Once More Unto the Breach: Jim Phelan

Thanks, Richard, for this response and the effort to carry the debate on. In that same spirit,I’ll go once more unto the breach.And the axe I carry along is the one I was grinding yesterday about the compatibility of historicism and rhetorical theory.

On Thu, Feb 14, 2008 at 9:07 PM, Richard Dutton wrote:

“My thanks to Aman and Jim for such a lively, entertaining and
thought-provoking session. I just hate to let it end there …

The reason I became a historicist, having trained as anything but (Cambridge Practical Criticism is about as a-historicist as it gets), is that I became increasingly frustrated by the slipperiness of meaning both at the linguistic level and at the level of genre. Words and genres simply do not stand still, and our assumption that we can read them now as anyone read them even twenty years ago (without the utmost circumspection) is deeply suspect.”

Cambridge Practical Criticism seems to me to lead to this conclusion precisely because, as I understand it from the outside (and thus no doubt imperfectly), it sees literary texts primarily as meaning structures built from the meanings of individual words and then the meanings of those words in combination. But if one thinks of literary works as rhetorical actions then one can conceive of their authors marshalling words in the service of particular purposes, a marshalling that leads those words to have some meanings and not others (except in those cases when one of the purposes is to take advantage of the plurisignification of words and multiply ambiguities). Exactly how that happens is of course a huge question and most of the answers to it are contested, but the larger point is that the different assumptions about the nature of texts lead to very different views of the roles and functions of individual words.

“We may continue to read Pride and Prejudice, but any assumption that we continue to read it with anything like the understanding brought to it by (say) the Prince Regent on its publication seems to me
simply misguided.” (qtd. from Richard Dutton, above)

Rhetorical theory doesn’t claim to recover the actual reading experience of a text’s original audience. And it wouldn’t claim, to stay with Richard’s examples, that the Prince Regent and Austen’s chambermaid would read the text with the “same understanding.” Instead it posits the following ideas: (1) that Austen designed the text with a particular audience in mind–that is, an audience with certain kinds of knowledge, skills, and values (what rhetorical theory calls the authorial audience); (2) that this audience is potentially recoverable through our knowledge of/research in history and through the examination of the internal mechanisms of the text; and (3) that in recovering that audience we create the possibility of entering it, that is, reading from its vantage point. Thus, for example, rhetorical theory wouldn’t claim that either the Prince Regent or a member of Austen’s family would get the irony of the first sentence, but it would claim that Austen’s authorial audience would.

“How many in 311 today know that Fitzwilliam Darcy’s name marks him out as a Norman aristocrat (a fact reinforced by having an aunt called Lady Catherine de Burgh?) How many would know the difference in status between her being “Lady Catherine de Burgh” as distinct from “Lady de Burgh”? How many know that Mr Collins is marked out in his name as being very probably of Gaelic/Irish origin and so (no offence) an upstart as far as Regency gentry would have been concerned? How many would even have known that “Bennet” derives from “Benedict” and so implies “blessed one” — and so foreshadows Elizabeth’s fortunate outcome from the very beginning?” (qtd. from Richard Dutton, above)

All of this information is an excellent example of how historical knowledge can contribute to our sense of an authorial audience. But from the rhetorical perspective, all of this information is material that Austen could fashion in multiple ways. If she had different ideological commitments, she could have used Collins’s Gaelic/Irish origin as part of her portrait of someone who is actually more heroic than Darcy. (I know that her own historical situatedness made it extremely unlikely that she would make the upstart more heroic; my point is simply that the information that Collins is an upstart from the perspective of Regency England does not mean that he must be less heroic.) Richard’s comment on Elizabeth’s name is perhaps a clearer example of what I’m trying to get at. While Richard reads the implication of “blessed one” as foreshadowing Elizabeth’s fortunate outcome, a different set of internal mechanisms, including a different trajectory for the action, could make the name an ironic commentary on her eventual outcome.

But it seems natural for Richard to present the information as he does because he has already experienced the workings of Austen’s internal mechanisms. In fact, those mechanisms include other more substantial ways to foreshadow Elizabeth’s fortunate outcome. There’s a pattern of action in the early part of the novel involving what I’d call local instabilities that works by introducing a threat to such an outcome and then resolving it in a satisfactory way: in Chapter 1, Mr. Bennet threatens not to call on Bingley but at the beginning of Chapter 2 the narrator tells us that he was among the first to call; the next major element in this patter is Collins’s proposal. Despite his initial refusal to take no for an answer, the desires of her mother, and the pressures of the entail, she does say no and with her father’s support makes that no stick. This pattern influences the authorial audience’s understanding of the likely trajectory of the global instability involving Elizabeth and Darcy.

“All of this speaks to Aman’s concession that no one is going to be confused about whether Mr Darcy or Mr Collins is the hero of the novel. My point is that many of us are probably *very* confused (or, even worse, not yet confused enough) about precisely what we mean by “the hero” in this context — the resonances, the significances, the social and cultural implications. [Push this back a couple of hundred years and ask yourself whether Hamlet, or Macbeth, or Othello is a “hero” in anything resembling the same sense.]” (qtd from Richard Dutton, above)

My point is that we may be confused about the word, but we’re not confused when we read because it’s actually not that hard to enter Austen’s authorial audience and pick up on her designs.

“If I recognize some of this which others in 311 may not have done, that may well have something to do with my being English — and some of these resonances are still quite loud over there, in a way they probably never
were in the US. (I am correspondingly tone deaf to a good deal in, say, Hawthorne.) But i still don’t pretend to assume that I have more than a glimmer of what any of this meant to the Prince Regent, much less what it
might have meant to the Austens’ chamber-maid. (My own historicism comes with some post-structuralist knobs and whistles.) If all of this is true at the level of mere name-words, how much truer must
it be at the level of narrative structures, which depend upon infinitely more complex word-complexes. I *cannot* read the novel as the Prince Regent read it, nor can I begin to guess its affect on him. This is where I –like a good little New Historicist — would part company with the other Jim (Fredal). [Did anyone notice that I let in an English full-stop there? It explains everything …] The truth is that we can never recover affect or

Again I wouldn’t disagree with the claim, especially if we add a “fully” to it, but I would disagree with the idea that we can’t infer from narrative structures ideas about the authorial audience. It seems to me, for example, that the narrative structure, as a result of the pattern I mention above, allows the authorial audience of Pride and Prejudice to know that the first proposal scene, disastrous as it is, is a temporary obstacle to the eventual union of Elizabeth and Darcy. And that narrative structure and the accompanying knowledge have consequences for the affective experience the novel invites its authorial audience to have. One consequence is that, even as that audience’s affective responses are tied to Elizabeth’s, that audience’s responses are significantly different because it has a knowledge about her experiences that she cannot have. I recognize that those two sentences–pace, Aman–say very little about the actual content of that affective experience, but for my purposes here, I think they say enough.

We do, of course, have a very important body of literature from ancient times onwards which [that??] attempts to explain how to generate certain emotional responses in a reader or hearer. The problem is that we
actually cannot know what love, or hate, or shame [or their Greek — or do I mean Attic? — equivalents] actually felt like to Aristotle, or how they compare to the emotions given the same labels by my next door neighbour (neighbor?) today. All we can trace is the linguistic or semiotic shadow, not the thing itself. Now, I actually think that tracing the linguistic shadow is a pretty worthwhile thing to do, because in the end history (the semiotic shadow of all things) is all we have that binds us together as human across the ages. And literature is one important part of it. (qtd. from Richard Dutton, above)

And the communications carried out by its structures are an important part of literature.


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