- A Strange New World of Strangers
AS THE HUMAN POPULATION in urban centers grew at an unprecedented rate and as technologies emerged for transporting people considerable distances, living among strangers became a new norm during the nineteenth century. Encountering strangers on urban streets, in markets, and in public squares could be an appealing or a repulsive experience, sometimes ambivalently both. This realm of strangers, Gage McWeeny contends in The Comfort of Strangers, provided “the invisible dark matter that constitute[d] the nineteenth-century social universe, a matter that exert[ed] a powerful gravitational effect upon its literature’s sociological imagination.” Contrary to the typical investment in [End Page 118] domestic space and individual interiority in “realist” novels, a different version of fictional character arose—a version expressing a welcome diversion from intimate associates and a new (if tentative) preference for more anonymous encounters with others at large.
Working with four writers, McWeeny seeks to scrutinize how this focal shift registers in “unexpected torsions in literary form”—“places where the sense-making work of realist literary form begins to bend under the gravitational effects of social dark matter.” And McWeeny makes a fine case for this distortion in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which seems to be aimed at reducing social complexity to lucid resolutions but which finally fails to do so. This failure is especially evident whenever narrative pauses interrupt and interrogate the expected trajectory of this novel’s plot. In short, there is plenty to ponder and potentially plenty of “others” to imagine when Eliot’s narrator occasionally loses interest in her main character and abruptly interrupts her account with, for example, “—but why always Dorothea?”
Henry James sensed such telling lapses, too, and McWeeny offers superb readings of James’s shifty, anxious commentary on Eliot’s novels. When James described Middlemarch as “a treasure house of details but an indifferent whole,” he was assessing urban social pressure on aesthetic design. The questions James considered about the intersection of social modality and aesthetic expression also pertained to his own practice as a novelist. His later fiction, emphasizing equivocal perception, responds to this new pressure of the public sphere by dramatizing a specific kind of social intimacy made possible only by its deflection into writing. To observe James’s practice of neutralizing intimacy by sublimating it through writing is to witness the modernist “trajectory of thinned-out or weak sociality, the comfort of strangers that is not the negation of a social desire, but one of its strongest expressions.”
McWeeny’s focus on Oscar Wilde’s “aesthetics of antisocial sociality” is unexpectedly different in manner from and possibly less successful than his other chapters. He maintains that Wilde preferred the epigram, a form dedicated to only the moment, because it is a minor, virtually anonymous literary form that suits the new restless social world, where one can transiently engage publically without long-term commitment: “In the epigram’s combination of absolute rhetorical confidence and its pointedly trivial form, we can better find a Wilde concerned to mark art’s power to signal its own limited powers in modernity.”
An unwelcome ghost haunts this reading: the long, distinctively premodern history of the epigram dating back to the Classical period. [End Page 119] Wilde’s method is deeply indebted to the satirical version of this traditional form fashioned by late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century authors, particularly the epigram master Ben Jonson. Consider Jonson on his sense of political strangers: “There’s reason good, that you good Laws should make: / Mens Manners ne’er were viler, for your sake.”
McWeeny might be right to suggest that Wilde’s preference for this form possibly reflected his personal reaction to a changed social milieu. But the defining features of the epigram itself—including its “aesthetics of antisocial sociality”—were clearly established centuries ago and so raise questions about how much this particular literary form reliably reveals about Wilde’s time. To enlist epigram as somehow an example of how “literary form begins to bend under the gravitational effects of social dark matter” appears to bend...