restricted access The Subject of Modernism: Narrative Alterations in the Fiction of Eliot, Conrad, Woolf, and Joyce (review)
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Reviewed by
Tony E. Jackson. The Subject of Modernism: Narrative Alterations in the Fiction of Eliot, Conrad, Woolf, and Joyce. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1994. 209 pp.

The modernist subject offered to us by Tony Jackson is a Lacanian one—fractured, belated, ironically stoical. It finds its origin in Descartes and has for its task an ongoing effort to recognize the fundamental contradictions embedded in that constitutive moment. Jackson defines his project as a historical reinscription of this Lacanian subject, on the premise that attending to its developmental logic can allow us to trace and to better understand the “generic self-analysis” that transforms realism into a modernism we have not yet moved beyond.

For Lacan, Descartes’s pursuit of self-certainty marks the emergence of modern subjectivity, where the subject’s desire to establish its own ground is undercut by the belated and necessarily linguistic nature of its consciousness. Its ontological stability, that is, can be conceived only retrospectively—as a mythical projection back from the moment of division—and articulated only within the medium of language—differentially and therefore partially. Jackson argues that this model of subjectivity has a latent historical dimension (evident, although not fully worked through, in de Man’s reading of modernity) and that it can be mapped onto the development of modern narrative. The shift from realism to modernism parallels the movement from simply living out to consciously recognizing the paradoxical nature of the subject, its desire for a wholeness it cannot guarantee, its inability to attain subjective self-certainty. Modernism “differs from previous literatures because it [End Page 865] discovers literary desire [or actually, the impossibility of such desire], and it thinks of itself as making this discovery.” The rectification of illusion—Levin’s classic definition of realism—thus comes to be seen as itself an illusion that needs to be rectified.

On its own terms, all this is beautifully done. Jackson’s renditions of Lacan, de Man, and Heidegger are crisp and precise. He even makes Lacan clear, no small (nor perhaps unproblematic) virtue. His application of this theoretical framework to individual texts proves subtle and frequently instructive, especially in the ways it explores the structural features of modern narratives, their varied renderings of a pervasive “spiral-return” plot. Jackson’s interpretive flair is particularly evident at the heart of the book, in its central chapters on Conrad and Woolf. He gives a marvelously perceptive analysis of Lord Jim as a literary historical text that self-consciously reinscribes romantic, realist, and naturalist plots which, in their complex structuring, highlight Marlow’s transferential role as narrator. Jackson’s reflections on narrative structures in Mrs. Dalloway and The Waves, their use of “unbound subplots” and their metaphoric-metonymic rhythms, are equally well worth reading—consistently provocative, thoughtful, engaging.

Whether such readings add up to a plausible literary history is a more complex question. Jackson’s model remains grounded in an ontological (anti-) essentialism; history here means the unfolding discovery of an ontological condition that does not itself change over time, not even, apparently, in consequence of this coming to consciousness. Any such single-minded developmental axis need not take much account of historical particularity, since “any cutting across the metonymic threading, any selection of an identity, is an arbitrary and violent action”—equally arbitrary, equally violent in every case. This leads in turn to a periodizing essentialism, which gives us a single romanticism, a single realism, a single naturalism, all of them in turn parts of a generic premodernism, since “All three literary historical categories operate as a similar kind of generic méconnaissance.” At a time when literary periods have grown harder to pin down, harder to see in neatly unified terms, this confident assertion of the unitary character of modernism and its precursors has a curious sort of ring.

Unsurprisingly, Jackson does his richest readings of those texts that most emphatically fit his version of modernism, a modernism marked by its latent naturalist anxiety. In his terms, “The particular [End Page 866] Imaginary character of the Cartesian subject shows itself perhaps nowhere more clearly than in what may be called the naturalist leap to ontological self-martyrdom,” and...