Tag Archives: utilitarianism

Denise Gigante – Taste (2005)

Miscellaneous Notes:

The middle-class discourse of taste, associated with the attendant ideologies of sympathy and sensibility, comes into being against the oppressive monarchial rule. Work this out in relation to contrasting interpretations of La Méduse. On the one hand, a conservative opportunity to decry an angry, voracious mob; on the other, a republican opportunity to delineate the “extreme resources” necessary for mere survival under monarchial rule. Taste becomes double-edged: “merely savages caught in the trap of their own indolence, unable to enter into the spirit of the symbolic economy of taste” (122). MALTHUS – calls cannibalism “the dreadful extremity.”

The term cannibal comes from colonial discourse, in which the word “Carib” (meaning savage) was converted into the word “Canib” and then to Cannibal.

Byron serves as hinge from discourse of cannibalism to discourse of vampirism—in which the latter becomes explicitly homosexual and ethereal.

MILTON: makes room for the gustatory in aesthetic experience [Eve paves the ways for the aesthetically discriminating man of taste], before taste begins to be sublimated, repressed and/or internally fractured in the 18th century. Milton describes and embodied mode of taste.

The man of taste gets converted into a consumer. And Gourmands in the fin-de-siècle become gastronomes and gastronomy emerges as a literary genre in his own right. Taste becomes constructed as the ability to discrimante amongst an onslaught of commodities.

John Stuart Mill

What is Poetry? (1830)

– Poetry is not metrical composition. (4)
– What makes poetry is felt. (5)
– Stories are more primitive, poetry is more advanced and mature (7)
– Poetry does not conjure the real, but it conjures a displacement of the real. (8)
Eloquence is heard, Poetry is overheard (12)
– Poet supplements the real with spontaneous imagination (20)
– Oratory/narrative/poetry


On Liberty (1859)

Mill puts for the counterintuitive requirement of government not to protect the interest of the majority only, but also to protect the interest of the minority: “protection against the tendency of society to impose, but other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them” (9). The appropriate region of human liberty is 1. the inward domain of consciousness 2. tastes and pursuits 3. to unite with other individuals for any purpose not involving harm to others. (18).

The mode of argument is strangely Darwinian: if minority opinions are repressed (represented as heresy) then culture will not be able to grow and evolve. Society, in other words, depends on these mutations. Thus individuality must be protected because it fulfills the role of sexual selection and proliferation: “The initiation os all wise or noble things, comes and must come from individuals; generally at first from some one individual” (82). On the other hand, thought and discussion serve as regulative activities, much like natural selection. “It is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied” (65). Indeed, Mill goes so far to declare the act of non serviam, the “mere example of nonconformity,” as an act of “service” (83).

Mill’s worries look forward to Hardy’s worries about an homogenized affective steady-state, and also to Nietzsche’s concerns with the stoical “acting according to nature” which results in our being metabolized by natural forces of decay:

The demand that all other people shall resemble ourselves,  grows by what it feeds on. if resistance waits till life is reduced to nearly on uniform type, all deviations from that type will come to be considered impious, immoral, even monstrous and contrary to nature. Mankind speedily becomes unable to conceive diversity, when they have been for some time unaccustomed to see it. (91)

This conflation of biologic and cultural diversity (or not) is picked up again in much of the vitalist philosophy of the early 20th-century. But Mill stays focused on the State (of England) as the crucial object of critique. He worries that a commitment to efficient social “machinery” is repressing the innate human capacity to think and live freely. The value of a state is comprised by the individuals in the state—they are the chief end. If they are sacrificed for the sake of state machine, then the vital energy required for that machine to run will be sapped away. Again, relate to Nietzsche, in which knowledge depends on life, even if it is opposed to it.


Autobiography (1873)

Opens with an extensive account of his education as conducted by his father, under the aegis of Benthamite utilitarianism. Cultivated exclusivity as means of avoiding the vulgar influences of other boys. Feeling was denigrated, as was imagination, and therefore poetry was not valued. From this Mill learned to never accept half-solution (an interesting intervention into the language of “half” that pervades poetics from Wordsworth through Tennyson). But all this led to a “Crisis in my Mental Life,” that led to Wordsworth and Coleridge and his subsequent salvation. From this he developed his theory of indirect happiness, based on Carlyle’s idea of “anti-self-consciousness.”

 I never, indeed, wavered in the conviction that happiness is the test of all rules of conduct, and the end of life. But I now thought that this end was only to be attained by not making it a direct end. Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of other,on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as means, but as itself and ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way. (92)

Indeed, Mill goes on to reject any system except that which acknowledge “the system” to be far more complex than we could ever hope to understand (104). But he nevertheless accepts an historical system of organic vs. critical eras. It seems as if his current period is one of transition: “when old notions and feelings have been unsettled, and no new doctrines have yet succeeded their ascendancy” (162). The development into an organic era depends on culture to educate the masses into a system that no longer divides along class lines–in which private property becomes coextensive with a socialist ideal. Mill connects this with the division between Intuition and Experience or Association. The latter, he claims, is more conducive to a politics of reform.

Interesting to think of Autobiography as a Bildungsroman of sorts…with JS Mill being the exact opposite of an orphan. He becomes both the giver and the receiver of education, without the sort of temporal trickery that allow sDavid Copperfield to be both subject and object of his story.

Autobiography, The Library of Liberal Arts (Bobbs-Merrill: Indianapolis, 1976)



George Gissing – New Grub Street (1891)

Jasper Milvain, great Darwinian survivor in the evolving literary market, has two sisters, Dora and Maud (whom he convinces to start writing children’s stories), to whom he constantly spouts out his cynical and frank views on what it takes to get ahead as a writer in the 1880s: ingenuity without integrity. In the country he meets the Yules: John Yule (a somewhat rich  businessman); Alred Yule (a struggling writer); Marian Yule (Alfred’s daughter and assistant, and later Jasper’s almost-wife). Eventually, the patriarch of this family will leave an inheritance to his family. Meanwhile, Edwin Reardon, married to Amy Yule (sister to John Yule), is struggling to keep up his repute as a promising author, but is failing to do because he is impractical, unable write down to the commercial demands of the marketplace. His friend, Harold Biffen, who calls his style “ignoble realism” (similar to Zola’s naturalism), is also a commercial failure. Reardon and Amy sink into poverty and eventually separate. Jasper keeps climbing the rungs, and becomes engaged to Marian after she inherits some money. Her father disapproves of the match because of Jasper’s relation to Fadge, an editor of a journal that consistently excoriates Alfred’s works. Amy also inherits money, but her and Reardon don’t get back together until Reardon is on his deathbed. Biffen almost loses his manuscript in a fire, but saves it in a dramatic scene reminiscent of the Gaskell scene in North and South. Jasper breaks off his engagement with Marian after her inheritance fails to come through. His sisters marry folks in the marketplace, and he marries Amy Yule, and soon after becomes editor of The Current, and thus achieving his dream. Biffen commits suicide after losing hope in both his literary future and his romantic future with Amy.

An important novel because of its depiction of the professional author’s position in a social world increasingly controlled by the forces of market capitalism. Indeed, one can think of this as a response to Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy: author’s may be the guardians of sweetness in light, but this guardianship is premised on a certain amount of material wealth–and more broadly on a system that has inherent class, race and gender disparities. Carlyle had already foreseen this problem in 1840 when  in Hero as Man of Letters he parsed out the double-nature of professional authorship.

The struggling idealists in the novel (Reardon and Biffen) have a complicated relationship to the Arnoldian ideal. Yes, they sight-translate from Homer, but they also aspire to be realistic in a way that is anything but a return to a golden age of Hellenic representation. Biffen calls it “an absolute realism in the sphere of the ignobly decent” (144). This is frequently contrasted to both Dickens and Zola: this first turns low class people into absurd tragic-comedic heros, the latter into tragic heroes. This is an emergence of a realism that will be peculiarly modern–and it is reflected by the form of the novel that contains it. Gissing constantly draws attention to the forces of production that allow or disallow the author “to produce,” as Benjamin would later say. This connects New Grub Street with Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and with Jacob’s Room.

In borader ideological terms, the book can be read as intervention into the debate over culture’s relationship to society–a late intervention into the utilitarian debate that spans the century. Crucially, this novel (and the novels of Reardon and Biffen) are not mechanical mimetic organs, but rather aesthetic ideals that are worked for and persistently defended. Can relate this to Lukacs’ Theory of the Novel.

The Museum Reading, “the valley of the shadow of books,” is a crucial image that connects this book to both Jacob’s Room and A Room of One’s Own.  It represents a literature that is dead–fit for copying and recopying….

Key Passages:

Art must be practices as a trade, at all events in our time. This is the age of trade. Of course, if one refuses to be of one’s time, and yet hasn’t the means to live independently, what can result but breakdown and wretchedness? (51)

Connect this idea of untimeliness to Arnold’s idea of the untimely, penultimate critic. Gissing, again, giving material flesh to Arnold’s thoughts.

For months he had been living in this way; endless circling, perpetual beginning, followed by frustration. A sign of exhaustion, it of course made exhaustion more complete. At times he was on the border-land of imbecility; his mind looked into a cloudy chaos, a shapeless whirl of nothings.  (123)

Connect this to the opening of Daniel Deronda, where Eliot talks about the arbitrariness of making a beginning. Gissing gives on more turn to the problem of beginnings (use Copperfield as an example, and before that, Pride and Prejudice), by showing the physicality the process of writing. Reardon’s investment in his story backfires onto his psyche. New Grub Street, however, starts with ease–but with Jasper Milvain, cracking an egg as a man gets hung and bell tolls–the convergence of the political, personal, etc.–the fiction of freedom, the tightness of the ISA–is the condition of all beginnings. Also, the idea of “the abyss” is picked up by Forster in Howard’s End, when talking about Leonard Bast. That narrative similarly describes the precariousness of the petty-bourgeois existence.

You have to become famous before you can secure the attention that would give you fame. (385)

A motto coined by Jasper Milvain, which spell out clearly the Catch-22 structuring the lives of just about every author. Marks out the (now-legible) relationship between fiction and the critics as overdetermined.

It was an excellent piece of writing (see the Wayside, June 1884), and in places touched with true emotion. (462)

A bid on realism by way of extra-diagetic empirical verification.

 I would have the paper address itself to the quarter-educated; that is to day, the great new generation that is being turned out by the Board schools, the young men and women who can just read, but are incapable of sustained attention…bits of stories, bits of description, bits of scandal, bits of jokes, bit sof statistics, bits of foolery. Am I not right? Everything must be short, two inches at utmost; their attention can’t sustain itself beyond two inches. Even chat is too solid for them: they want chit-chat. (460)

This vision of bite-size prose comes toward the end of the novel, and has an obvious historical referent in Tit-Bits. An interesting commentary on the size of writing (contrast to the sheer bigness of the Victorian long poem), the time of reading (cf. I.A. Richards and Quiller-Couch), the fragment now reified as that best suited to the demands of industrialized consciousness: the quarter-educated.




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.

Elizabeth Gaskell – Mary Barton (1848)

Mary is the daughter of John Barton, a worker that is actively involved in the labor movement and is critical of the current means of wealth distribution. His wife dies (along with all of his other children) in the first few chapters, leaving him with Mary, who becomes the object of Jem Wilson’s affection (anothe honest laborer) and Henry Carson’s affection (the son of Carson, the tycoon that runs the show in Manchester). Esther, the sister of Barton’s wife, returns to warn him to save Mary but he ignores her. Carson won’t marry Mary, and Jem knocks him down. Carson is killed and Jen is arrested on suspicion, but Mary (after seeing the piece of paper with her name on it) realizes that her father committed the crime (he was randomly selected to do so by his quai-anarchist Chartists). She tries to get an alibi and only barley catches Will Ladislaw’s ship before it leaves for another voyage. In court, Will returns just in time and Jem is found not guilty, but Mary swoons and almost does not recover. Eventually Barton confesses to Carson that he killed his son but he explains his motives as part of the poor fighting against the rich. Carson reads the Bible and decides nto to prosecute, and Barton dies in his hands. Jem and Mary get married and move to Canada. Margaret (a friend of Mary and a great singer) gets back her sight and marries Will.

Depiction of the working class from the perspective of the working class. She claims her original impetus in the Preface: “when I bethought me how deep might be the romance in the lives of some of those who elbowed me daily in the busy streets of the town i resided.” To this end, the first half of the novel is devoted to “vivid” portraits of daily life in contrast to the sumptuous excess of the Carsons, while the second half of the novel revolves around the murder plot. There is an insistence on the maternal aspect of the working poor (men themselves must become maternal) as opposed to coldness of bourgeoisie.

Characterization is typical Gaskell, who attempts to create characters that are out of her control. A good example is Mary swooning in the court scene. The attempt to make them “life like” will be taken up in various ways by Eliot in particular, but not so much by Dickens or even James.

The mode of observing the streets at street level is merged with more abstract generalization. The convergence is on what we might call “personally verifiable material”–objective facts gathered through authorial experience. There is this an increased physicality and attention to detail that links her with someone like Engels. All this leads towards the goal of conveying “a sense of the real,” in Gaskell’s own words.

The mob: More prevalent in North and South, but the revolutions of the late 40s certainly registers as being connected to the struggles of the working class poor, and the fear that this will disrupt English stability.

The Chartists made demands fueled by economic hardship and fueled by the Corn Laws, which kept the price of gild high.

In terms of narrative, there is an attention to the interplay between knowing and speaking. Various characters can know things and don’t speak them, while others speak without knowing. Both are dangerous. Gaskell herself admits to knowing nothing about Political Economy, but goes on speaking about. The narrator has the most confident voice, but language itself repeatedly fails–perhaps pointing in the end, to a call for better listening above all.

Brigid Lowe (2005) uses Henry James dictum–the novelist is someone “upon whom nothing is lost”–as a way of locating Gaskell at the beginning of a tradition that stretches past James and into Joyce: the figure of the realist novelist who not only orders materials, but gathers and amasses detail. Woolf would complain about this impulse to focus on the trivial (an imposition of a modernist aesthetic peculiarly masculine according to Lowe), even though Gaskell’s attention to concrete detail is what earned her praise, and admiration from the like of George Eliot. Mary Barton in particular claims that workers are the fit subject for literature, in a way similar (but different) to Dicken’s attempt in Bleak House to look at the Romantic side of ordinary life. Pity is not always called for overtly, but the reader is able to feel poverty’s encroachment. In Mary Barton, there is still the hope that classes will be reunited into a social whole. In North and South, in response to criticisms that her first novel was one-sided or overly optimistic, Gaskell would portray the goal of various innovations (of factory owners) as hopefully softening the violence between classes. But the ending of that novel is not so hopeful, as the owner becomes churned up in the very turbulence of financial misery he sought ameliorate by reform, etc.

Thomas Carlyle – Heroes and Hero Worship (1840-41)

The theme of this lecture series is: “Universal History, the history of what man  has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here.” Only a hero can resolve the tangled contradictions that belief in utilitarianism has led to.

The Hero is her who lives in the inward sphere of things, in the True, Divine and Eternal, which exists always, unseen to most, under the Temporary, Trivial: his being is in that; he declares that abroad, by act or speech as it may be, in declaring himself abroad. (236)

There is an expressive rather than communicative aspect to these men of letters., that can nevertheless tip over into the didactic:

Men of Letters are a perpetual Priesthood, from age to age, teaching all men that a God is still present in their life; that all ‘Appearance,’ whatsoever we see in the world, is but as a vesture for the ‘Divine Idea of the World,’ for ‘that which lies at the bottom of Appearance.’ (237)

Men of letters are not “the momentous one,” but they are individuals, “an infinitesimal fraction of the great body; they can struggle on, and live or else die, as they have been wont. But it deeply concerns the whole society, whether it will set its light on high places, to walk thereby; or trample it under foot, and scatter it in all the ways of wild waste (not without conflagration), as heretofore. Not only societal disuse poses a threat to men of letters, but the whole culture of skepticism that claims mechanism as the secret of the universe. Men of letters fight against this claim…this is their mission.


Thomas Carlyle – Signs of the Times (1829)

Can be read as prototypical critique of the acceptance of utilitarian values (anticipating both Ruskin’s Unto this Last and Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy). Focuses on the fact of transition: “All men are aware that the present is a crisis of this sort; and why it has become so…Those things that seemed fixed (like the church) and immovable; deep as the foundations of the world and lo, in a moment they have vanished, and their place knows them no more” (62)! Carlyle is intent, however, on giving a program for action, which entails a robust Understanding of the Present as the convergence of Past and Future:

The poorest Day that passes over us is te conflux of two Eternities; it is made up of currents that issue from the remotest Past, and flow onwards into the remotest Future. We were wise indeed, could we discern truly the signs of our time; and by knowledge of its wants and advantages, wisely adjust our own position in it. Let us, instead of gazing idly into the obscure distance, look calmly around us,  for a little, on the perplexed scene where we stand. Perhaps, on a more serious inspection, something of its perplexity will disappear, some of its distinctive characters and deeper tendencies more clearly reveal themselves; whereby our own relations to it, our own true aims and endeavors in it, may also becomes clear. (64)

He makes the argument that the “Soul-Politic” is being ignored while the “Body-Politic” is “more than ever worshipped” (71). This is the result of a focus on the mechanical rather than dynamical aspects of life. The dynamical refers to those spontaneous, unsolicited gifts of nature: art and science. the point here is that the logic of “Profit and Loss” has no place in the realm of art, since it is completely unable to either produce or regulate its movements. Via art and science, so does “man, in every age, vindicate, consciously or unconsciously, his celestial birthright” (75). Carlyle argues for a proper balance of the dynamic and the mechanic, and locates the process of this balancing act in the individual perfection of the self. That’s the conclusion: but he gets there by way astronomical predictions. (85)