Tag Archives: fact

Oscar Wilde – “The Decay of Lying” (1891)

An essay on the relationship between art and nature, it is staged as a Socratic dialogue between the naive but curious Cyril and the dismissive, articulate, intelligent aesthete Vivian. Vivian believes that Art does not imitate Nature, but that Nature imitates Art:

Art is our spirited protest, our galant attempt to reach Nature her proper place. As for the infinite variety of nature, that is pure myth. It is not to be found in Nature herself. It resides in the imagination, or fancy, or cultivated blindness of the man who looks at her. (970)

He critiques the “realists” strain in modern literature (Zola, Eliot, everyone else) as being either non-art or a fasle romanticization of working class conditions. He therefore rejects what he calls “modernity of form” (976). He exclaims, “Certainly we are a degraded race, and have sold our birthright for a mess of facts” (977). His description of how Art incorporates nature is Adornian to the hilt:

Art begines with abstract decoration….Art [then] takes life as part of her rough material, recreates it, and refashions it in fresh forms, is absolutely indifferent to fact, invents, imagines, dreams, and keeps between herself and reality the impenetrable barrier of beautiful style…The third stage is when life gets the upperhand, and dries Art out into the wilderness. This is the true decadence, and it is from this that we are now suffering. (978)

This defense of beauty and of “decadence” more broadly can be related to Pater’s writings in Renaissance, as well as to, perhaps, Aurora Leigh’s stuff on life. Perhaps read Wilde as a response to that vitalist strain. At any rate, makes an interesting capstone text to a 19th century discussion of fact. Transitioning to the 20th-century, one could talk about “Ithaca” chapter in Joyce as yet another step, a fourth stage, in the play between nature and art.

This essay also has the reference to the “cracked lookingglass,” which Stephen will pick up in the beginning of Ulysses. Can connect to Sargasso Sea, perhaps, and to DeKoven’s work on mirrors and water.

The essay ends with four precepts:

  1. Art never expresses anything but itself
  2. All bad art comes from returning to Life and Nature
  3. Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life
  4. Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of art

It’s curious that the form of the essay loses it dialogic character and becomes a treatise of sorts. 

Charles Darwin – The Origin of Species (1859)

Important topics:

The difference between natural selection and sexual selection. Gets taken up by Mill in On Liberty to distinguish the role of government: on the one hand, the rigorous respect for individual growth, and the processes of selection which occur through discourse and conversation.

Species vs. individual: Darwin refuses the fixed category of a species. It is merely a name for a set of creatures that resemble one another. This will trouble, eventually, the division between man and animal.

The tiny sublime: in Darwin, the sublime becomes infinitesimally small: “Natural selection can act only by the preservation and accumulation of infinitesimally small modifications, each profitable to the preserved being.” This follows the extended discussion of domestication, the visible  and invisible, man’s ability to see or not, etc. Connect to the broader topics of the secret: small, inhering in change, transformation. Connect this to the larger topic of transition, historical, aesthetic and otherwise. Also connect to the opening of Daniel Deronda, where the “author” claims that the “beginning” of any story is arbitrary because the units of experience can be cut up into infinitely tiny pieces, thus making the discovery of some originary cause impossible.

The domestic: good way to start a conversation about domestic fiction more broadly. Written in 1859, so in the midst of later Dickens (Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations) and the same year as Collins’ Woman in White. Darwin’s argument is that man can select for the purposes of domestic farming, but that no man can see the processes of “natural” selection. “Man can act only on external and visible characters: Nature cares nothing for Appearances, except in so far as they may be useful to any being” (65).  As evidence, he shows that domesticated animals revert back to a state of nature when released into the wild, returning to certain instinctual patterns that are inexplicable within the parameters set by human understanding.  Interesting to talk about Wuthering Heights as presaging this work on domestication.

“Perfection” – argues, just as Ruskin does in The Nature of the Gothic” that nothing in nature, nothing living, can be held to the standards of human or aesthetic perfection: nevertheless, these processes recur as the very thing judged according to the beautiful…and as constitutive of that very beauty.

Geological record: as an imperfect text that tells the history of mankind extending beyond mankind, in languages that are not our own. Relate this to the cathedral of Notre-Dame.

The Tree Of Life as an analogy for the development of the world–i.e. dead branches fall off, new ones replace them, and the tree keeps growing. Connect this with the notion of perfection and the aesthetic more generally. What is metaphor accomplishing for Darwin? How does this relate to wonder? How does the shift the conversation from worries about the dry and mechanical, to one of beauty and wonder.


Thomas Huxley: “a mass of facts crushed and pounded into shape, rather than held together by the ordinary medium of an obvious logical bond.”

Cathy Gallagher on The Body Economic: distinguishes between bioeconmic plots (how political economies circulate Life) and somaeconomic plots — how accounts of pleasure and pain, unhappiness, desire, exhaustion, etc. stimulate bio plots and are in turned transformed by them. Central paradox: “the social body is growing old precisely insofar as the actual demographic proportions of the society are increasingly weighted towards youth, since, under optimal conditions, each generation would be twice as large as the generation preceding it. For Malthus to make sense, the body/society homology needs to be considered as a body/society opposition.”

George Levine: distinguishes Darwin studies from Literary Darwinsimsm; among other points, talks about hwo Darwin inspires wonder and not dry mechanical reducitonism. Everything signifies beyond itself, infinitely but immanently.

Key Passages – Daniel Deronda

Men can do nothing without the make believe of a beginning. Even Science, the strict measurer, is obliged to start with a make-believe unit, and must fix on a point in the stars’ unceasing journey when his sidereal clock shall pretend that time is Nought. His less accurate grandmother Poetry has always been understood to start in the middle; but on reflection it appears that her proceeding is not very different from his; since Science, too, reckons backwards as well as forwards, divides his unit into billions, and with his clock-finger at Nought really sets off in media res. No retrospect will take us to the true beginning; and whether our prologue be in heaven or on earth it is but a fraction of that all-presupposing fact which our story sets out.

This, the opening to the novel, proceeds the famous opening line: “Was she beautiful or not beautiful?” We do not know who asks this question and we do not know of whom it is asked. Thus the starting point is already displaced, the object coming before the subject that would produce it. Throughout the novel, the toggling between cause and effect is crucial (is Daniel determining his future according to liberal civic codes à la Mill or is he being determined by biological histories?) and here Eliot is making that ambiguity immanent to the very production of narrative. There is also a critique of Copperfield “Retrospects,” which make a bid on narrating origins. The passage also forcefully naturalizes traditional images of fate (stars) through the use of “sidereal,” which refers to the measurement of time by comparing the earth’s rotation with fixed stars. Also relatable to the mathematical sublime (the smallness of the unit becomes an object of wonder). And such problematic beginnings will look forward to the problematic ending, in which Eliot will unsatisfactorily attempt to suture her double-plot.


[Human life] should be well-rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of the earth…a spot where the definiteness of early memories may be inwrought with affection, a kindly acquaintance with all neighbors, even to the dogs and donkeys may spread, not by sentimental effort and reflection, but as sweet habit of the blood

A rather curious importation of pre-cosmopolitan fantasies more appropriate to Mill on the Floss. By the time one gets to Deronda, these utopian visions are realized as unattainable. As opposed to earlier novels, Deronda is not about constructing a world, but showing how various characters navigate a larger society that is not conducive to their aims.



This claim, indeed, considered in what is called a rational way, might seem justifiably dismissed as illusory and even preposterous; but it was precisely what turned Mordecai’s hold on him from an appeal to his ready sympathy into a clutch on his struggling conscience.

Throughout the novel Eliot plays with the rational-emotional binary. Think of this as a way to bring the culture debate into the psychological realm. This is also an updated form of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility binary. Here, sensibility becomes the work of careful cultivation. To much sense would lead to a state literally without culture (critique of Bentham, etc.). There is also an engagement with the discourse of sympathy.


She was the first time feeling the pressure of a vast mysterious movement, for the first time being dislodged from her supremacy in her own world, and getting a sense that her horizon was but a dipping onward of an existence with which her own was revolving…[S]he could not spontaneously think of him as rightfully belonging to others more than to her. But here had come a shock which went deeper than personal jealousy—something spiritual and vaguely tremendous that thrust her away, and yet quelled all anger in self-humiliation.

The moment when the ethical force of the novel turns over the Gwendolen. Theorized in terms of receptivity to the other’s demands. Think of this within the terms of the heroine whose historical worth/validity/legibility is constantly in question. Here, the dialectic is turned: in order to become a full character in the narrative/story, she must be radically unseated from her presumed role in history. Contrawise, Daniel’s graduation into history effectively excises him from the novel.


Daniel, where a kenn personal interest was aroused, could not, more than the rest of us, continuously escape suffering from the pressure of that hard unaccomodating Actual, which has never consulted out taste and is entirely unselect…. Here undoubtedly lies the chief poetic energy:–in the force of imagination that pierces or exalts the solid fact, instead of floating among cloud-pictures.

Just one of many moments when Eliot compresses the plot-character dynamics with her artistic practice. But even here the Jewish-English binary is brought into play. Is it that English art is the best mode of representation, but Jewishness is the best object for art? Role of the author.

Jane Austen – Northanger Abbey (p. 1817)

Catherine Morland, great reader of Gothic fiction, goes to Bath with her neigbors Mr. and Mrs. Allen. She meets Isabella Thorpe, who loves her borther James Morland, who is a friend of John Thorpe, a crass soldier who fancies Catherine. Catherine meets the Tilneys, (Henry, Eleanor and the General), who like her. She eventually goes to Northanger Abbey, where she has numerous “Gothic” experiences related to the deceased mother. Isabella goes after Captain Tilney and breaks up with James Morland. The Gneral finds out from Thorpe that Catherine is not so rich and he makes her go home suddenly. Henry follows, proposes and struggles for consent, which is give after Eleanor marries an unmade rich man, thus compensating for Catherine’s relative poverty (which isn’t all that bad after all).

The Gothic – mostly in dialogue with Anne Radcliffe, the Mysteries of Udolpho and the Romance of the Forest. They structure Catherine’s epistemology—sort of a crude experiment that is better expressed in the socially conditioned perspectives of novels like Pride and Prejudice and Emma.

Conventions – Self-conscious about the “heroine,” not so easy to tell when Catherine is fashioning her actions after Camilla, for example, and when the narrator is actively interpreting certain events as appropriate or not to a heroine. Free indirect discourse is incipient but never fully deployed.

Fashion – While in Bath, Mrs. Allen is always pointing out fashion details. Her remarks will become more fully mediated in later works, as the narrator better deploys ironic takes on fashion trends.

Chapter openings and narrative experiments – During the stay in Bath, Austen uses a chapter per day method for five days straight. The effect is monotonous, self-consciously so. One senses here playing with conflicting determining categories – recit and narrative, to use Genette’s terms. What is boring, the story or the way of telling the story?

Space – Northanger Abbey is highly articulated. Every detail is mapped out such that that which is not represented becomes the obvious locus of mystery. Focus on the chest as dark secret, enclosed. Entrapment is explained and motivated. Heidggerean fear but no anxiety. Compare to other locked containers, such as in Wuthering Heights (the weird bedchamber wardrobe) or in Freud’s commentary on the three caskets in the Merchant of Venice (read and expound).

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Sherlock Holmes

Sign of Four (1890)

largely derived from Collins’ The Moonstone. Has  boat chase scene, Holmes solves the plot but does not get the treasure back…the futility of unraveling plot for the sake of plot, or perhaps just the opposite.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892)

Triangulates between Watson, Holmes and reader. Reader identification is crucial—the cards are always stacked against her, b/c of Watson’s withholding of information (not directly, but by the person writing Watson…or is it?) Holmes is a master reader, always finding reasons for everything. But at times the concept of plot is internally critiqued as a mere device, while plot is being used to tell the story.

Drug use as a substitute for the effects of narrative—Holmes is either plotting or shooting up.

  • A Scandal in Bohemia – use of the negative as a way to find result – beat by Irene Adler – the problem/threat of women remains paramount for Holmes.
  • Red-Headed League – Interesting stuff on the strangeness of life itself (as opposed to fiction), in a story that deals with biological traits – namely, red hair, which comes to represent ugly wierdness for Doyle.
  • Case of Identity – A step father becomes the suitor of his step-daughter (engaging but not marrying here) in order to maintain the constant flow of her dowry. Connect with other father/husband doublings, such as Jarndyce.
  • The Five Orange Pips – Takes the KKK as its subject – strange similarities to Sutpen in Absalom/Absalom. Unique because “fate” in the form of a storm succeeds where Holmes fails (sinks the boat of racists) though he solves the crime, he can’t being justice.

Wilkie Collins – The Woman in White (1860)

Walter Hartwright opens the novel narrating a strange encounter with a woman in white on the outskirts of London. Helps her find a carriage, and finds out that she has escaped from psych ward. Walter gets a job teaching drawing to Laura Fairlie and Marian Halcombe. He falls in love with Laura (who looks exactly like Anne), but is relieved of post because Laura is engaged to Sir Percival Glyde,a  hot-headed landed gentry who turns out to be quite awful. Walter goes to South America. Mr. Fairlie signs away Laura’s fortune (20.000 pounds). 10,000 pounds have also been left to her, but will go to Countess Fosco if she dies before the Foscos do. Laura marries, goes to Rome, and then returns. Percival spends loads of money. The hugely fat Count Fosco returns with them. Anne begins to come around (wearing white b/c of attachment to deceased Mrs. Fairlie) talking about a “Secret” that will bring Percival crashing down. Turns out her mother has told her about the secret, without giving the content, and Anne used this to advantage in youth and was consequently sent to asylum. Laura and Marian become prisoners—through an ingenious plan, Fosco and Percival switch the dead Anne with the living Laura in order to have Laura put into an insane asylum—but also mange to get the money to pay the debts. Marian breaks her out, Walter returns, and they begin to try to reconstruct the evidence that will reveal Percival’s secret and also prove Laura’s identity (the latter comes down to a matter of dates; the former comes down to a marriage log in rustic church). Percival attempts to burn the log and burns the church down with himself inside. Percival has spuriously inserted his name into the log (a sin), that in fact covers up the original sin of Philip Fairlie who fathered both Anne and Laura by different mothers. Battle continue with Fosco, who si blackmailed into writing his account of the story. He is part of an international secret society (in which Pesca is high-ranking member), he flees but is tracked down and killed in Paris. Laura and Walter are married and their child inherits Limmeridge.

Preface: Lays out form of the story: characters provide narration along a roughly chronological chain—no overlap, so the various perspectives are not complicating the scene described (they rather highlight the characters—and clarify the story)…characters becomes means to a plot. Any overlap is ABOUT PLOT NOT ABOUT CHARACTER.

Narration: both narrator and organizer of evidence.

Story vs. law: acknowledge of “facts” being inadequate to the task of narration.

Discussion of Crime: the perfect crime is one in which no one knows the crime has been committed. Think about this as form for all narrative: SECRET. Secret takes on substance.

Function of the lawyer or man of business – Mr. Gilmore is impersonal recorder of events, as pure functioning machine. Cf. Bruff in Moonstone.

MADNESS enters as medicine into a family crime (no longer associated with larger cosmic determination, but firmly domestic)

Sir Pericval’s crime is a solution to a problem via the limited protocols of marriage.

Inheritance: similar routing of the spurious inheritor as in Wuthering Heights.

Charlotte Brontë – Villette (1853)

Boring. Lucy Snow, after spending time with her cousins “Brettons” and Polly, and caring for a dying Mrs. Marchmont (gets some money from her husband in the end), leaves England and goes to a school for girls in Villette, France. Mme Beck runs the place and M. Paul Emmanuel is the main Professor. She meets Dr. John, who is actually Graham Bretton. He is in love with bitchy Ginevra Fanshawe, but gives her up eventually and has a brief friendship-affair with Lucy. But he eventually marries Polly, and the two are very happy. She falls in love with M. Paul, but not before having a lot of strange encounters with a shadowy nun who turns out to be Ginevra’s lover in disguise. Beck and Pere Silas, a creepy Catholic priest, both try to prevent the marriage (jealousy and moralism being motives). Lucy wakes one night and has a crazy opium trip while walking around the town of Villette. She eventually is given a new school by Paul, but he leaves for the West Indies and most likely dies, though the ending is ambiguous. Awful, boring book. Ugh.

Psychology – Secrets don’t drive plot, but are rather meant to indicate psychological aberrations, etc. Question whether this is different in degree or kind from the withholding of secrets in other narratives (since it is always being told retrospectively, there is always some withholding involved). At any rate, it’s clear that character supercedes plot in this novel. This relates to more general themes of concealment. Relate to Fosco’s discussion of the perfect crime, Sherlock Holmes deliberate withholding of evidence from Watson (likewise Sergeant Cuff), and draw final contrast with Jane Eyre, in which Jane finds out things at the same time as the reader.

Negative construction of hope – Look both at the passage about being home with her family (one might as well believe that it was a happy time…track how the tenor of the metaphor shifts from being a ship to being on a ship)

Also, in the end, it’s the ship that we are allowed to believe makes it back to England but KNOW has actually crashed with M. Paul on it. What is the status of hope, knowledge, and belief, especially in the context of a book about faith, etc.

A deliberate playing with conventions – note the three different story lines in which Graham, John, man who sees Lucy to girls home, can all be a part. Lucy withholding her knowledge that it IS Dr. John is crucial for the preservation of these plots.

Why is it called Villette? A primitive form of the objective correlate, in which a neatly defined gepgraphical space is necessary to contain the otherwise boundless movments of a psychological ego. Yet, when Villette is “discovered,” some sort of congruence between self and world is withheld entirely.

Surveillance (Beck, Paul, Lucy herself) compare this to Jane’s capacity to be a spectator