Literature Discussion: Ilja Wachs on the 19th Century Novel



I just want to take a minute to exercise my contractual right to embarrass Ileana notices personal thank you all for coming to the first talk in our series in which members of the literature faculty will be speaking to the community of writers and Sarah Lawrence and although I don't think he's here I want to thank a member of the Graduate writing programs dude in the Graduate writing program David Chiu Mandel over first suggested the idea of experience our speaker today will go will be Ilya wax who's been teaching at Sarah Lawrence since 1965 and who's the author of a study of the novels of Charles Dickens called Dickens the orphaned condition I want to mention that that I was a student here in the 70s and I studied with them and I remember thinking beforehand that studying with him would be good for my writing and I remember the disappointment that I felt a few weeks into this course when I started to feel as if it wasn't good with my writing at all he had nothing to say about literary craft as I understood he had nothing to say about the family this dialogue decision you had nothing to say about the use of the third person point of view so when in third person point of view which rewriting students went weren't yet sophisticated enough to refer to as the POV as he took me a while to see that things of much greater consequence and Miller was reading the words with such seriousness and intensity and playfulness that at first it came to be clear to me that he was giving us an education in why literature matters and by the end of the year I felt that he had given us an education I know that Warren's such a special teacher I remember the passage for Warren's please forget warnings for saying man he says the critic must be able to feel the impact of a work of art in all its complexity and his force to do so he must be a man of complexity and force himself but someone was emotionally educated in this way he's as Raritan Phoenix more than this Lawrence said even an artistically and emotionally educated man must be a man of good faith a critic must be emotionally alive in every fiber and then morally very honest I feel so lucky to his studies I think after that introduction I should just leave I feel very lucky to have Bryan here now as a colleague I mean there's something quite wonderful in having people who you've taught many many years ago come back and be your colleagues there's there's a just a very moving sense of continuity that you get from that and Bryan is a wonderful teacher and a splendid writer and a terrific friend so Thank You Bryan I hope that counter embarrassed you a little bit good Troy uh this is hard for me because I normally don't lecture I teach seminars I never taught a lecture at the college and I've never given the lecture actually except the senior what does it call to the senior talk yeah that I did as Bryan did but beyond that I haven't done that so because normally I need a text between myself and and you and I don't have a text today since I haven't assigned one but I'll try to do what I can one of its the great contributions of 19th century novels is that while it's realistically tough and describes all the social constraints upon the self it the limits and distortions to which the self is subject by the society in which lives these novels often also strain to move beyond the Gibbins of constraint they struggle to suggest new human possibilities harmonies and reconciliations of opposites that are in effect utopian and character utopian not in the sense that they are humanly impossible but utopian in that they are not capable of being fully realized in the moment of history in which they were written or in our moment history these utopian moments which are rich with sensuous and communal plenitude are to be found for example in Mark Twain's Huck Finn on the raft underworld of peace love and near timelessness which stands in stark contrast to the horror violence and rigidity that Twain depicts on shore the river which Elliott TS Eliot called that great Brown God is in some sense transcendent a world on the river in which time death the slavery the opposition of black and white slave and free is suspended in which the word lazy for example becomes an active verb we laze it around in which a kind of Eden is recreated on Jackson's island the river also allows Twain to take human capacities and for a moment to refashion them to create a self in whom abstraction is negated and a kind of sensuous concreteness and direct capacity for feeling takes the place of the religious and social abstractions the rigid forms of civilization the forms of Calvinism for example that acted as a rationalization for slavery the forms of Honor that acted as a rationalization for horrendous feuds the the creation Huk of a sensory self of this other of a self largely grounded in sense perception and of a self grounded in feeling life is one of the utopian elements of of the novel you find it in language in all sorts of wonderful language that Twain gives to hug examples to anticipate something good is to make one's body's mouth water right to be terrified is to make one's body's hair fairly rise on one's neck to be afraid to be courageous is to have sand in your craw you know birds who digest food by sending it through sand in their craw to lose the will to turn gym in is to take the Tuck out of oneself you know I could tuck to be afraid is to have an experience of your heart jumps among your lungs to have conscience affect you is it would pinch you to be civilized is to be cramped and most important of all to encounter a devastating scene of human degradation is to feel sick that's what he does when he encounters murder slavery exploitation he says it made me feel sick as if you know the the body itself is responding to the moral universe one of the ways in which he shows this is that Huck at some point is in Jackson Island and he's describing you know he says it smelled late it smelled like smoked late and he says you know what I mean I it's sort of interesting right the the sort of taking of time the abstraction of time the the serial reification of time and and you translated into sense perception it smoked like I once had a freshman studies in which we read Huck Finn it was kind of really interesting the studies and I said okay let's have an experiment come to class when it smells on time let's let's carry this out they did and at first it was terrible chaos you know I mean it's almost impossible you know they straddle day and one they have to discard their watches of course they straggled in one after the other and it was just awful but in about three weeks and I was very patient at that point you have to be with first-year students we used to call them freshmen studies before the thought police took over and translated it into first-year studies because of gender issues so you know but after about three weeks they all came to class on time and that turned out to be the best freshman Studies class I ever took least some not bonded over our attempts to Kuerten hit our lives through our smell it was really quite wonderful anyway so bright it smelt late another example of a kind of grounding of consciousness and the sensibility in the body later on in the novel there is this horrible thing but bogs in the strange Arkansas town which is a sort of collapse of civilization where the loafers set dogs on fire were they sick dogs on nursing sours where they tried ten pails to dogs until they run themselves to death it's a kind of awful awful place and there's a drunk in their town called bogs and bogs is an unpleasant drunk he he sort of Sasa's people and insults them but he's harmless and you know he's just drunk and one day he's insulting Colonel Sherburn who's aristocrat in the town and Sherbourne has had enough of him and he says to boggs get you I've had enough of you if you're not out of town by one o'clock I'm gonna shoot you right and Bloggs daughter comes running in and she tries to get him out of there but he's weaving around he himself wants to leave but he's drunk and he doesn't have control of his of his actions and along comes Colonel Sherburn you know at one minute to one and I at this at the stroke of one o'clock he raises his pistols pistol from the bottom up he aims at it bogs and he shoots them to death it's one o'clock and I think Twain is suggesting that if you could smell time that wouldn't occur the code of honor is very much dependent upon the abstraction of time and that code of honor is responsible for so much death 20 I actually felt that Sir Walter Scott was responsible for the Civil War why because Scott you know sort of celebrated the old feudal chivalric order of and the southern aristocracy used that concept chivalric onerous justification for their part in the Civil War and for slavery so what he's saying is you know hey hey let's we need to soften ourselves in some way our sensibilities you know we need to undo you know our sort of obsession with cereal time as you know in that in that duel which which is expressed anyway that's that's Huck Finn now there's even more utopian stuff I said this is utopian because when he really doesn't in Huck is too so undo any epistemological capacity for abstraction that Huck even when he thinks in Calvinist terms and tries to turn Jim in can't do it because the concreteness of his sensory nerves feeling life gets in the way right it would have made him sick to turn Jim in even though he believes that by not turning jump Jim in he's going to go to hell and he says it won't but all right so I'll go to hell you know I mean there's there's the Calvinist ideology which is a matter of reason and of consciousness which he internalizes and believes in and then there's that sensory and feeling life which is so concrete and which subverts these ideas that are so dangerous in Twain's conception there's also something interesting not only does he smell time but but there's also something that goes on between Huck and mathematics Rock says I don't take no stock in mathematics and then that sounds interesting and then you realize at one point he finally tells you how old he is when he visits buck and he says buck was my age 13 or 14 huh why not 13/4 14 why 13 or 14 answer is that there's something wrong about being too precise about quantity about being too precise about what time it is about being too precise what age you're in and if you keep working those print those you know kind of standards of precision sooner or later you're going to say this is black this is white this is free this is slave and never show the twain meat right anyway it's it's really something again I want to just read a little bit I I didn't did I bring the plane with me maybe I didn't yes I did okay I just want to read one little thing in the Twain to give you a sense of again of the utopic quality that Twain works with this is there on the river it's the last scene on the river two or three days and nights went by I reckon I might say they swum by they slid along so quiet and smooth and lovely then that nice it's beautiful it's it's impossible but it's beautiful time you know becomes the river right you dip the abstraction of time into the sensuous flow of the river and then three or four days swim by they slid by so smooth so lovely it's a very different order of experiencing time and therefore it's a very different order of experience in general and then he goes on I mean that's that wonderful ID along the river where Jim and him are Jim and he are naked they put the raft down they talk about cosmology to each other I don't know if any of you remember but the question is why how how did the stars come about between him and Jim that's a big discussion on that River where time sort of stands still and is sensually mediated they also talk about how the Stars happened was made and Huck says it first oh they just happened sort of expressing a kind of scientific viewpoint that's an accident they took place and Jim says no the moon laid them and Huck thinks for a while and then if Jim goes on to say yeah that it laid them and falling stars are bad eggs hold that of the nest you know and then Huck thinks what and he says well that seemed to be so many of them I don't know that the moon could laid him but he said then I saw some tadpoles and I saw how many they were in the river and then I understood that the moon could have laid them so what's that about I mean that's that's about Jim you know having some understanding cosmologically of the universe is really not being a dead neutral object in which accident and chance rules but the universe being a place where love reigns where generation and reproduction takes place you know it's a kind of wonderful pantheistic animistic sense sense of light and that's possible only on the river where time is suspended for a moment right I mean that's that's one of the utopian moments in 19th century fiction there is so so good oh it's what you were raising your hand please do any time anybody wants to interrupt me I love being interrupted because my students will tell you another utopic moment I think that really is astonishing and is one of my favorites again where where a writer is going beyond the limits not of what is humanly possible but what is historically and socially possible is the great mowing scene in honor Karenin over 11 mows right remember some of you it's an extraordinary moment Levin went on mowing the author he experienced those moments of oblivion when his arms no longer seemed to swing the side but the site itself swung his whole body the side was so conscious and full of life and as if by magic regularly indefinitely without a thought being given to it the work accomplished itself of its own accord these were less moments you our hero Mo's with peasants and bringing in the Hema hey harvest in this scene and I get you a brief excerpt from it it's really goes on for about six pages all sorts of antimony z– and opposites are reconciled in the scene of ecstatic sensuously and morally fulfilling communal unalienated labor a kind of working of oneself back to eating you know when when you're left eating your you were doing – what sweat to work by the sweat of your brow and to give child give rise to childbirth in pain well he does this thing here where Levin works with the peasants falls into the rhythm of the peasants mowing after struggling to do so and finally begins to experience the kind of state of the attitude the kind of working of once a bet way back to the prelapsarian Eden all the senses in this experience are purified and brought alive through the unalienated labor taj smell taste it's also an overcoming of class distinctions between master and peasant it's also an overcoming of the distinction between tools and the man where the scythe takes on the life of its own instead of being a dead object being wielded by live human being it's the loss of a paralyzing self-consciousness it's it's it's an ecstatic utopian experience know that those are two examples of the way 19th century novels periodically reach out and fashion I hate to say construct because that leads you to deconstruct and you know in critics who regard life is an erector set and so I won't do that so that's that's part of what the nineteenth-century novel does there's many things that seem by the way it's also the reconciliation of play and work of subject and object it's really quite astounding now I'm gonna go these are notes on the nineteenth-century novel okay there's there's no unity here but that's alright there's often no unity in 19th century novels so anything I'm just paralleling them 20 century novels are anti positivistic by that I mean if you take the issue of money for example the approach of economists in the 19th century and even today is to say what's money Lin it's a it's a medium of exchange right that's what it is it's neutral it's a medium of exchange but that's the 19th century novelist in 19th century fiction money is loaded in crime and punishment for example every exchange embodies all sorts of money of human issues and feelings humiliation power castration sexuality rage generosity love wreck in Dostoevsky money is experienced in the deepest and most intimate recesses of the self and that's what 19th century novels do they they take reified concepts like money they bring them alive and they expose the intense human feeling that is embodied in them in Dickens money Oh II you know Dickens life in which he was proletarian isin abandoned as a child made to work in a blacking warehouse made to you know support himself at the age of 10 so that money was a crucial part of his experience as a human being and when he does marvelous things when when David Copperfield for example runs away from his warehouse it's a very autobiographical novel he undertakes this epic journey to his aunt where he thinks will be rescued from this proletarian existence and as he worked he has no money with him so he sneaked takes pieces of clothing and he keeps pointing them in various pawnshops along the way and of course Dickens who isn't want bubbler sense of humour has him say I was afraid by the time I got to my aunt I'd be naked you know so he keeps discarding articles of clothing and he meets first a pawnbroker called dollar B and he offers dollar B his waistcoat he wants to pawn it and he says to me can you give me a fair price for it then thought it looks under he said no no no he says can't be buyer and seller to this and then he provokes him into you right are so bargaining right and and by that very small moment which has to do with money and it's very important uh Dickens you know articulates this sense of what the social world is really about it's impossible for a child to expect an adult to be fair and to be generous the marketplace has invaded everything everyone's consciousness is full of the marketplace the way it is today right I mean it's really intense and that's the world that David has to has to contend with a little bit later he meets a very drunk and crazy pawnbroker and the ones that tries to pawn his jacket and the guy gives he says all right there you agree on the price but the guy then retreats to his house and won't get dick won't give David the money except every every few minutes or every hour he comes out with another pence and gives pet David of Pence and then goes back and David has to wait and every time he comes out he says guru guru guru my heart my liver my lungs my linh it's you know it's a grotesque comic but very meaningful moment see what he's saying is money pence my heart my liver my lungs my limbs the the equation of money with body parts is you know there's part of what Dickens's suggesting is as being the significance of of money and wonderful things like I mean when he's poor and a child and the blacking in the wine warehouse the issue comes about you know he makes 14 pence I think 18 pence a week and he always falls short at the end of the week why because he loves a certain kind of pudding that's baked in the shops with big currants in them you know and he he tries to resist buying it because it means by the end of the week he won't have enough money left to feed himself right and so you get this you know wonderful hallucinatory reality of money as having so much to do with you know with oneself but that you get there all right these this is that's money not a characteristic of 19th century novels that deal with money and they refuse to reify money they insist upon making money human and alive and relevant nother characteristic of theirs is they all almost end badly they have bad endings prefatory endings sacrificing probability to a happy ending in different endings not balanced you know you wonder why these are great novels why did they enemy was so crappy you know I really do they're just bad I mean if you think of the ending of of Huck Finn which is about Tom and Huck freeing a free man that's awful if you think of the way Austin ends her novels you know suddenly appearing in the eye form as a novelist and and tying everything up and resolving things and and almost a lackadaisical and different and playful way destroying the illusion of reality by ending you begin to wonder what the hell is going on that the novels are so bad well you know I think it really has to do with the fact that 19th century novels are only in a limited way only in a limited the 19th century novelist only in a limited way conceives of himself as a narrator as creating narratives with the beginning of middle and an end that's not that deepest level of his to e ology of his purpose it's rather the creation of a world that the 19th century novelist is about now a world unlike a narrative doesn't end right it just doesn't there were hopefully right so the ending suffered because a best division in the novelist between wanting to write a narrative who the beginning middle then wanna create an endless world and that that conflict results in in strange endings they don't want to end in short it's bright they they really don't the novelist who really took this to its furthest logical conclusion was of course Bozak right and Vasa wrote maybe a hundred ten novels he he wrote them late at night smoking a hookah with God knows what and drinking pots and pots of Turkish coffee you know sort of caffeine sludge all sorts of interesting things happen to him which we'll talk about maybe a little bit later one of the things that happened was his character spoke back to him all right he tried to get him to go one way and you know to do so and so and they said none you can't do this now you've probably all had that experience as writers haven't you will you create something and suddenly the creation runs away from you and runs away with you and takes on the life of its own and you say huh I didn't mean this I didn't plan this it just happened right well that's what keeps happening to Balzac right there's Carrie then that's what it means you know because of the coffee and the hookah he suffered from auditory hallucinations so he really they talk back to him did you see if he died of coffee poisoning he really did I tracked what novelist died of one of the things I do it's fun Dickens for exemple died of reading out loud what happened was that after in his 50s he was suffering from heart disease based upon kidney failure and his doctors he used to give readings out loud right and he was a great actor he directed amateur theatricals he was a fantastic actor but in these readings he tended always to choose works you know scenes from his own work and he tended to choose the most violent possible series for example in Oliver Twist of Sykes beating the prostitute Nancy to death was a huge club right that something about that turned him on so here we go right and he couldn't stop giving these readings because they made him a lot of money and given his early experiences as a child he never had money enough so his doctor said please don't do this your blood pressure goes up you have a heart condition and he couldn't stop himself the last reading he gave was of Oliver Twist from that scene now you have to realize what goes on in these readings 2,000 people show up they have fire men all over the place because they're using gas lights to light the stage right strong man weak women faint it's really a gigantic spectacle well he reads from that and then he goes home the next day he has a hard to take and he dies so I think that's what I mean by the dives are reading out loud right it's it's a joke but it's it's partly true Tolstoy died from running away to a railroad station which if you know either compression is quite ironic what yes absolutely because what he does by killing honor that I hate most of all of my students are you know when he did that he destroyed the parallel structure and the ending is flaccid because it doesn't have the tension between Levin and Anna and they longer yes yeah you know the marriage epic you know and then it's nice something she says that things go a little better with you and me is due to certain on historic acts like the ones that Dorothea makes it's it's nice but it isn't really you know it isn't strong it's just nice it's sort of trails off yes why where is unwilling what's what prevents them from using that the service of a meaningful ending that might be painful right horribly disgusting exactly well I say one of my explanations is that you know that if you try to end within the pages of a novel you're betraying in some sense the world creation that you had intended I think that there's a kind of explanation for why they're so bad you you really can't take a world and put it in the pages of a novel the world leaks out of those boundaries basically well I don't think some differences between oh but that had to do with their audience in part you have to understand this is very curious about 19th century novels and very important that their audience is not was not split between highbrow and lowbrow they had a mass audience right Tolstoy Dostoevsky Dickens trollope George Eliot wrote for thousands and thousands of people they wrote serial publication all of them right in which which result I'm sorry I'm beginning to skits off but what I'm doing is I'm free associating and instead of using following my text I hope you don't mind that's what what they wrote for serial publication that led to great intimacy with their audience for example Dickens issued his publications three chapters bound in a green cardboard cover with a litter graph on the FAQ with a sort of ad for liver pills on the other side and you know he'd issued these every month for the most part for most of his novels and the paterfamilias the Fatherhood family would run to the newsstand buy it and come home and read it to the children and to his wife right so you get this very intimate already thing going on where your audience is is there all the time while the novel is actually being produced in the certain way every once awhile that ran into trouble for example he grow the terrible novel called Oh Deary city shop with his lugubrious and the mental and it's really awful and it has a heroine at Little Nell and little net has a gambling grandfather she's an orphan and she has only grant for the left-knee Gamble's away all her money and she's being chased by a dwarf like white quilt of dwarf who eats hot shrimp with the tails on and who drinks burning rum without gagging right and he's chasing her and so he sort of you know he's sort of body and she's spirit I mean it's awful it's it's this is one really lousy Christian novel it's terrible and so he he writes this in serial publication and of course his audience gradually as the months wear on begins to become aware that Little Nell is going to die that that's part of the novel or a sacrifice right and it can't stand it so they start haunting him in the streets and they say they catch him they said dick and stickers please don't kill him now so he actually what point was recruited to put on a disguise a beard so he could avoid them and of course he killed little now that's what he had intended to do it was damned if his audience was gonna stop him from doing it but that kind of intimacy also led some of these writers to be unwilling to alienate their audience by really putting in deeply pessimistic endings so you know like the two endings and great expectations you know one ending is he never sees his taller again as he shouldn't she's a bitch and and he's bending resonated in so many ways right he really has and and so there's a really tragic sad ending so he Dickens reads it out loud to a friend of his fostering force this is your audience won't stand it you've got to do something here so these I ride he says and he puts in a line saying there was no shadow of a parting any longer between me and Estella you know a sock to your audience every there's just that kind of there's a sort of strange wonderful informality about these novels novelists are in it anyway they wrote for a man audience and I think this is very important they were not alienated modernist writers right why is it so important because that mass audience you know they could do two things simultaneously good runs very subtle complex novels that require lit crits to analyze them on the one hand and on the other hand these same novels were wholly accessible to their public right and that that's an amazing thing which can't be repeated in the modern world you don't have great literature that's totally accessible to a public your right is trying to protect themselves as they create from the vulgarity of their audience but not not not in the 19th century and that have all sorts of implications I mean one of them was that writers when they wrote Tolstoy Dickens misty St George Eliot really felt a great sense of self-confidence and empowerment they felt that they could shape their audience they could they could have a moral impact on a world they didn't feel helpless impotent marginalized what their desktop no it applies no one here right it's something and somebody else oh yeah oh yeah yeah yeah well Elliot had had had it she broke she had huge audience she was next to I think next to Dickens the most popular writer that that wrote in the 19th century and she also wrote for serial publication yeah she did she suffered from another issue which is that you know she lived with her paramour right who couldn't get a divorce and so Queen Victoria loved her work was wonderful moral everything and she wanted desperately to meet her but her advisors the Queen says no you can't do that Elliott is living in sin right come in one of her issues she's really again free association just for a moment it's really quite wonderful she started off being anonymous as a writer right that George Elia is really Mary Ann Evans and she used the pseudonym George Eliot partly because the first thing she wrote seems some clerical light contained a thinly veiled attack on her father and her brother and she didn't want her father and brother to know that she had done that so she used the pseudonym partly because she wanted her novels to be taken seriously and she felt that men would be taken more seriously than women so you know and she kept this fiction up for a long time you know for a couple of years after she'd become very famous until a crazy clergyman in the provinces realizing that nobody knew who George Eliot was decided to take credit for writing the book and at that point she said no we've gotta let people know now all this time she had submitted before people knew she admitted she had submitted a story to Dickens journal and Dickens read it once and said oh it's a woman it's very clear in Dickens got it straight anyway the sense of relation to a public a feeling of being able to mold and to shape human life rather than just to be a spectator rather to a commentator on it I think it's quite central to to 19th century novels it accounts among other things you know for the way they're not about art as so many novels today are they're not about the active novel writing they're not their heroes are not artists if you read a nineteenth-century novel you don't write a novel the portrait of the artist as a young man right if you do David Copperfield who some excuse me if you do David Copperfield who's a who's an artist a writer ultimately when it grows up it's not central to his experience and his experience is the experience that he has in common with ordinary people and these novels are about typical normative ordinary experience and part of that is because of the relationship of the writer to his audience also that sense of confidence makes itself manifest in these incredible narrative voices and to be to go to the craft of writing for a moment right these 1970 grace Paley you know you know greatest short story writer in America's ever produced to taught here and started the writing program here and it was the most arrested woman in the history of the United States peace demonstrations have reached the point where she had no state left where she wasn't on probation so she couldn't demonstrate any wonder because she'd be jailed you know she was quite wonderful she is to say to students of my pleas to her students all right please don't take it yes of course nothing against me we were friends and political allies but don't make a discos because of 19th century novelists have such powerful narrative voices you'll lose the capacity to develop your own narrative voice if you read too much of that stuff she used to say you know it's sort of a twisty but I'm very strong and they are very powerful listen to George Eliot for a moment right listen to the voice and they think nothing of breaking out in the middle of a novel and talking in their own voice and being prophetic and teaching an audience and preaching to an audience that there's nothing the matter with that from their standpoint you don't have to constantly sustain the illusion that this isn't being written and that there's no audience in a 19th century novel I think but listen to her for a moment if I can find it may not be the case yeah here's Eliot her her book is is written with a view to the death of God her disbelief any longer in the Christian religion and it's an attempt in part to find a substitute for Christian morality or for Christian ritual it's an attempt to find she tries to found something called the religion of empathy a naturalistic religion based upon the human capacity for empathy rather than a supernatural religion and you hear it their voice this way we are all of us born into moral stupidity and take the world as an utter to feed our supreme selves Dorothy had early begun Dorothy had early begun to emerge from that stupidity to conceive with that distinctness which is no longer reflection but feeling an idea wrought back to the distinctness of sense like the solidity of objects that he had an equivalent center of self whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference the rest the rest of is a little complicated I understand when you hear it you have to look at it in print but we are all of us born into moral stupidity and take the world as an other to feed our supreme selves Wow right listen to that legislative character of that voice listen to that voice saying you know speaking in terms of human universals and the we is so central very often to great 19th century novel it's the ability to say we and we means the writer the characters and the audience we they reach oles for the human Universal and try to achieve it without losing a sense of of concreteness that's one again the authority of nineteenth-century voices buzick you know I told you about those are great the god of coffee poisoning yeah okay and who who had people talk back to him right we'll deal with that in a moment how am i doing okay I got time right how much time do I have 20 minutes thank you going back to those are you here Bob socks voice and cousin bed if I can find it which I probably can yeah the confidence that they often have in simply summing up a historical moment in getting at its essence you hear him speaking of the bourgeois monarchy of Louis Philippe and cousin Bette oops sorry this yeah don't imagine that it's King louis-philippe were ruled by he knows as we all do that above the Charter that is the Constitution there stands the holy venerable solid Theodore gracious beautiful noble ever young almighty Frank right I mean just listen to them summarize you know the extent to which the Frank has become a kind of God in the world of Louis Philippe where is the baza today I mean if you think of what's happened in the last two years Ponzi schemes the collapse of the financial industry you know the total limitless list of human greed in this economy where is the great writer who taehu tackles that head-on you know it's it's it's the great theme of our time today been done of course Dickens did in Little Dorrit with a fancier myrtle you know he he des loves doing that with names you know but man is right in France's so he calls his financier Myrtle George we're not sure insisted that it was the most radical socialist novel that he knew that's ridiculous it's not but it's a brilliant dealing with a Ponzi scheme financier and trollop did it also with the way we live now in his novel so the these novels did that kind of thing and and it's sad that no great writer is tackling seems that big and that's central to our common historical experience at the moment and I wish it would start happening again because you know why because if we don't we leave an analysis of our common human condition to the goddamn social scientists and that's not a good idea it really is not I mean that their way of knowing is fractured is specialized and it's reified I mean you you what you need is the novel what you need is the human imagination bringing the truth alive you don't need to absorb the truth in a dead reified for you need the truth you know expressed in a in a grandiose act of the imagination in which which these writers were able to do that's that's the way the truth is really disclosed you know oh well sorry I got excited I forgot I I don't know well who do you think that was close to sunder step yeah I like Philip Roth very much but you know and and and he does have a large scope pretty long huh not only do you see political reactionary or the worst order okay yeah you should forget about politics he's right because one of the characteristics of you know that of 19th century realism is that the work consistently transcends the politics yeah maybe he does he dance a large ambition and then they write the finest we're cold humanly no no okay look you know I I don't know modern literature that world I think I talk as if I do all of our kids I love you know love in the Time of Cholera is one of my favorite books yeah anyway okay other things about 19th century novels bad endings there fat Karen Lawrence actually taught a course apparently in California called fat books in which every book that she read had to be a thousand pages are longer and these books are very fat you know if you ask why there are people who actually believe they were paid by the word I had somebody in my class say that recently and he had to read David Copperfield which is by the thousand pages and he was getting very tired and so it's a sort of nasty comment yeah that's long you know it's long because he was paid by the word no he wasn't paid by the word but the length is an issue and it's it's interesting to speculate what it might be about if you think of 19th century novels as being and this has to do with a very interesting conversation that Brian I once had at dinner in the president's house were I to be a little bit provocative said no great novelist can be a vegetarian my daughter was like stew I was trying to say something I should have said no great 19th century novelist could be a vegetarian that would have been a little better and what I meant by that is that kind of fastidiousness that says I will take this into myself I will not take this into myself right I will let this come at myself I will not let that come out of myself you can go both ways they speak that kind of fastidiousness is really foreign to the 19th century novelist who is a vigorous he swallows everything everything he possibly can get ahold of the body class sex psychology nature money anything he close and get ahold of his craving for the greatest fullness of reality is so profound right that that he swallows everything and then recreates the world now if you are God and it was your job to recreate the world and you had to leave include all these levels of reality we need a lot of time and space in order to do it even as God well that's why these not also so fast because they are so incredibly inclusive because they're trying to create a world and the world is complex and has so many different levels of reality and they're not willing to compromise on that world creation so they become very long there's a consequence is that Karen oh hi Karen how are you no cabbage what no no that's actually Joyce Joyce may well be a 19th century novelist in disguise exactly no there was a real continuity there as there is for example in portrait of the artist as a young men it's inconceivable without David Copperfield I mean it's really built on the the building's gone on and the treatment of childhood by David Copperfield and in so many ways anyway wait and now she's strung me loop right that's art I carried it's fun it was your course it was Karen's course that was fat books of course yeah okay now what else about 19th century novels yeah many many things they're full of self contradiction they're not coherent and orderly in their moral vision right there something goes on there that is really wonderful a kind of conflict between their ideology very often and a sense of reality for example Brothers Karamazov is the stielv Sookie's most Christian novel right I mean it really is celebrates Christian mysticism right in the middle of it okay his left wing and electroni intellectuals of his time attacked him for writing a politically tendentious Marley tendentious novel he responded huh I don't know how you say not in Russian but he did he said ha he said when would you ever find in their work a challenge so great and so profound to the goodness of God as that which I have put into Egon Karamazov Smouse you know even as the Atheist brother of the three in Brothers Karamazov and what he does he narrates a series of episodes of the torture of children they're horrible and they're so profound that he even shakes the christian mystic Alyosha at one point so he said what would you do to this man who bayonetted a child in the presence of his mother and Alyosha starts shaking and says shoot him he says tell me or show your faith is shaken but you know the CFCA really did that he really challenged himself with the opposite of what his viewpoint was and you can feel a dusty etske novel trembling with conflict between faith and doubt between faith and doubt between an insistence upon having a positive sublime view of life and a sense of reality that fundamentally contradicts it or if you take for example the two voices of Bleak House I mean read something of Aron esto you once told me you take the two voices that's an in-joke if you take the two voices of Bleak House right that's very interesting it's the only nineteenth-century novel that has two narrative voices and high voice again crafted fiction and a third person voice drunk but they are profoundly different Esther who is the eye voice of the novel is an orphan a modest humble self delimiting girl young girl who always serves other people whose with their welfare right and who narrates in such a ways take the count of the complexity of every human being that's Esther right and Esther writes the beautiful English sentence with a subject a verb and a predicate and never departs from that and Esther says to her audience she says I'm not very smart maybe this is about self deprecating I'm not very smart but my understanding quickens whenever I love someone what she's saying in effect is that I'm not going to narrate or understand the world through anger even though I've been abandoned and orphaned I can only understand and narrate the world through affection and love that's one narrator the second accurate here is absolutely wild the third person who's not a character in the novel as Esther is right but who's wild whose rage against the world is profound and who to whom Dickens gives every weapon of the imaginative novelist possible to express that rage against the world even up to the point where he wants to indict the political authorities for their failure to ameliorate the human condition where he he starts calling them coudl doodle doodle and foodle and then not being content with this a little bit later called some chisel missile pizzle and fizzle right I mean the kind of you know satire that totally dehumanizes them in order to express the rage that that third person feels now these two voices are never reconciled that is there's no resolution of the fundamental conflict by which they see the world none the novel ends with both voices still very real and very contradictory to each other and that's one of the characteristics of of 19th century fiction James Henry James called 19th century novels that loose baggy monster which is very nice I think it's partly true I don't know about the monster part but certainly well if you take the length but certainly loose and Baggies is often the case and part of that loose bagginess involves you know when you read a 90 century novels you can sometimes feel or at least I do this is a little bit crazy so don't don't listen to this too much you see you can sometimes feel that there the novels are still alive that you know if life means experiencing conflict and contradiction and I think it does to a very large extent these novels are still alive they you can feel the process by which they're written and you can feel the conflicts that are still in them you know that that are still expressed in them in all sorts of ways those are just two examples of radical conflict and radical contradiction in 19th century novels they're Allegiant I mean if you look at that Victorian novel of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park she writes this beautiful novel this wonderfully optimistic playful novel that integrates all human capacities meta Pride and Prejudice right I mean everyone who loves it partly because everything turns out wonderfully and you know and and there's no contradiction there in there you know the human condition that's integrated and is happy and then she writes Mansfield Park and which is humorless and Victorian and it's in its character but even there you see the conflict you see a character you see two characters Mary and Henry Crawford both of whom are denigrated in some way both of whom contain elements of Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice they have a sense of humor they're sexy they're playful right and and these characters are ultimately disposed at the end of the novel they don't get to marry the person they want to marry which is terrible and we lost in universe if you can't do that you can't do anything okay but throughout the course of the novel you begin to realize that although she is condemning them because it's a Victorian novel she's also in some way articulating who they are with the kind of vivacity life likeness and animation that she gets – none of the other characters and that tells you that he still hasn't resolved you know the victory she still hasn't fully absorbed the Victorian denial of the kind of paganism of Pride and Prejudice that the conflict still exists and you know it still exists because the next novel Emma comes back to life again and again is of living character with human you know intense human capacities so how much time have I got left I think I'm getting tired but what else do I want to say about 19th century novels I might say one or two things quickly more self-contradiction yeah form and content and very interesting relation between form and content a kind of punishment for example right there is no novel which depicts the human condition as worse than crime and punishment human beings are impoverished they suffer there is no human community there is no safety net does he actually in spite of being Christian empties the world of priests and of confessional so you have to go to a pub in a drunken state in order to confess to someone it's a horrible horrible world to have you nation of isolation of suffering right but then you look at his form and you realize that dusty upski writes in such a way that he's always doubling or tripling his characters either fully as a whole his doubles two triples Raskolnikov and mamela dove he triples the prostitute Sonja and Ruskin decodes sister dunia and or he takes parts of characters and he mirrors them in other characters that's the way he writes and then you realize isn't this interesting on the one has depicting a world in which there is no sense of community and on the other hand formally he is describing articulating a plot and characters in a narrative who constantly reflect each other so that at the level of foreign he's kind of creating a human community that totally contradicts and redeems the horrible world that he is describing substantively and you often get this kind of thing and in dusty escape so that's another thing laughter I got five minutes okay laughter there is no more hilarious world in the world of the 19th century there the phenomenology of laughter of different kinds of laughter that you can find in 19th century novels is extraordinary you know from the the wonderful cutting ironies of Jane Austen to things like George Eliot Wright's young men's consciousness is chiefly made up of their wishes the narcissism of young men I mean that's incredibly funny and I you know it's all over the place and including the belly laughs that you can get from Twain and certainly from Melville you know Melville reasons to write a mighty book you have to have a mighty theme he says you cannot write a mighty book about a mouse choosing a whale and in place of a mouse or you know it's sort of being ironic about it's wonderful being ironic about his own megalomania as a writer be laughing about it he says all he says give me a pen get me Mount Vesuvius as crater as an inkwell there's a Hubert throughout a tremendous amount of humor and and the humor is liberating I mean the humor allows all sorts of human Horrors to be depicted without dissolving us into an intolerable experience and it allows certain things to be expressed which couldn't be expressed you know without without the humor I'll give you a couple of examples and I'll stop there okay is that all right yeah a couple of examples Dickens the button the button popping in Dickens do any of you remember it's really quite wonderful here's David his mother is marrying the mean mr. murdstone who's going to ultimately a killer but not not literally murderer the killer through deprivation of love and through his archness and coldness and David is suffering this terrible oedipal defeat right and he turns to Peggotty the servant right the buxom servant let me see if I confront it and she hugs him a lot and he relies on these hugs to to sort of compensate him for the coldness of the world and the deprivation that's taking place so you hear this Peggotty opening her arms why took my curly head within them and gave it a good squeeze I know it was a good squeeze because being very plump whenever she made any little exertion after she was dressed some of the buttons on the back of her gown flew off and I recollect to bursting to the opposite side of the parlor while she was hugging me it's funny but it's it later elaborates it all over the place I mean he does things like this time he's being sent away so she's trying to be very very loving towards him you know really right so she hugs him really fiercely all her buttons flew off and you know what happens to know your buttons slow right you're left naked and this generous Earth Mother body is available to him for nurture and for nourishment so he gets serious in the middle of the comedy there's a kind of wonderful seriousness of it then he even takes it further he loves to elaborate these comic moments until they really go wild in their elaboration he says he's being sent away and Peggotty hugs him and some buttons roll off and he says I wonder if I were being sent away I could follow the trail back to my home of those buttons Hansel and Gretel right whoo-hoo yes exactly that's what you feel suddenly the comedy turns into exquisite poignancy of feeling right and and without that comedy the the poignancy of feeling would be lugubrious it would be sentimental and it would be terrible but with that comedy it can be it could be quite wonderful yeah so you get the button popping and then again with Peggotty I think some of the best scenes in the novel have to do with Peggotty of most comic ones he has bitten mr. murdstone's hand the evil stepfather and he's punished by being locked in his room and later he's going to be sent away to school separated from his mother so he's there right there's a keyhole in the door and Peggotty comes and she wants to communicate to him she can't hug him she can't pop by buttons at him you know but but she wants to express her love for him so they have a conversation through the keyhole this is hilarious I was obliged together to repeat it what she said for she spoke it the first time quite down my throat why and consequences much forgetting to take my mouth away from the keyhole and put my ear there and though her words tickled me a good deal I didn't hear them it's hilarious but you can feel something really important underneath the hilarity right I mean the sax is being cut off from all sources of nourishment and nurture and also the words that come through the keyhole as breath you know the word was made flesh its breath of life this is a lot of stuff going on there Pecha be fitted her mouth close to the keyhole and delivered these words through it with as much this is wonderful with as much feeling as a keyhole has ever been the medium of communication then finally you know he can't like go he's keeps on doing it together the campus hanging he fell to kissing the keyhole as she couldn't kiss me we both of us could disappear with the greatest affection I patted it with my head I recollect as if it had been her honest face okay I think I'll stop here thank you

3 thoughts on “Literature Discussion: Ilja Wachs on the 19th Century Novel

  1. So glad to find this on Youtube, I took Ilja's class @ SLC and his teachings changed my life, thanks for uploading!

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