- Reviewed by
This book consists of thirteen essays suggesting, in Cohen's introductory words, "some of the varied directions that change can take in criticism and theory." Varied is the key word; the authors converge upon the broad topic of historical change from many disciplines, including art history, political science, history, anthropology, and literature. As disciplinary boundaries keep shifting, these differences grow increasingly unstable, and new topics of common interest emerge; narrative is the one here of special interest to readers of this journal.
In the longest essay in the collection, Dell Hymes ranges over a variety of Native oral narratives from the Pacific Northwest, suggesting that oral and written discourses might be seen more as sharing strategies and social purposes than diverging from each other. Rachel Blau DuPlessis focuses on Mina Loy's lyric sequence "Love Songs to Joannes," but her discussion of "gender narratives and lyric ideology" raises interesting questions about the different kinds of social and sexual interests associated with different modes of narrative organization (large unified story vs. loosely articulated collection). In "Toward Varennes," Anne Rigney is also attentive to the detailed effects of different narrative strategies, though with reference now to the historical subject of the Bourbon royal family's flight from Paris. Though Rigney does not push the point, we seem to be dealing not so much with different versions of the same event, but different events. This question, about the relation of historical and fictional narratives, is developed by Linda Orr who argues, in "The Revenge of Literature: A History of History," that history and literature exist in an antagonistic but formative relation, each constituting itself as a kind of back-formation from the repressed other, whose own claims for priority inevitably return.
Not all the contributors work out of such postmodern ironies. Richard Lehan, describing the relation between literary form and historical process in novels about city life, has no problem separating and stabilizing the two [End Page 422] categories in a hierarchical structure (history first). A similar set of assumptions seems to generate Franco Moretti's discussion of "The Crisis of the European Bildungsroman" as socially determined, though he recognizes genre as relatively autonomous and fully understands the controversial nature of his own materialist approach.
Controversy, indeed, is acknowledged in the first essay's first words ("It is a battle-cry, a command, a whole program," says Norman Bryson about the claims of contextualizing art historians against their formalist colleagues), and controversy remains a presence throughout. With an increased sense of the discipline-specific nature of our work, and of the historically contingent and institutionally based nature of our disciplines, controversy seems an inevitable fact of our professional lives nowadays. The essays throughout this volume engage intelligently and provocatively with the conflicts of recent critical history, including two useful reconsiderations of the New Criticism (by Murray Krieger and R. K. Meiners). Such engagements both describe and enact current disputes. They are "studies in historical change" the way Shakespeare was in theater—subdued to what he worked in like the dyer's hand.