Academic journal article CLIO

"A More Culpable Passion": 'Pamela,' 'Joseph Andrews,' and the History of Desire

Academic journal article CLIO

"A More Culpable Passion": 'Pamela,' 'Joseph Andrews,' and the History of Desire

Article excerpt

In the years 1740-1850, a number of English novels engaged in the larger cultural project of reshaping an early-modern articulation of desire. Much of this project, I argue, consisted of giving a specificity and distinctiveness to passions that earlier had been seen as fundamentally linked to, and practically inseparable from, each other. Ultimately, I argue that this process of reshaping an early-modern model of desire concomitantly reshaped models of signification and knowledge. By focusing here on how knowledge' works at a moment often referred to as the genesis of the English novel -- the appearance of Richardson's Pamela (1741) and Fielding's Joseph Andrews (1742) -- I examine how shifting models of desire and knowledge profoundly influenced the origins of one form of modern narrative. I hope to show that neither of these texts reveals a fully oedipal model of sexuality that modern novel readers often equate with desire, nor do they reflect the modern formulation of signification built on the full separation between signifier and signified. In other words, the particular relations between desire and knowledge in these early novels are square pegs twentieth-century readers may be trying to fit into the round holes of oedipal sexuality and the modern formulation of signification. Thus, while I agree with the commonplace assumption in contemporary theory that the relation between desire and knowledge shapes narrative, I suggest we need to unpack the terms "desire" and signification" before we start to hunt for them even in territory as seemingly accessible to us as the origins of the novel.

At the end of the nineteenth century, two accounts of subjectivity emerged: one aimed almost exclusively at explaining sexual relations (psychoanalysis); the other aimed almost exclusively at explaining economic relations (Marxism). These divergent, irreconcilable, accounts of desire represent the full emergence of the distinction between economic and sexual desire and thus the fulfillment of a historical shift elaborating the differences among desires which had begun some two centuries earlier. Each discipline also assumes a split between signifier and signified that it could theoretically re-suture by referring to some phenomenon (like the unconscious, or historical relations) which always remained tantalizingly outside the grasp of the theories' hypothetical agents. Psychoanalysis examines a connection between a world of signifiers and their referents most powerfully accounted for by the subject's repressed memories of entry into a world ruled both by gender difference and gender inequality during the oedipal stage. The Freudian slip suggests the power of the unconscious to link words to repressed sexual experience irrespective of the words' literal reference. Marxism sees ideology as explaining how we know the world, how we make meaning, despite the historical class conflicts to which our experiences actually refer. Each theory assumes that signifiers and signified have no natural link; nonetheless, each theory promises insight into how these links get made.

In this essay, I argue that the modern distinction between signifier and signified is historically linked to the growing, but not yet full, separation of economic and sexual desires emerging in the eighteenth century. Moreover, both of these distinctions within desire, within signification) were worked out, in part, through the development of the novel. As one of the most crisply delineated instances of the modern understanding of desire (in his work, specifically sexual desire) and signification, Lacan's version of psychoanalysis will haunt, in a sense, this essay. I use Lacan's theories to keep alive both a sense of difference -- as well as connections -- between an eighteenth-century model of more closely linked passions and one example of a modern understanding of fully distinct desires. Lacan's model of desire will stand in contrast to a historically specific model of the passions that existed in the eighteenth century and was used by these early novelists. …

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