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.

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