- Figures of Catastrophe: The Condition of Culture Novel by Francis Mulhern
It has become commonplace to note that for the past fifteen years the central thrust of modernist studies has been toward expansion. Nearly as clear is that this expansion has entailed the progressive weakening of modernism itself as a field-defining term. Both tendencies, and their largely positive and productive implications, are now taken for granted by most. So it is striking to encounter a study that speaks to important questions about aesthetics, politics, and periodization foregrounded by these recent imperatives and even ultimately carries certain of those imperatives to their logical conclusions, but also decidedly refuses assent to the terms offered by the new modernist studies for our understanding of twentieth-century literary production.
A brief and tightly argued book that wears lightly a tremendous amount of theoretical erudition, Francis Mulhern's Figures of Catastrophe is, as its Preface states, a literary-historical "essay in Marxist formalism" (viii). Bracketing questions of globalism or transnationality, Mulhern elaborates a distinctly English genre that he terms "the condition of culture novel," the twentieth century's most pessimistic instantiation of "metaculture": "a discourse in which culture reflects on its own generality and conditions of existence," typically to interrogate the inadequacy of culture to its own ideal values (7). From Thomas Hardy to Zadie Smith, culture, "the social order of meanings and values," is incarnated most often in the form of Literature, the English canon, with supporting roles played by art, architecture, and music (1). The desire of outsiders—such as the lower classes or postcolonial immigrants—to inhabit culture or to produce it is figured in these works, across the century, as both (a) natural and self-evident and (b) doomed and utterly destructive. The condition of culture novel is thus an expression of culture perpetually gnawing its own hide, a flexible and generative, but remarkably consistent, genre devoted to undermining its own source of value. When (as Mulhern argues it inevitably does) this corrosive logic extends to the cultural principle itself, culture's failure to civilize gives way to civilizational catastrophe.
Figures of Catastrophe foregoes extended theoretical ground clearing in favor of practical application of its central concepts. The touchstones in its opening discussion of genre are Mikhail Bahktin, George Lukács, and Raymond Williams, and from this trio Mulhern extracts a deceptively simple idea of what genre is and does. We encounter genres as "groups of texts sharing a distinctive topic or set of topics" (4). When we note, though, that a genre's characteristic "situations and sequences" may be found everywhere, sometimes dominating while other times merely inflecting texts, we are forced to see genre as "a formative power, a force of literary production" (4). In a phrase that captures both sides of this dialectic, genres are thus "historically formed ways of seeing" (6). Placed alongside the campus novel, narratives of journalistic life, the Zeitroman, the New Woman novel, and the Bildungsroman, among others, the condition of culture novel is distinguished by its "undertaking [of] a synoptic narrative evaluation of the social relations of culture" (2).
From here, the book moves into four chapters that proceed chronologically, though Mulhern is careful to preserve a sense of openness and provisionality around the borders of the argument. The inductive, diachronic close readings of the central chapters give way to a deductive and synchronic concluding essay that makes a number of unexpected connections among disparate works. The first chapter, "Imagining Other Lives," presents Hardy's Jude the Obscure (1895) and E. M. Forster's Howards End (1910) as foundational condition of culture novels. Howards End is explicitly and self-consciously an intervention in the Arnoldian metacultural tradition, while Jude draws its impetus from a wider variety of social discourses. Mulhern's reading of Jude is especially rich, evoking the complex ways Hardy depicts his characters' cultural aspirations [End Page 412] as both entirely legitimate and fated to fail. The discussion of Howards End features a device which will appear throughout the book: the semiotic or Greimas square, an...