A Probable State: The Novel, the Contract, and the Jews

A Probable State: The Novel, the Contract, and the Jews

by Irene Tucker

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Why has the realist novel been persistently understood as promoting liberalism? Can this tendency be reconciled with an equally familiar tendency to see the novel as a national form? In A Probable State, Irene Tucker builds a revisionary argument about liberalism and the realist novel by shifting the focus from the rise of both in the eighteenth century to


Why has the realist novel been persistently understood as promoting liberalism? Can this tendency be reconciled with an equally familiar tendency to see the novel as a national form? In A Probable State, Irene Tucker builds a revisionary argument about liberalism and the realist novel by shifting the focus from the rise of both in the eighteenth century to their breakdown at the end of the nineteenth. Through a series of intricate and absorbing readings, Tucker relates the decline of realism and the eroding logic of liberalism to the question of Jewish characters and writers and to shifting ideas of community and nation.

Whereas previous critics have explored the relationship between liberalism and the novel by studying the novel's liberal characters, Tucker argues that the liberal subject is represented not merely within the novel, but in the experience of the novel's form as well. With special attention to George Eliot, Henry James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and S. Y. Abramovitch, Tucker shows how we can understand liberalism and the novel as modes of recognizing and negotiating with history.

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A Probable State: the Novel, the Contract, and the Jews

By Irene Tucker

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2000 Irene Tucker
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226815358

Writing A Place For History

Daniel Deronda and the Fictions of Belief

Coal, like the English language, like freedom, general intelligence, or piety, is protestant.

hollis read, the hand of god in history, 1849
In 1856 Marian Evans, a translator and essayist of minor renown, took it upon herself to offer the world a theory of fiction. A year later "George Eliot" published her first work of fiction, a novella called "The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton." Its author insisted that the piece be presented in Blackwood's as the first installment of a series titled "Scenes of Clerical Life," even though in January 1857, when "Amos Barton" first appeared, the existence of the subsequent installments was little more than theoretical. If we can only speculate on how the theory might have provided its author the credit, both psychological and editorial, to believe in her fiction-making ability before she had written a fiction, we take a stand on firmer ground to note that the theory, "The Natural History of German Life," bears the marks of its anteriority to practice. Marian Evans need not have written any fiction herself to set rules for how it might be done because, according to "NaturalHistory," the best model for writing fiction is not to be found in existing works of fiction. The essay, first published in the Westminster Review, takes English pastoral writers and painters to task for the romantic excesses of their representation of "true peasantry" and calls for a fictional realism that adopts the methods of "direct observation" found in the sociological writings of German natural historian W. H. Riehl. "The Natural History of German Life" is striking in its bold assertions that rules might be made and that the truth value, and consequently the ethical and political force, of a writer or artist's realist fictions might be linked to their representational fidelity to the known.

Although this optimism regarding the efficacy of rules might be seen as at once a cause and a symptom of the autonomy of Eliot's fictional theory and practice, I believe the optimism of "Natural History" is both more subtle in its operation and more far-reaching in its claims than is implied in this account of the essay as a codification of fictional technique. Framed as a review of and general introduction to Riehl's work, Eliot's "Natural History" traces the ways private experience--from affective and family relations to the perception of other forms of phenomenal or material reality--becomes "common." But while the general contours of Eliot's subject matter clearly conform to the parameters of an emerging "science of society," her decision to link the question of the common to issues of aesthetic representation not only helps determine the specific role of theory in relation to the practice of imagining but also leads her to develop a notion of the common, a category of culture that departs markedly from earlier models. Eliot opens her essay with what appears to be a theory of language and in doing so places herself within a tradition whose members include John Locke and Adam Smith, writers best known for theories of private property, for whom the relations of proper and common embedded in the structures of grammar were understood to be a necessary supplement to a socius overtly structured around property. But though Eliot begins "Natural History" by locating it within this linguistic tradition, as the essay unfolds it distances itself from this discourse, finally transmuting into a theory of fiction by which the novel's claim to be about something other than the language out of which it is constructed, to represent a world of behaviors not reducible to "common meaning," becomes the basis of the genre's power to create commonness. And if Eliot seems from the outset to intuit the significance of this autonomy of the fictive imagination by producing a theory of fiction before she actually writes a novel, this same excessiveness of the imagined novel to its theory will paradoxically operate in her final novel, Daniel Deronda, to produce a model of the common that supplants the very theory that predicted it.

I begin this chapter by briefly examining the theories of language developed by Locke and Smith, theories of language designed to resolve, or at least to circumvent, the tension between private property right and the common social consensus that both writers considered in some way necessary to guarantee this right of private possession. "The Natural History of German Life" implicitly offers a critique of these linguistic models of commonness and presents its own model of culture generated out of the workings of the artist's imaginative authority, a model I will explore in relation to the controversies surrounding Eliot's own complex, pseudonymic authority. Given Eliot's established interest in the link between linguistic commonness and the distribution of private property, Daniel Deronda's dilation and worrying of the question of inheritance seems entirely predictable. But if Daniel's search for his father locates him squarely within a tradition of "orphan and revealed identity" plots as old as the novel itself, that the search for his father leads him to his mother implies a fundamental transformation. In place of the query "Who is the father?" (that is, "From whom shall an individual character receive his property?") we are offered a different question: "What are the rules by which not only property but cultural identity is dispersed or passed from one generation to the next?" Daniel Deronda engineers this shift in emphasis on a thematic level, but the fact that it is only through the process of searching for his father that Daniel discovers he ought to be searching for his mother means the thematic realignment not only is inextricable from the process of telling the narrative but is indeed a consequence of it. In moving from the question of who is the real father to ask what social conditions allow inheritance to take place, Eliot makes Daniel Deronda the occasion of a scrupulous anatomizing of the way the representational logic of the realist novel underwrites the logic of liberal property.

Signifying Something: The Language of Property

The English recoinage debate, which began in earnest in 1695, took up the structure of monetary value amid severe economic crisis. With the outbreak of war against France in 1689, the English government was forced to send large shipments of coins to the Continent to pay its soldiers and fund its Flemish allies, sharply increasing the domestic demand for silver shillings, which were already in short supply. Although the English economy of the period was organized on a silver standard, the mint had been issuing gold guineas for nearly thirty years. But whereas the value of silver coins was fixed by law, the price of the guineas was allowed to fluctuate with the market value of gold bullion. As a consequence of this legal disparity, silver became undervalued; that is, the face value or denomination placed on silver coins was less than the value of the raw silver contained in the coins themselves. This gap in value encouraged English people and foreigners alike to melt down English coins and export the bullion to Europe for sale at the higher price. Then the gold could be imported back into England for buying up more cheap silver coins. This disparity between nominal and actual value also encouraged people to clip off the edges of these hammered coins and melt down the clippings, exacerbating the disparity between the two indexes of value.

In an effort to extricate his country from this fiscal crisis, Treasury Secretary William Lowndes prepared a report for the King's Privy Council in which he offered the then startling claim that the exchange value of silver coins does not depend on their silver content but is instead produced as a convention by the process of exchange itself. In a forceful rejoinder to Lowndes, John Locke rejected the idea that the value of silver coins might simply be conventional, insisting instead that they have an absolute value or meaning derived from the "universal esteem" in which silver is held. In positing the existence of a universal esteem for silver, Locke attempted to do for money what his Second Treatise of Government had already done for property: create a natural value that by virtue of its naturalness would remain forever beyond the reach of political maneuvering. But while Locke's efforts to naturalize the value of silver followed the same basic logic as his argument for the natural right to private possession, the two naturalizations can quickly be seen to conflict. So long as the value of silver coins exists universally--exists independently of who owns those coins--Locke is hard pressed to explain how the question of private property (who owns what) can be made to signify. In Locke's account, then, the possibility of common value, of agreeing on a common meaning, appears to stand in irremediable conflict with the goal of distributing private property differentially among individual citizens.

This tension between the proper and the common articulated by Locke in particularly compact form--as a theory of signification of money itself-- reappears a century later in the work of Adam Smith as a full-blown theory of language. In his essay "Considerations concerning the First Formation of Languages," Smith lays out a narrative of the process by which the private language of primitive individuals becomes common. By establishing an autonomous theory of language rather than simply enfolding language into a more general theory of signification as Locke had done, Smith does an end run around the Lockean impasse. Since the entity to which he shifts his attention--language--can be said not to exist until it is possessed in common, Smith's insistence on language as the organizing principle of social commonness operates by dematerializing what becomes proper.

In Smith's narrative, particular material objects become possessed in--and as--common by being given a single name:

Those objects only which were most familiar to them, and which they had most frequent occasion to mention, would have particular names assigned to them. The particular cave whose covering sheltered them from the weather, the particular tree whose fruit relieved their hunger, the particular fountain whose water allayed their thirst, would first be denominated by the words cave, tree, fountain, or by whatever other appellations they might think proper, in that primitive jargon, to mark them. Afterwards, when the more enlarged experience of these savages had led them to observe and their necessary occasions obliged them to make mention of other caves and other trees, and other fountains, they would naturally bestow, upon each of those new objects, the same name by which they had been accustomed to express the similar object they were first acquainted with. The new objects had none of them any name of its own, but each of them exactly resembled another object, which had such an appellation.
In Smith's story of the origins of language, the movement into (common) language is represented as the shedding of proper nouns; commonness is achieved as individuality--the wanderer's wholly private system of names (including, implicitly, his or her own)--is transmuted into the generalized particularity of common nouns. Insofar as he eliminates proper names entirely from the world he describes, Smith envisions a common culture created out of the absolute distinction of subjects and objects.

But Smith's account does not so much substitute cultural capital for material capital as the defining stuff of possession as it seeks to hide the way proper and common are established as a direct result of the intervention of some sort of undefined authority. While the story of origin promises to authorize common language as a solution to the problem of social isolation caused by individual experience and private possession by revealing how such a substi tution of language for things takes place, in fact the narrative works only by means of its failure to narrate:

It was impossible that those savages could behold the new objects, without recollecting the old ones; and the name of the old ones, to which the new bore so close a resemblance. When they had occasion, therefore, to mention, or to point out to each other, any of the new objects, they would naturally utter the name of the correspondent old one, of which the idea could not fail, at that instant, to present itself to their memory in the strongest and liveliest manner. And thus, those words, which were originally the proper names of individuals, would each of them insensibly become the common name of a multitude. (204)
As Smith narrates the process of substitution and resolution, the narration becomes the solution as the grammar of the passage transmutes the beholdings of individual savages into the collectivity that is "their" memory, the argument over possession waged by the syntactic fiat of the genitive. Language becomes common, ceasing to be the accumulation of the particular names an individual bestows on the objects encountered in random wanderings around the countryside, only by passing through a moment of "insensibility," a mysterious and seemingly unnarratable process following which language becomes at once immaterial and common. This moment of "insensibility" evacuates the commonness of any identifiable content by submerging the complex negotiations waged by competing and differently empowered experiencing subjects in a rush of mystically indescribable unity. Common language in this history is not the ground of political authority, or even the medium within which it might be established, but instead is the condition of politics' elimination.

And lest we be tempted to conclude that the anxiety about the reconcilability of common culture and private property that generates Smith's "First Formation of Languages" is merely a symptom of the new proliferation of private ownership in the eighteenth century, we ought to note that this anxiety persists, in somewhat altered form, well into heyday of industrialized England in the work of Eliot's contemporary John Stuart Mill. Whereas Smith's essay worried that a commitment to private property and experience might inhibit the formation of common culture, for the Mill of "On Liberty" (1859) the existence of a common, what he terms "public opinion," poses a real and substantial threat to the preservation of private ownership:

There is confessedly a strong tendency in the modern world towards a democratic constitution of society, accompanied or not by popular political institutions. It is affirmed in the country where this tendency is most completely realized . . .--the United States--the feeling of the majority, to whom any appearances of a more showy or costly style of living than they can hope to rival is disagreeable, operates as a tolerably effectual sumptuary law, and that in many parts of the Union it is really difficult for a person possessing a very large income, to find any mode of spending it, which will not incur popular disapprobation....It is known that the bad workmen who form the majority of the operatives in many branches of industry are decidedly of the opinion that bad workmen ought to receive the same wages as good, and that no one ought to be allowed, through piecework or otherwise, to earn by superior skill or industry what others can earn without it.
For Mill, the mere fact of the existence of common value moves from exerting a constraining ideological force on those who would exhibit their wealth to impelling the redistribution of property itself.

Evans does not expressly repudiate language as a model or ground for establishing commonness; instead, she redescribes language in such a way that its rhetorical and analytical force is remade as well. Whereas Smith introduced the category of language in the context of a narrative of origin, and thus configured language as a construct whose constitutive qualities are contained within the logic of the narrative's unfolding, in Evans's redescription language is not so much an immaterial representation overlaying existing relations of property as a thing-in-use, fragmented internally into relations of proper and common. For Evans, the analytical insufficiency of the language paradigm follows directly from this redescription. She invokes this discourse of language in order to cast a critical glance at its logic. It is a mistake to adopt language as a paradigm for common culture because to do so presumes that an individual's behavior counts as participation in a common culture as long as he or she means the same thing as others mean when they behave in the same way. Those thinkers who subscribe to a linguistic model of culture effectively turn all activities of common culture into an elaborate symbolic system, by which such activities are discernible as culture only so far as they mean something beyond themselves, so far as they are signs of some generally agreed-on meaning.

By including an account of the operation of common language within a narrative more immediately concerned with the ways individual artists represent the material world, Evans forces a distinction between language and other forms of culture and lays the groundwork for a different conception of culture, one that distinguishes between a given behavior and the meanings that might be attributed to it. As we shall see, such a distinction complicates the way a category of common culture is understood to mediate between individual subjects' relations to the material world and the institutional or political authority arrayed to justify and enforce particular relations of the social and the material. Moreover, in constructing its argument around the fundamental discrimination between what people do and what is to be made of the fact that they do it, "The Natural History of German Life" apportions a particularly significant role to that discrimination. If, as "Natural History" presents it, the category of culture is able to reconcile the "common" and the "proper" because it articulates, rather than presumes, the connection between how people act and what their actions mean, then the novel, which makes such a distinction its representational principle under the banner of "style," stands to play a crucial role in creating common culture.


Excerpted from A Probable State: the Novel, the Contract, and the Jews by Irene Tucker Copyright © 2000 by Irene Tucker. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Irene Tucker is an assistant professor of English at Johns Hopkins University.

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