Joseph Conrad: “Heart of Darkness”


Whenever I pick up Heart of Darkness (and I think this is about the tenth time), I find I can recall the beginning and the end, but the painstakingly slow ‘progress’ between those points – the order in which the almost monotonous series of ‘events’ takes place – falls away from my memory within a few months of each reading.

Part of this, to be sure, is Marlow’s notoriously ambiguous and repetitive narrative voice. The flatness and silence of the landscape to him, the synecdochic swarm of body parts behind the curtains of branches, the nameless character ‘types’ who populate the points of his journey, all contribute to this. But this is also a way in which we are reminded that this is a narrated story, carefully curated in print to appear as orality.

Indeed, the tension in the novel between textual and narrative authority is constant. It is as if Marlow’s wandering “yarn,” full of assertions of the illegible and inscrutable nature of the land and people he encounters in the Congo, is itself striving to have in it something of the unutterable cry. Marlow strains against the fixedness of Kurtz’s report, with its terrible scrawled addendum, “Exterminate all the brutes!” Marlow himself, both here and in Lord Jim, seems to be an outsider as well, one the frame narrator of this tale regards disinterestedly.

I am perhaps most interested in tracing a lineage from this text through Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart to J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. When teaching this text to students in a discussion section, I also broke them into groups of 5 and gave them a list of page numbers on three major themes: Race, Gender, Empire. They took about 20 minutes to develop a thesis statement of 1-2 sentences. We then reviewed and edited the theses for about 10 minutes and used those ideas to drive the rest of class discussion (20 minutes).

Hans Robert Jauss, “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory”


Jauss’ essay begins with a description of the originally philological discipline of literary history in decline. It has become nothing but skeletal chronology. The question lies in this: if history cannot be regarded from “an end,” from a teleological point, how might they be articulated coherently? 7 Literary historians thus cordoned off periods of time, distinguishable not only from the critic’s own, but from surrounding periods, creating mini-end, mini-teleologies within 7. This resulted in disembodied classics severed from historical context 9.

Jauss summarizes the Marxist position (in a way that actually seems contrary to Adorno’s concept of aesthetics): “literature [and art] can no longer maintain the ‘appearance of its independence’ when one has realized that its production presupposes the material production and social praxis of human beings, that even artistic production is a part of the ‘real life process’ of the appropriation of nature… only when this ‘active life process’ is represented ‘does history stop being a collection of dead facts'” 10. Yet Marxist critics like Lukacs and Brecht have thematized  periods, genres, and history in their consideration of the realist novel’s issues of imitation and reflection (recall Lukacs calling for less description, more action) 10.

“Literature, in the fullness of its forms, allows itself to be referred back only in part and not in any exact manner to concrete conditions of the economic process” 12. Lukacs (who loves Balzac and Tolstoy, not Zola) and others do not answer the question “How can the art of a distant past survive the annihilation of its socioeconomic basis, if one denies with Lukacs any independence to the artistic form and thus also cannot explain the ongoing influence of the work of art as a profess formative of history?” 13. And how can art “take a position” if it is so defined by its historicity and material constraints? 14. The solution may be in Karl Kosik’s claim that “Each work of art has a doubled character within an indivisible unity… the expression of reality… also forms the reality that exists… precisely only in the work” 14. Thus the historical essence of the work is as reflection, but also essence and influence 15.

Jauss turns to the Formalists, who grasped this earlier, in his view. Formalism, in using the opposition of poetic and practical language as the bar with which to measure art, detaches literature from history to treat the aesthetic object independently. 16. In defamiliarization, perception is an end in itself, and ultimately the Formalists confront history by considering the relationship of artworks to one another: “the literariness of literature is conditioned not only synchronically by the opposition between poetic and practical language, but also diachronically by the opposition to the givens of the genre and the preceding form of the literary series” 17. In considering not the classical teleology but the dialectical and dynamic evolution of form (the “origin, canonization, and decay of genres”) Formalism actually did engage in a historical project 17.

Out of these two schools Jauss argues that if literary evolution exists in historical change and pragmatic history can be linked or narrativized as process, then literature and history must be relatable without violating literature as art, or making it into mere mimesis or political commentary 18. Both schools have too long ignored the “reader, listener and spectator… the audience” in favor of production (Marxism)  and presentation (Formalism) 18. Both assume an ideal reader educated to read according to specific imperatives who will spontaneously arrive at a particular reading 19.

“The perspective of the aesthetics of reception  mediates between passive reception and active understanding, experience formative of norms, and new production. If the history of literature is viewed in this way within the horizon of a dialogue between work and audience that forms a continuity, the opposition between its aesthetic and its historical aspects is also continually mediated. Thus the thread from the past appearance to the present experience of literature, which historicism had cut, is tied back together” 19.

Jauss makes the canon like the act of reading a novel – grasping and accumulating new facts (faceting),a nd then moves on to his seven theses on aesthetics of reception:

1: The removal of the prejudices of historical objectivism and the grounding of the traditional aesthetics of production and representation in an aesthetics of reception and influence 20.

2. The analysis of the literary experience of the reader avoids the threatening pitfalls of psychology if it describes the reception and the influence of a work within the objectifiable system of expectations that arises for each work in the historical moment of its appearance.. a preunderstanding of the genre… the opposition between poetic and practical language 22 (this assumes an ideal reader too, doesn’t it?).

3. The work can be evaluated along a “horizon of expectations” as to whether it breaks with form, surprises, “changes horizons” in the viewer, offers  a new “level of consciousness,” etc. for its initial audience 25

4. The initial response vs a “horizon of expectations” cures the “spirit of the age” argument and places the text in the history of its reception, questioning any stable interpretation of it 28.

5. This is not only about looking at the unfolding historical understanding of a work, but situating it among other works in a literary series (sounds like Eliot’s argument that the critic both forms and is formed by literary history and the canon) 30.

6. Linguistics, which has provided us with the “methodological interrelation of diachronic and synchronic analysis,” allows us to “overcome the diachronic perspective” by taking “a synchronic cross-section of a moment in the development, to arrange the heterogenous multiplicity of contemporaneous works in equivalent, opposing, and hierarchical structures… to discover an overarching system of relationships in the literature of a historical moment” 36. Sandwiched diachronically between other synchronic segments this could “articulate historically the change in literary structures in epoch-making moments” 36.

7. Literary history must also be seen as its own ‘special history’: “this relationship [to history] does not end with the fact that a typified, idealized, satiric, or utopian image of social existence can be found in the literature of all times… the social function of literature manifests itself… only where the literary experience of the reader enters into the horizon of expectations of his lived praxis… and also has an effect on his social behavior” 39.

How new aesthetic form can instantiate moral change can be seen, for Jauss, in the example of the Madame Bovary trial. The novel’s ‘uninvolved’ narrator and free indirect discourse that “bring[s] forth a mostly inward discourse of the represented character without the signals of direct discourse… or indirect discourse… with the effect that the reader himself has to decide whether he should take the sentence for a true declaration or understand it as an opinion characteristic of this character” 42.

“The consternating effect of the formal innovations of Flaubert’s narrative style became evident in the trial: the impersonal form of narration not only compelled his readers to perceive things differently – ‘photographically exact,’ according to the judgment of the time – but at the same time thrust them into an alienating uncertainty of judgment… [no longer] the moral judgment of the represented characters that is always unequivocal and confirmed in the description – the novel was able to radicalize or to raise new questions of lived praxis” 43.

A literary work “with an unfamiliar aesthetic form can break through the expectations of its readers and at the same time confront them with a question, the solution to which remains lacking for them in the religiously or officially sanctioned morals” 44. Schiller already observed this about the theatre, but champions the “opaque reality” of new forms such as the noveau roman, where the reader is outside the situation, uninitiated, and must piece together the reality himself. In this sense, the greatest literature, for Jauss, is that which is not fixated on the representational 45.

Notes on Nabokov and Jauss from 2010:

Pale Fire also raises a lot of fascinating questions about canonization, because mixed reviews on a famous author’s new novel have kind of turned in the last ten years into Pale Fire being regarded as one of Nabokov’s really great works, up there with Lolita. Jauss 15 – The work is echoed in work-mankind interaction – spirals out the smaller, individualized concept of Iser into a more social realm, acknowledging the importance of the academy – in this case Brian Boyd – to the changing reception of a text over time. Jauss 35 – Some works hard for public at first, must mature over time through – you guessed it – rereadings, though he means this on a larger cultural front, perhaps. 43 – In Flaubert, Jauss claims, it is the very “consternating effects” of Flaubert’s style that really  make the work last – not to oversimplify his idea, but the more frustrating the work may seem, the more it may later yield.

What was for contemporary readers stylistic virtuoso – sometimes lovely, sometimes hollow, sometimes exciting, sometimes frustrating, becomes in Pale Fire something much more later on – it becomes regarded as a kind of blueprint for later, experimental forms of what we might now call postmodern literature. In Flaubert, we cannot stigmatize Emma because of the free indirect discourse, Jauss claims; in Pale Fire we cannot seem to hate Kinbote, either, largely because his sad, mad tale is so beautifully woven up against John Shade’s poem, and this disorienting, innovative form takes our guard down, so that as we try to craft a gestalt to order this unfamiliar “novel,” the same thing happens as with Madame Bovary – we identify with the characters more closely because we create them differently than we would in a novelistic form with which we feel very familiar.44 – New form can break through expectations of reader and confront with ? for which no sanctioned answer is available – Lo. 44 – I think Nabokov would love that the solution is the problem in RR theory – for Jauss, Nonrepresentational art seems to win out (and what is Nab but this!) and to liberate readers from prior patterns, practices and expectations.

Indeed, for the very complex and formally bizarre Pale Fire, this changed reception since the sixties is largely due to the new appreciation for the poem by Brian Boyd as a work of literature in itself, thought Boyd himself has changed his mind three times over the last twenty-five years or so about what actually happens in the book, let alone how to interpret it. This is because, in essence, Boyd is following Nabokov’s instructions by constantly revising his reading as he holds the text in his mind as a whole and reads again in an enactment of what I guess is ReReader ReResponse Theory.

Roland Barthes, “Camera Lucida”


Notes on Roland Barthes with some ruminations ca. 2010 on how the text might relate to Nabokov’s Pale Fire…

In Camera Lucida, Barthes tries to find the noeme, the essence of photography. What he notices first is the distinction between the studium – the ostensible subject or meaning of the photograph – and the punctum – the small detail that pricks through the surface of certain photographs to wound one, and, as he eventually argues, evince pity. This is often an individually chosen detail. The noeme of photography is actually its haunting quality of “that-has-been” – not language, not a story or a described history with a mediator, but the knowledge that the object has been there, and is there no longer – thus, it is a kind of theater of death for Barthes, as it presents as living something that is nonetheless static and dead, even an instant after its capture.

Something of this is captured in the famous Stieglitz photograph that Barthes includes – the steam rising off the horses, ghostlike, is as static and as weighty and as permanent – or, in fact, impermanent – as the horses themselves – there is the certainty that this has been, and also the certainty that it is no more, that it cannot be recreated. This becomes still more haunting for Barthes in the photo of the boy sentenced to die – though I don’t totally understand how that is the punctum and not the studium of the photograph.

The photograph doesn’t recall, like memory, it attests, and the most wounding photograph is ultimately personal for Barthes – the Winter Garden photograph of his mother. It is in spite or perhaps because he did not know her when the photo was taken that he can find her true essence in that photo and his true wound of mourning for her as he cannot in photos where he “remembers” the circumstances in which they were taken.

“Black Mo’nin” picks up on this idea of mourning, echoing the Wittgensteinian idea that “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent,” but expanding it. The photograph, and particularly the photograph of atrocity, for Moten, must be seen and listened to – it rehearses a silent scream, it speaks publicly for private grief, it performs – like the theater of death, a reenactment of a living moment, a this has been,

Pale Fire employs a notably photographic language – There is also a spylike/voyeuristic quality, examination of all through crystal, glass, lenses, etc. Also,There are a few aspects of these texts I want to hold especially close as we move forward:  First, Barthes’ Kafka quote: “ ‘The necessary condition for an image is sight,’ Janouch told Kafka; and Kafka smiled and replied: ‘We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds. My stories are a way of shutting my eyes.’ ” (53)

If we can consider Pale Fire a highly visual novel, which I think we can, we might also consider it a novel that attempts to employ an almost photographic language. Shade looks out through the ‘picture’ window of his house, and the prisms of his interpretations are filtered through the media of crystal and glass throughout his poem.

Photographs are all over Pale Fire. Shade’s poem is a series of snapshots of the ordinary shot through his picture window of ordinary objects and their hauntings by his dead daughter Hazel. In his poem, he says, line 30, “My eyes were such that literally they/ Took photographs. Whenever I’d permit, /Or, with a silent shiver, order it…” – these trophies and stillicides then appear on his “eyelid’s nether side.” The “pert pictures” of the Goldsworth daughters irritate Kinbote (as so many photos irritate Barthes, and he throws them in a drawer.

On 101, Kinbote shares with Shade that the King (probably Kinbote) was also, like Shade, unable to recall his father’s face, though he could remember the candy in his hand in that last photograph taken on King Alfin’s lap, a phenomenological oddity that provides what seems to be the punctum of the photo and the passage. It is through “ghastly photographs” that the young King Charles sees the gruesome plane accident that killed his father – this evidence makes particular and visceral that which was only alluded to delicately and elliptically before. He looks at Fleur, his ex-wife, in a photo, and says that “one involuntarily lingers over that picture, as one does when standing at a vantage point of time and knowing in retrospect that in a moment one’s life would undergo a complete change.” 105.

The pictures of the king are reproduced and hung all over the kingdom as he tries to escape, and his friends all dress like him to help him escape. They attempt to replicate him in reality as the photo does with technology. It is also through a photograph that Kinbote mourns Shade in the Foreword, before we have even read the poem or the commentary or the index. In the photo, “Shade is seen leaning on a sturdy cane that had belonged to his Aunt Maud (see line 86.) which then leads you to another note in a paper chase. My left hand is half raised – not to pat Shade on the shoulder as seems to be the intention, but to remove my sunglasses, which, however, it never reached in that life, the life of the picture.” This is the punctum – the realization of the incomplete gesture that inspires tenderness.

Kinbote, too, is haunted by the what has been. In one scene, Kinbote tells us that a visiting professor strains to make Shade see the similarity between the Zemblan king and Kinbote, and Shade refuses, saying ‘Resemblances are the shadows of difference. Different people see different similarities and similar differences.” 265 In this discussion, an “eerie note throbbed by” – the haunting of Kinbote on the photograph. “What a pity I cannot prove my point,” says the German. “If only there was a picture here. Couldn’t there be somewhere” – 267. They find him in an encyclopedia and a comparison ensues, problematic because he is young in the photo – the photo has preserved him as a what has been. This is also paradoxical, however, because the king has been missing, and no one knows what he looks like now, or whether he is alive or dead, as he has been in hiding. Thus the photograph in Pale Fire points to the issue of deictic thinking. However, because it is a novel, or a poem, or neither, but in any case fiction, the photograph in Pale Fire cannot function as it does for Barthes. For the reader, the photograph is evidence, but only within a fictional world, rather than clearly evidential.

As Barthes says, “Language, by nature, is fictional.” We also find out on the same page (quite near the novel’s end) that Zembla is not just like zemlya – which means land – severnaya zemlya – but of “Semblerland – a land of reflections, of “resemblers”.” 265. Thus the image created by language or the image described in created language is never exactly duplicable like the photograph, but then it is never quite proof, either. Its deictic gesture says something, but proves nothing.

Barthes said in an interview that the reader should consider Camera Lucida as being spoken by a character in a novel, and indeed, in the Winter Garden photograph, he provides us not with the photograph that wounds, but with a description of it. To say, “I cannot reproduce the Winter Garden photograph. It exists only for me” is to say, “I am acceding this photograph as evidence and allowing it to become imaginary, even fictional, for my reader.” What Barthes does is leave this as language, rather than as photograph, and therefore open to be filled by the reader’s photograph and feeling.

The photo within the novel shows not the wound but the ellipsis of the wound. Interestingly, Shade, whose poem absolutely turns on the mourning of his daughter Hazel, does not invoke photographs, but his memories of her, though Kinbote describes this descriptions as “his picture of Hazel is quite clear and complete” – maybe too much so, says Kinbote, maybe embellished by memory and loss. It is through Hazel’s toys, through sensations of her ghost, through her handwriting, through their shared memories, indeed, through Shade’s poem, that John and Sybil remember and love their daughter, and not through photos of her. It is a verbal, rather than a photographic memory – it becomes the property of photography to particularize grief, it is the property of poetry to give all its readers access, to allow us all to project onto it. In this way, perhaps Barthes’ exclusion of the Winter Garden photograph creates a hole where we can all fill in the image that we think is TRUE of a beloved, so that we can understand the meaning of his words.

Ultimately, photographs fill us, but it is language that can be filled by us. They both, however, allow for the observance of particular punctum that enlivens and involves. The changing meaning of a photo over time, like a lynching postcard, which was once victory and is now evidence of atrocity and an ironic rehearsal of mourning, or the Winter Garden photograph, which preserves for Barthes something the photographer could never have anticipated. In this way, reading the photograph over time is not so different from reading the details of a text as you finish it – different things stick out.

Ultimately, Nabokov is also more filmic than photographic – even Barthes says on 88 that film is protensive, recalling the Iser-Jauss language of the novel. Pale Fire’s dramatic, moving moments are always given with the language of scenery and theater, and Shade exclaims, “Retake! Retake!” thinking of his daughter’s death, and in Kinbote’s last lines of Commentary, he contrasts his real life with his fantasy one, in which he will make a motion picture with his (the King’s) gay lover, Odon, from his Zemblan childhood – Shade, he says, has only been caught in “the clash between the two figments.”

However, the particularizing quality of the photograph is lauded in art in general – the great sin in Nabokov is to generalize, to confuse individuality, to make an individual the same as another. Indeed, Gradus kills himself for “killing the wrong person when the right one stood before him” – it is a novel about the problem of not seeing carefully enough, and, as I want to argue, in a more political way, about moving to action because of paranoia which is disguised as evidence. This imagination as evidence is delusion, or paranoia in the novel. To imagine evidence, to point to the nonexistent photograph, the elliptical wound as proof, to overread every clue as evidence, is to assemble the fictive evidence of a paranoid.

Kinbote says, “we are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of thought, new wolrds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing.” 289. There is also the narrative quality of the “unintentional” details included by delusional narrator? Kinbote, like a bad photographer, cannot edie, cannot “frame” his subject, cannot see the image he is “developing” for us? This actually results in a kind of punctum, as well as an invitation to overread his narrative and become paranoid.


Gerard Genette, “Narrative Discourse”


FOREWORD: Jonathan Culler’

– Culler invested in legitimizing literary theory as practice. Widely, Genette, as a structuralist, seeks to apply demystifying structural theories of linguistics to literature (‘grammar’), claiming that lingustics: language :: poetics: literature. In gesturing towards the importance of the marginal, Culler claims for Genette a place in the ‘current’ (1977) trends of post-structuralism and excuses the very problems he begins to locate in Genette’s work.


Summary: Resists the closed, more Formalist notion of ‘the text’ by insisting upon the openness of texts like Proust’s. “Like every work… elements that are universal, or at least transindividual…specific synthesis,” methodology of particular à general.


Narrative (Recit) – Statement: The order in which events appear textually (plot for the Formalists) – so, for example, Lolita begins with the jury, jumps back to HH’s childhood, then resumes at the point he met Lo and zigzags from there.

Story (Histoire) – Contents: Sequence in which events actually occurred (story for the Formalists) – Genette maps out specific array of temporal points in what we read.

Narration – Telling: Enunciative act itself (vs. narrative) – Genette points to this as largely ignored/understudied.

• Main focus is narrative, but acknowledges importance and relation of other two (narrative and story, narrative and narrating).

• Insists on the text’s freedom from paratexts. (but vs. Booth – less interest in reader, yet assumes a reader able to decipher structure beyond/outside historical-contextual restraints)

• The first half of the book focuses on temporality, under the subheadings of order, duration, and frequency, but Genette gestures towards the later chapters here on mood (diegesis/mimesis and fid/discourse) and perspective (focalization), so we can keep this discussion/many of the same passages on hand, even, for Thursday.


ANACHRONIES – arranged vs. story time – defines W. literature – allows for narrative to tergiversate, productively, it seems, for Genette. – connective, evocative – “memory-created instances” (46), referent to both character and reader, it seems? Though tacitly.

Prolepsis: (Anticipation)  fate, refs to Wix’s grandness, p. 142

Analepsis: (Flashback) not precisely a flashback, but a projection of later feelings onto the event not-yet-fully-recounted during its enunciation.

Anachrony: any discordance between temporal orders of story and narrative.

• these can all have varying reach (distance) and extent (duration), creating subtleties and subdivisions.

Mixed Analepsis: Begins before and ends at point after starting place of first narrative.

External Analepsis: Remains entirely external to the first narrative, no threat of interference.

• Interestingly, with Maisie, which presumes to begin in ultimas res, the start in present perfect tense is actually analeptic, referring (vaguely) to a time occurring before the start of the novel and ending at an uncertain point before the beginning of its diegesis. The first sentence of the novel is, then, somehow, outside of the first narrative.

– Difference between ‘pre-chapter’ and Chapter 1 in tense – implies analepsis before start of narrative via grammar. Rather than recount that which the novel starts with (Re: classical model of in ultimas res), never doubles back, exactly.

Internal Analepsis: Occurs within the temporal limits of the first narrative (threat of repetition, confusion).

–       Heterodiegetic: separate from the contents of the first narrative/catchup

–       Homodiegetic: same line of action as the first narrative

  • Recalls/Completing: returns to complete an earlier gap in narrative
  • Paralipsis: (talks with doll, to captain) sidestep completed by retrospective filling-in – a form of censorship, Genette argues – but by whom? Particularly interesting in Maisie.
    • Enigma: “At the time, I did not know…”
    • Reinterpreted: One meaning replaced by another “Marcel understands then that he had understood nothing.” 60, a dialectic of analeptic interpretation that characterizes Maisie. see quote 1, 142 again, too, and all the cases where she ‘pieces together’ motives of others.
    • Partial Analepsis: Never fully rejoined. “without ever acknowledging and signaling the moment” of suture (Wix)

• Maisie’s particular structure complicates readerly ordering of the novel. She both models the ‘putting away’ of memory and the puzzle-piecing of it back together, but also conceals herself, beyond the concealments of the narrator. Further, her lack of comprehension, as part of the novel’s psychic force, also enacts a kind of narrative force different from the Proustian one Genette outlines here.

Internal Prolepsis: again, problem of interference.

–       Heterodiegetic: Negligible.

–       Homodiegetic: Within storyline

  • Completing: Fills in ahead of time a later blank
  • Repeating: a slight doubling of a narrative to come
  • Iterative: which become, with other iterations, as Brandon will address, a replacement for summary in Proust. What about James?

–       Advance Notices: explicit, legible already, before following information.

–       Advance Mentions: simple markers without anticipation/acquire significance only later (VN rereading)

–       Snares/False Snares

External Prolepsis:  again, no threat of interference.

Double Structures: anticipated recalls, open analepses, etc.

• ex. defiance of chronology for spatial proximity, or reverse, so that narrative has temporal autonomy.

• Mrs. Wix as a connective point here – we gain advance notice of her, but she is also entangled in Genette’s later points about recall – Brandon. 238 – “Mrs. Wix had once said – it was once or 50 times…”



Say a story is narrated as follows: the clues of a murder are discovered by a detective (event A); the circumstances of the murder are finally revealed (event B); and lastly the murderer is caught (event C).

Add corresponding numbers to the lettered events that represent their order chronologically: 1, 2, and 3.

If these events were described chronologically, they would run B1, A2, C3. Arranged in the text, however, they run A2 (discovery), B1 (flashback), C3 (resolution).

This accounts for the ‘obvious’ effects the reader will recognise, such as flashback. It also deals with the structure of narratives on a more systematic basis, accounting for flash-forward, simultaneity, as well as possible, if rarely used effects. These disarrangements on the level of order are termed ‘anachrony’.


The separation between an event and its narration allows several possibilities.

  • An event can occur once and be narrated once (singular).
    • ‘Today I went to the shop.’
  • An event can occur n times and be narrated once (iterative).
    • ‘I used to go to the shop.’
  • An event can occur once and be narrated n times (repetitive).
    • ‘Today I went to the shop’ + ‘Today he went to the shop’ etc.
  • An event can occur n times and be narrated n times (multiple).
    • ‘I used to go to the shop’ + ‘He used to go to the shop’ + ‘I went to the shop yesterday’ etc.


The separation between an event and its narration means that there is discourse time and narrative time. These are the two main elements of duration.

  • “Five years passed”, has a lengthy narrative time, five years, but a short discourse time (it only took a second to read).
  • James Joyce’s novel Ulysses has a relatively short narrative time, twenty-four hours. Not many people, however, could read Ulysses in twenty-four hours. Thus it is safe to say it has a lengthy discourse time.


Voice is concerned with who narrates, and from where. This can be split four ways.

  • Where the narration is from
    • Intra-diegetic: inside the text. e.g. Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White
    • Extra-diegetic: outside the text. e.g. Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles
  • Is the narrator a character in the story?
    • Hetero-diegetic: the narrator is not a character in the story. e.g. Homer’s The Odyssey
    • Homo-diegetic: the narrator is a character in the story. e.g. Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights


Genette said narrative mood is dependent on the ‘distance’ and ‘perspective’ of the narrator, and like music, narrative mood has predominant patterns. It is related to voice.

Distance of the narrator changes with narrated speech, transposed speech and reported speech.

Perspective of the narrator is called focalization. Narratives can be non-focalized, internally focalized or externally focalized

Stephen Best & Sharon Marcus, “Surface Reading”


“ABSTRACT In the text-based disciplines, psychoanalysis and Marxism have had a major influence on how we read, and this has been expressed most consistently in the practice of symptomatic reading, a mode of interpretation that assumes that a text’s truest meaning lies in what it does not say, describes textual surfaces as superfluous, and seeks to unmask hidden meanings. For symptomatic readers, texts possess meanings that are veiled, latent, all but absent if it were not for their irrepressible and recurring symptoms. Noting the recent trend away from ideological demystification, this essay proposes various modes of “surface reading” that together strive to accurately depict the truth to which a text bears wit- ness. Surface reading broadens the scope of critique to include the kinds of interpretive activity that seek to understand the complexity of literary surfaces—surfaces that have been rendered invisible by symptomatic reading.”

Best and Marcus begin by explaining the history of the piece, stemming mainly from the intellectual work of scholars in English & Comp Lit who have completed their PhDs in the 1980s and after:

“As literary critics, we were trained to equate reading with interpretation: with assigning a meaning to a text… we take for granted that the texts we read and interpret include canonical and non-canonical literary works. We also feel licensed to study objects other than literary ones, using paradigms draw from anthropology, history, and political theory, which themselves borrowed from literary criticism an emphasis on close reading and interpretation after the linguistic turn of the 1970s” 1.

“One factor enabling exchanges between disciplines in the 1970s and 1980s was the acceptance of psychoanalysis and Marxism as metalanguages. It was not just any idea of interpretation that circulated among the disciplines, but a specific type that took meaning to be hidden, repressed, deep, and in need of detection and disclosure by an interpreter. This ‘way’ of interpreting went by the name of ‘symptomatic reading’…[we] became attached to the power it gave to the act of interpreting, and find it hard to let go of the belief that texts and their readers have an unconscious” 1.

“What about now? In the last decade or so, we have been drawn to modes of reading that attend to the surfaces of texts rather than plumb their depths. Perhaps this is because, at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, so much seems to be on the surface” 1-2.

Contrary to Jameson’s “paranoid” 1981 assertion that ideology does not manifest transparently and that the text does not “mean just what it says,” the first decade of the 21st century has immediately circulated images of Abu Ghraib, the abandonment of the victims of Hurricane Katrina, and the simplifying rhetoric of the Bush era.

“We find ourselves the heirs of Michel Foucault, skeptical about the very possibility of radical freedom and dubious that literature or its criticism can explain our oppression or provide the keys to our liberation. Where it had become common for literary scholars to equate their work with political activism, the disasters and triumphs of the last decade have shown that literary criticism alone is not sufficient to effect change” 2.

So why does lit crit matter? The issue plans “to perform a self-assessment, to survey the present – the deictic ‘now’ carrying with it a note of urgency. It connotes change” 2. Many of the essays are from a conference celebrating the 25th anniversary of Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, “the book that popularized symptomatic reading among U.S. literary critics” 3. In committing those pieces to print, Best and Marcus ask that the authors consider “what alternatives to symptomatic reading currently shape their work, and how those alternatives might pose new ways of reading” 3. The emphasis is on nascent ways of reading that do not cancel out prior models, but have significant overlap in their modes of invention, like “Swann’s way, which initially appears separate from the Guermantes way but turns out to be connected to it at key points’ 3. Best & Marcus define symptomatic reading:

“Broadly speaking, this practice encompasses an interpretive method that argues that the most interesting aspect of a text is what it represses, and that, as Fredric Jameson argued, interpretation should therefore seek “a latent meaning behind a manifest one” (60). The interpreter “rewrite[s] the surface categories of a text in the stronger language of a more funda- mental interpretive code” (60) and reveals truths that “remain unrealized in the surface of the text” (48). As the letter of invitation to the 2008 con- ference put it, symptomatic reading asserts that “what a text means lies in what it does not say, which can then be used to rewrite the text in terms of a master code. By disclosing the absent cause that structures the text’s inclu- sions and exclusions, the critic restores to the surface the deep history that the text represses”” 3.

“When symptomatic readers focus on elements present in the text, they construe them as symbolic of something latent or concealed; for example, a queer symptomatic reading might interpret the closet, or ghosts, as surface signs of the deep truth of a homosexuality that cannot be overtly depicted. Symptomatic readings also often locate outright absences, gaps, and ellipses in texts, and then ask what those absences mean, what forces create them, and how they signify the questions that motivate the text, but that the text itself cannot articulate” 3.

For Best & Marcus, this often entails conflation, particularly of present/absent, manifest/latent, and surface/depth 3. These three sets of terms are incompatible in that

“What is absent is simply not there; what is latent is present but invisible, unrecognized either because it is concealed or because it is undeveloped; what is deep is fully present and thus theoretically visible, but is positioned so far down, in, or back relative to a viewer, or is so completely covered by an opaque surface, that it can only be detected by an extreme degree of penetration or insight. The different connotations of manifest and surface are especially significant. The surface is associated with the superficial and deceptive, with what can be perceived without close examination and, implicitly, would turn out to be false upon closer scrutiny. The manifest has more positive connotations, as what is truthful, obvious, and clearly revealed” 4.

Best & Marcus explain that the “veiled” nature of such readings stretches, according to Umberto Eco, back to the Gnostics of the 2nd century CE, who pushed against the Greek philosophical belief of “reason as noncontradiction” to “posi[t] truth as secret, deep, and mysterious, and language as inadequate to meaning” 4. (This seems particularly apt for interpreting modernist texts, where a crisis in language & representation results in specific kinds of repression and experimentation that would benefit from such analysis.) However, even Plato acknowledges that truth is “recessive,” or is not evidenced directly by sensual experience 4.

In the 19th century, Marx’s exploration of ideology and Freud’s fixation with the unconscious deepened (pun intended) this paradigm 4. As Carlo Ginzburg writes of Freud, “infenitesimal traces permit the comprehension of a deeper, otherwise unattainable reality” 4. (Think about how this FAILS in Nabokov and Pynchon.) For Best & Marcus, “those traces are clues, symptoms, details on the surface that indicate the form and content of hidden depths to the trained and intuitive interpreter” 4. The authors cite Ricoeur, whose essay on Freud connects such modes of reading almost explicitly to the literary through the vehicle of “symbolic language,” or that which “means something other than what is said… to interpret is to understand a double meaning” 4-5. (vs. what if the surface means or symbolizes accurately or at least metonymically?) This has less to do with symbol as “revealed meaning” than “the demystification of illusion,” making “the hermeneutics of suspicion… a general property of literary criticism even for those who did not adhere strictly to psychoanalysis” 5.

Best & Marcus also explain how Marxist writers contributed to this mode of reading, namely Althusser, who mimicked what he saw as Marx’s own reading mode, which “divulges the undivulged event in the text it reads, and in the same movement relates it to a different text, present as a necessary absence in the first” 5. By making “lacunae perceptible,” Althusser “assumes that texts are shaped by questions they do not themselves pose and contain symptoms that hep interpreters articulate those questions, which lie outside texts as their absent causes” 6. This is opposed to the “religious phantasm of epiphanic transparency” in Althusser’s words, a move against the synecdoche of logos, where “each part immediately expresses the whole and there is no split between manifest and latent meaning” 6. (I guess what I would like to think about is some kind of combinatory system – a reading of the “heaps of fragments” Jameson identifies as both surface and content, or surfaces as content, conglomerated and faceted together sans suture.) Ironically, Althusser’s opposition to religious understanding, similar to Derrida’s “critique of truth as presence,” is rooted in the Gnostic belief that the truth is “too complex to describe” 5.

For Jameson, Best & Marcus point out, “only weak descriptive, empirical, ideologically complicit readers attend to the surface of the text” 5. The “strong” critic, on the other hand, “rewrite[s] narrative in terms of master codes, disclosing its status as ideology, as an imaginary resolution of real contradictions” 5. If for Althusser, the text is shaped by absences of many kinds, for Jameson, the absence is always history, and interpretation always an “‘unmasking’; meaning is the allegorical difference between surface and depth; and the critic restores to the surface the history that the text represses” 5. Jameson actually phrases this as the “semantic enrichment and enlargement of the inert givens and materials of a particular text” (!) 5. (This seems oddly immaterial!) Best & Marcus almost comically acknowledge the way that this “presented professional literary criticism as a strenuous and heroic endeavor, one more akin to activism and labor than to leisure, and therefore fully deserving of renumeration” 5-6. (Truth.) Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet (1991) and Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992) are prime examples, setting trends for how sexuality and race would be theorized in the nineties, through “silences, gaps, style, tone, and imagery as symptoms… absent only apparently” 6.

Moving forward, Best & Marcus divide their contributors into those who wish to vary, supplement, or critique symptomatic reading. At either end of the spectrum are:

“Those who want to continue using some version of symptomatic reading differ from one another in the degree of their willingness to stay inside texts, in contrast to Jameson’s prac- tice of moving beyond the text and across several interpretive “horizons” to reach frameworks too vast and abstracted to achieve direct textual expression (75). Those who take the greatest distance from symptomatic reading do so either to be less resisting, masterful readers or as part of a larger pro- ject of attending to the material life of books and thus to the many things done to and by books that do not involve reading at all. Almost all our contributors also seize on the surface/depth distinction so central to symptomatic interpretation in order to articulate what is new about the way we read now” 6.

Mary Crane’s “Surface, Depth, and the Spatial Imaginary” considers the metaphors of surface and depth that Jameson himself employs in The Political Unconscious, considering the unconscious not as repression, but rapidity, vis a vis cognitive science 6. If Jameson sees history as “the dialectical conflict between freedom and necessity,” for Crane, these contradictions are not hidden but manifest 6. Moreover, Jameson’s “figurations of surface – as sediment, disguise, exoskeleton, and horizon” are incompatible 7. Does the reader expose the surface by removing it, or “exrete” it like “a carapace”? 7. In finding contradictions in Jameson’s work itself, Crane seeks not to view them as “the veiled operations of history,” but instead as the “spatial imaginary” – “an effect of how cognition works” 7.

Margaret Cohen’s “Narratology in the Archive of Literature” claims Jameson has a narrow selection of genres, making him overvalue symptomatic reading. If Jameson wants to gesture to “the horizon,” to “invisible levels of structural causality that only the critic can make visible,” Cohen “conceives of a horizon as a legible set of points one can use to navigate within a literary field” 7. The horizon for Cohen consists of the historical context of works, which often illuminates its seemingly illegible surfaces, thus seeing Lord Jim not as “sublime prose,” but in the epistemological framework of maritime writing, with its emphasis on “information, navigation, and practical reason” 7.

Christopher Nealon’s “Reading on the Left” suggests that Jameson and other Marxists like Badiou, Agamben, and Negri see matter as having priority over human action, while existentialists like Sartre “believe that human action has priority over matter” 7. All share an interest in whether the political is imposed on the literary or inherent in it 8. For Nealon, poetry in particular “enacts the struggle between matter and human action rather than the victory of one over the other,” finding “the conflict between freedom and capitalism already present in poetry, which ceaselessly configures and reconfigures matter” 8. The politics are in the poem, rather than brought or plumbed by the critic, so that “the surface of the poem can thus contain its own hermeneutic; hermeneutics is not what critics do to the poem, since interpretation is happening in the poem” 8. In sum, the critic need only register the poem, not sauce it in theory, since “the very literariness of poetry emerges from bids for freedom internal to capitalism, not from revolutionary breaks with it” 8.

Leah Price’s “From The History of a Book to a ‘History of the Book'” explores going “beyond the act of reading itself” 8. She focuses on the materiality of the book – how it is used, exchanged, etc., rather than actually read. (This makes me think of Foer’s and Shteyngart’s obsessiveness about the materiality of the book.) Through what she calls “it-narratives,” stories of how objects move between hands, she emphasizes “the literal surface of books, often missed in a hasty desire to plumb the depths of texts” and reconsiders “the classic opposition between the inert surface of things and the vibrant depths of persons” and revealing a more vibrant objecthood than normally considered 8.

Anne Cheng’s “Skins, Tattoos, and Susceptibility” “urges that we replace suspicion and critical mastery with a susceptibility that could undo the dichotomy between subject and object” 8. (This makes me think of the MLA 2014 “Vulnerabilities” theme, as well as The Master as a film that questions what reading and mastery mean in “face-to-face” contact.) For Cheng, “we can never separate surface from depth” because “underneath surface there is only more surface,” so that she advocates instead for a

“mutual pedagogy of erotics” in which the critic inhabits and is inhabited by what she studies, and embraces the loss of critical certainty and the gain in intimacy that result. Cheng sees a hermeneutics of suspicion as allied with a politics of identity, since what often motivates the reading of the surface as a symptom of hid- den depths is the desire to restore and make visible the authenticity veiled by spectacle. She suggests that we replace the symptom, which depends on the contrast between surface and depth, with a constellation of multiple surfaces understood as concealing nothing. The essay itself does this by juxtaposing multiple representations of surfaces: Adolf Loos’s writings on architectural cladding, the facade of a house he designed for Josephine Baker, and Baker’s photographic presentation of her body, especially its skin. If critics fasten their attention on these surfaces, she argues, they can see how the modern and the primitivist exist on a single plane. The streamlined modernist surface associated with white masculine subjects merges with the black woman’s skin, marked by ascriptions of nudity on the one hand and over- adornment on the other. Though skin and the facade are marked by sex and race, they are thus also sites where racial and sexual distinctions break down” 8-9.

Surface becomes, in this volume, less “a layer that conceals, as clothing does skin, or encloses, as a building’s facade does its interior,” than “what is evident, perceptible, apprehensible in texts; what is neither hidden nor hiding; what, in the geometrical sense, has length and breadth but no thickness, and therefore covers no depth. A surface is what insists on being looked at rather than what we must train ourselves to see through” 9. The authors suggest 3 old and 3 new modes of such reading:


• surface as materiality – the history of the book, cognitive reading, bibliography, histories of reading and circulation linking producers, sellers, and users, the material workings of the brain (readers imitate Scarry’s idea of “the material conditions” structuring perception by “picturing one surface passing in front of another, since surfaces are easier to imagine than three-dimensional objects) 9-10. (This reminds me of The Master again, but also of Jonathan Crary’s reading of the stereoscope and the uneasiness of 3D.) For Scarry, the literary arts infuse our imagination, and we latch onto that which we can imagine to pin down the rest – flowers, for example, are “the surfaces on which the images will get made,” she writes 10.

• surface as the intricate verbal structure of literary language – related to New Formalism (Samuel Otter here), this form of reading moves slowly from text to context, and is “a valorization of surface reading as willed, sustained proximity to the text” 10. This hearkens back to I.A. Richards’ idea that the craft of reading and writing about literature entails a careful attendance to its formal properties 10.

embrace of the surface as an affective and ethical stance – “accepting texts, deferring to them instead of mastering or using them as objects,” this approach “refuses the depth model of truth, which dismisses surfaces as inessentail and deceptive. An early and influential statement of this approach was Susan Sontag’s ‘Against Interpretation’ (1966), which argued that interpreters do not disclose the text’s true meaning but alter it” 10. Critics, for Sontag should “show what it is,” rather than “show what it means” 10. “Sontag’s manifesto against the model of interpretation drawn from Freud and Marx refused the notion that meaning and content define the work of art and proposed that we set aside the theory of mimesis in favor of the experience of art in its ‘pure, untranslatable, sensuous immediacy,’ a stance that she also called ‘an erotics of art'” 10. For Best & Marcus, “such an erotics can take the form of attending to the text, or to one’s affective responses to it” 10. This is tied also to Sedgwick’s “reparative reading,” Timothy Bewes’ “reading with the grain,” and Jane Gallop on the ethics of close reading 11.


attention to surface as a practice of critical description – “texts can reveal their own truths because they mediate themselves” 11. Criticism thus becomes the more “modest” project of “indicat[ing] what the text says about itself” 11. Not the same as de Man’s “void” separating poetic intent and reality, this approach is nevertheless intrigued by the idea of the text’s “foreknowledge” of its own critique 11. (Is this reparative of Jameson’s bravado about theory and its overinflated place in the 80s? An attempt to place art on its pedestal? A theoretical incarnation of the New Sincerity?) Here, “depth is continuous with surface and is thus an effect of immanence” 11.

• surface as the location of patterns that exist within and across texts – “this notion includes narratology, thematic criticism, genre criticism, and discourse analysis. Symptomatic reading looks for patterns in order to break free of and reach beyond them to a deep truth too abstract to be visible or even locatable in a single text [mentions Jameson’s rectangles of ideology]… to move toward what lies outside them. Surface readers, by contrast, find value in the rectangles themselves and locate narrative structures and abstract patterns on the surface, as aggregates of what is manifest in multiple texts as cognitively latent but semantically continuous with an individual text’s presented meaning… the critic becomes an anatomist breaking down texts or discourses into their components, or a taxonomist arranging and categorizing texts into larger groups… into new forms but nonetheless attend[ing] to what is present rather than privileg[ing] what is absent” 11. (See Clifford Siskin on realism and media history, and Marc Angenot on “the prevailing sayable,” where “what defines ideology is its dispersal, and to understand it we must chart its extent as a commonplace worldview, not expose its falsity” 12). (This seems relevant to my issues with Marxist critique reproducing the same utopian strategies rather than looking at texts as they are.)

• surface as literal meaning – “What Sharon Marcus has called ‘just reading'” – like “female friendship in Victorian novels, which has often been read as a cover story for an other wise unspeakable desire between women… female friends rarely lose their centrality in novels with marriage plots, but critics have overlooked this out of an insistence on reading female friendship as something other than it is… Taking friendship in novels to signify friendship is thus not mere tautology; it highlights something true and visible on the text’s surface that symptomatic reading had ironically rendered invisible” 12. (This seems relevant to my beef with Judith Butler – what of the rest of performance, constituted by actual sexual desire and material reality, versus an idealized revolution of performance?) This is also like Ann Stoler’s argument for the never-concealed violence of imperialism or Benjamin Kahan’s argument that celibacy is simply sex that is not there, rather than necessarily repressed homosexuality 12. (Again, how this works with overtly queer texts, ironically understudied by queer theorists.)

Such “literal readings… take texts at face value” 12. For Stephen Best, this also connects to the “impossible speech” of slaves believing themselves freed – speech that “oscillates between loyalty and insurgency, speech and paraphrase, fact and prophecy, confession and coercion, and in that sense reflects back to us the deeply felt uncertainty of the enslaved” 12. (I love the use of “reflects” here, itself a “superficial” figuration). Such superficial uncertainty relates to Tamarkin’s argument about the American love of class and caste – as a fascination both with deference and with hard-won independence 13.

Foucault himself spoke in an interview of the archive not as “relations that are secret, hidden, more silent, or deeper than consciousness” but “the relations on the very surface of discourse” that would “make visible what is invisible only because it’s too much on the surface of things” 13. (This reminds me of the end of History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, where he imagines sex and power similarly.) For Best & Marcus, “just reading sees ghosts as presences, not absences, and lets ghosts be ghosts, instead of saying what they are ghosts of” 13. (Like uncertainty in Beloved, according to Serpell and repetition.) So what now? What does surface reading afford us?

“Can surface reading be anything other than a tacit endorsement of the status quo, the academic version of resignation’s latest mantra, “It is what it is”? These questions are especially urgent because many of our most powerful critical models see criticism as a prac- tice of freedom by locating autonomy, self-reflexiveness, detachment, and liberatory potential either in the artwork itself or in the valiant labor of the critic. In the former case, a measure of heroism is attributed to the artwork due to its autonomy from ideology; the latter makes the critic a hero who performs interpretive feats of demystification. The surface readers in this volume place noticeably less faith than many other critics in the heroic qualities of art, and they understand their critical activity as something other than wresting truths from the hidden depths of resisting texts” 13.

What modes of reading lie between the “two poles of critical freedom? 13. The New Formalists like Marjorie Levinson are on one side, reasserting the primacy of the freedom that “lies in asethetic objects and aesthetic play” – the agency of the text 13. This is opposed to New Historicism’s “attacks on literary form” 14.

“In this essentially modernist view of art as a locus of critical autonomy, reading becomes what Levinson calls “learned submission,” which is not as submissive as it sounds, because in submitting to the artwork, we come to share its freedom, by experiencing “the deep challenge that the artwork poses to ideology, or to the flat- tening, routinizing, absorptive effects associated with ideological regimes.” Immersion in texts frees us from the apathy and instrumentality of capitalism by allowing us to bathe in the artwork’s disinterested purposelessness” 14.

(I am more interested in a less passive reader, and in the mental construction of texts collaboratively in space and time.) Levinson herself acknowledges that this approach sees the work’s “sovereignty over itself,” rather than “dialectically, as an expression of struggles with its historical conditions and limits” 14. This approach maps well onto Adorno’s work; in “Commitment” he claims that art resists solely by being art, even with a gun to the head 14. Though detachment is never complete, the bid to detach offers for Adorno “instructions for the praxis they refrain from: the production of life lived as it ought to be” 14. (Once again, a didactic Marxist formulation of art.) Adorno thus advocates for mimesis between critic and object, without the necessity of Kantian distance or disinterestedness. (Recall Byatt’s “religion of Wallace Stevens”!)

On the other hand are the critics “who believe that the text is a mystification and that the critic must therefore distance himself from it by adopting a point of view at variance with its optic… freedom emerges from an agon with the ideological text” 15. Jameson’s Political Unconscious epitomizes this, as it “posits the Marxist critic as heroic in his or her own right, wrestling to free the truth hidden in the depths of the text” 15. Here the agency of the critic, and not the text, is emphasized, and Mary Crane even points out this “penetration” of the “exoskeleton” to drag up “massy and dripping” “a historical ideology” 15. Thus the critic is author because free in his interpretation 15. Best & Marcus find in Jameson an Augustinian transcendence, though it is humanist rather than deifying. For Crane,

“Just as historical facts have only limited validity for Augustine, whose master code was Christianity, non-Marxist codes have only “sectoral validity” for Jameson, who overtly takes as his mission the task of rewriting texts in terms of a master code (10). Similarly, “always historicize” is a transhistorical imperative whose temporality matches the eternity Augustine ascribed to God. Where Augustine viewed God as the best author, Jameson sees the critic as the best author, and it is Jameson’s transcendent faith in his critical values that allows him to insist, contra the poststructuralist critics whom he debates in his first chapter, “On Interpretation,” that we must interpret texts and posit their meanings (58). Though Jameson distances himself from deconstructionists in this regard, his foundational belief in Marxism corre- sponds to their foundational belief in antifoundationalism, a belief that poses an irreconcilable contradiction for their thought” 15.

I find Best & Marcus’ approach, in the end, the most stimulating. “At our most speculative and exploratory, we want to ask what it might mean to stay close to our objects of study, without citing as our reason for doing so a belief that those objects encapsulate freedom” 15. This comes partly from “a sense of political realism about the revolutionary capacities of both texts and critics,” and from “doubts about whether we could ever attain the heightened perspicacity that would allow us to see fully beyond ideology” 16. This bespeaks a more neutral stance about the potential of art – less as a “project of freedom” with utopian potential and more as an experience in a “landscap[e] neither utopian nor dystopian” 16. For example,

“Cohen is interested in the world of work and information that unfolds on ships, but stops short of the suggestion that we generalize from life at sea to life itself; Nealon does not take his central poet to task for her interest in fashion and other phenomena that mimic the antic pace of the commodity’s life and death in capitalism; Cheng recognizes that Baker’s composition of herself as modern was inseparable from her objectification of herself as primitive” 16.

“Surface reading, which strives to describe texts accurately, might easily be dismissed as politically quietist, too willing to accept things as they are. We want to reclaim from this tradition the accent on immersion in texts (with-out paranoia or suspicion about their merit or value), for we understand that attentiveness to the artwork as itself a kind of freedom. This strikes an ideal expressed most succinctly by Charles Altieri: “an ideal of being able not to worry about performing the self… to enjoy what and where one is without having to produce any supplemental claims that promise some ‘sig-nificance’ not immediately evident.” To some ears this might sound like a desire to be free from having a political agenda that determines in advance how we interpret texts, and in some respects it is exactly that. We think, however, that a true openness to all the potentials made available by texts is also prerequisite to an attentiveness that does not reduce them to instrumental means to an end and is the best way to say anything accurate and true about them” 16.

All this is opposed to the critic’s freedom being circumscribed as the adversary of the text, against the idea of “the text’s deceptive, ideological surface,” this entails “a paradoxical space of minimal critical agency” 17. Best & Marcus highlight the turn to machine intelligence (to “correct for [the critic’s] subjectivity, by using machines to bypass it”), since “computers are weak interpreters but potent describers” 17. Objectivity has become “taboo” in literary studies, they claim, but why? This approach would expand literary criticism, aiming to analyze in new ways what is unique about the cultural products we create, versus the sciences, which focus on “pr0cesses beyond our creation and control” 17. (This sounds like a sociological or anthropological approach? Ties back to the article’s opening? Not sure I buy it wholesale.) Another mode of thinking would entail “minimal agency” a la Anne-Lise Francois, “complaisance without hope,” or “bearing witness to the given” 17-18. (Think also of Terada’s “looking away”?)

“Instead of turning to literature for models of how to overcome constraint, or for a right way to live under capital, or to register the difference between our critical freedom and the limits placed on others, we are interested in how to register the ways that constraints structure existence as much as breaking free of them does. The neutrality of description is thus not neutrality about the constraints themselves, which we may find ourselves moved to deplore, but neutrality about the existences entwined with them, which we would like to be able to recognize without judging” 18.

Surface reading is slow and requires attention: “As much as our objects of study may conceal the structures that give rise to them, they also wear them on their sleeves; that the moments that arrest us in texts need not be considered symptoms, whose true cause exists on another plane of reality, but can themselves indicate important and overlooked truths” – think of Poe’s “Purloined Letter,” hidden in plain sight from “detectives who look past the surface in order to root out what is underneath it” 18.  Perhaps criticism lacks “the power to confer freedom,” but if it is to “challenge the state of things,” it must not produce distorted portrayals 18. If we can never set aside the biases in our responses, we can at least “describe them accurately,” and our subjectivity sometimes does and sometimes does not help us read more clearly 18. Best & Marcus close with a question from Bruno Latour on conservatives and global warming: if we spent a long time looking for “the real prejudices behind the appearance of objective statements, do we now have to reveal the real objective and incontrovertible facts hidden behind the illusion of prejudices?… [the critic] is not the one who debunks, but the one who assembles” 19. In this sense, both psychoanalysis and Marxism remain valuable to surface reading, even as it poses a mode of reading that moves away from them as well.


D. H. Lawrence: “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”


Lady Chatterley’s Lover circulated widely in pirated copy for decades after its initial (self-)publication run, and was finally re-released, unexpurgated, in 1960, when Penguin won its censorship case. D. H. Lawrence’s most “scandalous” novel concerns the sexual and spiritual awakening of Constance Stewart Chatterley (nee Reid, called Connie). Having received an “aesthetically unconventional upbringing” and a good education in Europe, where she had an affair of the mind (and sort of the body) with a young German, Connie returns to England and marries the bright Clifford Chatterley in 1917 (2). By 1920, Clifford has returned from the war in a wheelchair, paralyzed and impotent, and the two settle at Wragby, the family estate at the collier town of Tevershall.

In a nod to Madame Bovary, at the start, Connie is “herself a figure somebody had read about” and her initial sexual experience only “marked the end of a chapter… very like the row of asterisks that can put to show the end of a paragraph, and a break in the theme” (17, 4). As the narrative continues and Connie becomes increasingly sexually frustrated and, subsequently, fulfilled, however, she abandons the conceptualization of the world through words and begins to favor the experience of the body. This is reinforced by Clifford’s constant, ineffectual quoting of poetry at the expense of really seeing or understanding the world around him:

“Sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes,” he quoted. “I don’t see a bit of connection with the actual violets,” she said. “The Elizabethans are rather upholstered.” (95)

The distance Lady Chatterley’s Lover effects between word and deed reverses the conventional wisdom of the novel, suggesting figurative language as mere surface and physical experience as true depth. The novel must therefore surmount its own skepticism about and resistance to language largely through self-awareness. Lawrence’s digression on the importance of the novel for the “flow of our sympathetic consciousness” seems explicitly to condemn, the other, purely visual, “celluloid” medium of the day (106). And, too, the narrative tone seems to shift into erotic high gear right along with Connie’s experiences, as though it were a rendering in words (repetitive, imperfect words that constantly undermine the power of words to represent that experience) of the inexpressible changes in her body and affect. It is not reading that is the problem (in fact, Lawrence takes pains to describe Mellors’ books), but quoting poetry in lieu of experiencing one’s environment (and this seems largely to be an attack on the upper class).

Though the novel employs unusually frank language about sex (notably the repeated use of “fuck” and “cunt,” the latter of which Lawrence transforms into a kind of mystical aura that extends beyond a woman and into the realm of shared sexual experience), it is not merely explicitRather, it plays constantly (pun intended) with a variety of available sexual puns and euphemisms, even as it purports to wear its sex on its sleeve. Constance’s very name ironically highlights her infidelity, and the transparency of names continues with the clingy Ivy Bolton (bolt-on), who attaches herself to Cliff, and with  Oliver Mellors, whose first name refers to “a tilt hammer used to shape nails and chains,” thus both literally referring to his former career as a blacksmith and figuratively relating to his re-shaping “molten” Connie from her machine-like mold.

Eric Naiman has argued for the importance of the “verbal squint” of the pun in Pnin (Nabokov, Perversely 97). Naiman contends that the appearance of a professor Konstantin Chateau in Pnin is one of the many hidden erotic clues to the novel, since the first syllable of his given name echoes as “con” (French for cunt) and the first syllable of his surname sounds like “chat” (French for cat, and close to chatte, or pussy) (78).

Strikingly, Constance Chatterly’s name presents an identical pairing; perhaps even plainer, since both con and chatte are fully spelled out. Naiman also points to the repetition of close, clothes, cock(er), snatch, and other puns that refer to poetry to bolster the case, all words that repeatedly show up in Lady Chatterley’s Lover (84-8). Such a reading gives new humor to Clifford’s limp assertion that even if Connie has a child out of wedlock, he “will make a perfectly competent Chatterley out of him” (197). It’s also worth considering that, if Connie does end up escaping herself as “chattel” and “pussy” by  marrying Mellors, her new initial syllables will be Con and Mel – the very “sweet cunt” the gamekeeper praises and possesses throughout the novel.

These puns are half-concealed, however; not only are they de-emphasized “by half” in descriptions of the wood as “full of the mystery of eggs and half-open buds, half-unsheathed flowers” (vagina is Latin for “sheath” and Mellors’ penis is repeatedly called a “bud”), but the reader is ambiguously both more sensually awake to language because of the explicit nature of the book and also not hunting for such hermeneutic clues, being sated with explicit description (130).

In a novel so avowedly about sexwhy such euphemistic fun? In the essay “A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” Lawrence writes that he hoped his novel will make “men and women able to think sex,” for after reading the taboo words, he claims, “people with minds realize that they aren’t shocked, and never really were, and they experience a sense of relief” (331-2). Perhaps one of the chief joys of this novel is the tension it creates between naturalizing truly open, free sexuality and mysticizing the “secret parts” of the particular, indescribably individual body of the lover, a tension which seeks to mimic the physical experience of sex itself.

Constance and Oliver may or may not escape the social constructs of their fictional world at the narrative’s close. But they have abandoned what bonds of class they can, they have fled from industry and mechanization to the country (pun, again, intended).  There will be a child, and there is already hope, represented by the names of their genitals, fully embodied: “John Thomas says goodnight to Lady Jane, a little droopingly, but with a hopeful heart” (328).

Oscar Wilde: “The Picture of Dorian Gray”


Oscar Wilde’s only novel tells the story of the beautiful Dorian Gray, muse to painter Basil Hallward. After Dorian meets Basil’s friend Lord Henry, he becomes fearful of losing his beauty. Dorian wishes for Basil’s painting to absorb his years, leaving his body forever young, and as time passes and his sins accumulate, he conceals the increasingly hideous, bloodstained, and sneering portrait in the attic to hide its changes from the world. Among Dorian’s offenses are the seduction of a young actress, Sybil Vane, whom he rejects when her love ruins her art. Later, he kills Basil as his old friend begs him to change his ways, and Dorian must call in a favor from his estranged lover Alan Campbell (under threat of exposure, it seems) to ‘scientifically’ destroy all evidence of the body. The novel ends when Dorian attempts to escape his misery by stabbing the painting with the same knife he used to kill Basil. His servants hear an agonized cry and burst in upon an old man with a knife in his heart, dead before a portrait of exquisite beauty.

The original, “uncensored” version of the novel was published serially in 1890 and includes the few highly homoerotic passages excised in the 1891 “censored” version. The later, “censored” text is actually much longer, since it adds Chapters 3, 16, 17, and 18, filling in the family history of Sybil Vane and adding the part of the narrative where her brother, James Vane, tracks down Dorian in an opium den 18 years later and nearly kills him (his youthful looks save him). The ‘censorship’ is therefore largely by way of dilution and detraction.

There is less a mode of detection/genre fictionality or a sense of fear that Dorian will be caught in the original (it also eliminates the ‘novelistic’ lapse of time provided by James’ reappearance. Sybil’s suicide and Basil’s murder are given equal weight and treatment among Dorian’s sins, and Hetty and Alan are both innocents whom Dorian corrupts. It is almost as if for every minor female character, there is a corresponding male, and the fleshed-out characters are all men. Furthermore, without James, none of the men read as straight. 

In the less diluted text, the intense, homoerotic relationships of the central triad of characters are much more vibrant. Wilde said in a letter,

Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks me: Dorian is what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.

Certainly, this opens itself for psychological interpretation, but perhaps more interestingly, the (incestuous) intensity of the triadic relationship between Lord Harry, Basil, and Dorian might be read as that between writer, reader, and text. Hands-off Lord Harry, with his Kantian disinterestedness and almost literally Flaubertian ‘paring of the fingernails’ in the background of the text, acts as the figure of the writer, an agent who places Dorian in queer, experimental situations and cruelly pushes his narrative development along. Though Basil is a painter, he acts not as a figure for authorship in the novel, but in fact for the reader. His solipsistic projections of himself onto and into the surface of the painting he creates, as well as his adoring sensation of being led by Dorian’s will, make him both as powerful and as powerless as the consumer of the text itself. Finally, Dorian, as the text, fascinatingly divides himself between form and content when he divests himself of his ‘soul’ in the portrait and makes the art of his life ‘pure form,’ pure beauty – albeit one that fails.

As he ceases to discern between sensory experiences, Dorian devolves into indiscriminate hedonism, and he begins to lose the ability to discern between the pleasing presentation of beauty to the senses (aesthetic consciousness) and the mere sensations themselves This represents a loss of conscious experience (German aesthetics via Arnold and Pater). Without this discernment, Dorian can no longer aestheticize nonmaterial things, as his many lists of things  and acquisitions in Chapter 11 suggests. He must constantly use these objects like drugs to retain their pleasure, also linked to a proliferation of capitalist language as the novel progresses.

In contrast to the visual and plastic arts, Wilde insists on music as the least “imitative” art and the language of literature as freer from the tired constraints of mimesis (depict vs describe) – there could be no “song” or “novel” of Dorian Gray, as it were, but there could be a sculpture or a theatre performance. (The novels’ preface suggests that the 19th century detests realism as Caliban does his own reflection in the glass.)

Like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, Dorian’s zealous, self-cancelling commitment to his ‘philosophical’ ideals has an ‘ominous’ twinge from the start, and does eventually lead to his ruin (where Marlow would function as the passive ‘writer’ figure, and the simple, adoring Russian is more like Basil, a ‘reader’ of ‘greatness’).

Henry James: “The Turn of the Screw”


In The Turn of the Screw, an unnamed young governess attempts to defend her young wards, Miles and Flora, from the eerie apparitions of two dead staff members at the family’s lonely estate: first the former employee Mr. Quint, and later the previous governess, Miss Jessel.

The governess feels that the children are aware of Jessel and Quint and desire to commune with them, but that they are conniving about it, and wish to conceal their desires from her. Jessel and Quint had an affair, and may also have abused or corrupted the children. The children often contrive ways to be left alone or apart from the governess together – in her mind, so that they can be drawn in to the ghosts. In one scene, the governess wakes to Flora staring out at Miles on the lawn, whom the governess is convinced must be staring at Quint. In the final scene, the governess finally confronts Miles about his expulsion and all of the other ‘secrets,’ when suddenly Quint appears to her in the window behind the boy. As she embraces him and tells him he is free of Quint (the name alarms Miles), the boy dies in her arms.

The frame is that of an unnamed narrator reporting the tale told to him one evening by Douglas, himself reading the manuscript version of a story told him by the governess, which he claims she committed to print before she died.

It seems vital that Douglas have the manuscript mailed to the party so that he can read it from the governess’ written account – also that we are reading the version the narrator claims to have his own manuscript copy of. One might consider the governess herself not just as the writer of her tale, but as a reader, and our interpretation of her as vacillating between surface and paranoid readings of the text’s possible implications.

• the narrator says that Douglas “read with a fine clearness that was like a rendering to the ear of the beauty of the author’s hand” (6).

• The uncle actively halts the governess from writing, leaving her to interpret the events where she is largely in solitude – or at least without an ‘equal’ around. When Miles is expelled, the uncle writes the governess, “Read him but don’t report” (10).

• Miles reads the letter illicitly and uses the excuse of finishing his book to derail the governess. Also, his seeming awareness of his fictional position: “the true knights we love to read about never push an advantage too far” (66).

• Flora, too, “appeared to read and accuse and judge me” (71).

• the governess reads books, sometimes to trick other characters (17, 40, 46, 47, 28) and reads letters (78, 85). She calls reading “an unavowed curiosity of my youth,” particularly “last century fiction… of a distinctly deprecated renown” (40).

• the governess wonders about Jane Eyre and The Mysteries of Udolpho (17), as well as Fielding’s Amelia (40). She is in the position of only knowing what Mrs. Grose tells her about Jessel and Quint, and her analeptic/proleptic pasting-together of clues, her proof, “so I saw him as I see the letters on this page” (17) is double-edged: both totally clear (legible) and wholly imagined (since language is not visual and offers no proof).

• Mrs. Grose, unlike the governess, cannot read, which is “dreadful” (11)

• Much of her reading also involves, of course, her interpretive work, which might verge on a paranoid, exploitative interpretation of her surroundings (worth thinking about how that reflects upon us as readers, too). She even admits her own paranoid reading of the situation at times: “I had restlessly read into the facts before us” (27), “I only sat there on my tomb and read into what our young friend had said to me in the fulness of its meaning.” (57), and “I suppose I now read into our situation a clearness it couldn’t have had” (84).

• the word read appears by itself or within in other words 97 times in the text: in readily, ready, already, thread, bread, etc. Read is used in the past tense each time, making it shine through and rhyme with the other words in which it is embedded. Particularly notable is the repetition of dread and dreadful (26 times), which includes both the words dead and read within it.

Especially interesting is the substance the governess tries to give to the purely visual ghosts, especially by explaining her depth perception of these surface apparitions.

Critical interpretations long focused on the mutually exclusive implications of the story (some even suspecting that the governess remains unnamed because she might be based on Henry’s ‘hysterical’ sister Alice). Edmund Wilson was among the first to suggest that the governess was insane and had imagined the ghosts altogether.

Eric Solomon claims in “The Return of the Screw” that Mrs. Grose is the villain or killer based on the line “Someone had taken a liberty rather gross.”

Mark Spilka, in “Turning the Freudian Screw,” addresses the erotic ambiguities of the tower and the lake, embedded in a tale about the Victorian obsession with asexual, childish innocence (and the implication that one or both of the now-ghosts molested the children, ‘infecting’ them, as critic Craig Raine insists).

John J. Enck (“The Turn of the Century”) praises the craft of James’ prose and places the story’s irony and uncertainty in “the reader’s intelligence” and compares his writing to Nabokov.

Shoshanna Felman