The Antinomies of Realism, by Fredric Jameson

The latest work from a leading literary critic expounds a wealth of ideas, says Robert Eaglestone

January 23, 2014

There are drawbacks to being, as Fredric Jameson undoubtedly is, one of the most important literary critics and theorists of his generation. His work is so widely taught and read that people know the outline of what he is going to say before he says it (and indeed, this book is part of a series entitled The Poetics of Social Forms, which investigates the far-from-straightforward relationship between history and art). His weak points are well observed: overly complex and sometimes questionable prose, with quirky stylistic turns (oddly dropped definite articles, like hipsters writing about “Pixies” or “Arctic Monkeys” for Rolling Stone); de haut en bas-sounding judgements (“American’s greatest nineteenth-century novelist”, “Tolstoy’s greatest critic”, “Zola is the Wagner of nineteenth-century realism”); arguments that indicate where they are going rather than actually, well, going there.

But resorting to snarkiness would simply be stupid in front of a book that so manifestly displays Jameson’s many virtues as a truly great critic, whether or not one agrees with his starting points. Ideas and insights tumble out, page after page. His overarching argument here is that realism, the main form of the novel, is a sort of negotiation between oppositions. The central opposition is between the time of the story (crudely, the sequence of beginning, middle, end) and what he calls “affect”, the representation of the sensuous “present”. Take, as an example, Dickensian Christmas scenes. Readers respond to their “affect”: to the representation of the stinking, bone-marrow cold of the starving London poor or to the descriptions of delicious aromas and warm firelight of a luscious feast. These “affective” scenes stand out from the rushing plot of the story (enough to become stand-alone clichés in television advertisements) and yet are woven back into it. To this, Jameson wants to add a historical date: “outrageously to affirm” that this sort of representation of affect begins in Europe in the 1840s and so characterises a type of modern bourgeois realism.

But this larger schema is only a starting point for a multitude of insightful and imaginative ideas about literature, too many to list. Some examples: a contrast between the representation of emotions (as conscious states) and the representation of affect; a taxonomy of different forms of narrative that deal with war (eight, including “the institution of the army” and “the collective experience of war”). Or, in an outstanding final chapter on “The Historical Novel Today: Or, is it Possible?” which ends with David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Jameson offers as his answer (yes, it is possible!) a reading of science fiction novels as historical novels: appropriate for a book dedicated to the science fiction novelist Kim Stanley Robinson. Ideas such as these – which are only parts of Jameson’s larger argument – might do as books (or even careers) for lesser critics.

More than this, the discussions of writers in detail, especially the extended analyses of Tolstoy, seem to light up the page. This is not usually said about Jameson’s work, but here – after it has warmed up, as it were – the writing moves easily and illuminatingly from book to book, and from critic to critic. Moreover, they are often not the usual marxisant suspects: Kenneth Burke shapes a chapter on war and representation; and Jameson retrieves Käte Hamburger – I had not heard of her or her 1957 work The Logic of Literature – from obscurity. And the book is full of little gems: just when he seems only to focus on canonical greats, he turns to Götz and Meyer, a wonderful and obscure novel by David Albahari, or to Philip K. Dick, or Robert Altman’s film Short Cuts, or Timur Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

Philosophers used to say that, in Tolstoy, while the writing was astounding, the ideas were weak and confused. Could something similar be said here, that the criticism is acute but the theory is open to question? It is at the level of the big picture that one might choose to disagree with Jameson’s argument, but one should not dismiss it. It is not always easy to read the work of someone who just won’t sit on his laurels: but in this case it is worth it.

The Antinomies of Realism

By Fredric Jameson
Verso, 432pp, £20.00
ISBN 9781781681336 and 81916 (e-book)
Published 3 November 2013

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