Abstracts v.79 | 2018

Volume 79, Issue 1
Author Title
Kevin Pask In the Literature Lab

The most striking development in literary scholarship since the millenium is the increasing exploration of scientific models for literary research. This reflects an anxiety about the authority of humanistic research that has historical roots, some of them well described in the work of the social anthropologist Ernest Gellner. The "two cultures" debate of the early 1960s, centrally animated by C.P. Snow and F.R. Leavis, made the anxiety of the literary professoriat a matter of public debate that still inflects literary scholarship and theory. The rhetorical amplification of scientism, privileging scientific methodologies or partnership with scientific methodologies, in recent literary-critical scholarship is one result. The older formation of "humanities computing," for example, has reemerged as the digital humanities, with claims to the status of interpretive methodology, particularly in the work of Franco Moretti. Such claims, however, are sometimes the repackaging of older methodologies.

Michelle M. Dowd The Veritable Véritable Saint Genest: Tragedy and Martyr Play in Jean Rotrou

Students of seventeenth-century French drama offer oddly truncated readings of Jean Rotrou’s Véritable Saint Genest. Fascinated by the play within a play in which the eponymous saint is converted to a Christian martyr’s faith by performing a Christian martyr’s role, scholars focus on acts 2 through 4, where the play in question is rehearsed and staged. However, overlooking the frame in acts 1 and 5, where the subject of the interior play is chosen and the problematic consequences of the actor’s conversion are laid out, obscures Rotrou’s true theme, which is neither of those conventionally ascribed to him: the staging of the martyr drama’s soteriological lesson or, in more secular wise, a baroque celebration of theater’s demiurgical powers of illusion. Rotrou reflects instead on the motives behind period reluctance to stage tragedies that draw on recent events, in particular the religious civil wars of the preceding century. Albeit in the discreetly displaced form of a martyr story set in imperial Rome, the play enacts the violent disorders associated with religion itself and so, by extension, the virtues of the new secular order that theater embodies.

Taylor Schey Skeptical Ignorance: Hume, Shelley, and the Mystery of “Mont Blanc"

Literary history commonly holds that the Enlightenment inaugurated an epistemological crisis to which the British Romantic poets sought to respond. The skeptical separation of subject and object is considered a central problem for Romanticism, which is thought to rest on a desire to regain access to things in themselves—or, in a more recent idiom, to what Quentin Meillassoux calls “the great outdoors” and Jane Bennett calls “the out-side.” This story does not stand up to scrutiny. A reexamination of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry and philosophy reveals that he was positively invested in a poetic praxis of skeptical ignorance derived from David Hume and that this praxis allowed him to vacate the question of the way things really are. Eschewing the masculinist quest to penetrate the secrets of the natural world, this skeptical praxis offers a quiet solution to the mind-nature problem by dissolving its existence as a problem. It also overhauls our understanding of “Mont Blanc” and illuminates a Romantic tradition founded on a poetics of epistemic sufficiency.

Florian Gargaillo “Past Echoes of Cruelty and Nonsense” in Stevie Smith

In a review of T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, Stevie Smith lamented that “so many writers of these times, which need courage and the power of criticism, and coolness, should find their chief delight in terrifying themselves and their readers with past echoes of cruelty and nonsense.” Paradoxically, those twin nouns—“cruelty and nonsense”—have often been used to describe her own poetry. This essay examines Smith’s allusions to Eliot, Algernon Swinburne, and John Keats and demonstrates that such “past echoes” helped her weigh the risk of dwelling on cruelty to the point of morbidity against that of finding too much pleasure in the cruel and absurd. More broadly, Smith’s allusiveness presents a significant alternative to Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence. Her attitude toward her predecessors is not agonistic but playful, elusive, and polyvalent. She writes through the poetry of the past to work out problems of ethics and aesthetics that were of great importance to her.

top Volume 79, Issue 2
Author Title
John Richardson Britannia, the Individual, and the Public Sphere: Thomson to Coleridge

In the eighteenth-century Britannia became a vehicle for poets and other writers to reflect upon the difficult place of the individual in the emerging public sphere. Writers of the first half of the century characteristically imagined the goddess in a domestic political sphere, persuading her "children" to exercise greater patriotism. She sways public opinion to effect improvement. Alone among writers of this period, James Thomson intuitively understood that no single voice has authority in the new politics and that all interventions are contingent. His 1729 Britannia ends with the goddess rushing off to parliament, and the powerless poet left behind in a bleak, coastal setting. Later in the century, the importance of Britannia faded, but the patterns established in earlier texts continued. Anna Seward's 1781 Monody on Major Andrè retains some features of the tradition, but rather than moving towards hope in the manner of most earlier texts, it ends with Seward's melancholy recognition of her own weakness. Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 1798 "Fears in Solitude," which also retains some features of the tradition, is a sustained reflection on the individual's limited influence in the public sphere.

Sanford Budick Acts of Meditative Mind in "The Ruined Cottage"

The poetic work of "The Ruined Cottage" is carried out by acts of the "meditative mind" (81) that Armytage identifies near the beginning of the poem. The history of interpretation of the poem has been sorely vexed by Armytage's closing statement, "I turned away / And walked along my way in happiness." (525-6). Yet far from standing alone, Armytage's statement flows immediately from his repeated identification of a kind of "meditation" (524-5). Contrary to Wordsworth's later disclaimers, he learned much about this activity of meditative mind from Kant's theories of the sublime. Husserl's deepenings of aspects of these Kantian theories are apt for understanding what Wordsworth saw in Kant and what he achieved in "The Ruined Cottage," going even beyond Kant—and Husserl as well. Wordsworth's meditative activity produces, in practice, the distinctive consciousness which is this poem's greatest achievement. Coleridge, who was well aware of this achievement, but resisted acknowledging it, provides important suggestions for locating it substantively, most specifically in Wordsworth's Kantian engagement with Milton's poetry.

Joseph Luzzi Leopardi Local and Global: Italian Society, European Modernity, and Poetry’s “Natural Duty”

This essay will show how the dialogue between antimodernist and Romantic elements in the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi fueled his thinking on the crucial issue of italianità or “Italian identity.” I argue that the antimodern, classically minded Leopardi wanted to protect what was unique and enduring in Italian culture, especially its ancient Roman literary heritage, which he sought to quarantine from an increasingly commercial, internationalist Europe and its expressive forms. But the Romantic Leopardi understood that his fragmented, chaotic, and stagnant country (which would not become a unified political state until 1861) needed renewal and change, a recurring subject in his early patriotic odes. I analyze Leopardi’s ideas on Italy in the Discorso sopra lo stato presente dei costumi degl’italiani (Discourse on the Present State of the Customs of the Italians [c. 1824]) and in the “Palinodia al marchese Gino Capponi” (“Recantation for Marchese Gino Capponi” [1835]), as I explore how Leopardi’s views on these texts connect to his powerful defense of the social function of poetry. More broadly, I aim to contribute to our understanding of Leopardi’s place in literary history by considering his work as an essential bridge between ancient and modern literary concerns. We will see how Leopardi exploits the aesthetic tensions resulting from this historical rift by brilliantly applying them to the embattled issue of an isolated and politically fragmented Italy’s role in an interdependent, internationalist world.

Ben Parker Value and Abstraction in Thomas Hardy

This essay argues that the production of abstract value—not limited to the transformation of labor under the exigencies of capitalism, but extending to modes of signification undermined by abstract equivalence—plays an unprecedented yet overlooked role in the major novels of Thomas Hardy. Unprecedented, because the realist novel has been previously theorized in terms of an expressive self-production thwarted by social alienation or the usurpation of individual agency; overlooked, because Hardy criticism has focused on work as a protected category of meaning-creation and social continuity. Abstract value is, however, an empty quantification of labor’s duration and the enforcement of its equivalence—not an extension of self into world. Across his novelistic career, Hardy revises the tragic weight given in his early fiction to binding material attachments, so that the later novels are, by contrast, tragedies of abstract equivalence and separation. In the face of an encroaching regime of capitalist abstraction and its relentless downward mobility, Hardy upholds not the continuity or intimacy of work but the more uncertain affiliations of precarious and uprooted surplus populations.

top Volume 79, Issue 3
Author Title
French Theories in China and the Chinese Theoretical (Re)Construction
Jiang Zhang On Imposed Interpretation and Chinese Construction of Literary Theory

No doubt twentieth century Western literary theory has achieved remarkable results and historical advances. But the so-called “imposed interpretation” is one of its fundamental shortcomings. The “imposed interpretation” here refers to the practices that deviate from the text and dispel the literary significations. It is characterized by interpreting literary texts with a prepositioned mode of subjective intention in attempt to reach a conclusion conforming to the critic’s intention and theoretical doctrines taken off-field and from the critic’s own preconditioned logical cognition. On the contrary, to the author, constructing Chinese literary theoretical discourse should discriminate and examine various contemporary Western literary theories, actively draw upon its useful achievements and experiences, and return to Chinese literary practice in an overall way. It is also necessary to adhere to the orientation of nationalization and realize the dialectical unity of external research and internal research.

Liyuan Zhu Hillis Miller on the End of Literature

In the first decade after 2000, the idea of “the end of literature” proposed by J. Hillis Miller aroused widespread controversy in Chinese academia. This article seeks to reiterate the original meaning of Miller’s statement, while tracing the original Chinese context from which this debate arose. The article points out that the real reason for this debate is not people’s different understandings of Miller's term, “the end of literature,” but rather that Chinese academics have become dissatisfied and anxious about the increasingly marginalized status of literature. This debate coincided historically with scholarly concerns over visual culture, the aestheticization of everyday life, cultural studies, and globalization. Each of these discussions contained related insights into the future development and transformation of literary theory and its disciplinary boundaries.

Theo D'haen With Chinese Characteristics

The articles at the center of the present issue of MLQ, Wang Ning’s “French Theories in China and the Chinese Theoretical (Re)Construction,” Zhang Jiang’s “On Imposed Interpretation and Chinese Construction of Literary Theory,” and Zhu Liyuan’s “Hillis Miller on the End of Literature,” address the interchange between Chinese and Western literary theories. What transpires from these essays is that all Western theories, when “traveling” to China, assume “Chinese Characteristics,” reflecting changing historical and ideological conditions, but also that the vector of influence predominantly runs from Western theories to Chinese practice. To different degrees, and with varying urgency, all three Chinese scholars lodge a plea for greater recognition of Chinese theories in the West, and for the need for Chinese scholarship to construct theory of its own, rooted in the Chinese tradition. By way of a new translation, with commentary, by Zhang Longxi of a celebrated 1980s article by Qian Zhongshu, I argue that examples of a fruitful use of both Western and Chinese theory and literature already exist, and may serve to further put into practice what Wang Ning, Zhang Jiang and Zhu Liyuan are so forcefully calling for.

Kang Liu A (Meta) Commentary on Western Literary Theories in China ---- The Case of Jameson and Chinese Jamesonism

The essay is a meta-commentary, or symptomatic reading of the Chinese obsession, or anxiety of influence with Western theory. It takes Fredric Jameson and Chinese Jamesonism as a case in point to illustrate the Chinese anxiety, and the battle between (Western) universalism and Chinese exceptionalism. Chinese Jamesonism shows how an eclectic American neo-Marxist academic discourse has been invented in China on selected themes of postmodernism and Third World “national allegory.” However, as a “shadowy but central presence” in Jameson and other Western left theories, Maoism is nearly completely absent in China’s appropriation of Western theories. A vigorous critique of the relationship between Maoism and Western left theories will shed some light on the issues of politics and ideology underlying the Chinese anxiety of influence.

J. Hillis Miller Western Literary Theory in China

The authors of the essays on Western Theory in China in this issue of MLQ are highly distinguished both in their previous publications and in the positions they presently hold. Their essays are strikingly different in content and orientation. All three, nevertheless, favor the development of a distinctively Chinese literary theory. Wang Ning’s essay focuses on the influence over the successive decades since 1950 of Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Derrida, and Alain Badiou. Zhang Jiang’s essay is a more or less total rejection of Western literary critical theorists as all guilty of what he calls “imposed interpretation.” Zhang’s essay rejects formulas or models in literary criticism in favor of reading each work as something unique and sui generis. His call for a specifically Chinese literary theory is powerfully enunciated. Zhu Liyuan does me the honor of discussing in detail the influence in China of my “end of literature” essay. “Western Theory in China” ends with a section about something the three Chinese authors do not stress, name the major changes in literary theory in every country, including China, being brought about willy-nilly by the shift from print media to digital media. What happens to a given literary work when it is read online rather than on a printed page?

top Volume 79, Issue 4
Author Title
Esei Murakishi Thomas More’s Account of Natural Language and the Literariness of his Polemics

In A Dialogue Concerning Heresies (1529) and The Confutation of Tyndale’s Answer (1532-33), Thomas More proffers an account of natural language: the writing, speaking collectivity determines the meanings of words, and words picture the contents of the individual consciousness. All that is rendered in language, including the justifying faith of evangelical description, comes of the common, is the product of publicity. Though his twentieth- and twenty-first-century critics have thought otherwise, More’s contemporaries supposed his polemical contest with the evangelical William Tyndale a literary endeavor. In The Confutation, More repeated and playfully dilated his opponent’s choicest phrases. So doing, he sought to show the evil in Tyndale’s lexical pictures. The English were to reject both More’s religion and his account of natural language, while the evangelical doctrine, that meaning is an emanation of text, came tacitly to shape the theory and composition of profane poetry in the century hence.

James Mulholland An Indian It-Narrative and the Problem of Circulation: Reconsidering a Useful Concept for Literary Study

For decades, scholars have relied on the concept of circulation to explain the operation of texts and to animate the significance of literary studies. Its overuse has elided differences in the virtual relationships created by reading and substituted for precise empirical details about the production and consumption of texts. Circulation has been turned into a widespread cultural ideal and remains one of the least examined stipulations of literary study. For these reasons, reconsidering the role of circulation in literary study is essential. The eighteenth century was a vital period for the creation of a modern definition of circulation, so this essay returns to one especially pertinent case from that period, Helenus Scott’s it-narrative The Adventures of a Rupee (1782), which describes the movements of a rupee coin in the world economy. Attending to the linguistic form and publication history of Scott’s novel offers a new model of circulation that emphasizes coagulation and stasis rather than liquidity, mobility, and flows. This new model explains how texts repeat pre-existing forms of circulation while altering them at the same time, which has consequences for understanding how reading publics arise and reproduce themselves.

Elisabeth Helsinger What Is This Thing Called Song?

What is a song? As a literary term, song had acquired particular historical meanings for poets writing in English by the middle of the nineteenth century. The ballad and song revival of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century reawakened interest not only in traditional ballads, but in non-narrative songs, both popular and elite – particularly the songs of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. For poets writing in the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century, song, in the literary sense, was an inherited tradition exercising a strong countering pressure against the temptation to regard all lyric poems as first-person expressions of subjective feeling.

Hannah Freed-Thall Heart-Sick: The Language of French Disgust

The rhetoric of revulsion has shaped French cultural modernity. This article examines salient forms of nineteenth- and twentieth-century French literary disgust, then turns to “écœurement” (“heart-sickness”) as a contemporary case study. Ecœurement is key to the work of philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy and novelist and playwright Marie NDiaye. These thinkers embrace heart-sickness as a state of exposure that unsettles discourses of philosophical mastery and practices of social refinement. The article thus shows that the language of disgust is not necessarily reactionary and nostalgic—as has often been argued—but also enables new forms of collective resistance and attachment.

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