possible. (31)
What’s useful about this its insistence on the very point Armstrong says can’t be allowed: That morality depends less on obeying the deep heart’s core than on recognizing cause and consequence as objective facts. (And really, is there a better representative of “secular morality” within “mainstream British realism” than Eliot?) Granted, someone has to perform this recognizing, but that’s hardly the robust version of modern individualism that Armstrong’s been critiquing. What’s more, as numerous critics and biographers have noted, this passage more or less can be treated as a “master key” to Eliot’s own fiction, or at least to the narratorial commentary found therein (see Ashton 76).
At stake here is more than just evidentiary nitpicking. I want instead to bring this second point toward conclusion by asserting that Armstrong sets up a false dichotomy between, on the one hand, that which is external to the individual, and, on the other, “the very core of the individual.” I am of course not suggesting that Armstrong herself subscribes to this basic inside/outside opposition; rather, I claim that she projects it onto a field of novels that’s actually somewhat more complicated. For example, I don’t think that a novel like Middlemarch is anything like as deterministic as this quotation from 1851 might imply, and yet it’s also hard for me to credit any reading of Middlemarch that would give pride of place to the individual as the supreme moral subject.
For the moment, though, I’ll just leave off by proposing that whomever it is that Victorian novels address, it is not coextensive—is not, to use one of Armstrong’s favorite phrases, “one and the same”—with the “individual” of modern liberalism. We can’t evade this problem by noting, as Armstrong does, that Victorian protagonists are “internally conflicted” (8). Even within a quite traditional reading of the British canon, it’s possible to think of texts that involve a far more complex interplay between the self, desire, and norms of the common good. Not quite at random: Villette, Sartor Resartus, and The Way of All Flesh. (The Way of All Flesh is especially interesting in light of Armstrong’s plea for anti- or non-familial models for thinking about policy and persons [see 143-53]. Butler’s narrator wonders, “Why should the generations overlap one another at all? Why cannot we be buried as eggs in neat little cells with ten or twenty thousand pounds each wrapped around us in Bank of England notes, and wake up, as the sphex wasp does, to find that its papa and mamma have not only left ample provision at its elbow, but have been eaten by sparrows some weeks before it began to live consciously on its own account?” . This is almost my favorite passage in all of literature.)
Coda: “Literally one and the same”
In the first thirty pages or so of How Novels Think, we find the phrase “one and the same” at least three different times. The back cover proclaims that “the history of the novel and the history of the modern individual are, quite literally, one and the same” (also on page 3). John has his own reservations about this claim, but I simply want to note the peculiarity of insisting on the literal nature of this relationship when, as I’ve already indicated, she describes the history of the modern novel as a history of figures. If the histories are identical, then the tropes Armstrong adduces barely warrant the name. There is, in effect, a double bind: How Novels Think is keen to show that novels do more than just reflect the world and its ideologies, but to do so it must find the same meaning in them over and over again.
We can also see the effects of this double bind at the book’s end. In her discussion of Dracula, Armstrong argues that “the culture of the vampire acknowledges that all identity is cultural at base, therefore external in origin, especially sexual appetite” (149). Acknowledges suggests that Armstrong takes this to be a true statement about the world, one vampires get and bourgeois morality doesn’t. Setting aside for a moment the truth or falsity of this claim, we then notice a second advantage of vampire culture. Because, in vampire culture, “the entire group is made up of individuals no different from” oneself (149), individual desire no longer poses a threat: “If, however, each individual were to enact the desire of all, then there would be no reason to protect each from all others, thus no need for civil society to defend the autonomy of the home” (149). Setting aside all questions of the death drive and its salience, I just want to close by noting that this argument reproduces the problem noted earlier about “one and the same.” On the one hand, “identity . . . especially sexual appetite” are cultural, and thus essentially plastic. On the other hand, we can be sure that “the desire of all” would not be for self-annihilation. I suspect that one can only believe that “all identity is cultural at base” if one has an ur-theory of what identity is really like—which of course would suggest that identity is not all that cultural.
Armstrong, Nancy. How Novels Think: The Limits of Individualism from 1719-1900. New York: Columbia UP, 2005.
Ashton, Rosemary. George Eliot: A Life. London: Penguin, 1997.
Butler, Samuel. The Way of All Flesh. 1903 (1873). Ed. Richard Hoggart. London: Penguin, 1966.
Eliot, George. [Rev. of Robert William Mackay, The Progress of the Intellect.] Jan. 1851. In Essays of George Eliot. Ed. Thomas Pinney. New York: Columbia UP, 1963. 27-45.
Lear, Jonathan. Happiness, Death, and the Remainder of Life. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2000.
"Armstrong’s pretty upfront about the speculative nature of these claims, noting that these essays emerged from a series of talks, and so they should be taken as mapping a field for future inquiry, not as providing definitive proof.”
“Mapping a field” is a particularly interesting turn of phrase in this context, isn’t it? Is there really a field to be mapped, or is Armstrong enclosing an area with speculative claims, leaving these markers for later exploitation against the challenges of claim-jumpers? If Armstrong can in some sense say that novels create subjects, how can her claims, however speculative, avoid creating her own academic subjects?
Definative proof is also somewhat beside the point, isn’t it? We’re not talking about anything subject to falsifiability, after all. So if other academics take up Armstrong’s ideas, they are “proved”, if not, not.
While it’s true that there’s a limit to how much any of these claims can be proven, it’s still worth distinguishing claims that are meant as provocations/speculations (which may have their own interest) from claims that are offered with some intent of supporting them (for example, the claims Armstrong makes about various novels).