NOVEL RELATIONS: VICTORIAN FICTION AND BRITISH PSYCHOANALYSIS by Alicia Mireles Christoff, Reviewed by Thomas Albrecht
 


NOVEL RELATIONS: VICTORIAN FICTION AND BRITISH PSYCHOANALYSIS
By Alicia Mireles Christoff
(Princeton UP, 2019) xii + 269 pp.
Reviewed by Thomas Albrecht on 2021-02-11.

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This book is a delightful, rich, ambitious, potentially paradigm-shifting work of literary criticism and literary theory. Ostensibly and foremost, it is a work of psychoanalytically inflected criticism devoted to close, complementary readings of Victorian novels and mid-twentieth-century British psychoanalytic texts. And it is also a work of literary theory in the most positive sense of that term, insofar as throughout it carefully and deliberately reflects on the possibilities and limitations of its own critical methodology and on critical modes of reading more generally.

Christoff reads four Victorian novels alongside works of post-Freudian British "object relations" psychoanalysis. Each of her four long chapters highlights a specific affective state: loneliness, wishfulness, restlessness, and aliveness. And each pairs a well-known novel by either Thomas Hardy (Tess of the D'Ubervilles and The Return of the Native) or George Eliot (The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch) with complementary psychoanalytic texts by major and lesser-known figures like Melanie Klein, D. W. Winnicott, Wilfred Bion, Michael Balint, Betty Joseph, and Paula Heinemann. She also devotes serious attention to work by the latter figures' mid-twentieth-century contemporaries, as well as by more recent scholars such as Christopher Bollas, Adam Phillips, Thomas Ogden, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.

Methodologically, this book offers a potentially groundbreaking alternative to more familiar psychoanalytic approaches to literature and culture. Christoff does not psychoanalyze either characters or plot events, authors, or readers. Nor does she interpret the "drives" or "desires" of literary texts or narrative plots, as for instance Peter Brooks does. Nor does she diagnose psychological symptoms within works of literature, or apply psychoanalytic concepts to those works. Her key critical term, as indicated in her book's title, is relation. Christoff offers what she calls a "relational reading" of literary and psychoanalytic texts.

Beyond the complementary relationship that she posits between Victorian literature and British psychoanalysis, what does this mean, exactly? For Christoff, to read relationally means to conceive of reading in affective terms, as a felt experience rather than a hermeneutic or analytical project. Rather then treating the literary text as a single, distinct, separate object to be hermeneutically mined for hidden meanings or New Critically dissected into synecdochic parts, Christoff conceives of reading as aesthetic and phenomenological. She highlights both the text itself and the experience of reading it, without letting either one dominate the other or absolutely distinguishing the two. For her, the text is not purely objective, nor is reading purely subjective. Instead, the text is an open, incoherent, loosely amalgamated cluster of different, related objects and affects, including but not limited to textual objects, and including but not limited to readerly affects. The various affects that help make up the felt experience of the text as Christoff defines it are those of the characters, the narrator, and the author as well as of the reader or critic. In a similar vein, Christoff treats reading as a matrix of affects and affective relations that circulate not only within the reader herself but also between the reader and the text and its objects, its characters, its narrator or narrators, its author or authors, and possibly other (real or fictional) persons.

Complementing her focus on affect, Christoff scrutinizes both texts qua texts and textuality: the texture of the concrete forms and narratives that readers encounter in the texts they read and also in their own thoughts and feelings, including their thoughts and feelings about those texts. In its focus on textuality and texture, Christoff's way of reading is formalist, though not in the reductive, conservative sense that commentators often pejoratively misattribute to the New Critics. For Christoff, form matters because human affects and affective relations are necessarily embodied in and as specific forms and narratives. Affects and affective relations, she argues, are constituted in and as forms. They are fictionalized in and as narratives. For Christoff, in short, the forms and narratives in literary texts as well as in our thoughts and feelings are what mid-twentieth-century British psychoanalysts, following Freud and Melanie Klein, call objects.

What then is broadly significant about this shift in emphasis from psychoanalytic interpretation and literary analysis to a critical discussion of relations, affects, and objects? Like "object relations" studies in psychoanalysis, Christoff argues, novels such as Hardy's and Eliot's show us -- especially when read alongside such studies -- how human subjectivities are formed. More specifically, she suggests, they reveal the great complexity of these formations: how subjectivities develop through various affects and affective relations, objects and object relations, forms and fictions, and through the readings we do and the stories we tell. According to Christoff, a critical focus on relations and affects, and on objects in the psychoanalytic sense, helps us more fully understand and appreciate -- and sometimes marvel at -- the variety of social, psychic, and literary relations that constitute a person.

According to Christoff, reading novels in light of psychoanalytic object relations shows how alternative forms of subjectivity are realized, and how more such forms might be realized in the future. Victorian novels and mid-twentieth-century psychoanalysis, she argues, reveal to us forms and relations through which we might (and already do) alternatively constitute ourselves as persons, especially outside of dominant, normative paradigms. While rigorously aware of the cultural blind spots and limitations of both the Victorian novels and mid-twentieth-century psychoanalytic texts she treats, she ultimately defines both kinds of texts, as well as the phenomenology of her (and our) reading them, in affirmative terms. Rather than applying a hermeneutics of suspicion, in other words, Christoff finds that the subjectivities activated in and by her Victorian and psychoanalytic texts are (at least potentially) free. Constituted, or potentially constituted, through various forms and narratives, affects and objects, affective and object relations, these subjectivities are fundamentally not pre-determined.

Christoff thus swerves from long-predominant critical and theoretical paradigms of subjectivity. Against those paradigms, she argues that human subjectivities are neither forcibly homogeneous nor essentially and necessarily constrictive. They are neither inherently disciplining in the Foucauldian sense, nor ideologically interpolating in the Althusserian sense, nor castrating in the Freudian or Lacanian senses. Viewed in the more affirmative light cast by Eliot, Hardy, and British psychoanalysis, human subjectivities are various, multiple, and diverse. We and our inner experience of ourselves, Christoff asserts, are continually beset by the constrictive, culturally predominant forms and narratives that would determine us: sexual, racial, and gender binaries; racism and colonialism; heteronormativity; standard psychoanalytic paradigms like the Oedipus complex or Eros and Thanatos; and standard novelistic paradigms like the Bildungsroman or the marriage plot. But Christoff insists that our subjectivities also continually exceed these deterministic constraints.

What then does Christoff contribute to the study of Victorian fiction and of Hardy and Eliot in particular? While her long and complex analyses are difficult to summarize compactly, they certainly offer fresh perspectives on the known and familiar landscapes of four major novels. Within all four novels, for example, Christoff finds object relations as well as historical and discursive contexts that critics have heretofore generally overlooked, and that the novels themselves have ostensibly overlooked, ignored, or obscured. In The Mill on the Floss and The Return of the Native, which critics commonly read in terms of their pointedly local contexts and references, she exhumes embedded contexts and object relations that are unexpectedly global and geopolitical, colonial and racial. Rather than stressing the constraints of The Mill on the Floss -- the stunted, unformed female longings and tragic endings that customarily dominate critical discussions of it -- she argues that the novel points "to the future, nascently offering forms and experiences of relationality that cannot yet [in Eliot's time] be thought" (99). In making this argument, she reads the novel through the lenses of present-day feminist and "queer of color" theory, and specifically through the work of José Esteban Muñoz. Likewise, Christoff's reading of Tess promps us unexpectedly to reconsider Hardy's apparent insistence on the essential solitude and isolation of its eponymous heroine, and her reading of Middlemarch sharpens our appreciation of that novel's famous and infamous narrator, and specifically of the omniscience, multiplicity, and vitality of her narrative voice.

For one compact example of Christoff's critical approach, consider how she reads the letter of forgiveness that Philip Wakem sends to Maggie Tulliver late in The Mill on the Floss. Critics often read this letter as Eliot's somewhat clunky imposition of authorial sympathy onto one of her characters. But Christoff declines to interpret the letter, autobiographically or otherwise. Nor does she reduce its message to any kind of ethical imperative, whether selflessness or empathy, as other critics have done. Contrarily and paradoxically, she reads the letter as a message of intense self-exertion and even self-assertion. According to Eliot, she argues, the self exerts and asserts itself by opening itself to others, by intensely thinking and feeling "through and with" other persons (98). Besides closely examining Eliot's text, she sets it beside echoing texts from Winifred Bion and formulates her own affective responses to both. "Living our lives as enlarged and widened by others," she concludes, "is, after all, in a sense all that we can do ... a sense of how deeply related we are is on one level impossible to fully understand, and, on another level, all that we will ever experience" (98-99). She thus takes the letter a long way from the messages of selflessness or empathy that most critics find in it.

In psychoanalytically blurring the line between a text and any given reading of it, in deliberately overstepping or ignoring categories such as text, reader, author, narrator, character, subjective, and objective, Christoff will provoke some skepticism. To some readers, her repeated emphasis on affect and affective relations will too closely approximate the affective fallacy. Others may question her readings on epistemological grounds, asking whether her insights can be called knowledge at all, in the sense of objective understanding, scientific certainty, or data. Or the kind of knowledge that interpretations of literature traditionally give us.

Christoff might counter that her readings offer an altogether different kind of knowledge, and that in our own historical moment, we as literary critics should carefully consider what kinds of knowledge we do and do not wish to produce at this time, and why. For my part, I would say that Novel Relations persuasively uses Victorian literature and psychoanalysis to reveal the immense complexity of what texts actually are, as well as the related, immensely complex experience of reading them (and of thinking and feeling while reading). These kinds of complexities, Christoff demonstrates, are irreducible to the familiar, recurring tropes and models that dominate traditional Freudian psychoanalysis, standard Victorian novelistic paradigms, and traditional scholarship in Victorian Studies and literary and cultural studies. They are likewise irreducible, she suggests, to the positivist parameters of current cognitive approaches to literature, a field to which she makes several passing references.

Even as she stresses the importance of affect, affective relations, and subjectiveness, including her own, Christoff consistently maintains critical rigor. Her book never drifts into haphazard impressionism. On the contrary, its rigor is manifest throughout, especially in her fine close readings of literary and psychoanalytic primary texts. In their meticulous attention to each text, and to the significance of seemingly marginal or irrelevant details, those readings measure up to the high standards set by the best New Critical, Freudian, and deconstructive models. Secondly, by re-examining both Victorian novels and British psychoanalysis in terms of gender, race, sexuality, colonialism, and homophobia as well as subjectivity, Christoff makes her strong political commitments clear. And thirdly, the book is buttressed by an extensive, impressively diverse bibliography of psychoanalytic, literary, and cultural secondary criticism and theory, with much of which Christoff engages directly, thoughtfully, and always generously. To be sure, she ignores the rich tradition of non-psychoanalytic approaches to affect by literary critics such as I.A. Richards, Stanley Fish, Wolfgang Iser, and Michael Riffaterre, or by the school of American Reader-Response criticism. But given the impressive range of critics and critical approaches that she does address substantively and in detail, we should be grateful that at some point she stopped reading other scholars and started writing.

Above all, however, Novel Relations stands out for me by richly unfolding the affects and intricacies of reading: the feelings and thoughts, objects and relations, that are shown to permeate the text we read and that also come to permeate us, and even to constitute us, as we read it.

Thomas Albrecht is Associate Professor of English at Tulane University.


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