restricted access The Semantics of Desire: Changing Models of Identity from Dickens to Joyce (review)
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Reviewed by
Philip M. Weinstein. The Semantics of Desire: Changing Models of Identity from Dickens to Joyce. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1984. 310 pp. $32.50.

The unifying premise of Weinstein's ambitious and thoughtful exploration of six major British novelists—Dickens, Eliot, Hardy, Conrad, Lawrence, and Joyce—is that as we move from Victorianism to modernism, the body and its desires increasingly become a larger factor in human identity at the expense of the mind: "To move from Dickens to Joyce is to encounter a virtual revolution in which the body's propensity and the mind's restraint exchange roles as primary indices of identity." Weinstein's strengths are his insightful discussions of individual novels, his frequently subtle understanding of the imagination of the writers he discusses, and, notwithstanding a somewhat confused Introduction, a readable and often elegant prose style. But, because he does not sustain his method, concepts, and arguments from chapter to chapter, his book tends to become a series of discrete essays. Furthermore, in his reliance on Nietzsche and Freud, he does not adequately define the specific cultural contexts that pertain to the development of the modernist movement in England. Finally, often he both disregards the evolving form of a novel as a temporal reading event and fails to discuss what a novel's rhetoric does to its readers and why.

Weinstein is trying to create a dialogue between traditional formal criticism and recent movements in criticism. He is properly skeptical of what he calls the "hermeneutics of suspicion" (read: deconstruction) that urges that, as he puts it, "The critic's job is not to cooperate with the text but to expose it." But he chooses to place his methodological emphasis on phenomenology that had its heyday in the early 1970s when he began this study. Although its major practitioners in America, such as Hillis Miller, Geoffrey Hartman, and Edward Said, have moved on to supposedly less subjective modes of criticism, Weinstein and a few others have remained behind to cultivate the intellectual territory. We might recall that in the feisty days of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when it seemed in some major literature departments as if intellectual and political revolution was never more that a few insights away, phenomenology became an appealing course on the critical menu. It was perceived as an antidote to the logical positivism and pretenses to objectivity of the New Criticism and Chicago [End Page 331] Neo-Aristotelianism. It urged that we understand both the author's encounter with his experience and the reader's encounter with the text in terms of an epiphanic revelation that dissolves the distinction between "I know" and "I have seen." In terms that readers of Georges Poulet, the European patriarch of Anglo-American phenomenology, and the Hillis Miller that permeates The Disappearance of God and Poets of Reality will recognize, Weinstein speaks of "approach[ing] the self- understanding of the novelistic universe in question, to identify its nodal and enabling assumptions, those creative premises that have generated its characteristic shape and concerns and that intimate what can and cannot be achieved within its contours."

In between the Introduction and a brief Afterword, Weinstein's book has a tripartite structure; all three parts contain two chapters, each of which is devoted to a major author. Under the subtitle "Mid-Victorian: Constraints and Masquerades," the first and most successful part discusses Dickens (David Copperfield and Little Dorritt) and Eliot (The Mill on the Floss and Daniel Deronda). In a splendid chapter, Weinstein captures the essential spirit of Dickens' imagination. The second part, "Late Victorian: Tragic Encounters," discusses Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure and Conrad's Lord Jim and Nostromo. Notwithstanding an interesting discussion of the ineffectuality of the spoken word in Jude, neither the perceptive Hardy chapter nor the capable, if not strikingly original, Conrad chapter will change the way that we read these writers.

The final part is entitled, "Modernist: Beginning the Revaluation," and includes a fine chapter on Lawrence (Women in Love and Lady Chatterley's Lover) and one on Joyce that Weinstein calls "a meditation . . . on Ulysses as a Modernist novel." Claiming that in...