The unconscious Enlightenment: The origin of the novel and the logic of fantasy
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Acknowledgments iii Abstract v
Chapter 1 – Origin and Repetition 1
Chapter 2 – Education 41 Making / Unmaking the Man of Letters
Chapter 3 – Allobiography 112 Tristram Shandy and the Inscription of the Other
Chapter 4 – Contagion 168 The Politics of the Unpresentable in Daniel Defoe‘s A Journal of the Plague Year
This dissertation examines Enlightenment notions of identity, community and aesthetics as they unfold in key eighteenth-century novels, and thereby rethinks earlier theories of the novel which hold it to be merely complicit with more important trends in Enlightenment philosophy and European social development. Against this position, I uncover the novel‘s relation to a crucial dimension of human experience that is at once radically personal and yet utterly unfamiliar – both internal and external – and thus both immune to historical analysis and beyond the agency of the subject in whom it resides. Later, Freud would call this hidden terrain ―the unconscious,‖ and would discover there an obscure logic of fantasy governing human desire. I reveal that this unconscious logic actually appeared well prior to the advent of psychoanalysis, since it resides at the heart of the early novel. Chapter one, ―Origin and Repetition,‖ outlines the theoretical foundations and stakes of my intervention. According to its psychoanalytic formulation, fantasy names the subject‘s unconscious attachment to an unknown and socially unacceptable object of desire. Fantasy abides by an obscure logic which may be read within the disruptive symptoms it produces upon the surface of conscious experience, since these symptoms actually signify this forbidden desire in a displaced form. I argue that these signifiers appear within the contradictions, inconsistencies, repetitions and digressions that interrupt the narrative order of key Enlightenment texts, and that an attunement to their logic demands a method of reading that emphasizes the novel‘s disunity and internal confusion. This approach further repudiates the basic distinctions between subject and object, self and other, individual and society, and desire and reason, upon which prior theories of the novel are based.
Chapter two, ―Education: Making / Unmaking the Man of Letters,‖ puts this method into operation by situating Jean-Jacques Rousseau‘s Émile: Or, On Education along a thematic and philosophical continuum whose logical conclusion is not, as Rousseau might have hoped, the realization of a truly free human subjectivity, but the radical unfreedom of Eugénie, the depraved young ingénue from the Marquis de Sade‘s Philosophy in the Bedroom. Rousseau and the champions of child-centered education to whom his novel gave rise held education to be the process by which a pre-social, unformed individual is crafted into a reputable citizen-subject. It was Sade, however, who first uncovered what I call the economy of enjoyment at work within this process, presenting the subject of Enlightenment education as nothing more than a wholly fictional object of its author‘s despotic desire to utterly control this imagined subject‘s development, personality and beliefs. This comparison troubles the distinction between philosophy and fiction, thereby exposing Rousseau‘s influential model of the fully realized, free and self-aware subject to be the product of an untenable fantasy of subjective autonomy. Chapter three, ―Allobiography: Tristram Shandy and the Inscription of the Other‖ discovers this fantasy at work within a reflexive literary tradition that originates with Miguel de Cervantes‘ Don Quixote and culminates in Sterne‘s Tristram Shandy. Far from rejecting John Locke‘s widely-read defense of the autonomous, rational subject, I show that Tristram Shandy‘s disconnected narrative emerges precisely from the fantasy of such a subject, and thus celebrates a recalcitrant kernel of non-sense residing entirely within the field of instrumental reason. By following the numerous gaps, miscommunications, ink blots and missing pages that interrupt Sterne‘s central storyline, and by referring these gestures to other historically foundational novels, I prove that this disruptive remainder is immanent to the novel form.
Chapter four, ―Contagion: The Politics of the Unpresentable in Daniel Defoe‘s A Journalof the Plague Year,‖ extends this discussion to the question of political community through archival research and a broad reading of Defoe‘s literary project. Following Thomas Hobbes‘ argument that the sovereign can only stabilize collective belief in its authority by threatening extreme violence, I find in Defoe‘s graphic representations of the 1665 plague an attempt to reassert God‘s sovereign command over a superstitious society that found itself on the brink of total irreligious disorder. At the same time, however, Defoe‘s frequent assertion that a truly stable authority may only exist where human reason is freely practiced complicates this position, and aligns the Journal with elements of Baruch Spinoza‘s Theological-Political Treatise. I thus reconceive the novel as an important fictional mediation between these key philosophical insights, and rethink politics as the way in which a population sustains a shared fantasy of social cohesion through its fictional relationship to the sovereign authority under which it is collected.
Yes—oh, dear, yes—the novel tells a story.
— E.M. Forster
I: Origin and Repetition
There are some secret moving Springs in the Affections, which when they are set a going by some Object in view; or be it some Object, though not in view, yet rendred present to the Mind by the Power of Imagination, that Motion carries out the Soul by its Impetuosity to such violent eager embracings of the Object, that the Absence of it is insupportable.
–– Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe 1
The finding of an object is in fact a refinding of it.
–– Sigmund Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality 2
0. The Logical Division
The novel does not exist. Or let us say – and this is a complication that demands a repetition, a beginning that is not yet an origin – that the novel is, but that it does not exist. That there are novels, and that these novels do indeed exist, will not be disputed here; on the contrary, it is precisely because novels exist that it is possible to say that the novel does not. This is, first and foremost, a logical division, and as such it concerns neither total skepticism (―nothing exists‖) nor its inverse, the essentially Platonic notion that the novel, as a genre, describes a formal ideal whose properties are always partially represented within each of its concrete instantiations. By installing a bifurcation within the idea of the novel whereby we may radically distinguish its concept and its extant manifestations from what we might call its being, the representational framework in which literary works are classified according to certain
privileged elements of form should be placed on the side of existence; it is the other side of the novel, the is of the novel, that remains to be thought. The division is absolute; while it will be necessary for us – condemned as we are to the plane of existence and, as such, perpetually ostracized from that which lays beyond its reach – to approach the question of the novel through attention to particular works of literature, we must also renounce, as a structural impossibility, the point at which the two halves of this logic might be fused into a complete definition – totalized, that is, in the sense that Hegel sought to unite existence with its ontological determination in the fully enclosed, self-motivating movement of the Concept. The project that this renuncation invites is therefore in fundamental opposition to the field of literary scholarship which today calls itself the theory of the novel, insofar as the fantasmatic objective of this field is a definition that could account for each of the genre‘s prior examples and all of its still-hidden potentialities, and that could thereby circumscribe the totality of the form. Mikhail Bakhtin already sensed the futility of this effort in his assertion that the Aristotelian concept of genre enabling such conceptual totalization had been undone with the advent of this quintessentially modern literary form: This explains the extraordinary difficulty inherent in formulating a theory of the novel. For such a theory has at its heart an object of study completely different from that which theory treats in other genres. The novel is not merely one genre among other genres. Among genres long since completed and in part already dead, the novel is the only developing genre. It is the only genre that was born and nourished in a new era of world history and therefore it is deeply akin to that era, whereas the other major genres entered that era as already fixed forms, as an inheritance…. Compared with them, the novel appears to be a creature from an alien species. 3
Were it even possible, moreover, to somehow develop a comprehensive system wherein every extant novel could be isolated and indexed, or even presented in its entirety, we would at no point be able to secure this catalogue from future permutations, new experimental manifestations,
an endlessly evolving reiteration. For the novel sustains, according to Bakhtin, ―a certain semantic openendedness, a living contact with unfinished, still-evolving, contemporary reality (the openended present)‖; it is ―a genre-in-the-making, one in the vanguard of all modern literary development.‖ 4 In a word, the novel is ―the genre of becoming,‖ which is why for Bakhtin the term ―novel‖ perfectly encapsulates the genre whose principle characteristic is its incompatibility with all stable, pre-existing literary forms, and whose subject matter is often inseparable from the ever-renewing reality in which it appears. 5
Yet, sensitive though he was to the peculiar difficulties with which the theorist of the novel must struggle – difficulties which persist and, as we will see, extend to the related fields of genre theory and literary history – we must admit the relative ease with which the novel may be domesticated, its disturbing potential neutralized, its history reduced to a reflection of other, supposedly more significant socio-cultural developments, even by the open-ended definition according to which it names the genre of becoming. Accurate though his characterization may be, with Bakhtin we are still asking the question of the novel according to its temporally- conditioned existence, still occupied with the novel as an ―object of study,‖ still concerned with the determination of a concept that may allow us someday to grasp the novel in ―all its plastic possibilities,‖ or as the genre of possibility. We are still thinking chrono-logically: subordinating the logos of the novel – its reason, its cause – to the time of the novel – its history, its effects, and its reflective relationship to the unfinished drama of human existence. But the logical division suggesting that there is something to the novel that escapes the totality of its possible manifestations allows us to suspend the fantasy that has hitherto structured the question of the novel, the fantasy of a complete codification of this object through attention to the particular objects of which it is comprised. Moreover, this division divests us of our hold
in the surety of existence, such that we can no longer ask What is the novel? and expect to discover a satisfactory, that is, final response through an exhaustive examination of common, recognizable literary traits or the historical events surrounding their development. But if the copula in this question – the ―is‖ locating the point at which the critic and the novel are bound in a relationship of mutual constitution and elucidation – is no longer taken as a precondition for the work of literary interpretation and is itself given over to theorization, then a prior question must be posed: How are we to think the “is” of the novel? How is the shape of the novel, as a conceptualized object, determined by the mode of its conceptualization, and how is it in turn determinative of this mode itself? How are we to understand the distinction between, on the one hand, this ―is‖ and, on the other, the plane of existence from which the question must be posed? And why, moreover, is such a distinction proper to that which we call the novel? How are we therefore to define the novel‘s ownmost property, its very being, which does not belong to mere existence, but which cannot, for all that, be thought apart from it? This is the matrix of questions, each a variation or repetition of the question of the being of the novel, according to which the following dissertation unfolds, and in response to which everything depends upon a certain Freudian practice of reading. If, in approaching particular texts, we take care to treat them as discrete phenomena bearing witness to a deeper (ontological) structure, and not simply as derivations of an abstract formal ideal or artifacts of an observable historical reality, we might partially derive the contours of that structure from its recognizable manifestations while avoiding the trap of ascribing to the novel a fixed, discernable essence. At stake in this effort and this resistance is a return, a restoration to the novel of that inexistence which thwarts all would-be totalizing circumscriptions, or ceaselessly frustrates the very
language of conceptual definition. We may, that is, return our thinking of the novel to the province of literature, with all the defiant indeterminacy that this implies. In following the trajectory of this return, we must partially traverse the history of the novel; indeed, without its history, the novel would be unthinkable both in the profundity of its formal innovations and in the extent of its effects. And we will be forced, no doubt, to encounter this history according to a philosophical sensibility which recognizes literature as something other than an object of conceptual thought, perhaps as the principle other of conceptual thought, and thus irreducible to philosophical inquiry despite the privileged relationship through which the two are joined. 6 But if the novel is bound to both history and philosophy – if only by the often indiscernible seam along which its difference from these other modes of discursivity is traced – it is the task of yet a third mode, that of literary criticism, to stage an encounter between the novel and its others according to its irreducibility, and therefore to the (non-philosophical, non-historicizable) singularity of the literary text.
I. The Sovereign Subject of Criticism
This last complex of ideas and the work that it invites are wholly dependent upon the logic which installs a cut within the novel – a difference, therefore, which separates the novel from itself, and which further emphasizes that a concept of the novel, based upon a particular literary practice, encounters an internal limit when confronted with the question of the being of that around which the concept circulates. The incision is neither arbitrary nor entirely original, since it figures the genre‘s characteristic capacity to confound two modes of linguistic expression – the contextual and the poetic – at one and the same time. In the first of these, to which Roman Jakobson assigned the
referential function as its primary attribute, language is a medium for the exchange of information or an instrument with which to describe and order a perceptible reality; it abides by a structure of signification wherein the differential play of its constituent (signifying) elements produces meaning in accordance with a context that is mutually recognized by both the addresser and the addressee. 7 Everything that can be known, either sensibly or intellectually, is embedded within this first function insofar as its essence is to produce and circulate objects of knowledge; as such, we may situate it along the half of our logical equation that pertains to existence. Because this function presupposes that objects are given to the experience of a thinking subject prior to their signifying determinations, and that the task of this subject is to conceptualize its object through symbolic codification, it may also be called the empirical experience of language. This is the language of observation and analysis, of history and science, but it also provides the groundwork for the earliest successful experiments in the modern novel: Samuel Richardson‘s Pamela, for instance, could relate events both material and psychological for an audience to whom she and her life were entirely unknown, and could also insist upon the veracity of her testimony, because the language in which these events were delivered operated according to the relative objectivity of meaning that the referential function affords. It is not surprising, then, if literary interpretation has approached the early novel primarily from this dimension of linguistic experience, according to procedures that yield a ―meaning‖ (intended or otherwise) that a given text had previously withheld, or that ascribe to it a referential connection to objects of knowledge that are not immediately apparent, such as the historical conditions surrounding the novel‘s composition or its conformity to aesthetic (and therefore philosophical) criteria of valuation. In defiance of the referential function, and pertaining to the second half of our logical division, the novel also offers an experience of language as poiesis, which Jakobson describes as
―focus on the message for its own sake,‖ irrespective of the referential properties of the signs of which the message is comprised. This does not mean that poiesis is merely another species of referentiality in which we may situate all paradoxically self-referential linguistic units, but rather that the materiality or shape of the language itself is productive of its significance. In Jakobson‘s words, the ―conversion of a message into an enduring thing,‖ that is, into a kind of eternal object that resists exhaustion by its signifying use, is ―an inherent and effective property of poetry.‖ 8 If this structural linguistic consideration is coupled with the Platonic notion of poiesis as a making-present of intrinsically immaterial artistic forms, we might further define the task of the poetic function as the cultivation within and through language of a sensibility toward that which lies beyond its reach: language at the edge of its signifying capacities, operating at the border of the inexpressible, expressing in its very failure and in its recourse to the self-enclosure of the sign a dimension of human experience that escapes referential circumscription. According to the terms of our logic, then, poiesis marks the unsurpassable limit of the symbolic conditions by which objects of knowledge are constructed and related, its language pointing to a space beyond the existence that these empirical objects comprise. 9
If poiesis marks the limit of the referential function, if it establishes the parameters of the latter‘s reach by tracing the border beyond which it ceases to hold sway, then it follows that the poetic limitation is also a delimitation: it gives the referential function its very identity. The two are constitutionally inseparable, in other words, which means that neither function is primary to language. Poiesis must be at least as ancient as referentiality itself. 10
Even though literary criticism tends to treat poetry as the privileged site for the elaboration of the poetic function, the attunement to or deliberate cultivation of a domain of experience that evades or disrupts a referentially locatable existence is also endemic to the
tradition of the novel. As the readings that comprise this dissertation will demonstrate, the poetic function may be recognized within the eighteenth-century sentimental fictions of Sterne or Rousseau, or in the violence of Sade‘s prose, no less than in modernist literary innovations from authors like Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, or Gertrude Stein. Whatever its origin, though, this other experience of a language operating at the undecidable boundary that both joins and separates poiesis and the referential function, and that marks in the tension of this encounter the irretrievable beyond of signification as such, was not given its concept under the name literature until the advent of early German Romanticism. 11 Or, more precisely, it was the Romantics who first recognized that the co-presence of these two properties within a written work of art corresponded to an unpresentable being and a represented existence. The former, moreover, could be approached only theoretically since for the Romantics it, like Kant‘s thing-in-itself, constitutes the perpetual beyond of the limits of empirical intuition. A number of prior studies have demonstrated that this is the historical moment at which literature became a theoretical question, and that any practice of reading which implies or produces a theory of its literary object therefore remains squarely within the field of vision opened by the Romantics, no matter how far the critic diverges from this origin. 12 And yet, this divergence has become so considerable that the poetic quality of the literature upon which the Romantics built much of their aesthetic doctrine – namely, the early novel – has since been treated by certain trends in literary criticism as secondary to the genre‘s referential qualities. This is all the more surprising since the Romantics held that the novel ruptures, more dramatically than any other means of artistic expression, the certainty of shared meaning sustaining the referential function; on this view, the novel is more than a sub-genre of other literary modes, a reflection of a given set of material circumstances, an expression of authorial
intention, or a way of organizing extrinsic cultural realities. In a word, the novel is ―the poetry of poetry‖; it may, in fact, be radically heterogenous to materiality, intention, culture, or any other positive determination whenever it realizes itself in the work of literature, precisely because its realization is its theorization. Despite a reluctance to confront this buried truth of the novel and of literature as such, the apparently paradoxical suggestion that an object of literary criticism is inseparable from and does not pre-exist the act of criticism by which it is delimited saturates any contemporary theory of the novel. We may begin to disentangle this paradox if we note that the ―work of literature,‖ in this historically original sense, is less a completed literary thing than it is an unfinished and interminable process: it is only through the infinite reflective mediation and counter-mediation of artistic creation and literary criticism, of criticism as creation and creation as criticism, that literature actualizes itself as the experience of that which exceeds an objective and signifiable reality. 13 According to Walter Benjamin‘s reading, this provokes ―a coincidence of the objective and the subjective side in knowledge‖ in which neither the critical observing subject nor the observable object of critique precedes their relationship of mutual constitution and interpenetration. ―Instead, observation fixes in its view only the self-knowledge nascent in the object; or rather it, the observation, is the nascent consciousness of the object itself.‖ 14 The work of literature, in other words, consists in an expropriating mediation whereby both subject and object are collapsed into one another; the translation of the artwork into its own critical reflection frees it from its purely empirical determination – liberates it, that is, from its grounding in a knowledge of other existent objects and linguistic contexts, and from the intentionality of the author – and returns the work to itself as ―the absolute,‖ as an absolute singularity, absolutely enclosed within the critical-creative relationship, absolutely unlike any other object or idea.
If the novel is the work of literature par excellence, this is because it performs just this reflective expropriation through its usurpation of other artistic genres and literary traditions. Even in its earliest known examples – the so-called proto-novels of Heliodorus or Xenophon of Ephesus – the novel not only demonstrates an apparently infinite capacity to provoke and sustain a variegated mixture of other genres without thereby threatening its own formal coherence; more emphatically, it can be understood only as this very mixture. 15 ―Indeed,‖ Friedrich Schlegel writes, ―I can scarcely visualize a novel but as a mixture of storytelling, song and other forms.‖ 16
As such, it is ―simultaneously poetry and the poetry of poetry,‖ 17 or ―a progressive, universal poetry‖ that ―tries to and should mix and fuse poetry and prose, inspiration and criticism, the poetry of art and the poetry of nature.‖ 18 Only the novel, in its indefinability, is at once a reflection upon the artistic (poetic) dimension of language, a product of that reflection, and an invitation to once again dislocate its own objecthood through still another critical mediation. Thus, more than a century prior to the formalism of either Bakhtin or Jakobson, Schlegel elevated the genre‘s formal indeterminacy, its paradoxical resistance to the fixity characteristic of the very notion of genre, as the most rigorous possible expression of the literary absolute in its unfinished process of becoming. This, moreover, is how we should understand Schlegel‘s enigmatic assertion that ―Poetry can only be criticized by way of poetry.‖ 19 That criticism must itself be poetry, just as poetry must contain within itself the terms of its own critique, does not mean that it must adhere to the aesthetic constraints of artistic composition (although this may well facilitate the work of literature and the realization of the absolute), but only that it should privilege the absolute singularity of the work within the universe of discourse in which it appears, and that it should therefore resist the ascription of an extrinsic meaning. Benjamin again: ―not only did Schlegel‘s
concept of criticism achieve freedom from heteronymous aesthetic doctrines, but it made this freedom possible in the first place by setting up for artworks a criterion other than the rule – namely, the criterion of an immanent structure specific to the work itself.‖ 20 Romantic criticism, then, concerns only the unfolding of this immanence, even though this work is constrained by the burden of a referentially expressed existence to which language is necessarily enchained. Literature, in sum, does not describe a given set of literary objects that the literate subject might take up as the tools of her critical practice. On the contrary, the Romantic coincidence of the subjective and the objective within the literary absolute undermines the oppositional relationship in which both terms are defined relative to one another, thereby unworking the very structure of signification in which the referential function operates. Within the empirical perspective of which this function is constitutive, the question of the novel concerns its objective determination – thus: What is the novel? – and discourages an investigation of the ―is‖ that sustains the questioning subject‘s relationship to her or his text, since the uncertainty that such an investigation invites destabilizes the whole apparatus of observation and signification, of subjectivity and objectivity, that establishes the possibility of such a questioning. Against this orientation, the critical Romantic perspective elevates this ―is‖ as the very site of the absolute, and thus as the terrain on which the work of literature realizes itself through the mediation that joins the inquiring subject and the object of inquiry, inseparably and simultaneously. The often antagonistic co-existence of the referential and the poetic within the novel has determined the general trajectory of the theory of the novel, especially though not exclusively in an Anglo-American context, since at least the middle of the last century. 21 We should recognize within this internal ambivalence a correlate of the logical division between being and existence, the irreparability of which engenders a further ambivalence in the field of literary studies. If the