Game Theory Meets Marriage Plot

Austen Equilibrium

by Trisha Urmi Banerjee

 

The essay begins:

It is at least ironic that the characters and narration of Jane Austen’s Emma articulate excessively their preference for verbal and temporal economy. Clever Emma, who admires Mr. Martin’s proposal letter to Harriet for being “strong and concise; not diffuse,” observes later that charades “in general cannot be too short.” And at the end of dinner at Randalls, “while the others were variously urging and recommending, Mr. Knightley and Emma settled it in a few brief sentences” (122). It might surprise us that at the novel’s turning point, “a few minutes were sufficient for making [Emma] acquainted with her heart” (382), were it not the case that by this time, we have already heard the phrase “half a minute” ten times.

Aversion to waste and surplus takes perhaps its most glaring form in the frequency of the expression “to throw away.” When it appears outside dialogue, the phrase is always either ironic or negated. Suspicious Emma thinks Jane’s “caution was thrown away,” but that discretion successfully conceals the secret engagement to Frank (158). And we know that Mr. Elton, who arrives at Mrs. Bates’s house “so hot and tired that all [Mrs. Elton’s] wit seemed thrown away” on him, rather escapes than misses out on any so-called “wit” (429). The phrase’s early appearance teaches us that “danger” in Emma will be posed not by murder or intrigue but by waste, for “by Mr. Elton, a young man living alone without liking it, the elegancies and society of Mr. Woodhouse’s drawing room . . . were in no danger of being thrown away” (21). Incessantly, as if anxiously, the narration provides confirmations of safety from such danger: “The anxious cares, the incessant attentions of Mrs. Weston were not thrown away” at the Crown Ball where Mr. Knightley’s dancing “was not thrown away on Harriet” (306, 307).

The threats of waste here arrive in packages that announce the emptiness of their contents, assuring us that we can throw them away. But the possibility of waste is less easily dismissed when it threatens human beings. “Oh! But, dear Miss Woodhouse! [Jane] is now in such retirement, such obscurity, so thrown away. Whatever advantages she may have enjoyed with the Campbells are so palpably at an end!” (263). Here in passive voice, “thrown away” leaves unspoken the truth to which Mrs. Elton alludes, but like every Austen reader, she knows that future “advantages” can await Jane only in the right marriage. Indeed, a person’s safety from being thrown away in Emma is always constituted by an appropriate submission to the conjugal imperative—“appropriate” meaning something particular to each spouse. When Mr. Elton leaves Highbury to find a wife and returns with Mrs. Augusta Elton, we learn that “the story told well: he had not thrown himself away” (170). If the story of Emma tells well, perhaps it too avoids waste—perhaps for it, as for the snubbed Harriet, “to know that [Mr. Elton] has not thrown himself away, is such a comfort!” (252). Aversion to waste, especially within and surrounding the dominating context of marriage, would supersede or at least equal aversion to anything else.

Like the marriages that occur over the course of the novel, the parts of this argument number four. Part 1 applies the methodology of quantitative economics to model the dynamic between waste aversion and marriage in Emma, illustrating how its ending is a demonstrable utilitarian ideal. This illustration undergirds part 2, which argues that Emma advances the moral philosophy underlying the capitalist outlook that classical political economy began to theorize in the years leading up to the novel’s publication. Part 3 reveals the entwinement of political economy with economy of language, explaining how the novel’s concision works in tandem with its verbosity to iterate qualities of the free market that are in tension with the standards of maximum utility highlighted by the model. Whereas parts 2 and 3 rely primarily on the model’s conclusions, part 4 considers the model’s form, using it to understand the relation between the temporality and referentiality of the novel’s discourse.

The novel suggests several economies and numerous exchanges and congruities among them. There is first the capitalist economy as understood in the political economic theory that, as part 2 argues, informs the novel’s moral philosophy—a region’s system of producing and consuming goods and services. That economy has both a homologue and an analogue within the novel. The homologue is a conjugal economy that is composed of putatively rational actors seeking to maximize marital satisfaction. The analogue is a verbal economy involving the allocation of lexical efficiencies and inefficiencies (concision and diffusion). The nexus among these three economies is “economy” without an article: waste aversion, the result of economizing or being economical. Within both the homologue and the analogue of the economy—each one an economy—arise instances of economy. And, as parts 2 and 3 elucidate, it is the very nature of these instances that enables each economy not only to act as a parallel of the other and of the capitalist economy but also to iterate and advance capitalism’s dynamics and moral philosophy. Finally, underlying the entirety of the novel’s discourse and significantly modulating its free-market argument is a particular management of narrative speeds—what part 4 refers to as a temporal economy.

The very singularities of Emma that allow the perception of these economies also render it the quintessence of interrelations among economies and economics throughout Austen’s oeuvre. What emerges is a distinct and comprehensive account of Austen’s relation to contemporaneous economic theory (a relation much debated and theorized), of economy in her verbal and narrative style (much presumed and relatively little theorized), and of the correspondences between these two phenomena. Some of Emma’s singularities also help to delineate the entwinement of capitalist values with formal characteristics of the novelistic form generally. Likewise, the application of economic methodology to understanding Austenian economy evinces the potential of quantitative modeling to illuminate the forms and philosophies of literary texts. Continue reading …

By proposing a quantitative game-theory model of the marriage plot in Jane Austen’s Emma, Trisha Banerjee demonstrates that free-market moral philosophy underwrites Austen’s representation of matrimony and key formal elements of her writing—particularly, matters of verbal profusion. Her famed stylistic “economy” is revealed to be structured by the emerging capitalist economy that Adam Smith theorized in The Wealth of Nations. Establishing the correspondences among several kinds of economy, the essay unites economic and formal approaches to Austen’s work.

TRISHA URMI BANERJEE recently received her PhD in English from Harvard University. Her current book project theorizes the relation between the dorsal surface of the human body and fundamental narrative structures.

“My Heart Is Swimming …”

Heartfelt Musicking: The Physiology of a Bach Cantata

by Bettina Varwig

The essay begins:

There is a notational oddity in the autograph score of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata 199, “Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut” (My heart is swimming in blood). Instead of writing out the word “heart” every time it appears in the text, at several points the composer used the familiar heart symbol—not exactly shaped like the physical organ, but apparently as instantly recognizable then as it is now. In some instances, the abbreviation may have resulted from pragmatic considerations of space, but in others clearly not. Instead, perhaps Bach was invoking, in an inconsequential and semi-private manner, the rich significatory potential of this pictogram. Already by the early seventeenth century, the heart image had come to appear frequently in a variety of contexts, from courtly chivalry and religious iconography to sets of playing cards, encompassing an extensive field of associations and meanings. Severed from the human body, the organ could be subjected to a dazzling variety of treatments, as in the extraordinary Emblemata sacra (1622) by the German Lutheran theologian Daniel Cramer. In this widely distributed volume of devotional emblems, the heart appears in no fewer than fifty different scenarios, demonstrating its protean capacity to stand in for the believer’s life, soul, conscience, consciousness, memory, earthly existence, or inner self: the heart as a rock being softened by God’s hammer, a winged heart escaping from the claws of earthly demons up to heaven, the heart with a seeing eye, Jesus inscribing his name on the heart, the heart adrift in a stormy sea, a burning heart filled with cooling liquid from the Holy Spirit, the heart’s mettle being tested in a hot oven, and so on.

As the seat of life and the source of sin, the heart in the Christian tradition mediated between flesh and spirit. It could taste, sing, sigh, and melt; it could be given to God or cleaned out and inhabited by Christ. And so one might also imagine a heart “swimming in blood,” as the German poet Georg Christian Lehms wrote in his cantata libretto of 1711; a text set to music not only in 1714 by Bach but also two years before by his German contemporary Christoph Graupner, and subsequently heard by congregations in Weimar, Cöthen, Leipzig, and Darmstadt. Lehms’s poem draws on a long-standing Christian devotional tradition that conjoined hearts and bodily fluids, in visions of faithful hearts crying blood or sinners’ hearts drenched in waters of fear. But what was it like to be a body whose heart could undergo such procedures? What kind of physiology underpinned the veracity of these formulations? Simply casting them as poetic flights of fancy would mean disregarding the fundamentally embodied nature of such metaphors, which acquired their meaningfulness precisely through a more or less tangible link to a perceived corporeal reality. In heeding Gail Kern Paster’s call for an “interpretive literalism” in approaching early modern tropes based on bodily parts and functions, we might instead start from the assumption that experiences of seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century bodiliness were historically particular in such a way that they could give rise to this kind of imagery without too great a sense of rupture or alienation. If Lehms’s poetry strikes some present-day listeners as “repellent,” this response may exactly map out the distance to be traversed in order to recover those past modes of being-in-the-body that could produce and sustain such language.

Recuperating these historical forms of bodiliness has formed a key preoccupation of early modern scholarship at least since Thomas Csordas’s programmatic call in 1990 for a focus on “embodiment” in the study of human cultures, approaching the body less as a text to be deciphered than as the locus of lived experience. Of course, as Mark M. Smith has recently reminded us, any claims toward the recovery of a usable, consumable sensory past, potentially culminating in “lickable text, scratch-and-sniff pages, touch-and-feel pads” to convey an authentic historical experience to present-day readers, must be treated with extreme caution. My argument here, too, stays well clear of an attempt to recreate for current listeners any of those past corporeal habits of which a careful historical investigation might offer some glimpses; music already went through its own “authenticity” debate some decades ago, after all. Still, Bruce R. Smith’s invitation to “project ourselves into the historically reconstructed field of perception as far as we are able” can seem particularly intriguing in the case of music, since it not only encompasses the duality of presence and pastness in uniquely challenging ways but also ostensibly performs that effortless merger of sensation and meaning, both of which it produces in abundance, every time it sounds. Past musical practices and sound worlds in this sense offer an especially promising access point for a historical inquiry that aims to steer a course between the two extremes of positing the body either as pure presence or as mere representation.

In the early modern context, such an exercise in retro-projection initially requires a fundamental repositioning of the category of “body,” by which that post-Cartesian self- contained entity separate from the mind is refigured instead as “body-mind,” or, in Susan James’s terminology, “body-soul composite.” The wealth of physiological and psychological processes that constituted these body-souls comes into sharp focus when setting out to reconstruct the ways in which music acted upon or within them. Since the historical record is frustratingly slim with regard to actual flesh-and-blood listeners caught in the act, their experiences of engaging with music (in particular in the context of a worship service) are pieced together here from a range of theological, scientific, and musical sources chosen for their proximity to the German Lutheran milieu inhabited by Bach. If, as Daniel Chua has observed, by the middle of the eighteenth century music would by and large come to be understood as only that which is heard, it is this later reduction to the acoustic that needs to be reversed (unthought and unfelt) in order to recapture how music’s sounding materials reverberated not only through “throats, mouths, lungs, ears, and heads” but also through hearts, guts, and limbs, as well as spirits and souls. Although the study of music as a performed, sounding activity has recently become something of a new orthodoxy within musicology, and this focus on performance has made the bodies behind (or, rather, in) music more immediately tangible, those bodies are still in need of much more nuanced historicization. Like James Q. Davies in his recent study of nineteenth-century virtuosity, I suggest that acts of musicking, in their capacity not just to reflect but to generate particular modes of inhabiting the body, offer a hitherto underused resource in coming to grips with the animate bodies of the past. What I envisage, then, is a kind of somatic archaeology that pushes Elizabeth Le Guin’s proposal of a “carnal musicology” to a new level of fleshliness. Such an approach might thereby begin to address that “huge gap in early modern sensory history” to which Penelope Gouk has recently alerted us, moving toward a radically revised, somatic ontology of early modern music making. Continue reading …

This essay proposes a somatic archaeology of German Lutheran music making around 1700. Focusing on a single cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach, it sets out to reconstruct the capacities of early modern body-souls for musical reverberation, affective contagion, and spiritual transformation.

BETTINA VARWIG is Lecturer in Music and Fellow of Emmanuel College at the University of Cambridge. She is the author of Histories of Heinrich Schütz (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and is currently working on a book project entitled An Early Modern Musical Physiology.

Staging the Royal Judgment Day, 1649

Staging the Last Judgment in the Trial of Charles I

by Julie Stone Peters

The essay begins:

On the morning of January 9, 1649, Sergeant-at-Arms Edward Dendy rode into Westminster Hall, surrounded by an entourage of officers and followed by six trumpeters on horseback, with more than two hundred Horse and Foot Guards behind them. Drums beat in the Old Palace Yard, the trumpeters sounded their horns in the hall, and the crier announced the “erecting of an High Court of Justice, for the trying and judging of Charles Stuart King of England.” Eleven days later, the two great gothic doors opened to a space transformed. The trial’s managers had torn out the hall’s ramshackle barriers and the booksellers’ and milliners’ booths that lined its walls and constructed a central raised stage flanked by galleried boxes, whose decorative columns supported balconies fronted by ornately carved balustrades. They had spread Turkish carpets on the tables and platforms and hung yards and yards of scarlet draperies from the elevated seating at the back of the stage. And they had built, at the center, a three-tiered dais with a trio of armchairs, the furniture adorned in gold-fringed, tasseled crimson velvet and studded with precious metals. Into this magnificently appointed space marched several hundred guards bearing brilliantly gilded “rich partizans” and “javelins” decorated “with velvet and fringe.” With them was the sergeant-at-arms, holding aloft the great golden mace of the House of Commons, and behind him a sword bearer carrying the Sword of State brought from the Westminster Jewel Tower. Those in charge had issued an order: even outside the precincts of the court, the presiding judge was to be referred to only by his new title: “Lord President of the High Court of Justice.” As the sixty-seven commissioners serving as judges ascended to their scarlet-draped seats, the “Lord . . . of the High Court,” in a “black Tufted Gown” with an inordinately long train (carried by an entourage of attendants), paraded toward his dais amidst the sea of begilded and velvet-fringed javelins. This was hardly the austere mise-en-scène one might expect from the “godly Puritans” who had mounted their coup d’état and put their king on trial—in part, at least, in the name of stamping out ceremonial idolatry and the gaudy pomp of the vainglorious Stuarts.

When the Rump Parliament brought Charles to Westminster Hall in 1649, no reigning monarch had ever before been subjected to a public trial. The unprecedented step of staging the trial publicly was, of course, a bid to legitimize the overthrow (or at least shackling) of the monarchy through the appearance of legality and public consensus. The Parliament that had voted to try Charles consisted only of those who remained after a radicalized army had forcibly barred moderate members from entering the House of Commons and abolished the House of Lords. The Westminster Hall setting would help quell doubts about the trial’s legality. To hold such a trial in Westminster Hall was to appear to follow the long line of parliamentary trials that had been held there, and to remind the public of Parliament’s ancient judicial power. Moreover, Westminster Hall stood for principles of transparency and public accountability. Those in charge (said Colonel Thomas Harrison) despised cloak-and-dagger “privat[e] violence” and all such “base and obscure undertakings.” The largest public space in England (with a capacity of thousands), Westminster Hall had been chosen (the principal Parliamentary newspaper declared) because it was “a place of publicke resort, . . . the place of the publicke Courts of Justice for the Kingdome.” There, all would be “open, and to the eyes of the world,” and “all persons without exception, desirous to see, or hear” would be welcome: rich or poor, merchant or gentry, Presbyterian, Independent, Leveller, or even Royalist. The trial would represent the English people as a whole: the very body in whose name the court had come into existence.

Scholars have largely accepted this political account, explaining away the trial’s elaborate ceremonialism (usually mentioned only in passing, if at all) as a transparently straightforward attempt to strengthen its bid for legitimacy. But a political analysis does not fully account for either the grandiosity of the trial or the details of its unorthodox staging. One of the central goals of the religious radicals who put Charles on trial was in fact the elimination of spectacular rituals, Popish images, vestments, ornaments, and other “Idols of the Theatre” from churches, court, entertainment venues, and other public places. Why did the men who planned the trial’s staging and effects, mostly fervent iconoclasts wary of spectacular display and committed to visual sobriety and frugality, spend so much time and money on staging the trial as an elaborately theatrical, magnificently appointed, outrageously costly ritual (gorgeous vestments and all), when such a spectacle would appear to violate some of the most important principles for which they stood?

Unlike previous scholars (who have largely focused on the trial’s legality, its political consequences, or its literary and visual representation), I attempt to answer this question by focusing on the visual and visceral unfolding of the trial itself, looking closely at spatial arrangements, icons, and scenic configurations in order to explore the theological meaning of its densely symbolic, visual, gestural, sartorial, iconographic, and aural staging. When I describe Charles’s trial, or other legal events and practices, as theatrical, I mean two related things: first, that they draw on techniques not exclusive to but elaborately developed in the institutional theater; second, that contemporaries often identified such events and practices as theatrical, through a highly inflected constellation of terms that associated them with the institutional theater and related forms of enacted entertainment (spectacle, show, tragedy, stage tricks, and more). These terms and the attitudes they convey both shaped and reflect the meaning of the events they describe and are key to understanding them. Continue reading …

The trial of Charles I (said mid-seventeenth-century radical Protestants) was “a Resemblance and Representation of the great day of Judgement.” Situating the trial in its theological and iconographic context, viewing it as an expression of broader Puritan performance culture, this essay offers a close reading of its staging, arguing that we should view the assertion that the trial resembled Judgment Day not as an abstract theological aspiration but as a concrete description of the trial’s visual, spatial, and dramatic representation of the Last Judgment.

JULIE STONE PETERS is the H. Gordon Garbedian Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where she teaches on a range of topics in the humanities, from drama, film, and media to law and culture. Her most recent book is Theatre of the Book: Print, Text, and Performance in Europe 1480–1880. She is currently working on a historical study of legal performance.

Hidden in plain sight:

–This slightly mysterious mention of us in Mathias Énard’s novel Compass, winner of the Prix Goncourt in 2015 and published in English last year: 

Énard’s character Franz is here referring here to a fictional Representations article, written by another character, Sarah, entitled “The Wine of the Dead Sarawak,” which Énard himself says was inspired by Peter Metcalf’s classic essay “Wine of the Corpse, Endocannibalism and the Great Feast of the Dead in Borneo,” published in Representations 17, Winter 1987.

The Los Angeles Review of Books called Compass a “brilliant, elusive, outré love letter to Middle Eastern art and culture.” We’re reading it now to confirm.

 

 

 

 

Maybe it’s the weather

Wildfires to the north of us here in Berkeley, extreme heat just beyond our fog belt, and drought in parts of the globe usually saturated this time of year prompted us to look through our archive for essays that deal in one way or another with views of nature. Among the many relevant pieces, our search revealed a pair of fine-grained essays on the 18th-century naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon:

Noah Heringman’s Deep Time at the Dawn of the Anthropocene argues that the concept of deep time is essential to the intellectual history of the Anthropocene—the name widely (though not yet formally) used for our current geological epoch. Buffon’s Epochs of Nature, one of the earliest secular models of geological time in Enlightenment natural history, uses inscription as a metaphor to mark the advent of biological species, including humans, in the course of earth history. The Anthropocene extends this project of writing ourselves into the rock record. Buffon makes a productive interlocutor for the Anthropocene because he is one of the first to examine climate change and related constraints on human agency in the context of deep time. Heringman examines Buffon’s natural history and associated Enlightenment discourses of primitive art and culture to gain a purchase on the challenges of scale posed by the Anthropocene.

Joanna Stalnaker’s Description and the Nonhuman View of Nature also looks at Buffon, but her focus is in counterpoint to Heringman’s. In her essay, Buffon is discussed in tandem with the poet Jacques Delille, Buffon’s near contemporary, whose innovative practices of description call into question our modern opposition between literature and science, raising the issue of how literature might be transformed through attention to nonhuman views of nature.

Read them together–in the shade if you can find it.

The Formalist in Nature

Elements of Photography: Avant-garde Aesthetics and the Reforging of Nature

by Aglaya Glebova

The essay begins:

“This is where we should go on vacation—in winter. What snow, light, mountains!” These lines were written by Aleksandr Rodchenko to his wife, Varvara Stepanova, from the White Sea-Baltic Canal, which was then being constructed by prisoners at an eponymous forced labor camp, one of the Soviet Union’s first, where more than twenty-five thousand—and possibly as many as fifty thousand—inmates lost their lives from 1931 to 1933. Had the photographer not yet seen the atrocities of the camp? Was he highlighting holiday pleasures in case his letter was read by someone other than its intended recipient? Rodchenko’s pronouncement is so utterly damning in its willful ignorance of the human toll of the construction of the canal as to render any possible justifications moot. This description of a gulag—bracketed, to top it off, with declarations that the sun and the air are “wonderful”—effectively bars any interpretive engagement. One’s only recourse, it seems, is to denounce Rodchenko’s deliberate blindness to the grim efficiencies of the state machine.

Yet I open with this letter not to offer additional evidence against the artist. Rather, while keeping the letter’s dismaying omissions firmly in mind, I want to move past the screen that its glibness presents and focus on what it reveals about Rodchenko’s time at the canal: there he experienced a landscape, a place. Descriptions of nature—uncharacteristically for Rodchenko, since he was hardly enamored with the romantic notions of an earlier century—fill his brief letters home, and landscape appears, far more forcefully than ever before, in his photographs from the canal. These images of nature are remarkable in the context of the ideological climate from which they emerged. As the first Five-Year Plan (fulfilled in four years, 1928–32) unfolded, the Soviet state looked for ways to rationalize both the breakneck industrialization and mass repressions—developments joined at the hip, for the latter powered the former—that it undertook. The philosophy that underwrote both was the call for the complete transformation of the existing “old” world into a “new” socialist universe. The ideology crystallized and reached its apex in the rhetoric surrounding the White Sea-Baltic Canal project and its policy of “reforging” (perekovka), the term coined at the time to denote the discourse of molding both criminals and landscapes resistant to Soviet rule into productive, socialist beings through labor. The environment became, in essence, the most obdurate class enemy of the socialist state, whose intent was to transform the landscape’s sublimity and unpredictability into a pliant, rational, and productive entity. If, as the by-now canonical way of thinking in art history has it, landscape helps naturalize ideology, what happens when a state declares that nature must be radically, even totally, refigured? And how, then, might we begin to explain the aesthetic of Rodchenko’s canal landscapes, their quasi-romantic qualities above all? Continue reading … 

In this essay art historian Aglaya Glebova  traces the evolution of landscape imagery in Aleksandr Rodchenko’s photographic oeuvre, focusing especially on images produced during his journalistic trip to the White Sea-Baltic Canal, one of the first Soviet forced labor camps. Through close reading of photographs, she argues that Rodchenko’s abandonment of avant-garde aesthetics, in particular the emphasis on photography’s transformative powers and its medium-specificity, in these images did not represent a shift toward socialist realism but, rather, held critical potential in the face of contemporaneous official censure of formalism and “contemplation” in both science and art.

AGLAYA GLEBOVA is Assistant Professor in the departments of Art History and Film and Media, as well as the PhD Program in Visual Studies, at the University of California, Irvine. She is currently completing a book on Aleksandr Rodchenko and photography under Stalin.

Jesus, Secular and Otherwise

Prophets Genuine and Spurious:

The Victorian Jesus Novel and the Ends of Comparison

by Sebastian LeCourt

The essay begins:

One curious feature of nineteenth-century British and American novels about Jesus is the fact that their central figure often remains largely offstage. In Harriet Martineau’s Traditions of Palestine (1830), William Ware’s Julian; or, Scenes in Judea (1841), Edwin A. Abbott’s Philochristus: Memoirs of a Disciple of the Lord (1878), Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880), James Freeman Clarke’s The Legend of Thomas Didymus: The Jewish Skeptic (1881), Marie Corelli’s Barabbas (1893), and Florence Morse Kingsley’s Titus, a Comrade of the Cross (1894), Jesus is pushed into the background while the narrative follows the life of a minor historical figure or the cultural milieu of first-century Palestine. Ware builds an elaborate character system out of various bit players from the canonical Gospels, turning Barabbas, the robber who is pardoned unwittingly in Jesus’s place, into Mary Magdalene’s ne’er-do-well brother and a proxy for her own narrative arc. Kingsley, beating Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) to the punch, forges a comic subplot out of the story of a cripple whom Jesus robs of employment: “Ha, fellow! thou didst heal me, three years ago, of the palsy, which had withered my limbs; and in so doing took away my living, for my begging no longer brought me money.” And behind all of this are elaborate historical backdrops drawn from both secular historiography and Holy Land tourist guidebooks.

In many ways, of course, this pattern is exactly the one we might expect, since it exemplifies the core move of the classical historical novel described a century ago by Georg Lukács. According to Lukács, Walter Scott and his many imitators sought to shift readers’ attentions away from the lives of great heroes and toward the grassroots historical forces that helped produce them in the first place. As a result, those forgotten individuals who would have represented mere scenery to traditional historiography became protagonists themselves and the new privileged lens for understanding historical change. Although quite traditional within novel studies, this narrative has seen its currency revived lately by Alex Woloch’s The One vs. the Many (2003) as well as more recent essays by Julian Murphet, Emily Steinlight, Jesse Rosenthal, and others. One reason for its endurance is the fact that it forms part of a familiar account of secularization as the transfer of cultural privilege from the singular to the multiple and the special to the ordinary. What links secularization, democratization, and individualism, according to this narrative, is a desire to seek out meaning among undistinguished individuals and everyday life instead of established gods and kings.

Yet the reality is that many Victorian Jesus novels were authored not by writers of a secularist bent but rather by more orthodox figures. Even though they consigned Jesus to the margins of a realistic historical landscape, their avowed goal was nevertheless to affirm his status as an unparalleled personality in cosmic history. In this essay I argue that understanding why they did so offers us a chance to complicate our traditional association of historical realism with secularization and thereby illuminate a wider set of possibilities. Specifically, I want to replace the contrast between singularity and multiplicity with a less stable triangle of terms: the particularity of the random individual, the genericness of the recurring historical type, and the specialness of the Carlylean hero or prophet. These three ways of focalizing character—particularity, typicality, and specialness—blend into and oppose one another in ways that our binary modernization stories often fail to capture. Abstract typicality and novelistic particularity can both be used to argue against heroic specialness by portraying a figure like Jesus as an unremarkable iteration of a recurring type. But they can also be profoundly at odds with each other, a fact that allows novelistic realism to become the ally of theology.

In order to trace these dynamics in action, I situate the Victorian Jesus novel alongside the broader nineteenth-century enterprise called comparative religion. One central postulate of this emerging field was that religious founders such as Jesus and the Buddha were simultaneously historical and typical. Not only did they have idiosyncratic origin stories that could be documented in great detail, but they also represented instances of a type that recurred from age to age and culture to culture. Both assertions were designed to counter the notion of Christian exceptionality and to value a wider range of cultural materials under the label of religion. At the same time, comparative religion’s invocation of recurring types was profoundly at odds with its commitment to validating the particular and the various. For, in fact, Victorian scholars often found postbiblical religious founders such as Mohammed difficult to imagine as legitimate instances of the type precisely because there was such an abundance of information about them. They were hard pressed to square this new generic abstraction, “religion,” with the lives of actual historical figures, warts and all. George Eliot explores this tension in her two long fictions about early-modern prophets, Romola (1863) and The Spanish Gypsy (1867), both of which turn the misfit between individual characters and the types to which they aspire into a driving energy of narrative. Conversely, the Victorian Jesus novel reveals how the tropes of historical realism could be deployed to affirm a religious founder’s singular theological status, as novelists like Wallace used realistic description to set certain moments of spiritual encounter apart from the recurring patterns of religious history.

By exploring these shifting alignments of specialness, typicality, and particularity, we can ultimately gain a broader perspective on the vexed place of comparativism within secularist thinking. Comparative scholarship is often portrayed as the scholarly wing of aggressive Western universalism; critics such as Tomoko Masuzawa have leveled at comparative religion the same charge that is often directed toward comparative literature—that it reduces a world of complex differences to a set of knowable homologies and types available to the secular metropolitan intellectual. But the tensions found in and around the Victorian Jesus novel suggest how comparativism, secular realism, and the religious imagination have several possible relationships. Indeed, Western secularism itself turns out to be torn between its desire to celebrate the mundane minutiae of history and its impulse to assign them equivalent or comparative dignity. If a certain strain of Anglo-American secularism seeks to affirm the everyday or the “typical,” then typicality itself can mean a number of different things, from the idiosyncratic to the generic and replaceable. Tracing these competing projects within nineteenth-century religious studies, I argue, allows us to imagine how there might be different uses for comparative types, secular and otherwise. Continue reading …

In this essay Sebastian Lecourt uses the overlapping cases of Victorian comparative religion and the Victorian Jesus novel to explore the vexed function of comparative types in nineteenth-century writing. Where Victorian comparative religion, with its concept of the generic founder type, had a surprisingly hard time validating the lives of particular individuals, evangelical Jesus novels were able to make use of historical realism in a way that standard portraits of the novel as a secularizing genre seldom anticipate.

SEBASTIAN LECOURT is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Houston. He is the author of Cultivating Belief: Victorian Anthropology, Liberal Aesthetics, and the Secular Imagination (Oxford, 2018) as well as essays in PMLAVictorian Studiesb2o, Literature Compass, and Victorian Literature and Culture.

Tears in Paradise

Tears in Paradise: The Revolution of Tender Conscience

by Esther Yu

The essay begins:

Early modern readers familiar with the Genesis account would have been surprised to find in the pristine, unfallen world of Paradise Lost something no literary antecedent had ever envisioned there before: guilty tears. They are Eve’s, and they follow a dream Satan insinuates by night before she has ever sinned. Eve’s tears suggest her possession of what the seventeenth century would have recognized as a tender conscience—a hasty sensitivity to wrongdoing that stirs even in the absence of any sinful activity. It was no untroubled act of piety for John Milton, in 1667, to ensconce in the very heart of Paradise this exquisite sensitivity. The tender conscience had grown in the 1640s into a shared political principle that provided the moral grounds for political resistance. This conscience, whose force crucially derived from its claims to weakness rather than strength, soon gained a reputation as the affective regime underwriting regicide. Critics in the wake of Charles I’s death in 1649 denounced the violent proclivities of the discourse of “tenderness”; the credibility of conscientious discourse was thereby called into question. By the Restoration, neither the persistence nor the divine provenance of the tender conscience could be safely assumed. The hasty sensitivity of the tender conscience at the close of the English Revolution seemed in need of an origin story, one that would secure its future.

The conscience that remade Britain’s political landscape did so by binding a complex set of experiences and assumptions—not least of all, the responsibility of ethical feeling—into a single, shared identity. The resulting discourse effectively lowered the threshold of ethical sensitivity even as it prescribed a restrained response to expressions of vulnerability. English writers in the early decades of the seventeenth century had set out to cultivate an ideal of spiritual sensitivity; the emotional norms they created carved the channels through which the more familiar political history flows. The successful challenge to episcopacy and the leadership of Archbishop Laud in the 1640s turned on the newfound authority of an affective discourse that motivated collective action across what seemed an ever-expanding range of cultural fields. With the finely attuned interdependence it posited and the comprehensive, systemic form it increasingly assumed across multiple domains of social life, the tender conscience enlarged into something like an affective ecology. Within its supple moral order, citizens gained political voices by becoming tender; a constitutional crisis ensued. In liberalism’s formative age, the fragility of the tender conscience was both a regulative public ideal and the very condition of political voice.

Through the discourse of the tender conscience, the early modern public becomes familiar with a body given over not to sensuous appetites but to sensitive perception. The century that sees both the Puritan struggle of flesh with spirit and the empiricist reliance on the senses becomes more comprehensible in light of a shared enthusiasm for morally valuable sensitivity. Much remains to be said about the Enlightenment’s subsequent adoption of sensitivity as an epistemological premise, but such work awaits an account of the tender conscience as a moving political force. Laudian episcopacy would succumb to the pressure of dissent; soon after, however, the united front of tender consciences fell apart. Sectarian groups began to vie with each other for the position of privileged delicacy, characterizing opposition from other parties as cruel violations. Thus seemingly liable to the claims of any and all parties, the conscience became the target of increasing suspicion. With the execution of Charles I, the tender conscience reached its high-water mark. Its credibility plummeted thereafter. After the Restoration, the survival of the tender conscience—both as a privileged affective disposition and the spirit of the “Good Old Cause”—was very far from certain.

Milton, as this essay’s final section argues, fully perceives the magnitude of this crisis, and undertakes in his poetry an audacious interpretation and defense of the tender conscience. The project of repairing its credibility grows ever larger for Milton until, in Paradise Lost, he reverse-engineers the whole universe to show the tender conscience woven into every part of the created fabric. Milton’s epic mounts an unlikely defense of the tender conscience by suffusing it into the slightest bits of poetic matter, dispersing it altogether until readers participate in its restoration as a fundamental assumption that invites neither notice nor comment. This essay discovers in Milton’s images a forceful affirmation of the tender conscience’s participation in history. The most monumental of English poems engages in the supremely delicate task of restoring to a nation its vision of a fragile, fading conscience. It is the tenderness of surpassing strength that characterizes both the celestial might and conscientious resilience that Milton, in defiance of Restoration sentiment, upholds for its capacity to reform entire worlds. (Continue reading … )

In this essay Esther Yu shows how the “tender conscience” of seventeenth-century British discourse redirected the course of political history and the history of the emotions. In the 1640s, the unimpeachable repute of the tender conscience as a spiritual identity provided lay citizens with the authority needed to voice political dissent. The growing antiprelatical movement found in the tender conscience a ready-made resistance theory. For John Milton, the work of defining this conscience is so closely tied to arguments for the legitimacy of revolutionary action that his oeuvre can be read as a protracted struggle to establish its boundaries.

ESTHER YU is a doctoral candidate in English at the University of California, Berkeley. She is completing a dissertation entitled Experiencing the Novel: The Tender Conscience in Early Modern England.

The Literary Contemporary

Contemporary, Inc.

by Theodore Martin

The essay begins:

It is, in one way at least, a good time to be contemporary. In the past ten or so years, the study of contemporary literature and culture has amassed an impressive sum of institutional currency, paid in the usual forms of new professional organizations, journals, conferences, book series, and—such as they are—job searches. So too has the philosophical idea of the contemporary only recently “begun to emerge into the critical daylight,” as the philosopher Peter Osborne points out, bringing with it a “recent rush of writing trying to make some minimal theoretical sense of the concept.” Yet perhaps the most unmistakable sign of the contemporary’s ascendance as a scholarly category is that it has now become a subject for the contemporary novel.

This is not so surprising. Indeed, one of the first things to notice about the range of Anglo-American writers who, through channels of legitimation ranging from classroom syllabi to academic journals to crossover magazines, have become exemplars of the quality that English professors vaguely but confidently call “contemporary”—writers like Teju Cole, Maggie Nelson, Ben Lerner, and Tom McCarthy—is that they are all intensely aware of literature’s intimate relationship to academic work. McCarthy, one of the most frequently taught and talked about English-language writers of the twenty-first century, offers an especially illuminating case study in the current entwining of contemporary literature and contemporary criticism. As both a Man Booker Prize-nominated novelist (for 2010’s C. and 2015’s Satin Island) and a published literary theorist (2006’s Tintin and the Secret of Literature), McCarthy is not only a ubiquitous topic of conversations at literature conferences; he has also become, in recent years, a speaker at those same conferences, giving keynote addresses at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture in 2012 and at the Society for Novel Studies in 2016. If McCarthy’s public career reveals the increasingly permeable boundary between writers and critics in the contemporary moment, his novels narrate the consequences of this new professional permeability. In McCarthy’s hands, the contemporary novel has become an opportunity to reflect on the academic category of the contemporary itself. Halfway through McCarthy’s most recent novel, Satin Island, the narrator, a former academic turned “corporate anthropologist” named U., travels to Frankfurt for a conference. “The theme of the conference,” we are told, “was—for once!—not The Future. It was The Contemporary.” For U., this trending topic is

even worse. It was, of course, a topic to which I’d been giving much thought: radiant now-ness, Present-Tense AnthropologyTM and so forth. But I wasn’t ready to give all that stuff, all those half-formed notions, an outing. Besides which, I’d started to harbour doubts about their viability. These doubts themselves, I told myself in the days before the conference, were what I’d air. To air the doubt about a concept before airing the concept itself was, I thought, quite intellectually adventurous; it might go down well.

To think about the contemporary, McCarthy suggests, is to think mainly in “half-formed notions.” That is because, as U. realizes, the contemporary is an essentially empty category: its uncertainty precedes its content. Imprecise and unformed, the contemporary brooks no positive definition; it can be expressed only in terms of one’s “doubts” about its “viability” or existence.

U.’s conference presentation is, to that end, all doubt and little notion. “The Contemporary,” U. tells his audience, is “a suspect term.” It is not a stable historical period so much as “a constantly mutating space,” less a fixed moment than “a moving ratio of modernity.” The constant movement and mutation of the contemporary means that it is “misguided” to make “periodic claims” about it, since such periodizing claims “can’t be empirically justified” (100). The absence of any empirical or historical grounds for talking about the contemporary means that the term is, at best, only a placeholder for future inquiry. As U. puts it in the last lines of his talk, “What we require is not contemporary anthropology but an anthropology of The Contemporary.” If U. is not entirely sure what he means by this (“Ba-boom: that was my ‘out,’” he admits cynically), neither is his audience; his talk is, we are told, “met with silence” (101).

Yet that silence may have a familiar ring to it. While U.’s lecture may fail to engage its intended fictional audience, it should still capture the attention of many members of its nonfictional audience, for whom it will evoke, with impressive precision, the recognizable language and familiarly awkward experience of the academic conference. In short, these pages of Satin Island are as much a staging of literary criticism as they are literature. As such, they are our first hint of a novel—and, as I’ll argue over the course of this essay, of a moment in the history of the novel—that strives to be not only a novel but also a commentary on the disciplinary frameworks that, in the Anglo-American academy, determine how something becomes a “contemporary” novel in the first place.

Why does Satin Island consider the contemporary such a suspect term? Continue reading … 

In this essay Martin traces the century-long history of contemporary literature as a field of study in English departments. Showing how prior debates about the scholarly status of contemporary literature coincided with both changing disciplinary methodologies and the changing political landscape of the university, he argues that prevailing anxieties about the study of the contemporary today are central to explaining the emergence of a new kind of contemporary novel.

THEODORE MARTIN is Assistant Professor of English at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of Contemporary Drift: Genre, Historicism, and the Problem of the Present (Columbia UP, 2017).

In the Box

A Short History of the Picture as Box

by Amy Knight Powell

The essay begins:

Paintings are small. Even those that are relatively large are still tiny compared to the world. The desire to escape this limiting condition has been integral to the history of Western painting since the Renaissance, and it has registered in talk about painting since then as well, in the dominance that the painting-as-window metaphor, with all its connotations of openness and extension, has enjoyed over the metaphor of painting-as-box, with its connotations of closure and withdrawal.

“Then it occurred to me that it could be a box in which all my works would be collected and mounted like in a small museum, a portable museum, so to speak.” This is Marcel Duchamp talking about his monographic box-in-a-suitcase, which contains sixty-nine miniature replicas, photographs, and color reproductions of his own works.

“Duchamp is involved with the notion of the manufacture of objects,” Robert Smithson chides, “so that he can have his little valise full of souvenirs.”

More willing to entertain Duchamp’s irony, Benjamin Buchloh describes Duchamp’s Box in a Valise as a critique of commodity fetishism that is still caught in fetishism’s thrall: “All the functions of the museum … are minutely contained in Duchamp’s Valise: the valorisation of the object, the extraction from context and function, … arbitrary movements in time and space, multiple ownership and privacy of possession.” The box, according to Buchloh and Smithson, is a repository for the sentimentalized and domesticated. It is made to hold discrete things and, thereby, facilitates the circulation of commodities on which capitalism depends.

Indeed, boxes travel well from place to place. (Suitcases are nothing more than boxes with the added convenience of handles. One of the ironies of Duchamp’s box-in-a-suitcase is the redoubling of this portability.) They also allow their contents to travel through time, storing them so they can be used at some later date. Each time something is boxed so it can be transported to another location, it is also readied for another occasion. With each re-opening, the contents of the box will find themselves at a temporal remove from where they were before, having missed, in a certain sense, everything that happened in between.

In this essay, I will make the case that paintings have been box-like for a long time, and that a corresponding desire to move beyond that condition has been around for a long time as well. Smithson’s and Buchloh’s disdain for the box—their preference for a more site specific and less portable and, therefore, less marketable art—is only one, relatively recent, expression of this drive. Their primary target, the modern easel picture, was already an attempt to escape the box that earlier images had inhabited, insofar as its illusionism was already a reaching for the world beyond the frame.

Seeing the longevity of this drive to escape requires taking a long and therefore necessarily cursory view. The view could in fact have been much longer. By starting my story in Europe in the late Middle Ages, I do not at all mean to suggest that this was the first time and place in which the widespread boxing of images occurred. This story could have been told on a much larger scale, both temporally and geographically. Not only is my choice of objects highly selective in this sense; it also adheres in large measure to a canon that itself entails countless exclusions. Aspects of my argument could well have been made by bringing extracanonical material to bear, but here I have wanted to work open the canon from the inside out. Continue reading …

In “The Crisis of the Easel Picture” (1948), Clement Greenberg compares the easel picture, disparagingly, to a box-like cavity cut into the wall. In this essay, I argue that late medieval panel paintings—which indeed often took the form of boxes—show Greenberg to be justified in making this comparison, if not in doing so disparagingly. But what Greenberg failed to fully acknowledge is that the easel picture had already long tried to escape this condition through the opening of the metaphor of the window. Failing to recognize this earlier effort to escape the material conditions of the box, many modernists and postmodernists, like Greenberg, attempting to move beyond the easel picture in the name of an art undivided from life, have unintentionally upheld the easel picture’s own escapist ideology.

AMY KNIGHT POWELL is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of California, Irvine. She is the author of Depositions: Scenes from the Late Medieval Church and the Modern Museum (Zone Books, 2012).