Joseph Conrad’s Hope in Lord Jim and Nostromo

To approach hope in Conrad is to understand why French philosopher Gabriel Marcel claims “the conditions that make it possible to hope are strictly the same as those that make it possible to despair” (qtd in Anderson). This is not to say that Conrad’s hope is Marcel’s. For Marcel, hope describes a particular experience of theological transcendence, one that reveals a world of mysteries that demand an exterior space of possibility, something that takes the place of our humdrum instrumentalized world in which everything is merely a problem to be solved and thus a source of existential despair. Conrad’s hope might be glimpsed here not in Marcel’s suggestion of Catholic certainty but in the structural argument that Marcel makes about hope: hope is an experience of multiplicity and potentiality. Subsequent theorists of hope, from Ernest Bloch to Ben Anderson, emphasize precisely this implicit plurality of conditions, a plurality that can be inflected as either hope or despair.As Terry Eagleton puts it, “Potentiality … lays down the material infrastructure of hope” (52). Hope is sometimes treated as an affect, but it is perhaps more proper to understand it as a being-towardthat may raise a variety of affects, whether excitement, expectation, dread, anger, and so on. In other words, hope is less an affect than a relation with potential-laden conditions.

We are closer, here, I think, to Conrad’s hope, but the word “relation” poses another problem. Relation does not mean disposition, something grounded in character. One of the problems that confronts any examination of hope is our readiness to collapse one’s relation to conditions with one’s general disposition toward the world. We might recognize this better, as Conrad did, in questions of character—though as we will see that has its own discourse as well. For now, I want to note that hope is not the equivalent of an optimistic character. In particular, Eagleton offers a useful distinction, one that separates his perspective from that of Marcel, between groundless optimism and a hope premised on reason. After all, if I ask, “Is there any hope?” it is because I need a reason to hope, however remote. By contrast, Marcel’s religion allows him to hope by focusing on reason beyond reason. In what follows, then, I take hope as a particular relation informed by reason about the potentiality of a situation, and that this potentiality includes hope’s contrary, despair. In essence, hope sifts its despair-laden conditions for another route, another possibility. The hope that one may find in Conrad’s work, then, does not operate in spite of his pessimism but as a result thereof. It is a persistent examination of the reasons within despair, and the possibilities therein. In what follows, I have chosen to focus my discussion around the uses of the word “hope” as such in Lord Jim and to connect its usage there to the later text Nostromo.

Hope pervades the first half of Lord Jim as a continually thwarted if not fundamentally misguided relation to possibility. This seems in part a result of the continued link Marlow draws between the words hopeand faith: Jim’s hopes for the future, the hope of the pilgrims, Jim’s desire to remake himself. These hopes express a faith in potential, and it is as faith that the narrative approaches the question of hope, underscoring in the process its emptiness. Marlow frames his hope that Jim’s actions could be understood as not merely dispelled but a desire for “a miracle” (37). He writes:

Perhaps, unconsciously, I hoped I would find that something, some profound and redeeming cause, some merciful explanation, some convincing shadow of an excuse. I see well enough now that I hoped for the impossible–for the laying of what is the most obstinate ghost of man’s creation, of the uneasy doubt uprising like a mist, secret and gnawing like a worm, and more chilling than the certitude of death–the doubt of the sovereign power enthroned in a fixed standard of conduct. It is the hardest thing to stumble against; it is the thing that breeds yelling panics and good little quiet villainies; it’s the true shadow of calamity. Did I believe in a miracle? and why did I desire it so ardently? Was it for my own sake that I wished to find some shadow of an excuse for that young fellow whom I had never seen before, but whose appearance alone added a touch of personal concern to the thoughts suggested by the knowledge of his weakness–made it a thing of mystery and terror–like a hint of a destructive fate ready for us all whose youth–in its day–had resembled his youth? I fear that such was the secret motive of my prying. I was, and no mistake, looking for a miracle. (LJ 5:37)

If hope is bound to reason, its deployment in Lord Jim maps something hazier, torn between reason and optimism. The hoped for miracle would dispel the mist that envelops and obscures what Marlow calls a “fixed standard of conduct.” It is here that hope’s centrality for the text comes into focus as a collapse of character-based disposition and a reasoned relation to a situation’s potentiality. What Marlow extolls as a standard of conduct is “that inborn power to look temptations straight in the face… a power of resistance” (32). Such a view is of a piece with Conrad’s insistences throughout his work that imperialism reveals fundamental dispositions held in check by European culture. His hope for Jim is one for a standard of conduct based in reason that could obviate this problem of disposition. What Jim threatens to reveal is that his standard is a mere accident of disposition.

The affective—or emotional relation?—here takes seriously what Fredric Jameson dismisses as a mere symbolic ruse, honor. Yet honor, as a word, misses the mark. It is a loss of hope, the revelation of a standard that is no standard. It is this that afflicts Captain Brierly. His final words to Marlow indicate that the degree to which dispositionis in tension with a reasoned hope, and direct us to another relation often mistaken for affect, trust. First and foremost, trust guarantees that the self one presents coincides with the kinds of actions one is likely to undertake. Yet trust is as much about the ability to act in the present moment as it is the predictability of future actions. In his analysis, Niklas Luhmann explains that trust matters precisely because it authorizes action in the present. For Brierly, what is so distressing about Jim’s betrayal is that it cuts at this possibility of present action:

We’ve got all kinds amongst us–some anointed scoundrels in the lot; but, hang it, we must preserve professional decency or we become no better than so many tinkers going about loose. We are trusted. Do you understand?–trusted! Frankly, I don’t care a snap for all the pilgrims that ever came out of Asia, but a decent man would not have behaved like this to a full cargo of old rags in bales. We aren’t an organised body of men, and the only thing that holds us together is just the name for that kind of decency. (LJ 49)

What we see here in Brierly’s concerns are that they are not so much about honor as the broader late Victorian discourse of character. As Stefan Collini shows, character served as the disciplinary code for a disorganized liberal imperialism—in short, as the code for the trustworthiness of imperial action. Imperial administrators’ need to take decisions when necessary led to a reliance on a particular understanding of good character. Such character regulates personal conduct through social pressure and intermittent checks on action—the certification that Jim needs to act as an officer marks him as part of this order that demands a series of initial checks but then releases him unchecked into the world. This may suggest Foucauldian discipline; however, as we see in Lord Jim, character operates through intermittent checks quite distinct from what one would find in a disciplinary structure. In effect, the sea of Lord Jim is one of the earliest forms of what Marc Augé terms a non-place, a space of passage in which identity is suspended and checked only sporadically. Indeed, Augé discusses the role of sea travel in the 19C when explicating the term. For subsequent theorists, the non-place helpfully tracks the displacement of disciplinary societies by societies of control, where the individual is replaced by the persistent subdivision of the person into the multiplicity of the dividiual. For late Victorians, character seems to have suggested the certainty of a disciplinary code. What Jim reveals, though, is that it is a more supple—and at this stage of technology, fallible—system of discontinuous checks. The guarantee of character, which unifies disposition via a specific relation to reality, only guarantees a fragment, a splinter that may not be recomposed as a whole.

In a fully developed control society, this fragmentation can become a source of profit and multiplied control through the proliferation of checks. This is not yet the case for the world of Lord Jim.Instead, trust and hope confront each other as antagonistic relations to temporality. Action in the present against a Benjaminian sifting of possibilities in the present—activity against a passive messianism. This conflict is not an abstract one. As Adam Seligman argues, trust is predicated on the rise of modernity and market society. It is a specific, historic relation. In this sense, the conflicting temporalities of hope and trust reveal an ambivalence in the text toward the imperial project, one situated in the subjective constitution of those who undertook it: a passive hope for the future that inhibits trust’s ability to act in the present. For Conrad, a positive imperial project is based in doing. In Heart of Darkness, Marlow describes the British territories marked in red on King Leopold’s map as “good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there” (32), and he emphasizes earlier that “what saves [the British imperial project] is efficiency” (21). An acceptable imperialism is a project of continual present-tense mediation, of doing to be done. Yet what Jim wishes to avoid more than anything is the reality of his present. Jim’s passive hopefulness threatens to reveal the trust of imperialism as mere disposition. His leap from the foundered boat is a leap over the present, an elision of trust’s temporal focus. Hence Marlow emphasizes that Jim

was not afraid of death perhaps, but I’ll tell you what, he was afraid of the emergency. His confounded imagination had evoked for him all the horrors of panic, the trampling rush, the pitiful screams, boats swamped–all the appalling incidents of a disaster at sea he had ever heard of. He might have been resigned to die but I suspect he wanted to die without added terrors, quietly, in a sort of peaceful trance. (63)

Jim’s hope and despair are bound to his projections of what may come, to potentiality as such, and not to what is. His redemptive second leap, then, is not so much an embrace of his existential condition as an insistent staying in the present that the text makes central to imperial trust.

To a degree, this alignment of hope with an idealism and temporality that undermines trust in the imperial project also marks Nostromo. Conrad’s account in his 1917 preface of the biographical model for Antonia certainly carries more than a whiff of the Intended’s idealism: “how we used to look up to that girl,” he writes, “…  as the standard-bearer of a faith to which we all were born but which she alone knew how to hold aloft with an unflinching hope!” (453). In the text proper, hope is a leitmotif for a more impersonal sense of the imperial social revolution led by the American mining interests in Sulaco. The San Tome mine enchants Charles Gould with a  “magic formula … [of] hope, vigour, and self-confidence, instead of weary indignation and despair” (6:48). Gould subsequently demands capital-first reform in Sulaco as the only possible “ray of hope” (7:68) because it brings “security” to an “oppressed people” (7:68), and the color of the mine, “green,” is called “the colour of hope, being also the colour of the mine” (8:79). Hope again seems a drive to passivity, and the text’s search for reasons to inform hope become increasingly strained. The Excellentisimo who is to defend the interests of the mine is “the hope of honest men”; and the people of Sulaco hide their fears of Sotillo’s army behind “imbecile hope.” Hope’s potential malevolence, however, most clearly appears with its association with Gould’s last load of silver: “the remnants of our hopes.” Nostromo says in the novel’s final pages that “there is something accursed in [this] wealth” (442), and this seems a fitting description for what is a material store of congealed labor, a hoard of potentiality in itself. Indeed, if one considers the silver as a surplus of potential, the suicidal turn of Martin Decoud, Nostromo’s accomplice in protecting this last remnant of hope, becomes a result of his altered relation to this potential. Indeed, the novel’s persistent narration of revolution in the pseudo-iterative, the narrative strategy of presenting the punctual as the habitual, similarly suggests a problem moving between temporal registers, as though the potentiality of hope and despair have infected the present.

For this reason, I want to close by raising two final models of hope. In his account of hope, Brian Massumi similarly emphasizes its engagement with potentiality. However, where most theorists describe hope as future-oriented, Massumi insists that it is best conceived as a relation to the present. A present-tense hope, he argues, is one bound up with the uncertainty and potentiality of a given situation. Hope is thus not a passive waiting for someone else’s intervention in the future but rather what Massumi calls “a margin of maneuverability” (2), a margin that is effectively our sense of freedom. This view of hope insists that one is not inscribed in a situation but rather embodied within that situation in such a way that its manifold potentials for connection are present and available. Hope is the insistence that the world, such as it is, is internally different from itself. It is this agential version of hope that Conrad approaches in Nostromo,a cross-pollination of the action-oriented trust of Lord Jim and its idealist hope, but one that increasingly becomes indifferent to its status as either hope or despair. With the ascendency of Gould and the mining interests, the conclusion of Nostromo seems to suggest hope for a particular form of seemingly beneficent liberal imperialism against Nostromo’s more hopeless and romantic imperial adventuring. This hopelessness extends lexically beyond Nostromo, the “hopeless slave of the San Tomé mine,” to include “the hopeless blackness of the clouds” above the island where he has secreted his treasure and his two competing love interests. The conclusion of the novel thus suggests a feminizing of hope, a framing of the congealed potentiality of wealth as a female fecundity that threats a masculine demand to act, whether Nostromo’s decisive military actions or Decoud’s decisive political intervention. It is this final gendered shift of hope that indicates the one model of hope that remains inaccessible to Conrad, a hope grounded in the past, one that Sara Ahmed argues is central to living a feminist life (see introduction and 46-47. This concluding gendered turn of hope thus suggests an implacable drift in the novel’s understanding of hope and despair toward a masculinized sense of potential’s sheer contingency, encapsulated by Nostromo’s accidental shooting by his aged friend. In this way, the hope of Nostromo suggests a particularly masculine subjective struggle to orient oneself in an imperial surfeit of possibility.

 

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Duke UP, 2017.

Anderson, Ben. “Becoming and Being Hopeful: Towards a Theory of Affect.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol. 24, 2006, pp. 733-752, DOI: 10.1068/d393t.

Augé, Marc. Non-places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. 2ndedition. London: Verso, 2008.

Collini, Stefan. Public Moralists. Oxford UP, 1991.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Bedford/St Martins, 2010.

—. Lord Jim, edited by Jacques Berthoud.Oxford World’s Classics, 2002.

—. Nostromo. Penguin Classics, 2007.

Eagleton, Terry. Hope without Optimism. U of Virginia P, 2015.

Luhmann, Niklas. Trust and Power. Polity, 2017.

Marcel, Gabriel. The Gabriel Marcel Reader, edited by Brendan Sweetman. St. Augustine Press, 2011.

Massumi, Brian. The Politics of Affect. London: Polity, 2012.

Seligman, Adam B. The Problem of Trust. Princeton University Press, 1997.

Association, Sentiment, and Becoming-Animal: Dickens’s Feral Children

In 1848, Dickens published the last of his Christmas books, The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain. Much as in A Christmas Carol, the protagonist of The Haunted Man, a chemist named Mr. Redlaw, finds himself confronted by a ghostly figure on Christmas Eve. Here, however, the similarities end. Where Marley encourages Scrooge to reflect upon his life and live for the better, the Phantom of The Haunted Man offers Redlaw a reprieve from such reflections. Redlaw has long been haunted by grief and anger: his best friend had led his beloved sister to believe he intended to marry her; instead, he married Redlaw’s intended, and Redlaw’s sister dies soon after. “I bear within me a Sorrow and a Wrong,” Redlaw tells the Phantom, and continues, “Thus, memory is my curse; and if I could forget my sorrow and my wrong, I would!” (342). What the Phantom offers to “cancel” (Christmas 343) are his memories of sorrow and wrong; “to leave,” he explains, “but very faint, confused traces of them, that will die out soon” (343). Redlaw knows enough of sentimental philosophy to object that he “would not deprive myself of any kindly recollection, or any sympathy that is good for me, or others” (343). The Phantom assures him that he will lose “no knowledge; no result of study; nothing but the intertwisted chain of feelings and associations, each in its turn dependent on, and nourished by, the banished recollections” (343). This phrase, later repurposed in Great Expectations to describe Pip’s more problematic emotional and subjective development, indicates the tale’s narrative trajectory. In The Haunted Man, the Phantom has trapped Redlaw in a kind of Faustian bargain: the elimination of the felt chain of associations with sorrow and wrong quickly empties Redlaw of anything approaching human sympathy. However, because he can still recall the existence of sympathy, he knows enough to mourn its loss, and, as one of the conditions of his bargain was that he would communicate his loss of memory to anyone he encounters, he quickly retreats from human contact. The one exception is that of a street urchin, described as “a creature more like a young wild beast than a young child, shivering upon a door-step” (338). Only the child can withstand Redlaw’s presence, the Phantom explains, because he is barely a person at all; he

is the last, completest illustration of a human creature, utterly bereft of such remembrances as you have yielded up.  No softening memory of sorrow, wrong, or trouble enters here, because this wretched mortal from his birth has been abandoned to a worse condition than the beasts, and has, within his knowledge, no one contrast, no humanising touch, to make a grain of such a memory spring up in his hardened breast.  All within this desolate creature is barren wilderness.  All within the man bereft of what you have resigned, is the same barren wilderness.  Woe to such a man!  Woe, tenfold, to the nation that shall count its monsters such as this, lying here, by hundreds and by thousands! (387)

To some degree, one might interpret the child here as the human reduced to the animal. Yet this is not quite right. The absence of softening memories does not render the child an animal but rather, in the Phantom’s words, abandons him “to a worsecondition than the beasts.” Indeed, tropes of animality attach themselves to the child and to Redlaw to demarcate a monstrosity produced by a particular kind of hedonic neglect. This feral child, then, is another of Dickens’s critiques of the Benthamite understanding of humanity as driven wholly by self-interest. Without humanizing memories, the child and Redlaw are always, as Fagin would put it, looking out for “object number one” (43:348). The tale’s goal is to confront Redlaw with such an emotionally impoverished humanity that he accepts the necessity of his sorrows and wrongs as opportunities, the saintly figure of Milly informs us, to “forgive” (Christmas404). It is this Christian sentiment that gives the tale its moral unity, one that Dickens encapsulates with the recurrent phrase “Lord, keep my memory green” (408).

To my mind, the tale’s loosely Christian moral is not so much suggestive of a particular religious key in Dickens’s work—Dickens was certainly loose in his religious thinking, frequenting Unitarian churches but baptizing his children in the Church of England—than of a way of thinking about what it means to be human, in particular how memory and emotion interact to produce the contrasts and humanizing touches of individual character. In what follows, I explore the ways in which the feral child of The Haunted Man reveals a fracture in Dickens’s thought of what it means to be human. This is a consequence of the way in which the becoming-animal that both the child and Redlaw experience includes and excludes them from the human and the animal, and of Dickens’s entwining of sentimentality and analytic psychology. I would suggest that the ways in which Dickens describes this loss of memory and feeling, in particular the metaphoric entanglements of the animal and wilderness, indicates the extent to which Dickens’s work gestures toward the human as constructed, while nonetheless warding off the ramifications of such a view by creating a sentimentality of mental association.

The associationist bent of Victorian analytic psychology offers a point of entry for this view of the human as constructed through the ramification of one’s experiences and their resulting associations. Nicholas Dames has demonstrated analytic psychology’s influence Dickens’s David Copperfield, just two years later, and again with an emphasis on mental representation. For Dames, the midcentury saw “a sustained cultural interest in autobiographical memory” (127); psychological notions of association gave novelists the tools, in Dames’s words, “to plot the mind, and to plot memory, in such a way as to ensure a newly coherent, newly organized psyche” that would create a “cleansed, organized mind free of … uncategorizable detail” (128). For Dames, this is a result of the threat of delirium that the association of images raises and that modernism will later indulge. From that perspective, one might argue that in The Haunted Man, the need to retain memories of sorrow and wrong reflects this urgent desire to narrate the self as a set of sensible and connected associations.

Yet I think that such a reading would miss the moral of the tale. On its face, Dickens becomes Nietzschean here, and Nietzsche comes to seem more Victorian than he would like. More than that, however, it is clear from the tale that Redlaw and those he infects remain coherent as individuals even without these chains of association. In fact, rather than losing their senses of self, they become unshakablyfocused on the self. Association here is not about making or maintaining a coherent self so much as it is about the creation of an affective landscape for the human, an escape from that artificially produced “wilderness” in the boy and in Redlaw. Rooting out one’s sorrows and wrongs encourages either what the Phantom calls the boy, “the growth of man’s indifference”, or what he calls Redlaw, “the growth of man’s presumption” (Christmas 388). These vegetal metaphors leave one with the sense of the self as a kind of cottage garden. One tends not by weeding but through interplanting, since without these memories, one presumes that one needs no one else, and others merely induce indifference.

In effect, by privileging these notions of sense and affect, the tale follows their centrality in eighteenth-century moral philosophy but makes the case that such experiences reinforce or refine that inborn moral sense.In this respect, Dickens differs from moral sentiments philosophers such as Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, and Hume. For them, the judgments of moral sense may be led astray by ignorance, but reasoned debate and reflection may correct them.[i]Dickens, by contrast, makes this correction one of feeling rather than reason. Moreover, the terrain of Dickens’s argument offers some key distinctions from the moral sentiments. Redlaw’s situation recalls the scene at the heart of moral sentiments philosophy, a spectator confronted by a sufferer. The best instance of this approach appears in Adam Smith’s theory of moral sentiments, and Smith argues there that the situation demands affective regulation on the part of both spectator and sufferer (see Smith 1.4.7:26-7). Redlaw experiences a problem of self-regulation. In Smith’s theory, he should spectate his own suffering, and regulate it according to the reactions of his imagined impersonal spectator. Dickens seems well in on this idea: after all, he gives Redlaw a Phantom in his own image in order to comment on his experience of suffering. Yet it is the Phantom who offers him false absolution in his forgetfulness. Self-regulation, it seems, is not enough.

Here it may be useful to reframe the problem in terms of literary sentimentality and dramatic spectatorship. One of the distinct shifts in sentimental literature of the Victorian period, as scholars such as Miriam Bailin, Michael Bell, and Audrey Jaffe note, is that the role of the spectator has been pushed outside the diegesis. Readers, who before were asked to align themselves with an embedded spectator, take on the spectatorial role directly. Dickens is in part using this shift in literary form with this tale. After all, like all the Christmas tale, it too was effectively shaped around a series of scenes made for the mid-Victorian stage, a result of Dickens’s desire to control stage adaptations of his Christmas books beginning with The Chimes. The Haunted Man perhaps bears more markers of Dickens’s focus on the stage than any of the other books, however. Chapters rarely shift locations, and characters move within these limited spaces in melodramatic ways, from the overly talkative servants bringing in their family members for exposition to Redlaw hiding in a closet so that he—and the audience—may overhear the conversation. Dickens licensed the story to the Adelphi Theatre in 1848, and the playbill neatly encapsulates each of these locales: The Chemist’s Chamber, Tetteryby’s Palour, A Room in Tetterby’s, Outside of Redlaw’s Dwelling, A Ruinous Street, A Room in an Old House, The Ruinous Street (again), and so on. From a theatrical perspective, the stage makes spectatorship a directly embodied question. It also, I would suggest, pushes Dickens’s presentation of sentimentality outside the bounds of the individual.

For this reason, I want to return to analytic psychology, not as an answer to the problem but as a deepening of it. Popularizations of analytic psychology at this time raised two issues that inflect Dickens’s tale, the importance of emotion to association and of associational contrasts. In John Abercrombie’s popular work on the subject, first published in 1830 and running through nineteen subsequent editions, Abercrombie emphasized that “the strength of the association is generally in proportion to the intensity of the mental emotion; and is likewise in a great measure regulated by the length of time, or the number of times in which the facts have been contemplated in this connexion” (emphasis added; 77). For Abercrombie, associations transpire between “facts or thoughts” (ibid.), that is between what philosophy would term images or representations. Subsequent work in analytic psychology will focus on associations as part of organic processes, but that turn comes after Dickens’s engagement here. (Hartley’s discussion of mental vibrations and connections between the nerves and the brain notwithstanding, or rather, perhaps avoided for the reasons that Coleridge raises against him.) Abercrombie also notes that associations also operate by suggested contrasts: “the sight of a remarkably fat man may recall to us the thought of another man we had lately seen, who was equally remarkable for his leanness” (77).

One might understand Dickens’s deployment of both analytic psychology and the moral sentiments as producing a kind of sentimentality of mental association. Associations in and of themselves are not enough to make the self but need a particular set of contrasts to produce the “humanizing touch” that the Phantom says the feral child lacks. This understanding of the mind and memory leaps between discourses: we begin in analytic psychology with the notion of contrast raising the possibility of an internal division within mental associations but then shift to the moral sentiments as this divisions seems to allow for a more properly Smithian spectator to issue judgments. Sorrows and happiness produce an imagined internal distancing for the individual: hence Redlaw can realize his mistake because he can recall happiness, not because he understands the loss of his sorrows (and only transcends his mistake and regains his memory with the further step of forgiveness).

What might this say about other feral children in Dickens? I am thinking in particular of his two most famous vagabonds, Oliver Twist and Jo the crossing sweeper of Bleak House. Of all the qualities that make them distinct, the one that stands out to me is that one knows how to pray and one does not. Prayer is an odd problem in Oliver Twist. Initially, the narrator tells us “It would have been very like a Christian, and a marvelously good Christian too, if Oliver had prayed for the people who fed and took care of him. But he hadn’t, because nobody had taught him” (2:10). Yet once he’s taken into Mr Brownlow’s house, we are told “The darkness and the deep stillness of [his] room were very solemn; as they brought into the boy’s mind the thought that death had been hovering there, for many days and nights, and might yet fill it with the gloom and dread of his awful presence, he turned his face upon the pillow, and fervently prayed to Heaven” (12:85). Did he learn this from the prayer book that Mrs Bedwin takes in with her when she sits with him? It is unclear. Yet from this point on, Oliver prays, and, specifically, he prays for others: for his benefactors (31:247), for Rose when she is sick the Maylies (33:262), and for a condemned Fagin: “Let me say one prayer. Say only one, upon your knees, with me” (52:435). Jo, by contrast, remains in the state in which we initially discovered Oliver, oblivious to prayer, a turn that the narrator puts to most effective use in the scene of his death. It is useful to see, however, that this lack of knowledge seems inextricable with the narrator’s representation of Jo as a kind of beast, in particular a dog. Wandering through London, the narrator describes how “Jo and the other lower animals get on in the unintelligible mess as they can” (16:237). In effect, Jo is the child of The Haunted Man given more depth of characterization and narrative meaning, yet with much the same substantive view of the human. When Allan asks Jo “Did you ever know a prayer?”, their conversation reveals something about the direction of prayer and its relation to emotion, association, memory, and the self:

“Never knowd nothink, sir.”

“Not so much as one short prayer?”

“No, sir. Nothink at all. Mr. Chadbands he wos a-prayin wunst at Mr. Sangsby’s and I heerd him, but he sounded as if he wos a-speakin to hisself, and not to me. He prayed a lot, but I couldn’t make out nothink on it. Different times there was other genlmen come down Tom-all-Alone’s a-prayin, but they all mostly sed as the t’other ‘wuns prayed wrong, and all mostly sounded to be a-talking to theirselves, or a-passing blame on the t’others, and not a-talkin to us. WE never knowd nothink. I never knowd what it wos all about.” (47:676)

The Christian moral of The Haunted Man and the role of prayer in Oliver Twist and Bleak House operate as enthymemes: the audience supplies the premise “forgiveness is good” or “children should know how to pray.” Yet these unstated but culturally necessary premises obscure formal connections. Prayer is an appeal to the transcendent, a plea directed to a big Other and beyond the self. Dickens offers a view of the human throughout these texts not merely as constructed through emotionally differentiated mental associations, and as potentially deformed by active forgetting, excision, and social indifference. He also suggests that those constructions and distinctions are a result of encounters with something outside the self. Sentimentality’s displacement of the spectator into the reader or spectator becomes something else again here, an off-loading of sympathetic identification into others more generally in order to create internally coherent and emotionally-aware human beings, and, to a degree, of language as a technology for creating those being. What these feral children reveal in Dickens, then, is a strain of thinking of the creation of the human beyond the human.

Works Cited

Abercrombie, John. “Philosophical, Local, and Arbitrary Association.” Embodied Selves, edited by Jenny Bourne Taylor and Sally Shuttleworth. Oxford UP, 1998, pp. 76-79.

Bailin, Miriam. “Dismal Pleasure”: Victorian Sentimentality and the Pathos of the Parvenu,” ELH 66, no. 4 (Winter 1999), 1015-1032.

Bell, Michael. Sentimentalism, Ethics, and the Culture of Feeling. Houndsmills: Palgrave, 2000.

Boltanski, Luc. Distant Suffering. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Dames, Nicholas. Amnesiac Selves. Oxford UP, 2003.

Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Books, edited by Robert Douglas Fairhurst.Oxford World’s Classics, 2008.

—. Bleak House, edited by Stephen Gill. Oxford World’s Classics, 2008

—. Oliver Twist, edited by Stephen Gill. Oxford World’s Classics, 2008

Eagleton, Terry. The Ideology of the Aesthetic. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990.

Jaffe, Audrey. Scenes of Sympathy: Identity and Representation in Victorian Fiction. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000.

Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. Knut Haakonssen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Notes

[i]See Bell 11-46, Boltanski 77-95, Eagleton 31-69.

On resonance and strategic presentism

Reading the V21 forum in the recent Victorian Studies and thinking about resonance. Or, rather, I’ve been thinking about resonance a lot lately, and saw it deployed as part of strategic presentism. That seems right, in part, but it doesn’t answer the question that Andrew Miller raises—in essence, why study the past at all if we’re so interested in the present? And I think that resonance can offer some answers, not for strategic presentism so much as for how we articulate our relationship to the past without becoming captured by our interests in the present.
To get at this point, we need to think about one of the potential problems with a theory of resonance, its physicality. As much as resonance suggests, it also threatens to overcode with an implicit Platonism that privileges presence. That a sound can extend beyond itself through the transmission of vibration and via either shared or complementary qualities in objects, is, of course, what makes resonance suggestive. It captures the sense of affective bloom, or affecting and being affected, in the transmission and feedback of vibration. Yet its attachment to the sense of hearing, which like touch, taste, and smell is physical, cannot help but conjure presence.
This is pressing because so much of the theory around resonance can be folded into contemporary work on affect, and, to a degree, the Latourian turn, and critics are thus likely to confront the same objections that deconstruction raised against Deleuze and Foucault forty years ago. That is, in essence, what about what doesn’t resonate? I think this can be more concretely easily understood as a question for Latour: what about what doesn’t register as an actor in a network? The answer is fairly simple: it isn’t part of the network. Here’s the rub, though. Latour’s argument is sociological. It doesn’t to render what doesn’t act ontologically null; instead, it means to trace how a system works—or at least how it thinks that it works. And, operating via another sociological imperative, an investigator moving from one network to another can begin to locate exclusions from networks. It’s hard to know what doesn’t register if one isn’t sure about what does. As Latour makes clear in Reassembling the Social, the politics of redressing exclusions needs to be separated from the methodological analysis of how networks function so that one can see what happens, and, by implication, what doesn’t.
In this sense, then, resonance’s saving grace may be that it suggests both sound fields that extend beyond the resonating objects, and the possibility of resonant failure, of silence, of difference. As scholars, as critics, as readers, we must enter into these fields of resonance and silence carefully. For this reason, we may also wish to consider resonance not just as a form of affects between objects but also as a form of auto-affection, of self-forming. This has the merit of creating another register, another network of operations. In terms of sound, one might think of an amplified chord from an electric guitar extended, shifted, or distorted through the uptake of the amplified sound by the instrument itself to create a new field. In this sense, then, resonance can suggest transversal relations that are not so much articulations of past and present but of durative affective fields. One might say that resonance, then, can offer a way to think through the articulations of past and present that we undertake as critics, not as teleological but rather as indeterminate within a text, and that it also allows us to consider divergent resonances, points of disjunction that may create silences or unexpected feedback loops between textual auto-affections and contrary lines of flight from the present.
Why study the present through the past? Why study the past at all? The answer, I would argue, lies in these baroque affective enfoldings, what can show us not only what resonates with the present but what escapes such resonances entirely.

On McQueen and abjection

An interesting piece today in the Guardian by Carole Boyce Davies titled “12 Years a Slave fails to represent black resistance to enslavement.” Davies’s argument speaks in part to questions I raised in “Militants and Cinema” about McQueen’s decision to engage with resistance through abjection. Davies nicely describes how  McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s text chooses scenes of physical abjection while eliding instances and spaces of resistance:

Northup indicates that not a day passed without him contemplating escape. References to the Great Pine woods are a constant symbolic evocation of the possibilities for living elsewhere than on the plantation. The journey between that “free” space and the plantation marks the boundaries between being free and being enslaved. […]

But in focusing so much on the plantation, the film misses the Great Pine woods, as free space symbolically and literally.

Further, she notes, McQueen’s film omits Celeste, a slave who lived for months in the Great Pine woods and instead focuses on the awful abuse dealt to Patsy:

Patsy is seen with her back flayed and her skin lacerated in a horrible scene depicting the degradation of the black female body. Northup may leave the plantation in the end, but there is no chance of any positive outcome for her. Rather the gratuitous display of the black woman’s raped and flayed body is chosen to represent the horror of slavery. The film’s overwhelming graphic presentation of these scenes – minus the other resistance stories – presents largely complicit black women, singing and picking cotton or cowering in fear.

Davies pinpoints what I think is a central problem when it comes to McQueen’s work, both here and in Hunger: the display of bodies undergoing violence as the means of representing a political resistance, in large part by soliciting a sense of horror, and, in what seems an increasingly important term for McQueen’s work, shame. It is not that his films are not moving and powerful, but that they use narrative and film conventions that limit their ability to engage with their social, political, and historical contexts.

Perhaps chief among these are the conventions of art cinema: it’s important that Northup is not an action hero for McQueen to achieve the affects he desires. One drawn out sequence in which Northup almost dies as a result of an arrested lynching highlights the degree to which McQueen wishes us to experience the injustices of slavery through a character’s inability to act or control his life. The film thus seems to me, in retrospect, as a series of sequences in which Northup experiences slavery’s dehumanizing attempts to exert total control over a person. The one exception–when he beats an overseer–generate such dire consequences that its inclusion emphasizes the same point, that such catharses are useless given the realities of slavery, and, most especially, for a film that means to engage with those realities.

But this attempt to undermine the potential drive toward the narrative conventions of the action film–i.e., Django Unchained–with those of art cinema means putting narrating and reflecting on resistance off-limits. For me, to learn of these omissions from Northup’s text is far from surprising. McQueen’s films are physically focused, body focused, and the physicality of 12 Years a Slave tries to communicate the incommunicable horrors of slavery.  But these omissions also indicate that the body remains a continuing limit for McQueen’s attempts to engage with history and politics. In some senses, this is, of course, true: individuals have often been reduced to bare life over the course of human history. But bare life is not the entirety of the story, nor the entirety of the stories that McQueen has chosen to tell. That was the point I tried to get at in my essay, and it is the point that Davies makes so well here.

Thoughts on David Harvey’s Rebel Cities

David Harvey. Rebel Cities: From the right to the city to urban revolution

Harvey’s latest book is a useful synthesis of his seemingly disparate work in Marxist theory, geography, and social justice. His argument will come as no surprise to those familiar with his work, e.g. crises of capital accumulation drive urbanization projects directed by a collusion of the state and finance; resistance to such reorganization of urban life offer the clearest historical path to revolutionary change. Although these urbanization projects may seem like the basis of urban life, Harvey rightly notes that it is the work of the people within these communities that makes up urban life. What’s new here is how his work on the construction of social life coincides explicitly with Hardt and Negri’s work on the common in Commonwealth. In effect, Rebel Cities bridges Harveys work on neoliberalism, finance, and urbanism and Hardt and Negri’s expansion of social labor.

For me, the payoff of this convergence is Harvey’s discussion of the production of the common and capitals continual attempts to enclose and appropriate the social goods produced by this labor in monetized form. The key term here, and also crucial in Commonwealth, is rent, specifically monopoly rent. Harvey returns to a key passage in Marx on the monopoly rents that wine producers can extract based on their control of particular environments and products; Marx himself links this ability to command a premium on unique products to artistic and intellectual production, but Harvey extends Marx’s approach to explain how neoliberal urbanization projects extract value from the social life produced by their inhabitants, dispossessing these workers in the process: capital appropriates the social world produced by common labor as a marketable culture and experience, a process that encompasses urbanization projects and gentrification. The result, for Harvey, is that the right to the city is not a vague demand for spaces owned by others but rather a right to the common world that we produce. The corollary here is that organizing should take place at the social level as well as the economic, i.e. coalitions that cross economic and social spheres.

Motivated in part by Occupy Wall Street, Rebel Cities includes occasional pieces Harvey produced over the last year. These aren’t terribly interesting, but they do help situate an interesting turn in Harvey’s work: an explicit engagement with contemporary anarchist thought. Once we move outside the factory as the organizing space, we cannot avoid anarchist thought, and with OWS especially, not only because David Graeber receives a mention here, but because Harvey also responds to OWS’s more general use of anarchist thought. (For one prominent example, look at Chris Hedges’s use of Bakunin and Kropotkin in his TruthDig columns.)

So although were used to talking about Marx in academia, Harvey clearly sees that we have to address a broader question in the left about how power should be structured and used. As such, he argues against a kneejerk horizontalism that Verso authors are consistently worried about, (see Jameson’s Reading Capital for a similar turn). One can only imagine this fear as the result of being shouted down in the past by an unswayed group. Harvey is most interested in Murray Bookchin’s work on libertarian municipalism and confederal assemblies, if only because they represent one of the instances of engaged thought on the issue. Harvey certainly doesn’t have a comparable set of solutions, but I’m amenable to his argument that pure horizontal organizations are impossible at certain scales. If nothing else, Rebel Cities is a more engaging work than much of what Marxist theory has produced in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis (moreso, to my mind, than Harvey’s The enigma of capital, seemed more of a glum victory tour than anything else), and helps connect Harvey’s major and most well known works on economics and geography to contemporary work by Hardt and Negri, as well as explaining his relationship to more explicitly anarchist thought.

Also, unlike Harvey’s work in 1980s and 90s, it’s a fairly breezy read.