The Case of the House of Usher

Materialist Vitalism or Pathetic Fallacy: The Case of the House of Usher

by Branka Arsić

The essay begins:

Notoriously weird things occur in Edgar Allan Poe’s world, things in fact so bizarre that some readers dismiss them as mere exaggerations, whereas for others they amount to philosophical dilettantism. The list of the weird occurrences in Poe is long, but perhaps most famously: human wills are rendered so powerful that they transport the dead back to life; matter is able to transcend decay, whereas dead bodies, even when dismembered, pulsate with vitality; spirited forces—from minds to presumed supernatural agencies—are endowed with power to generate physical phenomena, such as inarticulate sounds and styled whispers, or to affect the physical by animating or stalling its motion, altering its figuration through various mergings and disseminations of particles of matter. Additionally, the natural and material is afforded immanent life, enabling it to become otherwise without any intervention by divine powers or by anything immaterial at all. Thus, stones and rocks sometimes feel and experience, plants are said to enjoy or suffer, and even planets and elements, as the end of Poe’s prose poem Eureka postulates, are found to be happy and joyous.

How, then, are we to understand such instances? A long tradition of critical reading has explained away Poe’s allegedly weird preoccupations by classifying them as gothic devices mobilized to fuse the strange with the pleasing and to appease the morbid by styling it into the fantastic, while simultaneously spellbinding the reader by means of the cultivated terror Poe depicts. But as I will be arguing, that approach—which reads Poe as a romance-goth—is weak, because it reduces to the aesthetic phenomena that are in fact often scientific, summoned by Poe from domains as different as biology, geology, astronomy, or medicine. For instance, when the claim that death is a radically slowed-down life is taken not as scientific but as a narratological device allowing the dead to revisit the living, and thus generate horror, the aesthetic is made to function as a normalizing shield protecting a dualistic ontology (which posits the divide between spiritual and material, takes matter to be inert, and establishes clear taxonomical topographies that separate beings into their proper existential niches). In that way we are assured that Poe’s anomalous worlds are not really anomalous but merely abstractly or aesthetically so. By ideating and thus anesthetizing Poe’s propositions, the “aesthetic” approach—where aestheticization refers to the content of his narratives, not to their form—weakens the challenge those propositions pose to Western ontology, making us overlook just how seriously Poe was invested in critiquing it, dedicated, as Joan Dayan has argued, to “debunk[ing] the cant of idealism.” That tradition of criticism turns into “romance” his deadly serious ontology, which, Dayan claims, is monistic (enabling the “convertibility” of spiritual into material), committed to “a radically physical world,” and so “attach[ed] to materiality” that even if there are “phantoms and rarified presences” in his stories “they are always seen through or next to the collateral flesh and blood remnants.” As I will argue here, this commitment to the physical, which Poe’s ontology understands as inherently vital, manifests as a ceaseless experiment with processes of becoming and transformation, which undoes the existential status quo of beings and persons. His propositions thus resist being aestheticized as romance, for as Dayan also argued, “‘romance’ . . . always serves the status quo” by “mythologiz[ing] an inwardness,” whereas Poe shatters the coherence of any inwardness, reducing it to the material supposedly external to it. Finally, and most straightforwardly, the anesthetization of Poe’s narratives, their domestication as aestheticized gothic allegories, must be resisted also because a lot of what he wrote enacts strange ontologies without ever rendering them gothic. (What, for instance, is specifically gothic about paranoid obsessions, perverse desires, or even feeling plants?) Continue reading …

This essay revises the inherited understanding of Ruskin’s theory of pathetic fallacy by positing that his ideas are close to theories that oppose any strict division of phenomena into persons and things. To elaborate this point, the essay investigates Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” where inanimate things are rendered animate, claiming that such instances are far from being pathetically fallacious and, also, that Poe’s ontology is in accord with that formulated by Ruskin.

Branka Arsić is Charles and Lynn Zhang Professor of American Literature at Columbia University. She is the author of Bird Relics, Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau (Harvard University Press, 2016), On Leaving: A Reading in Emerson (Harvard University Press, 2010), and a book on Melville entitled Passive Constitutions or 7½ Times Bartleby (Stanford University Press, 2007), as well as coeditor (with Kim Evans) of a collection of essays on Melville entitled Melville’s Philosophies (Bloomsbury, 2017).

Gallagher on Counterfactuals

New from Catherine Gallagher!

Telling It Like It Wasn’t: The Counterfactual Imagination in History and Fiction

The topic of counterfactual histories has engaged Catherine Gallagher for some time. In addition to the essays in this new book, her “When Did the Confederate States of America Free the Slaves?” was published in the special forum Counterfactual Realities in Representations 98, and “The Formalism of Military History” appeared in our 25th anniversary special issue On Form.

Catherine Gallagher is professor emerita of English at the University of California, Berkeley and a founding member of the Representations editorial board. She is the author of many books, including The Body Economic: Life, Death, and Sensation in Political Economy and the Victorian Novel.

Famously Bad Plots

Bad Plots and Objectivity in Maria Edgeworth

by Yoon Sun Lee

 

The essay begins:

Maria Edgeworth (1767–1849) is famous for her bad plots. A contemporary reviewer of her 1814 novel Patronage complains that “the story is always the worst part of Miss Edgeworth’s novel.” There she consistently proves “inferior . . . to many of those that are vastly below her in everything else.” This backhanded compliment to a novelist publicly admired by Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott may suggest some of the reasons that Edgeworth has fallen into neglect. Despite her popularity and widespread readership in her lifetime, particularly in nineteenth-century America, this Anglo-Irish writer of national tales and novels never fully entered the literary canon. If read at all, Edgeworth’s novels are studied in relation to questions of Irish identity and history, rather than as examples of the genre’s possibilities. This may indeed be attributable to a certain quality that many of her plots possess. In their broad outlines, they are unobjectionable, if not exciting. Their protagonists, whether old or young, male or female, aristocratic or working class, must learn to choose for themselves the way of life most productive of happiness. They need to overcome prejudice, indolence, misdirected sympathies, and unhealthy influences. The alleged badness of her plots, then, does not concern any unfamiliarity of outline. Nor does it derive from over-reliance on arbitrary events, chance encounters, or coincidences. Though these can certainly be found in Edgeworth’s plots, sometimes concentrated toward the end, they are arguably standard features of narrative and certainly of the novel by 1800. Rather, it seems that Edgeworth’s “carelessness” has to do with not sufficiently disguising the epistemological responsibilities placed on fictional plot by the development of experimental science. Her plots usually tell the story of how characters learn to think rationally. But this requires more than learning to distinguish between truth and lies, genuine and false stories or feelings. As one character in her novel Belinda (1801) puts it, “Our reasonings as to the conduct of life . . . must depend ultimately on facts.” For Edgeworth, then, plot becomes the means of producing legitimately objective facts within a fictive universe. In a twist in the dialectic of fictionality, plot has to produce a hierarchy of epistemological certainty within its own orderings.

While fictional characters have been insightfully analyzed by Catherine Gallagher, Deidre Lynch, and others, plot has been relatively neglected by critics. Where noticed, plot is often assumed to embody ideological forces in a fairly straightforward manner. Fredric Jameson’s recent study of realism, for example, argues that “destiny” is “vehiculated” in various plot types that the realist novel can only rework at the expense of plot itself. The tendency to see plot as a conveyance for ideology, as well as the vehicular metaphor itself, were well established by the eighteenth century. In Clara Reeve’s Progress of Romance (1785), for example, novels are commended when they “promote the cause of religion and virtue,” with plots serving as “vehicles to convey [the author’s] tenets to the minds of such readers as were not likely to receive them in any other form.” Such understandings of plot rely on a high-level view that looks at general similarities between stories rather than at particular sequences within them. They also place more weight on the ending than on any other part of the story, since the ending is where poetic justice is supposedly executed. The disbursement of rewards and punishments, deaths, marriages, and property at the novel’s end is understood to constitute the bulk of its ideological work. But it is important to notice what such treatments of plot tend to overlook: that plot concerns not only what happens to whom at the end, but with how things happen along the way—or even with how things happen to happen. Plots ask and answer questions about causality as manifested in particular sequences, and this is the aspect of narrative that seems to concern Edgeworth the most. Her plots are worth examining because they are so keenly aware of the procedures through which actions are warranted and, above all, facts elicited. Edgeworth seems intensely interested in connecting these procedures with the outside world. Instead of trying to create a self-contained world in which occurrences generally reflect the probabilities of modern everyday life, Edgeworth tries to carry into her fictive plots some of the protocols and structures that warranted factuality in modern science. In her tales for children and young adults, for example, the plots focus on concrete objects: coins, flowerpots, thimbles, seeds, paper tickets, and notes. They aim to dispel uncertainties and establish facts about these objects. Usually, these facts concern who found, gave, stole, or used them and how they did so. But establishing a fact requires that certain protocols be carefully followed. Witnesses, authorities, and experiments conducted in neutral spaces are all needed. The protocols and structures of experimental science shape Edgeworth’s plots, the strange, dense network of objects that sometimes compose them, and the ways in which they sometimes frankly defy a larger probability. Sometimes they end with an astonishing pile-up of coincidences. But such outcomes emerge logically from Edgeworth’s desire to recalibrate the relationship between plot and probability. Probability becomes subordinate to the procedural establishment of factuality. Edgeworth’s plots turn on apparently objective events that diminish the centrality of human intentions and subjective desires. They represent a crucial step in the development of fictional realism. Continue reading …

In this essay, Yoon Sun Lee shows how the early nineteenth-century novelist Maria Edgeworth develops objectivity as a dimension of plot rather than of narrative viewpoint, drawing on the protocols and structures of experimental science. In Edgeworth’s novels, plot becomes a means of producing legitimately objective facts within a fictive universe.

YOON SUN LEE is the author of Nationalism and Irony: Burke, Scott, Carlyle and Modern Minority: Asian American Literature and Everyday Life (both Oxford University Press); her articles can be found in MLQ, Studies in Romanticism, and The Cambridge Companion to the Postcolonial Novel, as well as other journals and collections. Her current book project focuses on the question of how to theorize plot in the novel.

Michael Lucey Translation Reviewed

Michael Lucey’s translation of The End of Eddy by Édouard Louis, published earlier this month, has just been reviewed in both the New Yorker and the New York Times

An autobiographical novel about growing up gay in a working-class town in Picardy, The End of Eddy at once captures the violence and desperation of life in a French factory town and provides a sensitive portrait of boyhood and sexual awakening.

The author, Édouard Louis, is a novelist and the editor of a scholarly work on Pierre Bourdieu. He is the coauthor, with the philosopher Geoffroy de Lagasnerie, of “Manifesto for an Intellectual and Political Counteroffensive,” published in English by the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Michael Lucey, a member of the Representations editorial board, is a professor of French literature at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Never Say I: Sexuality and the First Person in Colette, Gide, and Proust and The Misfit of the Family: Balzac and the Social Forms of Sexuality and translator of Returning to Reims by Didier Eribon.

The Language of Science in George Eliot

 “George Eliot’s Science Fiction”
by Ian Duncan

479px-Eastern_equine_encephalitisIn this essay Ian Duncan tracks the strangeness of scientific language in Eliot’s fiction, showing how her recourse to comparative mythology and biology in Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda engages a conjectural history of symbolic language shared by the Victorian human and natural sciences. Troubling the formation of scientific knowledge as a progression from figural to literal usage, Eliot’s novels activate an oscillation between registers, in which linguistic events of metaphor become narrative events of organic metamorphosis.

“George Eliot’s Science Fiction” is from Representations‘ special issue Denotatively, Technically, LiterallyThe introduction to the issue by Elaine Freedgood and Cannon Schmitt is available online free of charge.