Sunday, January 21, 2007

The claims of the person

From D. A. Miller, Jane Austen, or The Secret of Style (2003):

Of that godlike authority which we think of as the default mode of narration in the traditional novel, Jane Austen may well be the only English example. Whether our standard is Fielding in the eighteenth century, or Thackeray in the nineteenth, the omniscient narrator's divinity proves constantly betrayed by his human verisimilitude, the all-too-familiar "character" with which he can't help tending to coincide. Pronounced with the thick accent of the sociolect that immediately sits him down on one or another chair of distinctly institutional, unmistakably male authority, his omniscience seems hardly more than a poetically licensed exaggeration of the kinds of empowered knowledge that are already possessed, already displayed and exercised, by various men in the nonfictional world: a learned magistrate, say, or a gossipy clubman. Far from enacting a fantasy of divine authority, the noisy personalities of Fielding and Thackeray relentlessly humanize that authority, never let us forget its earthly origins as a glamorization of some garden-variety male know-it-all. Even George Eliot, when not occupied with simulating such a figure, ventriloquizes the well-remembered voice of that all-knowing, all-understanding, and all-forgiving woman to whom--uniquely--everyone has been accustomed to submit: the mother. These canonical examples of omniscient narration are only canonical in that they represent the Feuerbachian tendency everywhere present in it to bring the gods down to earth. By contrast, Austen's divinity is free of all accents that might identify it with a socially accredited broker of power/knowledge in the world under narration. It does not carry on either from the authority of the commanding, intelligent, but hardly style-conscious hero, or from that of the elegant, witty heroine, with a mind "darkened, yet fancying itself light." However doubtful it must be that Jane Austen is a writer for all time--who could ever prove this?--she always writes like a real god, without anthropomorphism. Nowhere else in nineteenth-century English narration have the claims of the "person," its ideology, been more completely denied.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure I agree with this--re: Austen, not the others (he's totally right about Thackeray, let alone, my god, Dickens).