Reflection by Alicia Christoff
“Life is still life, whatever its pangs,” Charlotte Brontë writes; our eyes go on seeing even when there is nothing to please them, and our ears go on hearing “though the sound of what consoles be quite silenced.” Elisha Cohn discovers in this painful line from Villette her book’s title and argument. Pointing out that the “still” in the initial phrase functions as both adverb and adjective, Cohn’s Still Life argues for the importance of stasis in life, of lyric pauses in narrative, and of moments of suspension even in the development-driven plots of the Victorian novel. She locates these moments of stillness in sleeping, dreaming, reverie and other unconscious and semi-conscious states, both as they punctuate our lives and as they are depicted in Victorian fiction.
Many of my favorite moments in Still Life are, indeed, those that enact such pauses, refraining momentarily from the rigors of constructing a massive critical apparatus and the momentum of argument-making to immerse us in literary texts and their representations of attenuated consciousness. In nuanced readings of “lyrical” passages (those that “slow time, privilege feeling over action, and find plenitude in sensation”) in Brontë, George Eliot, George Meredith, and Thomas Hardy, Cohn’s arguments are at once most animated and most satisfyingly slowed. In Villette, Cohn dwells on a first-person description of Lucy’s faint to notice that it is strangely and richly depersonalized; in a reading of Clym’s absorption in manual labor in Hardy’s Return of the Native, Cohn painstakingly shows how lyrical moments allow us to engage in “transformative description[s]” of the natural world “from no particular point of view.” Such moments, Cohn argues, pause the novels’ more pervasive trajectories of Bildung and liberal subject-making. Crucially, though, they pause those trajectories without fully upending them, making reverie and dreaminess non-recuperable to narrative and subject alike. (In one of the book’s most compelling claims, Cohn critiques those who would use the insights of affect theory only to “supplant a liberal Bildung with what we might call a radical Bildung.”)
The critical apparatus Cohn constructs in her book is impressive indeed, both erudite and wide-ranging. Still Life offers something rare: a study of the Victorian novel that is at once devotedly historicist and sharply theoretically engaged. Cohn engages nineteenth-century psychological and physiological theory with authority and grace, insisting on the importance of the conversation between science and literature but refusing to reduce one to the other. Her theoretical engagements are equally sophisticated. In particular, Cohn draws important notions of non-dialectical neutrality from the French thinkers Blanchot and Barthes. She also shows herself to be fully versed in both contemporary affect studies and the Continental philosophy that founds it. Additionally, Cohn is deeply conversant in larger debates in the field and in literary studies more generally, explicitly positioning her book, for instance, as offering a new model for critical practice in line with the “descriptive turn” (she cites in particular Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Rita Felski, Sianne Ngai, and Anne-Lise François). Nowhere does Cohn shy away from big ideas, and nowhere does she handle them with anything less than enormous skill and learnedness. Still Life, I think, will prove itself to be a resource to many and to varied scholars for the sheer amount of material it synthesizes and makes accessible.
At times, though, it feels to me like there is something strangely at odds between the book’s argument and its methodology. Cohn’s case for “still life” – for “shifts of mood, tone, and voice” which “relieve the pressures of self-formation”– is that something important happens when “vigilance lapses” (186): when we don’t monitor every feeling by way of self-reflection, when we don’t demand that inattention be turned to positive account, when we don’t insist on the ultimate productivity of failures in thinking. And yet Cohn’s own vigilance never lapses. It’s hard to square her insistence on the importance of dreamy states and her proposal for “a suspensive mood of criticism” with her own tireless efforts to position her claims in various debates, to articulate exactly how and where she aligns herself with other critics and how her argument subtly differs. These are moves that I feel sometimes overtake the readings she offers or contradict their theoretical stakes, focused as they are on a kind of critical Bildung.
To be clear, I’m interested in this problem not as a reflection on Cohn or her scholarship, but as a point of interest in thinking about the field and the type of critical argument Still Life make. The enormous effort expended on positioning and micro-positioning the book in the field – and indeed, on what might look to the most skeptical reader like a perceived need to touch on all of its hottest topics and keywords (affect, lyric, weak theory, laterality, animal studies, psycho-physiology, reverie, attenuated consciousness) – strike me as being problems that pertain to the writing of the first book. Several questions are important here. What kinds of demands do we place on these works – for originality, for ground-clearing, and for proving one’s scholarly credentials in rather conservative ways – and how necessary are they? Do these demands help to produce the kind of work we most need and most want to read?
There is deep engagement in Still Life with almost every critical conversation that considers narrative and subject-making, from the history of the Bildungsroman to Victorian discourses of moral perfectionism to French theories of the literary to affect theory (psychoanalysis is, however, a striking absence). And yet I’m not sure if this thorough engagement or the painstaking distinctions Cohn makes to create the book’s argument reward us as deeply as we might wish. Did we ever doubt the pleasures of suspension and descriptive reverie in the Victorian novel? Haven’t we long been drawn to (and critics eager to theorize) the dilations of plot? Were we (or the Victorians for that matter) ever fully convinced that selves were strictly smoothly and coherently developed, even as we’ve felt the need to maintain that as a guiding storyline and ideology? Did we really imagine, as Cohn claims, that Victorian novelists were fully “committed to an instrumental project for art?” It’s hard for me to think so. To my mind, we have long understood, as readers, that novels offer themselves up as feeling as much as cognition – but perhaps this final point does indeed profit from further critical formulation.
What I ultimately find most compelling about Still Life is its pressing interest in non-recuperation, in uselessness, in non-productivity, in gestures of thought, feeling, and narrative that are not compelled into the logic of dialectical resolution or cognitive closure, but remain still in place. As Cohn is well aware, such arguments are difficult to make. She turns to a vocabulary of ambiguity and “ambiguous Victorians”; of the “anti-developmental” but with the strong caveat that the anti- is likely too strong, as the “pressures of self-culture” are not negated by suspended animation but merely “held at bay”; and of the “subtly non-instrumental effects of narrative.” Non-instrumental is a tough word to qualify, but this is precisely the point: How do we speak, Cohn asks, about mental and bodily states unavailable to conscious reflection? And how do we write critical studies of “art’s non-transformative fascinations” without offering redemption, alibi, or sounds of consolation, without “converting these experiences of stasis and inaction into strategies for transformation”? I’m not certain Cohn’s book takes up this challenge as fully as it might, and it may be (and this is pure speculation) that the pressures of publishing a first book weighed too heavily for this to be possible. But what I admire most in Still Life is Cohn’s highly sophisticated attempt to pose the question, and even to keep it at a standstill.