2. The Hegemony of New Critical Modernism

New Critical Point of View

There are few means of disputing James' invocation of the meta-fiction of the novel short of asserting that "reality" is otherwise than he insinuates, that is, that Conrad's material--the story he seeks to tell, the characters he seeks to render--does demand the formal structure of "Chance." Whatever answer Conrad might have offered to James' criticism, it is New Criticism's answer to the "predicament" that concerns me here. For it is in answer to the "predicament" James posed that New Criticism is wedded to a psychoanalytic reality, even absent a specific allegiance to symbolic structures. The key concept is "repression" as it delineates the relation between the conscious and the unconscious. With this concept, psychoanalysis, as distinct from other psychologies, steps into the gap and offers to solve the dilemmas of point of view on a wholesale basis. The concept of repression, and the vision of reality it evokes, allows the "author" to be divided against himself without ceasing to constitute a single psyche, a single point of view. The author writes with greater perception of structural precision than he knows. It allows "character/narrators" to say more than they say: form becomes content and lapses speak most loudly. And, it allows the "reader" to perceive more relations than can be named: language works unconsciously to structure experience. But, most crucially, should one promulgate critical objections to the psychoanalysis of authors, to the analysis of the purely fictitious psyches of character/narrators, or to making meaning dependent upon a hypothetical reader's response, psychoanalysis still offers a seductive model of the self-contained text: the dream text.

As a dream text, the text subject to repression is also subject to the return of the repressed. Everything is necessarily meaningful and "overdetermined." Lapses and contradictions in the stories of "unreliable narrators," (now absorbing forms of authorial direct address and description), which so troubled James that he wondered whether the "spectacle" was properly Conrad's or his, become meaningful in themselves; part, indeed the central part, of the text's "intention" as a self-contained aesthetic object. The concept of repression, in giving voice to what the text does not say, allows almost any "extraneous" element to be present within the text's intention by virtue of its absence, provided the incorporation of that element contributes to the completion of the text's structural integrity. The last proviso is crucial. Without it, any interpretation is permissible, any text may be valued. With it, the New Critical axiom of the self-contained work of art is secured, and secured directly as "close reading" proceeds to discover the "missing" elements that formally complete texts. The self-contained nature of the text does not preclude its relation to the "real," to what James called the "challenge from without." The elements that complete the formal integrity of the text may be "historical." Instead of external points of view offering differential access to the text, point of view is absorbed by the text, which, when completed, offers its own point of view upon externalities, upon history.[80] There is theoretically no limit to this activity: all texts may be read this way. Thus the method is generalizable to the universe of literary objects. With such universal application, it may plausibly claim to explain how all texts mean. The only limits are practical: it is easier to persuade others that one has discovered the hidden intentions of some texts. These "merely" practical limits become the most essential, for it is in the course of practical persuasion that some texts appear better than others, more meaningful and "knowing."

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