Think Piece

Melodrama in Disguise: The Case of the Victorian Novel

By guest contributor Jacob Romanow

When people call a book “melodramatic,” they usually mean it as an insult. Melodrama is histrionic, implausible, and (therefore) artistically subpar—a reviewer might use the term to suggest that serious readers look elsewhere. Victorian novels, on the other hand, have come to be seen as an irreproachably “high” form of art, part of a “great tradition” of realistic fiction beloved by stodgy traditionalists: books that people praise but don’t read. But in fact, the nineteenth-century British novel and the stage melodrama that provided the century’s most popular form of entertainment were inextricably intertwined. The historical reality is that the two forms have been linked from the beginning: in fact, many of the greatest Victorian novels are prose melodramas themselves. But from the Victorian period on down, critics, readers, and novelists have waged a campaign of distinctions and distractions aimed at disguising and denying the melodramatic presence in novelistic forms. The same process that canonized what were once massively popular novels as sanctified examples of high art scoured those novels of their melodramatic contexts, leaving our understanding of their lineage and formation incomplete. It’s commonly claimed that the Victorian novel was the last time “popular” and “high” art were unified in a single body of work. But the case of the Victorian novel reveals the limitations of constructed, motivated narratives of cultural development. Victorian fiction was massively popular, absolutely—popularity rested in significant part on the presence of “low” melodrama around and within those classic works.

A poster of the dramatization of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist

Even today, thinking about Victorian fiction as a melodramatic tradition cuts against many accepted narratives of genre and periodization; although most scholars will readily concede that melodrama significantly influences the novelistic tradition (sometimes to the latter’s detriment), it is typically treated as an external tradition whose features are being borrowed (or else as an alien encroaching upon the rightful preserve of a naturalistic “real”). Melodrama first arose in France around the French Revolution and quickly spread throughout Europe; A Tale of Mystery, an uncredited translation from French considered the first English melodrama, appeared in 1802 (by Thomas Holcroft, himself a novelist). By the accession of Victoria in 1837, it had long been the dominant form on the English stage. Yet major critics have uncovered melodramatic method to be fundamental to the work of almost every major nineteenth-century novelist, from George Eliot to Henry James to Elizabeth Gaskell to (especially) Charles Dickens, often treating these discoveries as particular to the author in question. Moreover, the practical relationship between the novel and melodrama in Victorian Britain helped define both genres. Novelists like Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Thomas Hardy, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, among others, were themselves playwrights of stage melodramas. But the most common connection, like film adaptations today, was the widespread “melodramatization” of popular novels for the stage. Blockbuster melodramatic productions were adapted from not only popular crime novels of the Newgate and sensation schools like Jack Sheppard, The Woman in White, Lady Audley’s Secret, and East Lynne, but also from canonical works including David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, Rob Roy, The Heart of Midlothian, Mary Barton, A Christmas Carol, Frankenstein, Vanity Fair, and countless others, often in multiple productions for each. In addition to so many major novels being adapted into melodramas, many major melodramas were themselves adaptations of more or less prominent novels, for example Planché’s The Vampire (1820), Moncrieff’s The Lear of Private Life (1820), and Webster’s Paul Clifford (1832). As in any process of adaptation, the stage and print versions of each of these narratives differ in significant ways. But the interplay between the two forms was both widespread and fully baked into the generic expectations of the novel; the profusion of adaptation, with or without an author’s consent, makes clear that melodramatic elements in the novel were not merely incidental borrowings. In fact, melodramatic adaptation played a key role in the success of some of the period’s most celebrated novels. Dickens’s Oliver Twist, for instance, was dramatized even before its serialized publication was complete! And the significant rate of illiteracy among melodrama’s audiences meant that for novelists like Dickens or Walter Scott, the melodramatic stage could often serve as the only point of contact with a large swath of the public. As critic Emily Allen aptly writes: “melodrama was not only the backbone of Victorian theatre by midcentury, but also of the novel.”


This question of audience helps explain why melodrama has been separated out of our understanding of the novelistic tradition. Melodrama proper was always “low” culture, associated with its economically lower-class and often illiterate audiences in a society that tended to associate the theatre with lax morality. Nationalistic sneers at the French origins of melodrama played a role as well, as did the Victorian sense that true art should be permanent and eternal, in contrast to the spectacular but transient visual effects of the melodramatic stage. And like so many “low” forms throughout history, melodrama’s transformation of “higher” forms was actively denied even while it took place. Victorian critics, particularly those of a conservative bent, would often actively deny melodramatic tendencies in novelists whom they chose to praise. In the London Quarterly Review’s 1864 eulogy “Thackeray and Modern Fiction,” for example, the anonymous reviewer writes that “If we compare the works of Thackeray or Dickens with those which at present win the favour of novel-readers, we cannot fail to be struck by the very marked degeneracy.” The latter, the reviewer argues, tend towards the sensational and immoral, and should be approached with a “sentiment of horror”; the former, on the other hand, are marked by their “good morals and correct taste.” This is revisionary literary history, and one of its revisions (I think we can even say the point of its revisions) is to eradicate melodrama from the historical narrative of great Victorian novels. The reviewer praises Thackeray’s “efforts to counteract the morbid tendencies of such books as Bulwer’s Eugene Aram and Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard,” ignoring Thackeray’s classification of Oliver Twist alongside those prominent Newgate melodramas. The melodramatic quality of Thackeray’s own fiction (not to mention the highly questionable “morality” of novels like Vanity Fair and Barry Lyndon), let alone the proactively melodramatic Dickens, is downplayed or denied outright. And although the review offers qualified praise of Henry Fielding as a literary ancestor of Thackeray, it ignores their melodramatic relative Walter Scott. The review, then, is not just a document of midcentury mainstream anti-theatricality, but also a document that provides real insight into how critics worked to solidify an antitheatrical novelistic canon.

Photographic print of Act 3, Scene 6 from The Whip, Drury Lane Theatre, 1909
Gabrielle Enthoven Collection, Museum number: S.211-2016
© Victoria and Albert Museum

Yet even after these very Victorian reasons have fallen aside, the wall of separation between novels and melodrama has been maintained. Why? In closing, I’ll speculate about a few possible reasons. One is that Victorian critics’ division became a self-fulfilling prophecy in the history of the novel, bifurcating the form into melodramatic “low” and self-consciously anti-melodramatic “high” genres. Another is that applying historical revisionism to the novel in this way only mirrored and reinforced a consistent fact of melodrama’s theatrical criticism, which too has consistently used “melodrama” derogatorily, persistently differentiating the melodramas of which it approved from “the old melodrama”—a dynamic that took root even before any melodrama was legitimately “old.” A third factor is surely the rise of so-called dramatic realism, and the ensuing denialism of melodrama’s role in the theatrical tradition. And a final reason, I think, is that we may still wish to relegate melodrama to the stage (or the television serial) because we are not really comfortable with the roles that it plays in our own world: in our culture, in our politics, and even in our visions for our own lives. When we recognize the presence of melodrama in the “great tradition” of novels, we will better be able to understand those texts. And letting ourselves find melodrama there may also help us find it in the many other parts of plain sight where it’s hiding.

Jacob Romanow is a Ph.D. student in English at Rutgers University. His research focuses on the novel and narratology in Victorian literature, with a particular interest in questions of influence, genre, and privacy.

Think Piece

Politics the only common ground

by Eric Brandom

Le congrès des ecrivains et artistes noirs took place in late September 1956, in Paris. Among the speakers was Aimé Césaire, and it is his intervention, “Culture and Colonization,” that is my focus here. This text has been the subject of significant scholarship. Like all of Césaire’s writings it is nonetheless worth reading carefully anew. I look to Césaire now in part to think through the differences between two attempts to take or retake a dialectical tradition for anticolonial politics. How might such a project take shape in and against specifically French political thought? In this post, I hope one unusual moment in Césaire’s talk can be useful.

Put broadly, for Césaire, the problem of culture in 1956 was colonization. By disintegrating, or attempting to disintegrate, the peoples over which it has domination, colonization removes the “framework…structure” that make cultural life possible. And it must be so, because colonization means political control and “the political organization freely developed by a people is a prominent part of that people’s culture, even as it also conditions that culture” (131). Peoples and nations, must be free because this is the condition of true living–having already made this argument with quotations from Marx, Hegel, and Lenin, Césaire next gave his listeners Spengler quoting Goethe. There was a politics to these citations. At issue here was Goethe’s vitalist point, from the heart of “European” culture, “that living must itself unfold.” This was contrary to Roger Caillois (also an object of enmity in the earlier Discourse) and others who “list…benefits” (132) of colonization. One might have “good intentions,” and yet: “there is not one bad colonization…and another…enlightened colonization…One has to take a side” (133).

On an earlier day of the conference Hubert Deschamps, a former colonial governor turned academic, had asked to say a few words from his chair. Inaudible, he had been allowed to ascend to the podium, and had then given a longer-than-expected ‘impromptu’ speech. Deschamps seems to have offered a limited defense of colonization on the basis of the ultimate historical good of the colonization “we French”—the Gauls—experienced by the Romans. Responding the next day Césaire plucked from his memory a pro-imperial Latin quatrain written in fifth century Gaul by Rutilius Namatianus, ending “Urbem fecisti quod prius orbis erat” (“thou hast made a city of what was erstwhile a world”). I pause over this performance of total cultural mastery for two reasons. First, this comparison of ancient and modern imperialism was more powerful for the French than one might think and second, Césaire was surprisingly ambivalent. He notes that both Deschamps and Namatianus come from the ruling group, so naturally see things positively. Of course like the modern French empire, Roman empire did mean the destruction of indigenous culture—and yet Césaire commented that “we may note in passing that the modern colonialist order has never inspired a poet” (134). It seems to me that Césaire was not without sympathy for the idea of the “Urbs,” but recognized its impossibility.

Culture cannot be “mixed [métisse]”, it is a harmony, a style (138). It develops—here Césaire is perhaps as Comtean as Nietzschean—in periods of “psychological unity…of communion” (139). The different origins, the hodgepodge, that results in anarchy is not a matter of physical origins, but of experience: in culture “the rule…is heterogeneity. But be careful: this heterogeneity is not lived as such. In the reality of a living civilization it is a matter of heterogeneity lived internally as homogeneity” (139). This cannot happen in colonialism. The result of the denial of freedom, of “the historical initiative” is that “the dialectic of need” cannot unfold in colonized countries. Quoting again from Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations, Césaire compares the result of colonialism for the colonized to Nietzsche’s “concept-quake caused by science” that “robs man of the foundation of all his rest and security” (140). Colonialism denies its victims the capacity to constitute from the people a collective subject capable of taking action on the stage of the world. From this failed subjectification, everything else flows. In colonized countries, culture is in a “tragic” position. Real culture has withered and dies or is dead. What remains is an artificial “subculture” condemned to marginal “elites” (Césaire puts the word in quotes), and in fact “vast territories of culturally empty zones…of cultural perversion or cultural by-products” (140).

What, Césaire asks, is to be done? This is the question presented by the “situation that we black men of culture must have the courage to face squarely” (140). Césaire rejects the summary choice between “indigenous” or “European”: “fidelity and backwardness, or progress and rupture” (141). This opposition must be overcome, Césaire maintains, through the dialectical action of a people. Césaire’s language itself contains the fidelity and rupture he will no longer accept as alternatives: “I believe that in the African culture yet to be born…” (141). There will be no general destruction of the symbols of the past, nor a blind imposition of what comes from Europe. “In our culture that is to be born…there will be old and new. Which new elements? Which old elements?…The answer can only be given by the community” (142). But if the individuals present before Césaire in Paris—including among other luminaries his former student Fanon and old friend Senghor, as well as Jean Price-Mars, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright—cannot say what the answer will be, “at least we can confirm here and now that it will be given and not verbally but by facts and in action” (142). Thus “our own role as black men of culture” is not to be the redeemer, but rather “to proclaim the coming and prepare the way” for “the people, our people, freed from their shackles” (142). The people is a “demiurge that alone can organize this chaos into a new synthesis…We are here to say and demand: Let the peoples speak. Let the black peoples come onto the great stage of history” (142).

Baldwin, listening to Césaire, was “stirred in a very strange and disagreeable way” (157). His assessment of Césaire is critical:

Césaire’s speech left out of account one of the great effects of the colonial experience: its creation, precisely, of men like himself. His real relation to the people who thronged about him now had been changed, by this experience, into something very different from what it once had been. What made him so attractive now was the fact that he, without having ceased to be one of them, yet seemed to move with the European authority. He had penetrated into the heart of the great wilderness which was Europe and stolen the sacred fire. And this, which was the promise of their freedom, was also the assurance of his power. (158)

Political subjectivity, popularly constructed, is the necessary ground for cultural life–this was Césaire’s conclusion. Baldwin was not wrong to see in Césaire’s performance a certain implied political and cultural elitism. Here we can usefully return to Césaire’s great poem, the Cahier d’un retour au pays natal.

A. James Arnold, editor of the new critical edition of Césaire’s writings, there argues that the 1939 first version of the poem is essentially a lyric account of individual subjectivity. Arnold further argues, and Christopher Miller sharply disagrees, that the first version of the poem is superior, that subsequent versions (in 1947 and 1956) warp the form of the original with socio-political encrustations. Gary Wilder, in the first of his pair of essential books, reads the poem in terms of voice and subjectivity, seeing in it ultimately a failure. What began as critique ends with “a decontextualized and existentialist account of unalienated identity and metaphysical arrival” (288). Looking at Césaire’s attention in 1956 to the poetry of empire, his evident sympathy even in the face of Deschamps’ condescension for the Urbs, impossible though it be in the modern world, we may read the poem differently. Taken together with, for instance, Césaire’s appreciation for and active dissemination of Charles Péguy’s mystical republican poetry in Tropiques, we might see the subjectivity the poem dramatizes as essentially collective, and its project as the activation, the uprising, of this collectivity. It seems to me that we can read the shape of the dilemmas that Césaire confronted in the 1956 talk–between elite and people, decision and growth, culture and civilization, nation and diaspora–at least partly as the pursuit even at this late date, of an impossible republicanism.

Dispatches from the Archives

Stefan Collini’s Ford Lectures: ‘History in English criticism, 1919-1961’

by guest contributor Joshua Bennett

A distinctive feature of the early years of the Cambridge English Tripos (examination system), in which close “practical criticism” of individual texts was balanced by the study of the “life, literature, and thought” surrounding them, was that the social and intellectual background to literature acquired an equivalent importance to that of literature itself. Stefan Collini’s Ford Lectures, in common with his essay collections, Common Reading and Common Writing, have over the past several weeks richly demonstrated that the literary critics who were largely the products of that Tripos can themselves be read and historicized in that spirit. Collini, whose resistance to the disciplinary division between the study of literature and that of intellectual history has proved so fruitful over many years, has focused on six literary critics in his lecture series: T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis, L. C. Knights, Basil Willey, William Empson, and Raymond Williams. All, with the exception of Eliot, were educated at Cambridge; and all came to invest the enterprise of literary criticism with a particular kind of missionary importance in the early and middle decades of the twentieth century. Collini has been concerned to explore the intellectual and public dynamics of that mission, by focusing on the role of history in these critics’ thought and work. His argument has been twofold. First, he has emphasized that the practice of literary criticism is always implicitly or explicitly historical in nature. The second, and more intellectual-historical, element of his case has consisted in the suggestion that literary critics offered a certain kind of “cultural history” to the British public sphere. By using literary and linguistic evidence in order to unlock the “whole way of life” of previous forms of English society, and to reach qualitative judgements about “the standard of living” in past and present, critics occupied territory vacated by professional historians at the time, while also contributing to wider debates about twentieth-century societal conditions.

Collini’s lectures did not attempt to offer a full history of the development of English as a discipline in the twentieth century. Nevertheless, they raised larger questions for those interested in the history of the disciplines both of English and History in twentieth-century Britain, and what such histories can reveal about the wider social and cultural conditions in which they took shape. How should the findings from Collini’s penetrating microscope modify, or provide a framework for, our view of these larger organisms?

First, a question arises as to the relationship between the kind of historical criticism pursued by Collini’s largely Cantabrigian dramatis personae, and specific institutions and educational traditions. E. M. W. Tillyard’s mildly gossipy memoir of his involvement in the foundation of the Cambridge English Tripos, published in 1958 under the title of The Muse Unchained, recalls an intellectual environment of the 1910s and 1920s in which the study of literature was exciting because it was a way of opening up the world of ideas. The English Tripos, he held, offered a model of general humane education—superior to Classics, the previous such standard—through which the ideals of the past might nourish the present. There is a recognizable continuity between these aspirations, and the purposes of the cultural history afterwards pursued under the auspices of literary criticism by the subsequent takers of that Tripos whom Collini discussed—several of whom began their undergraduate studies as historians.

But how far did the English syllabuses of other universities, and the forces driving their creation and development, also encourage a turn towards cultural history, and how did they shape the kind of cultural history that was written? Tillyard’s account is notably disparaging of philological approaches to English studies, of the kind which acquired and preserved a considerably greater prominence in Oxford’s Honour School of “English Language and Literature”—a significant pairing—from 1896. Did this emphasis contribute to an absence of what might be called “cultural-historical” interest among Oxford’s literary scholars, or alternatively give it a particular shape? Widening the canvas beyond Oxbridge, it is surely also important to heed the striking fact that England was one of the last countries in Europe in which widespread university interest in the study of English literature took shape. If pressed to single out any one individual as having been responsible for the creation of the “modern” form of the study of English Literature in the United Kingdom—a hazardous exercise, certainly—one could do worse than to alight upon the Anglo-Scottish figure of Herbert Grierson. Grierson, who was born in Shetland in 1866 and died in 1960, was appointed to the newly-created Regius Chalmers Chair of English at Aberdeen in 1894, before moving to take up a similar position in Edinburgh in 1915. In his inaugural lecture at Edinburgh, Grierson argued for the autonomy of the study of English literature from that of British history. As Cairns Craig has recently pointed out, however, an evaluative kind of “cultural history” is unmistakably woven into his writings on the poetry of John Donne—which for Grierson prefigured the psychological realism of the modern novel—and his successors. For Grierson, the cultural history of the modern world was structured by a conflict between religion, humanism, and science—evident in the seventeenth century, and in the nineteenth—to which literature itself offered, in the present day, a kind of antidote. Grierson’s conception of literature registered his own difficulties with the Free Church religion of his parents, as well, perhaps, as the abiding influence of the broad Scottish university curriculum—combining study of the classics, philosophy, psychology and rhetoric—which he had encountered as an undergraduate prior to the major reforms of Scottish higher education begun in 1889. Did the heroic generation of Cambridge-educated critics, then, create and disseminate a kind of history inconceivable without the English Tripos? Or did they offer more of a local instantiation of a wider “mind of Britain”? A general history of English studies in British universities, developing for example some of the themes discussed in William Whyte’s recent Redbrick, is certainly a desideratum.

Collini partly defined literary critics’ cultural-historical interests in contradistinction to a shadowy “Other”: professional historians, who were preoccupied not by culture but by archives, charters and pipe-rolls. As Collini pointed out, the word “culture”—and so the enterprise of “cultural history”—has admitted of several senses in different times and in the usage of different authors. The kind of cultural history which critics felt they could not find among professional historians, and which accordingly they themselves had to supply, centered on an understanding of lived experience in the past; and on identifying the roots—and so, perhaps, the correctives—to their present discontents. This raises a second interesting problem, the answer to which should be investigated rather than assumed: what exactly became of “cultural history” in these senses within the British historical profession between around 1920 and 1960?

Peter Burke and Peter Ghosh have alike argued that the growing preoccupation of academic history with political history in the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries acted regrettably to constrict that universal application of historical method to all facets of human societies which the Enlightenment first outlined in terms of “conjectural history.” This thesis is true in its main outlines. But there were ways in which cultural history retained a presence in British academic history in the period of what Michael Bentley thinks of as historiographical “modernism,” prior to the transformative interventions of Keith Thomas, E. P. Thompson and others in the 1960s and afterwards. In the field of religious history, for example, Christopher Dawson – while holding the title of “Lecturer in the History of Culture” at University College, Exeter—published a collection of essays in 1933 entitled Enquiries into religion and culture. English study of socioeconomic history in the interwar and postwar years also often extended to, or existed in tandem with, interest in what can only be described as “culture.” Few episodes might appear as far removed from cultural history as the “storm over the gentry,” for example—a debate over the social origins of the English Civil War that was played out chiefly in the pages of the Economic History Review in the 1940s and 1950s. But the first book of one of the main participants in that controversy, Lawrence Stone, was actually a study entitled Sculpture in Britain: the middle ages, published in 1955 in the Pelican History of Art series. Although Stone came to regard it as a diversion from his main interests, its depictions of a flourishing artistic culture in late-medieval Britain, halted by the Reformation, may still be read as a kind of cultural-historical counterpart to his better-known arguments for the importance of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a period of social upheaval. If it is true that literary criticism is always implicitly or explicitly historical, perhaps it is also true that few kinds of history have been found to be wholly separable from cultural history, broadly defined.

Joshua Bennett is a Junior Research Fellow in History at Christ Church, Oxford.

Think Piece

High Fidelity: Jean Starobinski’s Critical Hermeneutics

by guest contributor Emelyn Lih

The work of Swiss literary critic, hermeneut, and historian of ideas Jean Starobinski can be characterized by its dedication to depth and diversity: diversity of periods explored (from Montaigne to Baudelaire to Claude Simon, to say nothing of the eighteenth century), of genres and mediums studied (from poetry to art to political philosophy to opera), of objects analyzed (from melancholy to acrobats to hermeneutics itself to the idea of liberty). Many of these strands twined together during his stint at Johns Hopkins University (1953-1956), where he engaged with such luminaries as the literary critic Georges Poulet, historian of medicine Owsei Temkin, and Arthur O. Lovejoy, founder of the Journal of the History of Ideas.

Starobinski himself (Babelio)
Jean Starobinski

The recent conference at New York University’s Maison française devoted to Starobinski’s œuvre represented this diversity and paid tribute to the depths his myriad studies plumbed. Most immediately, the publication last year of a new collection of Starobinski’s writings La Beauté du monde (2016) under the direction of Martin Rueff (Université de Genève) prompted the day-long exploration of his work “High Fidelity: Jean Starobinski’s Critical Hermeneutics.”

Denis Hollier (NYU) introduced the first half of the program. Hollier began by commenting on the choice of Titian’s The Andrians for the conference poster, quoting Starobinski’s expressions of admiration for the painting, discovered in the summer of 1939 when the masterpieces of the Prado were evacuated from Spain and exhibited in Geneva. Hollier traced Starobinski’s treatment of the theme of the oppositions and transitions between life and matter, vitalism and mechanism, through various literary and artistic manifestations, including several representations of Pygmalion and Galatea. Here, as elsewhere, Starobinski proved acutely aware of the risk presented by art springing too readily to life. Pygmalion’s gesture was not a true encounter with the other, but a narcissistic fusion with the sculpture he has himself created. In criticism, this facility must be avoided: it is difficult to accurately present another writer “in his own words,” according to the principle of the Écrivains de toujours collection to which Starobinski contributed Montesquieu par lui-même, his first published book (1953).

Titian painting.jpg
Titian, The Bacchanal of the Andrians (1523-1526)

Philippe Roger chose a different point of entry into the question of the appropriate distance between the critic and his or her object. How can the critic shake free of the text’s paralyzing fascination without allowing the work to lose its power of enchantment? In a careful reading of the 1974 article « Le texte et l’interprète » (reprinted in La Beauté du monde), Roger explored the complex balance of power between a text and its interpreter as theorized by Starobinski, a relationship in which distance and intimacy do not prove mutually exclusive. The duty of the critic is to consolidate the object in its autonomy and specificity, to make it (in an apparent paradox) more resistant to analysis and thus to appropriation. This close reading then widened into a consideration of the roots of the ethical considerations discernible in the origins, margins and ending of Action et réaction: vie et aventures d’un couple (1999), in which Philippe Roger finds a return to the relationship between poetry and resistance identified in Starobinski’s first published texts, which came out during the Occupation. The strange conclusion to Action and reaction, where Starobinski quotes Valéry in a way that appears to invalidate the entire book’s objective, in fact proves a way to reintroduce value and thus an ethics into the dangerous infinite regression of actions and reactions. The critical relation can thus be read as a critical reaction and an assumption of critical responsibility.

The question of the appropriate distance from and sympathy with the object of one’s study ran through the day’s presentations, and prompted many speakers to interrogate their own relationship to Starobinski. Laurent Jenny (Université de Genève) evoked Starobinski’s preface to Jenny’s book La Parole singulière. His talk explored various means suggested by Starobinski of parrying the risks represented by the absence of a metalanguage that plagues the relationship between the hermeneut and a textual object: the interpreter’s gaze must seek to be gazed back at in return (« Regarde, afin que tu sois regardé » / “Look, so that you may be looked at in return,” as Starobinski advises in L’Œil vivant), a position that Jenny linked to Merleau-Ponty and to Cassirer. The object must be apprehended as visible, not as merely a fragment of language to be commented on in language. Starobinski’s appreciation of Leo Spitzer’s stylistics stems from this drive to identify (and indeed, to introduce) layers of opacity and silence between the text and its commentary.

Lucien Nouis (NYU) also discussed Starobinski’s relationship to Spitzer, as one of a series of three critical « égarements » – wanderings, detours, wrong paths taken – that Starobinski retraced both in deep sympathy with his subjects and in the desire to construct what one might call methodological cautionary tales. The hermeneutic circle may at any point collapse into a tautological circle, by bringing the text back to the interpreter, from alterity to sameness. Spitzer, for example, despite his opposition to Georges Poulet’s critique d’identification, treats the text like a woman to be seduced (a desire itself often prompted by the presence of a critical “rival”), with a passionate and jealous attention where the man is more present than the scholar. Nouis brought out the quasi-religious high fidelity required to watch steadily over a beloved writer’s shoulder even as he (Spitzer, Saussure, Rousseau) lapses into narcissistic mirroring.

Starobinski picture 3.jpg
Conference participants (from left to right): Martin Rueff, Julien Zanetta, Laurent Jenny, Anthony Vidler, Joanna Stalnaker and Richard Sieburth (author’s photograph)

Richard Sieburth (NYU) introduced the second series of four presentations by describing a personal connection to Starobinski’s Geneva. The first panelist, Joanna Stalnaker (Columbia) used the motif of the bouquet and its cousin the florilegium or anthology – a bouquet of texts – to retrace Starobinski’s interpretation of the late Rousseau, beautifully punctuating her reading with other floral gifts: pages from Rousseau’s herbarium, late poems by Mallarmé, bouquets and scattered flowers as painted by the poet’s friend Manet. A bouquet is what holds things together, whether it be a bunch of flowers or the social order; in Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire, Rousseau’s faith in the possibility of such cohesion falters, and in Stalnaker’s reading, Starobinski gives new voice to this worry, lending it ecological overtones.

Anthony Vidler (Cooper Union) ended his own talk by alluding to the rich potential for environmental analysis offered by such texts as Action and reaction; he focused, however, on Starobinski’s importance for historians and theorists of architecture as early as the 1950s and 60s. Read from a spatial perspective, La Transparence et l’obstacle helped imagine and interpret eighteenth-century French architecture, including the utopian fantasies of Revolutionary writers like Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (who elaborated a particular version of Rousseauist architecture) and Étienne-Louis Boullée. Vidler explained how this fertile cross-disciplinary reading continued with the publication and translation of L’Invention de la liberté and 1789: The Emblems of Reason, two “masterfully a-art-historical” works whose approach to symbolism, to the notion of the event, and to the translation of political and social traumas into collective aesthetic norms nonetheless provided architectural historians with precious analytical tools.

Plan of ville idéale de Chaux.jpg
Plan of the ideal city of Chaux by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux

Since Julien Zanetta, co-organizer of the conference, had entirely lost his voice, Laurent Jenny read his paper. It focused on Starobinski’s readings of Paul Valéry: the strong affinity between the poet and the critic was evident as early as Starobinski’s undergraduate thesis on self-knowledge in Stendhal, inspired in part by Valéry’s 1927 preface to Lucien Leuwen. Zanetta compared their readings of Stendhal, in that preface and in « Stendhal pseudonyme » (the last chapter of L’Œil vivant). Where Valéry critically situates himself behind Stendhal’s gallery of masks, Starobinski faces these multiple masks, examining their different functions. Both texts contain discreet nods to Valéry’s Monsieur Teste, he who observes « à distance de loge » (literally, from the vantage point of a box at the theater), an image that serves as a powerful metaphor for a hermeneutics poised between fascination and clear-sightedness. In Zanetta’s view, Valéry’s desire to “impersonalize” himself through his valorization of text over author is in the end not so different from Stendhal’s histrionic role-playing; Starobinski sees Valéry and Stendhal as equally Protean, both masked and demasking.

The day’s last talk was given by Martin Rueff. After a detailed explanation of Louis Althusser’s concept of theoretical practice, he set about justifying the parallel he proposed between aspects of Starobinski’s and Althusser’s thought, which might at first appear surprising since Starobinski’s method – and more generally, what Rueff called the Swiss brand of French theory – is so rooted in practice and in constant, concrete confrontation with the text, and so wary of systematization and overarching structure. By identifying similarities in the two writers’ attitude toward theories in history of science and of medicine (in Starobinski’s case, especially in three articles from the early 1950s, on Speransky, Sigerist and Canguilhem), Rueff arrived at a definition of Starobinski’s method as a hermeneutical theoretical practice (« une pratique théorique herméneutique »).

Cover of La Beauté du monde.jpg
La Beauté du monde (Gallimard, 2016)

The conference concluded in a lively discussion, much of it centered on Martin Rueff’s statements about Starobinski’s relationship to philosophy (that he is one of the last thinkers to refuse to give in to its prestige) and to history (that it represents, for him, the ultimate horizon of the real). Many of the presenters underlined the profound continuity of Starobinski’s thought (with Philippe Roger sketching out some of the differences between the Swiss critic and Roland Barthes), and how this continuity allowed for important convergences between the day’s presentations, despite the diversity of discipline and approach. The challenge of combining sympathy and distance, affect and rigor, adhesion and lucidity, ran through the day’s presentations, producing the sense of a renewed commitment—I am tempted to say a vow, as in taking vows—to the highest fidelity in critical practice.

My own first encounter with Starobinski was in the context of his article « La journée dans Histoire », in which he mobilizes his lasting interest in the shape, order and occupations of the day as a signifying structure to explore its expression in Simon’s beautiful and difficult novel Histoire (1967). The shape of the day or « la forme du jour », which Starobinski has explored in a multitude of instances, from antiquity to the Nouveau roman, seems apt for capturing the well-ordered, polyphonic and coherent progression of this Friday in February devoted to his work. All eight presentations had clearly been inspired by Starobinski in multiple ways: for the group of speakers coming together from Paris, Geneva and New York, this occasion served as an invitation to return to Starobinski’s own favorite objects of study; to explore the sophistication and subtlety of his reflections on literary-critical and historical method; and to be reminded of his unfaltering standards of truth, care and accuracy in the exercise of criticism.

High Fidelity: Jean Starobinski’s Critical Hermeneutics was held at the Maison française of NYU on Friday February 17, 2017 and was sponsored by the Center for French Civilization and Culture of NYU and the Consulate General of Switzerland in New York.

Emelyn Lih is a graduate student in French at New York University. Her master’s research at the École normale supérieure in Paris focused on literary representations of the Spanish Civil War, from Georges Bernanos to George Orwell and Claude Simon. She is preparing a dissertation on the relationship between autobiography and history in postwar French literature.

Think Piece

Historicizing Ghosts: Reimagining Realities in Nineteenth Century Popular Bengali Fiction

by guest contributors Senjuti Jash and Shuvatri Dasgupta

ghostsIn South Asian historiography myths, local legends, chronicles, and folklores function as primary sources for the writing of “history,” or itihasa, as Romila Thapar has illustrated. Within the broad genre of fiction, historians have traditionally used social novels or short stories, and have overlooked popular fiction dealing with ghosts and spirits. Residing in an alternative society to that of the anthropocentric one, in fictionalized narratives and anecdotes, ghosts represented the “other” of the Bengali “self” during the nineteenth century. In this piece, we explore ghost stories as texts which can inform a bottom-up approach to histories of the nineteenth-century Bengali mind.

Why did the spectral community find popularity in the fictional realm of the Bengali mind during the nineteenth century? The primary reason behind this are the cholera, malaria, and plague epidemics which wreaked havoc in villages and cities, wiping out more than half of the population in Bengal during the early nineteenth century. From 1839 onwards, these epidemics spread from Bengal to other parts of India, as John Hays has shown. As the number of discarded and diseased corpses increased, ghosts found a place in the Bengali psyche facing the realities of death in their everyday worlds. In this scenario, the discourses of science and medicine produced a space at the intersections of “rationality” and “spirituality,” and engendered these accounts, which were transmitted both orally and in print.

The category of “ghost” remained fluid: in some stories they were seen, while in some their presence was only felt. In the fictional narratives, an environment of phantasm was created with omens like black cats, moonlight, and veiled silhouettes. The spaces of deserted houses and dilapidated bungalows acquired a metaphorical organic significance in these discourses. In a Bengali proverb from Comilla (Bangladesh), roughly translated as “ghosts inhabit a broken-down house,” the house signified the human body crumbling under various incurable ailments, which attracted ghosts to make the ailing human one of their own.

Local legends from Rangpur (Bangladesh) dating back to the nineteenth century described the habitats of different types of ghosts in various kinds of trees, namely Palmyra, Tamarind, and Madar. Ghosts also inhabited trees like Banyan, Sand Paper, Acacia, and Bengal Quince. The allocation of habitats in the spectral world mirrored anthropocentric normativities associated with gender roles. For example, the male Brahmin ghost, namely the Brahmadaitya, usually inhabited tall evergreen trees like Aegle Marmelos, Peepul, and Magnolia, maintaining his social superiority over others even after death. Female ghosts inhabited smaller shorter bushes and shrubs like the Streblus Asper and others. The Brahmadaitya’s habitat in comparison with the female ghosts’ habitats illustrated not only his primacy on the social ladder, but also the gender normativities permeating into the “other” world from the human world. 

An early 20th century edition of the Grandmother’s Tales. Image courtesy of GoodReads.

In a famous anthology of tales compiled in the early twentieth century titled Thakurmar Jhuli (Grandma’s Bag of Tales), the narrator was an old woman entertaining her grandchildren, with a barely-disguised didactic tone. These tales reflected an element of moral speculation attached to the gender roles of the ghosts. Female ghosts like the widowed Petni were portrayed as attracted to fish, given the nineteenth century Indian tradition of widows living an ascetic life with dietary regulations. The construction of this ghostly image functioned on two levels: the reflection of the past married life on the widowed “self” of the narrator, and the articulation of these suppressed desires through the representations of the “other” widowed ghost. This dual self-projection of the narrator served a greater purpose, as it participated in the ongoing discourse about the issues of sati and widow remarriage, contributing to larger debates about the rights and privileges of women in nineteenth-century Bengali society.

With the colonial government’s criminalization of sati and legalization of widow remarriage, as Lata Mani has shown in her seminal article “Contentious Traditions,” women became sites of conflict for redefining “tradition.” There was a clear colonial preoccupation with the state of women as a benchmark for appraising civilizational standards. For the colonial masters, the injustice and oppression meted out to Indian women in the form of sati became a corroboration of “British modernity” and a moral platform on which their “civilizing” endeavor could be justified. The “feminine” hence provided a space for renegotiating what was “Indian” and what was “Western.” The female ghosts were clearly no different. While Indian women gradually unified over shared demands for various rights, the ghostly women from the other world expressed their solidarities for these reforms through the figure of Petni indulging in fish.

In these fictionalized narratives, living women—especially the ones who were pregnant or had long lustrous hair—were portrayed as more susceptible to ghostly encounters. Also, medical conditions such as seizures, epilepsy, multiple personality disorders, and schizophrenia in women were diagnosed by the quacks as being possessed or inhabited by evil or unholy spirits. These women then were subjected to the autonomy of the exorcists. They were sexually exploited under the pretext of exorcism and were sometimes even forced to marry the exorcist as a favor in return. Since most of the oral tales were produced by female narrators, they served as a space to articulate and in turn resist the threats women faced from the community of exorcists and failed to overcome in the human worlds.

An exorcist confronting a “possessed” woman. Illustration from Bhutude Kanda, by Rabidas Saharoy (1962). Illustrations by Maitreyee Mukhopadhyay and Debabrata Gosh.

The influence of colonial race theories was also clearly detectable in the world of horror fiction, as they emerged as a significant premise for British epistemic exercises. Significant segments of British and European intellectuals, even during the age of the Scottish Enlightenment, considered Indians to be closer to black Africans, or black Malays, than they were to white “Caucasians.” As Swarupa Gupta comments, there was “selective adaptation, internalisation and re-articulation” of the basic tenets of imperial race theory, interwoven with prevalent conceptions of Hindu caste hierarchy within the Indian milieu, after the Census of 1871 (Notions of Nationhood, 112-13). While ordinary ghosts, both male and female, were described as dark-skinned, the Brahmin male ghost was portrayed as fair-skinned, tall, exhibiting saint-like feet, and wearing sandalwood sandals. On one hand, widowed Petni was depicted as a very dark-skinned figure; on the other, the ghost of the Muslim man, known as Mamdo, was also depicted with similar adjectives. Additionally, he wore a skullcap and featured an unkempt beard. The image of the Islamic ghost succumbed to colonial stereotypes, resembled its human image and position in society.

Petni catching fish in a river. Image from Embellished Memories website.

Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s short story “Oshoriri” tells how a Bengali middle-class man from Calcutta mistook his low-caste dark-skinned Bihari servant in Ranchi for a “ghost.” The tale ends with a strong note on the social constructions of the aesthetic facade of a man in contradistinction to a ghost, and how this dichotomy was balanced on an understanding of Victorian notions of outward appearance. Hence, specific categories of low-caste ghosts were marginalized even in their death, as an expression of the powerful afterlife of the stringent specificities of “caste” and “religion” that even death could not transcend. Thus, the socioeconomic and political impact of colonial dominance was translated in the languages of the spectral world through the idioms of religious, social, and gender discrimination, and racial hierarchies.

Ghosts were not always scary or malicious. In some tales, like the Jola ar Sat Bhoot (The Muslim Weaver and Seven Ghosts), they emerged as benevolent figures helping poor peasants out of financial misery, while also representing the spirit of resistance against the oppressive British regime. However, the figure of the benevolent ghost was essentially limited to the sphere of rural narratives, since urban miseries appeared to be apparently incurable even by ghostly benevolence. In the urban narratives, the ghosts appeared more as a threat to the luxuries and comforts, such as electricity, enjoyed by the city dwellers. Socially constructed notions of hygiene associated with poverty, such as bodily stink and dirty fingernails, were regarded as threatening even to ghosts, let alone humans! The poor were outcast even in the domain of enjoying the privilege of ghostly attention in the fiction generated in elite and gentrified urban spaces.

Picking up the thread from where we began, these fictional tales hence remain an unexplored repository for the intellectual historian, portraying how the Bengali mind under colonial transitions revisualized worlds, relationships, normativities, and ideologies. These narratives, both orally transmitted in rural areas and through print in urban circles, generated alternative realities. On one hand, gender restrictions were subverted, on the other, racial hierarchies and rural-urban divisions were reiterated. Reflecting the transitions in a Bengali society caught in the middle of colonial ideologues and nationalist exceptionalisms, ghosts provided Bengalis the voice of hope, faith, and sustenance they needed at the turn of the century.

Shuvatri Dasgupta is a final-year master’s student at Presidency University. Her work revolves around locating the global in the local by analyzing the multilayered origins of cultural and political discourses—tracing their genealogies and contextualizing them in transregional frameworks.

Senjuti Jash is a postgraduate student in History at Presidency University, Kolkata. Her dissertation is about the global intellectual history of caste. She is interested in overcoming the barriers of time and space to discern the intricate webs of connectivities across polities, economies, and cultures in this global age.

Think Piece

Foucault from Beyond the Grave

by guest contributor Michael C. Behrent

Few living thinkers have been as prolific as the dead Michel Foucault. In the thirty-two years since his death, he has published thirteen book-length lecture courses, four volumes of interviews and papers (totaling over 3,500 pages), and countless bootlegs. Meanwhile, the fourth volume of his History of Sexuality, completed shortly before his death, sits, inaccessible to all, in an archive in Normandy—a rare text to have found no way around his estate’s prohibition on posthumous publications.

His will notwithstanding, one can only imagine that Foucault himself would have reacted to this state of affairs with a caustic laugh. For as two recently published volumes remind us, Foucault was haunted by the bond between language and death, as well as the notion that writing always, in a sense, comes from “beyond the grave.”

41pbmufcnrlThe two books in question both appear in a series put out by the Éditions de l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales called Audiographie, which publishes texts that were first delivered in a spoken form. La grande étrangère (The Great Foreigner, 2013), consists of a radio program on madness and literature from 1963, two lectures on literature given in Brussels in 1964, and a talk on the Marquis de Sade delivered at SUNY Buffalo in 1970. The other, Le beau danger (The Beautiful Danger, 2011), is the transcript of an extended interview on the theme of writing that Foucault gave to the literary critic and journalist Claude Bonnefoy in 1968, but which has never before appeared in print.

If there is a common theme linking these interventions, it is that of Foucault’s obsession with the connection between writing and death. The texts in these volumes all deal with literature and writing; the problem of death figured prominently in the literary essays that Foucault, in the 1960s, devoted to Bataille, Blanchot, and Roussel. Yet what the Audiographie books make clear is that the problem of literature and death was not, for Foucault, some esoteric side problem. It was integral to the ideas he was developing in his major publications. Thus modern literature exemplifies, Foucault maintains, the fact that the modern mind is steeped in what, in The Order of Things (1966), he dubbed the “analytic of finitude.” One of the many consequences of the growing consciousness of the radically finite character of human existence that follows the death of God is, he argues, the enormous significance that modern society assigns to literature. The value we attribute to literature is inseparable, Foucault suggests, from a cultural horizon shaped by human mortality.

In the 1964 Brussels lectures, Foucault contends that early modern Europe (during what he calls “the classical age”) did not, strictly speaking, have literature—at least in the way we have since come to understand the term—for the simple reason that it interpreted itself culturally as the tributary of the word of God. People in this period, of course, wrote novels. Some even experimented with the kind of knowing self-consciousness about their own literary artifices—referring in writing to the fact that they were writing—that would later become associated with literary modernism (Foucault offers a fascinating analysis, for instance, of Diderot’s Jacques le fataliste). Yet what distinguishes these earlier endeavor from the literature of the modern age is the fact that, during the classical age, “any work of language existed as a function of a certain mute and primitive language, that the work was charged with restoring.” This “language that [came] before languages” was the “word of God, it was the truth, it was the model” (La Grande étrangère, 100). Rhetoric was the means through which human utterances, in all their obtuseness, could acquire something of the limpidity of divine speech. But what we have come to call literature only emerges once God has died—or become dumb, to be precise. Literature is the attempt from within the unremitting chatter of discourse to mark language, to dent it, possibly to re-enchant or overcome it—hence modern literature’s frequently transgressive character. But once it has ceased to represent the word of God, once it has become simple the words filling a page, literature becomes an emblem of human finitude. As such, it cannot be other than “beyond the grave” (104).

Foucault’s claim that, strictly speaking, literature does not exist as an independent realm of discourse until the late eighteenth century parallels the claim he would soon make in The Order of Things that “man” (in the sense of the “human”) did not exist as a specific object of knowledge until the same period. The birth of the human sciences and the genesis of literature are both, Foucault, maintains, consequences of t God’s retreat.

The problem of writing also lies at the heart of Foucault’s 1970 lecture on Sade. His question is simply: why did Sade write? What compelled him to fill volume after volume with his transgressive yet mind-numbingly repetitive fantasies? Foucault’s analysis is characteristically complex, yet his argument harkens back, however indirectly, to the themes of the Brussels lecture. Sade’s libertinism is, needless to say, directed against God. Yet it is not atheistic as such; God is not dismissed as mere illusion. God, Sade believes, exists, but as an abomination, as evidenced by the “meanness” (méchanceté) of the world—and indeed, by the fact that there are libertines. In Sade’s peculiar logic (which Foucault calls “anti-Russellian” [199]), it is because God is abominable that it is necessary that he not exist. This theme illustrates what Foucault sees as the ultimate function of Sade’s writing: the intertwining of discourse, truth, and desire. Sade needs God “insofar as he does not exist, and insofar as he must be destroyed at each instant” (204), as both his writing and his desire depend on him.

41W+Fo8Tv1L.jpgThe reason Sade wrote is thus because in discourse, truth and desire become enmeshed in spirals of reciprocal stimulation and impulsion. Yet his originality, Foucault claims, lies in the way he emancipated desire from truth’s tutelage, pulling it out from under “the great Platonic edifice that ordered desire on truth’s sovereignty” (218). The point is not (as with Freud) that desire has its own truth, which is more or less hypocritically covered up by social norms; it is also, Foucault seems to be saying, that truth is a form of desire. Truth is not the neutral and transparent element through which words can name beings. It is a libidinal force, as seen in Sade’s relentless insistence, despite his novels’ preposterous plots, that he is telling the truth. Foucault’s account of the truth function in Sade recalls the themes of his first Collège de France lectures, on the “will to knowledge” in ancient Greece, which he would deliver the following year: the sophists, who believed that arguments are not proven logically, but won or lost like battles, resemble in many ways Sade’s approach to writing. Language, here, is no longer just a rumbling murmur that literature seeks to transform into a voice. God is dead, and we—or our truth-creating discourse—have killed him.

Yet at least according to Foucault’s position in Le Beau danger, language—or at least writing—has less to do with killing than with—as he put it in Madness and Civilization—the “already thereness of death” (“le déjà là de la mort”; cf. Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique (Paris: Gallimard, 1972 [1961]), 26). Foucault explains: “I would say that writing, for me, is tied to death, perhaps essentially to the death of others, but that does not mean that writing would be like murdering others,” in a way that “would open before me a free and sovereign space.” Writing, rather, means “dealing with others insofar as they are already dead. I speak, in a sense, over the corpses of others. I must confess, I kind of postulate their death” (Le Beau danger, 36-37).

In this sense, the death of God, Foucault suggests, is not only the cultural situation that his thought attempts to assess; it is the condition of possibility of his own work. The idea of writing as a form of resurrection, a way of rendering present the “living word” of “men and—most likely—God” is, he says, “profoundly alien” to him. Writing, for Foucault, is “the drifting that follows death, and not the progression to the source of life.” He muses: “It is perhaps in this sense that my form of language is profoundly anti-Christian”—even more so than themes that he addresses (39).

In these texts, the reader will find few of the concepts for which Foucault is best known. There is no or little mention of archaeology, epistemes, genealogy, or power (discourse is the one exception, though it is discussed in a far less technical manner than in, say, The Archaeology of Knowledge). What they remind us of are the philosophical preoccupations that presided over his early work—and that no doubt continued to shape his later thought, works such as Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality, albeit in a more subterranean way. Here, we have a Foucault concerned with finitude, mortality, and the death of God. Perhaps this Foucault is in need of—how else to put it?—resurrection.

Michael C. Behrent teaches modern European history at Appalachian State University. He is currently working on a book exploring the origins of Foucault’s project.