Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Autumn 1989

Volume 16 Issue 1
    • 1Peter Brooks
    • A major preoccupation of that novel [Zola’s Nana] is the undressing of the courtesan Nana. One could even say that a major dynamic of the novel is stripping Nana, and stripping away at her, making per progressively expose the secrets of this golden body that has Paris in thrall. The first chapter of the novel provides, quite literally, a mise-en-scène for Nana’s body, in the operetta La Blonde Vénus. When she comes on stage in the third act, a shiver passes over the audience, for, we are told, she is nude. Yet, we quickly discover, not quite nude: she is covered by a filmy shift under which her splendid body lets itself be glimpsed: se devinait. “It was Venus born from the waves, having only her hair as a veil.”2 The denuding of nana progresses in chapter 5 when Comte Muffat and the Prince make their way backstage to her dressing room (her undressing room). They surprise her naked to the waist, and she then covers herself with a bodice, which only half hides her breasts. Despite the repeated references to nana as nude, it is only in chapter 7, at the very midpoint of the novel, that Nana is finally completely naked. In this scene, she undresses before her mirror while Comte Muffat watches, especially looking at her looking at herself. Thus she is fully unveiled, frontally in the mirror, and from the backside in Muffat’s direct view. And yet, as we shall see in a moment, even the completely naked woman’s body bears a troubling veil.


      2. Émile Zola, Nana (Paris, 1977), p. 47; hereafter abbreviated N. I wish to thank Helen Chillman, Librarian of the Slides and Photography Collection, Art and Architecture Library, Yale University, for her help in assembling the illustrations accompanying this essay.

      See also: Peter Brooks, The Idea of a Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism  ·   Peter Brooks, Aesthetics and Ideology: What Happened to Poetics?

      Peter Brooks is Tripp Professor of Humanities and Director of the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale University. The author of The Melodramatic Imagination (1976) and Reading for the Plot (1984), he is currently working on a study of narrative and the body, tentatively called “Storied Bodies.”

    • 33Jay Clayton
    • The hope of moving beyond formalism is one of two things that unites an otherwise diverse group of literary theorists who have begun to explore the role of desire in narrative. Peter Brooks, for example, in Reading for the Plot, says in more than one place that his interest in desire “derives from my dissatisfaction with the various formalisms that have dominated critical thinking about narrative.”3 Leo Bersani sees desire as establishing a crucial link between social and literary structures. Teresa de Lauretis faults structuralist models for their inability to disclose the ways in which narrative operates, through the desire it excites and fulfills, to construct the social world as a system of sexual differences. Other names could be added, both within and outside the field of narrative theory—Nancy Armstrong, Roland Barthes, Georges Bataille, Jessica Benjamin, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, René Girard, Luce Irigaray, Fredric Jameson, Peggy Kamuf, Linda Kauffman, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Lacan, Jean Laplance, Catharine A. McKinnon, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick—for desire has become one of the master tropes of contemporary criticism.


      3. Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (New York, 1984), p. 47; hereafter abbreviated RP.

      4. Leo, Bersani, A Future for Astyanax: Character and Desire in Literature (Boston, 1976), p. 13; hereafter abbreviated FA.

      5. Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, The Forms of Violence: Narrative in Assyrian Art and Modern Culture (New York, 1985), p. v; hereafter abbreviated FV. Although Bersani coauthored this book with Dutoit, for convenience I refer to it by Bersani’s name alone. This practice is justified by two considerations: first, most of the arguments about narrative, violence, and desire are elaborations of positions that Bersani has taken in earlier works; second, passages and examples in the sections with which I shall be dealing (chiefly those on narrative and psychoanalysis) are reprinted with only minor changes from an article that Bersani published under his own name.

      See also: Arnold I. Davidson, Sex and the Emergence of Sexuality

      Jay Clayton, associate professor of English at Vanderbilt University, is the author of Romantic Vision and the Novel (1987) and coeditor of Contemporary Literature and Contemporary Theory (forthcoming). He is currently completing a study of contemporary American literature and theory, Narrative Power.

    • 55Linda Seidel
    • This essay had its beginnings in my desire to reexamine the Arnolfini portrait from the perspective of Giovanna Cenami, the demure young woman who stands beside the cloaked and hated man on the fifteenth-century panel in London. Even though she shares the formal prominence with the man in Jan van Eyck’s unprecedented composition, she has been paid scant attention in the literature on the painting. I anticipated, as I began my work that inspection of the female subject of the panel would, of necessity, amend the authoritative count of the Arnolfini portrait that Panofsky first published in 1934. That narrative, which focused on the event portrayed, had been recited to me by my teachers as an example of interpretive truth; I had committed it to memory as a model of our discipline’s search for meaning. I never dreamed back then that it might be “wrong.” Yet, the material I encountered as I pursued my inquiry into Giovanna’s life contradicted Panofsky’s assumptions on several key points; amendment alone would not do. It seemed necessary for me to challenge the venerable interpretation others were starting to question,4 even though two generations of students, including my own, had learned from it all they thought there was to know about “Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait.”


      4. See, for example, Peter H. Schabacker, “De Matrimonio ad Morganaticam Conracto: Jan van Eyck’s ‘Arnolfini’ Portrait Reconsidered,” Art Quarterly 35 (Winter 1972): 375-98, hereafter abbreviated “DM”; Lucy Freeman Sandler, “The Handclasp in the Arnolfini Wedding: A Manuscript Precedent,” Art Bulletin 66 (Sept. 1984): 488-91, hereafter abbreviated “H”; and Jan Baptist Bedaux, “The Reality of Symbols: The Question of Disguised Symbolism in Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait,Simiolus 16 (1986): 5-28, hereafter abbreviated “RS.”

      See also: James Elkins, Art History without Theory

      Linda Seidel, associate professor in the department of art at the University of Chicago, is the author of Songs of Glory (1981), a study of twelfth-century French architectural sculpture. She is currently completing a work on medieval doorway design as an art of entry and pursuing a collaborative project with Michael Camille and Robert Nelson, Medieval Art and Its Audiences.

    • 87Richard Moran
    • One way in which the characteristic gestures of philosophy and criticism differ from each other lies in their involvements with disillusionment, with the undoing of our naivete, especially regarding what we take ourselves to know about the meaning of what we say. Philosophy will often find less than we thought was there, perhaps nothing at all, in what we say about the “external” world, or in our judgments of value, or in our ordinary psychological talk. The work of criticism, on the other hand, frequently disillusions by finding disturbingly more in what is said than we precritically thought was there. In our relation to the meaningfulness of what we say, there is a disillusionment of plentitude as well as of emptiness. And no doubt what is “less” for one discipline may be “more” of what someone else is looking for.

      In recent years, metaphor has attracted more than its share of both philosophical and critical attention, including philosophical denials of the obvious, as well as critical challenges to the obviousness of the ways we talk about metaphor. In this paper I discuss a problem of each sort and suggest a complex of relations between them. The particular denial of the obvious that I’m interested in is the claim recently made by Donald Davidson that “a metaphor doesn’t say anything beyond its literal meaning (nor does its maker say anything, in using the metaphor, beyond the literal),” nor is it even correct to speak of metaphor as a form of communication.1 There’s disillusionment with a vengeance; and even if not strictly believable, it is still not without its therapeutic value, as we shall see.


      1. Donald Davidson, “What Metaphors Mean,” in On Metaphor, ed. Sheldon Sacks (Chicago, 1979), p. 30; hereafter abbreviated “WMM.” Davidson’s view has found supporters among both philosophers and literary theorists. It is, for example, important to the early argument of Richard Rorty’s recent book. See his Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge, 1989), p. 18.

      See also: Richard Moran, Kant, Proust, and the Appeal of Beauty

      Richard Moran is an assistant professor of philosophy at Princeton University. He is currently working on a book on subjectivity and contemporary concepts of personhood.

    • 113Michael Ragussis
    • It was [Maria] Edgeworth’s deeply personal motive in writing Harrington that made possible the special self-reflexive quality that informs her novel. In the act of reviewing her role as a reader and a writer of anti-Semitic portraits, she was able to recognize a tradition of discourse she had at once inherited and perpetuated. And only by recognizing such a tradition was she able both to subvert it in Harrington and to articulate for future writers the way to move beyond it. In short, she boldly turned her personal self-examination into a cultural critique: she diagnosed a disorder in “the imaginations of the good people of England,”4 and in so doing she issued a challenge and founded a new tradition. In Harrington Edgeworth inquires into the trials that the English imagination must undergo if it is to exorcise the powerful figure of Shylock, and thereby issues a challenge taken up in subsequent novels (including Ivanhoe, Our Mutual Friend, Daniel Deronda, and Ulysses): the tradition I am designating “the novel of Jewish Identity” attempts to articulate, investigate, and subvert The Merchant of Venice’s function as the English master text for representing “the Jew.”


      Maria Edgeworth, Harrington, vol. 9 of Tales and Novels (New York, 1967), p. 148; hereafter cited by page number.

      See also: Michael Ragussis, Jews and Other "Outlandish Englishmen": Ethnic Performance and the Invention of British Identity under the Georges  ·  Michael Ragussis, The Birth of a Nation in Victorian Culture: The Spanish Inquisition, the Converted Daughter, and the "Secret Race"

      Michael Ragussis, professor of English at Georgetown University, is the author of The Subterfuge of Art: Language and the Romantic Tradition (1978) and Acts of Naming: The Family Plot in Fiction (1986). He is currently working on a book-length study entitled “Figures of Conversion: Jewish Identity and British Fiction.”

    • 144Margaret Olin
    • Some recent artists and critics have taken it upon themselves to demystify the notion of stylistic unity. Their task has included the historical reconception of a few “modernist” artists along “postmodern” lines, usually as precursors of current semiotic strategies.11 These artists may have used a set of incompatible styles to expose the artificiality of competing stylistic conventions, or even to challenge the myth that celebrates the authenticity of artistic expressiveness. Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp, otherwise very different artists, have both been seen as having “deconstructed” the concept of authenticity by problematizing basic means of artistic reference.12 But the desire to challenge conventions must not be misconstrued as an enduring element of an iconoclastic artist’s personality. Otherwise, the characterization is merely an updated version of the traditional argument for authorial unity.


      11. The terms “modern” and “postmodern” are used in a variety of ways in contemporary criticism. Here, “modern” refers to nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists who embrace the notion of originality, and “postmodern” to those who would attack the notion by exposing the conventionality at its center. Although some critics who profess “modernism” do not mention “originality” by name, most subscribe to it in some form, often with the originality and self-sufficiency of the artist transposed to that of the work. This is especially true of the criticism of Clement Greenburg and Michael Fried.

      12. Rosalind Krauss rightly uses the semiotic complications of Picasso’s art to object to autobiographical interpretations of his work. In the course of the argument, she refers to Picasso’s semiotics as part of the “proto-history” of postmodernist art. See Krauss, “In the Name of Picasso,” The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, Mass., 1985), pp. 38-39. Arguments for Duchamp’s protopostmodernism are much more common. For one example, see Krauss, “Notes on the Index: Part 1,” The Originality of the Avant-Garde, pp. 196-209.

      See also: Robert Zaller, Philip Guston and the Crisis of the Image  ·  Wassily Kandinsky, Secession

      Margaret Olin is an assistant professor in the department of art history and criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is presently writing a book on the theories of Alois Riegl.

    • 173Daniel Cottom
    • Once an artist imagined how he would look if he plucked out an offending eye. He painted a self-portrait in which the orbit on the right side of his face was gaping, dolorous. Seven years passed, and then there came a day when the artist tried to break up a fight among his friends. In the ensuing melee he lost his left eye—the one he must have painted out all those years before, when working on the self-portrait, if he based his image on the sight of himself in a mirror. Mirrors, of course, reverse the images before them.

      If we could forget niggling qualifications, epistemological hedges, all the huffing and puffing of the sense of responsibility that distinguishes intellectuals from assassins, then this story might be frightening, uncanny. As it is, I suspect most of my readers would find it terrible only in the derogatory sense. Although it has a certain primitive simplicity, it seems facile, as if it might have served for one of the weaker episodes in Walter Scott’s Waverley novels or Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone.” Even if it were presented by a master of simple plots, I can imagine it succeeding only as an occasion for metaphysical conjectures, glistening thorns and blossoms of irony, and the like. (Play around with the comparison to Picture of Dorian Gray, sure, and throw in a reference to E. T. A. Hoffmann, do a turn on Lewis Carroll, or tell us one more time about the sly ruses of representation, if you must—none of this will make the story moving.) And even if I were to say that this is a true story, that Victor Brauner painted this Autoportrait in 1931 and suffered this injury in 1938, it seems unlikely that it would be more affecting. How could such a corny plot raise a shiver from anyone past the age of reason? If this story is true, so much the worse for truth. It ought to know better than to seek us out with such shopworn devices.

      See also:  Daniel Cottom, On the Dignity of Tables  ·  Daniel Cottom, The Enchantment of Interpretation

      Daniel Cottom is a professor in the English department at the University of Florida. His most recent book is Text and Culture: The Politics of Interpretation (1989). He is currently completing a book on spiritualism and surrealism.