Sunday, October 11, 2009

"Jameson and Form"

Terry Eagleton has a wonderful appreciation of Fredric Jameson in the most recent New Left Review. Because subscription is required, I'll post a few of the really fine paragraphs:
It would be hard to imagine Jameson writing an extended piece of straight political or economic analysis. What fascinates him, as a kind of phenomenologist of the mind, is the business of imaginatively reinventing ideas, as his prose lingers over their flavour and texture. Ideas in his writing come saturated in sensibility, and the sensibility in question is as distinctive as that of an outstanding poet or novelist. He is not, like George Steiner, a hedonist of the intellect: the truth value and practical force of ideas are by no means a matter of indifference to him. His strength, however, is less that he coins new concepts, though he has of course done so, than that he provides us with imaginative objective correlatives for our knowledge. In Shelley’s fine phrase about the task of the poet, he enables us to ‘imagine what we know’.
And later,
Jameson’s suspicion of the ‘deep’ individual subject of modernism goes hand in hand with his animus against morality. There is an unexpected reference to Vice in The Modernist Papers, but it turns out to be a misprint for Vico. Subjectivity, morality, the personal or interpersonal life: these in Jameson are neuralgic points, places where the emotional temperature of the prose is momentarily raised, and as such, one suspects, symptomatic of something at all costs to be avoided. No doubt this is one reason for his affection for some of the more impersonal products of postmodernism, despite his belief that such culture represents the late flowering of a political system he opposes. Since I have taken issue elsewhere with Jameson’s aversion to the moral, I do not intend to rehearse that argument here.13 I want rather to suggest the relevance of this allergy to ethics to questions of form and style in his work. The point at stake is a question of critical practice, not of philosophical outlook. It can be claimed that form operates in Jameson’s work among other things as a kind of psychical defence against the ethical, in the sense of emotional, psychological and behavioural content.
But the issue is not just whether Jameson should give the ethical more credence; it is rather that his refusal to do so results in an undue dismissal of the empirical or phenomenal appearance of the literary work. In quasi-structuralist fashion, the empirical presence of the work is too quickly bracketed. Reading the essays on Thomas Mann in The Modernist Papers, with their wonderfully innovative investigations of irony, allegory, mimesis, polyphony, genre, narrative structure and the like, one is struck by the realization that Jameson says very little about what the common reader, even the common leftist reader, will surely carry away from The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus. What has happened to the explicit content of these novels—to the motifs of sickness, suffering, love, evil, unreason, humanism, Eros, mortality, barbarism, sacrifice? Why does Jameson appear so loth to tackle these common-or-garden thematics head-on, telling us what he thinks about such momentous questions, where he stands, what judgements he himself would pass on the various pressing subjects that come up? Throughout The Modernist Papers, as well as elsewhere in his work, he has something of a cavalier way with such matters, referring somewhat disdainfully to the standard interpretations of Kafka’s fiction (roughly, Oedipality, bureaucracy and religion), and inclining as early as The Political Unconscious to write off with chinleading provocation such notions as character, event, plot and narrative meaning as so many ‘false problems'.
The last four or five pages which constitute Eagleton's critique are masterful, incisive admonitions for what good criticism must include: "Yet rather as Jameson discerns a form of repression at the heart of a Cézanne canvas, so his own astonishingly adventurous re-writings of works of art in terms of form, structure and history, in which such works are estranged almost to the point of being unrecognizable, would seem based on a repression of the subjective, empirical and psychological, all of which needs to be rigorously, almost contemptuously banished by this otherwise most generous, inclusive of thinkers." A paragraph later, Eagleton admits that Jameson's repressions are the preconditions of his extraordinary successes, but his point about what is lost nonetheless registers.


Adam Roberts said...

I share your appreciation of this; will have to seek out the latest New Left Review and read the whole thing. I particularly like the little snip that Steiner has no interest in the truth-function of his ideation: not true, I think, but elegantly poignarded nonetheless.

Andrew Seal said...

Yeah--Terry Eagleton making a gratuitous dig at one of his enemies? Shocking!

Anonymous said...

Rev Eagleton has all the subtlety of his mentor.