Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Slow Fiction, or Getting Absorbed with Trollope

      My previous post raised the question, what if absorption drove the pulse of Victorian novel reading? I am not alone in asking such a question. In Novel Violence: A Narratography of Victorian Fiction (2009), Garrett Stewart queries, how can we take seriously the "conjuring work" of the Victorian novel's language? To do so would entail unfolding novels "phrase by phrase, sometimes syllable by syllable."   
    When calling to mind Victorian examples of absorptive prose, Trollope comes, perhaps, last. His style has since its publication been regarded as the mimicry of the middle classes' quotidian speech turned back upon readers. In J. Hillis Miller's lasting impression, Trollope gave readers an aesthetics of the same to the same. Similarly influential, D.A. Miller quipped that the best place to read Trollope is ensconced in an armchair because of its staid everydayness. Composed in a seemingly transparent, common, mechanical prose, Trollope's novels send readers into half-attentive stupors. 
    Trollope scholarship has, however, undergone a formalist turn. Long regarded as a formal hack (thanks to Henry James), we now recognize Trollope's numerous formal innovations. In particular, we have come to recognize Trollope as a pioneer in psychological realism, on par with his contemporary George Eliot. But unlike Eliot, whose moral project cultivated critical fellow feeling, Trollope's psychological realism aimed, above all, to simply prolong his reader's time with characters. Surely his fiction provides insights into a character's deliberations on future conduct and their various attendant cultural contortions. But the phrase by phrase, syllable by syllable form of his realism slows readers down. Way down. 
   Trollope’s style is above all pellucid, “as ready and as efficient a conductor of the mind of the writer to the mind of the reader as is the electric spark which passes from one battery to another battery” (Autobiography 235). Such a style was especially important to Trollope’s  psychological realism, because it differentiated his writing from George Eliot's. To Trollope, Eliot’s style lacked ease, thereby demanding rigorous rereading: “there are sentences which I have found myself compelled to read three times before I have been able to take home to myself all that the writer has intended” (247). Such effects, produced largely through her Gibbonesque sentence construction – elongating sentences via parenthetical statements, which therein separate subject from verb over long expanses – imped a reader’s progress within each sentence. Trollope, in contrast, develops a style that at the level of the sentence moves his readers along without digressions. Sentence to sentence, however, Trollope’s prose is as varied as Eliot’s. It both draws readers along and slows them down.
      Trollope develops this style through oscillations between types of discourse and shifts in grammatical mood. Take The Small House at Allington's opening paragraph of Adolphus Crosbie’s pages-long deliberation over “his future conduct” in relation to both Lily Dale and Lady Alexandrina De Courcy:
Crosbie, as soon as he was alone in his chamber, sat himself down in his arm-chair, and went to work striving to make up his mind as to his future conduct. It must not be supposed that the declaration just made by him had been produced solely by his difficulty at the moment. The atmosphere of Courcy Castle had been at work upon him for the last week past. And every word that he had heard, and every word that he had spoken, had tended to destroy all that was good and true within him, and to foster all that was selfish and false. He had said to himself a dozen times during that week that he never could be happy with Lily Dale, and that he never could make her happy. And then he had used the old sophistry in his endeavour to teach himself that it was right to do that which he wished to do. Would it not be better for Lily that he should desert her, than marry her against the dictates of his own heart? And if he really did not love her, would he not be committing a greater crime in marrying her than in deserting her? He confessed to himself that he had been very wrong in allowing the outer world to get such a hold upon him that the love of a pure girl like Lily could not suffice for his happiness. But there was the fact, and he found himself unable to contend against it. If by any absolute self-sacrifice he could secure Lily's well-being, he would not hesitate for a moment. But would it be well to sacrifice her as well as himself? (244-245).
Trollope shuttles between various discourse registers: diegesis (“Crosbie, as soon as he was in his chamber”), to authorial intervention (“It must not be supposed”), to reported thought (“He had said to himself”), to free indirect discourse (“Would it not be better”), back to reported thought (“He confessed to himself”), then wrapping up with free indirect discourse (“But would it be well”). The effect is two fold. First, these oscillations depict Crosbie’s psychological state from as many perspectives as possible, therein providing insight into his deliberations on his conduct and into the self-swindling such deliberations perform. Second, such insights depend upon readers' close attention to the perspective of each sentence as the narration moves along a spectrum of utmost interiority (free indirect discourse) to exteriority (reader’s potential judgment).
            This passage’s back-and-forth shifts in grammatical mood and tense compound the slowing effects of its discourse oscillations. It moves from indicative statements (“he had said to himself”) to the subjunctive, modal statements (“Would it not be better”). Through such formal techniques,Trollope not only represents his characters' deliberative conduct , but also condenses his readers' attention. In so doing, Trollope elongates the reading duration in excess of more his straightforward prose. While at a quantitative level such passages take up a sizable proportion of narrative space, which condenses the total number of words per page in contrast with diegetic prose and dialog, at the qualitative level these passages further elongate attention. They thus create attention sinkholes embedded within what would otherwise be a pellucid unfolding of plot. These common passages intensify of our attention on character instead of  plot. We experience a condensing focus on character and a simultaneous elongation of reading duration.
       Rather than providing us a critical perspective from which we can reflect upon characters's thought processes, Trollope's style, in slowing readers down, gets characters to dwell in the minds of readers. In so doing Trollope’s fiction achieves its didactic aims of “impregnating the mind of the novel-reader with a feeling that honesty is the best policy, that truth prevails when falsehood fails, that a girl will be loved when she is pure, and sweet, unselfish; that a man will be honored as he is true, and honest, and brave of heart; that things meanly done are ugly and odious, and things nobly done beautiful and gracious” (145).
     Absorptive prose here governs readers. It conducts our conduct by drawing us into intimate contact with characters for prolonged durations. We love honesty and truth because we have read slowly, absorbed by style phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Absorbed Victorians

     The three-decades old deconstructive turn in Victorian studies would seem to have less leg than the near-contemporaneous Foucauldian turn. Yet the presuppositions underwriting the work of J. Hillis Miller and George Levine (a new historicist in approach, yet a deconstructionist in formal readings) remain with us today. Levine's Realistic Imagination famously claims that Victorians were not "naive realists." Rather they attempted to use language to grasp that which always exceeds language all the time being cognizant of the impossibility of such a project. The crucial move in Levine's seminal intervention into the study of  Victorian realism pivots on criticality, or rather self-awareness of realist novelists and, presumably, their readers. This move has a long and diverse heritage. Long accustomed to regarding the Victorians as naive dupes (a line produced by interwar Modernist), starting with Levine we presupposed the opposite. Victorians were self-aware, self-reflective, self-critical. They were ironic. They were detached.
    The unfolding trend of nineteenth-century reading experience histories would seem to counter this criticality monoply. After all it commenced with the insight that Victorian readers were distracted as much as attentive to their reading, that they understood reading in physiological terms as much as moral or cognitive.
     Nevertheless, this seemingly counter move to criticality in fact repeats the same presupposition: Victorians were not dupes caught up in ideological mystification. How could they be, distracted and inattentive as they were most of the time? Nevertheless this presupposed distancing from form blinds us to the ways Victorians practiced and valued absorptive reading, reading that looked to scholars after Modernism as naivety.
    Perhaps the 1880's-1890's Gothic Revival tapped into a long running absorptive reading practice. R.L. Stevenson's "A Gossip on Romance" opens with a reminiscence of just such a boyhood reading and a desire to recreate such experience for his generation and create it for a new. Even the anti-sensationalist Anthony Trollope waxed nostalgic about his own raptured readings of Sir Walter Scott.
   What if this reading practice wasn't the other by which mature, cultured, critical (masculine, domineering) reading defined itself, but rather the precondition and pulse of all Victorian reading?
    Perhaps a better way to demonstrate such an alternative history of reading is through an anecdote. My wife and I listen to Setting the Woods on Fire, a vintage county radio show on our local university radio station. While we sometimes chuckle about the overwrought sentimentality of many of the songs, we  often imagine how to listen to these songs sincerely according to the tone, tenor, emotional pitch these songs historically entailed. We treat the show, in other words, as a trial in ironic non-ironic media experience. Rather than feeling the same as 1950's Nashville country fans felt, we instead ask, what the hell would it be to take this song at its word and at its tenor? Would we laugh, dance, simper, reflect, cry? We above all try to think through what absorption within this music would entail. Our efforts seek to counter the ironic, snarky, hipster attitude to anything that ins't ironic, snarky, or hispter-like: derisive laughter.
     Victorianist approaches to form, reading experience, novel theory, and their attendant politics are typified by this very attitude, a posture we ascribe to Victorians themselves in an effort to defend them against our own sense of bad taste. But naivety has little to do with enraptured reading. As Keats teaches us in "Ode on a Grecian Urn, it is as sincere an experience as one can have.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Veneering Government with Charles DIckens

     In her Mapping the Victorian Social Body, Pamela Gilbert claims that Dickens' Our Mutual Friend displaces the novelist's more famous satire of specific governing institutions onto the all-pervasive, immersive environment of London. Instead of a single, localizable parasitic government figure like Chancery or the Circumlocution Office, we get a metropole of permeable, porous, leaky bodies. This pervasive, uncontainable social ailment radiates from the Thames through its unsanitary tidal flows of sewage and muddy banks. According to Gilbert, such metaphorics exploit a prevalent feature of sanitary discourse: subterranean flows of sewage formed a circulatory system of disease whose heart was the Thames. This vision of the urban social body compelled the construction of the Thames river embankments during the late 1850's and early 1860's.
    Something is missing from Gilbert's account. Any Londoner from that period would wonder, where is the Metropolitan Board of Works? Depending upon one's political inclinations, Gilbert's omission would read like a liberal utopia or dystopia. Or rather, it would read just like Dickens' novel perused rattling about within an omnibus, distracted, preoccupied, and intermittent.
    Not that Gilbert's formal assertions aren't intriguing, especially her claim that Our Mutual Friend is at once hyper-realistic about places while Gothic in its atmospheric placelessness, a tension giving rise to pleasurable disorientation. But what if in this disorientation a grotesque face of government lurks? What if Dickens' once-bellicose satire of institutional authority became so extreme that it vanished into thin air?
    Our Mutual Friend comprises two narrative perspectives, one a past- and one a present-tense third person omniscience. As with Bleak House, the present-tense narration performs much of the novel's satire. Rather than another Chancery or Circumlocution Office, in the satirical narration we get the Veneerings, the epitome of speculative finance's nouveau riche. Ceaseless social climbers, the Vaneerings are Uriah Heep sans "umbleness" ensconced in the nation's ruling classes.
   Dickens introduces us to these social climbers as they throw a dinner party. Of the couple's many guests, "a Member, an Engineer, a Payer-off of the National Debt" form the center of attention. Typical of this novel's satirical de-individualization of the ruling classes, these figures appear as mere titles, mere occupations – an M.P., an civil engineer, and a Capitalist. Or: the constituents comprising the M.B.W., the very institution building the Thames river embankments.
     So what if the powers at the top of the Thames River Embankment project are sitting at Veneering's table? What matters is how they sit at the table. Reduced to occupations, to their positions within overlapping hierarchical professions, these governing figures are just that, figures not individuals. They are caricatures taken to the a veneered extreme. As mere titles, these figures' power and authority disappears from view. They are, in essence, black boxed. All that matters is their input and output – their eating and their, well, shitting.
    While Gilbert misses this detail, she does because of an instructive reason. Gilbert's omission of the M.B.W. and her subsequent claim that Dickens diffuses mis-goverance across the urban social body results from taking the Veneerings at face value. Veneered into "a Member, an Engineer, a Payer-off of the National Debt," the novel's governing institution slips from view. Dickens enacts formally the practice of governance performed by the M.B.W.: infrastructure. Infrastructure when working appears as merely input and output, as pipes, sewers, and embankments. Infrastructure in this guise comprises a black box. Like their sewer pipes and river embankments, the agents of the M.B.W. – politicians, engineers, and capitalists – appear in Dickens' novel as infrastructure, as black boxes –– "a Member, an Engineer, a Payer-off of the National Debt."
   At the Veneerings' table in chapter two, Dickens introduces his readers to a new form of immanent satire, one that turns the obscure, routinized, black-boxing power of infrastructural governance against itself. Yes Our Mutual Friend pursues a trenchant critique of unlocalizable social ills. But it does so by appropriating its routinized form. The threats once posed by Chancery or the Civil Service now pervade the everyday, routine, habitual lives of all Londoners because they have become infrastructure. They have become "a Member, an Engineer, a Payer-off of the National Debt." Our Mutual Friend depicts government not as absent, but rather as everywhere. But being everywhere as infrastructure it evaporates into veneer.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Blog Name Change

     I have changed Fractal Paradigm's title to Governing Victorians. This new title captures the historical, theoretical, and literary specializations this blog will undertake.
   Governing Victorians plays two ways: governing of Victorians and governing by Victorians. Referring to the acts of governing during the long nineteenth-century, this title also encompasses the governed and the governing.
    My hope is to post frequently, perhaps one to two posts a week, succinct portions of my current research. Entries will involve stray lines of inquiry, such as my recent post on Thirkell's neo-Victorianism. I will also use this blog to test ideas for future dissertation chapters. Most practically, this blog will serve as a training site for my technical imagination, not simply thinking in words, but physically forming them.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Trollope and Thirkell's Barsetshires: Neo-Victorian Formalism and Racial Purity

       Formal criticism about Anthony Trollope's series fiction centers on its open-ended nature. Not only are his individual novels reticent about the generic conventions of the Victorian domestic novel, but the Barsetshire Chronicles and the Palliser Novels push formal innovations to an extreme. Ever the willing novelist, Trollope satisfies his readers' desire for marital resolution by deploying what Caroline Devers calls "embryo plots": half-realized plots accumulate only to fall aside as the desired, "natural" plot fulfills itself, achieving at best a contingent, near-Darwinian sense of an ending. Embryo plots, the series reader quickly realizes, stay half-born only so long. Characters pop up in new novels to "realize" plots laid long before. These novels as they delineate the social milieux of clergy, gentry, aristrocracy, and parliamentarians are ever fraught with invasions by other characters, from incursions from other territories. The Barsetshire Chronicle's  Old Duke on Omnium gossips about the Palliser novel's Lady Eustance and her stolen diamonds. Liberal Planty Palliser's Tory nemesis, Mr. Daubeny, sits for Barsetshire. Trollope's series fiction is always permeable.
      Despite wide-spread popularity throughout the '60's and '70's, Trollope's popularity precipirously declined after his death, reaching a nadir during the first world war.
      Enter Angela Thirkell.
      During the interwar period, Trollope's fiction underwent a resurregence. Part of a craze for of "South Counties England" -- the literary embodiments of which also comprise Austen, Hardy, and Shakespeare -- Trollope's series fiction, especially the Barsetshire novels, satisfied a British need for social cohesion under the creeping shadow of Nazism. In the Grantleys, Dales, Pallisers, and Finns of Trollope's fiction Britons found a common heritage, a common identity as strong as any provided by the great bard.
    Or so it would seem. Beginning with 1933's High Tide Angela Thirkell's Barsetshire novels resurrected the varied geneologies of Trollope's orginal fiction, placing decedents in an every changing Britain. The heirs of Omnium loved and lost across two world wars. The Grantleys steered Christian flocks through war and peace and war again. Thirkell's series is notable, however, not for the repetition of character names, but also for the continuance of constitutive Trollopian formal practices: near-contemporary chronicling and social milieux permeated with a cast of recurring characters.
   One could peg Thirkell as opportunisitc, a literary recyclist intent of quick returns. And of course, the same had been said of Trollope himself -- such a complaint famously drove Trollope to kill off the Barsetshire novel's Mrs. Proudie.
    Instead, Thirkell's recurrence to Trollope's recurring characters is a cagey neo-Victorian formalism. And hers is one with profound inplications for the nature of series fiction. If Trollope's own series novels were porous, and if such permeability was generated by the artfully self-referntial recurrence of characters, then Thirkell's Barset novels are as "authentic" as Trollope's.
   Imagine the reading experience of Thirkell's generation of series readers. Not only would they faithfully wait the latest contemporary installment (a reading practice little different from the Victorians' serial reading practice), but they would while their waiting with Trollope's novels. The oscillations between generations could have created a seemingly coherent history of English culture, a fictional continuity across three generations reassuring to a nation imperiled.
  Of course, Thirkell's expanded series served conservative, nativist desires. The continuity of racial (and class) bloodlines across multiple generations is, to a degree, a more staid version of the racial purity bellowed across the channel.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

    A personal post seems fitting after such a long hiatus. Since passing my qualifying exam and becoming ABD in early June 2013, I have been working on the first chapter of my dissertation. Focusing on Anthony Trollope's series fiction, I have found myself caught in a bizarre literary-form/lived-experience spiral.
   Trollope's series fiction, like that of nearly every series novelist since (Hardy, Dorothea Richardson, Faulkner), drives readers onwards in a serial prolongation of desire and resolution. Sure, this or that novel ends with this or that generic resolution of the novel, but we want MORE on and on and on. And Trollope gives us that. Novel upon novel, we consume.
     My chapter commenced with the thought: I will write about the multi-novel series of Trollope and Hardy and their intersections with rural government reform between 1850-1890 -- because the scope of that literary archive and its historical span made sense for a chapter. I shelved Hardy after finishing the Wessex Novels. But I became addicted to Trollope. At first I jokingly called my attempts to read the Barsetshire novels by their original part installments my "daily Trollope." Cute, innocent scholarship.
    Eight months later as I wrap up the last of Trollope's Palliser novels, the second of two six-baggy-novel series, some 7,000 pages of mid-Victorian realist bliss, I now must face the truth. Not, "how the f--- do I write about this monster of monstrous novels," but rather, "what the hell happened to the last eight months?"
   Trollope, the series novel, will do this to you. Or at least me. I started my academic career with two series novels: Salinger's Glass novels and Faulkner's Yaknapatopha novels. Faced with the challenge of learning how to be a scholar all over again, I turned to my novel security blanket -- the series. It promised what any fledgling academic writer needs: deferral, delay, the denial of closure. First chapters take a year, we are told. Don't beat yourself up, you've got a year. For me, the series novel offered the literary form of this assurance. I could take longer because I had to read more . . . and more . . . and more.
    But it works out in the end. Because there must be an end to the series. Trollope waxed nostalgic when dropping the curtain on the Barsetshire novels. The Palliser Novel's Duke's Children did the same by embedding that sentiment in the reminiscences of Plantagenet Palliser. And my chapter will be written, but only because I have gone full circle just like the novels I love. I started with the series novel again, and again, and again.
   Like any addiction, it never seems to cease. My next chapter centers on Hardy's Wessex Novels. All of them. As a series.