Resistance to Theory, Middlemarch Style

Dorothea: “And then I should know what to do, when I get older: I should see how it was possible to lead a grand life here–now–in England. I don’t feel sure about doing good in any way now: everything seems like going on a mission to a people whose language I don’t know.”

J. Hillis Miller: “The discontinuity of a repetition blasts a detached monad, crystallized into immobility, out of the homogeneous course of history, in order to take possession of of it in a present which is no present. It is the cessation of happening in a metaleptic assumption of the past, preserving and annulling it at the same time. This repetition disarticulates the backbone of logic and frees both history and fiction, for the moment, before the spider-web is re-woven, from the illusory continuities of origin leading to aim leading to end.”

Dorothea: “What could be sadder than so much ardent labour all in vain?”

J. Hillis Miller: “The set of assumptions common to both Western ideas of history and Western ideas of fiction are not–it is a point of importance–a collection of diverse attributes, the distinctive features which happen to be there. They are on the contrary a true system, in the sense that each implies all the others.”

Dorothea (putting out her hand entreatingly): “Please not to call it by any name. You will say it is Persian, or something else geographical. It is my life.”

J. Hillis Miller: “Nevertheless, for those who have eyes to see it, Middlemarch is an example of a work of fiction which not only exposes the metaphysical system of history but also proposes an alternative consonant with those of Nietzsche and Benjamin.”

Narrator: “There is no general doctrine which is not capable of eating out our morality if unchecked by the deep-seated habit of direct fellow-feeling with individual fellow-men.”

J. Hillis Miller: “!”

Seriously, though, although Hillis Miller’s essay* (which I acknowledge is very smart, taken on its own terms) is more than 30 years old now, I think it illustrates a tendency that continues in some professional criticism to set aside the overt and often pressing social, ethical, political, or aesthetic interests of the text itself in favour of fairly esoteric theoretical and metacritical questions, or questions that seek out a text’s ‘unconscious’ effects or meanings. Without insisting that these questions are unworthy ones for inquiry and scholarship, I would suggest that in some respects they serve the majority of readers (and texts) less well than critical approaches that engage us with what the text actually takes itself to be about (in Denis Donoghue‘s terms, we don’t allow the text to have its theme–though in this case, Middlemarch works well for Hillis Miller’s purposes because it is “always already” self-conscious about and thematizing his themes of history, narrative, and (mis)interpretation).** For one thing, the results are likely to preserve the differences between texts more than approaches like Hillis Miller’s (any novel that becomes grist for his argument here would end up sounding pretty much the same, deconstructing the oppositions, undoing metaphysics, etc.). In his essay “What We Talk About When We Talk About Ethics,” in this collection, Lawrence Buell notes the “longstanding reluctance on the part of many if not most literary scholars to allow the central disciplinary referent or value to be located in anything but language.” I think there’s some truth in that generalization, and that this reluctance leads us into conversations of the sort I’ve pasted together above, a “missing of each others’ mental tracks,” as George Eliot says about Rosamond and Lydgate’s marriage, because we talk past, or about, rather than with, our primary sources.

But mostly I just wanted to have a little fun…

*”Narrative and History,” ELH 41:3 (Autumn 1974), 455-73.

**I realize that it remains an open and controversial question whether or how professional / academic critics should have the interests of non-specialist readers in mind. Over at Crooked Timber recently there was a long thread in the comments about professional philosophers which seemed to touch on some of the same issues that come up when literary critics think about this. In both cases, of course it’s not an either/or question–specialist and non-specialist discourses can and do coexist.

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