Tag Archives: inheritance

T.S. Eliot – Non-fiction (1919-23)

Tradition and and the Individual Talent (1919)

Eliot is struggling to articulate how, once the “newness” of poetic expression has become cliché, someone can still make something new. He turns to tradition, which he claims is not passively inherited, but must be acquired with great labor. “The historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence” (38). What happens when an artist makes something new, happens simultaneously to every great work of art that has come before. Each new work of art alters the entire tradition, at least in some small way. “The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered.” Thus in relation to this tradition, the work of the artist becomes that of self-sacrifice, “a continual extinction of personality.” He then says that the mind of the artist if like a “shred of platinum” that acts as a catalyst for two gases to become sulfurous acid. This chemical analogy bears a strange relation to Woolf’s “atomic” theory in “Modern Fiction.” He thus argues against a poetics of personality:

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But of course only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from those things. (43)

Metaphysical Poets (1919)

A book review that turns into a theory of literary history and poetics tout court. Eliot defends folks like Donne from critics like Johnson, who wrote disparagingly of them that, “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.” Rather than think of them as a failed aberration from the heritage of English poetry (Milton, Wordsworth, Tennyson, etc.), Eliot wants to say that there is something valuable in this poetry that has been lost–namely, the coincidence of thought and feeling.

A thought in Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly quipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noises of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes. (64)

Since their time, Eliot believes, we have suffered and are still suffering from a dissociation of sensibility–an inability to unify sensibility with thought (Shelley almost does in Triumph of Life, but he dies, along with Keats). Thus poetry today must be “difficult,” as he famously writes, since it needs to deal with complexity and fragmentations heretofore not experienced.

Ulysses, Order and Myth (1923)

Opens by praising Larbaud’s review of Joyce, which calls attention to the Odyssey parallels, and by criticizing Aldingtion’s review, which accused Joyce’s method of being undisciplined and vulgar. Eliot first defines classicism (drawing from Hulme), as something which all good literature strives for within the possibilities of its space and time–that is, not a fixed historical term, but a living category undergoing transformation. Joyce’s ability to deal with living material in a classical matter, Eliot believes, has the importance of a scientific discovery. It is not a novel, because the novel was the product of an age that has not lost its form enough to feel the need for something stricter (177). Along with Lewis’ Tarr, Eliot foretells the death of the novel. James and Flaubert were the last.

Thus Joyce employs the mythical method, which is a way of “controlling, ordering, giving shape and significance to the anarchy and futility which is contemporary history.” He says that Yeats has also done this (look at Easter 1916 for one example, but probably best to look at Leda and the Swan). It is through this method, that Joyce helps makes “the modern world possible for art,” which means that art has a intervening power beyond mere description. It can create it material. Very interesting to think of Tarr as employing the mythical method. One wonders….


Robert Louis Stevenson – The Master of Ballantrae (1889)

A sprawling jumble of things are crammed into this pretty stellar novel: adventure, family saga, historical fiction, pioneer exploration, buried treasure, etc. Centers on the Durie family, comprised of the father Henry (Lord of Durrisdere), his second son Henry (the current Lord), and his first son James (The Master of Ballantrae). The tension between the two sons is the main plot-mover, which is narrated almost entirely by Mackellar, a servant in the house of Durie. He is drawn rationally and morally to the cerebral but week Henry, but is drawn affectively to the morally corrupt, romantic “master of the arts and graces,” Katherine, a wealthy Scotitsh noblewoman, marries Henry despite loving James. James (who is presumed dead) returns to the house of his fathers, despite being a wanted man in Scotland,  after traveling on a pirate ship with the Irish Jacobite Francis Burke (some of the narration is pulled from his MS). After insulting his brother one too many times, they have a duel, where James seemingly kills him. But he doesn’t die. He escapes and travels throughout the orient, mostly India, where he picks up the Indian servant Secundra Dass. He returns and Henry and his wife (and two children) go to New York. Mackellar watches over James, but they eventually follow. Once there, James leads an expedition to recover the treasure he buried after escaping from the pirate ship with half the booty. An attempt to take the treasure all for himself, he buries himself alive. When Henry, refusing to believe that his brother has died, journeys back to his grave, they find Secundra Dass digging him up (he has learned to swallow his tongue). He comes to life for a single moment, and Henry and James die simultaneously. Mackellar writes their epitaphs, which reveal his conflicted sympathies.

Voice vs. wirting: can think of as elaborate competition for mastery between Mackellar’s “will to narrative” and the protean capacities of the Master charm, elude and evade any sort of simple representation by way of song, polygotism, etc. The final engraving could be read as MacKellar’s final victory, but the tune of his intended story has changed so much that the Master appears to have rewritten the story. Also, the tombstone will hardly ever be read, hidden as it is the in the American widlerness.

Life and Renewal: A pretty damning critique of 19th century tales of renewal. Can compare to Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, where drowning in Thames becomes the means for narrative rebirth. Or even to the end of Mill on the Floss, where the two characters are sublimated into some sort of aesthetico-natural landscape. Not so here. James keeps coming back to life, but to end…he cannot successfully write himself into a lineage or a history that would make such rebirth socially payoff--and their being swallowed by the American landscape seem less a moment of aesthetic colonization, than the withered failure of a line.

Servant narrator: Mackellar can be read in conjunction with Gabriel Betteridge (Moonstone) and Nelly Dean (Wuthering Heights). They became useful means (devices) for refracting the differences of their masters–for instance, that one need choose between two masters becomes an issue because it is shot through the consciousness of Mackellar. He not only struggles between two masters, but also between modes of narration: between the tragic decline of the House of Durie and the more sympathetic-practical modes of realism. And there is a related tension between tragedy and the story of the story itself, which constantly threatens to fracture that tragic glaze.

The Master: As much as we are supposed to sympathize with the Master, we should also recognize that Stevenson is hollowing out the trope of the Byronic hero–or at least disassociating the literary heroism from political constancy (James gets immunity in Scotland by becoming a political spy for England).

Inheritance and history: In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff interrupts the family chain of inheritance, which is then restored in the end. But here the family line is “interrupted” by none other than the heir himself.

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.

Jean Rhys – Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

A “rewrite” of Jane Eyre, this novel tells the back-story of Bertha Rochester (Antoinette Cosway) before she is locked in the attic at Thornfield. Antoinette is a white creole living in Jamiaca, the daughter of a slave-owner and a mother who is purportedly crazy. Her nurse/maid  is Christophine, who plays a similar roll to St. John Rivers (neither novel can fully contain their stories). At a young age, Antoinette’s house is burnt down, following the Emancipation of slaves. After a brief sejour in a convent (her mother has moved to the countryside) her step-father Mr. Mason “provides for her” by arranging a marriage between her an unnamed man from England, presumably Mr. Rochester. He narrates the second part of the novel, which tells of their marriage that goes through a honeymoon phase before souring completely. Rochester has married for money, and now he feels the burden of having what some angry quack has called a “madwoman.” He readily adopts these fears, believing that Antoinette, Christophine and the entire Jamaican landscape harbor the secret that will destroy him (the secret turns out to be nothing other than the violence of colonial slavery). Antoinette, whom he violently renames Bertha, want shim to love her, so has Christophine (who practices the magical obeah) give him a “love potion” that makes him sick.  Ant moves with Christophine to some place in the countryside where she attempts to recover from an illness. The third section opens with Antoinette now narrating. She is in England, being nursed and jailed by Grace Poole. She  assaults he step-brother Richard Mason after he does not “recognize” her. She then burns down the house, but not before seeing herself in the mirror as the ghost that haunts Thornfield Hall.

As re-writing of Jane Eyre, the political consequences of Rhys’ novel cuts both ways. On the one hand, it gives a face and history to a character that, in the original, was merely a “madwoman in the attic” that needed to be repressed for Jane’s emergence as chaste, moral, properly feminine, etc. But Spivak argues, convincingly, that such an argument appropriates the form of individualization that radical feminism, and critique more generally, should unsettle or reject. In Spivak’s reading, Bertha self-immolates so that Jane can emerge as the individualized feminist heroine  of European literature. The true Other, Christophine, remains outside this circuit of Western literature, the dialogue between literary feminists, because she is not just a white Creole, but a servant that is displaced from her home country Martinique from the very beginning.

Interesting endpoint for looking at the trope of the looking-glass. Antoinette sees herself in Tia just as the latter the latter throw a rock at her head. She herself in the eyes of the other. What are the ethical stakes of this identification. How does it differ from the self-recognition that occurs at the end of the novel, where Antoinette sees herself as the necessary sacrifice for the emergence of Jane Eyre/Jane Eyre? Connect to Wilde’s comments on cracked looking-glass, Joyce on cracked looking glass, and deKoven on mirrors, water, etc.

Mother-daughter text – Rhys’ novel is the daughter text that seeks to be the mother text. Compare to Zadie Smith’s rewriting of Howard’s End.

Literary history – the patronymic in the form of English literature is eaten away as Rochester scans the decaying book collection at the old mansion.

Narration – Rochester granted the role of narrator for all of second part. Does this render him sympathetic? Perhaps. Talk about the novel as Antoinette’s “quest” for a voice. The opening section’s voice is able to ventriloquize the thoughts of the town itself…the voice of the third section has fully imbricated itself into a text that has already been written. How qualified is that power of writing? Connect to the emergence of Stephen’s voice at the end of Portrait.

E.M. Forster – Howard’s End (1910)

Start off with letters written from Helen Schlegel to her sister Margaret about her  (Helen’s) stay with the Wilcoxes. She’s fallen in love with youngest son Paul, which sparks a minor scandal. Mrs. Wilcox, the elm-tree symbolizing everything old and passing in England, settles everything. Time passes. Helena and Meg, and their younger brother Tibby (figure for Forster), go to a Beethoven concert where they meet Leonard Bast because Helen accidentally took is umbrella. The Wilcoxes move to London and Meg and Mrs. Wilcox become friends. Meg almost goes to Howard’s End but Mrs. Wilcox dies (she leaves the house to Meg, but Henry burns the letter). Mr. Wilcox pursues and eventually marries Meg while the Schlegels are moving everything out of their childhood home. Meanwhile, Leonard, who had been advised by Henry Wilcox to change jobs, loses it all together and teeters on the abyss. Helen is upset with Wilcox, who dismisses the lower classes, whereas Helen has fairly naive notion of charitable efficacy. Meg and Henry go up North to one of his houses. Helen shows up with Bast and his wife, both of whom are basically homeless , and Helen sleeps with Bast, gets pregnant, and leaves the country. It turns out that Henry had slept with Mrs. bast while married to Mrs. Wilcox. Helen eventually returns, pregnant. Tibby accidentally tells Charles Wilcox that Leonard Bast is the father. Henry tires to take control of the situation from a moral high ground that Meg undercuts by drawing attention to their parallel situations. Charles rushes back to Howard’s End at the same time that Leonard has turned up to apologize. He hits him the dull edge of the family sword and a bunch of books fall on him. He dies from a heart attack and Charles goes to prison. Henry never recovers. Meg, Helen, Henry and Helen’s child all live at Howard’s End, while London continues to encroach.

Key Passages:

The mask fell off the city, and she [Margaret] saw it for what it really is—a caricature of infinity. The familiar barriers, the street along which she moved, the houses between which she had made her little journeys for so many years, became negligible suddenly. Helen seemed one with the grimy trees and the traffic and the slowly flowing slabs of mud. She had accomplished a hideous act of renunciation and returned to the One. Margaret’s own faith held firm. She knew the human soul will be merged, if it be merged at all, with the stars and the sea. Yet she felt her sister had been going amiss for some years. It was symbolic the catastrophe should come now, while rain fell slowly.

An instance of the “One” that does so much work in this novel: Forster is self-conscious about the position his characters and his narrator take up towards reality–the one is only as inclusive as it is exclusive. And connect this to the “bridge party” in Passage to India, where someone “needs” to be excluded if it is going to mean anything. The exclusion in Howard’s End is overt:

We are not concerned with the very poor. They are unthinkable, and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet. This story deals with gentlefolk, or with those who are obliged to pretend that they are gentlefolk. (45)

Leonard Bast is constantly teetering on the borders of the narrative scope, “a goblin footfall” intimating the abrupt intrusion of the “unseen” on the “seen.” That these metaphysical categories, associated with the Schlegel “German” social idealism, map neatly onto the exclusionary politics of London society is exactly the point. In this way, it can be connected to “one of us” in Conrad’s Lord Jim, or the more overtly compromised “good people” in Ford’s The Good Soldier. Meg becomes conscious of the economic underpinnings that make possible the point of view assumed by the narrator: “islands of money” that cannot be shaken is what distinguishes her from Leonard, who always looks into the abyss. The concept of the abyss can be connected to New Grub Street‘s Reardon, who likens the process of writer’s block to walking near both a creative and economic abyss.

The concept of pastoral is also crucial: Howard’s End is slowing losing ground to the suburbs of London. Forster calls it the Age of Luggage, in which the English, no longer rooted to land, are reduced to nomads. Interesting in light of Marx’s stuff on the transition from Feudalism to Capitalism More locally, could be thought of in terms of Disareli’s “Two Englands.” that maintained a symbolic feudalism supposed to stem the cultural decline associated with capital flow.

Device vs. symbol: the wych-elm as organic symbol, the umbrella as a device that shed light on various social categories.

The ending is somehow too perfect. What is took to get to that ending: a couple deaths, an unwanted pregnancy,  and an arrest.

Also, in terms of ethics, Forster seems to be playing with the fine line between personal and systemic failures–how doe they differ and how do they converge. Can we think of personal failures as the realm of morals, and systemic failures (doing something that’s “right” but nevertheless “wrong”) as the realm of ethics? Meg finds herself negotiating these questions often.

Connect to Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, which is supposed to be a re-writing of Howard’s End. My question from Dori Hale’s class:

If a novel is meant to stand in a complicated mimetic relation to the raw material of a shared world, then what is at stake when the raw material becomes (at least in part) a shared text? The arena of critique—that convergence of text and world—becomes doubled by the convergence of text and text. Smith’s project, I want to suggest, dramatizes the non-coincidental agreement between these two convergences. The image of a rectangle (a semiotic rectangle?) presents itself. Each novel exists in horizontal relation to their perspective worlds (England 1900/America 2000) and these two relations are in vertical relation to one another.

So, concretely, the reader is asked to mediate this rectangle with questions that are always doubled: 1) Is Smith accurately representing the politics of a small liberal arts faculty? 2) Is Smith accurately translating Forster’s portrait of early 20th-century English class dynamics into the tangle of race/class dynamics of a 21st century New England college town? The doubled-question often requires a doubled, internally fractured answer: where answering affirmative to the first requires answering in the negative to second, and visa-versa. This does two things:

1) It makes a case for the strong relevance of an historical text to our cotemporary world, but qualifies this claim by enacting a creative appropriation (reading/writing) of the text as the pre-condition for relevance. Read this way, On Beauty is a long allegory for the practice of good reading. I’m thinking here of folks like Miller, Derrida, and Guillory, all of whom claim that (close) reading is the ethical practice par excellence. Wouldn’t mind talking about this claim in context of Smith.

2) According to the introduction to Thinking Allegory Otherwise, a recent collection of essays published by Stanford UP (don’t recall it, I’ll know it was you!), “The standard definition for “allegory” is to say one thing and mean another. Allegory has always demanded that we think otherwise” (7). What is this otherwise? In the case of On Beauty, I think it might be those spaces of non-coincidence, when the rectangle I described earlier fails to contain the doubled mimesis of text-world/text-text. So, this second point dramatizes the failure of the first, and the novel becomes a way of measuring these failures.

Where does this happen in the text? This is a question that needs asking, because Smith’s novel demands that we hear “Where does this happen in the world” each time we ask it. I’m not up to the task just now.


Elizabeth Gaskell – North and South (1854-55)

The heroine Margaret Hale lives in Helstone in the South of England–which is associated with old pastoral England, the aristocracy, etc–with her father, a clergyman, and her mother (kind of a bitch) and the servant Dixon, who constantly threatens to usurp the daughter role. The father leaves the church out of religious conviction and moves North to Milton. There she meets the Higgins family (whom she takes on as a charity project, but soon becomes their friend) and John Thornton, a captain of industry (with an awful mother), that callenges her Southern prejudices. While facing down an angry mob, Margaret runs outside and tries to save Thornton and gets hit in the head. She loses blood. Thornton is totally in love with Margaret, and pursues her vigorously even after multiple rejections. With the mother Hale dying, Frederick Hale (who is wanted for mutiny) returns to England. John sees him and Meg at the train station and assumes it is her lover. While there, Fred accidentally kills someone that’s trying to turn him in. When asked later about the event, Meg denies having been there, but she finds out that John knows after the case is dropped. Now all this time Hale is doing fine giving tutoring lessons but he goes to visit his old friend Mr. Bell at Oxford and suddenly dies there. Bell basically adopts Meg  and she will later inherit his money and be super rich. Meanwhile, the poor factory conditions drive a mob to try to oust Thronton, who can’t hold up for too long after repeated strikes. [side note: Boucher, the person who threw the rock at Meg, drowns himself in a puddle of water]. The Higgins family is a paragon of community responsibility, adopting children, etc. Thornton ends up losing all his money, but after a while he marries Meg and her fortune saves the Mill, etc.

North vs. South – many passages detailing the difference between the industrial north and the agricultural south. interestingly, when Meg returns to Helstone, things have already changed, which calls into question the foundation of her original judgment…or perhaps, her time in the urban space makes possible the pastoral encounter that before was only a pastoral ideal. But a shift to thinking about the urban poor rather than rustic is crucial, because it upsets the country/ctiy divide that founded much of Wordsworth, etc. pontification.

Brigid Lowe (2005) argues that North and South dramatizes the tension between permanence and change. Time seems to move at carrying speeds according to the geography. But there is also the tension between a realism of everyday life and “narrative itself — the plotting inexorably leads Margaret, and the reader, away from homeliness” (204). An interesting contrast to the homeliness-unhomeliness binary in something like Villette, where breaking from the domestic becomes the liberating possibility allowed by fictional narrative.

Charles DIckens – Oliver Twist (1836-37)

Oliver Twist is born to Agnes (who immediately dies) in a workhouse. He is raised by Mrs. Mann until moving to a workhouse run by the beadle Mr. Bumble. While there, he asks for more soup. He gets into a skirmish with Noah Claypole, who insulted Agnes, and after being beaten by Bumble (the Sowerberries are also complicit) runs  away to London. He has heard that there are new and unimaginable ways of life to be led there. He runs into the Artful Dodger (John Sawkins), who introduces him to Fagin, along with Charley Bates,  Nancy, Charlotte, and eventually Bill Sikes. He gets picked up by Mr. Bromlow after Dodger and Bates attempt to rob him. He thrives while there but is soon captured by Nancy and Bill. Fagin lets Oliver go on a robbery with Sikes in the country side. Oliver gets shot and takes shelter with people he attempted to rob (this is where he meets Rose Maylie). He thinks he sees Fagin and Monks at some point in time, but they can’t track them down. Monks (who turns out to be Oliver’s half-brother by a different mother) has conspired with Fagin to sully Oliver’s reputation because his inheritance depends on maintaining perfect morality. Nancy, who feels awful about recapturing Oliver, confesses to Rosa and Bromlow and tells them that Fagin and Monks are attempting another kidnapping. Noah Claypole overhears this and tells Fagin, who tell Sikes, who then kills Nancy. He flees the city. He returns to the city where he holes up with the others (the Dodger has already been imprisoned) but somehow hangs himself. His dog jumps off the roof. Harry Maylie marries Rosa (who cares!), and Oliver grows up comfortably under Bromlow. Fagin is executed.

The 1834 New Poor Law: Dickens critiques new law by registering its effects on a child. Strict dietary regimes, etc, are satirized in the opening sequences, but much of that drops out in the latter London sections.

Narrative structure: sloppy overall, with a hidden subplot (Monks) that comes with its own humungous backstory only towards the end of the novel. This is not a Bildungsroman, because Oliver has no choice; rather, he is knocked about by various social forces.

Characters: Dickens has nto yet masted the art of the secondary character. Here they take on great vibrancy (Dodger, Monks, Bumble, etc.) but they do not effectively complicate the dynamics of central plot. Curious to acces in terms of narrative desiring-production. How are these characters excessive in ways that they are not in Bleak House or Copperfield. In Our Mutual Friend, the writing becomes excessive.

Orphan: As counterexample to peter Brooks characterization of bildungsroman.

Omniscient and self-conscious narrator: at times clumsy, drawing attention to important events in ways that undercut their narrative power.

Mob: Half of London tracks down Bill Sikes and calls for his death. A mob with its heart in the right place.

Violence: blow-by-blow account of Nancy’s murder.

Anti-Semitism in portrait of Fagin