Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Rachel Ablow reviews The Chapter

Nicholas Dames. The Chapter: A Segmented History from Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2023. 384 pp.

Review by Rachel Ablow

7 March 2024

The title of Nicholas Dames’s book is misleading: The Chapter suggests an affinity with a range of other recent works that use apparently random phenomena (apples, salt, cod, malaria) to open up social or cultural history from an unexpected angle. Dames’s new book is a history of a kind, describing how “the chapter, more swiftly than has been understood, outgrew its initial function of mapping or outlining and became a caesura or temporal measurement” (p. 17). But ultimately it is less interested in what the chapter shows us about the cultures in which it appears than in what it means to live a life in time: a life whose meaning depends on the units into which it is divided or shaped; a life whose divisions may or may not coordinate with those that define the lives of others; and a life in reading, an experience he describes in temporal as much as thematic terms. In explaining the origin for the project, for example, Dames describes how a “gifted analyst remarked to [me] once . . . ‘You’re starting a new chapter.’” This account gave him the reassuring “sense of being lodged within a linearity that had just passed over a gap.” But it also “gave me the sensation, in Donald Winnicott’s terms, of being ‘held’ in a time, my pieces gathered together by the new time I was entering” (pp. 3–4, 4). This notion of the chapter as an interpersonal project of meaning-making informs much of what follows. Again and again, we return to the question of what the chapter says about not just its contents or the larger whole to which it relates but about the way we think about existence in time. What is the unit that enables us to make sense of a life? A day? An action? And who decides, how, and why?

It comes as no surprise that this project would be undertaken by a scholar whose first two books focus on the Victorian novel: as Dames shows, the chapter’s power to make time mean—both in relation to the individual and to the larger community—served Victorian writers especially well. The chapter form for them was neither a curiosity (as it was even in the eighteenth century), nor an embarrassment (as it came to be for many modernists), but instead a tool well-suited to that deeply Victorian project of seeking to coordinate individual experience with that of the larger community. Yet, as is so often the case in marriage plots, the leadup to this happy moment is in some ways more interesting than the marriage itself. Take for example the climactic passage in The Confessions in which St. Augustine turns to a book from within the depths of his spiritual crisis. This scene has long been recognized as raising fascinating questions about the relationship between reading and experience. For Dames, by contrast, it marks an important moment in the development of the concept of the chapter. He is thus less interested in what St. Augustine reads than how: the fact that he “seized” the book, “opened it [aperui] and in silence read the first passage [capitulum] on which my eyes lit. . . . I neither wished nor needed to read further. . . . Then I inserted my finger or some other mark in the book and closed it” (quoted on p. 61). Dames calls attention to the way this act “is [a kind of seeking] that may not initially know what it wants, but knows that something is there to be found, precisely by isolating a part of the text by pointing to it. There is a halo effect produced by the combined act of eye and finger: out of an unmarked stream, a unit emerges” (p. 62). St. Augustine, Dames argues, is here “preoccupied with what it means to divide into parts, and how reading is both a spontaneous generation of segments and an encounter with preexisting units” (p. 62). This is reading, but it is also, obviously, life.

The Chapter is deft, elegant, fascinating—and long, as befits its subject. If I were to perform my own act of capitulation, I would recommend readers focus on part 2 for the way it foregrounds the braiding together of the history of the book with contemporary philosophical debates. These discussions make the best use of Dames’s interest in the philosophical and ultimately ethical questions that make this book both engaging and illuminating.