Category Archives: Secondary Criticism

Secondary Conrad

Form Harpham’s One of Us (1996)

Conrad’s oeuvre can be read as symptomatic of Modernism’ uneven development. Lumped together with Flaubert, James, and Joyce because of the defamiliarizing force of abstraction, we could also say that this is because (the English) language does in fact resist attempts to shape it into something perfectly referential…things take on associational force almost by accident rather that design. This is Conrad as the accidental modernist, that graduates into something more coherent with Nostromo in beyond, but then he is already explicit about referential relationships (however complicated) to politics and history.

Conrad’s work can be said to both disturb us and open us up to new horizons, argues Harpham. He does this 1) through the idea of the nation as a potentially unifying anecdote to trade, but nevertheless one that is porous and therefore laboriously constructed 2) through the idea of the sea that simultaneously symbolizes freedom and homelessness 3) through language itself, which becomes capacious grand at the same time that it fails to make a tight system of meaning, or even coherence of imagery.

Secondary Woolf

Abel on Woolf (1989)

“Narrative…getting on from lunch to dinner,” but in Woolf, characters do live in time, it’s just complicated.

The “tunneling process” as a way of achieving temporal depth–that is, offsetting narrative by means of incorporating the past vertically


On Dalloway

Bourton is a pastoral enclave that, within the countries of Clarissa’s psyche, excludes the courtship that would lead to marriage. And even Peter’s courting of her is filtered mostly though Peter’s consciousness and memory.

When Clarissa hears of Septimus’ death, she mourns her loss…this is emblematic of how various characters are used as structural devices for refracting the divided consciousness/history of Clarissa: Sally, Rezia, Septimus, etc.

Dalloway takes the form of a developmental narrative as a way out of mourning/melancholia. Clarissa learns to accept adulthood as a rough compromise with a pre-Oedipal fantasy that can never be inhabited again.


To the Lighthouse

To the Lighthouse widens out the scope, and replaces the developmental narrative with a family romance. So Lily, a surrogate daughter, can recover the image of Mrs. Ramsay, which James represses in his developmental accession to his father’s forms of rationality and which Cam can only access by telling a narrative that runs through the father, disclosing her enclosure within masculinist narratives. Also, the ambiguity of the central character…is it mister or Mrs. Ramsay?…opens up questions of definition and orientation.

Mr. Ramsay’s “speculative philosophy” depends upon the erasure of matter/mater, the purging of the signified that conditions the emergence of the pure, anorexic sign. James follows Mr. Ramsay into this linguistic terrain.

Liliy Briscoe marks out an alternative narrative of painting as process. Importantly, this not a static painting that emerges in a  moment of inspiration, eternal and changeless, but a canvas that bears the mark of its history. She forms a relationship  of intimacy with Ramsay that is silent: “Who knows what we are, what we feel?” We see her a curling into the self that refrains from a linguistic register. The painting also refuses the determinacy of an abstract realms of signification, as toggles between separation and synthesis…the activity of the vertical line is itself a knife edge marking out what is gained and lost in the process of memory formation.  Further, this intersects with the strange timing of her vision: “She had her vision” positions somehow in the past tense, presence removed, etc. This another way of describing a phenomenology of rupture, interruption, etc.


Between the Acts

Abel concludes with a very curious reading of Between the Acts and moses and Monotheism. The latter picks up the story of civilization’s emergence by complicating the strict paternal narrative of that early work. The worship of the mother enters between the death of the primal father and the worship of the mosaic God. Civilization emerges when intellectuality wins out over sensuality. [Talk about this in terms of the ban on touching as the conditioned for worshipping…denigration of the body of matter/mater, etc.]

Between the Acts represents a frayed social fabric [Isa saying that we are all dispersed, etc.] and morns the lack of a mothering culture that could act as an alternative: this gives way to a full on fear of paternalism in the shape of Nazism and Fascism [Giles seems eerily like the Nazis he condemns, etc.]

La Trobe tries to convey ten minus of “present time reality” whose absolute dryness is then “douched” by a supernatural rain that returns a (false) sense of collectivity to the crowd that just witnessed that radical fragmentation, etc. Abel argues that this fragmentation finds in answer in the heterosexual eroticism of the closing scene between Giles and Isa…it points forward to pro-creation as the dawn of a new era.


summary of Zwerdling on Dalloway

Peter Walsh is historically grounded, but negatively. He is absent from England during the years 1918 to 1923, the years directly following the war, so that he can then comment on the starkness of the change otherwise invisible (or merely impressionistic) to those who have lived through the post-war years.


The world in which the Dalloways live and move–the “governing class” ganged in various Imperial projects–is under threat. It is a decadent rather than crescent class. This decadence undercuts the sense that World War I marked some sort of triumph of British civilization: that the death of thousands of men is compensated for by a strong Britain. In the short story from which Dalloway was draw, Clarissa says: “Thousands of a young men died so that things might go on.” But this shows Clarissa to be out of step with her time: thinking that things are still going on dramatizes her ignorance. She is living in the past.


Part of this “past” depends not he illusion that the ruling class is not conditioned on what Forster calls “islands of money.” Dinner parties are a “grand deception,” in which food is mysteriously unpaid: “life appears musical” to this class, because they are not bitten by the realm of necessity. There’s is the realm of the Wilcoxes.


Septimus is a threat, excluded from Clarissa’s “party” because he refuses to forget a war that everyone is struggling to put behind them. This is part of a larger cultural forgetting that includes turning away from the economic base, one could argue. But it is also because he is uncontrollably, intensely passionate–a challenge to the governing class’s stoicism. The same with Peter Walsh. Though his early socialism is hollowed out and he has become part of the system that he has convinced himself that he is no longer a part of, his passion for Clarissa remains.


The novel dramatizes the absorption of these energies. In this way, Woolf attempts to “criticize the social system, and to show it at work, at its most intense.” Perhaps there is also a contribution to changing it, however slight.

Bruce Robbins – The Servant’s Hand (1986)

Servants in 19th Century fiction are represented not as servants, but as generic anachronisms from Roman, Elizabethan and Restoration comedy. They serve a primarily functional role, as a foil to the protagonist, as an object of humor, as a convenient way to round out a plot, etc. Importantly, they are not represented as the proletariat: the narrative of social change (in Dickens, Gaskell and others) doesn’t have room for servants. Realism becomes rhetorical rather than realistic.

When representation becomes “standing in for something that is not present” rather than holding a mirror up to nature or “making present to the mind,” the political valence of art’s capacity to “make us see” seems to demand a different form of servant-representation. Indeed, saying that Collins and Gaskell, for example, simply employed tropes of servanthood seems too simple. Rather, we can read servants as “signs of money” or “signs of signs” crucial to maintaining middle-class status. In this sense, they enter into the literary scene laden with signifying power: tropes and literary tradition can be configured as ideology, that medium through which subjects understand the real conditions of the social. So servants mediate between the masters they serve (as Hegelian recognition) and the conditions of existence.

Robbins reads moments of recognition (even non-emphatic recognition) between servants and masters as moments of utopian prospects (Bloch’s de-realization that holds open the possibility of an otherwise). For instance, Wegg’s theatrical superiority to Boffin ironizes Boffin’s attempts to buy Wegg off, and points to the precarious position of all the nouveau riche with regard to maintaining their positions of power. Further, he uses Auerbach’s reading of the brown stocking in To the Lighthouse to connect randomness (Auerbach’s privileged mimetic possibility) to the way in which servants interrupt hegemonic spaces in ways that may be ephemeral, but poignant and real. In fact, they can trigger all sorts of “subjective” wanderings that are momentarily outside of the middle-class narrative or plot line.

In Bleak House, for example, Phil Squod’s assumption of shared knowledge of the country in his dialogue with Sergeant George both shows the limited imaginative resources of someone confined to the poorer parts of London AND, at the same, time cuts across the anonymity of Chancery. That is, it is utopian to the degree that his ability to dream of the country, of the marshes, his atemporal, not bound to subjective experience. As comic, it binds the reading audience to the servant-character, and takes on pathos in ways external to the dramatic “act.” In this sense, we could connect this dialogue to someone like Beckett, where comedy becomes both a vestige of past utopia, and sign of the future, sorta.

In Vanity Fair, the servant-master interaction between Isidor and Jos Sedley becomes a way of playing out the historical collision of Waterloo. Jos worries that he have his throat cut by Bonaparte’s soldiers because he has dressed his mustache so as to resemble an English soldier, so he asks Isidor (secretly sympathetic to Napoleon’s cause) to “cut him.” The two story lines never connect, but it does show how historical events are getting played out in the domestic affairs, interactions between high and low, etc.

In Bleak House, Hortense can be seen as a refraction of several different characters, all of whom have better reasons for killing Tulkinghorn but resist at the last moment, subduing passion by reason. This is a negative reading, consigning Hortense to the repressed realm of Lady Dedlock’s psyche, for example, but we can also read it as a surrogate action for what Esther can never quite manage, despite her efforts–namely, graduation out of the realm of servanthood, triggered by resentment at not being treated like a daughter. She may refuse Hortense services (in favor of Charlie’s), but Hortense “serves” a literacy (utopian?) purpose nevertheless.

Robbins’ argument is that relegation of servants to scenes of comic absurdity or mystical fate is not disengagement with the social, but an engagement of a different sort. So Passage to India, in “pulling back from the social world to make room for the Hindu World,” does not substitute on for the other, but rather leads to the possibility of two ending existing simultaneously: the broken private friendship and the general public festivity.


On defining “Victorian”

Amanda Anderson (in Victorian Studies, 2005) argues for a richer conception of the relationship between politics and aesthetics. The normal narrative: mid-Victorian writers are beholden to Enlightenment forms of rationality and bourgeois subjectivity, which later Victorian writers (Baudelaire, Wilde, etc.) reject in the form of aesthetic modernity. She wants argue that the Enlightenment, associated with the earlier 19th-Century already had dialectic of internal critique at work: one that we might call sincerity vs. authenticity, or something Trilling-esque like that. She points to Daniel Deronda as exemplary (but that’s still a pretty late work, one should note). In general she cautions literary critics seeking to emulate Foucault’s own evolution from a thinker of systems to a thinker of individual ethos. Thinking from the point of view ethos must not re-write the systems of Enlightenment as homogenous and therefore easily defined and reject-able.

Let me clarify this somewhat complex point about ethos. On the one hand, I am arguing, a turn to ethos as individual enactment gets aligned with the trumping moves of aesthetic modernity. When so aligned, it remains too narrowly conceived and functions to set up Enlightenment modernity as a flimsy construct that is easily dismantled. But if used to draw out a fuller understanding of Enlightenment modernity’s self-conception, ethos can be productively used, precisely to d isable the oppo sition between political and aesthetic modernity.

D.A. Miller – The Novel and the Police (1981)

The novel is not conceived as the doomed attempt to produce a stable subject, but instead would be the successful project of “forming–by means of that very failure–a subject habituated to psychic displacements, evacuations, reinvestments, in a social order where power circulates all the better for being pulverized” (xiii).

Oliver Twist offers a good illustration of this thesis. Despite levying critique of institutions of social control, the novel participates in the logic policing by showing how there is in fact very little tension between the various forces seeking to control Oliver: their methods are different, but Fagin, the police, Monks, and Bromlow all participate in acts of coercion. The space of delinquency is thoroughly implicated with the space of the official police: the workhouse and apprenticeship are shown to be logical steps in an evolution towards Fagin’s gang. Further, Bromlow’s desire to know Oliver’s “story” is an attempt to impose a story that shores up the gaps in the fragmented plot, etc.

Bleak House gives a lightly different model, in which instituions of incarceration/control are not confined to out of the way, peripheral spaces, but in the form of Chancery Court, inhabit the very center of the text. In fact, Chancery is so prominent that its totalizing presence can not be perceived, making inside/outside binaries meaningless or at least inadequate. Furthermore, the contradictory elements of the Court–both efficient and inefficient, etc–are not merely symptomatic of, say, capitalism, but are also constitutive of the novel’s strategy of coercion. The illegibility of the the Jarndyce suit eventually requires reduction to legible “criminal case”: which explains how this sprawling novel turns into a murder mystery. Miller argues that the tension between the law and the law enforcement takes many different guises [one is faceless while the other has a face in Bucket, etc.], it is finally the very contradictions between these terms that the novel actively produces: not consciously, but as part of the novel form itself. The excessively long novel Bleak House differentiates itself from the excessively long court case Chancery by promising a moment in which meanings will be finally revealed, the text digestible, etc: Esther and the anonymous narratorial voice gradually merge, etc.So while the novel trains us to be patient within structures of Chancery-confusion, it makes good on this promise through a logic of delayed gratification: compare Richard and Esther, for example. But this negative relation, productive of a difference that is at first negative, finds a positive dividend in the form of family practice: which is both outside of social institutions, but also, at the same time, invested in carrying out its programs of order and discipline.

Wilkie Collin’s The Woman in White offers us different paradigm of control in relation to bodily sensation. The “sensational novel” is relegated to the margins of the canon because it is perceived to mechanically function on the body, the flesh, and therefore to be devoid of meaning, or sense, in a more spiritual sense [already the vocabulary of sense is showing troubling contradictions]. But Miller argues that sensational novels, like that of Collins, provides its own ways of representing and reading bodily sensation: in other words, troubling the critical lens that relegates sensational effects to mere textual immediacy. “Nervousness” is the condition not only of the characters within the novel, but also the affect dimension of the readerly experience. The paradigm for nervousness is found in the 19th-century theory that homosexuality is a case of a female soul imprisoned within a man’s body: which is also a way of describing the plotting of this novel. This upsets traditional privileging of the reader who observes the processes of coercion and social violence but is immune for their effects: in a sensational novel, we feel what the characters feel. When Fosco reads Marian’s journal, we are shocked, but we have also already participated in that form of virtual rape: we identify and disidentify with Fosco simultaneously. The paranoia produced in these acts of identification is productive of the readerly nervousness (suspicion, surprise, etc.) that the second half of the novel, narrated by Walter Hartwright having returned from Central America more masculinized, which seeks to find and fix a determinate meaning ending in domesticity. But Woman in White is unique in that it dramatizes the production of those subjective traits that will need to be overcome in the course of the novel’s development.


ongoing post on Miller::::

Ann Banfield – Remembrance and Tense Past (from C. Comp. 2007)

Distinguishes between two tense involved in novelistic discourse: the narrative sentence that recounts events independent of a subject, and free indirect discourse, or represented thought, representing third person subjectivity (51). Subjectivity, in a novel like Dalloway, is represented as a “now in the past.” This division is possible only in the novel, because it is the only genre that distances itself from the structure of spoken communication.

Joyce’s phrase “aorist preterite proposition” characterizes this “objective” time outside of the subject. It is apparent in Ithaca, but also in the bracketed sections in Time Passes section of To the Lighthouse. According to Banfield, “Modernit experimentation strips away everything superfluous to the measuring of time’s passing” (52). The urban becomes a refuge for the “now in the past” of the subject: they stand in for point-of-view: the multiplication of points of “time-space.” Thus in the opening scene of Dalloway, we see the time of Clarissa contrasting with the time of Big Ben, the pause before the sounding of the clock registering subjective time as pure freedom. Clarissa’s “now in the past” can also include memory itself (she is simultaneously Clarissa of that moment and Clarissa as a little girl). Jacob Room limits to subject impression of the moment: Dalloway and Lighthouse limit to impressions that include the past itself. This connects to the famous “cave” metaphor that Woolf uses to describe modes of characterization: digging out the inner lives of characters to the extent that those caves create a network of connections.

Banfield believes that represented thought in the past is able to convey the moment in which history could have been otherwise just as it is congealing into history.