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A Gothic History of the British Novel

A Gothic History of the British Novel
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  Proof 1234567891011121314151617181920212223242526272829303132333435363738394041 103 7 A Gothic History of the British Novel Nancy Armstrong  Over two centuries ago, Sir Walter Scott set the generic standard for the novel by singling out Jane Austen’s  Emma  as the first mature example of ‘the art of copying from nature as she really exists in the common walks of life’. 1  Franco Moretti has recently called our attention to the sheer number of novels that deliberately reject this mimetic standard. 2  Where we used to assume their eccentricity, Moretti’s study forces us to consider what this sizable body of fiction might say about the limita-tions of those novels that do observe Scott’s criterion for maturity. To address this question, I will advance five propositions designed to coun-ter the ingrained habit of reading novels as models, however distorted, of people and events likely to occur, as Scott suggests, in the world outside the novel. When some version of realism is allowed to define the genre, it inevitably favours novels in which individuals succeed or fail to distinguish themselves as individuals and secure position for themselves within society. But if, as Moretti’s quantitative method sug-gests, realism is in material terms a subgenre of the novel form, then we ought to ask ourselves what alternative model of self and society are we likely to ignore whenever we favour realism. Based on the broad-based and continuous popularity of Gothic fiction, I shall refer to the literary history that emerges when we privilege forms of fiction that observe this other form as a ‘Gothic’ history of the British novel. Comprising the spine of this history are not only enduring works of Gothic fiction but also novels – like those of the Brontës and Dickens – that canon-makers could not completely brush aside but allowed to cling to the margins of the ‘great tradition’. Rather than consider what Austen, Eliot and those regarded as their precursors or inheritors included when they claimed to be copying from ‘nature’, I want to consider what elements of their fiction the canonisers factored out in order to 9781137026972_08_cha07 indd 103 9781137026972_08_cha07.indd 103 10/28/2013 11:10:48 AM 10/28/2013 11:10:48 AM This file is to be used only for a purpose specified by Palgrave Macmillan, such as checking proofs, preparing an index,reviewing, endorsing or planning coursework/other institutional needs. You may store and print the file and share it withothers helping you with the specified purpose, but under no circumstances may the file be distributed or otherwise madeaccessible to any other third parties without the express prior permission of Palgrave Macmillan.Please contact if you have any queries regarding use of the file.  Proof 1234567891011121314151617181920212223242526272829303132333435363738394041 104 New Directions in the History of the Novel validate this claim. If we accept the principle that any cultural moment, including that which saw the so-called ‘rise of the novel’, defines itself chiefly by relegating to nature what that culture considers contrary to itself, then we must assume the presence of a third category composed of material that falls on both sides of the culture–nature divide. This is material from which some synthesis might be imagined. In addi-tion to the stuff of potential reconciliations of culture and nature, or compromise formations, the culture–nature opposition implies a fourth category containing material that is as hostile to the reigning concept of nature as to the concept of culture that is counterposed to it. This double negation of nature and culture generates the forms that a given culture excludes from its conceptual universe altogether, and it is out of such material that genuinely new concepts emerge. 3  The Gothic form of the British novel  First proposition : Gothic fiction sees realism as too narrowly focused on whatever a readership can know about the world and on each reader being able to know in approximately the same way. Gothic fiction thus exposes the limitations of realism. To make this point, Gothic fiction endows objects with the properties of subjects (Horace Walpole’s animated helmet for example). Despite the fact John Locke assigned objects to a world distinct from and subject to human reason, he nevertheless saw objects – beginning with our bodies and including those objects with which we mix our intellectual, emotional, and physical labour – as extensions of the self. In questioning that distinction, Gothic fiction challenges another opposition essential to modern secular societies whenever it allows the dead to intermingle with the living (as does Bram Stoker’s gentleman vampire). Finally, the Gothic novel character-istically inverts the control of mind over body (in the manner of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Mr Hyde). Attuned more to David Hume’s psychology than to Locke’s, Gothic fiction suggests that individuals think as much through the body and its milieu as through self-conscious cognition, which often seems to blend with and be prodded into consciousness by a prior level of decision-making. By exposing the limits of what is common sense at a given moment, these and other Gothic tropes insist that fiction itself provides the means of knowing more and otherwise. Where normative perception and forms of realism that cater to it reward us with the meagre pleasure of cognitive control, Gothic fiction offers the considerable thrill of reconceptualising ‘nature as she really exists in the common walks of life’. As if to insist that turnabout is only fair 9781137026972_08_cha07 indd 104 9781137026972_08_cha07.indd 104 10/28/2013 11:10:48 AM 10/28/2013 11:10:48 AM  Proof 1234567891011121314151617181920212223242526272829303132333435363738394041 Nancy Armstrong 105 play, Gothic fiction says of canonical fiction much the same thing that Scott said of romance – that it offers a dangerously naive understanding of experience. Second proposition : The relationship of canonical fiction to Gothic fic-tion is one that denies their mutual dependency. Gothic fiction cuts the Lockean cord that attaches things in the world to the categories we assign them, demonstrating that any such categorical assignment can give way to another much more easily than we like to think. Bent on dislodging fixed identities, Gothic fiction subjects its protagonists to strange conjunctions and chance digressions rather than letting them pursue the bumpy but ultimately continuous path of development that realism posits as normal, desirable and right. When, for example, Victor Frankenstein goes off to school in Ingolstadt, his story takes a metonymic turn that destroys the narrative machinery responsible for producing companionate, self-governing citizens:Partly from curiosity, and partly from idleness, [he recalls] I went into the lecturing room, which M. Waldman entered shortly after . . . hav-ing made a few preparatory experiments, he concluded with a pane-gyric upon modern chemistry, the terms of which I shall never forget. 4 By diverting Frankenstein from the path leading to a productive scien-tific career and gratifying family life, this chance encounter turns the novel of individual development into a sequence of embedded tales that repeat the pattern of physical collapse and compulsive return to the event that initially disrupted the path of his development. Walton, Frankenstein’s interlocutor and the only witness to his monstrous creation and terrible fate, must sacrifice his individual ambitions if he wants to preserve both the human community and his place as narrator within it. Were Walton as Faustian an individual as Frankenstein and his creature, none of their tales would have made it into writing, which is, despite its many detours into aberrant forms of selfhood, a pro-foundly social gesture. Gothic novels characteristically personify such generic violations as monstrosities, which they can suppress, kill off, or banish to the domains of art, primitive thinking, delusion or mental disease. And should a work of fiction fail to manage the problem that emerges whenever the metaphysical envelopes of consciousness and home are torn asunder, the critical tradition will step in and handle that problem at the level of the author. As Scott said of E. T. A. Hoffman, the problem with his fiction was not that he ‘was either wicked or corrupt, but only that [his mind] was ill-regulated and had an undue tendency 9781137026972_08_cha07 indd 105 9781137026972_08_cha07.indd 105 10/28/2013 11:10:48 AM 10/28/2013 11:10:48 AM  Proof 1234567891011121314151617181920212223242526272829303132333435363738394041 106 New Directions in the History of the Novel to the horrible and distressing’. 5  What is realism, then, if not a way of acknowledging what has been excluded in order to make a given world, but acknowledging that phenomenon in a way that denies its very existence? Frankenstein’s repeat performance of this denial is responsible for the nature or nurture question that pervades criticism of Shelley’s novel: could the monster have been a friend to man if his creator had acknowl-edged his creature’s humanity, or was the creature, like its creator, con-stitutionally incapable of self-government? To pursue this question is to feel our way toward a compromise formation that would let the creature be both an aberration of nature and a human being that enlarges our notion of the human. I prefer to ask why Mary Shelley combined in him the features of an individual mentally incapable of self-government yet one whose body contained the force of too many men to be governed externally. In blocking every attempt at imagining a synthesis of these antinomies – whether a social category that could include him or a definition of the human that might successfully exclude him – Shelley’s novel aims at a negative synthesis, an individual that is one of a kind (thus not assimilable) and yet made wholly of human parts (thus not not human). Having offered the nineteenth-century readership a mem-orable preview of man-as-species, however, she quickly withdraws this figure as one that cannot exist without unmaking both the family and the public sphere – thus presumably the novel itself. Third proposition : Gothic tropes render unthinkable whatever modern cul-ture places beyond the limits and within the lacunae of rationality and real-ism . Gothic novels do on a large scale for canonical novels what Gothic interludes do for normative perception in realistic novels. When novels banish Gothic phenomena, they repair a tear or hole in the fabric of realism that makes it impossible for the novel to unify a world contain-ing such a tear or hole. 6  It is from property that Austen builds a world upon which her words can sustain the illusion of complete command. Yet, even Austen’s world momentarily gives rise to and disperses phe-nomena that expose the limits and the ephemerality of property: the gypsies in  Emma  (1815)  ,  the spectre of slavery in  Mansfield Park  (1814)  ,  the impact of war in  Persuasion  (1818)  , and the nomadic soldiers that routinely show up at country dances in her other novels.To read a novel, readers must strive along with the protagonist to make out of the available cultural materials a world that appears to be a seamless and stable whole. Before we can even begin to challenge the viability of this logic as a description of real life, we learn to consider ourselves part of a world inhabited by self-governing, rights-bearing 9781137026972_08_cha07 indd 106 9781137026972_08_cha07.indd 106 10/28/2013 11:10:48 AM 10/28/2013 11:10:48 AM  Proof 1234567891011121314151617181920212223242526272829303132333435363738394041 Nancy Armstrong 107 individuals much like ourselves, our friends and families – a world that can consequently be repaired and updated one household at a time. This novel, in this sense, is what Giorgio Agamben describes as ‘that in which, and through which, one realises a pure activity of governance devoid of any foundation in being’. At root in each such apparatus, he continues, ‘lies an all-too-human desire for happiness. The capture and subjectification of this desire in a separate sphere constitutes the spe-cific power of the apparatus.’ 7  Charles Taylor argues that the desire for happiness retains the force it exercises within a sacred sphere, as secular societies translate the old belief in salvation into the modern belief that fullness of being can be achieved within the domain of personal life. Gothic fiction exposes the apparatus that overdetermines what we consider real, but it does so in order to offer unacceptable alterna-tives that dispose us toward compromise formations – a Captain in the British Navy rather than the heir to the Elliott estate in  Persuasion , or an impoverished cousin rather than a bride from the urban nouveaux riches in  Mansfield Park. Fourth proposition :  Liberal societies achieve imaginary coherence by exclud-ing what they deem fundamentally ungovernable. In doing so, they produce the human excess Thomas Malthus called ‘population’. It is true that Locke set out to imagine a more inclusive government for England when he argued that all men of property should be heads of a household sup-ported by agriculture, a household that included its heirs, retainers and those dependent on its land. Yet he made this claim knowing full well that even a contractual society made of such households would necessarily include many people who could never belong to, much less head a household as he defined it. His more inclusionary model of society was founded on exclusion. Indeed, it was arguably to defend against a multitude composed of those excluded from the society of rational men that Locke dreamed up his notion of property. In his lectures titled Society Must Be Defended   (1975–1976), Michel Foucault describes the transformation of political thinking ushered in by Locke as observing the same pattern of recognition, phobic disfiguration and abjection governing the form of Gothic fiction. Foucault contends that during earlier periods in European history, nations defined themselves by defending their borders against some foreign invader. Modern dis-ciplinary societies, by contrast, define themselves in opposition to an internal enemy of their own making. They might give this enemy a demographic identity that represents those on whom the entire society relies for physical labour, spare biological parts and so forth. But no matter how precisely we name those who are within society but not of 9781137026972_08_cha07 indd 107 9781137026972_08_cha07.indd 107 10/28/2013 11:10:48 AM 10/28/2013 11:10:48 AM
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