LIFE – Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barret Browning, Our Mutual Friend, Middlemarch, The Ambassadors
Robert Browning’s “Fra Lippo Lippi” is about how the practice of making art can sustain a life–that is, how life is sustained can be sustained in and through the work of art. Interesting to compare this to the Bishop that orders his tomb…where the desire to be monumentalized starts to blur the line between the living and the dead–the folds in his robe look like stone–or “My Last Duchess,” in which the the act of painting take like (Winter’s Tale: what fine chisel could ever cut breath, etc.)…Here, Fra Lippo Lippi is compelled by hunger to make art, it becomes his literal meat and drink, etc. He asks, “Can’t I take breath and try to add life’s flesh?” This is just to say that in Browning, we can sort out the tension between life and death in the process of artistic creation.
Elizabeth Barret Browning is a vitalist in a more objective sense: in Aurora Leigh Life is a concept or presence that is abstracted from individual persons or bodies. It is linked with history and the age (full-veined, double-breasted Age suckles the great men of the age, etc.). Life (as IN shelley ) abolishes all boundaries. The poem that is able to convey life is the one that does not reduce…so the work itself is verse, novel and epic all in one.
We see this in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, and this has been picked up and used by all sorts of people, ranging from Deleuze to Cathy Gallagher to Esposito to articulate a vitalist principle that hovers between, on the one hand, the potentially liberating properties of “a life” that has been denatured and given back to the post-subjective subject (something like that…the bio-political subject), on the other, a life that can be infinitely exchangeable.
Middlemarch – the passage where Dorothea looks out on the laborers and imagines that she is part of that “pulsating” life. [Connect with Pater’s as many pulsations as possible?] This is an objectification of life, a very problematic identification that risks blotting out particularity.
Finally, in The Ambassadors, we of course have Strether telling little Bilham to “Live!” [Argue that this is a return to the particularities of living, but in a new way] How is this different from the forerunners? Well, i think it’s useful to think of it in terms of the Preface, which claims this to be the central point in the book. But it is also in this preface that James starts to think about the difference between manner and matter, claiming that manner (details, preparation for “scenes,” etc.) become the matter. So this pretty complicated, almost an inversion of Robert Browning, where its all those non-active, unimportant details that become the stuff of life, the stuff of nourishment. What is Strether’s problem after all? He doesn’t live because he is in some sense too active. Life means indulging in the details…like Chad. Chad lives to the extent that he doesn’t try to live.