Zach Fruit Responds
Tanya Agathocleous directs the conclusion of her review of Forms of Empire to Hensley’s reading of the “Realism Wars” between Andrew Lang and H. Rider Haggard on the one side and Henry James on the other. This remarkable chapter resists a more traditional framing of Victorian literary forms that “encrypt unbeknownst to themselves a given culture’s subconscious desires or anxieties” (210). Instead, Hensley suggests that texts like King Solomon’s Mines are not only “instances of unwitting magical thinking” but also “political conceptuality: not passive ideology but enacted thought” (210). Agathocleous aptly notes that this chapter “dissolves distinctions” between reparative and paranoid reading. It was a bit of a shock to think about the active political and aesthetic aims of a work like King Solomon’s Mines, which seems to perfectly encapsulate the sort of blatantly unthinking ideological work of Imperial fantasy.
As Agathocleous writes, this sort of reading is a “persistent blindspot”–and one that is not unrelated to the liberal triumphalism inherited from Victorians. I think, perhaps, “postcritical” debates about “reparative,” “paranoid,” “surface,” and “depth” too often hinge on the gendered binary of feminine care and masculine mastery. Agathocleous compels me to consider not only other binaries of mastery and care that are active within Imperial contexts, but also the way that Violence and Liberalism can map, roughly, onto this divide. What does it mean if these distinct modes of critique are entangled within the same paradox?
Hensley concludes his final chapter with a reading of Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde. While Haggard and James happily inhabited the divide between sensational childishness and critical adulthood, “Stevenson refuses to choose, and shows instead how these interlocked sets of binary terms–romance and realism, brute force and modern civility, ‘nonage’ and adulthood–are but liberal idealism’s own inadequate vocabulary for understanding the seeming paradoxes by which incredible violence might not stand against but secretly structure political modernity in its most peaceful or even philanthropic dispensations” (241). Does the perceived binary between “feminine care and masculine mastery” secretly structure the “fraught histories and persistent blindspots of our methodologies” and the liberal triumphalism that these blindspots afford?