Reflection by Anna E. Clark
Interiority is the foil in Farina’s smart and lively Everyday Words, the clay off of which he bounces a hard-hit claim: character, even in Victorian novels, is as much about richly superficial traits as it is about personhood. Everyday Words thus joins what Elisha Cohn, in another V21 review, terms the “anti-subjective turn” of recent criticism, and Farina’s work feels both fresh and intuitively right. In the history Farina tells, “E. M. Forster’s subordination of ‘flat’ to ‘round’ character and Freud’s theory of the unconscious” have obscured a “surficial model of character” central to nineteenth-century thought (23). It’s not that romantic subjectivity didn’t exist; rather, it “compete[d]” with other understandings of character, coming to overtake them only in the retrospect created by a critical preference for suspicion and concealed meanings (36).
Farina’s astute close readings of seemingly innocuous conjunctions and turns of phrase convincingly elaborate his “surficial” model of character (the chapter on Dickens’s “as if” is revelatory). But the book’s antagonist is oddly anachronistic. Farina foregrounds a now common argument about fictional interiority’s unwarranted supremacy without tackling the ways interiority has already been complicated and dethroned. Everyday Words invokes Deirdre Lynch and David Kurnick, fellow seekers of interiority alternatives, but doesn’t converse with the ways their work decenters and redefines novelistic interiority and subjectivity. Instead, Farina turns to Forster, Freud, and a cluster of adjacent terms – individuality, personality, psychological depth. To be fair, Farina is hardly alone in engaging these standard opponents, but the fact that they come across as such – as conventions rather than still-vital adversaries – suggests that they are due for reconsideration. Why, after all, is this the conversation we continue to have? Why does interiority remain such an alluring foil? And what might we lose sight of when we reduce interiority and subjectivity to antagonistic critical shorthand?
Instead of hazarding answers to such questions, I offer a final observation: interiority’s appositional status is embedded in its critical history. Here, for example, is the Hegelian Lukács: “Interiority is possible and necessary only when the distinctions between men have made an unbridgeable chasm” (66). And here is the inescapable Forster: “The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat” (78). Not coincidentally, then, the most compelling recent articulations of interior states ironically appear in the work of interiority’s most astute critics (Lynch, Kurnick, Cohn). Whatever we make interiority and subjectivity out to be – alienating, illusory, animating– they’re also dialectic, hewing out their own alternatives. This is true in Farina’s work too, but I wonder if his evocative articulation of forms of character that “name the interface, point of contact, friction, or relation between self and world” (24) might offer an opportunity to do something new with interiority’s appositional status. Rather than thinking of interiority as a rejection of the external, or as a negation of public, performative identity, we might instead consider it party to the very “interface” Farina describes, animating forms of political agency and public thinking in the moments it comes into being. After all, outside of fiction, we regularly and perhaps necessarily operate in ways that assume the existence of discrete, interiorized selves even if that notion remains ungrounded. Our assumptions about inner lives are imperfect and often problematic, but, as Judith Butler has pointed out, they also establish expectations of personal and social responsibility. Whatever one thinks about interiority’s ontological status, the concept continues to be put to ends that are collective as much as private.
Butler, Judith. Giving an Account of Oneself. New York: Fordham University Press, 2005.
Cohn, Elisha. Still Life: Suspended Development in the Victorian Novel. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
––––. “Collations: Book Forum on Benjamin Morgan’s The Outward Mind: Materialist Aesthetics in Victorian Science and Literature, Reflection by Elisha Cohn.” V21 Collective. 24 Oct. 2017, http://v21collective.org/reflection-elisha-cohn/.
Forster, E. M. Aspects of the Novel. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1927.
Kurnick, David. Empty Houses: Theatrical Failure and the Novel. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012.
Lukács, Georg. The Theory of the Novel. Trans. Anna Bostock. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1971.
Lynch, Deidre Shauna. The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.