The Text: Do Not Disturb

Does loving a work of literature mean seizing it? How should critics feel about their feelings toward a text?

You are looking at something that presents a tranquil surface. Now imagine it, variously, as a child, a woman, an urn, a text. Will you disturb it? Is it sleeping? If you wake it, will it speak or turn away? This strange scenario could provide an allegory of reading in these three varied responses to literature produced in the long 18th century. Taking up authors including Jane Austen, Samuel Richardson, and John Keats, each book marks, in different ways, how literary criticism has remained attuned to questions of how people read. And each, in its own way, asks whether reading involves looking at a surface or trying to see behind or inside it. dMost of all, each asks what it would mean to love a surface. The answer may be disturbing in more than one way. The notion of an undisturbed surface—a bride of quietness—can give rise to ominous forms of desire.

Thirteen years ago, the phrase “surface reading” entered the lexicon of literary critics. This mode of reading, as set forth by Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best, rejects the notion that the meaning of a work of literature may be “hidden, repressed, deep, and in need of detection and disclosure by an interpreter.”1 Surface reading is a way of approaching literature that remains focused on “what is evident, perceptible, apprehensible … what insists on being looked at rather than what we must train ourselves to see through.”2 It values precise observation and loving description over dark suspicion or strenuous pronouncements about what a text means. In some modes, it extends to the work of literature the kind of respect or consideration we might offer to a friend.

Today, critics can almost take for granted that we have emotional relationships with literary works—notably, ones of attachment, as Rita Felski and Deidre Lynch have recently shown.3 But if the literary work is “an object of the affections,” does it love critics back?4 Do critics rely on such a fiction?

In fact, they may be inhabiting an age of unrequited love, when criticism becomes what Roland Barthes calls a lover’s discourse. At its best (for the critic), such a “discours amoureux” might resemble this state that Barthes describes: “alone, in a posture of meditation … I suspend any interpretation; I enter into the night of non-meaning; desire continues to vibrate … but there is nothing I want to grasp … I am here, sitting simply and calmly in the dark interior of love.”5 But such moments are the exception rather than the rule. The lover’s discourse is more often full of anguish, caused by a radical asymmetry that characterizes the relation between the lover and the object of love. As Barthes’s dictionary of amorous complaint explains under the entry “mutisme/silence,” “The amorous subject suffers anxiety because the loved object replies scantily or not at all to his language (discourse or letters).”6

By definition, the loved object does not say enough back, or says nothing at all. The urn is silent, the object is asleep—or perhaps ignoring you. How insistently should the critic, the lover speak? What should they say?

Yet for Barthes, at least, the object’s stubborn indifference is essential to the structure of the lover’s desire. And this unresponsiveness can lead to a troubling place: “What fascinates, what ravishes me is the image of a body in situation,” Barthes murmurs to himself. “What excites me is an outline in action, which pays no attention to me … the more the other grants me signs of his occupation, of his indifference, of my absence, the surer I am of surprising him, as if, in order to fall in love, I had to perform the ancestral formality of rape.”7 Notice that Barthes is describing his own rapture, his own intensely private “ravissement.” It is what happens to the lover when they see an image, a body that turns its back. The loved one is engaged or absorbed in a larger action; it is part of a scene, an arrangement of objects; it inhabits its own narrative that you are outside. It is this exclusion that spurs desire, according to the lover’s discourse.

Barthes’s dictionary of love was written long before the age of surface reading. But returning to it can show how some old questions have gained a new urgency. Barthes wonders whether “the ancestral formality of rape” is necessary for the lover’s, the critic’s own rapture. Does loving the work of literature mean seizing it, surprising it? Is there a surface that is simply there for the taking, or is that very taking an act that critics should feel uneasy about? How does one talk about a surface without disturbing it?

It is not a coincidence—as the texts under discussion here reveal—that a rape is at the center of the 18th-century novel and at the heart of Keats’s most famous ode. How should critics confront or deny that fact? At the very least, we should be careful. Let’s not assume that love of a surface is harmless.

Characters that remain surfaces provide the subject of Stephanie Hershinow’s Born Yesterday. These are surfaces without depth that resist and repel any impression from outside. Whatever lovers, teachers, critics, or enemies might do or say does not matter.

Hershinow’s study envisions the early realist novel as a genre that turns its back on the world. In her account, the English novel from Richardson to Austen rejects the idea of character development as the fruit of experience. Hershinow focuses instead on the novice: a character who not only starts off new to the world but also manages to stay that way even after plenty of encounters with its cruelty or rottenness. The novice is someone for whom inexperience is not a temporary condition to be replaced by worldly knowledge but rather a permanent identity (Blakeans might think here of innocence as a state of the soul). Instead of reading for plot, Hershinow asks us to focus on—to admire and to love—the figure of the novice.

Through characters like Pamela, Clarissa, and even Tom Jones, the novel, argues Hershinow, expresses a “curiously antagonistic relationship to philosophical empiricism … In these novels, experience of the world is not absent … but it is consistently subordinated, questioned, and even expunged.” Bad things happen to them (or, in the case of Jones, they perform questionable acts), but those experiences don’t adhere or result in a different way of understanding or engaging with the world. The “Teflon goodness” of these characters ensures that they cannot or will not receive any lasting impressions from their experiences. Clarissa, the heroine of Samuel Richardson’s 1747 novel, remains wedded to her own idiosyncratic conjectural history, despite everything that happens to her. Likewise, well beyond the point when you’d think she might have learned a thing or two, Frances Burney’s Camilla never stops believing people and being taken advantage of, as do many other characters in 18th-century novels. Their naïve trust in the world they imagine is never altered or renounced.

Does the critic feel a mandate to make the literary work open its eyes and look at us with recognition?

Hershinow’s is not the first study to question the classic assumption that novelistic characters are defined by interiority or development. But the analysis of Born Yesterday has interesting implications for the kind of affection this genre might command. Hershinow’s readers are invited not to view the novel as a sequence of consequential events, of mistakes, recognitions, or reversals. None of those things sinks in, adds up, or counts for much, at least where the novice is concerned. For the novice-oriented or novice-identified reader, plot may feel more like buckling a seatbelt: one end goes into the other end with a click.

To extrapolate from Hershinow’s argument: consider Emma Woodhouse’s great moment of recognition at her novel’s end— her “I love Josh” moment.8 This anagnorisis is not the culmination of a series of developments within the character herself. It is presented by Austen as merely a switch being flipped on to illuminate a structure (i.e., a hierarchy) that had been there all along.

The novice, as Hershinow eloquently insists, allows an “embedded utopianism” to emerge from within the novel. In the novice’s expectations or even in their delusions, the reader sees a world that ought to exist but does not. Sometimes the novel will even bend itself to make its represented world conform to those unfounded ideas. In Richardson’s Pamela, for example, the would-be rapist, Mr. B., becomes an exemplary (if rather controlling) husband. “Pamela’s naïve goodwill exerts a world-building effect of its own,” Hershinow argues. Pamela is rewarded for her unwillingness to actually experience the world or to respond to other people as they are.

Characters who turn away or refuse to engage are also the subject of Wendy Anne Lee’s Failures of Feeling. Yet here they do not provoke admiration or love. Instead, their refusal to move or to be moved unleashes a furious response: attempts to evict them, behead them, understand or penetrate them—most significantly, through the very form of the psychological novel.

In Lee’s account, the novel emerges from a modern world structured through the continuous exchange of money, goods, and most of all, feelings. Sympathy here is not an act of kindness but a form of coercion. It is a forced participation that all too easily veers into violence, even mob violence, when someone refuses to cooperate or to acknowledge the mandate to feel and let others feel for them.

Remember what happened to Charles I, one of Lee’s examples. Insensibility or indifference is understood as a claim to be above everybody else, sovereign because unmoved. Hobbes lays out the philosophical justification for such a view. Later, Adam Smith theorizes how, in this market society, no one is exempt from the requirement to show to some degree their suffering, love, or vulnerability. Feelings have to circulate, and if someone doesn’t appear to have any, something must be done about it. Recall at this point Barthes’s phrase “the ancestral formality of rape,” which we will return to below.

Lee’s argument reverses the assumption that novels center on people who do and feel things. It turns out that the most passionate, most complicated narratives focus on a figure who does not feel, who does not desire, whose open eyes will not even reflect your presence. Bartleby is the patron saint of such insensibles. But, as Lee shows, the most disturbing and violent responses occur when the insensible one is female: the “prude,” the précieuse, and, of course, Richardson’s Clarissa. “Like the prude, Clarissa spoils the story and similarly could not care less.” Her hardhearted resistance instigates the plot. She runs off, though unwillingly, with the rake, Lovelace, who aims to unlock her feelings. Unable to elicit any, he resorts to drugging and then raping her, to see if she’ll come around. Clarissa spoils the story by turning herself into a surface, the surface of her own writing. Instead of hiding her rape or keeping it secret or private, she can’t stop telling everyone about it in her letters. By doing so voluntarily, she counteracts what Lee chillingly describes as “the epistemic violence of the novel’s mandate to behold interior motion, to make it show, speak,” regardless of will.


Rereading the Revolt

By Irina Dumitrescu

After Richardson, the novel partially redeems itself through Jane Austen, Lee suggests. Austen defends sisterly reticence in Sense and Sensibility as a kind of inverted sympathy, a way to tamp down rather than inflame the inevitable pain of shared feelings. Austen’s narration, moreover, provides an alternative object of love or sympathy. Like the generally shared social artifices (such as promise keeping) that Hume argued people learn to appreciate, Austen’s impersonal narration transcends embedded or embodied feelings, including that desire to provoke the unmoved one, to shake them up, to see what’s inside, and tell that story.

In a classic essay cited by both Hershinow and Lee, Frances Ferguson examined how and why rape was central to the rise of the novel. As a crime, rape requires the absence of consent and the intent to violate. Because it relies on mental states difficult to prove, rape, Ferguson argues, presents a unique enticement to rule out, dismiss, or ignore these mental states and to replace them with social forms. Legal fictions or stipulations, such as an age of consent, show how forms offer a kind of certainty.

The psychological novel finds its opening in just this unsatisfactory situation: that inward feelings cannot be represented or proven directly, even in a novel like Clarissa. Mental states and social forms struggle against each other. Each grows in importance by denying the other’s possibility. Thus the importance of forms, whether literary or legal, is highlighted most strikingly and, one might say, unfortunately through the question of rape. Ferguson points out how generative stories of rape have been: the genre of the psychological novel emerges most fully through Clarissa’s violation. The story of Philomela—raped and permanently silenced by her brother-in-law, Tereus, transformed by Ovid into a nightingale—“uses a catastrophic event—rape—to provide an origin for poetry.”9

To these two genres, perhaps the moment has come to add a third: literary criticism. If to be ravished by the work of literature, as Barthes suggests, is to take it by surprise and to disturb its tranquility, perhaps critics should be careful, in loving the works, to do what they can to avoid such a scenario.

But why is an unconscious or near-unconscious figure at the center of so many of Keats’s odes? What kind of response do these figures elicit from the poet? The sleeping Psyche with her “winged boy,” Autumn, “on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep”: these forms, and the poems that they emerge from and stand for, do not seem troubled by the demands of sympathetic participation, at least not in the same way.

Anahid Nersessian’s genre-bending book, Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse, offers six of Keats’s poems, one at a time, beginning each brief chapter with the poem in its entirety. In Nersessian’s view, Keats’s poems are themselves “[a] lover’s discourse, at once compassionate, exacting, indecent, and pure … obstinate in its commitment to loving without shame or reservation. An ode by Keats is just that: an anchorage for big feelings that, in their sheer ungovernability, test what it might be like to be really free.”

The figure of Keats as a forever youthful novice is too well known to require elaboration. Not unlike Hershinow’s novice, Keats has a way of loving and committing that exerts a powerfully counterfactual effect, illuminating less a world of experience that actually exists than a world that might come to be, on the other side of social and economic revolution. “He took his own history of not mattering and turned it into a poetry that voids all the lethal systems and prejudices that decide who lives and who dies, and he did it by insisting that what we love is sacred, as is the act of loving it.” Nersessian sums up Keats’s counterfactual stance by quoting the poet Sean Bonney’s succinct lines: “for ‘love/of beauty’ say fuck the police.”

Nersessian’s book is itself a lover’s discourse. It does not dismantle the loved object into a collection of parts but instead tenderly preserves it as a whole. “The lover’s discourse is usually a smooth envelope that encases the Image, a very gentle glove around the loved being,” Barthes writes.10

Nersessian’s close readings are exquisite: supple, full of wit, and fun to read. They tell what the poem is and what it does, its affect, its labor, its dreams. Of Keats’s “Ode on Indolence,” she writes (perhaps a bit unfairly?), “The poem lays design like a highway overpass over the muddy, mucky sands of love and sex and anger and despair that are Keats’s usual stomping ground, and invites its three allegorical figures to go trundling over it.” That’s a description not easily forgotten. Her readings often move obliquely, following out allusions, incorporating personal memories, coded reflections, and other poems. The amorous discourse is the opposite, Barthes notes, of a narrative about love. That all-too-familiar “love story” (“it is generated, develops, and dies”) is “the tribute the lover must pay to the world in order to be reconciled with it. Very different is the discourse, the soliloquy, the aside which accompanies this story.”11 Nersessian’s close readings are more like asides that, in a sense, explode the action happening on the stage. There is no desire to be reconciled with the world: quite the opposite. The novice emerges here as radically opposed to what the world offers.

Curiously, though, there is one instance in which Nersessian appears to seal off the poem from what it is saying, to encase it in so much love and revolutionary fervor that its voice is negated. Maybe this is overdetermined, for this is the great poem about silence and rape, the one that begins, “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness.” Nersessian wittily remarks, “If this poem were a street you would hope to avoid walking down it.”

Nersessian rescues the poem by asserting that Keats “does not want you to buy what its speaker is selling.” To agree with its final lines would be “to affirm a world in which harm and the threat of harm remain infinite even as they are covered up and brushed aside … If the poem were to accept it, it would not be a great poem.”

I love Nersessian’s reading, but I can’t buy it, no matter how hard I try. I think the poem displays the urn as the ultimate instance of the insensible, as Lee calls it, and savors the provocation it presents as the definitive image of enjoyment. I can’t help but see the poem as consecrating “the ancestral formality of rape” as the ground of aesthetic wholeness—ravish (in imagination, or worse) in order to be ravished, Barthes says. Nersessian urges readers to see the odes as both negations of the existing world’s arrangements and shameless affirmations of love for it. “To Autumn” aims, she argues, “to show us that it really is impossible sometimes not to love the world, even when it provides ample evidence that it should not be loved … we are attached, despite everything, to this place that has been weaponized against us.”

Still, the centrality of rape in the arguments of Hershinow, Lee, and Nersessian is difficult to put aside. Clarissa is the linchpin of two of them; the urn is the silenced center of the other. What gives me greatest pause is how Lee’s argument might bear on the work that criticism does. Although they are made of words, novels and poems are as silent as Keats’s urn. Are their silence and indifference, their refusal to acknowledge the reader, what spur the critic’s passion? Does the critic feel a mandate to make the literary work open its eyes and look at us with recognition?

Let us assume that the work of art is to be loved, as Adorno argues, for its “precise, wordless polemic.” If that is the case, we may wonder—uneasily, fearfully—whether the work’s mutism might resemble that of Philomela, who offered, before flying away, a different kind of requital: not love, but revenge.12


This article was commissioned by Leah Price. icon

  1. Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best, “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” Representations 108 (2009), p. 1.
  2. Marcus and Best, “Surface Reading,” p. 9, original emphasis.
  3. Rita Felski, Hooked: Art and Attachment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020); Deidre Lynch, Loving Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).
  4. Lynch, Loving Literature, p. 67.
  5. Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), p. 171.
  6. Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse, p. 167.
  7. Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse, p. 193.
  8. The allusion is to the film Clueless, dir. Amy Heckerling (Hollywood, CA: Paramount Pictures, 1999). The actual metaphor Austen uses is the arrow, but the emphasis is on instantaneous recognition.
  9. Frances Ferguson, “Rape and the Rise of the Novel,” Representations 20 (1987), p. 109.
  10. Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse, p. 28.
  11. Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse, p. 7.
  12. Theodor Adorno, “Reconciliation Under Duress,” in Aesthetics and Politics (London: Verso, 2007), p. 161. For Philomela, see Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book VI, as well as Nersessian, Keats’s Odes, p. 38. Philomela is raped and her tongue cut out by Tereus. After she is rescued by her sister, they obtain their revenge by serving Tereus a meal made from his son. The women, pursued, grow wings and fly away. See also Ferguson, “Rape and the Rise of the Novel.”
Featured image: Photograph by x1klima / Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)