Symposium Introduction

How do we feel with literary characters? What is our relation to fiction, to what we read and to the very act of reading? How do our encounters with objects linger within and come to change us, and in what ways does novelistic form mold and shape our psyches? These are some of the questions at the heart of Alicia Christoff’s lyrically written and tenderly observed Novel Relations: Victorian Fiction and British Psychoanalysis, the subject of this Syndicate Lit symposium. Moving slowly and closely through a set of novels by George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, Christoff draws out a set of “relations” that Victorian studies has all too often passed over: the interdependencies of character, narrator, reader, and author; the connections between realist novels and mid-twentieth-century British psychoanalysis; and the resonances between classical narrative concepts like plot, character, and narration, and a broader political context of colonial and decolonial struggle. Novel Relations is, first and foremost, rooted in its psychoanalytic archive—which includes works by Michael Balint, W. R. Bion, Paula Heimann, Betty Joseph, Masud Khan, D. W. Winnicott, among others—and each of her four chapters pairs a major figure of psychoanalytic thought with a novel by either Eliot or Hardy. As Christoff suggests, psychoanalysis, freed from the nursery or the consulting room, can intervene in the political world, one fraught with the long-lasting geopolitical consequences of a “racial century” that tied colonial genocides in Africa, Asia, and the Americas to the Holocaust. But Novel Relations isn’t just about object relations theory; the book’s psychoanalytic rigor is matched by its careful narratological discussion of a range of literary concepts—plot, character, narration, parabasis, etc.—that bear the potential to enrich our understanding of form and formally attentive criticism.

Most of all, there’s a sense throughout Novel Relations that Christoff has not just thought about the claims she’s launching, but that she has lived them; in this sense, what I find enlivening about this work is that it takes up some of the pressing political concerns in our present time in a mode that often feels old-fashioned in the very best of senses: it seems everywhere governed by a belief I hold to, however earnestly, that literary criticism can represent a sedimentation not merely of knowledge, but also of wisdom, and especially the kinds of wisdom that arise out of our confrontations with loss. Loss, after all—somewhat inevitably, given the novels discussed, from The Mill on the Floss to Tess of the d’Urbervilles—is what preoccupies many of her chapters. The feelings that Christoff theorizes—loneliness, wishfulness, restlessness, and aliveness—attune us to how reading teaches us to be simultaneously alone and in the presence of another, to imagine other ways of being gendered or embodied, and to carry out the arduous but rewarding labor of inhabiting the perspective of others. Christoff’s forays into these different kinds of affect—which she dubs “feeling[s] of reading,” after Rachel Ablow’s coinage of the phrase—transfigure various novel forms into emotional capacities experienced on the part of the reader. Her readings of reading are thus attentive to a wide range of deeply felt and deeply human problems which have been brought more close to us now than ever, in this inescapably fraught time we are enduring both individually and as a collective.

Yet Christoff’s book is as generative as it is not simply because it unearths a compelling set of resonances between the mid-twentieth-century practitioners of British psychoanalysis and Victorian novelists, nor because it contains a proliferation of immensely compelling readings of significant pieces of literature; that it does both these things goes without saying. Instead, the intellectual courage on display in Novel Relations emerges out of its commitment to forging new disciplinary links between discourses held erringly far apart from one another, between that study of nineteenth-century novels and this contemporary critical discourse around war, empire, ethnic difference, and racialized violence. One of the most vividly realized lines of argument in Novel Relations, which our five contributors have taken up, is the methodological insight at its core. For, at its very broadest level, the mode of relationality that Christoff offers allows us to think about how the blind spots of Victorian studies can be a site for reimagination and rebuilding, rather than of deconstruction. Christoff’s dedication to thinking about how Victorian studies can be brought into conversation with feminist and queer of color critique, gender, sexuality, and queer studies, critical race theory, settler colonial and Indigenous studies, and more, is a sign of her equanimity and intellectual graciousness in treating some of the field’s historical gaps as blank pages waiting to be filled in. As Kent Puckett puts it in his lovely piece about Marion Milner, Novel Relations exhibits a marked resistance to easy demarcations “between form and content, ends and means, the imagination and material necessity”—instead of seeing “form and content, formalism and historicism, or critique and whatever it is that critique isn’t” as staid binaries, Christoff manages to persuade us of something fundamentally paradoxical, and extraordinarily thrilling: that relationality itself, in all its shifting and moving and constellating, can come to possess its own enduring sense of objecthood. In a memorable and moving reading of Tess, Christoff takes us through the experience of reading Hardy’s novel, which engenders a feeling that our solitude and aloneness are made possible only in relation to other presences, modes of being, styles of thinking. We are, as she says, “alone with Tess,” “at once completely alone and with someone or something else” (36–37). The same, I’m happy to say, is just as true when we read Novel Relations.

All of these dimensions of Novel Relations and more get taken up in the five lively contributions by our respondents, Kent Puckett, Adela Pinch, Ankhi Mukherjee, Zach Samalin, and Simon Reader. In keeping with the aim and purpose of the Syndicate forums, the contributions that follow were not conceived of as traditional reviews or critiques of the text at hand. Following in the methodological path laid out by Novel Relations’ own readings, each contributor poses ways of thinking relationally with Christoff’s writing so that their ideas might “vibrate” with greater intensity together than alone, creating something new. The forum begins with Kent Puckett’s response, which turns to Marion Milner’s 1950 minor classic, On Not Being Able to Paint, a book admired by Winnicott, Anna Freud, Masud Khan, and others. Milner’s writing, notes Puckett, appears so very Victorian in light of Novel Relations. Puckett explores how Milner attempted to create aesthetic representations which captured its object, and about how this yearning led only to her painful awareness of “not being able to paint.” What finally sets Milner free from this disappointment, he suggests, is her recognition that it’s not just the object at hand that matters, but the relations between the object and other objects, its background, its setting, the viewer. Taken to an extreme, Puckett imagines, this porousness between objects could lead to an erosion of the boundaries between selves and personalities. We, too, could be plunged into both the freedom and the terror of being unbounded, unleashed from our constraints and so, too, the conditions by which I am able to discern where I end, and something or someone else begins. Puckett’s piece reminds us, enthrallingly, that seeing relationality as an object can draw out “what’s already or latently material, worldly, and political about literary form”—it is this kind of formally sensitive work, which I find so worthy of defense in this time of methodological upheaval and institutional crisis, that we discover both in Christoff’s book and unswervingly in Puckett’s own (most recently, Narrative Theory: A Critical Introduction).

Next up, Adela Pinch’s graceful engagement with Novel Relations foregrounds the book’s emphasis on movement and the “motions of figurative language” which so keenly enabled novels to convey a sense of being alive. “Transitioning, Transferring, Containing, Caring” draws on two psychoanalytic writings about such movement. Pinch first begins with Bion, who thought of experience as the transference of the experience to another person. It is as if this very transference codifies experience, breathes life into it, renders it a living thing: “In Bion’s schema,” she tells us, “experience is transformed, as if by a chemical process, as it is transferred back and forth between two people, like a liquid between two beakers.” Although experiences are nontransferable, the process of “containment” and experience-transfer Bion posited “raise the question of where, or on what ontological level, experience is located,” a question that Winnicott also took up in his “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena,” and which Pinch is currently exploring in her own forthcoming book, Victorian Fiction and the Location of Experience. Pinch ends her contribution with a question about historical and political context—“I sometimes worry about whether my emphasis on thinking through such psychological and formal dramas severs the novels from the political and social world”—one to which Ankhi Mukherjee turns at the beginning of her response.

Delving into the compatibility between Christoff’s relational framework and our more conventional forms of historicism, Mukherjee asks a set of necessary and important questions about method: “Should a work of, say, Victorian or Romantic literature be read with others of its kind, or should it be allowed to circulate like world literature, with synchronic as well as diachronic interpretations and elaborations?” And, “should historical selves be seen instead as psyches, speaking to the universalism of psychic processes across nations, culture, and chronology”? For all its imaginative capabilities, relationality provides us with an opportunity to think about how we might consider and compare various subjective dilemmas across time and place, authors and fields. Mukherjee’s main focus is the second chapter of Novel Relations, and especially its reading of The Mill on the Floss and Bion’s concepts of the container/contained. If, in Mukherjee’s words, Novel Relations locates its method “not simply in the context of these inter-implicated pasts of Victorian life but in the ongoing anticolonial or decolonising efforts to transmute these pasts, once and for all, into postcolonial futurity,” its value lies in the way Christoff follows in the spirit of scholarship set out by figures like Mary Jacobus, Jacqueline Rose, Sudhir Kakar, and Honey Oberoi Vahali and “train[s] this stream of psychoanalysis to novel theory (and Victorian studies in general).”

In an impressively meticulous engagement with the central psychoanalytic framework everywhere undergirding Christoff’s book, Zach Samalin takes a long look at two of the main strands of argument in Novel Relations: first, its extension and reinvention of Eve Sedgwick’s work of using object relations to detach literary interpretation from the clutches of various instantiations of a repressive hypothesis and, second, its treatment of historical questions of history and empire in the context of relational reading. Samalin testifies to one of Novel Relations’s particular strengths, that “some of the most arresting provocations in Christoff’s book arise from her experiments with what she calls ‘alternative pictures of temporality and historicity’ (16).” Still, in spite of this acknowledgment, he wonders about the mixture of causality, correlation, and relationality that Novel Relations variously employs: “If on certain pages Christoff shows how George Eliot and Thomas Hardy uncannily anticipate Michael Balint or Winnicott, in other places historical progression itself seems to freeze or to collapse altogether, so that the novels and the theorists come to occupy the same historical frames of reference and to share the same cultural assumptions. . . . We are not sure if the historical redescription follows from a methodological decision, or if the methodological choices are themselves outcomes of the historical processes the book describes.” Samalin frames these as historiographical questions, not just methodological ones, and crucially sees this inconsistency as a site of critical potential, pointing us to the kind of ambivalence held in the notion of Bion’s “primitive catastrophe.”

Finally, bringing Christoff’s work into its widest methodological and meta-critical context, Simon Reader imaginatively places Novel Relations amidst both the “method wars” and the Twitter-sphere. He suggests that conversations on Twitter quickly and frequently disintegrate into a retrenching of exactly those false dichotomies that Christoff works to resist in her book: it “encourages binary thinking about them; in Kleinian terms, you could say that it encourages splitting good objects from bad. Monoliths such as critique and postcritique seem to coalesce out of the furious sandstorm.” What these rudimentary either/or’s produce, Reader tells us, is a conflation of all of our most complex emotional experiences—of “abandonment, longing, nostalgia, desperation, fear, suspicion, identification, dis-identification, projection, introjection, love, hate, shame, insecurity, disgust, boredom,” the list could continue—into “repair” or “love.” Such readings “reduce the spectrum of feelings and consequently the kinds of work different combinations of feeling can generate” and, in looking at artworks in this way, we miss the complexities of fragmentation and unintegration. Such forms are on display, Reader suggests, in the notebooks of familiar Victorian literary figures, like Thomas Hardy’s Poetical Matter—these notebooks often don’t hang together, thereby opening up occasions for improvised modes of interpretation when intentionality falters and relationality must step in.

Kent Puckett


Thinking Relations

One of the things I most appreciate about Alicia Mireles Christoff’s excellent book, Novel Relations: Victorian Fiction and British Psychoanalysis, appears right there in its title. As opposed to buying into the idea of yet another choice between form and content, formalism and historicism, or critique and whatever it is that critique isn’t, Christoff’s book takes up terms from British object relations psychoanalysis in order to think in suggestive, capacious, and persuasive ways about the relation as a necessarily elusive but no less real object of study. Instead, then, of wringing our hands over ersatz and especially angsty choices between things that, after all, only make sense when they appear together, what would it look like to develop a rich, robust, and precise account of the prior modes of relationality on which those choices and others depend?

This, Christoff argues, is exactly what the influential and yet peculiar, the highly technical and yet deeply humane work of Melanie Klein, D. W. Winnicott, Michael Balint, Betty Joseph, W. R. Bion, and others associated with British object relations psychoanalysis has to offer us as readers of Victorian fiction: a “relational reading” that “requires deep immersion in both psychoanalytic and literary texts. And it requires a certain kind of belief or faith in relationality: that reading two texts together really does render something unprecedented and meaningful.” There’s too much to say about how this psychoanalytically informed “relational reading” works in Christoff’s long discursive chapters on George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, chapters in which concepts from Winnicott, Bollas, Bion, Joseph, Balint, and others are taken up in order to consider what was already, technically, and robustly relational about the transitional (neither only real nor only imaginary) status of the world and other people in and for Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Mill on the Floss, and The Return of the Native. There’s also too much to say about what Novel Relations has to tell us about the only allegedly absent logics of racial difference and white supremacy in Eliot, Hardy, and the Victorian novel as such.

Novel Relations looks both to ways in which psychoanalysis can help us to understand literary relations and to ways in which broadly literary and, more to the point, specifically Victorian forms might anticipate and inform psychoanalysis. Although, as she acknowledges, readers and critics of Victorian novels and of literature in general have often expressed a self-evident and sometimes breezy commitment to relations, which, we know, “really, universally . . . stop nowhere,” Christoff’s book treats the “relation” less as grist for easy ethical bromides and more as a way to think carefully, closely, and politically about how relations retain a force especially and consistently visible to object relations psychoanalysis, even as it encourages us to move between and compare phenomena at different but related levels of abstraction. These levels of abstraction can exist between real and represented relations between people and people, people and things, people and environments, books and readers, narrators and characters, as well as between ostensibly unrelated places, between apparently different times, and between the siloed disciplinary protocols and expectations that we often unthinkingly rely on in order to make sense of all those other relations.

Let me then take a brief detour to say something about how Novel Relations has helped me to think about some things that Christoff didn’t write about, before coming back to what I see as her book’s most pressing claims.

Reading Christoff, I was often reminded of another production of the Independent Group, Marion Milner’s 1950 minor classic, On Not Being Able to Paint, a book admired by Winnicott, Anna Freud, Masud Khan, and others. In it, Milner tells the story of her efforts to become “able to paint” after the experience of producing “only tolerably good imitations of something else” became not only disappointing but also almost painful: “There was no doubt that drawings which were a fairly accurate copy of an object could produce an almost despairing boredom; so I was forced to the conclusion that copies of appearances were not what my eye liked, even though what it did like was not at all clear.” What follows is, first, a searching self-analysis in which Milner interprets a series of her own more and less free drawings in order to understand the “unknown force” that drove her toward and yet which also kept her from “being able to paint” and, second, a psychological theory of aesthetic representation that we might think of as a psychoanalytic realism of relations.

As opposed to making faithful but boring representations of the beautiful things she saw, Milner decides one day to experiment: “So, when sitting in a buttercup field one Sunday morning in June, watching the Downs emerging from the mist, I checked the impulse to make a water-colour sketch which was certain to be a failure. Instead, I concentrated on the mood of the scene, the peace and softness of the colouring, the gentle curves of the Downs, and began to scribble in charcoal, letting hand and eye do what they liked. Gradually a definite form has emerged and there, instead of the peaceful summer landscape, was a blazing heath fire, its roaring flames leaping from the earth in a funnel of fire, its black smoke blotting out the sky.”

The drawing is a success, but why? What does it capture and how does it work as a representation when it seems not really to represent at all? What comes next is, in a sense, Milner’s attempt to understand why a mode of representation that does not represent its apparent object seems more beautiful and more genuine than the modes that do.

What she learns is that both the truth and the beauty of a drawing or a painting are effects less of a single relation between a representation and an object and more of art’s special capacity to represent the fecundity and the reality of relations as such; refusing the “detachment and separation” of accurate perspectival drawing, she writes that “one might want some kind of relation to objects in which one was much more mixed up with them than that.”

Indeed, upon learning that in order really to represent two jugs (Christoff might call them “inadequate containers”), she had somehow to treat the mobile but real relation between the jugs as more important than the jugs themselves, Milner begins to understand art as the courage to live between other things that we would want or need otherwise to keep separate: “So I could only suppose that, in one part of the mind, there really could be a fear of losing all sense of separating boundaries; particularly the boundaries between the tangible realities of the external world and the imaginative realists of the inner world of feeling and idea; in fact a fear of being mad.” For Milner, the necessary cost of “being able to paint” is recognizing that seeing things as they really are is and must be a distressing and even perilous risk: “To give oneself to this knowledge seemed like taking some dangerous plunge . . . this idea of there being no fixed outline, no boundary between one state and another, also introduced the idea of no boundary between one self and another self, it brought in the idea of one personality merging with another.”

Christoff helped me to think about Milner, and Milner helped me to think about Christoff in a few ways. First, dwelling in the space of a relation between Christoff and Milner makes a convincing case for the power of object relations psychoanalysis to contribute to a strong and challenging account of aesthetic and literary form. Although Milner’s book deals in difficult and searching ways with art, imagination, and the world, it relies almost exclusively and by design on quotes taken from a number of “books on how to paint”; as a result, her writing about art refuses the difference between form and content, ends and means, the imagination and material necessity: “Thus it seemed that the experience of outer and inner coinciding, which we blindly undergo when we fall in love, is consciously brought about in the arts, through the conscious acceptance of the as-if-ness of the experience and the conscious manipulation of a malleable material.” A lose, activist, and entirely persuasive attention to the material literariness of the literary text results from Christoff’s commitment to “relational reading” alongside Milner’s surprisingly practical approach to the matter of art (“it is still a bit of the outside world, it is still paint or stone or spoken or written words or movements of bodies or sounds of instruments”). Such attention might help us to reframe or even to refuse some methodological choices that can seem more to impede than to enable thinking about what art and literature are, what they mean, and what they might ultimately be for. Taking the relation as a way to think past what’s artificial or unnecessary about a methodological impasse or, as Christoff has argued elsewhere, a disciplinary difference might offer us a good way not only to see the object when the object is a relation as in itself it really is but also to catch at what’s already or latently material, worldly, and political about literary form.

Second, I saw Milner’s book differently in light of Christoff’s interest in the potential, inchoate, or even paradoxical Victorianness of object relations psychoanalysis and in “considering alternative pictures of temporality and historicity.” Put simply, On Not Being Able to Paint felt—in a way it never had before—slyly Victorian when I returned to it after reading Christoff. On the one hand, Milner does draw explicitly and repeatedly on Lewis Carroll, Charles Darwin, and others, a fact that supports an easy and direct argument about the sometimes-unacknowledged porousness of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. On the other hand, and more strikingly, there now seems to be something more immanently if less plainly Victorian about Milner’s imagination.

I’ve already mentioned the charcoal image of a “blazing heath fire” that she free-draws while looking at “a buttercup field.” In that same section, she writes about a similar transformation that occurs while “sitting under beech trees”: “Instead of the over-arching beeches spreading protecting arms in the still summer air, there were two stunted bushes on a snowy crag, blasted by a raging storm.”




In a broad sense, both images raise essential questions about realism, representation, and aboutness. Although a snowy crag isn’t a beech tree and a heath fire isn’t a buttercup, both images seem to get at something more deeply real about what’s real about those objects; they get to the realism of aboutness, a realism of the relation; they manage, I think Milner is saying, to capture something essential, difficult, and real about our relation not just to some things but to that relationality itself. Relationality isn’t, in other words, only the space between things: it can also be a thing itself; it can be exactly what we try to get at when we write and make pictures.

If, though, they are supposed to do that work for everyone, they will almost certainly do a more specific work for people who think a lot about Victorian novels. The snowy crag isn’t, at least for me, just an image of a snowy crag: it’s undoubtedly an image of Penistone Crags from Wuthering Heights! And the heath fire isn’t just a heath fire; it’s surely the fire on Egdon Heath at the start of The Return of the Native! When, to my eye, Milner went looking for the radical real of relationality, she found Victorian fiction!

The point here isn’t that Milner seemed, for whatever reasons of reading or biography, to find especially Victorian images when she went looking for the relation between the internal and external worlds; the point is that in order for us to navigate the weird and submerged but undeniable Victorianness of these images, we have to suspend our own assumptions about the difference between history and the imagination, between representation and pure invention, between the internal world of fantasy and the external world of people and things. This is what Milner does and, as I read Christoff, what Hardy and Eliot and, perhaps, Brontë do as well.

It is also what Christoff suggests we should do, too. As she argues throughout Novel Relations, a resistance to relationality—what Milner sees as the “fear of losing all sense of separating boundaries”—has sometimes prevented Victorian studies from seeing its objects as they really are. On the one hand, better seeing the psychic, affective, and formal relations between character and narrator, between reader and book, between the matter of language and the stuff of ideas that animate the Victorian novel could only lead to more subtle and more searching analyses of those texts. On the other hand and more urgently, as an expression and an extension of the potential it locates in object relations psychoanalysis, Christoff’s method offers powerful support to the argument that we must now overcome longstanding disciplinary resistances to relations between Victorian England and the British Empire—this means rethinking, as well, relations between the formal investments of novel studies and the political commitments of postcolonial theory, relations between ostensibly situated racial “blind spots” of the past and racist complicity in the present, and perhaps most of all, relations between the novel as a means of representing the already given, and the novel as an opportunity—indeed, as an imperative—to lay claim to new and better relations for the future.

  • Alicia Mireles Christoff

    Alicia Mireles Christoff


    Intro to Responses

    Editors Note: These responses were written in May 2021

    In this early summer of ongoing pandemic and war and state violence, I find myself less able than before to conjure some of the rapturous possibilities of relationality that animate the book. Far more present to mind is who I can’t reach, what I don’t understand, the forms of suffering I can and cannot picture—my unknowing hanging like the cloud one of Bion’s patients imagines blocking his view in the consulting room. But I try to remind myself that this feeling too is part of the “poetics of Relation,” in Édouard Glissant’s very precise sense of the term. The “opacity” central to Glissant’s poetics stipulates that “not knowing”—not being able to fully grasp or understand the totality of cultural, linguistic, and geopolitical relations—“is not a weakness.” It is only “not wanting to know” that “certainly is.”1

    Refusing both transparency and the universal as damaging reductionist concepts, Glissant insists that the complexity and violence of the world are knowable only in the literary imagination: in a poetics that strives to “transmute” the “mad state of the world into a chaos we are able to contemplate.” Like Bion, Glissant knows thinking itself is a challenge and not a given. And thought these days feels easier to extinguish than ever before. The alternative to contemplating chaos is blindly accepting the “common sense” notion that “the world through which we live is so profoundly disturbed (most would call it crazy) and has such direct repercussions on each one of us that some are obliged to exist in absolute misery and others in a sort of generalized suspension.”2 How do we live with our ignorance, and make it livable, rather than rushing to crazy old common sense? Poetics is for Glissant how we strive to know the “totality of the world” and our place in it, in all the inescapable concreteness of our geopolitical and linguistic specificities, while knowing all the time that we “will never accomplish this.” But the poetics of relation means knowing all the time too that this wanting to know “is precisely where the threatened beauty of the world,” in all its fullness and opacity, “resides.”3

    The five compelling essays in this forum have given me a chance to push at some of the book’s edges. They draw my attention in particular to how the book brushes up against anticolonial thought and circles around implicit formulations, both readerly and psychoanalytic, of care and welfare. It has been my pleasure to extend my thinking of these issues in my responses. And in turn, having these exchanges deepen my sense of the possibilities of scholarly relation. The fact that each of these sharp and generous respondents, along with the curators of this forum, Anjuli Raza Kolb and Wendy Xin, have managed to give such careful attention to my book during this difficult year amazes and humbles me. This forum, like Glissant’s work, helps me maintain contact with the most essential pieces of Novel Relations: Its faith in the relationality of literary experience and hope that, just maybe, some kinds of reading and writing can indeed shake off “generalized suspension.” And its faith that poetics (or what my book might call novelistics) is in fact a future.

    In addition to a time of suffering, this is also an early summer of protest, resistance, and of uprising—a time for the “threatened beauty” of our deep relationality to reassert itself. In cities all over the world, people are flooding the streets, just as they did last May. As Raza Kolb writes in a poem describing the simultaneously mournful and ecstatic protests in New York City last summer, “the streets aren’t ours / but they almost could be / we’re endless / giving up our plans / of single being.”4 The final line is borrowed from Fred Moten who has in turn borrowed it from Glissant, describing the oceanic voyage from singularity to multiplicity.5 I hope my responses here enact the wanting to know, the reaching for relation, that Glissant describes. And even more crucially, I hope that in my future writing and action alike I can keep reaching alongside others to meet the contemplatable chaos.



    Response to Kent Puckett

    I’m so glad Kent Puckett has brought Marion Milner into contact with Novel Relations in his beautiful essay. Milner’s diaristic and quietly revolutionary A Life of One’s Own (1934), originally published under the penname Joanna Field, was one of the books that first introduced me to object relations thought. It also kept me going through a particularly difficult moment of graduate school when some of the joy I’ve always felt for reading and writing was on the wane, or perhaps just under threat. Just as On Not Being Able to Paint (1950) revitalizes the joy of seeing, A Life of One’s Own reintroduces readers to the pleasures of personal experience, especially moments of expansive sensory perception. Milner keeps a record of her daily life for seven years with a very simple intention: to “find out what kinds of experiences made me happy.”6 Studying for my general exams and awash in feelings insufficiency, I’d lost touch with that, too.

    What I love most about Milner’s work is its emphasis on newness—a difficult thing for psychoanalysis, with its reliance on repetition and reenactment, to dream up. But novelty is crucial for Milner. It would be easy, she argues, to understand the aesthetic impulse as pitted against loss: an “unconscious attempt to preserve, recreate, restore the lost object; or rather, the lost relation with the object conceived of in terms of the object.” But this for Milner is only the secondary function of art. “For the artist . . . and whoever responds to his work, I think the essential point is the new thing that he has created, the new bit of the external world that he has made significant and ‘real,’ through endowing it with form.”7 As Anna Freud points out, this act of “creating what has never been” is crucial for psychotherapy as well. The therapist wants more for the patient “than mere recovery of lost feelings and abilities;” what she wants “him to achieve is the creation of new attitudes and relationships on the basis of the newly created powers of insight into his inner world.”8 This is precisely the kind of novelty I hoped Novel Relations could address: the potential of our scholarship on even highly familiar texts to produce not just the old, familiar loops but to generate altogether new relationships and futures.

    And yet, rereading Milner this time around, things I had failed to acknowledge on my first hopeful readings felt more pronounced: namely, the time-boundedness of her claims and the slide from an ostensibly neutral universal subject to an aspirational postwar democratic one (precisely as Michal Shapira describes, in a book to which I’ll devote more attention in my response to Mukherjee). In 1934, Milner wants to share her introspective writing method not just because it leads to personal growth, but because it staves off a cultural threat: “The need for such a method in these days is obvious, a method for discovering one’s true likes and dislikes, for finding and setting up a standard of values that is truly one’s own and not a borrowed or mass-produced ideal.”9 And again in 1950, Milner ties her pleas for an acceptance of early fusion and merger to a larger “civilization”-saving goal: “Education for a democracy, if it is to foster that true sanity which is necessary in citizens of a democracy, foster the capacity to see the facts for oneself, rather than seeing only what one is told to see, must also fully understand the stages by which such objectivity is reached. In fact, it must understand subjectivity otherwise the objectivity it aims at will be in danger of fatal distortion.”10 Like the constructed innocence of the Winnicottian child, the dreamy self-immersion of Milner’s diarists and painters ultimately serves larger nation-consolidating ends. The enemies seem to be both fascism and a more homegrown homogenization borne of mass culture. The horizons of Milner’s freedom-seeking, earnest as they are, recede for me in this recognition.

    This is not to write off Milner’s remarkable career and contributions: I want to believe that reading her work still can open the way for living in a way that feels fuller and more real, just as she wished. But it is to ask, as I do in Novel Relations, how we as literary scholars can simultaneously keep faith with the force of such humanist notions and honestly reckon with their exclusions. I am grateful to Kent for recognizing that bridging this gap is the political impulse that drives the book. A year and a half out from publication, this tension is more rather than less unsettled for me, more live and turbulent. Not the question of whether critics can do and see both things at once, exactly, but whether we still find ourselves energized to center texts like Milner’s—and I’ll add for myself, Victorian novels—given the violence of the imperial-democratic subjectivities and subjects they produce and the legacies of their reimagination and reconstruction of British sovereignty. I feel the limitations of my own thinking even in the way I pose these questions. Can I hope for more generative ways forward?

    Milner closes On Not Being Able to Paint with a moment of self-discovery: one of the free drawings she has made whose significance “had all the time remained obscure” to her suddenly becomes comprehensible as she is finishing her book. The “Bursting Seed-Pod” captures not Milner’s own “personal theme of producing new life,” but something much larger. It is a picture of the “epoch” in which she is living: “I saw it as showing the irresistible thrust of life that was giving birth to new ideas and also how these were bursting through the seed-pod of the old world that gave them birth.”11 I wonder if we’re in the new world Milner glimpsed or still in the seedpod. But the possibility for creating something truly new, “creating what has never been,” surely arises in the shift Milner poses from the personal to the relational, a newness that manifests socially and not simply in the internal world, like in that proliferating clutch of circular seeds her hand quickly sketches.

    1. Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 154, emphasis mine.

    2. Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 155.

    3. Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 20.

    4. Anjuli Raza Kolb, “summer,” publication forthcoming.

    5. See Fred Moten, “to consent not to be a single being,” Poetry Foundation website, February 15, 2010, as well as the interview of he draws from in that essay: “Édouard Glissant in Conversation with Manthia Diawara,” Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art 28 (2011): 4–19.

    6. Marion Milner, A Life of One’s Own (New York: Routledge, 2011), xxxiii.

    7. Milner, On Not Being Able to Paint (New York: Routledge, 2010), 188.

    8. Anna Freud, foreword to On Not Being Able to Paint, xv.

    9. Milner, A Life of One’s Own, xxiv.

    10. Milner, On Not Being Able to Paint (New York: Routledge, 2010), 171–72.

    11. Milner, On Not Being Able to Paint, 167–68.

Adela Pinch


Transitioning, Transferring, Containing, Caring

Alicia Christoff opens her book, Novel Relations, with the British psychoanalyst W. R. Bion’s understanding of thinking as always taking place in between two people. Bion’s “theory of thinking,” as she notes, is closely related to his concept of the “O” of experience, the way the truth of relations between two people is “uncontainable and unknowable by either one of the alone” and “resides somewhere in between them” (1). Novel Relations is both about, and practices, different forms of thinking together and thinking with—a thinking-together between the Victorian novel and British objects psychoanalysis, but also between books and readers, authors, and characters. “There is no such thing as a book,” Christoff writes—adapting D. W. Winnicott’s famous dicta of relational psychoanalysis that “there is no such thing as a baby . . . only a mothering pair”—only a relational scene of reading (8). To offer comments on this book is to enter into relation with it, to think with it, and to try to write out of an in-between space, to see if there is perhaps an “O,” a “vibratory energy,” in this shared space (6).

Novel Relations is a daring, deep, and beautiful work of literary criticism and theory. In it, Christoff argues that reading novels activates a set of very human relations: between readers and the nonhuman characters and texts that come to seem so human; between writers and readers; between writers and their characters; and above all between the novel as a literary form and a very literary form of understanding human relations—British object relations psychoanalysis. Christoff persuades throughout that the two great writers she studies—George Eliot and Thomas Hardy—and the structure of their chosen form (the realist novel) traffic in ways of thinking about human existence that were codified by the object relations theorists. What emerges from this conjunction of writers is a view of life in which one is alone only by never being truly alone, in which one’s self is a collection of internal others, and in which fugue-ish states of waiting, wishing, and a sense of disintegration are not “holding patterns” but rather experiences of being held.

Novel Relations persuades throughout that there are aspects of Eliot’s and Hardy’s art that have been hiding in plain sight—that is to say, not really written about in the criticism, but experienced (probably) by all lovers of these novelists, just not acknowledged because we didn’t really have the terms with which to acknowledge them. To generalize: the Hardy and Eliot novels emerge here as less plot-focused than we sometimes treat them as; Christoff gets at textures of novelistic description, shades of feeling and mood, and flickerings of narratorial position that function alongside and underneath plot. Novel Relations succeeds in doing what all great literary criticism aspires to do, which is to make books that have come to seem familiar to us seem stranger than we realized.

Those of us who have been reading and teaching the writings of twentieth-century British object-relations psychoanalysts have been waiting for more scholars of English literature to really start thinking about this incredibly literary body of work. The British psychoanalysts were clearly influenced by British literature. It is a natural fit. The conversation between literary studies and British object relations psychoanalysis is beginning to catch up. As Christoff notes, Winnicott’s work is increasingly cited in a range of critical contexts, and Eve Sedgwick’s purportedly Kleinian essay on reparative versus paranoid reading (which Christoff discusses wisely and correctively) has been enormously influential, cluing a generation of literary scholars into new ways of thinking. But there really has not been a book that truly takes a sustained look at object relations theory in relation to the form of the novel, and this book—though its base of material is quite limited (two novels by George Eliot, two novels by Thomas Hardy)—is the book. It is a “genera,” to use a term Christoff borrows from Christopher Bollas, “a site of ‘psychic incubation’” (20). And it is also such a moving book, one which will vibrate with any readers—and I think this means all readers—as well as all parents who have seen this happen with their own children—for whom novel-reading evokes childhood experiences of being alone with a book, and of books as what made the capacity to be alone possible.

One of the aspects of Novel Relations I respond to most strongly is its emphasis on movement. In Middlemarch, for example, the motions of figurative language—as one image metaphorically moves to other—reveals Eliot’s narrative technique itself to be “a source of enlivening energy” that reminds us what it is to be alive (154). Christoff’s brilliant reading of the movements of metaphor is itself enlivened by a psychoanalytic approach to psychic motion. In the words of Betty Joseph, in the essay on “Transference as total situation” that Christoff draws on, psychoanalysis is a process “in which something is always going on, where there is always movement” (Joseph 447). This emphasis on movement is everywhere present in British psychoanalytic writings: things we don’t normally think of as moving—like objects, like experience itself—are always on the move from one location to another.

For example, in his difficult yet influential Learning from Experience, Bion hypothesized that a person can’t really be said to experience their experience until it has been transferred to another person. He reconstructed “a developmental sequence in which the infant communicates his [sic] experiences to the mother in affect and action; the mother takes them into her own emotional life and gives them meaning; and the infant takes in from her both a more bearable version of his own experience and the maternal capacity to think and represent it” (LaFarge 592). It is important to stress that Bion’s experience-transfer schema is considerably weirder than the more palatable cliché that telling someone about your experience makes it somehow more real. In Bion’s schema, experience is transformed, as if by a chemical process, as it is transferred back and forth between two people, like a liquid between two beakers. As Christoff notes, he referred to the person—be it the mother, the analyst, or another—who serves as the vessel for the other’s experience as the “container,” and the process of transferring, transferring back, and thus transforming the other’s experience as the process of “containment.”

It needs to be stressed, additionally, that Bion’s experience-transfer process doesn’t really “actually” happen. According to our commonsense understanding of what experience is, experience comes stamped, like some train tickets, “nontransferable.” The story of the transfers of experience emerged as a reconstruction from Bion’s work with very ill patients whose ability to connect with their own experience and, in consequence, to learn from that experience, was tragically curtailed. It is a reconstruction in analysis of what didn’t seem to have happened, a story whose outlines are revealed in the negative. However, Bion’s account emergence of “experience,” reconstructed from the consulting room back to a person’s earliest developmental stage, ought to raise the question of where, or on what ontological level, experience is located.

Here is another example. In Winnicott’s discussions of movements, processes, experiences, and transitions, there is a passage that particularly catches my eye. In an offhand comment in “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena” he remarks, “It is not the object, of course, that is transitional. The object represents the infant’s transition from a state of being merged with the mother to a state of being relation to the mother as outside and separate” (14, italics added). With the “of course” in this sentence, Winnicott schools the naïve reader not to be misled by his term: even though he has been talking about transitional objects, objects don’t move, only people do. But for a moment we may feel something akin to how we feel when, looking out the window as our airplane pushes back from the gate, we realize belatedly that it is not the world outside the window that is moving, but us. This is the point for Winnicott: although what is transitioning from one place to another, from one moment in time to another, is not an object but a person, the nature of psychical experience creates an optical illusion in which it is the object that appears transitional.

The fact of this phenomena—whereby one thing seems to be moving, but in fact it’s something else that is moving—strikes me as incredibly generative for many areas of thinking, including thinking about reading fiction. Nineteenth-century accounts of literary experience are full of moving parts. My book in progress, Victorian Fiction and the Location of Experience, tracks why and when there are such perceptive shifts of gravity, when the feeling of experience crosses over between literature and reality. It centers on moments in writings by and about four Victorian novelists which represent transfers of experience between differentiated domains: from one person to another, one moment in time to another, and, above all, across the divide that seems to separate fiction and real life. For example: when late nineteenth-century writers implied that Emily Bronte’s experiences had entered Charlotte’s writing, did they “really” mean that, or were they rather themselves making a shift of attention from one Bronte to another? And conversely, when other Bronte-commentators strenuously insisted that there was absolutely no crossing of any Brontes’ lived experience into their fiction, or, when Margaret Oliphant mournfully implied that she unable to enter into the fictional worlds she created: what other human motions were keeping those boundaries between lived and literary experience seemingly so fixed? At other times, contemplating relations among writer and readers, books and characters, is contemplating phenomena that, like the winds and the cloud in Wordsworth’s “Resolution and Independence,” “moveth all together, if it move at all.”

For the psychoanalytic writers with whom Christoff engages, keeping interpretation moving is the way to help others become alive, unstuck. Novel Relations provides an opportunity to think about novel form, literary criticism, and contemporary discussions of the ethics and politics of care. Victorian novelists all had signature ways of making narratological gestures of care for their readers. Trollope’s narrator frequently reminds the reader that he is taking special care of her, as when, in Framley Parsonage, he notes that while a letter from Chaldicotes to the Parsonage will take many miles and days to arrive, he can move the reader to the Parsonage, and close to the letter, in a much quicker, and more comfortable, way (42). George Eliot’s early novels feature gestures of invitation to the reader, as, for example, when we are enjoined to “enter very softly” a drawing room in Adam Bede (49). These benign and literal gestures are but surface manifestations of more complex ways in which a structure of care may be baked into the form of the novel even when—perhaps especially when—such gestures are refused or absented.

In Novel Relations, Christoff attends to the many relations among narrative modes and aesthetics, on the one hand, and modes of care that have deep origins in the parent-child relationship, on the other—whether giving another a “resting-place” (8), or giving another the capacity to move, to get unstuck, to experience aliveness. Christoff rightly sees the Victorian novel as a site of both genera and trauma, both wounding and healing, “both the open internal wounds of repressed class-based and colonial violence and the possibility for opening up into new relations, resonances, and futures” (21). In my own current work in Victorian Fiction and the Location of Experience, I have been exploring one particular way in which novels activate relations of care precisely by focusing on the failure and impossibility to care, protect, scenarios in remorse, regret, and restraint. My central theory is that a significant strain of realist novels activate a sense of the real by manipulating a constellation of related moral, psychological states: a fear of missing out; a fear of harming others; a sense of responsibility; the desire to intervene on behalf of others and an inability to do so; constraints on action; a sense of helplessness. Curiously, these novels suggest that we tend to feel most intensely that we are experiencing the world when we are unable to act; significantly, when our helplessness resembles that of a reader debarred from truly entering the world of a novel about which we care deeply. In the novels I study—from Elizabeth Gaskell’s dramas of remorse, to the twinning of narrative prediction and failure to prevent harm in The Mill on the Floss, to Margaret Oliphant’s preoccupation with parental helplessness—these moral and psychological themes take shape through some of the signal formal features of storytelling: attribution (stories of responsibility), description, metalepsis, and prolepsis. These formal features serve as a membrane between domains that both can and cannot be crossed by the solicitous subject of care.

I sometimes worry about whether my emphasis on thinking through such psychological and formal dramas severs the novels from the political and social world, and I sometimes wonder if my emphasis on failures of care is my insurance policy against the charge of writing a criticism that is too “therapeutic.” But Christoff’s work demonstrates forcefully that to characterize approaches to literature which draw on object relations psychoanalysis as narrowly “therapeutic” in orientation (e.g., Anderson) is to miss the essential strangeness of this literature, the ways in which the view of literature and of human relations that emerges is simultaneously empathic and defamiliarizing. Furthermore, in the wake of 2020—a year when care and protest, politics and psychic survival have gone hand in hand—it is more urgent than ever to acknowledge and cite the longstanding, ongoing conversation about the politics of care within Black and Indigenous feminisms (Sharpe, Nash, Hobart, and Kneese). Right now, I am thinking of Novel Relations as engaging in broad conversation with writers who—from many different starting points—are all finding ways to follow through on Saidiya Hartman’s oft-cited statement that “care is the antidote to violence.”


Works Cited

Anderson, Amanda. “Therapeutic Criticism.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 50.3 (2017): 321–28.

Bion, W. R. Learning from Experience. [1962]. London: Karnac, 1984.

Christoff, Alicia Mireles. Novel Relations: Victorian Fiction and British Psychoanalysis. Princeton University Press, 2019.

Eliot, George. Adam Bede. Oxford World’s Classics, 2001.

Hartman, Saidiya. “In the Wake: A Salon in Honor of Christina Sharpe.” February 2, 2017 at Barnard College.

Hobart, Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani, and Tamara Kneese. “Radical Care: Survival Strategies for Uncertain Times.” Social Text 38.1 (2020): 1–16.

Joseph, Betty. “Transference: The Total Situation.” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 66 (1985): 447–54.

LaFarge, Lucy. “The Imaginer and the Imagined.” Psychoanalytic Quarterly 73 (2004): 591–625.

Nash, Jennifer. Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality. Duke University Press, 2019.

Pinch, Adela. “Half Mended Stockings; or, Reality Sensing in Elizabeth Gaskell.” ELH 83.3 (Autumn 2016): 821–37.

Pinch, Adela. “The Mill on the Floss and The Lifted Veil: Prediction, Prevention, Protection.” In A Companion to George Eliot, edited by Amanda Anderson and Harry E. Shaw, 117–28. Oxford: Blackwell, 2013.

Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke University Press, 2016.

Trollope, Anthony. Framley Parsonage. London: Folio Society, 1996.

Winnicott, D. W. Playing and Reality. London: Routledge, 1971.

  • Alicia Mireles Christoff

    Alicia Mireles Christoff


    Reply to Adela Pinch

    I love Adela Pinch’s image of looking out the airplane window and at first thinking the world outside is moving before realizing you are the one in motion. It helps to capture one feeling I had reading her generous and searching response to my book: the pleasurable rush of disorientation that comes from having someone whose scholarship has so inspired you now looking on your own work as the moving object. Who is looking out the window? It’s a kind of gratitude vertigo, especially because I never could have finished the book without Pinch’s then-anonymous reader’s report at the manuscript stage.

    Pinch writes that “Novel Relations provides an opportunity to think about . . . contemporary discussions of the ethics and politics of care,” including “the longstanding, ongoing conversation” about these subjects “within Black and Indigenous feminisms,” and it’s this thread that I’d like to pick up in my response. What I want to explore is how European and Anglo-American psychological and psychoanalytic thinking, along with the literary and cultural traditions that help to shape them, can be complicit with colonial and imperialist agendas that deploy the concept of care—in the forms of therapeutic discourse, public health measures, and other techniques of biopolitical management—as an alibi for racialized violence. While I speak to this potential for violence in the book—taking up, for instance, British psychoanalysis as site of genera and trauma both—I wonder now if I let the weight of this insight reshape my critical methodologies as deeply as I might have.

    With that consideration in mind, I want to turn to two texts outside the book’s purview that have been crucial to my thinking of care, and offer a short example of how I am rethinking and extending some of the arguments of Novel Relations with their insights in mind. This theoretical constellation circles the Winnicottian notion of “holding” I take up in the chapter on Hardy’s Tess. Winnicott theorizes that the earliest experiences of being physically held as a baby are internalized, eventually making it feel safe to be away from the mother because an experience of being sustained have become a psychic holding structure. My chapter considers how the reader can provide a similar kind of “holding environment” for the character Tess, and how the novel in turn can provide that kind of holding environment for the reader. But what are the violences that single out Tess as the object of our holding, and that sustain Winnicott’s metaphor of holding as an individualized mother-child practice?

    Lisa Stevenson’s Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian Arctic, a stunning and unconventional anthropological study of the Canadian state’s settler colonial management of Inuit life in Nunavut, is the first text that has been crucial to my rethinking of care.1 The book “attempt[s] to grasp the psychic life of biopolitics” enacted by the Canadian state, whose “bureaucratic care” counts, tabulates, compiles statistics, establishes suicide hotlines, and ships the sick away. But its unswerving efforts to maintain life on the level of the population masks unconcern, if not outright murderousness, on the level of both the individual and the culture.2 In one of Stevenson’s central case studies, Canadian policies toward Inuit during the tuberculosis epidemic of the 1940s through early 1960s meant that many of the sick were taken south on ships from the Arctic Bay to be treated in state sanatoria. The “life-saving” measure, though, stripped Inuit patients of their names and connections to their community, leaving their loved ones unknowing as to whether the departed were dead or alive. Stevenson’s methods are as striking as her insights: to register the “the psychic life of biopolitics”—the impact of living under colonial violence marked as care—she turns to images, which, in their ability to “express without formulating,” can hold contradiction and uncertainty in ways that words and arguments cannot.3 Stevenson writes: “We do not always want the truth in the form of facts or information. . . . What we want, perhaps, is the opacity of an image that can match the density of our feelings. We want something to hold us.”4

    While Stevenson argues that images hold us (in, I think, an implicitly Winnicottian sense), Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake—another key text that shapes my understanding of the politics of care—allows us to reassess the term “holding” in all its neutral-universal innocence. Arguing that we are still living in the wake of the slave ship, “an ongoing present of [Black] subjection and resistance” in the afterlife of transatlantic slavery,” Sharpe takes us from holding to the hold:

    In the wake, the semiotics of the slave ship continue: from the forced movements of the enslaved to the forced movements of the migrant and the refugee, to the regulation of Black people in North American streets and neighborhoods, to those ongoing crossings of and drowning in the Mediterranean sea, to the brutal colonial reimaginings of the slave ship and the ark; to the reappearances of the slave ship in everyday life in the form of the prison, the camp, and the school.5 

    Building on the formulation of Frank Wilderson, Sharpe argues that we need “stay in the hold of the ship”: we need to fully recognize the force of abjection in a climate of antiblackness so pervasive it constitutes the very weather.6 And yet, she continues, we must also recognize that the subsistence of life in the hold and through this weather. To insist on Black life “lived in, as, under, despite Black death” calls for a unique kind of consciousness and a unique kind of work: a “wake-work” that both mourns loss as an interminable event—as the ongoingness of disaster—and recognizes “an insistent Black visualsonic resistance to that imposition of non/Being.”7 As in Stevenson’s work on image, Sharpe’s development of a new methodology of wake-work becomes itself a new form of care, distinct not only from state violence but also from “state-imposed regimes of surveillance.”8

    Tess too is a novel in the wake; Tess too is a novel that ripples with antiblackness, aspects of its care sustained by violence. While I demonstrate this in various modes in a longer essay I am writing on the subject, one way we can quickly make this concrete is by pointing to an image of the slave ship that appears in the novel. Early in the novel, Hardy describes the crushing dependency of Tess and her brothers and sisters on their parents:

    All these young souls were passengers in the Durbeyfield ship—entirely dependent on the judgment of the two Durbeyfield adults for their pleasures, their necessities, their health, even their existence. If the heads of the Durbeyfield household chose to sail into difficulty, disaster, starvation, disease, degradation, death, thither were these half-dozen little captives under hatches compelled to sail with them—six helpless creatures, who had never been asked if they wished for life on any terms, much less if they wished for it on such hard conditions as were involved in being of the shiftless house of Durbeyfield.9

    “Captives under hatches,” Tess and her siblings are figured as slaves crossing the Atlantic in the ship’s hold. Hardy is waxing lyrical on facts of existence that repeatedly capture his imagination: that we do not choose to be born, that children are at the mercy of parents (who are in turn at the mercy of sexual whims), and that life can feel like nothing more than a continually unwished-for condition. Despite the compelling lyricism of this passage, I trip over several things as I read it: its use of the transatlantic slave trade as figure rather than fact, its use of Black experience to render white suffering legible, and its aestheticization of the suffering of the Middle Passage through its alliterative list of disasters (“difficulty, disaster, starvation, disease, degradation, death”). Black suffering is traced onto the snow-white skin of Tess, exemplifying how “manifold representations of blackness become the symbol, par excellence, for the less-than-human being condemned to death.”10 Tess is rendered holdable in our care while other women, relegated to the hold, are rendered as flesh, as labor, as commodity, as non-human.11 Or perhaps better put: Tess can be singled out as an object of care precisely because others are excluded.

    Hardy’s slave ship image holds more than it knows. One of the lessons I draw from Stevenson and Sharpe is that to enact a rigorous politics of care in our scholarship demands new methods of literary and cultural analysis. To work in familiar ways and beaten disciplinary tracks may be to exercise care for certain literary objects, for certain characters, for certain thinkers and critics, but it will not challenge or resist the routine programs of racialized violence, enacted by the state and by the academy, that form our “total climate.” The psychological and the political need not be severed from one another: their jointure is the psychic, properly understood. But we do need to examine, relentlessly, to what extent our elaborations of care are complicit with settler colonial, imperialist, and neoliberal agendas12—because an anodyne notion of care can be a kind of killing.

    1. Lisa Stevenson, Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian Arctic (Oakland: University of California Press, 2014).

    2. Stevenson, Life Beside Itself, 3–4.

    3. Stevenson, Life Beside Itself, 10–12.

    4. Stevenson, Life Beside Itself, 13.

    5. Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 21.

    6. Sharpe, In the Wake, 14, 21.

    7. Sharpe, In the Wake, 20, 5, 21.

    8. Sharpe, In the Wake, 20.

    9. Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, ed. Tim Dolin (New York: Penguin, 2003), 24.

    10. Sharpe, In the Wake, 21.

    11. I draw here on the work of Hortense J. Spillers on flesh and the pornotrope (“Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17.2 [1987]: 64–81) and on Sylvia Wynter’s discussions of the construction of the human (see for instance “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument,” CR: The New Centennial Review 3.3 [2003]: 257–337).

    12. See the very thorough summary of these issues in the discourse surrounding “care” and its current academic vogue, as well as an attempt to define and preserve the notion of “radical care,” see (per the recommendation in Adela’s response) Hi‘ilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart and Tamara, “Radical Care: Survival Strategies for Uncertain Times,” Social Text 38.1 (2020): 1–16. See also Sara Ahmed’s brilliant parsing of these distinctions, and defense of self-care as a radical act through a reading of the work of Audre Lorde, on her blog feministkilljoys.

Ankhi Mukherjee


Method in Novel Relations

Novel Relations begins with a method question which tends to hystericize literary history: should a work of, say, Victorian or Romantic literature be read with others of its kind, or should it be allowed to circulate like world literature, with synchronic as well as diachronic interpretations and elaborations? If, as Alicia Christoff observes, “we have for the most part confined Victorian novels, geographically and temporally, to the single historical context of their scenes of production,” should historical selves be seen instead as psyches, speaking to the universalism of psychic processes across nations, culture, and chronology (2)?

The term “Victorian” itself is deliciously arbitrary and proleptic. Emerging around 1839 and gaining currency as late as 1875—and through the 1880s and 1890s—it is a temporal designator whose bookends tend to shift today with the vagaries of departmental policy and politics. In the Faculty of English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford, where I teach, this period paper, compulsory for first-year English undergraduates, used to once begin in 1832. This marks the date of the First Reform Bill, was passed five years before the Queen Victoria ascended the throne. Following a curriculum overhaul in 2012, it has moved back to 1830, a year whose significance, if any, is unlikely to be blindingly obvious. The end date, 1910, is similarly non-event-specific, neither the death of Victoria nor the end of Edwardianism, and four years before the start of the Great War. What, then, are the graspable commonalities of Victorian fiction when one of its practitioners (Thomas Hardy) lived until 1928, and whose poetry is as modern as his novels are Victorian? Hardy’s Victorian and modern aspects can also be mapped spatially, as Mark Ford has suggested in Half a Londoner, and along the lines of the “mutually uncomprehending” spaces of Wessex and London.

Christoff offers one way out of this quibbling over dates by making the term Victorian geopolitically excursive; after all, Edward Said had asked us in Culture and Imperialism to situate Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations not just within “the metropolitan history of British fiction,” but in a history more “dynamic” and “inclusive” (xv), one placed within the sprawling chronicle of empire, in particular that of the erstwhile penal colony of Australia. Christoff locates her scholarship not simply in the context of these inter-implicated pasts of Victorian life but in the ongoing anticolonial or decolonising efforts to transmute these pasts, once and for all, into postcolonial futurity. “Colonial object relations subtend all nineteenth century British cultural productions,” she argues powerfully, and “the frequent failure to acknowledge this fact, both in the nineteenth-century and into the twenty-first, in our literary critical practices and products, constitutes the ‘basic fault’ in the Victorian novel as it has been institutionalized in Victorian studies” (148).

Novel Relations uses psychoanalysis to correct this “basic fault.” It turns, more specifically, to object relations theory, which seizes on natural phenomena in the developmental stages of human life and transforms it into a clinical process and method. Christoff aims to show that, as with Victorian novels, object relations theory is a discursive tradition “not located simply in England, but in the wider British empire” (13). She offers 1850 and 1950 as dates flanking what David Eng called a “racial century,” the first reflecting the publication dates of the novels under consideration and the second the flowering of British psychoanalysis (cited in Christoff, 12). There is no doubt that the British object relations tradition has relevance outside its country of origin and that it has travelled well. Mary Jacobus and Jacqueline Rose have memorably examined the impact of empire and his war experiences in the work of Bion; it is also worth noting that eminent practitioners of psychoanalysis in the subcontinent, Sudhir Kakar and Honey Oberoi Vahali, for instance, are more Kleinian (and Eriksonian) in orientation than Freudian. The unique feature of Christoff’s critical intervention is that, like Jacobus before her, her “relational readings” train this stream of psychoanalysis to novel theory (and Victorian studies in general) (17). To delve deeper into this work’s explorations in how and why we read and the singular “feeling[s] of reading” (Rachel Ablow’s phrase, cited in Christoff 17), I wish to dwell on chapter 2, “Wishfulness,” a reading of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss with Wilfred Bion’s concepts of the psyche—container/contained in particular and relational thinking more broadly speaking.

Bion developed his container/contained theory through clinical observations over time of a child in distress. This “behaviour arouse[s] in the mother feelings of which the infant wishes to be rid; if the infant feels it is dying it can arouse fears in the mother that it is dying” (“Psychoanalytic Study of Thinking,” 306). Building on Klein’s idea of projective identification, Bion observes that a “well-balanced” mother can accept it and respond therapeutically. If, however, she cannot handle these projections, “the infant is reduced to continued projective identification carried out with increasing force and frequency” (306). Similarly, as Christoff points out, D. W. Winnicott argues that “there is no such thing as a baby,” implying that with a baby comes the caregiver for the baby (7). Winnicott’s is a markedly different attitude from Lacan’s mirror stage essay, which imagines bébé, barely a few months old, grappling with the vicissitudes of identity and identification in mirror reflections completely unsupported by mother or carer.

This psychoanalytic interpretation, according to Christoff, is not merely using Bion to reanimate a canonical text. Instead, it shows how, “a century before Bion, George Eliot was using her fiction to stage and think through similar problems of interpersonal thinking and feeling” (48). The narrator of Middlemarch describes her art as “unravelling certain human lots, and seeing how they are woven and interwoven” (135). While readers and critics have picked up on different resonances of this line, I am always intrigued by the “unravelling,” an act of undoing to best explains a doing or a to-be-done (“seeing how they are woven and interwoven”). There are many instances of undoing in The Mill on the Floss: Maggie Tulliver makes up her mind “to skip the rule in the Syntax” literally and metaphorically; the novel, as critics have pointed out, is an anti- or alter-bildungsroman; and Maggie herself is undone in clashes between Dodson and Tulliver, and by heredity and social forces. How might such a novel be “contained within its own covers,” Christoff speculates (53), describing the excess of meaning in the novel also as an overflow or flood of desire. Feeling could, of course, also be read as the flood of “suffering, whether of martyr of victim, [which] belongs to every historical advance of mankind,” as Eliot observes (Mill, 253).

Christoff argues that in a Bionic interpretation, the trajectories of wish-fulfilment in Mill on the Floss can be reclaimed instead of written over or off. “Wishfulness” in the novel stands for the pulsional forces of dream, reverie, the onrush of water, resurgent love, oceanic plenitude (brother and sister returned to their childhood oneness), and, finally, the desiring dialectic that attaches reader to novel through patterns of identification or what José Muñoz termed “disidentification” (Christoff, 105). Christoff taps into Bion’s dream theory as well as that of the container/contained to address the “reverie” of the novel, “a term . . . which Eliot uses throughout” (64). Combining both, she ponders how the mother’s capacity to dream “answers the call of the infant’s projective identification, and becomes a communication in turn” (65). A key difference between a Freudian and a Bionic reading seems to be that, while the first is a reading for the plot, to use Peter Brooks’s influential formulation, the latter is a “reading for relation” (Christoff, 55).

Reading The Mill on the Floss alongside the modes of aesthetic reception prompted by Bion’s psychoanalytic theory of the container/contained, Christoff suggests that for both Bion and Eliot, the critical stakes are in “what cannot be contained, both ‘inside’ the psyche and ‘within’ the metaphor of containing itself” (84). In this reading, the novel is both self-contained and bursting the dams of its fantasy of containment: tears spill, books disintegrate, ships cross over, gender overturns binary conscripts, the deadly river overflows. Christoff’s reading of the heteronormative description of Maggie’s or Stephen’s physicality, and the ironising and subtle undermining of the same, illustrates this well. The woman character is given what she must want, “the firm [manly] arm,” but we are also told that for her to take this arm is to succumb to “a continual want to the imagination” that associates male sexuality with the firm arm (cited in Christoff, 90). It would have been very interesting here to read The Mill on the Floss and Bion’s container/contained with essays like “A Theory of Thinking” (1962), where he argues that thinking is not a product of thought, but a technology developed to cope with thought that precedes thinking. Thought is meant to be unfulfilled, as it is the lack of the object of fulfilment that prompts thought. With this built-in capacity for tolerating frustration, thoughts are not the opposite of feeling but a form of feeling. The relational reading of The Mill on the Floss could be described as salutary for the psyche, in that it alerts us to the frustrating experience of thought and allows us to learn from the experience that has burst the bounds of thought.

Christoff’s writing is sophisticated, her thought processes as careful and intricate in execution as they are bold in imagination. Novel Relations effortlessly dialogues with a very wide range of literary criticism and psychoanalytic theory, offering, through example, a vibrant relational mode of interpretation: the chapter on Mill on the Floss alone engages with intertexts in Beer, Bollas, Brooks, Cohen, (J. Hillis) Miller, Muñoz, Ogden, and others. Occasionally, the conversation is overcrowded with interlocutors and themes, the critic wanting to talk about dreaming, reading, form, identity, gypsies, Bion, and George Eliot all in the finite containment offered by a single chapter. I take the valuable point, however, that the dream of interpreting text, of momentarily obliterating the distance between subject and object, is shared between Maggie, Eliot, Bion, Christoff, Mukherjee, and all those who will come after us.

Novel Relations promises a historical reckoning of canonical works of Victorian literature as well as those of British object relations theory: the first of these aims is more consistently realised than the second. “Thinkers like Winnicott, Bion, Balint, and others rarely, if ever, speak to issues of empire, race, ethnicity, and the making of national identity in their theories,” Christoff writes, arguing that these non-psychological issues “subtend” the lives and works of these analysts (148). I wondered about this observation and wished it could have been interrogated further. It is true that the critique of colonialism in Bion’s first World War diaries disappeared over the years. In fact, in “The War of the Nerves,” written in 1940, he seems to have changed his tune altogether:

In this country, mother of a colonial empire, most of us have been familiarized with stories of pioneering in distant lands, of caravans trekking great distances and being attacked by Red Indians and other foes. Cannot this heritage be capitalized? (11)

This romanticisation of the nation is a very different negotiation of the self and the collective from the Bion of Experiences in Groups or “A Theory of Thinking.” In “Thinking,” his work on group psychology makes him value group identification: “The human individual is a political animal and cannot find fulfilment outside a group and cannot satisfy any emotional drive without expression of its social component” (221). However, he also sees in the group structure certain psychotic tendencies, as well as risks of dependence and what he called “messianic hope,” which make the members of a given group averse to thinking independently or learning from experience (Groups, 153). Perhaps the vicissitudes of a psychoanalytic idea (or corpus) cannot be tracked in all its evanescent details in a work of literary criticism. Novel Relations succeeds nonetheless in paving the way for contrapuntal reading and interpretive practice, not only revisiting the stakes of the literary and the cultural using psychoanalytic categories but questioning, at the same time, the stakes of psychoanalysis and metapsychology through a granular reading of their cultural formations.

  • Alicia Mireles Christoff

    Alicia Mireles Christoff


    Response to Ankhi Mukherjee

    [Those] on the ground kno[w] us by the pearly white scarf which every plane flying at high altitude trails behind like a bridal veil. The disturbance created by our meteoric flight crystallizes the watery vapor in the atmosphere. We unwind behind us a cirrus of icicles. If the atmospheric conditions are favorable to the formation of clouds, our wake will thicken bit by bit and become an evening cloud over the countryside. . . . Gossamer threads set me dreaming again. An image comes into my mind which for the moment seems to me enchanting. “. . . As inaccessible as a woman of exceeding beauty, we follow our destiny, drawing slowly behind us our train of frozen stars.”

    —Antoine Saint-Exupéry, Flight to Arras, 1942


    Let me begin my response with two images of aerial bombardment: the first a military photograph showing American soldiers tracing a Battle of the Bulge dogfight and the second a painting, Paul Nash’s Battle of Britain from 1941, each centring on the vapor trails military aircrafts sketch behind them in the sky.1

    When World War II was declared in September 1939, 3.5 million civilians under the threat of aerial bombardment began fleeing from cities in England to safer areas. That December, the British psychoanalysts John Bowlby, Donald Winnicott, and their psychiatrist colleague Emanuel Miller spoke to the dangers of family separation, warning that the evacuation of small children (ages 2 to 5) without their mothers could “lead to very serious and widespread psychological disorder.”2 In a letter published in the British Medical Journal, they wrote:

    It is quite possible for a child of any age to feel sad or upset at having to leave home, but the point we wish to make is that such an experience in the in case of a little child can mean far more than the actual experience of sadness. It can in fact lead to an experience of ‘emotional black-out,’ and can easily lead to a severe disturbance of the development of the personality which may persist throughout life.3

    Against the wartime backdrop of sirens sounding and mandated blackouts, these experts in the emerging field of childhood mental health pitted the risk of shuttering the emotional lights. Even small children who might appear to cope well with separation, they went on to argue, might “fail to recognize their mothers on returning home,” a sure sign that “radical harm has been done.”4

    Mukherjee is right to pressure an overly loose sentence from Novel Relations which argues that “thinkers like Winnicott, Bion, Balint, and others rarely, if ever, speak to issues of empire, race, ethnicity, and the making of national identity in their theories” (148). And yet, because I stand by the larger argument I make in this paragraph and the larger project, I want to clarify my claims here while expanding on aspects of British psychoanalytic history I did not get to include in the book. What I underline in Novel Relations (and, it’s true, perhaps risk reifying) is the split between the public work and the more formalized theoretical writing that Winnicott, Bion, and others published in professional psychoanalytic journals.5 There, although discussions of race, ethnicity, and empire drop out of their universalizing theories of the subject (which address “the infant” or “the child” writ large, and is if without geopolitical determinations), these issues “necessarily subtend their theories of subject formation and object relations” (148) at every turn. As Ranjana Khanna argues, “the concepts of self and being that came into existence in psychoanalysis were dependent on strife of violence, that is, on the politics of colonial relations.”6 One focus of Novel Relations is to underline the violence in places where it is underacknowledged—and to be clear, not repressed per se, but rather politely ignored. Focusing in this response on more popular writings, we see a similar structure even when the British analysts of my study address the war: they write as if the violence and strife of World War II and its fallout were European matters alone.

    Writing a few years later in 1944, when the London Blitzkrieg led to a third wave of evacuations a million strong, Anna Freud concurred with the letter quoted above, arguing that the psychic toll of separation posed a far greater risk than the merely physical threats of civilians’ exposure to the brutalities of war:

    The war acquires comparatively little significance for children so long as it only threatens their lives, disturbs their material comfort, or cuts their food rations. It becomes enormously significant the moment it breaks up family life and uproots the first emotional attachments of the child within the family group.7

    Such declarations dramatically revised existing views of the child and the mother-infant bond. And not only that: as historian Michal Shapira argues in The War Inside (2013), the condition of “total war,” and the evacuation of children in particular, “elevated British psychoanalysis to a role not enjoyed anywhere else in the world,” transforming it from an emerging field into “an influential and popular political force.”8

    If psychologically healthy children make for a healthy democratic society, who better than British psychoanalysts, with their expertise in childhood mental health, to understand the impact of modern warfare and its wake? Anna Freud’s war nurseries for un-evacuated children in London (many of them Jewish refugees from the continent); Winnicott’s work as a consultant for the Government Evacuation Scheme in Oxfordshire and his establishment (with Clare Britton) of wartime evacuation hostels for “difficult” children; Bowlby’s work in hospitals; Edward Glover’s visits to British juvenile courts and creation of a delinquency treatment center: these are just some of the ways British psychoanalysts not only became involved in the war effort, but also came to play crucial roles, as their theories diffused throughout “social policy, law, popular culture, and public opinion,” in “the postwar development of the welfare state.”9

    Shapira’s history is crucial because it writes British psychoanalysis back into its active political agency. The War Inside stresses British psychoanalysts’ contributions to the postwar definition of a new “democratic self” pitted against Nazi, communist, and fascistic selfhood. Shapira points out that “the idea that democracy requires maturity and a certain level of mental stability stemming out of healthy childhood” is not, as we might be tempted to think, ahistorical and common-sense, but rather “developed in fact in the mid twentieth century, and in Britain,” where “contemporary thinking about the welfare state” was “mobilized by psychological principles” about “who constitutes the healthy individual capable of being a good citizen.”10

    And yet, the historiography’s tight focus on the nation begs a host of questions precisely on colonial relations. What about the postwar definition of the “imperial self”? What “specific form of subjectivity is required” not by social democracy, but by what might be better named as an imperial government in decline or transition?

    A second historical study helps us think in these wider terms: Nellie Boucher’s Empire’s Children: Child Emigration, Welfare, and the Decline of the British World (2014), which charts the permanent relocation of children—roughly 90,000 boys and girls between 1869 and 196—from working-class British households to the “white dominions” of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Southern Rhodesia.11 Significantly, the nineteenth-century government-sponsored practice waned only in the 1940s, precisely when “new ideas of the importance of maternal attachment, made popular by John Bowlby and others” came to the fore right alongside the change in ethos concerning poverty and government intervention that (for better and for worse) defined the postwar welfare state.12 This settler colonial story, another evacuation of sorts, is among the histories of “strife and violence” that undergirds British psychoanalysts’ formulations of the self. Perhaps Bowlby, Winnicott, and Anna Freud’s adamant refusal of child separation during the home front air raids of World War II was an implicit rebuke of this earlier settler colonial social policy—but it was also a means to define more sharply the difference between democratic selves and colonial subjects. To study child emigration is to study the making of global imperial identity: as Boucher shows, children were viewed as “imperial assets in knitting together an expanding global British presence [in the nineteenth century] and—later, as fears of decline gathered—in entrenching and preserving it.”13 The construction of “Whiteness” itself was at stake: in the interwar years, government-funded charities sent children abroad not simply to rescue them from lives of urban poverty, but just as pressingly to “protect the white character of settler society from immigration (Australia) or from domestic black majorities (southern Africa).”14

    Erica Kanesaka Kalnay has recently theorized a Victorian version of what Robin Bernstein names “racial innocence”: the way the imagined innocence of the white American child “performs a transcendence of race while obscuring histories of racial violence.” In Kalnay’s reworking, “the imagined innocence of the white Victorian child enacts the erasure of imperial brutality under the pretense of obliviousness toward its legacies of racial trauma.” Kalnay largely focuses on Golden Age children’s literature (1860–1940) in the making of this “imperial innocence,” but reading her work I am convinced that British psychoanalysis too plays a part in its production, carving out “a space from which to feign ignorance toward imperialism as a system of power entrenched in the production of racial difference and in the deployment of that difference to construe colonialism as harmless or benevolent.”15

    The warplane contrails over London in the images with which I began remind me of nothing so much as Winnicott’s squiggles. In a game he invented to play with his child patients, Winnicott would “make some kind of an impulsive line-drawing” and invite the child to turn it into something—anything, making the game into a friendlier kind of Rorschach.16 He sometimes reproduces these drawings in his papers, as we does with eight-year-old Ruth, who makes of his squiggles a pram, a horse, a bathtub—images which give Winnicott access, he writes, to her “dream world.”17

    I love these drawings, and the spirit of playfulness Winnicott brings into his exchanges with children and into his writing too. Along with this admiration, though, I wonder about the “imperial innocence” the squiggle-game helps to construct.

    Long before airplane-wake squiggles in the sky could strike enchantment or fear into the hearts of children and parents on British soil, and long before British psychoanalysts could debate which was a more “radical harm”—living with the threat of air raids in the city or evacuation to the country—the airplane was used as an instrument of terror in colonial spaces. As Vijay Prashad shows, even during Europe’s era of relative domestic peace (1815–1914), “the part of the planet under its control grew from a third to 85 percent” with the help of military technology. “From the 1856 bombardment of Canton by British forces to the 1913 Spanish aerial bombardment of Morocco, the colonized world already knew what the weapons of mass destruction could do.” He quotes R. P. Hearne, the author of the children’s book The Romance of the Airplane, describing, in starkly racist terms in 1910, the “moral effect” of aerial terrorism in “savage lands”: “The appearance of the airship would strike terror into the tribes” with its shock-and-awe ability to “deliver sharp, severe, and terrible punishment” and save “the awful waste of life occasioned to white troops in expeditionary work.”18

    While certainly terrifying, the condensation trails in the London sky can from a place of safety be imagined, as in the ordinary childhood game of dreaming the clouds overhead into shapes, into squiggles and turned into drawings of prams and horses. They can stand in, in other words, for the vast openness of the protected child’s imagination—while in another sky they can simply signal the end of lives and cultures.

    Without writing it directly into the papers that offer explicit theories of the subject—and, in some sense, specifically by politely absenting any designating markers from their universalizing formulations of the child and child development—British psychoanalysts like Winnicott, Bowlby, Anna Freud, and Bion constructed notions of racial and imperial innocence that played crucial roles in domestic and international policy. And these notions live on today. Class, race, and geopolitics are still used to draw lines between the children considered to be too vulnerable, tender, and innocent for family separations and others for whom such separations are deemed necessary or a matter of course. I am thinking, for instance, of the vast disparities in the rates of intervention by Child Protective Services in the lives of children of color in the present day United States (described, for instance, in this recent article in Mother Jones on the pervasive racial bias in the child welfare system). And I am thinking too of the family separations forced on Central Americans—not only those migrants separated in detention centers along the US-Mexico border, but also the separations that occur when families must split across the continent due to the economic, environmental, and political devastation brought about by neocolonialist intervention and exploitation. Childhood innocence proves to be both cultural production and the domain of the few.

    1. Paul Nash, Battle of Britain, 1941, Imperial War Museum London, The photograph is drawn from Donald R. Baucom’s “Wakes of War: Contrails and the Rise of Air Power, 1918–1945, Part II—The Air War Over Europe, 1930–1945,” Air Power History 54.3 (2007): 4–21.

    2. John Bowlby, Emanuel Miller, and D. W. Winnicott, “Evacuation of Small Children,” British Medical Journal (1939): 1202–3.

    3. Bowlby et al., “Evacuation of Small Children,” 1202–3

    4. Bowlby et al., “Evacuation of Small Children,” 1203.

    5. So to use the citations in Ankhi’s response as an example: the difference between Bion’s technical essay “A Theory of Thinking” published in the International Journal of Psycho-Analysis as opposed to his essay “The War of Nerves” written, in a very different language and voice, for a wider lay audience.

    6. Khanna, Dark Continents, 2.

    7. Anna Freud and Dorothy Burlingham, Infants without Families and Reports of the Hampstead Nurseries 1939–1945 (New York: International Universities Press, 1973), vol. 3 of The Writings of Anna Freud, 8 vols. (New York: International Universities Press, 1967–1981), 172–73.

    8. Shapira, The War Inside: Psychoanalysis, Total War, and the Making of the Democratic Self in Postwar Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 1, 49.

    9. Shapira, War Inside, 4.

    10. Shapira, War Inside, 17–18.

    11. Ellen Boucher, Empire’s Children: Child Emigration, Welfare, and the Decline of the British World, 1869–1967 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

    12. Laura Beers, review of Empire’s Children, by Ellen Boucher, American Historical Review 120.2 (2015): 716–17. A more detailed summary by H. L. Malchow reads: “In spite of critical debate in the interwar years, the period immediately after the end of the Second World War saw a resurgence of interest in using migration to sustain a wider British world. At the same time, however, the ethos of the postwar welfare state militated against such schemes by centering the importance of the working-class family. Social and financial support would enable mothers to keep their children, while the 1948 Children’s Act urged local authorities to place orphans whenever possible with families rather than in institutions. The need for a psychological nurturing of developing children was further encouraged and endorsed by John Bowlby’s popular Penguin paperback Child Care and the Growth of Love (London, 1953)” (448). H. L. Malchow, review of Empire’s Children, by Ellen Boucher, Journal of Modern History 88.2 (2016): 447–48.

    13. Malchow, review of Empire’s Children, 447.

    14. Malchow, review of Empire’s Children, 448.

    15. Erica Kanesaka Kalnay, “Imperial Innocence: The Kawaii Afterlife of Little Black Sambo,” Victorian Studies 62.4 (2020): 567.

    16. D. W. Winnicott, The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development (London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1965), 154.

    17. D. W. Winnicott, “Becoming Deprived as a Fact: A Psychotherapeutic Evaluation,” Journal of Child Psychotherapy 1 (1966): 5–12.

    18. R. P. Hearne, Airships in Peach and War (1910), quoted in Vijay Prashad, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (New York: New Press, 2007), 41–42.

Zachary Samalin


“Primitive Catastrophes”

Since the 1990s, object relations psychoanalysis has been offered as a corrective to a widely held perception that Freudian and Lacanian interpretive paradigms had come to occupy an almost monopolistic position within literary and cultural theory. In a series of articles published starting in 1997, many of which were collected posthumously after her death in 2009, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick proposed that the works of Melanie Klein, Michael Balint, and D. W. Winnicott offered important strategies that circumvented what she saw as the routinizing impasses of the Freudian repressive hypothesis. In Sedgwick’s view, this routinization affected not only Lacanian elaborations of Freud but works inspired by the Foucauldian critique of the repressive hypothesis as well. By contrast, Klein “works not so much against the concept of repression as around it.” In lieu of the primacy of repression in Freud’s conceptual apparatus, Klein introduced a disturbing taxonomy of other psychic mechanisms, such as splitting and projective identification, which predated repression and the Oedipus complex in the infant’s development and had a closer affinity to psychosis than neurosis. “Without contesting either the existence or force of repressive mechanisms—both external and internalized,” Sedgwick writes, Klein’s foregrounding of the “schizoid” defenses had the effect of casting “the whole Freudian dialectic between desire and prohibition [as] only a secondary development . . . and one among several such.”

In Novel Relations: Victorian Fiction and British Psychoanalysis, Alicia Mireles Christoff develops, extends, and significantly revises Sedgwick’s influential account of the turn to object relations. Like Sedgwick, Christoff sees in object relations a corrective to the way the “usual suspects” of psychoanalytic theory have routinized the interpretation of literature (though Christoff notably includes Klein, along with Freud and Lacan, in her lineup) (5). Christoff follows Sedgwick, too, in using the central concepts and premises of object relations psychoanalysis to develop a new relational mode of reading that will significantly alter the practice of literary and cultural criticism. Yet Christoff distinguishes her book from Sedgwick’s work in important ways. In the first place, Christoff’s book offers a much deeper and more nuanced appraisal of the generation of British analysts after Klein, many of whom broke with Klein on important theoretical and clinical grounds. While Christoff joins Sedgwick in seeing object relations as a powerful tool for unsettling the methodological routinization stemming from the repressive hypothesis’ monopoly on literary interpretation, she also goes beyond Sedgwick by illuminating a historical aspect of a matter that has often seemed to scholars only to concern the choice of a method. Moreover, Christoff advances a unique argument about the specific historical relationship of her archive of object relations theory to Victorian literature and culture, one which sets her work apart not only from Sedgwick, but from other major literary theoretical engagements with object relations, such as Mary Jacobus’s The Poetics of Psychoanalysis: In the Wake of Klein. Some of the most arresting provocations in Christoff’s book arise from her experiments with what she calls “alternative pictures of temporality and historicity” (16). By pushing her analysis in this direction, Christoff is able to pose a number of urgent questions about the extent to which psychoanalytic theory remains embedded in the unresolved problems of nineteenth-century history—embedded most intractably, perhaps, in nineteenth-century legacies of race-thinking and colonial domination.

I want to dwell a bit longer on what Christoff’s book shares with Sedgwick’s writings, before moving on to the questions about history and empire that are unique to Christoff’s treatment of object relations. Here I think it is important to observe, too, that I have been lucky to count Sedgwick as a mentor and Christoff as a close friend and valued interlocutor, and much of what I know about object relations psychoanalysis I have learned from being in conversation with the two of them and from reading their writing. If their ideas seem to me necessarily to speak to each other, it is no doubt partly because my own thinking on this subject has been shaped by an ongoing dialogue between them that I can only imagine taking place. In fact, I think of these brief remarks as an opportunity to articulate questions I might have asked them during the Q and A of that imagined conversation. Reading Christoff’s remarkable study and having this opportunity to respond to it has been a lesson in object relations in its own right.

The sense of the critical promise of object relations that Christoff shares with Sedgwick has only become more important and more crucial to our discipline in the quarter century since Sedgwick first proposed “paranoid” and “reparative” as modes of reading. In that initial moment, Sedgwick’s turn to Klein and her account of the preeminence of paranoia within various strains of critical theory had not yet been brought into the tendentiously de-politicized and de-historicized orbit of the “postcritical.” To the contrary, Sedgwick’s use of Klein as a means to work around rather than through the repressive hypothesis—and without dispensing with it altogether—sought to multiply the aims of critique, rather than to abandon them. If Foucault had insisted that repression, rather than offering the universal key to the history of domination, named only one form of the exercise of power among others, Klein likewise showed that repression named only one psychological mechanism for defending the ego among others. Moreover, unlike Foucault, Klein had devoted most of her career to defining these other mechanisms and analyzing their functions, and so her writings were not inherently organized by the redescription and critique of the repressive mechanism. Just as crucially, since repression was for Freud the engine of “civilization,” Sedgwick also saw in Klein an opportunity to rethink the way that cultural processes work, including the analysis and critique of culture itself.

This relative autonomy from the structuring power of the repressive hypothesis has led recent commentators, such as Rita Felski, to erroneously attribute a “postcritical” motive or character to Sedgwick’s turn to Klein. The political and cultural stakes of the first wave of debates over the repressive hypothesis have largely receded from view, and today’s discussions of method too often relegate theoretical concepts to a drab catalogue of critical gestures, uprooted from their contexts and drained of their commitments. But the attribution fails to appreciate either the dynamism of Sedgwick’s intervention or the disturbing power of Klein’s diagnosis of the psychotic derangements of the modern subject. Indeed, from the perspective of her Freudian contemporaries, Klein’s move beyond (or rather before) repression and Oedipalization represented a critique of such tectonic force that it fractured the British psychoanalytic institution into three pieces which remain unintegrated to this day. Conversely, Klein and her circle had long maintained that their innovations represented the logical extension of lines of inquiry Freud began late in his career but had left unfinished at his death—represented extensions, that is, of the cornerstones of the critical theoretical tradition. It has therefore become all the more important to continue Sedgwick’s project of thinking concretely about the ways in which interpretive paradigms, in spite of their critical promise, can come to behave like normative aspects of a dominant culture.

It is along this axis that Christoff most fully extends and develops Sedgwick’s earlier account of object relations as a corrective to the tendency in psychoanalytic literary theory which gives pride of place to desire, repression, the drives and sexual/gender difference. Christoff is very precise on this score. According to Novel Relations, literary theory has too unquestioningly accepted the persuasive and conceptually elegant analogy equating desire or drive to narrative or plot; think, for instance, of Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive or The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, three landmark psychoanalytic literary studies, each of which assimilates drive to narrative in its own idiosyncratic way. Christoff’s point is not just to overturn this critical commonplace, but to show how it has been responsible in its own right for obscuring the constellation of connections to object relations that she seeks to illuminate.

Once these more traditional forms of psychoanalytic literary interpretation have been displaced, the historical investigation at the heart of Novel Relations comes into focus. While Brooks, Edelman, and Jameson all use or deploy psychoanalysis as their interpretive method, Christoff is more interested in staging the confrontation between the literature of the nineteenth century and the psychoanalytic theory of the decades after World War II as a true dialogue. Rather than a one-way street in which theory claims explanatory priority over literature, or in which the historical priority of Victorian culture accounts for the blind spots and the insights of postwar conceptions of the subject, Christoff describes a historical relationship of mutual resemblance between her two archives, painting the “alternative pictures of temporality and historicity” mentioned earlier. In fact, the temporality animating Novel Relations is neither uniform nor unidirectional. If on certain pages Christoff shows how George Eliot and Thomas Hardy uncannily anticipate Michael Balint or Winnicott, in other places historical progression itself seems to freeze or to collapse altogether, so that the novels and the theorists come to occupy the same historical frames of reference and to share the same cultural assumptions.

Christoff develops this sense of a shared frame of historical reference in two directions, which, taken together, suggest some ways in which the study of the nineteenth century might be understood as an object relation of its own. In the first place, Victorian fiction and British psychoanalysis turn out to share remarkable and counterintuitive conceptions of basic psychological capacities—wishing, thinking, dreaming, the ability to be alone, and so on. This sense of a shared basis has the effect of blurring the distinction between theory and history. For instance, for Christoff, uncovering the resemblance between Winnicott’s and Hardy’s writings about solitude and unintegration entails first staging a confrontation between Winnicottian and Lacanian (via Kaja Silverman) conceptions of surveillance and internalization. The displacement of sexuality and drive that has been central to methodological disputes is in this sense linked to the historical relationships—the shared cultural basis—Christoff establishes between Hardy and Winnicott and Bion and Eliot. We do not see the historical connection between the latter without staging the confrontation between the former. Not unlike one of Bion’s images of reversible perspective, the relationship between history and theory runs both ways in Novel Relations. We are not sure if the historical redescription follows from a methodological decision, or if the methodological choices are themselves outcomes of the historical processes the book describes.

In contrast to this harmonious mix-up, Christoff’s nineteenth- and twentieth-century texts are also mutually implicated in the history of British imperial violence and domination. In this picture, the two sets of texts again occupy a single frame of reference, but what is common to both are disavowed ideological presumptions about racialization and rationalizations of colonial violence, rather than implicit conceptual affinities. These presumptions are shared with relatively little alteration across gulf between, say, the publication of The Mill on the Floss (1860) and of “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena” (1951)—a period that Christoff describes in terms of the “racial century” spanning from 1850 to 1950. In this respect, the relationship to racial violence represents, much as it did for Edward Said in his formulation of contrapuntal reading, the unconscious or at least tacit limitation of what the novels and theorists alike are capable of acknowledging about their own historical place in social and political reality. The link to nineteenth-century culture is not, in this case, deemed a positively enabling attachment in need of recuperation. Rather, it is cast as an unwanted burden that psychoanalysis may not be able to escape, and which, for Christoff, calls into question the very desire to read Victorian fiction (insofar, at least, as reading involves desire or identification in the first place). This line of Christoff’s argument is especially suggestive for future scholarship concerning the extent to which post-War psychoanalytic theory remains embedded in the race-thinking that underwrote the ethnological discourse of the Victorian period, as Ranjana Khanna has shown Freud’s writings to be.

It is less clear, for the time being, in what precise ways British object relations psychoanalysis was shaped by and carried forward Freud’s deep debt to colonial anthropology. It was, after all, a body of thought largely articulated during the long dissolution of the British Empire, as Christoff observes. But theorists and historians of psychoanalysis have not described how the varied histories of the period of decolonization inhere in iconoclastic concepts like projective identification or transitional phenomena, as has been done with Freud’s explicit analogy “between the mental lives between savages and neurotics.” We simply do not yet know the shape and extent to which the foundational race-thinking of psychoanalysis was carried forward through the conflicts that fractured the British psychoanalytic institution in the wake of Freud’s death. Nor do we have a complete understanding of how the negative and destructive defense mechanisms of object relations analysis interact with postcolonial theoretical commitments, which are at play in Christoff’s complex analysis of racialization in The Return of the Native. It is noteworthy, for instance, that Christoff’s discussions of race and empire shift the emphasis in her relationship to repression as an interpretive hypothesis. Whereas above we saw how the adaptation of the Freudian apparatus to literary theory had itself come to obscure aspects of the literary text, here Christoff turns her attention to the “silent connections” to colonial violence that crop up in minor details of her literary texts—references that are “not quite spoken aloud, but seem instead to get trapped in the novel’s throat,” as Christoff puts it in a memorable formulation (which calls to mind Freud’s analysis of Dora) (124). This focus on the silences and gaps of the Victorian text in the discussion of imperialism—the methodological legacy of symptomatic reading in postcolonial studies—contrasts with Christoff’s analysis elsewhere throughout the book, where she avoids foregrounding the relationship of the spoken to the censored.

In this light, I read Novel Relations as pointing the way toward an expanded understanding of the psychosocial dynamics responsible for the conspicuous absence of explicit discourses of colonial violence from the exemplary cultural form of the British Empire. The difficulty with the repressive hypothesis in this context is that, perhaps even more plainly than with the case of Victorian sexuality, colonial violence and race-thinking were not subject to a general cultural interdiction. Far from it, the management of the colonies, the imperatives of imperial domination—and the white supremacist race-thinking that underwrote the entire ideological apparatus of the civilizing project—were all part of the daytime, front page discourse of Victorian Britain. The leading intellectual voices of the day were deeply embedded in the imperial political machinery; some of the most prominent scientific debates concerned the question of whether white Europeans could be deemed a different species from the rest of humankind; widely circulated social science textbooks began with brazen civilizational declarations that “the chief leadership of progress has fallen to the successive waves of Aryans, that have spread over Europe and Asia from their early homes in lands of frost and snow.” Foucauldian analysts of the nineteenth-century European empires have by now thoroughly tracked the entanglements of race and sexuality in the broader discourse of civilizational progress, pushing back against the misguided notion that these entanglements were necessarily hidden from view. But, in an important sense, the psychic fragmentation which could allow for John Stuart Mill to inaugurate the universal liberal subject from his perch at the British East India Company remains undertheorized in Foucauldian and Freudian analyses alike. The tools afforded by the vocabulary of cultural neurosis do not seem adequate to the problem at hand—a derangement beyond the symptom that is not characterized by the return of the repressed. But that is precisely why the object relations tradition, with its extension of psychotic mechanisms into the psychopathology of everyday life, still promises to illuminate so much.

Midway through Novel Relations, Christoff discusses one of Bion’s dramatic reformulations of the psychoanalytic method. Revising Sigmund Freud’s famous metaphor comparing the analysis of the psyche to the excavation of the historical layers buried beneath modern Rome, Bion provocatively suggests that in this archaeological endeavor the analyst encounters traces “not so much of a primitive civilization, as of a primitive catastrophe.” “What the analyst uncovers in the unconscious,” Christoff paraphrases, “is not evidence of growth, nor even of a refusal to grow, but rather outright destruction” (86). The unconscious, Bion’s analogy suggests, is fruitfully compared not to Rome, but perhaps to Pompei, in which everything one learns about the past has been preserved and organized by natural violence. The task of the analyst is therefore not akin to the reconstruction of cultural monuments, but to the piecing together and comprehension of disasters whose destructiveness, Bion writes, “remains at one and same moment actively vital and yet incapable of resolution into quiescence.”

I want to propose Bion’s “primitive catastrophe” as an emblem of both the critical potential and the ideological limitations that Novel Relations helps us to see in the tradition of British object relations psychoanalysis. On the one hand, Bion knocks out one of the central pillars of the Freudian paradigm—the notion of civilization—which sat atop the theory of renounced instincts, while propping up the concept of sublimation and with it the prospect of the psychoanalysis of culture. In lieu of long repressed desires, we find evidence of innate violence, self-destruction and self-division. To put it in another dour midcentury idiom, the documents of civilization are at one and the same time documents of barbarism. On the other hand, Bion’s use of the language of the primitive in the first place that suggests a deeper attachment to the Freudian inheritance, to the troubling analogical chains that link the infant to the bourgeois housewife to the returned soldier to the pervert to the savage. The ambivalence captured by “primitive catastrophe” therefore speaks to some of the central theoretical questions that Novel Relations poses to scholars of the nineteenth century and of critical theory alike. What is left of the primitive, it seems to ask, when the very concept of civilization that produced it turns out already to have crumbled?

  • Alicia Mireles Christoff

    Alicia Mireles Christoff


    Reply to Zach Samalin

    Samalin centers his sharp and thoughtful response on Bion’s striking image of “primitive catastrophe.” While Freud famously deployed the metaphor of archaeological excavation to describe the psychoanalyst’s uncovering of buried layers of history within the subject, for Bion, those internal ruins are not static and recoverable, but instead actively smoldering, forever in collapse.1 In Novel Relations, I use Bion’s reworking of the Freudian metaphor to trouble the notion of development in The Mill on the Floss, showing how Maggie’s so-called maturation is founded upon “primitive disaster” and regression, leaving the masculinist Bildungsroman in ruins and crumbling Freud’s analogy between personal growth and civilizational progress.2 This tension extends to cultural artifacts like the Victorian novel and British psychoanalysis itself, which are indeed at once documents of civilization and documents of barbarism. As Samalin points out, this conundrum is embedded in Bion’s use of the term “primitive” itself, a relic of Freud’s colonialist and racialized notion that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.3

    While Samalin and I are on the same page to this point, we part ways, I think, when it comes to how we want to pursue this (active, catastrophic) contradiction. Where Samalin wants to search out “the psychosocial dynamics responsible for the apparently conspicuous absence of an explicit discourse of colonial violence from the exemplary cultural form of the British Empire”—or more precisely, to use the revisions of Freudian thought by British psychoanalytic thinkers like Bion to challenge the lexicon of repression and neurosis at the heart of many of our guiding notions of memory, history, and cultural criticism—I want to suggest that psychoanalysis alone is not a sufficient methodology to address and redress the disaster at hand.

    In this way, my project departs as well from Ranjana Khanna’s excellent book, Dark Continents: Psychoanalysis and Colonialism (2003), which Samalin suggests as a kind of prequel for the kind of project I might have pursued with British object relations. Dark Continents traces Freud’s involvement with both archaeology and anthropology in order to reveal psychoanalysis itself as a colonial discipline.4 Khanna understands psychoanalysis to be “a masculinist and colonialist discipline that promoted an idea of Western subjectivity in opposition to a colonial, feminine, and primitive other,” scripting as universal what is in fact “a story of subjectivity in Western Europe.”5 And yet, precisely because it is a colonial discipline, psychoanalysis for Khanna has the potential to make apparent the ideological strife and violence—“the politics of colonial relations”—from which it is born.6 She writes: “Far from rejecting psychoanalysis, Dark Continents shows the importance of psychoanalysis in the world today as a reading practice that makes apparent the psychical strife of colonial and postcolonial modernity,” and labels this reading practice “critical melancholia.”7

    The project Samalin is looking for—a part two of Dark Continents that would trace the histories of British object relations thinkers’ involvement with “race-thinking” and the twentieth-century colonial disciplines of psychology and psychiatry—is one I would be eager to read. It is not, however, the project I wanted to pursue in the more literary theoretical Novel Relations nor the one I want to pursue next. Such a project, Samalin suggests, would turn from repression or melancholia in order to deploy instead a new master-trope: one drawn from the revised repertoire of psychic mechanisms described in object relations thought. Projective identification, transitional phenomena, attacks on linking: one of these, in its elegant unification of the personal and the cultural, would become both object of analysis and critical tool, as Khanna’s melancholia becomes both symptom and cure, colonial affect and anticolonial force.

    I am feeling suspicious of this psychoanalytic elegance, which keeps everything within its lexical and conceptual ambit. At the January 2021 MLA, I heard a fantastic roundtable, “Topologies of Whiteness: Racializing the Universal Psyche,” that underlined this desire. Each of the speakers—Michelle Ann Stephens, Amber Jamilla Musser, Sheldon George, David Marriott, Kalpana Seshadri, and Calvin Warren—emphasized the need to look beyond psychoanalysis to understand modern processes of racialization, the social construction of whiteness, and their impacts. Panelists pointed to Frantz Fanon saying something like “I need psychoanalysis, but it’s never enough,” and Hortense Spillers’s move from psychoanalysis to psycho-analytics. These are the paths, following my book’s project of a more expansive “relational reading” (especially as I develop it in the book’s coda), that I am looking to follow in my future work.

    And indeed, one could argue that Bion’s “primitive catastrophe” owes as much to mid-century anticolonial thinking as it does to Freud. In his Discourse on Colonialism (1950), Aimé Césaire writes, “A civilization that plays fast and loose with its principles is a dying civilization.”8 His charge is that the roots of fascism are in colonial domination: that the devastation of Europe in World War II was precisely the genocidal violence it had visited upon others come home to roost.9 The catastrophe of dominant nations like the United States playing “fast and loose with [their] principles” is still active today, and we do not have to dig to find it because, as Samalin points out, it is written all over our “daytime, front page” news—like the colonial object relations I argue are not repressed in The Return of the Native but rather written all over its landscape. We do not have to dig to see the dying all around us.

    1. And to quickly clarify a point in Samalin’s response, Freud does directly refer to Pompeii (and not to Rome) in his reading of Gradiva and elsewhere, commenting on its perfection as a model of the psyche in which “the disappearance of the past [is] combined with its preservation” (51), like the bodies perfectly preserved in their postures of fleeing or embracing after the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 and excavated from the ashes centuries later. Sigmund Freud, “Delusions and Dreams in Jensen’s Gradiva” (1907). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey, volume 9 (1906–1908): Jensen’s “Gradiva” and Other Works, 1–96.

    2. Bion uses these as twin expressions in his work: “primitive catastrophe” in “On Arrogance,” and “primitive disaster” in “Attacks on Linking.”

    3. For a thorough and interesting discussion of these subjects, see Celia Brickman, Race in Psychoanalysis: Aboriginal Populations in the Mind (Routledge 2017)—an updated republication of her earlier monograph Aboriginal Populations in the Mind: Race and Primitivity in Psychoanalysis (Columbia University Press, 2003)—as well as Stephen Seehi’s critique in his review for Psychoanalysis and History 22.3 (2020): 385–87. Seehi remarks on the absence of newer work in critical race and decolonial theory in Brickman’s book, which reproduces “the absence of brown and black women in her critique” (387).

    4. Ranjana Khanna, Dark Continents: Psychoanalysis and Colonialism (Duke University Press, 2003), 6.

    5. Khanna, Dark Continents, ix.

    6. Khanna, Dark Continents, 2.

    7. Khanna, Dark Continents, x.

    8. Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, trans. Joan Pinkman (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), 31.

    9. See Robin D. G. Kelley’s “A Poetics of Anticolonialism” (10), his introduction to the Césaire volume cited above, and his recent interview with Vinson Cunningham for the Los Angeles Times here: I want to note too that it is Césaire’s insight that I see as the origin of Eng’s phrase “racial century.”

Simon Reader


Unintegrated Being and Literary Studies

What first drew me into Novel Relations was its stated aim: to develop a literary critical method based on British psychoanalytic theory after Melanie Klein. Object Relations informs much contemporary psychotherapeutic practice, yet Freud and Lacan outweigh their British counterparts in their influence on literary studies. Novel Relations is in part a welcome explication of the Kleinian School from the perspective of a literary critic.

A generation ago, Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick explored Klein’s productivity for literary thinking in the former’s highly influential essay “Paranoid Reading, Reparative Reading.” In what is now an almost overly familiar argument, Sedgwick faults contemporary criticism for its “paranoid” stance, advocating instead for a turn to “reparative criticism.” Reparative reading has gained some traction, often listed alongside surface reading and postcritical reading in current discussions of method and critical affect. And yet Sedgwick’s essay presents a larger opportunity for critics which they have not really taken up, namely the possibility of turning to the sophisticated vocabulary of object relations for a refreshed vocabulary of what happens in the space between authors, readers, and their books. And it’s not all about repair.

In fact, by placing so much emphasis on repair Sedgwick’s respondents may have missed out on other, thornier dynamics described by Klein and her interlocutors. Overstating the value of reparative criticism might even strike us as a paradigmatic form of splitting, a defense theorized by Klein whereby a person alternatively idealizes some objects as better than they are, and denigrates others as worse than they are. Literary art as such may be particularly susceptible to defensive splitting, given its reliance on language, personality, introjection, and intimacy. Some combatants in the so-called “method wars” might benefit from a bit of reading in object relations.

For example, while reading the book and writing this, a cog of Twitter began debating the so-called “method wars” with mechanical autonomy. The lines separating “critique” and “postcritique” got bolder and more tedious while many voices tried yelling from the sidelines that the whole debate was itself a gossamer fabrication, a castle in the sky of academic publishing, that did not reflect even slightly the everyday literature classroom. This matters here because a straw man version of Melanie Klein hangs in the background such debates, due to her appearance in Sedgwick’s essay that some still regard as an urgent polemic despite its age.

I found some solace but also new concerns reading Christoff with that in the background. Obvious though the claim may be, the insights of psychoanalysis—Lacanian, Kleinian, or otherwise—encourage the acknowledgment of ambiguous and conflicting emotion in all aspects of our relationships, something almost inadmissible on social media where performances of condemnation, endorsement, piety, and irreverence often seem to be the only options. There, the sheer volume and variegation of affect and thought provokes defensive posturing and conflict between camps. Nothing could be further from the concepts Christoff leverages to link nineteenth-century novelists and twentieth-century psychoanalysts.

Twitter contradictorily produces manifold positions and encourages binary thinking about them; in Kleinian terms, you could say that it encourages splitting good objects from bad. Monoliths such as critique and postcritique seem to coalesce out of the furious sandstorm. And yet before, alongside, or beneath that coalescence the venue encloses precisely the co-habitation of plural observations, insights, theses, and questions that Object Relations psychoanalysis finds so generative. I wish we could spend more time with those unassembled pieces before consolidating stances so quickly. When I read Christoff’s book I learn more, for instance, about Winnicott’s notion of “unintegrated being” in which “we move between subject positions and their diffusions” (36). This is not a critique of subjectivity, but rather an elective, temporary relief from it, which Christoff connects to Hardy’s description of Tess as “not an existence, an experience, a passion, a structure of sensations to anybody but herself” (27).

Indeed, Christoff’s approach to the study of novels might also be of service in metacritical discussions of method. Critical affect can be especially messy when taking an object such as the Victorian novel as one’s subject in 2021. Christoff frames her study around four feelings: loneliness, wishfulness, restlessness, and aliveness. Yet when we study and teach the likes of George Eliot and Thomas Hardy in the midst of the institutional shipwreck we face now we might also add abandonment, longing, nostalgia, desperation, fear, suspicion, identification, dis-identification, projection, introjection, love, hate, shame, insecurity, disgust, boredom. It cannot be anything but complicated, and perhaps it was always so. To place the emphasis on repair or “love” all the time reduces the spectrum of feelings and consequently the kinds of work different combinations of feeling can generate. As Deidre Lynch puts it: “It is as though those on the side of the love of literature had forgotten what literary texts themselves say about love’s edginess and complexities” (14).

This complication is part of what draws me to the notebooks of literary figures from the past, since it is often there that authors court fragmentation or unintegration without enforced or premature digging in of heels. Multiple and conflicting ideas, thoughts, and feelings hang together without being forced to unify. Reading them is to catch the (sometimes) Eminent Victorians a little off guard, either before they assume masterly public positions or when they’re not trying to. Notes do not place as weighty a demand on our attention as the realist materials (in the case of Christoff’s subjects, Eliot and Hardy) that occasionally arise from them, and as such they open up different kinds of interpretive—and, indeed, relational—questions that are as useful to us as insights generated from fiction.

Take Thomas Hardy’s Poetical Matter notebook. It begins with the following instruction: “This book to be destroyed, uncopied, at my death —T.H.” (3). And yet here it is, transcribed, edited, printed, made available for us: it interpellates its editors and readers as users of data, and hardly welcome ones. Immediately the question of privacy with regard to one’s inscriptions arises with its contradictions. Do we respect these directives from history? Do we simply refer to the copyright holders and their wishes, in this case “Miss Eva Dugdale Will Trust, proprietor of the Hardy copyrights” (vi)? After his initial demand Hardy adds additional information about the contents of the notebook: “this has not been experimented on” and is “mostly copied from old notes of many years ago.” These serve as a preface for the notes that follow, such as

“Brown dead leaves: the beautiful sunlights they have reflected, &c” (4)

“Faces met: indices of probably length of lives . . . these to die at 40, these at 50, &c” (7)

“Dance of hailstorms in a storm” (13)

Why did Hardy want these notes destroyed? Are they unbecoming of the poet he aspired to be? Were they too naked and unformed? The sense of exposure and of voyeurism arises here, but also a looseness of connection between the included materials and his related insouciance about managing the transitions between them beyond the separation of a pencil line. Knowing that Hardy did not arrange these in order, we needn’t read them in order. Flip the pages and pluck the thing you like. Sometimes you even land on an awareness of this principle: “What is it to me?” he asks. Yet while the notes invite excerption, quotation, and use by the reader at every turn, approaching them together means contending with their diffusion.

Once of Sedgwick’s examples of the reparative impulse is camp (again, the essay was first published in 1997), which includes “the ‘over’-attachment to fragmentary, marginal, waste or leftover products; the rich, highly interruptive affective variety” (150). This is no doubt a generative passage of her essay, and Hardy’s notebook may solicit the love of collectors or diehard fans or the queer eye; yet its form also raises critical problems that confront twenty-first-century readers. What is the right way to approach stacks of entries that a person made without intentional arrangement, and where the simple fact of different moments in time dictates the appearance of a line in one place or another? What right do we have to make any use of writings an author wanted destroyed?

Twitter occasions similar and even identical interpretive questions—or it should, but more often these are occluded by the economy of adding, counting, or withholding hearts from the digital notes that cross our path. I have sometimes thought that the worst thing about the medium is that little heart, which only allows for responses to ideas with the same nuance as mandatory valentine exchanges in grade school. The strength of Christoff’s work lies in both its archive of Object Relations and its deployment on objects of the Victorian canon. Neither a work of critique nor repair, Novel Relations accepts and enacts a variegated relationship with its objects.


Works Cited

Hardy, Thomas. Thomas Hardy’s Poetical Matter Notebook.” Edited by Pamela Dalziel and Michael Millgate. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Kurnick, David. “A Few Lies: Queer Theory and Our Method Melodramas.” ELH 87.2 (2020) 349–74.

Lynch, Deidre Shauna. Loving Literature: A Cultural History. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2015.

  • Alicia Mireles Christoff

    Alicia Mireles Christoff


    Response to Simon Reader

    This energetic and of-the-internet-moment response tempts me to codeswitch: Not Simon Reader dragging me into the latest incarnation of the method wars and the Discourse! Lol. I’m awful at Twitter and mostly just lurk—I saw the recent storm he refers to and simply kept my distance. But in all seriousness, I love that Reader draws our attention to the dual lives so many of us academics lead between these different registers of speech and modes of academic conversation. Although twenty-first-century media is far outside the book’s ambit and my own expertise, I do believe that the way certain media experiences, whether novel reading or doom scrolling, dictate our moods (that is to say, our combined cognitive/affective/relational deportments), and that their at times unshakeable hold on us are extremely worthy of understanding. Surely, the new relations Twitter introduces restructure subjectivity in a manner parallel to the subject I pursue in Novel Relations: how the technologies of novelistic form restructure subjectivity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in part through their absorption into psychoanalytic theory.

    I am with Reader on being suspicious of how the platform allows users to posture as entirely good objects, to like or not to like with a little heart of endorsement. And to posture especially, I think, as entirely good political actors, always on the right side of history—as if such a thing were possible. I recognize, though, how seductive this promise of unassailability is. And how seductive splitting is too. As one summary of Kleinian thinking (from Freud and Beyond, which I love to use in my teaching) puts it, the bipolarity of the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions color everything from our outlooks to our objects, as we vacillate between “a loving orientation toward loving and loveable other people and a hateful orientation toward hating and hateful other people.”1 These moods are global and seem to take over everything (I touch on this in the Middlemarch chapter), like a descending gloom or sudden cloud-break. In these times of pandemic lockdown and social isolation, not to mention grief, I don’t know anyone, myself included, who isn’t feeling the sting of paranoia particularly acutely.

    I enter the method wars in Novel Relations to the extent that I cite and respond to Sedgwick’s pivotal essay on paranoid and reparative reading, but what I emphasize—both through engaging the essay itself and by reference to a range of post-Kleinian thinkers—is that such forms of reading are not mutually exclusive positions. I underline, for instance, Bion’s pseudo-mathematical formula, PS D, which revises Klein by placing a two-way arrow between the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions (the latter being the home of the reparative impulse). With that symbol, Bion signals not only the unceasing psychic shuttle between these positions, but their more fundamental mutual imbrication. Likewise, Novel Relations resists getting locked into binary terms to definitively characterize critical procedure. The first paragraph of Kent Puckett’s response rightly captures the book’s larger impulse: to reject false choices between “form and content, formalism and historicism, critique or what it is that critique isn’t” and to think instead about the relationship between them. As Puckett phrases it, Novel Relations asks: What if instead of “wringing our hands over ersatz and, for exactly that reason, especially angsty choices between things that, after all, only make sense when they appear together,” we looked instead to develop richer histories and practices of relationality itself?

    Reader, then, is much closer to characterizing the aims of Novel Relations when he writes that my book, refusing the false split between critique and repair and in keeping with its emphasis on Klein but instead British thinkers of the next generation, “accepts and enacts a variegated relationship with its objects.” No need to heart or hate Tess, nor an essay by Winnicott. Perhaps it is worth noting here that my relationship to Novel Relations is variegated as well. It is not the book I would write now. But it’s still mine, and I’ve had to work hard at staying proud of the parts of book that I think are worth admiring. Or to better said, the parts of the book that might lead to different futures. I could use the Hardy note Reader cites to describe one response I have to opening my book now: “Brown dead leaves: the beautiful sunlights they have reflected, &c.” I have to work to remember the sunlights, to see them again in the book’s duochrome pages.

    My point is that relation is not just a fact but also a labor, as the poet Natalie Diaz recently reminded me. The labor of building and maintenance (that is to say, constant re-building), of bearing with disappointment, of staying in contact when it is far simpler on heart and mind to just walk away. This is my biggest fear about the most recent recurrence of the method wars: that these debates are so minutely focused that they distract us from the work of changing our fields and universities in the much larger ways demanded of us. Our comportment towards the texts we study is important, but so is our engagement with the labor relations that structure our places of employment. We can endlessly clarify our definitions of critique without bothering to redefine commonsense understandings of the more fundamental terms that structure our study: the human, the aesthetic, and literary/cultural “value”—often crypto-terms, as Kyla Wazana Tompkins points out, for the racism baked into much disciplinary thinking and practice. In my view, the method wars are ultimately conservative: their work is to maintain the status quo, reforming fine-grade practices while leaving overarching disciplinary and institutional structures untouched and intact. I would suggest instead that we direct our labor to the places we need it most: in building the communities, at once virtual and real, that can reshape the unjust mess of a world we find ourselves in.

    1. Stephen A. Mitchell and Margaret J. Black, Freud and Beyond: A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 91.

Verified by ExactMetrics