An Erotics of Detachment: Middlemarch and Novel-Reading as Critical Practice

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An Erotics of Detachment: Middlemarch and Novel-Reading as Critical Practice
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  583 ELH  74 (2007) 583–608 © 2007 by The Johns Hopkins University Press AN EROTICS OF DETACHMENT: MIDDLEMARCH  AND NOVEL-READING AS CRITICAL PRACTICE BY DAVID KURNICK I read promiscuously. How could it be otherwise? I had no real guide,  was obliged to feel my way into light. Yet perhaps there was a guidance, although indefinite and without distinctive aim.—George Harrow, English bricklayer and trade unionist (b. 1833) 1 Invariably the historical past was the tense that excited a kind of desire in her.—Edmund White, Caracole George Eliot’s Middlemarch  is perhaps the single most important document of the nineteenth-century English novel’s aspiration to intel-lectual seriousness. Famously praised by Virginia Woolf in 1919 as “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people,”  Middlemarch ’s critical status—indeed, its status as a kind of criticism in its own right—has only increased in subsequent years. 2  In Barbara Hardy’s assessment, Eliot’s masterwork is “the first English novel to analyse the psychology of historical consciousness,” and James Buzard has more recently argued that the book embodies the “autoethnographic project of grasping an English culture in its densely integrated and self-regarding totality.” 3  But while Middlemarch  is arguably the most perfect realization of the novel’s ambition to present a historicized picture of the social whole, it is, more disturbingly, a book that seems reluctant to share these intellectual riches with its characters. 4  The critical consensus as to Middlemarch ’s achievement is haunted by a sense that this is a distinctly punitive novel, one that purchases its intel-lectual and critical authority at the expense of its fictional inhabitants. J. Hillis Miller, in a representative formulation, contends that “the nar-rator of [Eliot’s] novels claims for herself precisely that all-embracing breadth of vision . . . which is denied to the characters.” 5  Troublingly for an author whose highest value is the sympathetic imagination, Eliot  584  An Erotics of Detachment seems incapable of conceiving of characters who might be capable of conceiving of something like Middlemarch . If Dorothea Brooke is the most poignant of Eliot’s failed heroines, it is perhaps because her story is on the face of it a happy one. Middle- march  may be the first great English social novel, but it is also, as Joseph Allen Boone puts it, “one of the last great marriage novels to conform to the Shakespearean dictum that ‘journeys end with lovers meeting.’” 6  But Dorothea’s union with Will Ladislaw may be part of her problem; her romantic satisfaction, Eliot suggests, is an index of her intellectual failure. Dorothea, we are told, is possessed of a “passionate desire to know and to think,” but it is precisely through her submission to the erotic that her passion loses its intellectual predicates and becomes a mere affair of the self. 7  It is Woolf who makes clearest that the erotic is the ground of Dorothea’s exclusion from insight when she writes of “Dorothea seeking wisdom and finding one scarcely knows what in marriage to Ladislaw.” 8  The comment suggests that if Dorothea can function as the narrative focal point of Middlemarch ’s socio-historical understanding, she cannot be the bearer of that understanding—and more particularly that this inability is tied to her willingness to forsake her intellectual ambitions in return for a satisfied sexual desire.  Woolf’s offhand remark gets at the heart of what concerns me in this essay, the fraught relationship between novelistic eroticism and social understanding. I have turned to Middlemarch  to examine those relations because the novel’s treatment of its desiring heroine seems to exemplify George Levine’s recent claim that the refusal of desire is central to nineteenth-century narratives of scientific validity. 9  If Eliot is the most prominent English novelist to stake fiction’s claim to status as a kind of historical sociology, this claim, we will see, appears founded on an abjecting of the desiring Dorothea. This essay inter-rogates the grounds on which that abjection occurs, in order both to reconceptualize the role desire plays in Middlemarch  and to re-open the question of what critical capacities may be exercised in the practice of novel-reading itself. My contention is that the relations between character and narrator may only tell us a limited amount about the novel’s function as critical discourse. Dorothea, it seems clear, can only lose out in any competition that pits her against her creator in a game of wits; but I want to suggest that it is as a figure for the novel-reader that Eliot’s desiring heroine functions most powerfully as an agent and pursuer of knowledge. Dorothea’s most pressing desire, I argue, may be to leave behind her starring role  in  fiction and achieve that peculiar participant-observer status proper to the consumer of   fiction.  585 David Kurnick One of my aims is to confront a strain of erotophobia that has been oddly persistent in literary criticism’s conception of its own object: from E. M. Forster’s claim that love, “especially in its sex form, . . . has done [novels] harm and made them monotonous” to Ian Watt’s complaints about fiction’s “role as a popular purveyor of vicarious sexual experi-ence and adolescent wish-fulfillment”   to Georg Lukács’s contention that it was fiction’s increasing emphasis in the later nineteenth century on the “physical-sexual side” of love that led to the deterioration of the historical novel, the novel’s most ardent partisans have shown a tendency to let that ardor wane when sex in the novel heats up. 10  Recent work in the history of print culture and of reading practices has shifted critical attention from the novel’s content to the forms of its consumption and circulation. 11  But this change of focus from the text to the reader has left the novel’s link to eroticism intact. In his important work on early fiction, William B. Warner has argued that the early modern novel of “amorous intrigue” founded the reception protocols for mass-distributed fiction by creating what Warner calls a general reader, a “perversely polymorphous being capable of be-ing ‘hooked’ by many zones of readerly enjoyment.” 12  In the work of Aphra Behn, Delarivier Manley, and Eliza Haywood, Warner argues, a thematic preoccupation with sex worked to accommodate this reader to an emergent print culture of commodified, repeatable pleasures. The consumption practices inaugurated by this fiction, Warner writes, continue to “haunt ‘the’ legitimate novel.” 13  However far we may have moved from the fiction of amorous intrigue, novels are still produced and read in the context of a media culture that keeps readers rehearsing the desire-driven momentum cultivated by early fiction. The novel in this account thus stays tied to desire—and the association continues to inhibit the novel’s critical possibilities: although his judgment of the mediatized culture of appetite is less morally freighted than that of his predecessors, it is clear that for Warner novelistic desire, bent on the “seduction of the reader” and on “the appearance rather than the fact of novelty,” is in the service of blindness, not insight. 14  I will argue in what follows that this persistent critical sense of the incompatibility of desire and knowledge is prefigured in Middle- march . But I also claim that Eliot’s novel offers us a way to turn the connection between fiction and desire to new purposes. While most critical approaches see desire as the sign that the novel and social knowledge have parted company, Middlemarch  helps us understand novelistic desire as the genre’s point of access to the kind of objectiv-ity that permits and encourages systemic critique. Eliot’s novel reveals  586  An Erotics of Detachment something that the most influential literary critical accounts of fictional forms have overlooked: that novelistic eroticism is often figured not as an escape from the harsh truths of social reality but as an aspiration to their comprehension. Further, I argue that we can read Dorothea’s desire for a distanced view as an ambition to accede to the position of the novel-reader, to leave behind her determinate locale in the novel’s narrative and take up a detached but invested position slightly outside of the fictional space. It is common to understand fictional characters as aspiring to the condition of narrator, as hankering for the sort of control over their environment and fate that is exercised by the omniscient storyteller. But I am proposing that the texture of Dorothea’s desire—its sense of promiscuous possibility, of seductive outsiderdom, of interest combined with objectivity—has more affinities  with the activity of reading a novel than with that of narrating one. This essay thus picks up on the assumption implicit in the analyses of  Watt, Lukács, and Warner that novelistic eroticism has implications for the critical status of the literary itself, but does so in order to reach  very different conclusions about eroticism’s effect on critical serious-ness. All of these critics agree that desire is crucial to the question of fiction’s critical possibility because it is in its immersion in erotic experience that the novel seduces its readers into supposedly uncriti-cal attention. Further, as Warner makes particularly clear, desire links the content of the novel to its consumption: promiscuous eroticism offers us a way to talk both about what people do in novels and what people do with them. Because the novel’s status as critical discourse is so closely tied to the eroticism of its content and consumption, I argue that reexamining our conceptions of novelistic desire can help us arrive at a better understanding of the critical aspirations embed-ded in fiction-reading itself.The essay thus aims to bring a new perspective to persistent disagree-ments over how to characterize the readerly disposition encouraged by fiction. Recent studies make it clear that the novel has overwhelmingly been the most popular reading material since the eighteenth-century “revolution” in reading. 15  But confusion lingers over how to describe this  voracious reading populace: are novel-consumers creatures of radical skepticism or of thoroughgoing credulity? Is the literary the “perfect consort of doubt,” as one study has it? 16  Or should we say instead, following another recent account, that “readers were invaded by a text; they inhabited the text, identified with its characters, and applied the vicissitudes of its plot to real life”? 17  If both of these possibilities seem strangely persuasive, I want to suggest that this is because of an
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