The Development of Consciousness from James to Robinson

This was submitted in response to an essay question for the final exam of a survey of American Literature from 1850-present.

Henry James, as we read in Washington Square, is a student of the French Realist school of thought. This is to say, according to Standhal, the job of the novel is as a mirror that walks along the road, reflecting back whatever exists in the world. It is only then that criticism can be made. In other words, the project of the novel is in mimesis, or in a performance of a reality. Instead of a plotted reality, James is interested in the representation of consciousness. Instead of the first-person narrative, though, James chooses instead to acknowledge the narrator as an outside entity thinking in on Catherine, who has her own thoughts. This is to say that while we never have access to Catherine’s thoughts (except one brief moment toward the end of the novel), we do have access to the thoughts of the narrator. This access to the thoughts of the narrator means we have an outsider’s view of what Catherine represents within the tapestry of American life at the time. Catherine does not exist as a subjective being in a universe by herself, she exists having been defined by those around here, particularly by her father who is constantly obsessed with finding someone who is worthy of her value — her dowry, her economic value. So, when James sits down to ask himself how he can represent the reality of consciousness for a character, the operation of consciousness seems to be an attempt to represent a subject within the trellis of the economics, which is to say the operation is to call forth economics or social class and history in his representation of reality and of “real” consciousness. This leaves two possible functions for consciousness: If the social classes do not exist, then his representation is generative of the representation of subjectivity within the American economy. If the social classes do exist, then his representation is perhaps an early critique on the reduction of anything or anyone (especially gendered things and ones) to their economic value.

This shifts when we read Willa Cather’s My Ántonia. With modernism, the narrator partakes in the action of the story. The only access to reality is through consciousness instead of standing on the outside, as if to stand on the (economic) structure itself like with James. Knowledge about the world is only verifiable for the modernist, for Cather, through a subjective perspective. The critique of one’s complete innerness being reduced to an economic value becomes complete submersion into subjectivity, an outright rejection of an objective understanding of meaning. In other words, there is no other Ántonia other than “my” Ántonia. The narrator’s relationship with the titular character is what brings her into reality. More specifically, it is Ántonia’s existence in the consciousness of the Jim, the narrator, that makes Ántonia “real.” Indeed, Jim Burden’s “burden” is that of the observer, the position from which one can call forth Ántonia’s story, as if without his story–the novel itself–there is no Ántonia. This is obviously a much more heightened version of what consciousness does for Cather’s writing. However, what we gather is the way subjective consciousness can either create–to the nth degree–or fail. There is nothing reliable about subjectivity and there is nothing objective about the representation of reality. That is how consciousness changes with Cather.

With Faulkner–still modernism–the focus is still on submersion into subjective consciousness. However, while Cather (and in many ways Hurston, as well) is interested in the ways naming things from a subjective point of view makes them real or somewhat real (flawed in that there is no objective naming, only naming that exists within the preconceptions of a single consciousness); Faulkner, on the other hand, is focused on the syntactical performance of consciousness itself. Faulkner is interested in the ways sentences are like thoughts. The project of the novel seems to instead of creating a plotted reality or a representation of reality, the representation of the performance of consciousness. Under Faulkner’s model, the reader does not simply understand that everything is subjective, but that subjectivity is so submersive that it is in reading a novel or chapter in its entirety that one gets the feeling that one has thought what is happening. In other words, only after reading the first chapter of Go Down, Moses does one have a sort of feeling of what is happening. Each sentence alone does not itself create story, it is the submersion into each thought, each sentence or as Pound calls the lines “flashing impressions”, into the performance of thought–altogether–that we understand plot or reality. Consciousness, then, is not represented just in its perspective as a subjective point of view, but as performed, as something which itself involves action. That is Faulkner’s innovation.

With Pynchon, we almost return full-circle to Standhal’s mirror from the Jamesian innovation. However, whereas the modernists tried to defamiliarize the process of consciousness (like Faulkner’s syntactical performances), the postmodernists use the over-familiarized commodity to commodify consciousness. In The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa Maas gets caught up in the dendritic mesh of global capitalism. At every stage, she questions whether it is all real or whether the will is a hoax. We never get an answer to this, left to wonder whether consciousness itself has been commodified and sold and rebranded and resold, which is to say whether consciousness itself can be manipulated or is manipulated by global capitalism or deindustrialization.

Finally, with Robinson, consciousness circles back in a repeated spiral, constantly within both past and present. The first two sentences of the novel tell what the rest of the novel explains, first begging the question “why continue to read?” Walter Benjamin reminds us that everything in the present owes something to the past, the past owns part of the present. This is to say that consciousness does not only take place in the present. The final innovation of consciousness is its awareness in both a present moment and a fixed or unfixed past. As the surface action unfolds, it is both indebted to the past itself and the way the past exists in the consciousness of the self.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s