Beautiful Circuits and Subterfuges

Originally Appeared in: The Henry James Review: Volume 36, Number 3 | Published: March, 2015

The specter that haunts nineteenth-century American realism is realism. Its ghostly simulacrum hovered in the precincts of American fiction; realism’s European ancestry bedeviled American novelists. William Dean Howells, as critic and editor, harangued readers and writers alike to embrace the realist aesthetic and create an American realism, by which he meant an American realism.

In what sense, though, could realism be distinctly American? The two most accomplished writers Howells promoted—Henry James and Mark Twain—produced novels in the 1880s that are generally heralded as the pinnacle of nineteenth-century American realism: The Portrait of a Lady (1881) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). An intriguing juxtaposition. Isabel Archer and Huck Finn: so American, so real—yet how to imagine them in the same space, that is, the same narrative space? Where would Gilbert Osmond and Jim cross paths? More precisely, what sort of narrative could accommodate social spaces as varied as the Daniel Touchett’s English country house and the Widow Douglas’s Missouri clapboard, or an American heiress’s Rome palazzo and a raft on the Mississippi? The very impossibility for Jim or Huck to make a plausible appearance in The Portrait of a Lady or for Isabel and Osmond to set foot in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn suggests that neither author was able to achieve a realistic representation of their society. That at least would be the conclusion to draw from Georg Lukács’s definition of realism as the endeavor to evoke the totality of society through socially typical characters.

Or does it suggest that the organization of American society around 1880 did not lend itself to, or enable, the sort of realism that Balzac, Stendhal, and Flaubert achieved in France, where visible class hierarchies and conflicts reverberated with continual political upheaval, whipsawing from monarchy to republic to empire and dictatorship, back to monarchy, then to a short-lived revolutionary urban commune? Or might it suggest that social typicality is not essential to realism? Or that social totality is an illusory object of representation in the first place? This last possibility must be kept in mind. Surprisingly enough it is the view of the early Lukács regarding the European novel itself. In The Theory of the Novel the modern world is characterized by the fact that its “parts and the whole defy any form of directly sensuous [i.e., artistic] representation,” except in the trajectory of the protagonist as the novel relates parts and whole “to the life-experiencing interiority of the individual lost in their labyrinth” (79). Erich Auerbach sketches a similar problematic in Mimesis, arguing that the novel’s aim of representing reality undergoes a profound change in the wake of the French Revolution and the emergence of the masses as a decisive but unpredictable actor in society and politics. The novelist must now find form for an ungrounded social and political reality and unmasterable temporality. The Lukácsian problematic hero abandoned to a contingent reality is matched by the novelist’s own reality, which is “so constituted that, without permanent reference to the immense changes of the immediate past and without a premonitory searching after the imminent changes of the future, one could not represent it” (Auerbach 463).

Howells was convinced that the fabric of American society could be rendered realistically. And for him social typicality was essential to realism—as were verisimilitude and a kind of moral averageness according to which protagonists exemplified the sincerity, good will, and decency that Howells saw as the predominant moral traits of American life. Verisimilitudesocial typicalitymoral averageness: these, then, are the requisite ingredients of Howells’s American realism. Richard Chase, the mid-twentieth-century critic who gave full-throated expression to the worry that romance overpowered realism in the American novel, judged Howells’s own novels harshly in an admixture of moral and aesthetic terms, chastising his “laziness” and “prudishness” (177). “He had a furtive, cunning intelligence which perhaps knew more about ordinary American life than any novelist has ever known. But he had little imagination, little power of making a fable, of launching an exciting action, little power even of establishing an atmosphere that could be sustained through[out] a novel.” Setting aside the charge of laziness—for what does it mean to say a writer “never tried hard enough”?—Chase’s evaluation strikes me, especially with regard to The Rise of Silas Lapham, as astute and accurate. His terms, though, fail to clarify just how imagination, the power of fable-making, and atmosphere, should or do manifest themselves in a genuinely realist novel.

Howells’s limitations are evident in his handling of the key theme of debt, economic and moral, a theme rich in possibilities. The Lord’s Prayer first suggested it: forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Nietzsche satirized it: bourgeois morality is little more than the transposition of the petty bourgeoisie’s ledgers and balance sheets into the entire field of human action and relation. Psychoanalysis plumbed its psychic recesses, whether in Freud and Lacan’s reflections on the Oedipal puzzle—to what and to whom do I owe my existence?—or Melanie Klein’s triptych love, guilt, and reparation. Lévinas radicalized it, placing philosophy not on the epistemological footing of Cartesian certainty but on the ethical terra infirma of I am, therefore I owe. The language of all these figures and concepts makes morality and economy resonate with one another, as moral action and economic transaction are cast in analogy, homology, parallel, even identity. Economic and moral debt are interlacing threads in The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885). Lapham carries a sense of guilt as debt in relation to the widow and the daughter of John Millon, the corporal under his command during the Civil War who died from a bullet Lapham believes was intended for him. His wife Persis believes he is indebted to Rogers, the investor and partner he forced out of the business: “You crowded him out. A man that had saved you! No, you got greedy, Silas” (Howells 42). For her, the timeliness of Rogers’s investment created a moral indebtedness to him. While Lapham steadfastly denies he wronged Rogers, he loans the now desperate man money and takes as collateral a mill in Iowa that, it turns out, Rogers full well knows is about to lose its value as the result of a powerful railroad company’s maneuvers. Rogers intends to leave his debt to Lapham unpaid, just as in his eyes (and Persis’s) Lapham’s ingratitude years before amounted to an unpaid debt to him. As Lapham’s own financial crisis intensifies, Rogers tempts him with a plan for the two of them to swindle someone else into buying the overvalued mill. Lapham refuses and faces up to the impending loss of his own business.

He loses his wealth—except the family farm and the Persis paints—but he repays all his creditors in full. The moral order of repaying our debts even as our debtors do not repay us ties all the threads of Howells’s narrative neatly together. Moral uprightness steers the Laphams to materially reduced but spiritually uplifted circumstances by the novel’s end. Lapham and Persis recover their uxorial-uxorious idyll on the ancestral Vermont farmstead. Their daughter Penelope and Tom marry and are off to Mexico to pursue Tom’s original business dream. Irene, whose heart was broken when it turned out Tom loved not her but her sister, has recovered and remains, we are told, unmarried five years later but still young.

That Howells considered a novel with this ending to be a triumph of verisimilitude over sentimentality and romance points to some of the paradoxes essential to the art of the novel. Howells failed in the representation of social reality because he did not recognize that social reality is unrepresentable; he mistakenly thought that verisimilitude satisfies the realistic imperative; he missed the novelistic not because he overvalued romance but because he undervalued it; he substituted an ideal of the average for an exploration of the singularity of the individual’s moral dilemmas and traps. Howell’s ideal of the average was itself a harbinger of the moral trap into which America has fallen again and again in the unexamined belief—or, rather, the often examined and decried but never relinquished belief—that we are sincere, good-willed, and decent, as if sincerity, good will, and decency were ever enough.

More than any other critic or theorist since Lukács and Bakhtin, Fredric Jameson decouples realism from verisimilitude per se. He rejects the pictorial conception of realism that impoverishes investigations of the relation of the novel and social reality and fuels so much mere polemic against realism. His own precedents may have come from structuralism and semiotics, but unlike Gérard Genette on verisimilitude or Roland Barthes in S/Z, Jameson does not expose realism’s conventions, codes, and narrative devices in order to debunk it so much as, through them, to demonstrate how the realistic novel grapples with society and history. I will try to suggest something of the insights and continuities as well as the shifts and problems in his reflection on realism with reference to three, I hope not arbitrary, benchmarks in his extraordinary body of work, in particular: the essay on Balzac in The Political Unconscious (1981); the periodizing of realism, modernism, and postmodernism in Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991); and the essay on realism and providence in The Antinomies of Realism (2013, the essay itself from 2004).

In response to this journal’s tantalizing call to pair Jameson and James, I have been struck by their respective ways of grasping the relation of realism and romance. Each of them, however different the concepts and metaphors, understands that the novel’s adherence to realism not only constitutively separates it from romance but also constitutively incorporates romance. That is, the simple though necessary contrast of realism and romance is insufficient for the very reason that the novel needs romance.

James addresses the question in his preface to the New York Edition of The American as he reflects on the pitfalls of establishing the realism/romance relation:

The real represents to my perception the things we cannot possibly not know, sooner or later, in one way or another; it being but one of the accidents of our hampered state, and one of the incidents of their quantity and number, that particular instances have not come our way. The romantic stands, on the other hand, for the things that, for all the facilities in the world, all the wealth and all the courage and all the wit and all the adventure, we never can directly know; the things that can reach us only through the beautiful circuit and subterfuge of our thought and desire.
(FW 1062–63)

The novelist is at the same time a romancer since a failure to awaken “the beautiful circuit and subterfuge of . . . thought and desire” would drain the narrative art of essential elements of experience. James offers a perspicuous image of the real-romantic relation in the novel as, precisely, relational—relative—not objective. “It is as difficult . . . to trace the dividing-line between the real and the romantic as to plant a milestone between north and south” (1067). In revisiting The American he faults himself for losing an essential piece of verisimilitude, namely, that the money-starved de Bellegarde family would not have rejected their daughter’s rich American suitor and her desire to marry him out of pure aristocratic self-regard. James retrospectively identifies his novel’s excess of the romantic not in the lovers’ desire or its possible consummation but in his own authorial desire to show his protagonist undone and uncomprehending. The novelist must plant the milestone somewhere, and its placement sets in motion the entire economy and relativity of the knowable over against what belongs only to thought and desire.

Let’s juxtapose Jameson:

Indeed, any number of “definitions” of realism assert, and as the totemic ancestor of the novel, Don Quixote, emblematically demonstrates, that processing operation variously called narrative mimesis or realistic representation has as its historic function the systematic undermining and demystification, the secular “decoding” of those preexisting inherited traditional or sacred narrative paradigms which are its initial givens.

The sharp-edged irony regarding totems and emblems draws attention to the fact that the chivalric romances that fill Don Quixote’s head with illusions are not simply exposed as romantic lie by novelistic truth, in René Girard’s formulation, since the novel’s realism arises not from a direct picture of reality but as a negation of romance. Without romance, no realism. The question becomes, then, where and how romance’s necessity is placed within the novel, what are the effects and limitations of its negation? In the strand of the novel that goes from Don Quixote to The Sentimental Education the romantic lie forms the core of the protagonist’s subjectivity and motivation, which then encounter the obstacles and lacerations of social reality. The representation of social reality is the product of the detour through illusion and lie.

Jameson refashions this idea in his analysis of Balzac’s La Vielle Fille, the story of a landowning old maid and her suitors. Drawing on the Greimasian semiotic rectangle, Jameson teases out the thematic grid by which Balzac formulates the dilemmas of his society: the ancien régime possessed legitimacy and organic unity but lacked the energy of its Napoleonic antagonist, which in turn stands opposite culture that it has rendered passive and ineffectual, while the ancien régime’s own opposite, the bourgeoisie, is inorganic, illegitimate, and impotent. The four semiotically related terms of the rectangle—ancien régime, Napoleon, culture, bourgeoisie—are capable, logically, of four combinations. It is thus that Jameson generates the narrative’s system of characters: “we can observe the way the semic system generates those anthropomorphic combinations that are narrative characters” (PO 167). The three suitors combine, respectively, ancien régime/culture; culture/bourgeoisie; and bourgeoisie/Napoleonic energy. A fourth character, whom la vielle fille longs for but who is married and unavailable, embodies the combination of ancien régime and (Napoleonic) energy. Jameson argues, quite persuasively, that this combination is the “horizon-figure” that represents for Balzac the intrinsic but unavailable solution to French society’s malaise: a re-energized ancien régime. It is thus, by the way, that Jameson in effect illuminates how Marx could see in the royalist reactionary Balzac the sharpest analyst of French society: his wish for a particular solution to the historic deadlock brought to light the actual social conflicts. Jameson’s own emphasis, however, is different, namely, that the missing or virtual “horizon-figure” constitutes the desire within Balzac’s realism or, to put it the other way round, constitutes the desire that is constitutive of the realism. Like James, Jameson sees the subterfuge of desire in the real. Unlike him, he tracks it to a vision of society as a totality.

There is no need to demonstrate James’s lack of a feeling for all the strata of modern society or the paucity of political events impinging on his characters. The presence of feminism in The Bostonians and of anarchism in The Princess Casamassima may not even be exceptions that prove the rule but just examples of it. James is the most accomplished American novelist of the nineteenth century and wrote into the first several years of the twentieth, and yet he is a misfit in any history of realism and early modernism, at least any history that takes into account the broad swath of the French, British, and Russian novel that he himself engaged as a reader and critic. His most innovative and compelling achievement, in works from The American (1877) and The Portrait of a Lady all the way to The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904), lies in what he did within, and to, the tradition of the marriage novel. While adultery manifests rebellion and freedom in the European novel, largely because of the strict aristocratic and religious prohibitions on divorce, the protestant ethos of the Anglo-American novel changes the premises for plotting subjectivity in relation to marriage and infidelity. Jane Austen retains romance’s resolution in betrothal or wedding but introduces the heroine’s subjectivity and judgment as the driving force of the narrative and source of its ultimate resolution. James’s plots by contrast turn on failed betrothals and strained marriages. Adulteries are discovered by the betrayed but then left unacknowledged in order to manipulate marital restorations.

Staying with The Portrait of a Lady: Isabel Archer is perfectly free to leave her marriage. Many of James’s devoted and otherwise insightful readers decry as incomprehensible her decision not to. Her best friend begs her to leave Osmond, and a former suitor—who is often considered the better match, as though this were an Austen novel—offers her an escape. Her refusal is misread as a capitulation, whether hers or James’s, to conventional morality. Isabel, however, articulates her reason with exactitude: “One must accept one’s deeds. I married him before all the world; I was perfectly free; it was impossible to do anything more deliberate. One can’t change that way” (536). Neither moral masochism nor a desire for martyrdom motivates Isabel. Rather, the prospect of leaving Osmond is not liberating because she cannot imagine any act, including that one, to be freer than her decision to marry him. A nasty paradox and a blow to the pursuit of happiness, to be sure. But James is neither recommending nor condemning it. He is not a moralist. What is at work here is Jamesian realism, which is not social or historical realism.

His is the art of moral realism. He creates characters in order to probe the possibilities of choice and action they face within their specific social and existential circumstances. The Wings of the Dove takes this probing to an extremity. Two young women, the one pretty but penniless and the other rich but dying, vie for the same young man without acknowledging their rivalry. He is in love with the penniless one but has not the means to marry her. She proposes—without the least desire to harm—that he court her dying friend, inherit her fortune, and so finally be able to marry her. Moralists failing to comprehend James’s moral realism jump all over Kate Croy’s scheme, ignoring that it aims to make the material requirements of her own romance and Milly Theale’s desperate need for romance before death mutually fulfilling. The perversity of Kate’s scheme exposes the cruelty, not of Kate herself, but of poverty and mortality. Being too poor to marry and dying too young to have been loved—such is the abyss over which James, novelist and romancer, builds his narrative at once romantic and real. James’s preoccupation, I believe, is the question of freedom, that is, the possible forms and experiences of freedom. The question of freedom is necessarily a liberal preoccupation, for it centers on individual liberties in the context of social, collective, or communal constraints. James creates fictive circumstances in which his characters—“experimental selves” (142) in Milan Kundera’s phrase—are confronted not only with the possibilities and limitations of their freedom but with the very task of deciding which freedoms count. The lifeworlds James conjures up may be limited, exotic, even fanciful, but the dramas that unfold within them are the core of his realism.

With his seminal Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Jameson reset the history of the novel (and of art and culture in general) into three sharply delineated periods—realism, modernism, postmodernism—coincident with the phases of capitalism. I argue elsewhere that the realist imperative persists in the novel after realism and that the innovations of the modernist and postmodernist novel are not only compatible with the realist imperative but are active artistic responses to social and historical change, not its symptoms (Brenkman 808–38). If the historical scanning of the novel is set in terms of metaphysical modernity as in the early Lukács or political modernity as in Auerbach, the continuities and ruptures of the novel form do not appear synced to phases of capitalism. The question is obviously beyond the scope of this discussion, except as a way to highlight that Jameson’s historical perspective in Postmodernism at once presupposes, following Marx, that capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction and transformation and that the phases of capitalism since Marx have increasingly attenuated and obscured the prospect or vision of such a transformation.

The resulting tension produces what for me is a nonetheless unexpected turn in Jameson’s more recent reflections in the essays collected in The Antinomies of Realism. Particularly striking is “The Experiments of Time: Providence and Realism,” where he revisits nineteenth-century realism with a notion of “ontological realism,” by which he means the representation of the world as effectively unchangeable (AR 195–231). He affirms, in what can be taken as a complete reversal of Auerbach’s conception and a radical departure from The Political Unconscious,

the structural and inherent conservatism and antipoliticality of the realist novel as such. An ontological realism, absolutely committed to the density and solidity of what is—whether in the realm of psychology and feelings, institutions, objects, or space—cannot but be threatened in the very nature of the form by any suggestion that those things are changeable and not ontologically immutable: the very choice of the form itself is an endorsement of the status quo, a loyalty oath in the very apprenticeship to this aesthetic.

From this Jameson extrapolates that the fact of political activity in society is not so much ignored by the novelists as incorporated typically in “satiric hostility” toward “political trouble-makers.” On the other hand, encysted within the novel’s ontological realism are moments that act like providence, and it is the very structural possibility of providence in narrative that carries or signals the abrupt transformations of which the world remains capable. These providential moments tend to be conspiratorial or indeed catastrophic, as in the way Robert Altman’s Short Cuts ties together Raymond Carver’s short stories in

a virtual creation, ex nihilo, of the totality they now come to express and represent. It is a passage from the private to the collective, from the static-ontological to the dynamic and the historically actual—the whole concatenation of episodes ominously overflown by the notorious medfly fumigations of 1988 and shaken climatically by the major earthquake to come—which reinvents the providential narrative anew for late capitalism.

(Jameson, AR 231)

An indictment of the novel for failing to grasp society as a totality and transformation as immanent within it is thus coupled with an affirmation of conspiracies and catastrophes as providential figures of totalizing transformation. But then hasn’t providence, like romance and utopia, simply become Marxism’s own “horizon-figure,” the imagined suitor who never arrives?