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.