Musings of a Curmudgeon on the Future of the Book

Early Thoughts on the Wallace Archive

David Foster Wallace seemed to see literary criticism, at its best, a labor of love, piecing together how things work, a sort-of-less-boring Formalism. He took a different sort of stand against symptomatic reading that completely took the writer out of the equation, who you know “in your gut” is there, trying to have a conversation. Perhaps no other writer I have read gets in your gut more than Wallace, which is perhaps why I am so enthralled. His characters feel so uniquely voiced, and yet always display a certain exhibitionism that is always Wallace’s: and but so. Thus far, in my short time at the Harry Ransom Center, I can see just how tornado-like Wallace was, a voracious and eclectic reader, a writer that I cannot find the right word for: ambitious is too weak, self-despising is too unproblematic from a distance, absorptive and thoughtful lack the punch of what seems true. Wallace wanted to be successful, wanted to have and nurture a readership, but always at arm’s length. We need to have a conversation, but not together, you, but not you, me, but not me.

I have always felt drawn to analyze Wallace’s work alongside Paul de Man’s theories on rhetoric and the individual. I hold on to ridiculous reservations about never becoming what Wallace called a “crank-turner” in his 1993 interview with Larry McCaffry, in which he subsequently cited recent PhD’s as “like de Man and Foucault in the mouth of a child.” My heart just about skipped seeing de Man’s Blindness and Insight in Wallace’s library, falling apart from too much love. The only chapter that seemed to be read, and re-read, and read again, with annotations in Wallace’s distinct style splayed on the pages in red and green and black, was “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” a dismantling of allegory, symbol, and irony. I cannot know (yet!) whether Wallace was reading this as a student, assigned it as an instructor, or sought it out personally, but de Man’s critique of “symbol,” in its indefiniteness and subjective nature, as favored in literary studies over “allegory,” exhaustive and limited to authorial intent, are decidedly concerns that Wallace held on to for the duration of his all-too-short career.

To this point, I will say the following. These few days spent reading and re-reading his notes, letters annotations have been my labor of love, I cannot help but include Wallace in my inquisition into my love of books and reading, and look the other way when that love is unrequited. But to what end does this intimacy go? I have argued that we ought to avoid reading Wallace’s texts teleologically, looking towards his personal depression or his biography as a way of finding meaning, but this was mainly because I want to keep his fiction for myself, a place of joy and sly smiles. Or, perhaps it is the opposite that I have always feared: searching for closure about his personal life in his fiction, particularly that fiction which has been narrativized as his demon, as that fulfillment of his most-cruel prophecy that at least this artist was “willing to die in order to move the reader.” What am I supposed to pay attention to? To let go? For how long should I pause at the scrawled heart with “Please God, help” penciled inside in a chapter draft of The Pale King? The marginalia with “Fuck IT” circled, bolded? For how long?

On Ishmael Reed’s “Mumbo Jumbo” and Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”


Note: Reminder, these are more or less notes for a Qualifying Exam, therefore meant primarily to synthesize different texts/approaches rather than provide in-depth analysis. Provided time, I will most likely add a section on to this in the near future on Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist.

Postmodernism seemingly has as many strains within literature as it does outside of literature. One of the issues that literary critics have had in defining postmodernism as a distinct literary period is its distinguishing particular characters of highly experimental novels from the literary field as a whole: “Authors like Barth, Burroughs, and Gaddis were clearly producing recognizably postmodern texts in the 1950s, and postmodernism’s prominence in the1970s and 1980s was visible not only in syllabuses and academic journals but also, for instance, in the postmodern turn taken by a decidedly nonacademic author like Philip Roth. Even at its high point, however, postmodernism-—and in particular the form of postmodernism defined around self-conscious literary experimentalism—was not the only or even always the dominant player on the literary field” (Hoberek, 235-236).  Furthermore, as Andrew Hoberek points out, “While American fiction after 1945 had clearly departed from the modernist path (unlike painting, where abstract expressionism constituted an Americanized extension of the modernist revolution), neither did it offer a clear alternative to modernism” (234). This lack of ontological clarity is exemplified by the initial inclination of Irving Howe (the first to use the phrase postmodern in relation to literature) to see authors like Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and J.D. Sallinger providing the evidence of a break between pre-1945 and post, writers that have not since been held up as postmodern barons. A problem with literary periodization, particularly unmanageably large ones like modernism/postmodernism, is the ways that, in their employment, literature comes to be too easily made synonymous with the social and historical contexts in which they are produced. The likelihood that modernist texts be reduced to sexological or psychoanalytic diagnoses is comparable to the likelihood that Cold War-era novels be reduced to expressions of paranoia or commentaries on historicity, as opposed to, for example, issues of economic inequality (postwar boom is taken on faith to have absolved literature from registering historical inadequacies in this area). Andrew Hoberek argues that it is a mistake, when talking about postmodernism and periodization, to “confuse aesthetic questions about literary form with sociological ones about the constituencies of such form” (233). This observation seems to align itself with the Formalist position on the evolution of literary style that experimental writing, or writing particularly ripe with “literariness,” generically moves to the center of the literary field, becoming less literary and requiring a new literature to come and defamiliarize its formal techniques. Literary fiction, then, pilfers its eclectic elements from “lesser” forms, like Dosteovsky had done with whodunit stories, and attains its value by de-familiarizing what readers have naturalized about those styles formally and their everyday manifestations culturally. It is also necessarily subject to lose this quality of literariness over time, it is not, as is popularly perceived, an element inherent to the text at all. Of course, this seemingly banal phrase “over time” has been noted as one of the wedges between Marxist and Formalist literary methods, the former adopting a methodology of symptomatic reading that takes into account the ideological and economic forces that come to bear on these shifts in aesthetic practices (see Terry Eagleton). However, understanding literature in this way depends on recognizing the autonomous nature of the literary field, as well as also seeing the ways in which sociological and historical forces come to be registered and narrated by the aesthetic practices of novels themselves. This is precisely what, sometimes unfortunately, encourages critics to focus on experimental poststructuralist novels as the primary evidence of what they see as symptomatic of “postmodernism” writ large, just as the stream-of-conciousness novels of Faulkner, Joyce and Woolf become analogs for Modernism. What seems worth noting is that, in a similar way to Formalism’s mutually buoyant relationship with Mayakovsky’s Futurism in the late 1910s, postmodern literature has been oft-viewed as a “critical fiction,” one sanctioned and initially taken up by critics like Leslie Fiedler and Ihab Hassan, then institutionalized by journals like Boundary 2 and major works by Linda Hutcheon, Frederic Jameson and Brian McHale (Hoberek, 235). As the highly experimental postmodern literature called into question the grand narratives of History and the ways in which we have naturalized stories themselves, African-American literature, it seemed, stood to both gain and lose tremendously in, what Linda Hutcheon termed, the complicitous critique of postmodernism. Its critique[1] is relatively clear: postmodern art noticeably de-naturalizes the “dominant features of our way of life” as in fact always merely cultural. In this context, postmodernism might be read as a skipped record of Formalism, taken up formally by art and institutionalized by poststructuralist theorists. This is not a dismissal of deconstruction, but an observation of a similar co-mingling and inter-penetration between a particular literary form and a theoretical garde in academia. Hutcheon goes on to argue that, for this reason, postmodern critique is also complicit: “Yet, it must be admitted from the start that this is a strange kind of critique, one bound up, too, with its own complicity with power and domination, one that acknowledges that it cannot escape implication in that which it nevertheless still wants to analyze and maybe even undermine” (4). This co-mingling and interpenetration between postmodern art and poststructuralists can also be read as a rival in the literary field to a synchronic rising market for African-American literature, as well as other fiction bound-up in identity politics. Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972) and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), viewed comparatively, illuminate the stakes of African-American literature’s risky tryst with postmodernism through the fine line between the denaturalization of history and story and the necessary reminder that not only is history real, but that history hurts.

Mumbo Jumbo, I think, clearly aligns with conventional expectations of the “postmodern” literary genre. It lacks substantial characters (particularly in relation to “character” being that most sought-after lost-thing that Franzen and others seek to restore following postmodernism), its nonlinear plot self-consciously calls attention to the ways in which stories can or ought to be narrated, it mixes media (including images that are often non-sequitur with the literary content). Having now read Mumbo Jumbo several weeks ago, and those that have undergone the QE experience can attest, it has blurred together in an amazingly speedy fashion. But, as Teju Cole so eloquently tweeted, “What you read quickly you forget. What you read slowly you remember. What eludes your reading becomes a part of you by other means.” I think Mumbo Jumbo, by design, falls into that latter category, becoming a part of you “by other means.” The (narratable) narrative centers on a revolutionary group of multicultural bandits who aim to retrieve all of the art of their ancestors pilfered and displayed in Western museums and return them to their rightful place. Concurrently, a mad dance epidemic (a psychic edpidemic) called Jes Grew is spreading across the United States and has the potential to reproduce and proliferate across borders, putting all of Western civilization in jeopardy. Ultimately, though, in what stands out as fairly representative of the “postmodern” novel, the book spirals into a conspiratorial recasting of history as a feud between the Mu’tafikah and the Templar Knights. In the jumbled unraveling of the conspiracy by Papa Labas at the very end of the novel, the concept of “mumbo jumbo” returns. A Guianese art critic dismissing Papa Labas’s entire account of History states, “In times of social turbulence men like you always abandon reason and fall back upon Mumbo Jumbo” (195). Mumbo Jumbo, as the novel makes clear at in the opening pages, is a “magician who makes the troubled spirits of ancestors go away.” In other words, in times of upheaval, those that History has made outcasts and exploited, seek out a form of magic to disavow History altogether. And yet, as the repeated Freudian analysis that occurs throughout the novel suggests, this disavowal of History is not magical at all, but depends upon an unearthing, a return and recognition of those social conditions and institutionalized powers that have put their misery in preparation. What is remarkable about Mumbo Jumbo is its masterful intertwining of critiques of history, politics and art. The autonomy of art, as represented by the museums that set aside the beautiful relics of Eastern, African and Native-American cultures alongside bourgeois 19th century European paints, fails to recognize the ways in which art is also bound up with all of our daily activities (as most of those ancient pieces are both aesthetic and functional). Postmodern art, as conceived by Mumbo Jumbo, is not merely reflexive of its playfully ironic and metafictional techniques, but is actively seeking a method in which history can be brought to the fore, speculated and analyzed, touched.

I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved more slowly, more delicately, and wish I could write more about it than I am about to. What I think is beneficial about looking at these texts comparatively is the formal disparity between the texts, and yet their similar interests in retaining a memory of history from the more playfully destructive postmodern novels. Beloved samples techniques of the 19th century sentimental novels and slave narratives in order to construct both a harrowing account of slavery (as a trace in memories) and de-naturalize the ways in which we have read these stories as accessible, knowable, narratable. Its hard not to point out the forceful paratexts of the book; the first page has a 18th-19th century-style frontispiece, except, instead of the traditionally “authorizing” portrait, Beloved’s frontispiece is a caricature of a black face with wings (transcendent?). Also, unlike the usual white male voice that authorizes many slave narratives (as true, as worthy, as significant) Morrison follows the frontispiece with (among other significant elements) a powerful foreword in which she authorizes her own work and discusses her formal experiment of de-limiting the story of a historical figure in order to make it her own.

The ways in which the narrative, then, demands that a reader “read-into” the text because of its constructed undecidability surrounding Beloved’s ghost constantly draws our attention back towards Morrison herself and her (playful!? of course this no longer the applicable term) deconstruction and subsequent reclamation of history. The magical realism of Beloved, as it is commonly called, is both, in this case, an act of empowerment and an act of mourning. In this way, Beloved resembles what Georg Lukacs argues as vital to revolutionary literature and inherent in a “good” historical novel: the aim to “reflect historical contradictions and not to conjure them away through an excess of revolutionary optimism” (Bennett, 30). Lukacs, of course, famously disregarded formal differences in his analysis of the novel in a somewhat monomaniacal quest for such literature. What is stylistic, in this case, remains significant, however. The utter destruction of (happy) alternatives for Sethe, the ways in which happiness is blocked entirely as a real, rather than magical or imaginary, is re-presented not through a mimetic experience of this blocked happiness, but an absorptive, emotionally charged unearthing of the thing-ness of Beloved’s ghost. The ways in which this is then narrated to us, made visible to us by these markers of the text as both historical and postmodern, is both uncomfortable and enjoyable, sad and engaging. Morrison does not subvert narrative through the same metafictional techniques that Reed employs in Mumbo Jumbo, but similarly problematizes the status of narrative as a clear, mimetic window into history and the Other. Beloved is both revolutionary and self-conscious of its status as such. It is both a critique of the ways in which history is mediated to us through traces, memories, and ghosts, and complicit in retaining the power of narrative to produce the shudder necessary for collectivity.

[1] That postmodern literature is a “critique” is not itself a given. As Linda Hutcheon points out, her discussion of politics and representation “[goes] against a dominant trend in contemporary criticism that asserts that the postmodern is disqualified from political involvement because of its narcissistic and ironic appropriation of existing images and stories and its seemingly limited accessibility” (3). While, in my experience, Hutcheon’s version of the politics of postmodernism has become a dominant itself (particularly her concept of historiographic metafiction and her discussion of Midnight’s Children as highly political), a particular stigmatization of “postmodern” novels as dismissive in the recent “affective turn” has been taken up by Rachel Greenwald Smith as also needing repair.

On Jonathan Flatley’s “Affective Mapping”

It is high time I write an entry on Affective Mapping, a text whose vocabulary I have invoked a number of times in these blogs. The conceptual framework of this text illustrates the complex ways in which a work of art can produce for its readers an affective map, an aesthetic practice that transforms our depressive relation to loss “into one in which loss itself becomes the mechanism of interest in the world” (91). I will offer here a short explanation of the concept of “affective mapping” and its function in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. I will then offer a short analysis of my own depressing “coming to terms” that this conceptual framework cannot be applied tout suite to every work of art, as I often deeply wish it could.

Flatley appropriates and modifies the term from its use in geography and environmental psychology as a psychic, emotional process conjunctive with cognitive mapping. Our affective maps are constantly in flux, “reversible, rhizomatic:”

Such maps must be able to incorporate new information as one has new experiences in new environments; but this does not mean they are entirely self-invented. Rather the maps are cobbled together in processes of accretion and palimpsestic rewriting from other persons’ maps, first of all those defined in infancy by one’s parents, and later the maps that come to one by way of one’s historical context and the social formations one lives in. (78)

Flatley’s focus illuminates not the existence of affective maps in general, but “the ways an aesthetic practice might help with this process of affective mapping.” In other words, he is interested in moments when a work of art makes one’s affective map an object of analysis for the reader through a process of self-estrangement analogous to transference in psychoanalysis. The author, like the analyst in psychoanalysis, facilitates our conjuring up ghosts from the past into the present, to see, behold, feel and recognize. The most intoxicating turn that Flately’s argument makes is the political potential that becomes available for use when our relations to loss become antidepressive, when history floods into the present in our affective life in all of its material actuality: “by creating a kind of mood atmosphere with its own objects, artworks bring affects into existence in forms and in relation to objects that otherwise might not exist” (81). The political potential of these aesthetic practices is contingent on its ability to create “a meeting place for an affective collectivity.” While Flatley is careful to point out that this space for political feeling is not “always good,”[1] but in a very specific sense I think Flatley departs from, for example, Jean-Luc Nancy’s concept of the violence of the image. Whereas for Nancy the violence of the aesthetic opens up a space that, in its very force, we cannot predict a political outcome, Flatley’s argumentation shows texts that not only quite clearly create opportunities for self-estrangement, but “also have something to say about the very subjective experience from which a reader has been estranged. This allegorization of the experience that the aesthetic practice is itself promoting, the narration of the production of their own readers—this is the moment in which the text functions as an affective map for its readers” (83). Like when the analyst intervenes with an observation during psychoanalysis, the work of art, in its very act of articulation, makes the affective map a thing that “can no longer be ignored, and the analysis of the emotions in question can begin” (83). Therefore, a considerable level of planning, of investment in the objects of the work of art, of intentionality on the part of the artist both “allow[s] readers to input different experience” and encounter an affective collectivity.

The publication of The Turn of the Screw follows Henry James’s debacle with theater, which “reverberated with special emotional force because his foray into playwriting had been an attempt to redress an earlier failure to keep that audience that had existed for novels and stories” (85). In the context of The Turn of the Screw, this occurs both within the narrative and, mimetically, for the reader herself. Affective Mapping shows off a machine-like ability to concisely, clearly, efficiently summarize texts and otherwise incredibly complex philosophical arguments, so I will offer Flatley’s summary of Turn of the Screw rather than my own as a footnote for those unfamiliar with the text, and as a lesson to those out there like myself who need one in word economy.[2] Significantly, the aesthetic practice of The Turn of the Screw, produces, Flatley argues, a ‘reading into’ for the reader that mimes that of the governess: “Crucial to the story’s effect is the fact that this is all narrated in a highly ambiguous style that makes it impossible to tell whether or not the ghosts are real or the governess is crazy. Like the governess, the reader is put in a position where s/he has to read into an unclear text. Gradually her pursuit becomes more aggressive and less rewarding” (87). Reading into, briefly, is a process that is necessitated by a failure of direct communication: “Reading into a text is a matter of making the dead speak, of creating a specter who can provide the sense of communication the silent text lacks” (89). The mechanism by which this is put into practice is prosopopoiea, or reading as “[imagining] a person having thoughts and feelings that the text itself leaves undecidable, that is, that you author-ize your reading” (88). In other words, Henry James creates in his ambiguous style a ghost who the reader herself is left chasing, paying heightened attention to. Ultimately, this mimetic practice comes under fire both by its own undecidability for the reader, as well as the “hard-to-miss ironic-allegorical punctum of the story,” both which uncover of its tension with our will to knowledge, as Foucault understood it:

The final movements of the story can be read as a severe cautionary against taking reading in too seriously, for when reading gets caught up in institutional modes of the will to knowledge, the flirtatious, mimetic moments can be steamrolled by the imperative to uncover secrets and produce knowledge…The story strongly—and very critically—allegorizes the very experience it promotes, drawing the reader into the circle of complicity. (102-103)

The payoff, here, comes in the form of an affective map and what the recognition about ourselves, our own emotional history, that text makes unavoidably present (I will come back to this unavoidability):

In catching the readers in this way the story creates a nugget of affective experience for them, one that draws on and repeats their earlier experiences, and then tells them something about those experiences. It tells them: do no trust the will to knowledge; it does not deliver what it promises. James maps the affective territory created by the new discourse of sexual identities. He shows us whence the emotional attraction of reading into the secrets lingering especially around children’s bodies and behaviors, and what happens when one gets caught up in the desire to find a fix a truth there. James also provides a map for finding pleasures within the new regime. That is, the existence of a new will to knowledge, of a new proliferation of secrets everywhere, can in fact allow for and indeed provide cover for a flirtatious reading in…But this is a reading in that does not need to—indeed, that needs not to—turn into a will to actually find knowledge there…Ghost relationality is itself the cure. For James, we might even say that it is only as ghosts (when we are possessed by an emotion from our past) and with ghosts (the people who are stand-ins for lost objects from our past) that one can be affectively attached to the world and the people around us. (103-104)

This type of effect, this type of relationality, this type of knowledge, that reading fiction produces resonates so strongly with me that I seek out opportunities to apply this theoretical framework when possible. Unlocking the mysteries of incredibly complex, emotive aesthetic practices, and explaining their ability to alter/shock the shared affective territory of geographically dispersed audiences, I see as one of the most rewarding aspects of my job. However, the project of Affective Mapping offers a cautionary tale that I have only recently, and somewhat depressively, uncovered in its relation to my own work with book history and contemporary fiction.

The loss of audience that Flatley describes Henry James experiences, the very thing that necessitates his creation of an aesthetic practice that converts “one relation of loss with another” is itself something that has evolved and taken on new forms, changing the publishing business (see Ted Striphas’s The Late Age of Print, and John Thompson’s Merchants of Culture), copyright laws (see Paul Saint-Amour’s The Copywrights), and audiences, and the literary imagination itself. The “loss of audience” that Henry James experienced as a “shock” is not exactly the same as the loss of audience that, for example, Jonathan Franzen so powerfully explores in his 1996 essay “Perchance to Dream” When, for example, Affective Mapping reveals W.E.B. Dubois’s insightful recognition that propaganda is effective as an aesthetic practice, the propagandistic effect only functions only insofar as it has eyes on it, which Souls of Black Folk secured in spades. The audience for novels has changed (though they are not as near extinction as we are sometimes led to believe).

However, we might consider that audiences are still the same in their affective attachment to books and their power. In this context, it is key to consider, I think, Amy Blair’s recent book Reading Up, which I wrote about more extensively here, next to Affective Mapping. Blair uncovers is that the ways in which authors were slotted and recommended in Ladies’ Home Journal facilitated a proliferation of mis-readings of “serious fiction” and vacuation of meaning from aesthetic/canonical categories. Many non-professional readers with less sophisticated interpretive frameworks were in fact incapable of seeing when a text, like those examined by Henry James and William Dean Howells, were being critical of the very reading practices they were employing, specifically those targeted at self-improvement and social climbing. Significant questions arise from seeing these two texts side by side. In the same way that “spatial environments are inevitably imbued with the feelings we have about the places we are going,” would not books as commercial objects, particularly those in high esteem like The Turn of the Screw and Souls of Black Folk, be imbued with specific feelings about the books we are about to read? Do these resultant mis-readings (Blair notes these as relatively common occurrences among middle-class readers) necessarily occlude one from encountering affective mapping in these texts? Or, does the aesthetic practice make such avoidance impossible, or, to speak in less hyperbolic terms, unlikely? In other words, when Flatley speaks of the “hard-to-miss ironic-allegorical punctum of The Turn of the Screw, he is referencing Barthes’s notion of the force of the aesthetic to create a specifically powerful, shocking, encounter for the viewer/reader. The effect of prosopopoiea is analogous to the psychoanalytic process of transference, in which the similarity of an object with one in one’s past is facilitated by analysand’s process of imagining the face of the analyst while they remember and articulate their past, the projection of emotions on to the analyst, and finally, in the analyst’s act of articulation, the unavoidable recognition of the origins of their misery. If mis-reading is possible because of a certain affective disposition one has towards books qua books, does that immunize them from recognizing their affective maps as well? Or does the force of the aesthetic practice make the recognition of their affective maps unavoidable? If this is the case, how have reader’s affective relationship with books changed reading practices in the present, as the pre-occupation of, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick calls the self-image, those “entrenched in the outskirts of culture”? I contend that the force of the aesthetic often, in its violence, creates discontinuities and ruptures between the affective territory of our relationship with books/authors/marketing and the work of art itself. However, the webby attachments that we develop and revise on both sides of this rupture co-mingle when we return from the disembodied “meeting place for an affective collectivity,” when we begin to comprehend our prehensions. I like to live in this rupture.

[1] Flatley is riffing on Benjamin’s concept of history and our emotional connection with the historical losers: “ ‘The tiger’s leap into the past’ [is not] necessarily progressive or revolutionary. The process is essentially political, open to contestation from the left or the right…Rather, Benjamin’s theory suggests that motives such as retribution and reparation are ‘fundamentally indifferent to the passage of time,’ and that there are lots of retribution-reparation feelings and images of unachieved happiness floating around in that pile of catastrophes we call history” (75).

[2] “A poor woman is hired by a wealthy and attractive bachelor to take care of his nephew and niece at a luxurious country estate. She is thoroughly charmed by the ‘gorgeous’ children, Miles and Flora, the estate itself, and the general sense of privilege that attaches to the position. However, things almost immediately start to unravel, as Miles is kicked out of school, at which point the governess starts seeing ghosts around the estate. They are ghosts, she gradually comes to realize, of a now deceased servant and erstwhile governess, who, she learns through innuendo, seemed to have had vaguely and unspeakably improprietous, perverse relations with the children. They have come back, it is clear to the governess, to get the children, who, however, refuse to admit to their intercourse with the ghosts. The story becomes a quest for the governess to find out the secret of the ghosts’ relation to the children, to get the children to confess to this relation, and thereby to purge and save them from the ghosts. First, however, the presence of the ghosts allows for a certain pleasurable intimacy with the children, because it forces her to be extra attentive and imaginative in her interactions with them, as she tries to read into the children’s behavior for signs of their knowledge.”

On Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening”

Kate Chopin’s The Awakening offers a critical locus for many of the texts I have thus discussed that deal with the question of loss and affect (Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, Jonathan Flatley’s Affective Mapping, and Silvan Tomkins’s Shame and its Sisters).  But, it also figures critically into the question of what precisely the relationship between the novel, as a formal practice and commercial object, and loss precisely is for readers. As Terry Eagleton suggests, literature itself is a response to a problem, or, rather, a problem posed in response to a problem. So, let’s start with the prevailing question that the novel asks and see if we might not work backwards to find the problem to which it is a response.

What is ailing Edna Pontellier? There is an instinct to qualify or diagnose precisely what “the problem” is, presumably so it could be “solved.” While there is certainly sense that Edna “fails” to come to terms with her position, “fails” in her duty to her children, to her husband, to her station, and “fails” to come to terms with her narcissistic awakening, that she ought to have been more successful in any of these processes neglects the origins to which her melancholia is a symptom. Jonathan Flatley’s methodology in Affective Mapping incorporates, among other key questions, “What social structures, discourses, institutions, processes have been at work in taking something valuable away from me? How long has my misery been in preparation?” (2). The “valuable thing” taken away from Edna is unclear, it seems, to Edna herself. On the one hand, she is strongly affected by the accusation that she is a bad mother by Mr. Pontellier early in the novel, and Madame Rotignolle’s dying wish that Edna ought to “think of the children” (111) resurrects this shame-inducing indictment on her actions. This is never more apparent than in her final encounter with them: “It was with a wrench and a pang that Edna left her children. She carried away with her the sound of their voices and the touch of their cheeks All along the journey homeward their presence lingered with her like the memory of a delicious song. But by the time she had regained the city the song no longer echoed in her soul. She was again alone” (95). Furthermore, Edna responds in the affirmative when her conversations with the Doctor turn to the guilt she feels towards her children: “‘The trouble is,’ sighed the Doctor, grasping her meaning intuitively, ‘that youth is given up to illusions. It seems to be a provision of Nature; a decoy to secure mothers for the race. And Nature takes no account of moral consequences, of arbitrary conditions which we create, and which we feel obliged to maintain at any cost” (111).

We could, then, conclude that what Edna has lost is her freedom, or at least a perceived loss of freedom. But, what do we make of Edna’s own admission to Robert that it is his affection, or lack thereof, that was the source of all her anguish: “‘I love you,’ she whispered, ‘only you; no one but you. It was you who awoke me last summer out of a life-long, stupid dream. Oh! You have made me so unhappy with your indifference. Oh! I have suffered! Now you are here we shall love each other, my Robert. We shall be everything to each other. Nothing else in the world is of any consequence” (109). The confusion of what exactly is the source of her anguish, or her happiness, might be explained by Edna’s over-determination of her moods. As Flatley explains,

The world never presents itself to us as some kind of value-less set of facts or perceptions—things always appear to us as mattering or not mattering in some way. It is by way of mood that we attribute value to something. And since value for Heidegger, as for Tomkins, is a question of affective attachment, this is another way of saying that it is only possible to be affected when things have been set in advance by a certain mode of attunement. (21)

Crucially, Flately goes on to clarify, “even though it is only by way of moods that we know how we are in relation to the situation we are in, this however, does not mean that we are necessarily aware of our moods. In fact, we are often ignorant of the determinative effect our moods have on the world we see and how we relate to it” (21-22). This is quite illuminating when we apply it to Edna’s hyper-awareness of feelings, but blindness to their determinative effect or their origins: “An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish. It was like a shadow, like a mist passing across her soul’s summers day. It was strange and unfamiliar; it was a mood” (6). When Edna allows this mood to color her perceptions of her husband, or contradistinctively a positive mood to over-emphasize her interest in Robert, she shows an awareness that her feelings/affective attachments to these objects matter, but not that they have been set in advance and may or may not contain all that she invests in them, positively and negatively.

Furthermore, as Flatley rightly points out, “one is never not-attuned; one is always in one mood or another” (21). However, this does not suggest that one cannot be improperly attuned, constantly exhibiting the wrong affects, incongruous with those around you. The power of attunement is put strongly in the event of the dinner party:

But as she sat there amid her guests, she felt the old ennui overtaking her; the hopelessness which so often assailed her, which came upon her like an obsession, like something extraneous, independent of volition. It was something which announced itself; a chill breath that seemed to issue from some vast cavern wherein discords wailed. There came over her the acute longing which always summoned into her spiritual vision the presence of the beloved one, overpowering her at once with a sense of the unattainable. The moments glided on, while a feeling of good fellowship passed around the circle like a mystic cord, holding and binding these people together with jest and laughter. (89)

Each of the guests are connected (bound together) by a “mystic cord.” However, Edna’s ennui is indicative that she is somehow not properly attuned, and guiltily aware of this failure on her part. This “improper attunement” comes to a head when she rages and storms out: “The voices of Edna’s disbanding guests jarred like a discordant note upon the quiet harmony of the night” (91).  There is something off about Edna.

It makes sense, then, that art becomes an intoxicating source of excitement for Edna. Two examples:

‘A book had gone the rounds of the pension. When it came to her turn to read it, she did so with profound astonishment. She felt moved to read the book in secret and solitude, though none of the others had done so—to hide it from view at the sound of approaching footsteps. It was openly criticized and freely discussed at table. Mrs. Pontellier gave over being astonished, and concluded that wonders would never cease” (9-10).

The very first chords which Mademoiselle Reisz struck upon the piano sent a keen tremor down Mrs. Pontellier’s spinal column. It was not the first time she had heard an artist on the piano. Perhaps it was the first time she was ready, perhaps the first time her being was tempered to take an impress of the abiding truth. She waited for the material pictures which she thought would gather and blaze before her imagination. She waited in vain. She saw no pictures of solitutde, of hope, of longing, of despair. But the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body. She trembled, she was choking, and the tears blinded her. (26)

Art is the quintessential “space” allotted for the full expression of feelings in public. Her outpouring of emotion during the piano recital or in the private reading of her book are socially validated, and, in fact, Robert looks forward to seeing how a new piece by Mademoiselle Reisz “affects her” when he returns from Mexico.  Edna relentlessly pursues a maximization of these positive affects (interest-excitement, joy-enjoyment) through her own painting and periodic visits with Mademoiselle Reisz. Edna’s “failure,” if we are to call it such, is her unwillingness to maintain the boundary between art and life, the “appropriate” aesthetic practice and the “inappropriate” one. Every object can be perceived aesthetically.

I contend that what appears to be Edna’s “awakening” is a correction to a series of misrecognitions. The qualities and optimisms that Edna invests in different object attachments (painting, Mr. Pontellier, Robert LeBrun, Mademoiselle Reisz, and Alcée Arobin) may or may not be present in the objects themselves. In fact, the objects at times appear to be interchangeable (as in the case of Robert and Arobin); Edna merely practices different methods to “come to terms” with the constriction of her freedom and individuation that motherhood and marriage have had on her. Her romantic love interests (which are not limited to Robert, or men for that matter, but unquestionably include queer attachments with Mademoiselle Reisz and Madame Ratignolle) appear to present a compensation for, rather than a fulfillment of, the unattainable fantasy of a “free woman.” Art offers the most quintessential example for this compensatory dialectic, offering a space to feel strongly so that one does not have to do it in “real life.” The compensatory nature of these object attachments, I believe, is what Edna properly recognizes in the end of the novel, and suicide, a consummate break from all of these attachments, is a “rational,” liberating solution to that problem, but it also appears to be a particularly ambivalent one. Can Edna Pontellier’s despondency be fixed (the narrator suggests the possibility on the final page “Perhaps Doctor Mandelet would have understood if she had seen him—but it was too late; the shore was far behind her, and her strength was gone”)? Our instinct to question whether or not Edna can be “fixed” is contingent on our assumption that the novel can make such a question of psychosis answerable. To recognize the feeling that The Awakening produces in us is to recognize that the book itself functions in much the same way that books and music function for Edna in the book. The ending facilitates a self-indictment of our feeling that art has value outside of itself; we ought to try and control our affective attachments more conscientiously, lest we lose site of what affects are socially foreclosed and which are allowable. Of course, our own attachment with Edna, our frustrations, irritations, our grief are simultaneously socially foreclosed and allowable, such is the power of the novel.

On Cynthia Ozick’s “The Shawl”

I think one of the major challenges of literary criticism is still developing a theory of how a text like Ozik’s The Shawl has such an affect on the reader. The announced lessons of postmodernism for on fiction (the systematic problematization of many of our assumptions about narrative and history) vanish, it seems, through the allure of feeling in fiction. Ozick’s The Shawl, as one reads it, is seemingly unproblematic in the way it offers up the story of a Holocaust survivor and her inability to assimilate into American society: it simply hurts. The Shawl hurts like few texts I have ever encountered. I open in this way because it seems to me that The Shawl offers itself up as a sort of argument for fiction, something it essentially shares with even the most playfully destructive postmodernists.

The reader is put in the position to attempt an empathic relationship with Rosa, to desperately understand her experience, and, potentially, to diagnose her mania. The narrative offers up a counterpoint to our reading with the much maligned James W. Tree, Ph.D. from the Department of Clinical Social Pathology at the University of Kansas-Iowa who is undergoing the same task. As Rosa sensitively deconstructs the language of his letter of request to interview and examine her for his research, Dr. Tree becomes a phallic symbol of the ultimate violation, psychic penetration. Implicit in the juxtaposition of Rosa’s deconstruction, contempt and deep terror, of Dr. Tree with the narrative is that fiction “cares,” that fiction when fiction touches and hurts us, it does so because it cares and without ever losing sight of our humanness. When Dr. Tree’s letter opens his inquiry on the wide range of “neurological residues” that his work at the Institute for Humanitarian Context has discovered in “survivors,” Rosa becomes irate: “Disease, disease! Humanitarian Context, what did it mean? An excitement over other people’s suffering. They let their mouths water up…Consider also the special word they used: survivor. Something new. It used to be refugee, but by now there was no such creature, no more refugees, only survivors. A name like a number-counted apart from the ordinary swarm. Blue digits on the arm, what difference? They don’t call you a woman anyhow. Survivor. Even when your bones get melted into the grains of the earth, still they’ll forget human being. Survivor and survivor and survivor; always and always. Who made up these words, parasites on the throat of suffering” (36-37). Rosa is also goaded when Dr. Tree refers to data accumulation as his own concern, “as a human being” (“Ha! For himself it was good enough, for himself he didn’t forget this word human being!”). The clinical language is too much to bear, and Rosa reclaims her subjectivity through a “routine” she has with all university letters: “she carried the scissors over to the toilet bowl and snipped the paper squares whirled like wedding rice…She threw the letter into the sink…she lit a match and enjoyed the thick fire. Burn, Dr. Tree, burn up with your repressed animation! The world is full of Trees! The world is full of fire! Everything, everything is on fire!…Big flakes of cinder lay in the sink: black foliage” (39). The way in which Rosa asserts her disgust for opens itself up to us with a vastness of interpretation (of her use of fire as a liberating destructive agent, of her self-exhibition that she wields “power to minimize affect inhibition” [Tomkins]) that have as an underlying current the irony that as a readers of fiction we are not vastly different from Dr. Tree. We exhibit the same “excitement over other’s people’s suffering” as we get fully absorbed and magically lost in the narrative of The Shawl. We commit the same phallic violation of psychically penetrating Rosa because we are mimetically enthralled by Ozick’s imaginative exercise; we uncritically ride the track laid out by the narrator, puzzling our way through Rosa’s delusional mania, voyeuristically pining for more pain to excite and engorge us.

Retrospectively, it seems The Shawl prefigures/ embodies the “affective turn” in literary studies. The persistence to her Rosa’s feelings of shame and being ashamed throughout invite the Tomkinsian interpretations of affect that were so powerfully brought to the fore by Eve Sedgwick. Tomkins describes shame in the following way:

If distress is the affect of suffering, shame is the affect of indignity, of defeat, of transgression, and of alienation. Though terror speaks to life and eath and distress makes of the world a vale of tears, yet shame strikes deepest into the heart of man. While terror and distress hurt, they are wounds inflicted from outside which penetrate the smooth surface of the ego; but shame is felt as an inner torment, a sickness of the soul. It does not matter whether the humiliated one has been shamed by derisive laughter or whether he mocks himself. In either event he feels himself naked, defeated, alienated, lacking in dignity or worth. (Shame and its Sisters, 133)

A prerequisite for the affect of shame is the activation of interest or enjoyment, to which shame acts as an inhibitor to one or the other or both. (134) Much of the shame is induced by sexual excitement and interest/contempt for the old man who pursues a romantic relationship with her: “When the drying cycle ended, Rosa noticed that the old man handled the clothes like an expert. She was ashamed from him to touch her underpants” (19). The shame connected to sex is uncovered in the letter she rights her long-deceased baby and her paternity: “Your father was not a German. I was forced by a German, it’s true, and more than once, but I was too sick to conceive” (43). The presence of a potentially new object attachment, Mr. Persky, seems to bring to the fore this sexual shame, but it is consistently mirrored by the constant threat of a psychic penetration by Dr. Tree, by the writer, by the reader, by fiction itself.

In this way, shame functions not just as an observation of an affect of Rosa’s, but as an affectively shared atmosphere that is experienced vicariously by the reader. Speaking from my personal experience of this narrative, the announcement of Rosa’s shame did not in and of itself produce a feeling of shame for me; instead, I was carefully enthralled and deeply saddened throughout the series of frustrations and irritations. However, in the moment in which Rosa attempts to produce for Mr. Persky her living daughter Magda only to produce the book Repressed Animation. Persky “can see [he’s] involved in a mistake” (61), and quickly retreats. Within just a few pages, Rosa receives the proper package with the shawl. Upon having a conversation with Stella on the phone, the phrase “long distance” conjures up the phantom of Magda in the shawl and her delusion moves about the room. When the delusion stops, the narrator remarks, “Magda did not even stay to claim her letter: there it flickered, unfinished like an ember, and all because of the ringing from the floor near the bed—Magda collapsed at any stir, fearful as a phantom. She behaved at these moments as if she was ashamed, and hid herself. Magda, my beloved, don’t be ashamed! Butterfly, I am not ashamed of your presence: only come to me, come to me again, if no longer now, then later, always come” (69). She vanishes as Mr. Persky re-enters: “Magda was not there. Shy, she ran from Persky. Magda was away” (70). There is, it seems, an imbalance or competition between object attachments for Rosa, and neither can be present when the other is.

However, I want to return to the offering of the phrase “long distance” as the prompt for Rosa’s delusional fantasy. The image of Magda and the phantom recalls the tragic scene from “The Shawl,” when Rosa is helplessly far from baby Magda as she waddles out into the middle of the concentration camp wailing for her mother, shawl-less:

Far off, very far, Magda leaned across her air-fed belly, reaching out with the rods of her arms. She was high up, elevated, riding someone’s shoulder. But the should that carried Magda was not coming toward Rosa and the shawl, it was drifting away, the speck of Magda was moving more and more into the smoky distance. Above the shoulder a helmet glinted. The light tapped he helmet and sparkled into the goblet. Below the helmet a black body like a domino and a pair of black boots hurled themselves in the direction of the electrified fence. The electric voices began to chatter wildly. ‘Maaamaa, maaamaaa,’ they all hummed together. How far Magda was from Rosa now, across the whole square, past a dozen barracks, all the way on the other side! She was no bigger than a moth. (9)

After Magda’s murder, Rosa cannot move:

the steel voices went mad in their growling, urging Rosa to run and run to the spot where Magda had fallen from her flight against the electrified fence; but of course Rosa did not obey them. She only stood, because if she ran they would shoot, and if she tried to pick up the sticks of Magda’s body they would shoot, and if she let the wolf’s screech ascending now through the ladder of her skeleton break out, they would shoot; so she took Magda’s shawl and filled her own mouth with it, stuffed it in and stuffed it in, until she was swallowing up the wolf’s screech and tasting the cinnamon and almond depth of Magda’s saliva; and Rosa drank Magda’s shawl until it dried. (10)

This unimaginable, incommunicable helplessness is relived so potently in this moment when Rosa attempts to avow her delusion to Mr. Persky that I vicariously felt deeply ashamed for her. It is noteworthy that the word “distance” is uttered here, not by Rosa herself, but by the narrator. The only other time the word distance exists in the entire text is when Stella complains of long distance charges. It is possible that the word linguistic utterance of “distance,” as a match with the narrator’s use of it in this pivotal early scene, as a trigger for her delusion suggests an unseen attunement between the narrator and Rosa. This attunement between narrator and Rosa is significantly matched by the attunement that the narrator produces with the reader, which only circuitously reasserts the power of fiction to produce such an object attachment in the first place.

Because interest and excitement are the prerequisites of shame, according to Tomkins, “shame enlarges the spectrum of objects outside of himself which can engage man and concern him. After having experienced shame through sudden empathy, the individual will never again be able to be entirely unconcerned with the other…If there is insufficient interest in the other, shame through empathy is improbable” (162). The novel (or, as this story is technically a novella, perhaps fiction is the operative word here) can only produce shame because it has first become an object of interest and excitement, and one product of this shame is the never returning to a state of indifference to that which has produced it. In this sense, we might consider that The Shawl, by successfully producing a shared affective atmosphere of shame, not merely between Rosa and the reader, but also between a myriad of geographically and temporally dispersed readers, successfully makes the case that the novel “cares” in a way that Dr. Tree cannot, achieves a humanity where the rest see only pieces and survivors.

This implicit argument for fiction ought not be seen uncritically, I think. The oddness of it does not go unseen by Ozick when an interviewer asks about her ability to write stories that convincingly are read as if “you were a Holocaust survivor yourself:”

I don’t agree with the sentiment “write what you know.” That recommends circumscription. I think one should write what one doesn’t know. The world is bigger and wider and more complex than our small subjective selves. One should prod, goad the imagination. That’s what it’s there for.

All the same, I’m against writing Holocaust fiction: that is, imagining those atrocities. Here we are, fifty years after the Holocaust, and the number of documents and survivor reminiscences — organized by very sensitive programs such as The Fortunoff oral history efforts at Yale and Steven Spielberg’s oral-history program — keep coming in torrents. Each year throws up more and more studies. It seems to me that if each one of us, each human being alive on the planet right now, were to spend the next five thousand years absorbing and assimilating the documents, it still wouldn’t be enough. I’m definitely on the side of sticking with the documents and am morally and emotionally opposed to the mythopoeticization of those events in any form or genre. And yet, for some reason, I keep writing Holocaust fiction. It is something that has happened to me; I can’t help it. If I had been there and not here I would be dead, which is something I can never forget. I think back on the four years I was in high school — I was extraordinarily happy, just coming into the exaltations of literature — and then I think about what was going on across the water, with very confused feelings.

When “The Shawl” was first published in The New Yorker (May 26, 1980), I received two letters, both quite penetrating in shocking ways. The first was from a psychiatrist who said he dealt with many Holocaust survivors. He said he was certain that I was such a survivor because only a survivor could write such a story. I was shocked by the utter confidence of his assumption; he knew nothing about imagination. The second was a very angry letter from a Holocaust survivor. She found my use of imagination utterly out of place and considered it both emotionally and morally disruptive. I sided with the survivor and thought the psychiatrist foolish. I finally assauged the survivor by convincing her that I was not an enemy of her unreplicatable experience.

As for the Jewish tradition of memory informing my outlook — absolutely, yes. History is the ground of our being, and together with imagination, that is what makes writing. Writing without history has been epidemic for some time now. It’s a very strange American amnesiac development to put all experience in the present tense, without memory, or history, or a past. What is “the past”? One damn thing after another. What is history? Judgment and interpretation. (“The Many Faces of Cynthia Ozick”).

Ozick offers in her response this fascinating tension between “sticking with the documents” because and the impulsion to write Holocaust fiction, to engage imaginatively with history and trauma. The playfully destructive irony and the historiographic metafictional techniques of much of the fiction that falls under the banner of postmodernism come to mind here as Ozick juxtaposes history with imagination. The deep feeling of The Shawl is, I contend, deeply ambivalent and unresolved. The belief in the value of fiction is a constructed one, but not any less real of one. As Tomkins suggests, “value hierarchies result from value conflicts wherein the same object is both loved and hated, both exciting and shaming, both distressing and enjoyable” (68). Such is our relationship to the value of fiction “after” postmodernism.

On Terry Eagleton’s “The Event of Literature”

In The Event of Literature, Terry Eagleton constructs, in typically sardonic fashion, a wide-ranging critique of literary criticism in an attempt to trace a through-line that illuminates what literature “is.[1] For Eagleton, it is possible and important to establish a definition for literature (he advocates a family-set resemblance definition that literature is “fictional, or which yields significant insight into human experience as opposed to reporting empirical truths, or which uses language in a peculiarly heightened, figurative or self-concious way, or which is not practical in the sense that shopping lists are, or which is highly valued as a piece of writing” [25]) because only with a proper understanding of what is meant by literature, the parameters of its seeming autonomy from the ‘real world’ through the delicate construct of fictionality, will we be able to understand the instrumentality of literature, what it does to us and for us. Eagleton offers a sharp critique of reception theory, speech-act theory, Russian Formalism, and structuralism in an effort to show that literature is a strategy for, in so many words, ‘dealing with’ reality. According to this model, literary criticism has largely framed literature in negative relation to materiality (it can only reference what is absent) and ideology (literature ruptures our understanding of the ‘everyday’). The danger that is rightly noted in The Event of Literature is that literature’s relationship with ideology is more complex than we, as a largely liberally-biased scholarly field, have presently conceived of it; the ways in which literature not only ruptures ideology (Eagleton’s section on the Formalist’s concept of defamiliarization is particularly poignant here) but also normativizes ideology, and, for Eagleton, we ought to really begin to recognize that ideology qua ideology is not innately bad. Ultimately, Eagleton repackages and updates Jameson’s theory of symptomatic reading of texts: that we ought to fundamentally view texts as a series of problems posed as a response/symptom to a problem that the text itself is unaware: “Like the history and ideology which enter the literary work as subtext, it can never be known in the raw. We know it only in the form in which the ego has strategically shaped it” (216). At the conclusion of his text, he offers the most forthright explanation of what he means by literature as strategy:

The concept of strategy…is not just a question of how certain conflicts may be resolved, but how they may be left fruitfully unresolved, or how they are treated as a whole. One advantage of the concept lies in the fact that it avoids too unified a view of the artwork on the one hand, while on the other hand granting it enough identity for it to make sense to say that a particular feature of it is a feature of this text Strategies are loose-jointed, internally differentiated affairs, powered by a set of general purposes but with semi-autonomous parts, between which there can be frictions and conflicts. If they have their own complex logic, it is one which can be reduced neither to a single informing intention nor to the anonymous functioning of a structure. In this sense, neither a phenomenology centered on consciousness, nor a structuralist objectivisim, is enough to account for them. (225)

I struggle to rectify in Eagleton’s analysis the position that, like the relation between conscious and unconscious, the relation between literature and problem is “transformative” (195), yet he by and large approaches literature, not with an analysis of how the (compensatory) aesthetic actually exhibits this transformative force on the level of the initial encounter with the work of art, but with an analysis of how the plot and narrative elements unknowingly reveal about ideology (I am sympathetic to this approach, but the single model provided in the text is a 5-page yawn on Jane Eyre). Eagleton writes,

Historically speaking, the function of a literary work is a highly variable affair. Works…may accomplish a whole gamut of purposes, from inspiring young warriors into battle to quadrupling one’s bank balance. But…the literary text has a kind of internal context as well, to which it has a kind of internal relation; and here, too, broadly speaking, it is a function that determines structure. It is what the work is trying to do with this context that determines the devices it selects and the way it evolves. (194)

What is fascinating to me is how the two samples in his “gamut of purposes” actually require extremely different approaches to literature on the part of the reader and contain different, but not contradictory, truths about literature. It can be both self-serving and have a transformative force, a violent force that affects readers deeply.

Much of the ire that Eagleton directs at Stanley Fish can be understood as a defense against the leveling of reading of all texts, the distinctions between canon and popular are discarded. Eagleton’s issue with this dissolution is not because he is “a custodian of the canon,” but rather he rightly points out that, at the very least, the impression or force that texts command on readers is affected by preconception and expectation. Moreover, ‘canonization’ is not universally negative and ‘popular’ universally progressive, and ignoring each as a given is to ignore their potentially revelatory insights on ideology. It is questionable that when Eagleton deploys his thoughts on literary endings, he focuses exclusively on the generic lines of “Romanticism,” “realism,” “modernism” and “postmodernism,” which trace aesthetic movements that for many readers, as Amy Blair for example shows in Reading Up, are void of content and interchangeable in use. This significantly undervalues the “event of literature” in its actualized form. Eagleton makes the interesting observation about the evolution of literature as a form of wish-fulfillment:

Freud himself was aware that too blatant, full-blooded a wish-fulfillment on our part tends to be repugnant to others, though this is hardly a pressing problem when it comes to modern literature. Too pat or predictable a closure would satisfy such a work’s ipulse to form only at the price of disrupting its clear-eyed realism. This is because happiness is not a plausible condition in the modern age. Even the word itself has a feeble ring to it, evocative as it is of manic grins and end-of-pier comedians. A comic ending in these disenchanted days can be as scandalously avant-garde as The Tempest would have been if it had married Miranda of to Caliban. The contrast with the Victorian is telling. Bleak House could not have killed off its protagonists in the final paragraph more than it could have ended in mid-sentence…The defiantly tragic denouements of Tess of D’Ubervilles and Jude the Obscure could still enrage a late Victorian readership. By contrast, we would be astonished and not a little unsettled if a work by Strindberg or Scott Fitzgerald were to end on a note of ecstatic affirmation. (174)

Eagleton cashes in on the groundwork of this claim after he illustrates the many parallels between the body and the form of literary texts. He writes,

[In] the fragmented body of the modernist or postmodernist work…meaning and materiality are now beginning to drift apart, as things no longer seem to secrete their sense within themselves. The high-modernist work is aware of its own material body, forcing us to wonder in the case of writing how a set of humble black marks on a page can possibly be the bearers of something as momentous as meaning. Yet the more its material medium looms large, the more spectral and elusive its signs seem to grow. It is as though the work interposes its bulk between the reader and its meanings. It can no more be fully present in any one of its significations than a human body can be in any one of its actions. We have left behind the Romantic fantasy of the single action that would say it all, the one pure event that would manifest the truth of the self in a single flash or epiphany in its mute yet eloquent presence. We have, in a word, put paid to the symbol, in which meaning and materiality are reconciled. Like the body, literary works are suspended between fact and act, structure and practice, the material and the semantic. If a body is not so much an object within the world as a point from which a world is organized, much the same is true of a literary text. Bodies and texts are both self-determining, which is not to say that they exist in a void. On the contrary, this self-determining activity is inseparable from the way they go to work on their surrounding. (209)

I actually quite like this conclusion that Eagleton comes to. However, it is more than a little disheartening that a Marxist would make an over-generalization that confuses “literary” with “literature” (a distinction he uses to sharply critique Russian Formalists) and ignores what non-professional readers actually tend to read. As Mark McGurl points out in The Novel Art, if anything, realism pervades throughout what we consider the modernist, high-modernist, postmodernist and high-postmodernist periods by numbers. I would stake my reputation that if I had the resources to do a quick Moretti-inspired data collection of “happy endings” to disenchanted ones, happy endings would still reign supreme. But, this does not nullify the truly fascinating and insightful conclusion to Eagleton’s argument about how we can come to understand the “body” of modernist and postmodernist texts. It only calls into question when or how we would claim that literature ruptures and/or normativizes ideology, we ought not lose sight of what literature is being read and in what context.

[1] As an aside consumer review, I had to wonder throughout whether or not I “like” the way Eagleton presents his arguments, and I have decided that for the most part I do not. The majority of other literary theories are, to Eagleton, obviously absurd (his disdain for Stanley Fish is awkwardly tense throughout). I love condescendingly elitist one-liners as much as the next white male working on his PhD in literary and cultural studies, but the sheer volume that populates the pages of this text really distract from the insightful arguments that Eagleton presents.

On Willa Cather’s “Death Comes for the Archbishop”

At times theory can feel overly burdensome and frustratingly vague (reading Deleuze and gnashing my teeth, I thought to myself, “None of the words you are putting next to one another seem to signify anything in the order you are putting them”). However, theory undeniably opens up new ways of seeing and alters perception. This was the case when reading Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). I squashed my initial navel-gazing impulse (oh-yippee-a-bishop-that-converts-Navajos-to-Catholocism) when I began to notice what might be a richly and poetically expressed repressed homosexual relationship between two priests.[1] Willa Cather is popularly studied through the lens of queer theory (and I will do nothing to detour that trend in this blog), but the queerness in her texts are unique in their quiet resistance to interpretation. In Foundlings: Lesbian and Gay Historical Emotion before Stonewall, Christopher Nealon discredits the linear narrative of progress from the discourses of sexology and the invert to those discourses of ethnicity and the gay and lesbian liberation movement, instead bringing to the fore what he terms “foundling” texts that address the tension between the two, ultimately invoking a desire among queer characters to “feel historical.” Nealon distinguishes Cather from her contemporaries in the following way,

Cather’s refusal of the trappings of mass culture, and of the literary strategies modernist writers were developing in response to it, sets her apart from her literary and her lesbian contemporaries: she makes recourse neither to the strategies of irony so many of them embraced nor to the new explicitness about sex. Radclyffe Hall, although similarly sincere, is of course writing directly about lesbians in The Well of Loneliness (1928), and Djuna Barnes’s dithyrambic Nightwood (1936) reads light years away from the measured prose of [Cather’s novel] Lucy Gayheart, published the year before. Of course, one difference between Cather and Hall or Barnes is that Cather wrote about rural people of little means, while Hall and Barnes, whatever their innovations in sexual subject matter or literary style, were still firmly rooted in the tradition of writing about the rich, or at least the glamorously mobile. This difference reflects a class difference between Cather and the other literary lesbians of the period, such as Hall or Barnes or Edna St. Vincent Millay, all of whom were either born into privilege or privately educated. Cather, born on a farm and enrolled in a state college, seems in retrospect all the less likely to incorporate her lesbianism either mimetically, into her writing, as did Hall and Barnes, or publicly, into a bohemian life, as did Millay. Barnes, Hall, and Millay all embraced the age as the age of sex, either according Freud or according to the sexologists (in Hall’s case)—an embrace that would have appalled Cather, in whose novels sex is never narratively rendered. (Nealon, 63-64)

Briefly, I might add that, whereas in my recent reading of Henry James, an openness of interpretation can be invited through linguistic ambiguity, Cather’s careful clarity seems to face the tension of the repressed; in Sedgwick’s words, the “secret that always reveals itself” (Epistemology of the Closet) is not inherently political, so much as it is melancholic with precious few avenues to the anti-depressive. Interpretation is available to those able to see it, and utterly absent for those who cannot or will to not. This being said, Cather’s historical novel that offers an account of two French Jesuit missionaries sent to install morality where Spanish padres modeled moral depravity in the newly annexed American Southwest aligns well with Nealon’s positioning of Cather as seeking out a feeling for a queer history. The intense feeling of movement in the novel is complicated by the intense temporal and physical paralysis that the foreclosed queerness of the characters induces. Her affiliation with the moral certitude of Jesuit missionaries creates a tension between how this history buoys up and aligns with a Catholic spirituality (particularly through the medium of nature and the natural as I will show) and how it must also be endlessly deferred, how the denial of a queer past acts as a paralytic to the future.

The characters of Death Comes for the Archbishop (with their, and the audience’s, romanticized history of Navajo’s as a mimetic guide[2]) experience an affective attunement with nature and the environment. Let us take the following experience of Bishop Latour as an example:

Father Latour lived for three days in an almost perpetual sand-storm—cut off from even this remote little Indian camp by moving walls and tapestries of sand. He either sat in his house and listened to the wind, or walked abroad under those aged, wind-distorted trees, muffled in an Indian blanket, which he kept drawn up over his mouth and nose. Since his arrival he had undertaken to decide whether he would be justified in recalling Father Vaillant from Tuscon. (250).

The way in which the swirling dust and sand cloaks and covers Bishop Latour on the one hand allows for a secretive divulsion, and on the other an activation of the stormy feelings that have been covered for so long: “Father Latour needed his Vicar…When they were together, he was always curbing Father Valliant’s hopeful rashness—but left alone, he greatly missed that very quality. And he missed Father Vaillant’s companionship—why not admit it?” (251). This socially foreclosed desire is endlessly deferred for the reader, his admission of what this “missed companionship” is can never be verbalized textually, and therefore fulfilled physically. Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant exhaust all means of verbal signification but are deterred by the clear repression of what can and cannot be uttered:

‘I sent for you because I felt the need of your companionship. I used my authority as a Bishop to gratify my personal wish. That was selfish, if you will, but surely natural enough. We are countrymen, and are bound by early memories And that two friends, having come together, should part and go their separate ways—that is natural, too. [emphases mine]… If you take [the mule] Contento, I will ask you to take Angelica as well. They have a great affection for each other; why separate them indefinitely. One could not explain to them…’ Father Vaillant made no reply. He stood looking intently at the pages of his letter. The Bishop saw a drop of water splash down upon the violet script and spread. He turned quickly and went out through the arched doorway. (283-285)

Cather invokes Freud as only one possible avenue to understanding the psychic life of Bishop Latour. This socially foreclosed desire is expressed through a familiar description of melancholia: “But Jean, who was at ease in any society and always the flower of courtesy, could not form new ties. It had always been so. He was like that even as a boy; gracious to everyone, but known to a very few” (Emphasis mine, 283). Melancholia becomes depressive, or non-productive, when it casts a “shadow of the object” on the ego. If the relationship to the lost object is ambivalent (the relationship with Father Vaillant is at the same time held up in its bodied relationality and then disavowed), then it causes “this introjected emotional tie…[to introduce] a particular relationality into the ego, producing a ‘cleavage’…in which one part of the ego (the ‘critical agency’) ‘rages’ against the other” (“Mourning and Melancholia,” 47). Latour’s inability to form new ties can be traced to the loss of Father Vaillant and the socially foreclosed grief that accompanies any recognition of the importance of that cathexis. It lodges itself as a shadow in his Ego,

More and more life seemed to him an experience of the Ego, in no sense the Ego itself.  This conviction, he believed, was something apart from his religious life; it was an enlightenment that came to him as a man, a human creature.  And he noticed that he judged conduct differently now; his own and that of others. The mistakes of his life seemed unimportant; accidents that had occurred en route, like the shipwreck in Galveston harbour, or the runaway in which he was hurt when he was first on his way to New Mexico in search of his Bishopric. (325)

What Latour perceives as an increasingly hostile and prohibitive influence of the Ego suggests the melancholic cleavage. However, in a moment of ‘embrace,’ Nealon’s focus on a desire to ‘feel historical’ complicates a fixed diagnosis of Latour’s melancholia:

On the morning of his departure for home, when his carriage was ready, the cart covered with tarpaulins and the oxen yoked, Father Vaillant, who had been hurrying ever since the first streak of light, suddenly became deliberate. He went into the Bishop’s study and sat down, talking to him of unimportant matters, lingering as if there something still undone…He rose and began to pace the floor, addressing his friend without looking at him…He knelt, and having Father Vaillant, having blessed him, knelt and was blessed in turn. They embraced each other for the past—for the future. (293)

Again, these tense, ambivalent feelings are preserved in the material:

When he was otherwise motionless, the thumb of his right hand would sometimes gently touch a ring on his forefinger, an amethyst with an inscription cut upon it Auspice Maria, — Father Vaillant’s signet-ring; and then he was almost certainly thinking of Joseph; of their life together in this room… in Ohio beside the Great Lakes…as young men in Paris…as boys at Montferrand. There were many passages in their missionary life that he loved to recall; and how often and how fondly he recalled the beginning of it! (318)

Jonathan Flatley elucidates the profundity of the past, in all of its sensory outputs, forcefully erupting into the present, through material itself: “if sensory feeling (Empfindung)…is not experienced in the brain, but in the materiality of the place, then affect travels along the material paths of sensation to find a dwelling place. And here, it is as if beauty is too abstract and generalized; because it produces an overall effect that ‘dazzles’ one, it cannot provide a nestling place for the ‘fleeting darts of adoration…’ For Benjamin, experiences of affective attachment are interesting because they put us—precisely at those moments when we care most, when we feel the value of something—‘outside of ourselves.’” (Affective Mapping, 18). When the Archbishop is in a trance of these memories about Father Valliant, “when a voice out of the present sounded in his ear. It was Bernard” (305). This feeling is conjured beautifully and cathartically in the death of the Archbishop, when “there was no longer any perspective in his memories.” Then, only to be released and expressed in the final moment of the Archbishop’s death, the narrator ventriloquizes the immobilized and mute Latour’s dying fantasy:

 He continued to murmur, to move his hands a little, and Magdalena thought he was trying to ask for something, or to tell them something. But in reality the Bishop was not there at all; he was standing in a tip-tilted green field among his native mountains, and he was trying to give consolation to a young man who was being torn in two before his eyes by the desire to go and the necessity to stay. (335)

Near the conclusion of the novel, Father Latour summarizes his view of History: “For many years Father Latour used to wonder if there would ever be an end to the Indian wars while there was one Navajo or Apache left alive. Too many traders and manufacturers made a rich profit out of that warfare; a political machine and immense capital were employed to keep it going” (327). What is remarkable about this moment is the way in which the historical is actually at best a merely dramatic background for the affective turbulence of the Bishop’s personal relationship with Father Vaillant. The offering for the reader that the Navajo’s freedom is triggers the possibility for an anti-depressive melancholia is, to me, merely metaphorical. The repression of the “nature-conscious” Navajo’s by Americans mirrors, for Latour, an “affective map,” of the historical origins of his own melancholia, of his own foreclosed homosexual relationship with Father Vaillant.

[1] Again, I do this often with this blog, but as a disclaimer, I am in a whirlwind of reading from my upcoming Qualifying Exam and I would be very surprised if a minimal level of research does not uncover a wealth of scholarship on this relationship. If it does exist (and I would imagine it does), apologies for not due credit, you have all been in my shoes. If it does not, shame on you Willa Cather scholars.

[2] As a brief example, Bishop Latour admires “the Indians’” respect for the environment in contradistinction with “the white man” through a series of familiar associations, ending with the following, “The land and all that it bore they treated with consideration; not attempting to improve it, they never desecrated it” (263). The notion that Native Americans never attempted to improve their land by changing it (a romantic trope borne out of tradition popularized by James Fenimore Cooper) embodies a fantasy structure of white settlers as much as it would be for Cather’s American middle-class readers in 1927, or for contemporary readers for that matter.

On “Reading Up: Middle-Class Readers and the Culture of Success in Early Twentieth Century United States”

Amy Blair’s Reading Up offers a very insightful study of Hamilton Wright Mabie’s decade-long position as the literary advisor at the Ladies’ Home Journal. Given the wide reading audience (considerably larger than the Atlantic or Harper’s), Mabie wielded a lot of power as the arbiter of “good fiction,” but this position was also limited by some of the givens of the magazine’s constitutive interpretive community. This community is not united along gender or generational lines (based on the articles, subscription prices and surveys, Blair illustrates that many men and children also read the magazine), but instead simply along the unquestioned ideology that “reading is valuable.” This value is construed materially (in the form of cultural and economic prestige) and abstractly (as a means to “build character”). As I discussed in an earlier post, Stanley Fish’s concept of “interpretive communities” suggests that the interpretive strategies that a person has prior to reading (i.e. the text has one truth vs. the text has many potential meanings) affect the “text that is written” by the reader. This accounts for the possibility that one might encounter a reader that seemingly read an entirely different book than oneself. However, in the case of “reading up,” Blair traces how the ideology of literature’s value facilitates the misreading of texts, the emptying out of aesthetic categories in favor of identification, moral certitude, and social climbing. Blair defines “reading up” as, “reading the ‘right books,’ dutifully, but not necessarily in the ‘right way.’ For example, a reader might identify with characters not intended as the central figures of a text or might reject aspects of the text that do not reinforce the upward striving that brought the reader to the text in the first place” (16).  Blair traces the continuity of interpretive strategies and the resultant active reading processes that it makes possible and likely. Blair considers three of the more prominently recommended authors (Howells, Henry James, and Edith Wharton) in Ladies’ Home Journal and the canonizing complications that arise from their juxtapositions with other “literature of the day.” Despite sharp critique that each of these author’s offers up to a culture of taste, middle-class readers, through the sieve of Mabie, were able to maintain their utilitarian relationship with books:

When it comes to the goals of reading up, however, all that mattered was the cultural capital accorded to works variously aligned with realism. In other words, “realism” from the perspective of reading up is an empty signifier. It is a brand and, ultimately, a term that signals a moment in the rhetorical production of a culture of taste within the culture of success in the newly industrializing United States in the beginning of the twentieth century. This culture of taste created a set of incentives for everyone involved— middle-class readers, who desired economic and social success; cultural arbiters, who hoped to remain relevant in the world of the mass media; and authors and publishers, who hoped to retain elite literary status for their works but who also, frankly, hoped to sell books. Each of these claimants had an ideological and material investment both in perpetuating the tensions at the heart of realism and in maintaining the apparent contradictions between realism and mass culture (17).

I will offer some of the highlights of Blair’s section on Henry James (I was most interested in this section because of the complex and agitated relationship James had with his readers over his long career). According to Blair,

James clearly posed a problem for the reading advisor who like Mabie needed to steer his readership towards some sophisticated literature, but who found The Golden Bowl “a subtle study of American and Italian temperaments” saddled nonetheless with a “very disagreeable plot” (March 1905, 21). Mabie’s compromise, to praise the later James’s “technical skill” but to downplay the “interest” of James’s late works, allowed his readers to self-select; the highbrow benefits of James would accrue just as readily to the reader of Portrait as to the reader of The Ambassadors. One important step was to decouple James from a continental realist, or naturalist, lineage that might associate him with Émile Zola, who Mabie says “took in many cases the most revolting, gross and repulsive aspects of life and pictured them with very little shading” (September 1905, 18). Instead, Mabie associated James with a more genteel notion of literariness. (114).

Henry James had an established reputation that required his presence on a literature advice column, particularly when cultural capital was the end for this column. However, Mabie’s tenure at Ladies’ Home Journal (1902-1912) aligned precisely with James’s late-career stylistics, a “problem” many were eager to dismiss as for those interested in “the mind of Henry James” as he ventured into the “psychological.” During this time James released “New York Editions” of several of his earlier novels revised to his contemporaneous tastes (part of this re-publication was fine, expensive binding to solidify it as “important”). While James considered these revisions to be vast improvements that would clear up many of the “mistakes” readers had been making with his texts, the New York Editions were monumental failures in the market. Blair attributes this failure to critics like Hamilton Wright Mabie, whose fidelities were to a culture of “reading up.”

Tellingly, Mabie paid no attention to the New York Edition, though he was writing his columns, and recommending James, concurrently with the Edition’s publication. In his November 1904 column, there is no question that the Portrait Mabie recommends is James’s 1881 edition, not the heavily revised New York Edition. But which Portrait was he commending in 1912, or in 1909, for that matter, when he recommends his readers study Portrait as part of a program of reading that contrasts “novels of character study” to “novels of incident”? James’s revisions of Portrait were, of course, extensive and, he hoped, would “have hugely improved the book—& I mean not only for myself, but for the public.” 7 But the adviser who reached one of the most extensive mass audiences of the time, Mabie, never mentioned James’s edition, though he mentions the publication of “editions de luxe,” of other authors, such as Edgar Allan Poe (January 1909, 30), and even suggests giving such editions as gifts (December 1902, 19). Though Charles Scribner’s Sons did not advertise the New York Edition widely, Mabie would surely have known about it from the substantial literary gossip surrounding the project; at the very least, he would have seen notices of its publication and early reviews. We may assume, therefore, that the radio silence on the substantial revisions of two of Mabie’s most favored James works, Portrait and Roderick Hudson, is intentional, signaling Mabie’s own attachment to the original pieces, and even more, his presumption that his audience would neither care about nor care for the changes. (103-104)

James became a name that needed to be checked off of a list on the way towards some personal fulfillment (this is actually eerily similar to a conversation I had with an advisor while constructing my Qualifying Exam reading list when he told me to read The Golden Bowl instead of Portrait of a Lady and in the back of my mind I begrudgingly thought, “but that book is hard, can’t I just put any James on my list?”). For this reason Mabie refused to engage with James his contemporary, and the concurrent prefaces to his New York Editions that laid out in detail a “proper” reader-response to his work, in favor of what could more easily align with the expectations of his interpretive community. This affected the way in which associations (and therefore interpretive strategies) were cultivated around James:

On numerous occasions, Mabie responds to reader requests for “a course of fiction reading” with lists that present early James (Portrait, Roderick Hudson) on a continuum with Dickens, Thackeray, Eliot, Scott, and Austen (October 1908; October 1905; September 1909). In his March 1904 column, Mabie answers a question about the “three best American novels” by asserting that The Scarlet Letter is certainly one of them, but that the other two spaces could be filled by a number of novels: The Deerslayer, The Last of the Mohicans, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Marble Faun, The Portrait of a Lady, The Rise of Silas Lapham, The Choir Invisible, Pembroke, The Grandissimes, Deephaven, The Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountains, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. While Howells, and certainly James, might have felt themselves outliers in this group (and Mark Twain certainly would have taken umbrage at his inclusion on a list with James Fenimore Cooper), the texts Mabie chooses are apparently easy to conceptualize in a continuum with transcendentalist romance, with regionalism, and with Harriet Beecher Stowe. Mabie consistently overlooked the aesthetic and methodological distinctions made by James and Howells at their most critical, allowing his readers to blur the line between James and James Lane Allen. (101-102)

It is fair to point out that we are not at all far from this line of thinking. Websites like “Goodreads” and their “listopia” function, the popular project to read Modern Library’s “100 best novels,” or the ever-present desire to establish the “Great American Novel” (an unavoidably list-creating enterprise) all serve to divorce context, aesthetic and methodological distinctions from history, form, authors, and reader-responses. This is symptomatic of a cultural way-of-thinking. Blair closes her book with an interesting contemporary case-study of reader-responses to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom on Oprah Winfrey’s Book-Club discussion boards. Amidst a host of complaints about the book, Blair states, “But there are no voices that question reading per se; reading’s value has been secured. Even if you do not like Freedom, you might like another book; turning away from literature altogether is simply not an option. This presumption of reading’s essential value— aesthetic, emotional, social, material— is the enduring legacy of Mabie, the internalization of reading up” (204).

I am very persuaded by Blair’s representation and critique of the culture of taste in Reading Up. In my own work, I am interested in how the “ideology” of literature, which I extend towards the positive inclination towards paper itself, is ruptured by the force of the aesthetic itself. I see instances where the “ideology of literature” encounters the force of other shared affective atmospheres in the body of the novel itself that are discontinuous from this ideology and transcend the constraints of the interpretive community that “values reading” for its own sake. To me, each of these events are in a state of co-mingling and becoming, indelibly co-dependent and in constant, agitating contact (towards this latter end of balancing subjectivity and the power of art itself, renee c. hoogland, has an exciting book coming out this fall on the force of aesthetics).

On “Towards an Aesthetic of Reception” and “Is There a Text in this Class?”


I am pairing my comments on Hans Robert Jauss’s Towards an Aesthetic of Reception and Stanley Fish’s Is There a Text in this Class? because each attempts to unpack the shortcomings of formalist readings of texts in an attempt to reassert the “reader” in the triangle author-text-reader.[1] Each text critiques the formalist tradition and its sanctification of “the text” as a fixed, authoritative object. In positioning the text as such, as a finished product that contains within it a fixed meaning, formalist analysis ignores the active process of reading (for Stanley Fish this very act of reading is what creates the text itself because the text is simply constituted by interpretation). The point at which a text is analyzed, critiqued, and discussed, the reader is so far removed from the reading process that the initial encounter, the “prehension,” is obscured. Jauss and Fish essentially, although for slightly different reasons and with slightly different methodology, seek to invite critics to have a more self-conscious approach to their reading experience, allow themselves to be “multiple readers” and engage with the process of interpretation. I will illuminate some of the nuances of their positions here, and offer a brief analysis of how I see these key progenitors of reader-response theory functioning in my critical framework.

For each of these theorists, the method of reader-response is crucially a historical act (Fish, 49; Jauss, “Literary History as Challenge”). Jauss juxtaposes the formalist approach to history (a dialectical relationship between many literary schools in a historical moment (“‘wherein one represents the canonized height of literature’; the canonization of a literary form leads to its automization, and demands the formation of new forms in the lower stratum that ‘conquer the place of old ones,’ grow to be a mass phenomenon, and finally are themselves pushed to the periphery [17]) and the Marxist approach (processual and “reciprocal interaction between work and mankind” [15]) to illustrate that while the former lacks an awareness of literature’s role as an affective force in history, the latter lacks an awareness of the distinctness of literary history to other histories, particularly, here, History. Jauss proposes that the reader resolves this aporia: “If on the one hand literary evolution can be comprehended within the historical change of systems, and on the other hand pragmatic history can be comprehended within the processlike linkage of social conditions, must it not then also be possible to place the ‘literary series’ and the ‘nonliterary series’ into a relation that comprehends the relationship between literature and history without forcing literature, at the expense of its character as art, into a function of mere copying or commentary?” (18). Jauss’s manifesto for the study of an “aesthetic of reception” challenges the critic to view literary history synchronically and diachronically at the same time by positioning the reader at the center of analysis.

For both Jauss and Fish, the question of the multitudinous and amorphous nature of our concept of “the reader,” and his conjoined “affective fallacy,” can be daunting for the critic, but the fear that “anything goes” is not only a red herring, but fallacious. The text arbiters a limited range of responses, given a particular subset of assumptions we can make about readers of a text. For Jauss, the reader’s “horizon of expectations” with a text are ever-changing based on the active reading process, but the initial set of expectations are set by experience, experience with genres, with poetic language, with politics, and with history:

“The psychic process in the reception of a text is, in the primary horizon of aesthetic experience, by no means only an arbitrary series of merely subjective impressions, but rather the carrying out of specific instructions in a process of directed perception, which can be comprehended according to its constitutive motivations and triggering signals, and which also can be described by a textual linguistics” (23).

The sort of analysis that Jauss describes dovetails with Fish’s work with Milton’s poetics. The problem that Fish is attempting to resolve is an important one: shedding the illusion of objectivity in favor of arguing for an interpretation with controlled subjectivity (49). Is There a Text in this Class? illustrates a fascinating evolution in Fish’s thinking about the concept of the reader and how to best defend his position that reader-response is both preferable and achievable. In his opening manifesto, “Literature in the Reader,” Fish begins with his concept of the “informed reader,” a somewhat stable entity that embodies the following three qualities:

“1.) is a competent speaker of the language out of which the text is built up; 2.) is in full possession of the ‘semantic knowledge that a mature…listener brings to his task of comprehension,’ including the knowledge (that is, the experience, both as a producer and comprehender) of lexical sets, collocation probabilities, idioms, professional and other dialects, and so on; and 3.) has literary competence. That is, he is sufficiently experienced as a reader to have internalized the properties of literary discourses, including everything from the most local of devices (figures of speech, and so on) to whole genres” (48).

For even this most novice deconstructionist, problems begin to clearly arise from this description of the encounter between a person and a book. How much familiarity with literature is required before one is “mature,” “informed,” and “competent”? However, Jauss establishes an important corollary to the variances in readers’ skill levels and competencies: “The interpretive reception of a text always presupposes the context of experience of aesthetic perception: the question of the subjectivity of the interpretation and of the taste of different readers or levels of readers can be asked meaningfully only when one has first clarified which transsubjective horizon of understanding conditions the influence of the text” (23). In other words, “literary competence” is necessary, but also slightly misleading as a relational concept between Fish and Jauss. For Jauss, the texts affect the reader in both a “literary series” and a “nonliterary series,” meaning that each book a person reads both affects the following book that they read and their experience of reality: “The relationship between literature and reader can actualize itself in the sensorial realm as an incitement to aesthetic perception as well as in the ethical realm as a summons to moral reflection. The new literary work is received and judged against the background of other works of art as well as against the background of everyday experience of life” (41). Jauss goes on to explain exactly how this distinction plays out in the lived praxis of two hypothetical people as a way to open up a broader view of community and history:

“For the reader is privileged above the (hypothetical) nonreader because the reader…does not first have to bump into a new obstacle to gain a new experience of reality. The experience of reading can liberate one from adaptations, prejudices, and predicaments of a lived praxis in that it compels one to a new perception of things. The horizon of expectations of historical lived praxis in that it not only preserves actual experiences, but also anticipates unrealized possibility, broadens the limited space of social behavior for new desires, claims, and goals, and thereby opens paths of future experience” (41).

In other words, not only might someone behave differently, think differently, after reading a text, but new thoughts and new possibilities come into being for the individual and the community through the fictive world. This is important to keep in mind as we examine the alternative model Fish formulates as his thinking evolves.

In his essay “Interpreting the Valorium,” Fish asserts a new framework: “interpretive communities.” “Interpretive communities are made up of those who share interpretive strategies not for reading (in the conventional sense) but for writing texts, for constituting their properities and assigning their intentions. In other words, these strategies exist prior to the act of reading and therefore determine the shape of what is read rather than, as is usually presumed” (171). The example that Fish uses is that of a reader that believes that there is one “true text” and his duty is to uncover its meaning versus the reader that believes a text contains within it many texts and many possible interpretations. Each will come away with a very different reading process because their interpretive strategies shape the way that they write the text they are reading. Fish goes on to state,

“Interpretive communities are no more stable than texts because interpretive strategies are not natural or universal, but learned…The only stability, then, inheres in the fact (at least in my model) that interpretive strategies are always being deployed, and this means that communication is a much more chancy affair than we are accustomed to think it” (172).

Initially, it could be argued that “informed readers” came to different conclusions about a text only in their judgment of it (a step so far removed from reading that it in fact obscures the initial encounter with the text). Here, Fish suggests that it is also possible that readers “write” the texts differently based on different pre-reading interpretive models. Fish makes a beautiful rhetorical move to close this particular essay: “The only ‘proof’ of membership [to this or that interpretive community] is fellowship, the nod of recognition from someone in the same community, someone who says to you what neither of us could ever prove to a third party: ‘we know.’ I say it to you now, knowing full well that you will agree with me (that is, understand), only if you already agree with me” (173).

Jauss and Fish dovetail in a highly productive way. Jauss’s fidelity to the reading experience as formative does not eliminate Fish’s assertion that the reader in fact also “writes” the text. Each is attempting to describe not only the active position a reader has in their encounter with a text, but how the text delimits the potential outcomes for a reading experience. Each offers a way of understanding how the text plays a critical role in affectively attuning geographically dispersed audiences. The learned interpretive strategies, shared linguistic and semantic maturity, and historical lived praxis each seem entirely unwieldy and unjustifiable positions to lay out about readers on their own. I would agree that at times in reading Stanley Fish’s descriptions of readers, he seems to be describing a particularly privileged subset of the population that enjoys a particular station in life that allows for the “literary competence” that allows entry into any interpretive community to begin with. The interpretive strategies that Fish lays out even appear particularly academic ones, but I would submit that these academic ones represent an increased diversity than are available for “non-professional” readers. As Timothy Aubry argues, middle-class American readers’ (as a problematic but functional descriptive category) interpretive tendencies are shaped by American public schools, by publishers’ marketing strategies, and by Oprah Winfrey’s book club. With the proliferation of nationalized standards in education, more finely tuned algorithmic maps used by booksellers like Amazon, and the somewhat ironic crystallization of fewer, more tightly regulated interpretive communities on-line, the task may actually be more achievable, or at least achievable in a different way, in today’s literary field than in the seventies when Jauss and Fish were wrestling with these problems.

[1]Reading for a Qualifying Exam is demanding and time is of the essence, so the following comment comes without having familiarity with the oeuvre of Stanley Fish. However, I was astonished that he did not reference Hans Robert Jauss a single time in Is There a Text in This Class? Perhaps it is because of my “evolving horizon of expectations,” but I see Fish’s persuasive argument as a oblique elaboration of the theses laid out by Hans Robert Jauss in his essay, “Literary History as a Challenge.”

On “Their Eyes Were Watching God”

Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God was an intensely fun, intensely harrowing book to encounter for the first time in my QE prep. The ways in which Hurston develops the consciousness of Janie through the form of the novel illustrates both the flexibility and adaptability of the form and Hurston’s creativity with the tools of narration at her disposal. In a number of exemplary early novels, the art of writing and the physical inscription of the words on the page were integral to the storytelling. The documentary or early realist novel, often labeled as “histories” or “life stories,” often exploited this act of physical inscription as part of its aesthetic practice. For example, Pamela’s ability to capture moments of her tenuous love affair with Mr. B is dramatized by her ability to write them down quickly in letters to her parents. Robinson Crusoe’s journal faces the danger of him running out of ink on the island. Tristram Shandy humorously satirizes this preoccupation with both realism and documentation by exploring the deep anxiety of recording one’s life (where to begin, what happens when I reach the point when its just me writing everyday, how do I ever catch up to the present, etc.). While the physical inscription of words on the page was not ubiquitous by any means, it represents for many, Walter Ong comes to mind here, an actual, epochal shift in what story-telling is and can be. Their Eyes are Watching God inverts this model. When Janie initiates the story of her life in a conversation with Phoeby in Chapter 2, Hurston utilizes an extended first person narratorial mode that is justified much in the way the writing of Crusoe and Pamela is “justified.” Following the evolution of Janie’s consciousness occurs with the backdrop of us “learning to read” the “Other’s” storytelling, the both “non-novelistic” and “hyper-novelistic” heteroglossia.As Janie’s consciousness moves from, in Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s terms, “being object to subject,” the narrator shifts between multiple modes. It is noteworthy that in this crucial foregrounding of Janie’s storytelling, she conflates her own story with her Grandma’s voice, beginning with the direct speech act of her grandma: “You know, honey, us colored folks is branches without roots and that makes things come round in queer ways” (16). The grandma goes on the recount a few memories from her time as a slave and the ways in which Janie’s situation still have attachments to that historical moment. Marianne Hirsch, in her writing on transgenerational trauma of the Holocaust, terms this foregrounding of a prior generation’s memory as postmemory:  “Postmemory describes the relationship of the second generation to powerful, often traumatic, experiences that preceded their births but that were nevertheless transmitted to them so deeply as to seem to constitute memories in their own right.” There is such a strong attachment to this memory of her grandmother that Janie cannot help but tell her own story without her grandmother’s story. Against this backdrop, Janie’s opportunities to vocalize her desires, to both “feel historical” and live in the moment, emerges in the tension through language, dialect and oration.

On the one hand, Hurston’s interest in anthropology is on display in this utilization of dialect. In her essay “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” she lays out a fascinating map of “negro expression,” including insightful arguments about the origin of metaphor and the adornment of language (verbal, physical, and cultural). In her section on dialect, she states, “If we are to believe the majority of writers of Negro dialect and the burnt-cork artists, Negro speech is a weird thing, full of ‘ams’ and ‘Ises.’ Fortunately we don’t have to believe them. We may go directly to the Negro and let him speak for himself.” Her use of dialect in Their Eyes Were Watching God can be seen as serving as a sort of corrective for misinterpretations of Negro dialect and as opening a narrative space to “let [the Negro] speak for himself.” On the other hand, the oral is clearly valuated by its contrast to the linguistic prowess of the “author.” Although, in a similar fashion to The Golden Bowl, the narrator does not offer much in the way of moral judgments on the character’s actions, or as a corrective force over their language, the contrast in the language itself creates a sometimes synergistic, sometimes antagonistic reading experience.  The lyrical beauty of the narrator is contrasted by the sometimes painfully limited ability for characters to express themselves. However, the two speakers, narrator and protagonist, are united in fascinating moments through free indirect discourse, like, for example, in the court case:

“They all leaned over to listen while she talked. First thing she had to remember was she was not at home. She was in the courthouse fightin something and it wasn’t death. It was worse than that. It was lying thoughts. She had to go way back to let them know how she and Tea Cake had been with one another so they could see she could never shoot Tea Cake out of malice. She tried to make them see how terrible it was that things were fixed so that Tea Cake couldn’t come back to himself until he had got rid of that mad dog that was in him and he coulnd’t get rid of the dog and live. He had to die to get rid of the dog. Be she hadn’t wanted to kill him. A man is up against a hard game when he must die to beat it. She made them see how she couldn’t ever want to be rid of him. She didn’t plead to anybody. She just sat there and told and when she was through she hushed” (187).

In this moment, when Janie ought and need to give an account of herself in order to save her life, in a space that requires an oration, the lack of direct speech is fascinating. This moment has an interesting symmetry to a moment in her marriage with Jody, when she is the town asks for a ‘few words of encouragement from Mrs. Mayor Starks,’ prompting Jody to stand up and say: “Thank yuh fuh yo’ compliments, but mah wife don’t know nothin’ ‘bout no speech-makin’ Ah never married her for nothin’ lak dat. She’s uh woman and her place is in de home” (43). In a later moment when Jody helps protect a mule from overwork, Janie steps “in front of Joe” and the following interaction takes place:

“Jody, dat wuz uh mighty fine thing fuh you tuh do. ‘Tain’t everybody would have thought of it, ‘cause it ain’t no everyday though. Freein’ dat mule makes uh mighty big man outa you. Something like George Washington and Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln, he had do whole United States tuh rule so he freed de Negroes. You got uh town so you freed uh mule. You have tuh have power tuh free things and dat makes you lak uh king uh something.’

‘Hambo said, ‘Yo’ wife is uh born orator, Starks. Us never knowed dat befo’. She just put de right words tuh our thoughts.’

Joe bit down hard on his cigar and beamed all around, but he never said a word.”

In this moment, Janie steps out of her position of silent object and offers a caustic appraisal of Joe’s self-aggrandizing action. Her words have power, as she “put de right words tuh our thoughts’ and facilitated the mule becoming a topic of conversation across the town for a week. This moment recalls Hurston’s discussion of “metaphor” as a way to put an image to language, which exists as an abstraction from reality earlier in that same essay “Characteristics of Negro Expression.” Interestingly, however, this moment also illustrates Janie’s ability to subtly manipulate multiple affective planes while speaking in coded language. Again, the reference to Lincoln is one that is a memory that is not her own, or the people to whom she is addressing. He is a myth who calls to the surface that postmemory that contains within it a different sort of trauma, a psychic trauma caused by existing in a world that is not one’s own because it is dominated by a previous generation’s experiences. Yet, it also operates as an emasculating weapon against Joe, who ventriloquizes the greatness of white leaders on an impotently small scale. And yet, it is ambiguous whether or not the other’s in the town have the interpretive capacity to understand exactly how this speech act functions as a metaphor, as a way of “making real” the abstractions of “white” language (an abstraction that Hurston poignantly uses “money” as the metaphor to explain). That the court case exhibits a return to this absenting of Janie’s direct speech acts suggests the possibility that her transformation from an object to a subject, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. suggests in his Afterword to the text, is not entirely straightforward. It is still mediated through the “expert” linguist in Bakhtinian terms: the “author.” Hurston creates an aesthetic through these shifting linguistic acts that suggest an ambivalence towards  Janie ever “achieving” freedom, whether that freedom is from men or from a memory.