false narcissism: illusory reflections

July 27, 2014 § Leave a comment

The fulcrum of what has been perhaps my favorite reading of the summer, Reading Victorian Fiction by Andrew Blake, is best said in the words of the Marxist playwright, Bertolt Brecht: “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” Published in 1989, Blake is responding to the inadequacies of traditional historicism, which blatantly see literary texts as reflections of their historical background. For the historicizing literary critic, what is the point of studying fiction if one’s purpose is to recapitulate “established fact” (9)? Using literature as a secondary source that merely confirms historical fact is limiting, unfruitful, and more importantly a dubious endeavor.  The novel, inherently subversive, is used to question dominant modes of conceptualization and educate audience on how to better contemporary and future ways of life. Novels are not direct imitations of reality, then, but sources that transmit “certain types of information” that “[help] to form or change attitudes and behavior” (8); while novels, as all other art, are concerned with their historical background, it is crucial to recognize that they are also staging a reaction against their historical background. Novels should not be seen as neutral or passive reflections of society–they undoubtedly are active, influencing and producing culture (8). I enjoy this particular explanation: “Literature is not lined with deposits of historical fact, nor is it for the most part a straightforward reflection of society. It rather congeals and refracts it, revealing itself in its internal contradictions and omissions not as external to, but as part of, a total social process” (my emphasis, 13).

Furthermore, placed in the context of  British mid-nineteenth century, Blake’s study also places political pamphlets, magazines, personal diaries, newspapers on the same caliber as fiction, an “overall information system” that “accords no special place to literature” (32). This literary culture (fiction, diaries, magazines, newspapers, political writing) is the discourse of social knowledge, functioning in ways that are, in a nutshell, didactic, and thus over time “[change] collective consciousness” (34).  This side of his argument is of equal importance to his primary claims as outlined briefly above, as he dedicates the rest of his book to studying the ways all these parts of literary culture cross-reference, contradict, interact with each other and how, as a whole, create a “total social process.” And while Blake makes clear that he does not privilege fiction (nobody should) over the other parts of literary culture, he does distinguish how the nuances of fiction contribute to ideological construction. He asks, “What, then, is the special perspective provided by art?” The novel, for example, tells a story that is complete–it has a beginning and an end, “creat[ing] its own sense of wholeness,” its inherent goal to “resolve the contradictions apparent in ordinary lived experience” (33), which is even further proof that novels, as all other art, do not reflect reality.

Perhaps this may seem problematic at first glance when we consider the typical mid-nineteenth century British novel, typically known as the ‘realist novel’.  Dedicated to candid portrayal of the upper classes of life, the “realism” of a novel is only a “limited system of signification: an ideology” (71) since it excluded many aspects of social reality such as sexual immorality and ‘low’ life. Realist novelists were encouraged to include a moral message couched within their tailored representations of “ordinary” middle class members and their everyday experiences; and if they “fail[ed] to come up to the moral mark,” they suffered castigating reviews from their critics (77). The general consensus was that a novel “should be a work of polite literature, to be read aloud in the family circle while the members are pursuing some graceful or fanciful work after the severer duties of the day are closed” (77). It was thought to be exemplary, inculcating moral values into the social collective–the “ordinary” people these novels portrayed were not purposed to reflect real people, but to help establish new, morally rectified norms by which real people should follow.

 

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