Form/Content

Ford Madox Ford on Moore:

Seeming triumph:
“Mr. Moore was the only novelist of English blood who had a produced a novel that was a masterpiece at once of writing and of form.”

Epic fail:
“Something wicked seemed to distill itself from the pages of Moore’s books so that whilst you read them you felt, precisely, mental distress.  You felt even mentally distressed at merely remembering the writings of George Moore – as if you were making acquaintance of what goes on in the mind behind the glacial gaze of the serpent that is the Enemy of Man . . . ”

Not only is Moore forgotten, his remembrance hurts.  I think it hurts so good.

Cruel Optimism

“A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing ” (Berlant, Cruel Optimism,  1).

Yes.  Go on.

“Whatever the experience of optimism is in particular, then, the affective structure of an optimistic attachment involves a sustaining inclination to return to the scene of fantasy that enables you to expect that this time, nearness to this thing will help you or a world to become different in just the right way.  But, again, optimism is cruel when the object/scene that ignites a sense of possibility actually makes it impossible to attain the expansive transformation for which a person or a people risks striving; and, doubly, it is cruel insofar as the very pleasures of being inside a relation have become sustaining regardless of the content of the relation, such that a person or a world finds itself bound to a situation of profound threat that is, at the same time, profoundly confirming” (Berlant, Cruel Optimism, 2).

I think that this explains so much.  Small things – why we rented the mansion, regretted it, and continue to dream of our very own home – ; big things – why individuals actively and hopefully participate in the reproduction of messed up power structures – ; and lots of stuff in between (and not just Camper dog).

But what’s so surprising to me is that Berlant pitches the book as a historical argument – that it’s about 1990 – the present.  For her, this is the time of cruel optimism, the time that the ordinary breaks down, fantasies of the good life become more complex, and people become overwhelmed by the presentness of the present moment.

Certainly, there are historical arguments to be made about cruel optimism.  But is a 1990s- onward phenomenon?  I don’t think so.  Isn’t this what so many nineteenth-century novels are about?  Cruel optimism?  I’d point towards Eliot’s The Mill on The Floss  and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary to make my case.  Eliot, because I love that book so much, and what is it other than cruel.  Maggie Tulliver, one of the most lovely and lovable characters of all time (even George Moore agrees!), takes risk to create “expansive transformation” only to be thwarted by her attachments – to the past, to her family, even, perhaps, to the bildungsroman form and all its gendered implications.  She remains optimistic at the end, and, I think, the reader is supposed to be hopeful as she meets her watery death with her brother at her side.  I can’t think of the ending of this book without crying.  It’s affective and effective precisely because its duality – so cruel, so optimistic.

I’ve thought less about Madame Bovary – I only just read it for the first time – but I think that it’s another iteration of cruel optimism.  Madame Bovary’s desire for love, for escape from the banality of marriage, for the extraordinary rather than the ordinary creates all kinds of attachments to objects that prevents her from flourishing (she also dies – it’s less watery).

In these novels, there’s a more confirmed sense of what ordinary life is – it’s fidelity to convention, attachment to the past, and routine.  There is an expectation that one can have and build a life.  And yet, there is profound uncertainty about what constitutes the present moment, and what creates collective, shared time.  There are impasses, there is slow death, and forces that define the present differently.  Also, it’s worth remembering that the novel is – at least according to Bakhtin – the genre of becoming.

Albert Nobbs

I finally re-read “Albert Nobbs” – a short story by George Moore that ‘haunted’ Glenn Close until she made a movie of it.  I wanted to read it because reviewers seemed to get Moore’s deal quite well – that it was a movie that should have been entirely about sexuality and, yet, sex was absent.

But the story – what a tricky little beast.  On the one hand, it shows the politics of invisibility/visibility quite well.  That invisibility gives great power (to earn more wages, to pass, to achieve stability within the workings of larger systems) but it also leads to great loneliness, to a pervading feeling of nothingness, and, as the end reveals, assured misrecognition.  For, as Moore suggests, the fact that women make less wages is known.  It’s less interesting than other reasons for dressing as a man, so its promptly rejected as a viable reason for doing so: “She would be getting better wages as a man than was a woman, somebody said, but nobody cared to discus the wages question, all knew that a man is better paid than a woman.  But what Albert would have done with Helen if Helen hadn’t gone off with Joe Mackins stirred everyone’s imaginations.”  People are interested in the drama, the more unseemly explanations.  As Moore says elsewhere, we are never so happy as when we are reveling (or imagining, in this instance) other people’s sins.

On the other hand, why does it end that way?  It’s super gross.  Totally typical for Moore, to open up such interesting questions about gender and the limits of the language, etc. only to fuck it up by adding something else.  He wanted too much, he was too much.  Here’s how it closes:  “I wonder what’s going to be the end of my life.  What new chance to the years hold for me?  And what would Hubert be thinking, being a married woman?  Of what else should she be thinking but of her husband, who might now be a different man from the one she left behind?”  The whole thing bristles, because Hubert, of course, both is and isn’t a married woman.  She both is and isn’t a “she.”

And, as much as I love Moore (which is tons and tons), this is why I resist calling him a  feminist.  Because he experiments with all kinds of ways of thinking about “new chances” and new “ends” of life, but he ultimately believes in marriage, believes in a relatively stark separation of man and woman, he/she.

A reminder, from Kant

“Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large proportion of men, even when nature has long emancipated them from alien guidance, nevertheless gladly remain immature for life. For the same reasons, it is all too easy for others to set themselves up as their guardians. It is so convenient to be immature! If I have a book to have understanding in place of me, a spiritual adviser to have a conscience for me, a doctor to judge my diet for me, and so on, I need not make any efforts at all. I need not think, so long as I can pay; others will soon enough take the tiresome job over for me.”

It’s no wonder that most novels of development are novels about failed development.