Disciplinary Flashpoints: The Tenses of Historicism
This paper looks at how both realist novelists of the British nineteenth century, and contemporary literary critics influenced by the recent and ubiquitous historicist turn in literary studies, aim to index something called the historical by the use of key rhetorical devices embodied in a specific kind of sentence I call “historicist.” While many accounts of the vexed relations between historical and literary studies focus on the diachronic axis of history and on the relation between history and narrative, I linger here on the synchronic axis and on the attempt in both novels and criticism to express simultaneity. Thus Charles Dickens’s opening of chapter 7 of Bleak House, “While Esther sleeps, and while Esther wakes, it is still raining down in Lincolnshire,” is an example of an historicist sentence which helps us to switch from one plot to another while imagining the continuing realities of both. Like many historicist sentences in novels, this one reveals the pressures of its ambition through the problem of tense: the “it is still” of “it is still raining” attempts to capture both movement and stasis, negotiating in an awkward and resonant way the two tenses of Dickens’s twin narrations in Bleak House. Other Victorian novels attempt to resolve the tension between individual lives and historical context by the use of such sentences. Again, these sentences tend to break down at the level of syntax, odd parallelisms or neologisms reminding us of the difficulty of this kind of work. The paper ends with a move to contemporary literary criticism and to how critics have inherited and reshaped the historicist sentences in an attempt to manage disciplinary differences between literature and history. These attempts like those in novels require syntactical sleights of hand and produce germinal errors that direct us to rethink the relations between disciplines.
Keywords: History, Historicism, Novels, Rhetoric
Dr Helena Michie
Professor in English and Humanities, English, Rice University