restricted access The Ambivalence of Form: Lukacs, Freud and the Novel (review)
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Susan Derwin. The Ambivalence of Form: Lukács, Freud and the Novel. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1992. 208 pp.

Susan Derwin’s critical object in The Ambivalence of Form: Lukács, Freud and the Novel is realism, and her achievement is to have linked novelistic narrative’s desire for the real to the affective desires of the fetish. The mimetic claim, Derwin shows, has a fetishistic origin in the split subject, whose modern origins, and the origins of the novel, are simultaneous. In a manner less historical but more tightly focused than the work of René Girard, which remains curiously unmentioned in this book, The Ambivalence of Form links Lukács’s early The Theory of the Novel (1916) with Freud’s Totem and Tabu (1913). Both texts, Derwin points out, map out an ideal identification with totality, and at the same time subvert the will to totality that mimesis presupposes. For Lukács, the will of a subject who thinks in terms of totality, in the novelistic age when totality is problematic, produces a poetics of ironic instability: Freud’s contemporary text, Derwin notes, examines a similar, destablizing notion of “Einheit” in which “the desire to be like the other, to imitate him, entails a desire to do away with the other . . . identical to the brutal egotism of neurosis.” The world-historical pessimism of Lukács, and psychological anthropology of Freud, Derwin shows, “actually stage the interplay between the assumption that mimesis is a viable mode of representation and the ironic subversion of this assumption.”

Derwin fleshes out this notion in textual analysis of novels by Honoré de Balzac, Charlotte Brontë, Theodor Fontane, and Walker Percy. In what is rigorously analytical and dense but always clear theoretical prose and textual analysis, The Ambivalence of Form shows that the self-subversion of mimesis and irony Lukács saw as constitutive of the novel form, and the aggressive erotics of identification and the quest for wholeness described by Freud, cannot be separated from [End Page 241] one another in the reading process. Derwin cannily connects mimesis and the aggressive desires for a totality in question with male and female subject positions in Balzac’s La Recherche de l’Absolu, and with the irony of female self-staging in Fontane’s Frau Jenny Treibel, long a touchstone for discussions of realism in the German novel. The analysis of sado-masochism and the desire for wholeness in Percy’s The Second Coming beautifully destabilizes redemptive readings of that novel’s conclusion. The affective poetics of sado-masochistic desire and its relation to both mimesis and the process of identification Derwin develops here are a truly original and powerful contribution, whose traces are to be found throughout this book.

The Ambivalence of Form bears comparison with Claudia Brodsky’s The Imposition of Form (1987), which examines the formal imposture of the realist claim to mimesis from a Kantian direction. While self-consciously separating itself from historical, contextual analysis, Derwin’s work also supports the combination between skepticism and realistic representation that Michael McKeon quite differently accounts for as an aspect of realistic narrative from the start in his The Origins of the English Novel (1987). Yet Derwin’s engagement with kindred theory remains largely implicit. The notion of “the ambivalence of form,” for instance, bears clear analogies to the early as well as late work of Theodor Adorno. The Dialectic of Enlightenment’s analysis of magic, representation and fetishism as origins of conceptual thought and literary form bear analogy to Derwin’s model, as does Adorno’s final work, Aesthetic Theory, where the fetish value of literary form and the self-critique built into artistic representation are linked. These connections are only touched upon in the briefest way, and there is no exploratory engagement with the later Lukács, whose essays on modernism explicitly rejected modernist narratives. The modernism excoriated by Lukács, moreover, highlighted precisely the radical kinds of attack on totalization which Derwin argues for convincingly as part of affective narrative structure of the realism Lukács preferred. Similarly, the powerful, central thesis of The Ambivalence of Form—Derwin’s linkage between “fetishism” and the “realistic aesthetic,” accomplished...