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Reviewed by:
  • Robert Hughes
Henry Sussman. Idylls of the Wanderer: Outside in Literature and Theory. New York: Fordham UP, 2007. xxv + 236 pp.

Henry Sussman’s Idylls of the Wanderer records the efforts of a distinguished teacher and scholar striving—earnestly, sympathetically, and unhappily—to grapple with a paradox that refuses to give way gracefully. The paradox in question regards the relation of literature (considered in Maurice Blanchot’s sense) to the culture (sociological, political, philosophical) within which texts appear.

On the one hand, a literary text, like any kind of text, is plainly elaborated within the language and logic of a given culture. Texts are able to make sense insofar as they address readers within established terms, represent existing relations, and stake out positions within long-standing disputes of their socio-political-philosophical situation. In this aspect of their work, literary writers may function also as sociologists, journalists, activists, or philosophers. Here they may work like any other kind of “cultural programmer” (66), to give voice to the perspectives of the dispossessed. Here, fictional worlds may be offered as evidence and allegories in an analysis of the world of historical reality.

On the other hand, and in “violent” contrast (ix) with other modes of discourse, literature is essentially distinguished by the uncanny way in which it somehow also delivers up some kernel of the real that is supplementary, exceptional, or otherwise “outside” any culturally situated dimension of the literary text, to use the key term from Sussman’s subtitle. This is why Sussman can cite the African American writer, James Baldwin, to the effect that “social affairs are not generally speaking the writer’s prime concern” (88) and can declare in the midst of a chapter on Kafka’s Verschollene that “there is always something unaccounted for in a densely woven text” (180)—specifically something essentially unaccountable within the conceptual apparatus of any culture (including the concept of class, Sussman’s example). [End Page 657]

In consequence, the critic who insists that art is an object embedded within a social context is fully as correct, in his or her own way, as the critic who insists, violently to the contrary, that the essence of the work of literature lies radically elsewhere and outside of culture and history. Thematically, but also logically, problems arising from this paradox implied in the work of literature may be considered in two distinct registers: the ideological and the subjective.

The ideological lacuna exposed by literature concerns the way that any given situation will organize its fantasies—the jouissance of its self-identity, if you will—in part by declaring that certain elements belonging to that situation are excluded or ostracized, more or less officially. Althusser is one of Sussman’s theoretical touchstones here, but Sussman also offers illustrations in the social exclusions of various literary and filmic characters: John Grimes in Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, Francie Brady in Neil Jordan’s film rendering of Butcher Boy, and Franz Kafka’s Karl Rossmann in Der Verschollene. In all of these, we see that the state of social relations promotes established interests by crushing those it is pleased to name as outsiders. Sussman, however, does not limit his consideration to the power of the privileged to dispossess their more vulnerable neighbors. Some within a given situation—including, typically, the figures of the writer and the critic, as Sussman reminds us—assume an outsider’s stance in relation to the state of socio-political affairs surrounding them. Sussman’s analyses deepen in their interest and subtlety as he turns to Simmel to argue that the putative ideological outside is an outside that is, nonetheless, systemically interior to the logic and language of its situation. An officially designated outside cannot be truly, radically, outside. As Simmel remarks, the outcasts, misfits, and isolates remain essential parts of their respective situations, albeit negative parts (18).

Let us say, then, that at the level of ideology and social hegemony, the outside is the constant theme of official discourse and perhaps the fundamental constitutive category of its identity. Outsiders, in this ideological sense, are vulnerable to the power that the state of things can wreak on them, but...


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