Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Speaking of Godwin's Caleb Williams: The Talking Cure and the Psychopathology of Enlightenment

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Speaking of Godwin's Caleb Williams: The Talking Cure and the Psychopathology of Enlightenment

Article excerpt

I will write a tale that shall constitute an epoch in the mind of the reader, that no one, after he has read it, shall ever be exactly the same man that he was before.

William Godwin, Preface to Fleetwood, 1832


THIS PAPER ADDRESSES w PSYCHOANALYSIS that emerges in William Godwin's first novel, Things As They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), from the political unconscious of post-Enlightenment, Romantic thought. This Romantic talking cure generates a complex mode of representation that subverts its own diagnosis but, in turn, manages this sabotage for socio-political and cultural effect. Revisiting Things As They Are in his 1832 Preface to Fleetwood, Godwin argues that his first novel was an "analysis of the private and internal operations of the mind, employing [his] metaphysical dissecting knife in tracing and laying bare the involutions of motive, and recording the gradually accumulating impulses" that informed his characters' behaviour (339). (1) This statement asks that we read the novel either politically, as a fictional extension of Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), or psychologically, as a confessional scrutiny of that text's unconscious. (2) Tilottama Rajan argues that Godwin's novel collapses these readings within a "system of representation and exchange, in which nothing is simply what it is" (189). (3) This hermeneutics of suspicion ventriloquizes 1790s' fear and loathing as a site of trauma, the aftershocks of which drive readers to pursue relentlessly what David Collings calls the text's empty place of reason. (4) I want to read this repetitive economy as one of the places where Romanticism invents psychoanalysis as a failed project of enlightenment.

We can read this economy in terms of the Romantic public sphere and its networks of communication, the emergent modernity of which stages the 1790s as the shadows futurity casts on Romanticism's present. That by 1832 Godwin had shifted from the novel's original 1794 title, Things As They Are, to just Caleb Williams is symptomatic of the emergence of what Clifford Siskin calls "character," or a "periodic" subject, who possesses an always potentially knowable selfhood, what Siskin calls Romanticism's "self-made mind, full of newly constructed depths" (Historicity 13). Romanticism "invents" this mind in order to wager the ideology of its own inventiveness, a capacity for self-development that plays into post-Enlightenment myths of progress. Yet this mind's phantasmatic qualities also make it susceptible to institutional and ideological self-deception and self-interest within the free and open exchange between subjects that governs the realization of Godwin's ideal of political justice. The "enquiry, communication, discussion" of popular exchange as the "legitimate instrument of effecting political reformation" (Political Justice 565) instead produce a civil society of serialized juridical subjects. As Andrew McCann argues, "the very idea that public interaction could be a mechanism of social amelioration and rational autonomy ... itself be[canes for Godwin] a function of a discursive praxis inseparable from the consolidation of market capitalism" (209). As the "public" becomes the "multitude" and "rational communicative exchange" a "form of administered consciousness" (201), the cancerous effects of the social produce a web of being(s) from which the individual can never extricate herself. Justice and community become aesthetic phenomena (Edwards 592), and "the division between public and private spheres" becomes "an ideological phantasm" (Zomchick 189).

Godwin can imagine but cannot particularize the subject independent of the "tangible communicative infrastructures" (McCann Zoo) upon which this subject depends to articulate her selfhood. The source of trouble is conversation, Godwin's "ideal form of communication" (Leaver 591).5 "Conversation is a species of co-operation, one or the other party always yielding to have his ideas guided by the other; yet conversation, and the intercourse of mind with mind, seem[s] to be the most fertile source[ ] of improvement," Godwin writes in Political Justice (302). …

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