- Critical Desire and the Novel: Ethics of Self-Consciousness in Cervantes and Nabokov
The critical interpretation is oriented toward a consciousness which is itself engaged in an act of total interpretation. The relationship between author and critic does not designate a difference in the type of activity involved, since no fundamental discontinuity exists between two acts that both aim at a full understanding; the difference is primarily temporal in kind.—Paul de Man, Form and Intent in the American New Criticism (31)
The real writer should ignore all readers but one, that of the future, who in his turn is merely the author reflected in time.—Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev, in Vladimir Nabokov’s The Gift (340)
The Self-Conscious Novel and Ethical Criticism
Self-conscious novels—novels that formally or thematically call attention to their status as rhetorical constructions of realities—can be a rich resource for ethical criticism because they often undertake an immanent theorizing of the construction of novel ethos that ethical criticism today has made its object, and because they operate in reflexive modes that anticipate contemporary self-conscious methodologies. In this paper I describe one paradigm through which such novels have reflected on the ethics of novel narration, that of “critical desire.”
In elucidating this paradigm I have four main goals. First, I want to show how self-conscious novels directly address and engage ethical concerns with violence, arrogation, [End Page 277] and authority central to novel criticism today. Second, I want to show that “critical desire” can illuminate the tension between reflexivity and other-oriented impulses constituting the current ethos of ethical criticism. Third, I want to demonstrate how tracing the appearance of critical desire in diverse self-conscious novels can allow us to attend to immanent theorizations of literary ethics more fully on their own terms, without requiring recursive reflection on our own extrinsic positioning. Finally, I want to show how the concept of critical desire provides new insight into the relationship between rhetorical strategies and thematic inquiries undertaken by two celebrated novelists writing within very different cultural contexts, Miguel de Cervantes and Vladimir Nabokov.
ethical critics tend to treat what Robert Alter calls the “partial magic” of the novel, its reflexive disclosure of the discursive production of mimesis, as an engaging secondary problem rather than one constitutive of novel ethics itself. Whether to complement, ground, or contravene the abstractions of theory and philosophy, ethical criticism has turned largely to realist narratives for representations of the particularity and intensity of real-life experience.
The complexity of self-conscious novels appears largely as a “complication” rather than an aid to ethical inquiry, in part because of the long legacy of mimetic bias in Western traditions, from Aristotle’s defense of the arts to Martha Nussbaum’s insistence that novels embody dimensions of ethical experience inaccessible to philosophical discourse. There appears to be tacit consensus among ethical critics that the ideal object of inquiry is, as Wayne Booth describes it, the novel in which “the story itself consists of the conflict of defensible moral and ethical stances; the action takes place both within the characters in the story and inside the mind of the reader as he or she grapples with conflicting choices that irresistibly demand the reader’s judgment” (26; emphasis original). In this model, novels dramatize ethical dilemmas in their stories without reflecting upon the mimetic illusion they mutely offer for critical analysis; they do not call attention to their own construction of ethos, do not necessarily engage ethics through formal innovation, and certainly do not anticipate or address the critical gesture itself.
Even the few major studies in contemporary ethical criticism that take up antirealist and self-conscious novels tend to treat them as genre transgressions, exceptions that prove rules about the discursive foundations of mimetic representation.1 In his pioneering book Postmodernity, Ethics, and the Novel, Andrew Gibson makes some self-conscious novels central to his study, but their self-consciousness is not his object. Rather, in his account these novels are contingent forms of postmodern opposition to the ethically problematic narrative conventions of realism and closure; they do not figure as paradigmatic modes of novel engagement with...