Category Archives: Synthesis

Beginnings and Endings

When does the time period that includes “Victorian Literature” begin? I like the idea of 1837-1901 because it’s sufficiently arbitrary in terms of historical grounding. Saying that a certain type of literature can begin or end with any sort of definition violates, amongst other things, the terms set out at the end of the Grundrisse. Marx asks to think about not what makes a certain type of literature possible or not, rather why literature from another time still gives us a pleasure. Borrow that formulation from Marx, and ask what is pleasurable (to me and others) about using Victoria’s life as a way to mark out the contours of the period. I think Lukacs’ claim that the form of the novel is the biography is really telling–it’s the way we give order to an otherwise anarchic ensemble of phenomena. So we have something like David Copperfield, becoming himself in some sort of Aristotlean entelchy or something like that.

But how do we square this with the fact that so many of the poets and essayist saw themselves living in a period that, far from being holistic or bound by a single life, is defined precisely by transition. We can obviously look to Mill, Carlyle and other for various terms: the dynamic and the mechanic, the natural and the transitional, the subject and the objective, etc… And we’re thinking in these non-fictional, non-biogrpahical registers, I’d say that we have to go with Hobsbawm: 1789-1914. That’s a huge range, but i think it is what EBB is refering to when she says “the full-veined, double-breasted Age” that demolishes all boundaries…these boundaries include the life of Victoria.


When does Modernism begin? One needs to decide between finding a particular historical event, a rupture, a break AND finding the moment when people become conscious of that break. So someone like Roger Shattuck argues that the twentieth-century starts 15 year too early with the death of Victor Hugo…or we can take Virginia Woolf’s assertion in Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Brown:

And now I will hazard a second assertion, which is more disputable perhaps, to the effect that in or about December, 1910, human character changed.

I am not saying that one went out, as one might into a garden, and there saw that a rose had flowered, or that a hen had laid an egg. The change was not sudden and definite like that. But a change there was, nevertheless; and, since one must be arbitrary, let us date it about the year 1910.

What date is more important: 1924 or 1910? She concludes her essay by saying that “we are on the verge of great moment in English Literature.” Which is the more important verge? I’m inclined to say the latter, but I think 1922 might be a more appropriate date (and August 4, 1914 might be more appropriate than December 1910 as well…but Woolf is aware that is earlier date is arbitrary- “Let us agree,” she writes)…for obvious reasons. As for endings, well, I agree with Jameson: modernism is always already post-modernism, so….


Mirror (Victorian and Modernism)

MIRROR – Lady of Shallot, Mill on the Floss, Decay of Lying, “Telemachus,”Mrs. Dalloway, de Koven

Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot (1832/42) uses the mirror to establish the tension between the world and the representation of the world. Turning away from the mirror in order to live precipitates her movement from Shallot to Camelot, yes, but also her movement to death. In terms of the form, the poem itself achieves the transition from Shallot to Camelot through rhyme (AAAABCCCB?)…there’s a mechanical quality, as if all the poem has to do to achieve its end is keep rhyming. But relinquishment to the mere life of form is a sort of death. So Lady of Shallot is stuck: between a world that merely reflects reality and world that, in order to be directly accessed, requires the death of the subject, and, the death of the world (mechanism).

The mirror that cracks in Tennyson looks forward to the cracked looking glass of Oscar Wilde, which in turn looks forward to the opening of Ulysses and the many mirrors there.

But first, I think George Eliot gives us a mirror in the river. Will claim that the only way we can access the idealized past is through the aesthetic itself. So Maggie and Tom are taken under by the vast, formless masses of history, industry, etc. but they are immediately recuperated in an aesthetic that reads the river as “golden” (opens up a can of worms that we can talk about…Marius, Th Yellow Book, Picture of Dorian Gray, the “golden” hair of Sidney Carton’s imaginary substitute, etc.). This is the only way to access that past, etc. The “mother tongue of the imagination” no longer speak except through forms of mediation.

In the twentieth-century, the mirror becomes the way we come to know ourselves. So, mrs. Dalloway literally putting herself together in a mirror, or Malte Laurids Brigge dressing up in old, baroque robes, looking at himself in the mirror and thinking himself a monster, and Bloom in Nausicaa looking at the pool of water and seeing his reflection. What all of these instances are reflecting is a sense of subjective displacement, or exclusion. They are reflecting back a self that does not perfectly cohere within the social coordinates.

Life (Victorian)

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.




The Image

The Image: talk about the dynamic between image, vortex and symbol in Eliot,  Pound and Yeats.

Start with Pound’s definition of the image: “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” Highlight the two tensions here: between stasis and movement, intellect and intuition. The vortex is an image in motion. Whereas the image seeks to hold tensions in some sort of accord or balance, the vortex “plunges into the present.” That is, it sees itself as social from the very beginning. It’s the imagist response to the cult of the future, on the one hand, and the the sentimentalization of the past of the other. The symbol is functioning here as something against which Imagism and Vorticism can define themselves. Pound writes (paraphrasing), the lyric voice is bursting into language, the image is sculpture or painting coming over into language (cf. Guadier-Brezka). That is to say, both are taking on a more constructivist dimension in relationship to poetic creation. Now Eliot, in “Metaphysical Poets” (1920), talks about dissociation of sensibility…which I think we can read as something like a repudiation of Imagists claims to effectiveness given the “anarchy and futility” of “contemporary history.” So i think in something like The Waste Land, we see images being torn at the seams by the movement of time or narrative (commas and verse-lines compete for organizational priority). So here I think we start to see, in Yeats, the return of the symbol as the promise of an organic reunification of sensibility. Frank Kermode has shown how “Imagism” is linked to “Symbolism” by way of Yeats: the image of the dancer and the tree at the end of “Among School Children” (1928) can be seen as an attempt to overcome what Eliot would call in “The Metaphysical Poets” (1920) the “dissociation of sensibility.” It’s no accident that the tree and the dance are the two terms that Hegel uses to describe, respectively, the entelechy of the individual and the dynamic between individual and whole in the ethical community. But the incredible conclusion – [something like: chestnut tree, deep rooted blossomer / are you leaf, bud or bole / of whirling body, of brightening glance / how can you tell the dancer from the dance.] – needs to be contextualized within “No Second Troy” and “September 1913,” wherein Helen becomes the means of historical violence and rupture. Importing symbolic or mythic structures onto contemporary history is not necessarily a good thing–by the time we get to late  Yeats, we can see the “searching for a theme in vain” as the failure of the symbol to sustain its unifying capacities.

Yeats – General Comments and Themes

Ongoing Post


Standard narrative: early period characterized as Irish national visionary, writing himself into a mythic past, writing Ballads, etc. Dressed as an old Irish king whose harp is broken..wandering in the woods, etc. This lure of the aesthetic withdraw, dangerous but irresistible, is rejected because of Yeats’ growing sensibility of the political exigencies of his day. He starts to write in a leaner, colder, more pessimistic style: the “heroic realist.” [But a comparison of Aengus and Fisherman shows something closer to a mere exchange of symbols: one for another. The Fisherman does not exist] Late Yeats is characterized by growing doubts about the efficacy of art and the worries that come with old age. There is a return to Irishness, but in the form of a senile peasant.

Relation to Modernism. Can be seen as a reactionary of sorts. “A Coat” can be seen as both a rejection of his former baroque style, but also of the public that failed to appreciate it. His new style will have a “nakedness” and a “coldness” that is still elite and symbolic. The “terrible beauty” of “Easter 1916” is, well, both terrifying and beautiful. Like the isolated Fergus, Aengus and Fisherman, Yeats imagines his own withdraw from and responsibility to a public that is “changed utterly.” He does not change, but his relationship to them does. The final stanza of Easter 1916 positions the poet as mother that has a duty to the particularity of historical violence. However, this is an aestheticization of violence.

The Occult in Yeats: Wandering Aengus and The Second Coming.


Can track certain images:

– Easter 1916 (makes the heart a stone)
– Circus Animals Desertion (faul rag and bone shop of the heart)

– Wandering Aengus (trout turns into beautiful girl that flees)
– The Fisherman (glorified Irish peasantry)
– Sailing to Byzantium (species and cycles of birth and death: the slamon falls, the mackerel crowded seas)
– Circus Animal Desertion (a wholesale subversion of animal tropes)

Birds (and the abruption of the divine into human history)
– Wild Swans at Coole
-Leda and the Swan
– Second Coming

Helen (Maud Gonne)
– No Second Troy
– September 1913
– Among School Children

– Wandering Aengus
– The Fisherman


Peter Brooks – The indirection of all novels: the circuitous route by which novels return to the place they have begun.

Our Mutual Friend (1864-5) – The way in which the dirty money inherited by Rokesmith must be purged by the formal inheritance by the Boffins before he re-enters the narrative (reborn by “death by water”) properly fit to be reintegrated into the line of inheritance.

JS Mill’s Autobiography (1873) – Happiness is still the chief end and standard by which everything is judged, but it can only be reached by way of indirection–by focusing on something else (the good of someone else, the good of society, a work of art sans intention) and finding happiness along the way.

Wings of the Dove (1902) – Using indirect objects (such as a gift or a letter, or a grammatical object) as a means of giving someone else their freedom. Merton wants Kate to “break the seal” of Milly’s letter to Merton. When she throws it into the fire (“the priceless pearl cast before his eyes”) Kate is given “her freedom.” And the final letter (containing money) cannot be touched by Kate except through Merton; and it cannot be renounced by Merton except through Kate. The object therefore must be wasted if freedom is to be granted to the two characters. This is the paradox of pure indirection.