Sunday, November 20, 2011

Reading the Other

       I just finished Carol de Dobay Rifelj’s Reading the Other. This is a fascinating book applying the question of how truly we can ever know the world, others, and ourselves to an intriguing mix of novelists--Anglophone popular fiction (Arthur Canon Doyle and Dashiell Hammett), French fiction of intricate psychology (Mérimée, Villiers de L'Isle Adam,  and Proust) and a writer who oddly might be said to syncretize the above: Anthony Powell. I paid the most attention to the Powell chapter, but the entire book is worth noting, as an instance of philosophical criticism done rigorously but lucidly, in a way useful for a class. (I occasionally teach The Maltese Falcon, and next time I do I will make sure my students are exposed to Rifelj's analysis of Sam Spade and his "incapacity to trust"). Rifelj is to some extent a disciple of Stanley Cavell, and, through him, Wittgenstein, but what I liked about her work is that, unlike the first and popular costructions of the second, she does not see skepticism or the evincing or encouraging of radical doubt as inherently limiting to our ability to live in community sometimes we need, precisely to sustain ourselves as a community,  a sense of enigma, encryption, the asymptotic: some ties, as Robert Frost put it (meaning to operate in the realm of epistemology as well as property) "Good fences make good neighbors."  Private mysteries and the public weal can sometiems fruitfully co-exist. 
       Although I recommend the entire book, I am going to concentrate on Rifelj's treatment of Powell, the author with whom I have been most concerned with professionally. 
       I think Powell himself would have very much liked being in a book largely devoted to French writers, especially Proust, the one writer who he openly acknowledged as a model. I think Powell would have also appreciated how the theme of other people, how much we can ever really know them, and the cognitive uncertainty attendant on that is both in itself an interesting philosophical problem and a manifest theme in Powell’s works. One does not feel a philosophical agenda is larded over the characters of Dance, but that Rifelj is reading the philosophical implications of Jenkins’s musings of how much we can ever know about the lives (marriages, goals, hopes, inner promptings) of others. (Again, one has to say that Rifelj is one of the few critics to deploy the theories of Cavell without becoming a captive to them and without seeing skepticism; as the enemy; she concludes her analysis of Powell by saying Powell’s goal is not to overcome skepticism but to help us to live with it, which is refreshing given that when most critics mention Cavell they seem to want to force us into a homey, prematurely consensual post-skepticism). She shows how Jenkins, and the narrative he marshals, is curious about others but not pruriently so, wants to know as much as possible about others but respects their essential mystery. I think Rifelj’s book is very welcome in Powell studies since it is not just a guidebook, but also a treatment of a specific, complex theme in which Powell is seen as on a par with other great writers. As said before, that it is in a comparative and transnational literary context makes it all the more valuable. To my mind, Rifelj exceeds Robert Selig’s nonetheless fine and valuable narratological study published at about the same time, Time and Anthony Powell, in that, whereas Selig ingeniously analyzed the text’s narrative modes in the style of Gérard Gentte, Rifelj, who also cites Genette's work on Proust, sees the cognitive implications of those modes. (For another book that discusses the cognition of rhetoric, see Raphael Lyne's excellent new book on Shakespeare and cognition). For instance when Rifelj mentioned “second-degree speculation,” when Jenkins cites what other people say about still other people, she does not just note it as a procedure but shows how that technique impacts our sense of how other people are known. Rifelj explicitly distances herself from seeing Dance as social history, but given the importance of gossip—what we say about others and to what degree it is true—her speculations on how we can ever possibly know others provides the basis for seeing how the sequence’s social history works.
     As with any good piece of criticism, Rifelj’s treatment of Powell made me recognize aspects of the text I had not noticed before, What Rifelj, following John Russell (the literary critic, not the art critic) calls “dialogue scrolls”—those five to ten line exchanges of staccato, stichomythic dialogue so characteristic of Powellian conversatiins--are particularly exemplified in Jenkins’s relationship with Jean Templer. In reading Rifelj's quotation of them, I realized a) Jenkins often has similar dialogue scrolls with his eventual wife, Isobel b) although very similar in form, they are very different in tone, and that tells us something about why one relationship failed and the other succeeded, information that, as Rifelj points out, is not at all manifest in the text due to Jenkins’s reserve and reticence. In addition, it was not until Rifeljs' analysis of Pendry's suicide that I realized both Pendry and, in the next book, Biggs killed themselves during the war. This not only testifies to the emotional ravages or wartime pressures—and makes Powell into a more nuanced and tragic observer of war than is usually thought—but also intersperses the ‘mobilized’ deaths—the deaths of people like Priscilla and Chips Lovell that tally with the narratives overall frame—with less mobilized, more random deaths, as if even tragedies are divided into events which fit into a pattern and those which, cruelly do not.
       To look again at the company into which Rifelj placed Powell, to take Mérimée, Proust, Conan Doyle, and Hammett together, one gets a group of writers that are both storytellers and philosophers, diagnosing in different ways the mysteries of life. Rifelj's work (which I was unaware of until Joe Trenn of The Bookshed mentioned it to me, and which thus I lamentably failed to include in the bibliography of Understanding Anthony Powell) is just the kind of work on Powell we should be seeing more of--not an introductory overview, unafraid to go outside his immediate social and generational context to put the writer up against more transverse and broadening contents. I regret Rifelj, who taught French at Middlebury and died in 2010, never had a chance to attend an Anthony Powell Society meeting or conference. But her work is major, and it will continue to reverberate henceforward.

1 comment:

kcm said...

Also thnnks to Joe Trenn I have Rifelj's book in the reading pile beside the bed. This make it a more imperative read. Thanks!