- A “Magnificent Distinction”: Hearing Quiet Testimony
As irreverent as the claim might seem for an important work of criticism, Quiet Testimony: A Theory of Witnessing from Nineteenth-Century American Literature reads not unlike a self-help book for literary scholars. If we listen quietly to what Shari Goldberg has to impart, we too can achieve the “magnificent distinction” (135), like James’s privileged characters in “The Friends of the Friends,” of seeing, in all senses of the word, beyond the ordinary.
Quiet Testimony sets out to explore the ramifications of Goldberg’s opening statement that in nineteenth-century America testimony is not only a human prerogative but that inanimate entities as well as people were understood as able to bear truth. As a result, her careful consideration of how Emerson, Douglass, Melville, and James think and write about testimony reveals myriad and unexpected sites of meaning. Testimony, here, does not simply refer to a reliable witness’s written or spoken evidence. Goldberg considers that each author [End Page E-19]
confronts the limitations of the core attributes of testimony conceived as loud: the idea that it involves a representation of the past, delivered in the first person by one who was there, performed in speech or recorded in writing, and meant to draw together a community of live listeners.(3)
By shifting assumptions of what as well as who can testify, and how, the book engages and revises ideas of truth telling and truth bearing with consequences for present-day discourses on human rights. For, if a breeze or a voiceless slave can testify—as they do in her reading of Melville—then how that truth is understood becomes significant, shedding light on the very processes of gathering meaning. Focusing on “literary formulations that procure a willingness to have one’s understanding of truth revised or even replaced,” Goldberg seeks to adjust not only how we read these particular writers’ works but how we read in general by considering the literary text’s role in teaching us to understand and respond sensitively to the extra-textual world (10). How and exactly at which point this revision in thinking occurs in a text is the key that is then located and traced through each of her four chapters.
Each author is read as dealing with testimony without one of its assumed fundamental properties: for Emerson testimony occurs without representation, for Douglass without identity, for Melville without voice, and for James without life. These omissions are explored with the help of modern theorists (Derrida and Levinas in the case of Emerson, Agamben and Benveniste in the case of Douglass, Blanchot and Barthes in the case of Melville, and very briefly Barthes in the case of James), through whose ideas Goldberg brings the nineteenth-century writers into conversation with present-day concerns. However, the real interest of each chapter emerges from Goldberg’s close readings of individual texts and the links she establishes across each writer’s oeuvre by following the usage of single words, phrases, or images.
In the first chapter, Goldberg locates the key to Emerson’s conception of testimony in his description in Nature of the occult relationship between man and vegetable (“They nod to me, and I to them.”) The discussion reveals that this performative revelation of existence is most perceptively witnessed by “the poet,” who must then communicate his encounter in “words that will call up the expressive world rather than represent it” (50). As Goldberg puts it, capturing this “testimony without representation is thus as simple, and as complex, as encountering things before classifying them, before having information or even thought that conceptualizes them” (37). By showing the nodding vegetable as expressive, Emerson demonstrates the world’s “capacity to demand attention or thought,” using his words in such a way as to make the text “reach out to the reader” (46) as if to re-enact the original encounter with nature. Emerson’s idea of testimony without representation is followed through the first and second series essays, resting in particular on “Self-Reliance” and...