Both these books are interdisciplinary in scope and addressed to an intellectually inquisitive but nonspecialist audience; nonetheless, they offer remarkably different experiences of reading. Brooks, a French-oriented comparatist at Yale, writes lively and graceful literary criticism on Freud's case study of the "Wolf-Man" and on novels by Stendhal, Balzac, Eugène Sue, Zola, Dickens, Conrad, and Faulkner, while usefully drawing upon and explaining much relatively technical work from psychoanalysis and "narratology." Ricoeur, a Francophone philosopher oriented toward German hermeneutics but respecting the Anglo-American analytic tradition, develops a soberly lucid argument that illuminates Aristotle's Poetics, Augustine's Confessions, Heidegger's Being and Time, Arthur Danto's Analytic Philosophy of History, Hayden White's Metahistory, and Fernand Braudel's massive history of the Mediterranean. Both works should be read closely by any seriously thoughtful student of modern fiction. I shall concentrate on a few perspectives rather than trying to encapsulate their arguments.
Ricoeur offers a "long and difficult three way conversation between history, literary history, and phenomenological philosophy"; Brooks a "convergence of psychoanalysis and literary criticism." Yet both explictly locate their thought in response to Frank Kermode's The Sense of an Ending, which has for almost two decades been provoking critics to study the formal shaping of action as itself an activity that moves back and forth between the page and life. For Ricoeur, however, the formal shaping of action, "narrative," is a process, composed of three stages, that begins from human intentionality, whereas for Brooks that shaping is understood as "fiction" and begins from the unconscious production of desire.
The two authors share a sense of our moment: it is time to go further than permitted by merely analytic modes, whether those of Anglophone philosophy or continental structuralism. Brooks's reiterated slogan (alluding to his colleague Geoffrey Hartman's book of 1970) is "beyond formalism." Both explicitly characterize their goal as elucidating the "dynamic" aspects of narrative neglected by previous analysts, and both determine that this goal requires a fresh emphasis upon the "reader." This shared language of dynamism and involvement, this renewal of psychology, offers some analogy to what the Romantics did in criticizing and, [End Page 840] they hoped, transcending the eighteenth century.
Critics of these books may argue that their synthesizing mediation defuses the more radical possibilities of recent theory, just as scholars have come to argue that Romanticism was fundamentally conservative. For Ricoeur this would be no surprise; he has long, respectfully and painstakingly, combated what he terms the "hermeneutics of suspicion" that Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud set to work in our intellectual life. Brooks, however, has more the air of an avant-gardist and makes explicit use of Lacan, Barthes, and Derrida.
To substantiate my speculation would require comparing Brooks's work closely with the various American works of the last decade that it most resembles in subject matter and intellectual context: Edward W. Said's Beginnings, Leo Bersani's A Future for Astyanax, Fredric Jameson's The Political Unconscious. Brooks seems more painfully resigned to the fragility and provisionality of fiction-making, the regrettably unappeasable character of desire against "the very irony of History," and "the cosmic ironic laughter of History" than are Said, Bersani, and Jameson, whose works all point, in quite different ways, toward projects of liberation. Brooks believes he is facing the "large process of secularization, dating from the Renaissance and gathering force during the Enlightenment, which marks a falling-away" from the "revealed plots" of "the Chosen People, Redemption, the Second Coming" as well as "the decline of the collective myth," which brings "a new centering of perspectives on the individual personality." Yet Said, Bersani, and Jameson all insist that we think of ways in which the individual personality is decentered, whether through an anti-Oedipal fragmentation into mobile intensities or through renewed attention to communal, national, and global collectivities.
Brooks's language of "falling-away" and "decline" suggests...