“True Wit Is Nature”

“True Wit Is Nature”: Wimsatt, Pope, and the Power of Style

by Helen Deutsch

UCLA’s Helen Deutsch here puts Yale critic and cofounder of the New Criticism William K. Wimsatt into the balance with the most influential poet of eighteenth-century England, Alexander Pope. A scholar-collector with a lifelong penchant for Pope’s poetry and iconography, Wimsatt molds his influential theoretical paradoxes of abstract particularity after the uniquely embodied poet, who made himself inseparable from his art. The elusive power of style connects universal truth to worldly materiality for both writers, giving theoretical abstraction a human likeness.

The essay opens:

William K. Wimsatt with Roubiliac’s busts of Pope at the National Portrait Gallery, 1961. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London.


I begin with a photo and what first appears to be a visual joke. William K. Wimsatt, New Critical patriarch of the theoretical Yale Critics, stern dispeller of the intentional and affective fallacies, and devotee of the abstract poetic object he deemed the “verbal icon,” looms over a table, upon which are precariously displayed six marble busts of the great eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope by the poet’s contemporary, the French sculptor Louis-François Roubiliac. The bareheaded and be-mantled neoclassical busts, each varying subtly from the next, join in a contemplatively oblique stare—into the future? the distant past? the eyes of the viewer?—while Wimsatt, modestly positioned at the left edge of the table, gazes straight into the camera. On the wall behind Wimsatt are empty picture hangers, below which are captions: it seems that an exhibit has been taken down and the curator, haunted by his doubled shadow, is preserving one last look. Wimsatt’s is the proud gaze of an avid collector—of stamps, Native American artifacts, and minerals (this last item also a penchant of Pope’s, who festooned the walls of his famous grotto at Twickenham with exotic rocks and curios)—whose convocation of busts was the prize of years of avid pursuit across England of images of the diminutive poet known for his beautiful head and curved spine. These adventures took Wimsatt into the homes of aristocratic families whose ancestors had befriended Pope, where the busts had long proclaimed the owner’s political affiliation and personal distinction. The busts themselves seem to cast white shadows beneath the table, inverting Wimsatt’s dark ones.

Scholars of English literature do not usually imagine Wimsatt, whose authority and influence are legendary for the profession, in such distinctive company. Wimsatt’s polemical essays on the affective and intentional fallacies, written in collaboration with the philosopher Monroe Beardsley, in his classic The Verbal Icon (1954) attempted to wrest poetry from the grip of the author’s biography on the one hand and the reader’s affective response on the other. Criticism for Wimsatt was a science; its mandate was meticulous textual analysis, and its goal was objectivity. His fame, late in his career, as a stern enforcer of the rules was captured in a spoof song, “Big Bad Bill” (to the tune of the popular ballad “Big Bad John”), by his former student Doug Canfield: “Let’s cut out this impressionism / And not make poetry confessionism; / Let’s make the Object the real test: / The Old New Critics are still the best.” What then to make of Wimsatt’s career-long fascination with the first self-supporting professional poet in English literature, a poet who spent his career writing about himself? In the photo’s balance of contraries, Big Bad Bill behind multiple renditions of the man who once called himself the little Alexander whom all the women laugh at, we can locate a different and equally important aspect of Wimsatt’s criticism: the idea of style.

Of all his collections, none was more personal than Wimsatt’s assemblage of images of Pope, put on display in the exhibit recorded in the photograph at London’s National Portrait Gallery in 1961; Wimsatt typed out the catalog himself and included items from his own personal collection. This effort was expanded and commemorated in his monumental 1965 study The Portraits of Alexander Pope, which bears an image of a Roubiliac bust on its cover. In an homage to Wimsatt written shortly after his death in 1975, his Yale colleague René Wellek rightly observes that the Pope catalog “traces the archetypes of the portrait so meticulously that the method can serve as a model for similar investigations into the history of portrait painting and of sculpture.” A substantial addendum to the catalog’s compendium of originals and multiple imitations, which Wimsatt spent twenty-five years researching and which, like all great collections, would never be complete, was published posthumously. Wimsatt’s sustained engagement with Pope as author and image might seem from our current vantage point to contradict his work’s fundamental tenets. Yet while Wimsatt famously, if complexly, defined the work of art as an object free of both authorial intention and the reader’s affective response, he nevertheless gave that object a persistently heavy weight, linking it to the visual and material world by its very definition as icon. The balances of generality and particularity that exemplified the literary text for Wimsatt, specifically the paradoxes of the concrete universal’s detailed abstraction and the verbal icon’s dual status as object and image, are rooted in the age that gave us the professional author and inspired and epitomized by the eighteenth-century poet who made himself inseparable from his art. As ephemeral as Belinda’s lock, yet as weighty as a marble bust, Pope’s poems are at once historically particular, personal, and immediate. Concrete universals with a distinctive human voice, they give ballast to Wimsatt’s theorizing, informing his conceptions of poetry, criticism, and the thing that unites the two—style.

…The enduring presence of Pope across Wimsatt’s scholarly oeuvre thus shadows the assessment of Wimsatt’s own reputation as a foundational icon of criticism, making his universals personally concrete. While at the time of his death in 1975, Wellek could state with confidence that “Wimsatt will be remembered mainly as a theorist of literature,” the headline of his New York Times obituary memorialized him as “Yale expert on 1700’s authors.” The Prose Style of Samuel Johnson (1941), based on Wimsatt’s dissertation, began with a chapter on style and meaning. In his second book, Philosophic Words: A Study of Style and Meaning in the Rambler and Dictionary of Samuel Johnson (1948), Wimsatt described his endeavor, one worthy of a literary-critical James Boswell, as a “history of Johnson’s mind” rooted in the unique properties of Johnson’s scientific language, words that do the metaphorical work of connecting body to mind and the world to the text. While Johnson served as Wimsatt’s exemplary test case for stylistic analysis, Pope, in all his embodied uniqueness, informed Wimsatt’s attempts to conceive of style in the abstract. Style for Wimsatt was always inseparable from meaning, just as, and perhaps because, the author was never fully absent from the text. That Pope should get two essays to himself in The Verbal Icon and is the only author to make top billing in an essay title in that volume drives this point home. That Wimsatt named his own son Alexander makes it personal.

Wimsatt’s lifelong preoccupation with Pope and the successfully realized intentions of eighteenth-century authors reminds us that he practiced theory as part of a group of scholars who studied the poet whose spine, so his contemporaries speculated, was bent by excessive devotion to literature. For Wimsatt and his fellow scholar-collectors at Yale, Pope embodied the ways in which art is inseparable from the material world it represents. Yet by 1975 Wimsatt himself, with all his eccentricities and eighteenth-century preoccupations, his “towering figure” of nearly seven feet sublimated into disembodied monumental status, had taken his place in Yale’s history, a history at the heart of our profession, by disappearing into the theoretical ether. We can see an alternative trajectory in the evolution of cover choices for Wimsatt’s Rinehart edition of the poetry and prose of Alexander Pope, part of a series used in many undergraduate classrooms. Wimsatt noted in a talk given to Yale undergraduates in 1959 that his obsession with Pope’s iconography began with his search for a proper cover image. First published with a plain generic cover in 1951, the 1972 edition published shortly before Wimsatt’s death shows William Hoare’s red crayon drawing, a rare full-length image of Pope, an “original taken without his knowledge,” curved spine and all (fig. 2). When we view the verbal icon through the lens of Wimsatt’s fascination with Pope, its author seems to kick it, like Johnson famously did the stone in response to Bishop Berkeley’s assertion of the nonexistence of matter, to refute it thus. The timeless abstraction of Wimsatt’s theory, in other words, is haunted by the distinctively embodied and loquacious ghost of the poet who complained in Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot that “ev’ry Coxcomb knows me by my Style.” If personification, as Marc Redfield has suggested, is the key to understanding theory at Yale—Harold Bloom standing for aesthetics, Paul de Man standing for theory—what does Wimsatt, behind the busts of Pope, stand for? Perhaps he is standing for style. Resisting autobiography as Romantic de-facement, he pursues the multiple versions of the face of the particular author in which the animate and inanimate forces of language unite, grounding his militant objectivity in embodied particularity in the style of Pope. Continue reading …

HELEN DEUTSCH is Professor of English and Director of the Center for 17th- & 18th-Century Studies and William Andrews Clark Memorial Library at UCLA. She has been writing about Alexander Pope for the entirety of her adult life and is now at work on a book on Jonathan Swift and Edward Said.

Medium’s Medium

In recognition of the impact of Covid-19 on campus instruction and the rise of unplanned distance learning, UC Press is pleased to make Representations and all of its online journals content free to all through June 2020.

The Medium Concept

by Anna Schechtman

In the second half of the twentieth century, in the very decades when the concept of “media” entered the vernacular, the “medium concept” began to shape American art criticism and curation. This was no coincidence: “mediums” emerged as a category for the organization and appreciation of art as the dialectical counterpart to media, and in response to the cultural imperialism of its mass-produced forms. As art became increasingly public, mediums became the public face of art.

The essay begins:

In 2006 New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) established the Department of Media, its first new curatorial department since 1971. A press release heralding the new department described MoMA as a “pioneer in the exhibition, acquisition and conservation of media art since the late 1960s.” It clarified that works of “media art” were “time- and sound-based,” as opposed to the mostly static and strictly visual works in MoMA’s departments of Architecture and Design, Drawings, Painting and Sculpture, Photography, and Prints and Illustrated Books. But there was, of course, another MoMA department that housed “time- and sound-based” art—the Department of Film—which, since 1935, had been collecting and conserving celluloid reels and digital projections from Hollywood and international film productions. Unlike those audiovisual works, however, “media art,” the release said, was “made for and presented in a gallery setting.” Works that met these criteria included performance art, video art, and installation art—all three of which, since their emergence in the late-1960s, have variously and often arbitrarily been called intermedia, multimedia, or mixed media art. Why, then, after forty years of collecting such work, did the museum finally institute a department of it in media’s name? The answer is partly functional: the conservation and display of installation and video art is technically different from that needed for oil-on-canvas or 16 mm celluloid works; a new department could better accommodate these differences. But it’s also epistemological and ideological: when media became a department at MoMA, it also became a medium—captured by the formalist logic of American art criticism after World War II and assimilated, however awkwardly, into the medium-specific organizational structure of the country’s premier modern art museum.

On the day of the new department’s founding, MoMA’s director Glenn D. Lowry confirmed that the newly appointed chief curator of media had “demonstrated a keen understanding of the dynamic potential of this medium.” This medium, that is, media. With this statement, Lowry not only instituted a linguistic paradox, he also dramatized—to the point of satire—a decades-old antinomy within the discipline of art history between mediums (specialized subcategories of “art,” including but not limited to those represented by MoMA’s departments) and media (an imbroglio of cultural production of little aesthetic value or political virtue). Since the 1960s, art critics and historians have been using the un-Latinate plural “mediums” to distinguish, and rhetorically elevate, works of art from the cultural chaos of “mass media,” “the media,” and, for that matter, the growing postwar trend of inter-, multi-, and mixed media works of art. The distinction rests on a precarious but potent conceit: that the history of modern art is autonomous, not only from the noxious commercialism of the culture industries, but also from the communication technologies that have supported them—especially, as the century progressed, from television, video, and digital images.

So mediums, not media. Rosalind Krauss was clearest about this mostly tacit disciplinary tic when she wrote, in a footnote to her 1999 manifesto Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition: “Throughout this text I will use mediums as the plural of medium in order to avoid a confusion with media, which I am reserving for the technologies of communication indicated by that latter term.” Her distinction, however, confuses as it clarifies: after all, the “different mediums” represented in her essay include painting, sculpture, architecture, photography, and film—all of which could reasonably be called “technologies of communication” (and thus media, in her taxonomy) in different discursive fields. One could say, for example, that they are technologies that communicate images, aesthetic value, affective responses, spiritual transcendence, history, and, of course, capital. But it is precisely the field of art history—and, in particular, the modernist category of art that, as Krauss acknowledged, has attached aesthetic and political value to mediums in their specificity since the 1960s—that she was trying to protect from the corruption of media in Voyage on the North Sea:

At first I thought I could simply draw a line under the word medium, bury it like so much critical toxic waste, and walk away from it into a world of lexical freedom. “Medium” seemed too contaminated, too ideologically, too dogmatically, too discursively loaded . . . If I have decided in the end to retain the word “medium,” it is because for all the misunderstandings and abuses attached to it, this is the term that opens onto the discursive field I want to address.

Krauss was writing at the start of the new millennium, when a wave of installation art, apparently indifferent to the traditions of discrete mediums, crested onto the international art scene. The installation art trend was a product of what she called “the post-medium condition”—itself a time of formal confusion among the arts that she loosely traced back to the late 1960s. To eliminate “medium” from her critical lexicon would be to fall prey to this wave’s seductive undertow. Instead, Krauss parted the sea of contemporary art into the good and bad “post-medium” works. The good: those artists who “have embraced the idea of differential specificity, which is to say the medium as such, which they understand they will now have to reinvent or rearticulate.” And the bad: those artists, “now cut free from the guarantees of artistic tradition,” who “engage in the international fashion of installation art and intermedia work, in which art . . . finds itself complicit with a globalization of the image in the service of capital.” In other words, Krauss distinguished between media—its bastard forms, its subjugation to the market—and art that reinvents mediums for a critical discourse no longer trained to its logic.

Krauss was adapting modernist criteria to postmodern art production (the cognate of her subtitle and Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition is dispositive here). And this, too, was MoMA’s project in 2006. By reinterpreting media as a medium and absorbing it into the disciplinary logic of the museum, Lowry didn’t so much embrace the post-medium condition at MoMA; he quarantined it. Not until 2019, after a full museum redesign, did the antiformalist logic of media reach his museum; not until then did medium release its hold on the presentation of modern and postmodern art. Indeed, the “New MoMA,” as that overhaul was billed, promised that “contemporary art will join early masterpieces, and we’ll mix mediums—from painting to performance—and ideas.” It’s a new MoMA, finally facing up to a condition that has defined the art world since the advent of mixed, multi- and intermedia art—since, in other words, the consolidation of the media concept itself.

The most ambitious account of that concept’s emergence is John Guillory’s 201“The Genesis of the Media Concept,” which sketches the two-thousand-year “latency of the media concept” from Aristotle to advertising. The concept’s latency, Guillory writes, was “superseded by the era of its ubiquity,” the age of media, or the mid-twentieth century to the present. Vast as it is, however, Guillory’s project does not probe this peculiar historical movement—this supersession—from latency to ubiquity. Instead, his essay takes as a central conceit the preoccupation of art and literary criticism by the concept of representation over and above the concept of media and its theoretical cognates mediation and communication. Like Krauss, Guillory devises a media concept that primarily describes processes and technologies of communication as distinct from “fine art.” (This is what allows him to suggest that literature has a “less conspicuously medial identity” than film.) Unlike Krauss, though, he doesn’t oppose the concept of media to that of artistic mediums; nor does he give the historical distinction hermeneutic value: the media concept’s relation to the fine arts, he suggests, has been unduly “repressed.” This “repression,” he writes, has “tacitly supported the disciplinary division between literary and media studies”—to which we could add the division between art history and media studies too.

But Guillory’s psychological metaphors (latency, repression) elide the material processes by which the media concept was consolidated in the vernacular in the twentieth century, shaping the discursive field in which fine arts were produced and received. Indeed, the “repression” of the “medial identity” of the fine arts is a mid-twentieth-century phenomenon, not unrelated to the sudden “ubiquity” of the media concept in that very period. In the same decades that the media concept entered the vernacular, the “medium concept” began to shape art criticism, art history, and museum studies. This was no coincidence: mediums emerged as a category for the organization and appreciation of art as the dialectical counterpart to media and in response to the cultural imperialism of its mass-produced forms. As art became increasingly “public”—available to popular audiences through the technical innovations of film and photography and the generic innovations of midcult, masscult, and kitsch—mediums became the public face of art. Continue reading …

ANNA SHECHTMAN is a PhD Candidate in English Literature and Film and Media Studies at Yale University and a Senior Humanities Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Matthew Arnold and Critical Practices

In recognition of the impact of Covid-19 on campus instruction and the rise of unplanned distance learning, UC Press is pleased to make Representations and all of its online journals content free to all through June 2020.

The Lower Criticism

by Mark Taylor

In this essay Mark Taylor reassesses Matthew Arnold’s place in the history of modern criticism, arguing that his most important contribution to that history was his refashioning of the critic as an empty and recessive type of agent. Arnold’s famous call for criticism to abandon the “sphere of practical life” was no mere slogan, but the product of an extended meditation on the nature of agency and action, undertaken in dialogue with the works of the philosopher Benedict de Spinoza. From Spinoza’s “lower” criticism, Arnold derived a method that both approaches individual texts as actions and stresses the critic’s role in “composing” those texts as individuals in the first place. To perform these functions, however, criticism must renounce its claim to count as an action in its own right. The essay traces the development of this method from Arnold’s early essays on Spinoza through his mature criticism of the 1860s and 70s and considers its bearing on the wide variety of practices that describe themselves as “critical” today.

The essay begins:

“down late. bad morning, and did little. read in D. Laertius & Goethe’s Poems. After dinner walked alone to Brathay churchyard and sate there till dark. read Spinoza. after tea, cards & chess. Spinoza again—began letter to F. L. S. Augustine’s letters & so to bed. Thorough bad day and could never collect myself at all.”

—Matthew Arnold, diary entry, Saturday, January 4, 1851

In the two years following this diary entry, the young Matthew Arnold appears to have discovered some remedy for the debilitating condition of an uncollected self. In 1853, Arnold published Poems: A New Edition—his third volume of verse and the first to appear under his own name—accompanied by a short critical Preface that stands out for the confidence of its practice of collection. Arnold’s purpose in the Preface is to justify his decision to omit the long dramatic poem “Empedocles on Etna” from the 1853 volume, but in doing so he is led to consider the nature of poetry and poetic value in general. “What are the eternal objects of Poetry, among all nations and at all times?” he asks—and answers, “They are actions; human actions; possessing an inherent interest in themselves, and which are to be communicated in an interesting manner by the art of the Poet.” It’s on this basis that “Empedocles” must be excluded: its hero’s situation is one “in which suffering finds no vent in action,” and from which, therefore, no properly “poetical enjoyment” can be derived.

Many critics have observed that this definition of poetry echoes Aristotle, whose “admirable treatise” the Poetics defines tragedy as “a representation not of persons but of action and life.” But the sources of the Preface are neoclassical as well as classical, and Arnold here gives the Aristotelian formula a Goethean twist. In his 1827 essay on the Poetics, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe famously rejects Aristotle’s focus on the effects of tragedy, arguing instead that tragedy’s essence resides in its “structure.” More than an imitation of action—reproducing, and thereby expunging, the associated feelings of fear, terror, and pity in the minds of its spectators—tragedy for Goethe is an action in its own right, whereby the poet incorporates these tragic feelings into the structure of the work, resolving them into a “unified whole.” All poetry, in fact, is defined by the production of this aesthetic unity, and the poet by the agency of producing it—what Goethe elsewhere calls “Architectonicè,” or, in Arnold’s own rendering, that “power of execution, which creates, forms, and constitutes.” The Preface thus oscillates between two distinct (and not obviously compatible) conceptions of poetic form, each of which implies a slightly different account of why “Empedocles on Etna” cannot be included in a collection entitled Poems. From one perspective, “Empedocles” is “poetically faulty” because its hero fails to act: his despair is “unrelieved by incident, hope or resistance.” But from the other, the failure is Arnold’s: to carry out, that is, the work of creation and formation that together constitute the action of poetry. If Arnold hoped that writing the Preface would (to quote his Empedocles) “cut his oscillations short,” then it too must be considered a failure.

But the Preface is also Arnold’s inaugural effort as a critic—as if the process of reflecting on the relationship between poetry and action had led him to attempt a new kind of action in his own writing. What kind of action, then, is criticism, if indeed it is an action at all? This is the question I will attempt to answer in this essay—an essay that is itself a work of criticism, and thus derives its identity and its agency in part from Arnold’s example. Although, as I will show, Arnold retains the 1853 Preface’s commitment to treating literary texts as actions of a particular kind, his evolving critical program increasingly complicates any attempt to define criticism itself as an action, or the critic as an agent in any ordinary sense of that word. For Arnold, I argue, criticism’s refusal to be action is what enables it to fulfill one of its fundamental functions: recognizing and defining other texts as actions or—what comes to the same thing—as forms.

In this essay, I locate the source of this conception of criticism not in Aristotle or Goethe, but in the work of Goethe’s teacher, Benedict de Spinoza—in whose “positive and vivifying atmosphere” Arnold’s “Empedocles” was composed. Uncovering the Spinozist roots of Arnoldian criticism not only enriches our understanding of Arnold’s enduring influence on the humanities today, in particular on the variety of practices, distributed widely across disciplines and institutions, that describe themselves as “criticism”; it also helps us to see more clearly the stakes and significance of that self-description. Underlying the whole history of modern criticism, that is—from declarations of the critic’s purposes and procedures to debates about what is and is not “critical,” or, more recently, “postcritical”—is a fundamentally Arnoldian constellation of questions about agency, action, and value. For Arnold, an important part of Spinozism’s appeal was its usefulness for his career-spanning struggle against Benthamite utilitarianism. Alike in their identification of action and existence—of “being” and “doing”—Spinoza and Jeremy Bentham developed quite different accounts of what it means to act, to be an agent, and to determine the value of an action. Where Bentham and his followers adopted a relativist conception of value, seeing it as wholly determined by particular, highly structured social contexts, Spinozism appealed to Arnold because it retained a commitment to absolute value guaranteed by God. And, just as Spinoza devised a method for interpreting sacred texts in order to clear away false and superstitious misconceptions about God, so too did Arnold offer criticism as a means of preserving and preparing for an absolute value—the best that has been thought and said—that could never be wholly realized.

As this essay will show, Arnold followed Spinoza in securing criticism’s absolutes by abandoning (as he famously put it in “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time”) the “sphere of practical life.” This, I argue, is the meaning of the much-discussed vagueness of Arnoldian criticism’s central categories, including “sweetness and light,” “the best self,” “the grand style,” and, preeminently, “culture” itself. The Arnoldian critic, too, “avails himself” of this “indefiniteness” (as the philosopher Henry Sidgwick accused Arnold of doing), becoming a strangely recessive, even self-canceling kind of agent, emblematized by Arnold’s own pervasive but empty presence in Victorian public culture. In contrast to recent efforts to historicize criticism in terms of a heroic paradigm of critical action, I argue here that criticism, to the extent that it relies on Arnold as a “touchstone,” is organized discursively around the recession or decline of agency. This organization is often unconscious, or even explicitly disavowed, and many critics (including, sometimes, Arnold himself) claim a “stronger” and more active version of agency in their work. I have therefore borrowed a term usually applied to Spinoza’s writings on scriptural interpretation to designate the particular account of agency and action Arnold and Spinoza share: both are practitioners of what I will call the lower criticism.

In biblical scholarship, the “lower” is usually contrasted with the “higher” or “historical” criticism. In broadest terms, the higher criticism approaches scripture as a text created by human beings, for human reasons, at a particular historical time, and is therefore concerned with historical context (authorship, time and place of composition, sources, and so on), while the lower or textual criticism focuses on the text itself and its internal evidence, often with a view to establishing an authoritative version from multiple textual variants. As the authors of the Handbook of Biblical Criticism observe, the term is falling into disuse, “because of its pejorative sound coupled with the increasing acknowledgment that textual criticism is both important and complex.” But it is precisely this pejorative sense that I wish to emphasize. If Arnold was the first to pose the perennial question of the “function” of criticism, he also ensured that all attempts to answer it would inevitably fall short. Since, for Arnold, criticism is defined equally by its treatment of texts as actions and by its own recessive refusal to be action, to speak of criticism’s “function” (that is, what it “does” in a given social and historical context) is to inhabit a paradox. To many subsequent critics, this paradox has seemed evidence of Arnold’s intellectual sloppiness, or—worse—of the ideological subterfuge whereby the refusal of power masks subtler forms of domination. In this essay, however, I argue that Spinoza’s philosophy suggests a different, less suspicious interpretation of the Arnoldian paradox and of its enduring importance for the countless critics (from T. S. Eliot to Virginia Jackson) who have produced their own variations on the formula“The Function of Criticism at the Present Time.” Continue reading …

MARK TAYLOR is a Lecturer in English and Coordinator of the Public Humanities Initiative at Stanford University.

Who Are Vera and Tatiana?

Who Are Vera and Tatiana? The Female Russian Nihilist in the Fin de Siècle Imagination

by Abby Holekamp

Focusing on a close, contextualized reading of a single case of invented identity from 1906, Abby Holekamp illustrates how, in fin de siècle Europe, a mutually generative relationship between the real, the imagined, and the rapidly proliferating mass media transformed the female “nihilist” from an apocryphal Russian figure into a durable Russian archetype—an archetype that had significant consequences in the shaping of European public opinion about Russia.

The essay begins:

In the French National Archives, there is a foot-high folder comprising fin de siècle surveillance reports concerning foreign revolutionary activity on French soil. It contains only one photograph, which shows a woman with dark, chin-length hair, positioned outdoors on an expanse of cobblestone, near a window covered by metal bars. She stands with one hand on the back of a wooden chair and the other on her hip. She wears a black, feathered straw hat and a bolero jacket with decorative trim—an outfit, in the words of the accompanying police report, that “left a little to be desired.” As with many old photographic portraits that required protracted stillness from their subjects, the woman’s expression is difficult to discern, though she does appear to be smiling slightly. On the thick card stock of the photograph’s reverse is a label: “Nihiliste russe arrêtée le 24 septembre à Toulouse” (Russian nihilist arrested September 24 in Toulouse).

Who was this young Russian nihilist arrested in September 1906 on suspicion of possessing a bomb meant for a Russian governor who happened at the time to be traveling in the south of France? This image of her was reproduced both as a photograph and as a drawing in French newspapers, as police worked to discern her identity. She was held in police custody over the next several days, during which time she repeatedly refused to tell police her name. As the authorities worked to identify her, the mysterious story of the unidentified jeune nihiliste russe spread rapidly through the national press. Between September 25 and October 3, 1906, a flurry of police and press reports conveyed and circulated the particulars of the ongoing investigation, and from the start, reports noted the inconsistencies in her story.

Two days after her arrest, the mysterious young woman told police she was born in Odessa and that her father, an engineer, had been killed in an uprising there, during which she herself had been injured by the sabre of a Russian officer, her hands lacerated by its blade. At the same time, the highest-circulation daily newspaper in Paris, Le Petit Parisien, which had picked up the story, reported that this “new Tatiana” was from Ekaterinoslav. In this account, her parents were reported to have moved to Ekaterinoslav from Saint Petersburg, where they had “a very comfortable lifestyle.” Somewhat unusual for a woman at the time, the young nihilist had received a classical education, studying Greek, Latin, and the sciences. As a result, she spoke several languages: not only her own “Slavic tongue” but also Czech, German, and a bit of French. She undertook university studies in Saint Petersburg and Lausanne. Her hands had been injured in Saint Petersburg during the failed 1905 revolution (referred to somewhat dismissively by the newspaper as an échauffourée—a scuffle or brawl). After healing—she had to keep her hands in a special apparatus for two months—she traveled once again to Lausanne, where, in the company of her fellow nihilists, the current ostensible plot began to take shape.

In short order, a new police report revealed more about the young woman’s movements in the region; more important, thanks to the recollection of a railway station buffet proprietor, a name finally emerged: Dolorès Valbritat Sanguinoff. The lexical connection of her purported surname to the word sanguin, with its bloody connotation, seemed oddly coincidental. It was reported that the buffet proprietor had listened to her story and, when subsequently questioned about it by the police, said he thought the whole bomb business was a sham. And indeed, there was no sign of a bomb. The jeune nihiliste, now known as Mademoiselle Sanguinoff, claimed to have thrown it into the Garonne River. In her presence, the authorities attempted to fish it out, but to no avail: the bomb was never found.

From here, the young woman’s story continued to unravel. On September 29, Mademoiselle Sanguinoff was positively identified by two medical students who had treated her in a Paris hospital, but who knew her as Dolorès Sanguinotti (or Sanguinetti). They believed she had recently worked for an oil merchant in Marseille, and they recalled that she had struck them as intelligent and well educated, and that she spoke correct French, albeit with a strong southern accent. On October 1, Le Petit Parisien asked the question: Was this woman indeed the same person who was treated for an abscess in October at the Lariboisière Hospital in Paris? When later confronted in court by the two medical students, the young woman was reported to have blushed and wept, asking, “Why are you doing this?” To which the judge replied, “Because we have to know who you are and why you’ve been leading us on for a week.” The jeune nihiliste consented to explain, but insisted that no journalists be present during her conversation with the judge. She said she was afraid of newspapers and what they would say about her.

By October 3, the young woman’s true identity was established. She was, in reality, one Jeanne Tilly, born in Brest on September 27, 1887. She had previously been convicted of fraud. There was no bomb in her possession, nor had there ever been. Some of what she subsequently reported about her early life in Brittany and in Paris was corroborated by other people, but large parts of her story remained dubious, especially her supposed dealings with nihilists. By persisting in this rather intricate charade, Jeanne Tilly not only frustrated police and court authorities; she was also accused of making fools out of them, the press, and the broader public. She achieved a couple of weeks of notoriety as her story and image appeared in multiple mass-circulation publications. Eventually, she was tried on charges of vagrancy. On December 12, 1906, she was acquitted. The information on her acquittal comes from an account in the 1908 doctoral thesis of a deputy judge from a small town near Toulouse. Titled “Contempt Against Judges,” the thesis deals with the concept of contempt of court and briefly details the facts of the Jeanne Tilly case in a footnote to a section on “imaginary crimes.”

What happened to Tilly following her acquittal remains unclear. In the absence of evidence, we cannot definitively answer the question of why a provincial French youth invented this plausible backstory for her “imaginary crime,” but in asking how she was able to do so, we find ample evidence that female Russian nihilists were an object of particular fascination not only in the imagination of fin de siècle France but also throughout Western Europe.[iv] In asking how images of the female Russian nihilist lingered in the European imagination a generation after her moment had passed in Russia, we can analyze a foundational example of what Michael C. Frank has called “the cultural imaginary of terrorism.” Frank argues that from the late nineteenth century through to the post-9/11 world, fact and fiction have been inextricably entangled in public discourse about terrorism. This cultural imaginary is not wholly created by fictional representations of terrorism in novels and movies, but is instead generated when “these fictions exploit a propensity for fantasy already present in both terrorist activities and the discourse surrounding them.”[v] One of the first theorists of the “cultural imaginary,” Cornelius Castoriadis, distinguished between imagination and imaginary (in Castoriadis’s French original: imagination and imaginaire) by distinguishing between the individual person and the social collective: both have an imagination, but the imaginary belongs solely to the collective. This is the distinction I mean to evoke by using the term “cultural imaginary,” because this essay explores the interaction between an individual imagination—Tilly’s—and the collective discourses that were available to her. In the formulation of Graham Dawson, cultural imaginaries provide “public forms which both organize knowledge of the social world and give shape to phantasies within the apparently ‘internal’ domain of psychic life.” The importance of the Tilly episode derives from the raw—albeit fleeting—credibility of her invented biography, not only an artifact of a particular moment in European history but also one that sheds light on more contemporary issues regarding the public’s relationship with terrorism.

In exploring the manifestations of this cultural imaginary through the lens of Tilly’s exploit, I draw on Iurii Lotman’s work on the semiotics of behavior in imperial Russia. Lotman described the conscious “theatricality” of the behavior of early-nineteenth-century Russian nobles and attributed it to their interactions with romantic and sentimental texts. Other scholars have picked up Lotman’s analysis of the aspiring Decembrist revolutionaries in particular and applied his approach to Russian radicals (and later, terrorists) of the 1860s to 1880s who were inspired by reading the realist works of Nikolai Chernyshevsky and his contemporaries. I suggest that this approach can be usefully applied to a subsequent transnational popularization of radical archetypes such as the female Russian nihilist, which was made possible by the rapid development of mass media in fin de siècle Europe. The very term “nihilist” was essentially a fictional construct in this later historical context. The original nihilists of the mid-nineteenth century were first analyzed through and then transformed by fictional texts. By 1906, the way in which Tilly’s actions made an increasingly imaginary construct real exemplified how mass media shaped and sustained a feedback loop between the real and the imaginary. This mutually generative relationship illustrates the importance of analyzing the effects of cultural imaginaries on everyday life.

To be sure, there were female terrorists (especially in the Russian context) and an increase in terrorism was of genuine concern in fin de siècle Europe. But the signifiers of “female Russian nihilist” were imaginary in the way Frank and Dawson use the term; per Lotman, Tilly’s behavior—theatrical in its own way—was inspired by the media she consumed. So, on the one hand, the nihilist was not real; she was, rather, a representation, an image, a confection that was propagated and promoted in particular ways, within a rapidly changing information ecosystem. On the other hand, she was very real as an archetype through which fin de siècle Europeans formulated knowledge about Russia and the “East.” If the nihilist was imaginary, it did not matter, and this was in part because there was a blurred boundary between fact and fiction built into the contemporary media landscape.

This essay explores the real consequences of an imaginary construct. Before Tilly was identified, a Swiss newspaper asked if she was actually given instructions and tools to carry out a bombing, or if instead “she had an idée fixe caused by reading about terrorist attacks.” As part of a broader cultural imaginary, Tilly’s alleged idée fixe was shared by a much more extensive reading public. These kinds of fantastic images were not necessarily created by mass media, but they were certainly bolstered by it, and they were as important as more formal transnational, diplomatic, or political relations as factors in shaping public opinion about Russia in this period because they were accessible to a much wider swath of society, including provincial French youths like Tilly. Continue reading …

ABBY HOLEKAMP is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Georgetown University. Her research focuses on the transnational interplay of French and Russian revolutionary cultures from the 1880s through the 1930s.

In recognition of the impact of Covid-19 on campus instruction and the rise of unplanned distance learning, UC Press is pleased to make Representations and all of its online journals content free to all through June 2020. 

Literature and the Arts in Times of Crisis

A Berkeley Conversation held on April 29, 2020, and available now online

Literature and the Arts in Times of Crisis

Literature and the arts have always had a prominent place in defining who we are as human beings and in making life worth living. This is all the more apparent in times of crisis, such as the one we have been living in. Join prominent Berkeley faculty members from Music, Art History, and English as they share their insights into what makes literature and the arts so critically important to us now. The panelists:

Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby, UC Berkeley’s Goldman Distinguished Professor in the Arts and Humanities, specializes in 18th- through early 20th-century French and American art and visual and material culture, particularly in relation to the politics of race and colonialism. Grigsby writes on painting, sculpture, photography and engineering as well as the relationships among reproductive media and new technologies from the 18th to the early 20th centuries. Her essay on Antoine-Jean Gros’s painting Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken of Jaffa, which she discusses in this conversation, was published in Representations 51.

Mark Danner is a writer and reporter who for three decades has written on politics and foreign affairs, focusing on war and conflict. He has covered, among many other stories, wars and political conflict in Central America, Haiti, the Balkans, Iraq and the Middle East, and, most recently, the story of torture during the War on Terror. Danner holds the Class of 1961 Endowed Chair in Journalism and English at UC Berkeley and was for many years James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and the Humanities at Bard College.

Nicholas Mathew, a professor in UC Berkeley’s Department of Music, has focused on music and politics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: the place of music in political institutions, the role of music in public life, and the ways in which music produces social attachments and collective identity – as well as issues of political appropriation, subversion, musical trashiness, and political kitsch. Mathew is a member of the Representations editorial board. With Mary Ann Smart, he co-edited the special forum Quirk Historicism (Representations 132), for which the two wrote Elephants in the Music Room: The Future of Quirk Historicism.

Moderator Anthony J. Cascardi is the Dean of Arts and Humanities at UC Berkeley.

The discussion is part of a live, online video series, Berkeley Conversations: COVID-19, featuring Berkeley scholars from a range of disciplines.

Eve Sedgwick Again

Triple Cross: Binarisms and Binds in Epistemology of the Closet

by Whitney Davis

The first in an occasional series of Untimely Reviews, a format for reengaging with important critical works of the past.


The essay begins:

Published in 1990 (with a portion initially written as early as 1983–84), Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet was written in the mid- and late-1980s context of an “open season on gay men” in public discourse (as she put it)—not to speak of gay bashing and an apocalyptic medical crisis. By now there’s an extensive secondary scholarship on Sedgwick’s literary criticism and queer theory. But to my knowledge none of it pursues the thread I’m going to try to draw out here.

Sedgwick’s book remains as exciting to me now as it was nearly thirty years ago—in some ways more exciting, as I’ll explain. I’d still embrace its central argument, stated on her very first page, that “an understanding of virtually any aspect of Western culture must be, not merely incomplete, but damaged in its central substance to the degree that it does not incorporate a critical analysis of modern homo/heterosexual definition” (1), an operation that “intersects every issue of power and gender” and “transforms the other languages and relations by which we know” (3).

Sedgwick didn’t greatly revise the history of that process of definition from about 1890 to 1990, the period David Halperin has called “one hundred years of homosexuality,” of same-sex sexual attraction conceived, as Michel Foucault had emphasized, as a way of being a person—a species, a human natural kind—in the sociocultural and interpersonal fields of eroticism and sex in which “one particular sexuality was distinctively constituted as secrecy” (73). Sedgwick had some critical remarks to make (see 45–47) about both Halperin’s and Foucault’s framing of this history. Among other things, she wanted to imagine histories of sexuality in the modern Western world yet to be fully “known” historically—notably histories of masturbation and “the masturbator” as a sexuality. Nonetheless, in the end her mapping of the definitional field of (homo)sexuality more or less built in—assumed—the original Foucauldian perspectives. (Shortly after Epistemology of the Closet appeared, Sedgwick published an extended examination of Foucault’s perspectives on the history of sexuality and their influence on post-Foucauldian literary and cultural historians; it is useful to read it alongside the earlier book.) Speaking for myself, since the late 1980s (and especially after reading Epistemology of the Closet) I’ve devoted much of my research and writing as an art historian to consolidating—and in some respects to challenging—Foucauldian cultural histories of same-sex desire, which have often tended to privilege textual sources (as distinct from visual representations), to overemphasize the role (and downplay the variety) of medical-psychiatric discourses, and to neglect some of the rich evidence for same-sex sexual subcultures in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (if not before).

Of course, Sedgwick was not primarily a social or cultural historian. She was a literary scholar—a reader. In virtuoso readings both of public discourse in the 1980s in the United States and of canonical texts in the traditions of the French, British, and American novel, she set out to unravel the “radical and irreducible incoherence” of the historically emergent modern definition of homosexual personhood (85)—its constitutive contradictions about which, she said, there were “no epistemological grounds” for “adjudicating” or “decisively arbitrating as to their truth.” (Associate Justice Byron White had claimed to adjudicate authoritatively, though in fact his majority opinion in Bowers v. Hardwick was only 5–4; in 2003 it was overturned by the Supreme Court itself in Lawrence v. Texas 539 U.S. 558 [2003]).

Above all Sedgwick identified what she called—and as “queer theory” became in her wake— “minoritizing vs. universalizing” models of sexual orientations and “separatist vs. liminal/transitive” understandings of their relations to gender identifications. In this regard, I reproduce her well-known table of models of gay/straight definition. In Tendencies, a collection of her essays more or less contemporary with the writing of her book, Sedgwick noted that Epistemology of the Closet dealt primarily with the first register—“sexual definition”—and the essays dealt primarily with the second register, “gender definition.” The larger point, of course, is to “theorize gender and sexuality as distinct though intimately entangled axes of analysis.” This might seem blindingly obvious now, but Sedgwick insisted, quite properly, that “new psychoanalytic developments” in late-1980s America (despite the supposed depathologizing of “homosexuality” by official American psychiatry) were “based on precisely the theoretical move of distinguishing gender from sexuality.”

Equally or more important, Sedgwick urged that the “versus” implicitly organizing each register of definition is itself misleading. More salient—more real—is a complex cycling of reciprocities and recursions between the ostensible poles of the putative contradictions (gay/straight, male/female, and so on)—a point to which I’ll return. She didn’t bang on, then, about “nature versus nurture” and “essentialism versus constructivism” in approaches to human sexualities—widely bruited polarizations at the time. Instead, and laying the groundwork for a more recent “intersectional” approach to gendered sexuality, she counseled us to explore the overlapping—the blending and binding—of biosocial phylogenies and sociocultural ontogenies of homosexual desire; of the homosexual-as-species and other sexualities not so naturalized, such as the aforementioned “masturbator”; of gay and lesbian “self-descriptions” that should be awarded “propriodescriptive authority” (27); and of fourteen descriptions of erotic preferences and sex/gender positions and relations that supposedly we all intuitively know and accept in practice in ourselves and in other people (25). Perhaps this last list has dated somewhat. But I’ll still bet on its reliability as a real person’s guide to real life. (Her first item of commonsense wisdom: “Even identical genital acts mean very different things to different people.” Her sixth: “Many people have their richest mental/emotional involvement with sexual acts that they don’t do, or even don’t want to do.”) Continue reading …

WHITNEY DAVIS is Pardee Professor of History and Theory of Ancient and Modern Art and Chair of the Department of History of Art at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book is Visuality and Virtuality: Images and Pictures from Prehistory to Perspective (Princeton, 2017).

Winning Essay

Trisha Urmi Banerjee wins Richard Stein Prize for “Austen Equilibrium” 

INCS: Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-Century Studies has just announced the winner of its Richard Stein Prize for best article published in 2018, Trisha Urmi Banerjee’s Austen Equilibrium,” published in Representations 143 (Summer 2018).

Reviewers for the prize noted the essay’s “smart, well-structured, interdisciplinary argument and use of game theory” and its engagement with “the under-theorized nature of Austen’s ‘economy of writing.’” One reviewer noted: “I think Banerjee’s reading intervenes in an impressive number of critical conversations (about Austen’s style, narrative time, realism) and cuts across different kinds of methodologies (formal, historical, theoretical), in a clear, compelling, and even exciting way.” Another described how the essay “uses innovative methodologies to take on big ideas and develops them with real clarity and significance.”

Of the essay, Banerjee herself writes: “By proposing a quantitative game-theory model of the marriage plot in Jane Austen’s Emma, the essay 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 received her PhD in English from Harvard University and is now based in Paris. “Austen’s Equilibrium” derives from her second book project, which uses economic modeling and theory to understand the “economics” of narrative language and structure.

Martyr-ish Discourse

Wilde, Zola, Dreyfus, Christ: Fin de Siècle Passions

by Andrew J. Counter

Oscar Wilde and Émile Zola are conventionally opposed as the figureheads of, respectively, the aestheticist and the naturalist literary trends. Yet they exhibit a number of uncanny similarities—not least the turn both made in their last years toward religious themes and imagery, and especially those of martyrdom and the Passion. In this essay Andrew Counter explores such images in the later life, work, and public persona of each writer and sets them within the context of the dizzying proliferation of references to Christ and martyrdom in fin de siècle culture. He examines the “entailments”—the unexpected consequences, meanings, and echoes—that these overdetermined themes brought in their train from the wider literary field and shows how those entailments were exacerbated by the massive politicization of “martyr” discourse around the time of the Dreyfus affair, when the theme acquired its fullest significance.

Image: Orens Denizard (“Orens”), “Zola accuse le Conseil . . . ,” 1899, collected in postcard series Le Calvaire Dreyfus, 1904. Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris.


The essay begins:

On 5 January 1895, the courtyard of the École Militaire in Paris witnessed a scene of ritualized public humiliation. Captain Alfred Dreyfus, convicted of treason against the French Republic by a military tribunal the previous month, was brought into the courtyard for his ceremonial degradation, in which the epaulettes, insignia, and sleeves were torn from his uniform and his sword broken, all before a crowd of soldiers and, beyond them, a civilian mob shouting insults. A week later, on 13 January, Henri Meyer’s famous drawing of the scene appeared on the cover of Le Petit Journal, expanding that crowd to include the rest of France, and the world. The following month, Dreyfus would begin his journey to Devil’s Island and his sentence of penal servitude for life.

Later that year, on 20 November, in another country, another public humiliation occurred. Oscar Wilde, already serving a sentence of two years’ imprisonment with hard labor for acts of gross indecency, was transferred by train from Pentonville Prison in London to Reading Prison, a journey that necessitated a change at Clapham Junction station. As Wilde would later recall in the prison manuscript subsequently published as De profundis:

On November 13th, 1895, I was brought down here from London. From two o’clock till half-past two on that day I had to stand on the centre platform of Clapham Junction in convict dress, and handcuffed, for the world to look at. . . . Of all possible objects I was the most grotesque. When people saw me they laughed. Each train as it came up swelled the audience. Nothing could exceed their amusement. That was, of course, before they knew who I was. As soon as they had been informed they laughed still more. For half an hour I stood there in the grey November rain surrounded by a jeering mob.

Wilde’s sometime friend Robert Sherard noted in 1916, some years after Wilde’s death, that when Wilde first recounted this “outrage” to him during a visit to Reading Prison, he had suggested that it was “even worse than what Wilde relates” in De profundis: “I was told that the man who first recognized the prisoner shouted: ‘By God, that is Oscar Wilde,’ and spat on him.”

Back to Paris, and forward to early 1898. In what Pierre Birnbaum has dubbed “the anti-Semitic moment,” the city and France at large were in the grip of frenzied anti-Semitic hatred and frequent mob violence. At the beginning of February, not quite a month after the publication of the open letter known as “J’accuse. . . !,” Émile Zola stood trial for libel against the army general staff and a military tribunal held the previous month, whom he had accused of knowingly obstructing justice by exonerating Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy (now widely suspected of being the true traitor) and reaffirming the 1894 conviction of Dreyfus. Leaving the Palais de Justice after the first few days of hearings, Zola was greeted by baying crowds shrieking “Down with Zola! Down with the Jews!” and threatening violence that was narrowly averted by police action. The scene is dramatically immortalized in Henry de Groux’s painting of the same year, Zola aux outrages, in which a multitude of distorted, hate-filled faces surges menacingly toward the lonely novelist, whose frock coat appears symbolically white in the painting’s muddy palette. Zola would subsequently be found guilty and his conviction upheld on appeal, forcing him into miserable exile in England in July 1898.

These episodes have some obvious commonalities. In all three cases, an individual is shamed and abused for a crime of which he is factually or, in Wilde’s case, morally innocent. All three occur at a frightening threshold between the formal yet flawed procedures of state justice, and an undisciplined wellspring of negative communal affect that threatens to explode—one meaning of the “passions” of my title. And all three were spoken of at the time as “martyrdoms,” or discussed through analogies with the Passion of Jesus Christ. As a number of scholars have shown, the Passion was one of the primary metaphorical languages of the discourse of the Dreyfus affair, on both the Dreyfusard and anti-Dreyfusard sides. While Dreyfus’s likening to a martyr or to Christ was among the more problematic instances of this language (though not, as we shall see, the most problematic), that association was certainly made—not least by Zola himself. In an open letter to Mme Dreyfus after Dreyfus’s acceptance of a presidential pardon in September 1899, Zola referred to her husband as “the crucified” and of his plight as a “martyrdom,” and rejoiced that he had now been “brought down from his cross.” Wilde’s susceptibility to the theme, meanwhile, is well known—“Even before the misery of his own trial in 1895 . . . , Wilde’s early writings reveal a preoccupation with martyrdom,” writes Jan-Melissa Schramm—and the passage of De profundis describing the incident at Clapham Junction is explicitly prefaced in this direction: “It is said that all martyrdoms seemed mean to the looker on. The nineteenth century is no exception to the rule” (DP, 187). And if Zola made a rhetorical martyr of Dreyfus, he himself received what Christopher Forth calls “the full Jesus treatment” in the works of others: in its composition and title, for instance, de Groux’s painting of the scenes outside the Palais de Justice deliberately evoked his 1889 work Le Christ aux outrages, which had depicted Jesus taunted by a bloodthirsty crowd.

Despite, moreover, the copious gestures of support and encouragement that Zola received during this period (of which the painting is an example), this sort of rhetoric tended for strategic purposes toward self-erasure, in that it presented its protagonist as the entirely friendless victim of unanimous condemnation and contempt. Indeed, Zola himself could not resist the temptation to reimagine his 1898 experiences in these terms when he drew on them for a scene in his novel Travail (1901), the second in his planned series of Quatre Évangiles—“four gospels.” In book 2, the protagonist, Luc Froment, a visionary socialist industrialist and Zola’s proxy in the novel, having just been exonerated of causing the disappearance of a local stream through the improvement works he has undertaken at his factory for the future benefit of all, is hounded through town by a superstitious mob:

Ah! That climb up the rue de Brias, with the swelling crowd of enemies at his heels, beneath the ignominious stream of outrages and threats! . . . What had he done these last four years, for so much hate to have built up against him, to be hunted down like this by the crowd, howling like a pack of wolves for his death? What gall, what suffering there is in the shared Calvary every righteous man must ascend, as the blows of those he has tried to redeem rain down upon him! . . . Now they were stoning him. He made no gesture, but continued to climb his Calvary. (OC, 19:159–60)

Though Luc, as is required by the titular logic of Zola’s “gospels,” takes his name from the Evangelist, his experience in these pages is obviously modeled on Christ’s own: Luc’s humiliation is a Calvary, and this via dolorosa tacitly endorses representations of Zola’s own experience of public opprobrium as Christlike.

These three episodes are positioned at a fin de siècle confluence in which references to Christ, the Passion, and the figure of the martyr more broadly proliferated. In the 1890s, images drawn from these instantly recognizable narratives were appropriated for aesthetic, political, and personal purposes that might be of the most contradictory sorts. As a favored topos of the Decadent imagination as well as of a nascent homosexual aesthetic sensibility; as an apparently inevitable structuring metaphor for the sectarian confrontations of the Dreyfus affair; and as an inviting rhetoric for the utopian political ideologies of the fin de siècle, Christ and martyr imagery offered at once a seemingly very reliable mode of generating meaning, but also, I shall suggest, an oddly risky one, given the overdetermination of such imagery occasioned by its very promiscuousness in these competing fin de siècle discourses. In this article, I explore such acts of appropriation and their attendant rhetorical risks in the later life, work, and public image of Oscar Wilde and Émile Zola, including as each of these intersected with the Dreyfus affair, with a view to understanding, first, their purpose in adopting Christological or martyrological references and imagery; and second, the consequences—unintended and conceivably unconscious—of their doing so for the tone, style, and coherence of their work. These unintended consequences or risks are what I shall refer to as the “entailments” of the Christ reference.

This essay is thus a contribution to a potentially very revealing literary comparison between Wilde and Zola. I choose these two writers as figures who stood, as Wilde put it of himself, “in symbolic relations to the art and culture of [their] age” (DP, 162), and first and foremost as handy metonymies, then and now, for what a traditional literary history has tended to regard as the two competing literary postulations of the fin de siècle: the Naturalist versus the Decadent, the hypermimetic versus the hyperartificial. Yet both writers are also somehow quintessentially “fin de siècle,” to the extent that Max Nordau in Degeneration (1892) denounces both as equally symptomatic of the social and cultural pathologies he associates with that phrase. In his recollections of Wilde, indeed, Vincent O’Sullivan recalls the playwright noting that “great antipathy shews secret affinity”; when O’Sullivan waggishly inquired whether this meant that Wilde had an affinity to George Moore, the Irish naturalist who was a particular bête noire of Wilde’s, he allegedly replied: “No; but perhaps to Zola. Still, I hope not.” I find this exchange plausible largely because it is so well observed: for all their differences, as I shall show, these are indeed two writers who exhibit some uncanny similarities—not least in the shape of their own internal contradictions, contradictions that emerge most visibly in the “religious,” which is not to say orthodox, turn of their later years.

My hunch is that this “secret affinity” between Wilde and Zola has much to teach us about the fin de siècle literary field in Europe. In this article, however, I limit myself to considering what these two figures and their (self-)positioning vis-à-vis fin de siècle cultural discourses of martyrology and the Passion can reveal about the complex and shifting interactions of a number of phenomena. Wilde’s and Zola’s late religious preoccupations, I shall suggest, afford a privileged glimpse into the entanglements of politics, sexuality, mass culture, and literary form at a moment of particular social crisis in France. I explore these in four discrete but connected sections, each of which addresses a different aspect of the Christ or martyr theme. Continue reading …

ANDREW J. COUNTER is Associate Professor of French at the University of Oxford and the author of Inheritance in Nineteenth-Century French Culture: Wealth, Knowledge and the Family (Legenda, 2010) and The Amorous Restoration: Love, Sex and Politics in Early Nineteenth-Century France (Oxford University Press, 2016). His current book project is provisionally entitled Thinking Sexual Ethics with Modern French Literature.


What’s in a Genre?

The Uses of Genre: Is There an “Adam Smith Question”?

by Ryan Healey, Ewan Jones, Paul Nulty, Gabriel Recchia, John Regan, and Peter de Bolla

The essay begins:

This paper sets out a novel computational method of testing the uses to which generic membership can be put to help us understand large-scale movements in the history of ideas. It does so by taking a well-known test case, the so-called Adam Smith Question, as an easily identifiable (and well-researched) problem in generic consistency. In brief, the problem is this: Smith proposes one version of human nature based on sympathy in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) and another, completely orthogonal to it, based on self-interest in his Wealth of Nations (WN). This incoherence (if one assumes that Smith worked hard at creating a unified theory of human nature, which in itself is contestable) is said to be one of genre, the difference between moral philosophy and political economy.

The wider context of Smith’s intellectual project—let us say the second half of the British eighteenth century—also provides us with a background in which the question of genre is itself problematic or undergoing conceptual construction. It has long been recognized that over the course of the century the contours of emerging genres—for example, prose fiction, political economy, moral philosophy, aesthetics—would ossify around different and sometimes contradictory sets of moral, social, and epistemological premises. Literary critics have largely investigated this generic instability via the conspicuously hybrid genre of the novel, with particular attention to the early novel’s seeming inattention to modern distinctions of “fact” and “fiction,” within what Mary Poovey calls the “fact/fiction continuum.”

A significant fellow traveler in this epistemological crisis can be identified in the uneven and incompatible development of concepts of economic morality across different genres that might be termed the “self-society continuum.” In Commerce, Morality, and the Eighteenth-Century Novel, Liz Bellamy argues that economic texts privileged the second term, “society,” as they compressed individuals and their personal faculties into an indiscriminate mass of homo economicus, while, conversely, contemporaneous texts of moral philosophy addressed a unique individual steeped in elite civic humanist rhetoric that exempted him or her from the rational maximization of money and naked self-interest. The new commercial morality was understood as peculiar, destructive, and “far from being overwhelmingly accepted or embraced” by ruling classes whose traditionalism could not easily comprehend and accommodate the burgeoning intangible property of financial instruments. This unease was then reflected then reflected in a parallel discordance between works of moral philosophy and the fledgling genre of economics. Bellamy explicitly identifies this inconsistency in generically separate works by David Hume and Smith, who seem to void the ethical directives of their moral philosophy with their economic texts and vice versa.

Yet “negates” is perhaps too strong a way of putting things. After thirty years without significantly revising the work, Smith began to alter TMS in the last year of his life, adding a sixth part titled “Of the Character of Virtue” that “appealed to the citizenry to place the interests of society ahead of the interest of any faction to which they might be attached.” Crucially, however, this revision did not radically alter the precepts of the theory to align more explicitly with the selfish personality exhibited by WN. For Smith, there seems never to have been an urgent need to bring the two works into dialogue. To complicate matters still further, the alleged contradiction may well arise, at least in part, from the anachronistic imposition of generic differences that at the time were not perceivable. What would only later be recognized as political economy was still, at the point of Smith’s writing, in the process of coming into being. As Margaret Schabas notes, “Economic phenomena were viewed as contiguous with physical nature” up until the mid-nineteenth century, when the notion of “the economy” as a delimited entity first arose.

It is in large part due to these complex compositional, generic, and historical contexts that scholars have, over the past three decades, increasingly tired of the Adam Smith Problem, with its binary options. In 1998, Amos Witztum declared briskly that, “for modern readers this is not a real problem.” More recently, David Wilson and William Dixon claimed, “The old Das Adam Smith Problem is no longer tenable. Few today believe that Smith postulates two contradictory principles of human action.” Close readings of the concepts of sympathy, prudence, and self-interest in TMS and WN have led critics to conclude that Smith does not openly recommend two polar opposite theories of human motivation, albeit “there is still no widely agreed version of what it is that links these two texts, aside from their common author; no widely agreed version of how, if at all, Smith’s postulation of self-interest as the organizing principle of economic activity fits in with his wider moral-ethical concerns.”

This paper applies a novel computational mode of analysis to the large question of genre and to the more specific issues that arise in Smith’s work. We do so, however, not to flog the dead horse of das Adam Smith Problem; we do not believe that such a debate could ever be decisively “settled” one way or another. We do, however, believe that the computational analysis of large corpora (and subcorpora) permit us to discern both the continuities and discontinuities of conceptual usage across different works—continuities and discontinuities to which more standard modes of intellectual history, for all their many virtues, remain blind. We thus interrogate two interlocking questions: first, to what extent does the sympathy so cardinal to TMS, and the self-interest so essential to WN, participate in broader conceptual networks, whose existence is statistically verifiable? Second, to what extent do such local continuities or discontinuities prove representative of broader generic differences in the culture at large? Chief among the virtues of such a computational approach, we believe, is the critical vantage it offers with regard to genre. Rather than simply accepting the markers that authors or publishers apply to the texts at hand (“political economy,” and so on), we use patterns of lexical collocation to investigate whether such distinctions are indeed valid. Continue reading …

In this article authors Ryan Healey, Ewan Jones, Paul Nulty, Gabriel Recchia, and John Regan join Peter de Bolla in using the methodologies of de Bolla’s The Architecture of Concepts to uncover the complex conceptual networks in which lexical items are embedded. For de Bolla, because concepts are “units of ‘thinking’ that cannot be expressed in words without remainder,” they may be stretched across constellations of collocations circulating in a “common unshareable” domain of the textual culture at large.

PETER DE BOLLA is Professor of Cultural History and Aesthetics at the University of Cambridge where he also directed the Cambridge Concept Lab. His most recent monograph is The Architecture of Concepts: The Historical Formation of Human Rights (Fordham University Press, 2013), and he is currently writing a book on the artist Pierre Bonnard.


Thoughts While Shaving

RAND Narratology

by Kent Puckett

Robert S. McNamara. US News & aNd World Report, 1965

This penetrating essay by Representations own Kent Puckett looks at the unlikely historical and aesthetic overlap between narrative theory and strategic defense thinking in the middle part of the twentieth century. Taking in the many writings and frankly odd intellectual styles of nuclear war planners working at the RAND Corporation, the essay examines the unexpected play between the material facts of intellectual history, the obscure but nonetheless real force of narrative desire, and the unthinkable costs of nuclear war.

The essay begins:

In late 1947, John Williams, recruiting for what was then called Project RAND, sent the Hungarian mathematician John von Neumann a letter offering him two hundred dollars a month in exchange for just a little slice of his time:

In practice I would hope that members of the Project with problems in your line (i.e., the wide world) could discuss them with you, by mail and in person. We would send you all working papers and reports of RAND which we think would interest you, expecting you to react (with frown, hint, or suggestion) when you had a reaction. In this phase, the only part of your thinking time we’d like to bid for systematically is that which you spend shaving: we’d like you to pass on to us any ideas that come to you while so engaged.

Von Neumann—who, with Oskar Morgenstern, wrote 1944’s Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, more or less inventing game theory—would go on to work, and not only while shaving, with RAND on a number of its key Cold War projects, especially helping to refine its early application of game-theoretical models to the problems of nuclear war planning and strategic deterrence.

The story is characteristic of the early days at RAND. First, it is one of many RAND anecdotes about von Neumann that highlight the fact and local value of his uncanny and apparently unlimited brilliance; it is thus proof not only of von Neumann’s reputation for intellectual virtuosity but also of the peculiar emphasis that RAND placed on brains, on an intelligence that was rapid, ruthless, burning bright. A colleague at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study reported that “Johnny’s mind . . . was lightning quick—stunningly fast. If you gave him a problem he either solved it right away or not at all.” More than just a prerequisite for the analysis and modeling to which RAND was committed, excessive, throwaway, for-its-own-sake brilliance was, as we will see, an important and, indeed, constitutive aspect of the early RAND style. Second, Williams’s note suggests a kind of desperate whimsy that seemed almost de rigueur at RAND. Hard drinks, good music and good food, modernist interior design, Ping-Pong, dirty jokes, cool jazz, fraternity pranks, and sci-fi: accounts of the early days at RAND make it look as much like a David Lodge novel or an episode of Mad Men as the well-funded think tank that in fact it was. The RAND milieu, writes one critic, “offered the exhilarating emotional palette of a certain type of boy’s world: a virtuous people menaced by evil zealots, the fate of millions concentrated in the hands of a daring few.” “Life at RAND,” writes another, “was a boy’s conception of what a man’s life should be, down to the fragrant pipe tobacco, fast cars, and clubby exclusivity.” Its humor was a boy’s humor, too. Like Williams, von Neumann was “an inveterate jokester”: “Merrill Flood recalls the time that Einstein was supposed to go to New York and von Neumann offered to drive him to the Princeton train station. Von Neumann purposely put Einstein on a train going in the wrong direction.”

A similarly affected eccentricity appears in Williams’s own popular introduction to game theory, The Compleat Strategyst: Being a Primer on the Theory of Games of Strategy (1954). In addition to its cod-Elizabethan title, its leaden gags, and its water-cooler misogyny, Williams’s book was illustrated in an urbane, by-the-way style reminiscent of the New Yorker. Where, however, contemporary comics by Carl Rose, Jules Feiffer, and Herbert “Herblock” Block displayed real wit about midcentury life and things directly relevant to RAND, Charles Satterfield’s illustrations feel unmotivated and, predictably, a little distasteful. One image of a besmocked painter pausing fussily before applying yet another color to a globe wouldn’t be all that funny in any case, but it seems especially ham-fisted appearing as it does in a RAND publication introducing ideas that backed American policies of containment, strategic deterrence, second-strike capacity, and, in time, proxy war in Southeast Asia and elsewhere.

What’s more, Satterfield’s image and Williams’s text rely on a more general and long-standing relation between war and games that connects the abstract and deadly serious modeling at RAND with a longer if equally fraught history of Kriegsspiel, with, that is, the idea of war as not only a terrible necessity but also an almost aesthetic activity that—like painting, mixing drinks, or telling jokes—is said to give special pleasure when done all for its own sake. Indeed, the offer to pay von Neumann for his nearly idle shaving thoughts, for his extra ideas, for time that would otherwise go to waste, for work that was valuable precisely and paradoxically because it bordered on waste, is evidence of the prodigal ethos of the early days of RAND, an appreciation for the beau geste that could seem to run against the grain of the group’s clean-cut, clinical, avowedly pragmatic, and broadly amoral work on military strategy at an especially high-stakes moment in American and world history. What is most interesting to me is what this all reveals about the generative relation between, on the one hand, RAND’s “hard-headed” realism and, on the other, the elegant, seductive, and oddly excessive qualities, first, of game theory, which was not invented but rather cultivated at RAND, and, after game theory had run out of steam, of systems analysis.

Elegant, excessive, and, as I will argue, strikingly if also—and this is important—minimally narrative. Take, for example, the prisoner’s dilemma, the most famous of game theory’s many models, which was developed at RAND by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher in 1950 and subsequently filled out and crucially named by Albert Tucker. Game theory is, roughly, the use of quantitative models to account for or to predict the cooperative or competitive behavior of rational actors within defined states of conflict, and the prisoner’s dilemma is a two-person game that imagines two prisoners who have together committed a crime and must choose separately under interrogation either to remain mum or to confess and thus to incriminate the other. If A and B both speak, both spend two years in prison; if either only A or only B speaks, the one who speaks will go free and the other will spend three years in prison; if neither A nor B speaks, both will spend only a single year in prison. Although the prisoner’s dilemma is an abstract and, in that sense, apparently timeless conceptual construct, it is also a little story, a “stock narrative,” a concrete example that motivates abstraction in terms that recall the bare but nonetheless real narrativity of the folktale: it has characters, a conflict, a setting, and something like a beginning, middle, and end. What’s more, the story of the story, the story of the dilemma’s itinerant passage from RAND through Tucker and then out into the wider world might—again, just barely—mirror the trajectory of the traditional folktale: “Not published as such until years after its invention, the prisoner’s dilemma spread through the scientific community of the 1950s by oral transmission that would satisfy the folklorist’s definition of a dilemma tale.” If the dilemma’s utility is a result of its capacity to quantify conflict, its considerable and enduring appeal is due, at least in part, to what was only apparently inessential or extra to it: a minimally developed narrative set-up that motivated abstraction in the familiar terms of temporally distinct and yet causally related events: crime, confession, punishment. Just as structuralist and formalist thinkers were working in the 1950s and 1960s to theorize literariness as an objective, more or less present, and semi-autonomous aspect of some kinds of language, the quantitative realists at RAND demonstrated—and not only in their early work on game theory—a similar commitment to the ostensible autonomy of rules, systems, and, as I’ll argue, to narrative understood as independent of whatever it might in fact narrate.

It is important, given a tendency simply to equate RAND nuclear thinking with game theory, to note that game theory was finally an early and ultimately abandoned expression of a more varied commitment to systems thinking and the quantification of conflict: as Robert Leonard argues, “This burst of game-theoretic analysis of tactics in the late 1940s and early 1950s, although intensive, was short-lived. Although formally impeccable, little of it ultimately found its way into the larger systems analyses conducted at RAND, the studies most influential upon the Air Force client.” If, however, game theory per se seemed quickly to hit a wall at RAND, its rationalist, discursive, and minimally narrative promise continued in both more and less diffuse ways to inform the think tank’s culture, style, and rhetoric: “That the Cold War was literally a game in this stripped-down, spare sense remained a consistent point of departure for discussions of arms races and nuclear war, even as the adequacy of game theory’s calculating brand of rationality for dealing with such situations came in for criticism.” At a moment when the enormity, immediacy, and speed of thermonuclear war threatened the very idea of significantly different but related beginnings, middles, and ends, RAND advocated styles and strategies that betray not necessarily a commitment to military victory (an increasingly hollow concept in the age of the bomb), or even to meaning at a moment when meaning seemed under threat, but rather to an unmotivated desire for what we might call bare narrativity. Continue reading …

The author of War Pictures: Cinema, Style, and Violence in Britain, 1939–1945 (2017), Narrative Theory: A Critical Introduction (2016), and other books, KENT PUCKETT teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, where serves on the editorial board of Representations. He is currently writing a book about the aesthetics of electoral modeling.