Bleak Liberalism

Amanda Anderson is an incredible scholar and writer–clear, purposeful, argumentative. Her book, Bleak Liberalism, shows these skills in action. It also shows just how depressing, and hella white, Victorian studies can be (Of course, the scope of this book exceeds Victorian studies).  What does it mean to engage in critiques of liberalism without engaging in critiques coming from critical race theory? What does it mean to read Ralph Ellison through Irving Howe and Lionel Trilling? What does it mean to say that Joe Cleary gives too much importance to imperialism, before cataloguing a whole series of historical events and developments that were also tied to imperialism? How can you talk about liberalism without discussing slavery? How can you discuss liberalism without considering how it emerges through theories of property (which, in turn, are tied to slavery, race, and settler colonialism)?

I ask these questions because I think it shows how disciplinarity, which separates out liberalism and postcolonial/critical race theorists’ critiques of liberalism, can be a way of protecting ignorance, of perpetuating old arguments, of moving to innocence.

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The Odd Women

I just finished George Gissing’s The Odd Women, a novel I truly enjoyed.  The footnotes made me laugh about the gap between Victorian and Victorianist readers (how was I supposed to know that *that* signified alcoholism? My that pregnancy came quickly) and was struck by how characters that seem to be protagonists at the beginning of the novel (Virginia & Alice Madden) become minor over time, while minor characters (Rhoda Nunn) become protagonists. There was also a shout-out to the nutritional value of an Irish diet of potatoes and milk, which I loved (the particular woman who celebrated it is the one who takes to the drink later in the novel).

I was especially struck about the novel’s musing on the politics of visibility given the current political climate where killing people (directly and indirectly) seems to go relatively unchallenged. Rhoda Nunn, champion of odd women everywhere, wishes “girls fell down and died of hunger in the streets, instead of creeping to their garrets and the hospitals. I should like to see their dead bodies collected together in some open place, for the crowd to stare at” (42).  But she notes that even gathering the bodies together may have no effect, “Perhaps they might only congratulate each other that a few of the superfluous females had been struck off” (42).

Her line makes me think about the mass grave ‘discovered’ at Tuam, which people knew existed long before, and the constant circulation of images and videos of Black people murdered by the police. Seeing does not mean knowing–it certainly does not mean intervening–and often it only intensifies the very logics that lead to mass death.

The Lesser Bohemians

I am sometimes a really bad reader of contemporary fiction.  It often takes me a while to get into it because I think about the real, living author and approach the novel as a set of techniques (or gimmicks) instead of a narrative to inhabit (which, of course, is also made from a set of techniques).

This was definitely the case in my reading of Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians, but it pulled me in just in time so I could truly immerse myself.  Because I’ve been thinking a lot about Lukács this semester (why always Lukács?), I found the way in which naming worked in the novel really interesting.  At times, it felt like a gimmick, but I think, at the end, it really worked to show how individual character emerges in the novel, on the one hand, and how social life works, on the other.  For the majority of the novel, characters have no names.  There is the narrator, “I;” her lover, “Him;” her friend, “her;” her flatmate, “Flatmate.”  But by the end of the novel, some characters have names: Eily, Stephen, Grace, Marianne, David, Raf.  For me, this implies that they are no longer simply types, they are individuals.  But, the characters who remain unnamed, “her” and “Flatmate” among others, remain minor and remain types.  They play social roles, but never emerge as individuals within the novel (or to the narrator).  The fact that they remain types while other seemingly minor characters get names suggests that individualization is a result of intimacy and that intimacy is a way of unsettling typification.

More Moore

Yesterday, I was lucky enough to be able to teach stories from The Untilled Field.  They are such good stories!  This time around I was struck by how the ending to “Some Parishioners” subtly echoes the ending to Esther Waters.  In Esther Waters, Mrs. Barfield’s son briefly returns to Woodview and becomes angry with his mother for hosting religious services at their (his) house.  But seeing his mother’s face as she describes the importance of prayer, he relents. Even if he thinks miracles no longer happen, there’s something to his mother’s religious feeling that matters.  “Some Parishioners” ends with the priest and a young man reflecting on Biddy’s religious visions:

“I suppose even miracles are inconvenient at times, Father Maguire. Be patient with her, let her enjoy her happiness.”

And the two men stood looking at her, trying vainly to imagine what her happiness might be” (115).

Moore, the man who, in the words of one Victorian reviewer, “described what should be left undescribed,” also documents what he cannot capture: belief, maybe even happiness, that can only every be an absent presence in the pages of new realism.

A Modern Lover

I love George Moore.  And, one of the things I love most about him is how infuriating he is. I know if I met him in real life, I’d hate him.  Like, really hate him.  But mediated by print, his bluster and contradictions and self-promotions are fascinating and his ideas, because of their imperfections, point to something truly interesting even, at times, inspiring.  I think it’s because I long for stable structures that I don’t want to blow up, and Moore just blows up everything.

Re-reading Moore’s first novel, A Modern Lover, I’m struck by how much Lewis Seymour is a type.  He’s decidedly second-rate, but women (some that are decidedly first-rate) work hard, often invisibly, always unacknowledged to make him successful. Like Nino from the Ferrante novels, he networks entirely through women who remain unaware (until they’re not) of the networks in which they’re entrapped.

I resist the urge to read biographically because Moore’s biography–although important–is unstable and shifting and, like his novels, often fiction.  But (prob. because I’m not-so-secretly cataloguing hilarious descriptions of Irish men’s bodies) I’m struck by his descriptions of Lewis Seymour’s body and how it parallels descriptions of Moore’s body. As Moore puts it: “the weak but delicately featured face was beautiful: the too developed hips gave a feminine swing to his walk” (87).  Each description of Lewis Seymour works this way–it marks him as beautiful but also weak and effeminate. And, in the novel, women love it (until they don’t).

Descriptions of Moore’s body also emphasize how womanly it is (but not his beauty.  Lady Gregory called him a “boiled ghost!”).  Yeats juxtaposes him with J. F. Taylor’s clean, logical lines, declaring that “Moore’s body was insinuating, upflowing, circulative, curvicular, pop-eyed” (283). Elsewhere, someone (I don’t remember the location), talked of Moore’s feminine shoulders and, I think, his hands (don’t quote me on this, and maybe it was Moore’s description of his own body).

This highlights a central contradiction in Moore’s work.  He’s so good at describing and drawing attention to women’s constrained social roles, but he also relentlessly reproduces these constraints by doubling down on patriarchy (see the end of the wonderful “Albert Nobbs”) by having womanly men get ahead by using women. In his novels, androgyny and gender play usually only work one way: men can be womanly, but women are women and, ultimately, should stay women.  Being ‘womanly’ can be another way to exploit women.

 

The Three Clerks

I truly loved Trollope’s The Three Clerks.  More on it later (I hope), but for now, a brief passage that celebrates political honesty, and, by implication, the slow:

“It has now become the doctrine of a large class of politicians that political honesty is unnecessary, slow, subversive of a man’s interests, and incompatible with quick onward movement. Such a doctrine in politics is to be deplored; but alas! who can confine it to politics? It creeps with gradual, but still with sure and quick motion, into all doings of our daily life”