Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Redemptive Past in the Neo-Victorian Novel

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Redemptive Past in the Neo-Victorian Novel

Article excerpt

Over the last decade a number of novels have displayed a various and intriguing range of historical commitments. Although I will not attempt to take on the whole range here, I do want to explore a subset of the historical novel I think I can clearly delineate, or at least two exemplars of this subset. I call this particular category the neo-Victorian novel, and I read it as at once characteristic of postmodernism and imbued with a historicity reminiscent of the nineteenth-century novel.(1) In order to develop my own argument, I will make rather free use of Fredric Jameson's critique of postmodernism, particularly his critique of postmodern representations of history.

In his attacks on postmodernism, Jameson has decried its supplanting of the redemptive project of history with "the random cannibalization of all the styles of the past,"(2) an approach he finds problematic because if one's relation to the past is a matter of randomly retrieving various "styles," then one loses the impetus to find out what actually happened in that past. As a Marxist critic for whom the purpose of history is "the resurrection of the dead of anonymous and silenced generations, the retrospective dimension indispensable to any vital reorientation of our collective future" (CL, p. 18), Jameson finds in postmodern historicity an ever-widening gap between the actual lived past and its representation. According to Jameson, postmodern skepticism regarding how much we can really know about the past has resulted in nostalgia for the "look" of the past without significant interest in its substance.(3) Consequently, the past as historical referent is dissolved in self-reflexive textuality: "the past as `referent' finds itself gradually bracketed, and then effaced altogether, leaving us with nothing but texts" (CL, p. 18). Jameson acknowledges that history is an "absent cause" that is never completely representable, and yet he insists that "History is not in any sense itself a text or master text or master narrative, but that it is inaccessible to us except in textual or narrative form, or in other words, that we approach it only by way of some prior textualization or narrative (re)construction."(4) Jameson is concerned that the postmodern preoccupation with history-as-text has shifted attention away from the actual events of the past, toward the interpretation of those events.

What appears to disturb Jameson most about postmodern representations of the past, be they fictional, filmic, or architectural, is that they strip away its specific political content to focus on its aesthetics. Instead of respecting the radical difference of bygone eras, postmodernism projects onto them contemporary culture, fabricating a "privatized," or subjective, history denuded of its specific cultural resonance.(5) Epitomizing this kind of historicism for Jameson is a film like Body Heat, which stylistically "connotes" 1940s film noir through the language of nostalgia, but is actually set in 1980s Florida (CL, p. 19). The past, according to this cultural logic, becomes a treasure trove to be mined for pertinent connections and similarities to our postmodern world, an approach that for Jameson creates a false continuity between past and present. Jameson argues that using history responsibly means reading it for traces of the "uninterrupted narrative" of class struggle, and bringing to the surface of the text this "repressed and buried reality" (PU, p. 20). In effect, he sees past and present as having continuity only insofar as they can be united in a Marxist interpretive framework, which he claims is uniquely qualified to evade the "double bind" of antiquarianism and the postmodern tendency to project contemporary relevance onto history (PU, p. 19). The former posits an artificial rupture between past and present; the latter creates a false connection.

In his well-known indictment of E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, Jameson claims that the historical novel can no longer represent the historical past, but can only represent our ideas and stereotypes about that past (CL, p. …

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