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  • Sublime Desire: History and Post-1960s Fiction
  • Magali Cornier Michael
Amy J. Elias. Sublime Desire: History and Post-1960s Fiction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2001. xxvii + 320 pp.

Amy Elias's Sublime Desire: History and Post-1960s Fiction proves to be a solid contribution to contemporary scholarly investigations of the rich intersections between late-twentieth-century reconceptualizations of history and the fiction of the time. Elias's study participates in this larger project by more specifically examining a genre of post-1960s fiction that she terms "Metahistorical Romance" and that she positions simultaneously as (altered) heir to the classic historical romances of Walter Scott and as a response and contribution to the antifoundationalist impulses of contemporary historiography. While metahistorical romances acknowledge the impossibility of accessing history, according to Elias, they nevertheless express a "desire for History" (xviii). These texts redefine history as "sublime"—as that which is desired but remains "unknowable and unrepresentable in discourse," as "the space of the chaotic, and hence [End Page 524] to rational beings, the terrifying, past" and, yet, as necessarily still linked to the political in that it is "also the realm of potential revelation" (42, 55). Moreover, Elias insists that these novels' desire for a historical sublime remains balanced by a focus on material events, on "the history that hurts" (67). To that end, these texts experiment with new ways of engaging history.

To develop its thesis, the book's first chapter provides helpful, cogent discussions of complex terms and theoretical shifts such as postmodernism, history, the classic historical romance, the metahistorical novel and its connections to the romance and to historiography, the sublime, and the historical sublime. These discussions offer not only a clear synthesis of the various ways in which critical thought has approached these ideas, but also provide fresh insights that contribute to ongoing contemporary critical conversations. For example, Elias's case for the desire for a historical sublime in the novels she examines derives from her careful exploration of how postmodern notions of the sublime intersect with recent antifoundationalist notions of history and a posttraumatic cultural consciousness following the horrific events that characterized World War II. Chapter 2 carries the theoretical discussions of the preceding chapter into the terrain of literature as a means of elaborating the relationship between contemporary metahistorical romances and the historical novel tradition—a relationship based on both continuities and radical disruptions, the latter linked to contemporary notions of history and to postmodern and poststructuralist theories. The following two chapters focus more specifically on the ways in which contemporary metahistorical romances tend to spatialize history as a means of exploring the textualization of history (chapter 3) and to both explore and subvert the Enlightenment ideas to which they are heir (chapter 4), using a plethora of recent English and American novels to exemplify these points.

With chapter 5, Elias turns to an examination of the differences between Western and postcolonial metahistorical romances (the latter category stretched to include first world texts written from the perspective of the other), emphasizing how adopting the position of the other leads to different ways of reconceiving Western history. Because this is a huge topic, the chapter manages to frame and begin the discussion but clearly leaves much to be explored. Nevertheless, Elias's observation that novels engaging history from positions other than those privileged by the West tend to offer not only critique but also alternatives to Western models of history opens the door for much future scholarly work by this author, as well as others. Indeed, while one of the strengths of this study is the amazing number of novels it examines, the great majority of the texts analyzed in [End Page 525] any depth are written by white, first world men. Given this book's 2001 date of publication, which means that much of it was actually written a few years earlier, it is not surprising that it can only begin to address the great proliferation of outstanding novels produced in the past few years by women, nonwhites in the West, and non-Westerners. This may explain why, instead of dealing with one of these novels (which would follow logically from her discussion in chapter...


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pp. 524-526
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