First-Person Deficient

Detail from John Singer Sargent, Lord Ribblesdale (1902)

A review of Franco Moretti’s The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature

In 1984, when Welsh chanteuse Bonnie Tyler announced in a song for the Footloose soundtrack that she was “holding out for a hero,” she may well have been speaking for an entire generation, which had lived through the “total eclipse of the heart” of a faltering welfare state. As if disoriented by the restorative light of the decade’s rapid neoliberal reform, this generation yearned for “a white knight upon a fiery steed” to blaze a trail.

Where have all the good men gone
And where are all the gods?
Where’s the street-wise Hercules
To fight the rising odds?
Isn’t there a white knight upon a fiery steed?

Yet heroes hadn’t disappeared so much as changed. In David Foster Wallace’s  literary tribute to the Internal Revenue Service, The Pale King (2011), a substitute instructor informs a class of accounting students that “True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care. with no one there to see or cheer.” Whereas “yesterday’s hero” — the sort Tyler perhaps pined for — “penetrated, tamed, hewed, shaped, made, brought things into being” and “generated facts,” contemporary heroes face no such labors. Their effort must instead involve “the ordering and deployment of those facts” produced by predecessors. Heroes of yore subdued nature, conquered continents. Contemporary counterparts can only  endure “tedium over real time in a confined space” and be content to call that courage. Remarkable in his quiet self-restraint, the latter-day hero soldiers on in perfect anonymity. Rather than having someone hold out for him, he simply holds himself out.

Hardly the stuff of pop music, this patient endurance. But it is the pith and substance of that much aggrandized world-historical actor, the “middle class.” At any rate, this is what literature historian Franco Moretti would have us believe. Moretti has a reputation as a maverick for his computational scholarly methods, which reject close reading and line-by-line analysis in favor of Big Data approaches to vast textual archives. He describes his hallmark method of “distant reading” (the antipodes of close reading) in his 2000 manifesto “Conjectures on World Literature,” explaining how it “allows you to focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes —or genres and systems.” Distant reading, he suggests, is a sort of unreading. Where a close reader sees a literary text, a distant reader sees a “system” whose literary devices stand as so many bits of quantifiable data.

Both an application and a vindication of his method, The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature contains Moretti’s distant reading of a social class whose influence recedes into the distance. “Capitalism is more powerful than ever,” Moretti notes, “but its human embodiment seems to have vanished.” Still it has left traces in 19th century literature, and Moretti seeks to uncover them by approaching the period’s literature as data. His wager is that the zeitgeist of the era reveals itself not in the self-aware statements about it by commentators of the period but in a textual substrate only visible in the aggregate, which he dubs a “style.” Styles can be decomposed into two categories: “keywords” and “prose.” Prose denotes “an ideal-type, never fully realized in any specific text”; keywords are “actual words, used by writers, and perfectly traceable to this or that book.” Deployed in tandem, prose and keywords expose thematic consistencies propagating through texts that bring into focus the object of analysis — “the peculiarities of bourgeois culture,” in this case — which emerges “from the implicit, and even buried dimension of language” to give more a sense of “a ‘mentality’ made of unconscious grammatical patterns and semantic associations” than any “clear or distinct ideas.”

In The Bourgeois, Moretti insists on an image of middle-class people that would no doubt please Wallace’s accounting professor. “Whereas the aristocracy had shamelessly idealized itself in a whole gallery of intrepid knights,” he writes, “the bourgeoisie produced no such myth of itself … Compared to a knight, a bourgeois appears un-marked and elusive.” These qualities, Moretti insists, form an “incognito” that masks and abets the class’s rise to cultural dominance. The bourgeois’s endowments — “energy,” “self-restraint,” “intellectual clarity,” “commercial honesty,” “a strong sense of goals” — are “all good traits,” he observes, but they do not compare well to those of his literary antecedents, the “warrior,” “conqueror,” and “adventurer” figures on whom “Western storytelling had relied … for millennia.”

If the knight and conqueror of yesteryear represented the heart and brains of their historical moment, the bourgeois, as Ezra Pound writes in a letter published in the February 1914 issue of The Egoist, is “digestive”: “a person who is concerned solely with his own comfort or advancement.” With the distinction of being all guts comes precious little glory. “Bourgeois,” becomes, as Pound puts it, “a term of opprobrium” in the mouths of many besides exploited wage workers.

In Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, the patrician Menenius Agrippa attempts to calm a mob of Roman citizens outraged at the fact that grain has been withheld from them. “There was a time when all the body’s members / Rebell’d against the belly,” he explains, because, “like a gulf did it remain / I’ the midst o’ the body, idle and unactive.” The belly was free to luxuriate mid-torso, “still cupboarding the viand, never bearing / Like labour with the rest.” Justifying receipt of a free lunch on the basis that it’s your ordained function to eat it proves a shaky claim at best. If the bourgeoisie were to not merely be the stomach of the social body but also its head, it would need more than parables like Menenius’s.

The bourgeoisie faced the task of winning workers’ consent to a system of relations in which the rights of property surpassed all others. Rather than deploy its trump card of state-sanctioned violence, Moretti argues that it mobilized a whole literary subgenre, the Gothic, to serve its agenda. The Gothic recalled the precapitalist past populated by the very towering paladins the bourgeoisie sought to topple, but these evocations were meant to demonstrate that the bourgeoisie had as much historical necessity behind it as any aristocracy. It helped to mystify property relations by recasting them in the revived medieval forms.

Rather than the proletarianized men otherwise “free” to sell their sole asset, their labor power, on an open market, workers found themselves exhorted to recognize their duty yet again to subserve their natural superiors. Despite Marx and Engels’s famous remarks in The Communist Manifesto that the bourgeois revolution dissolved “fixed, frozen relations,” the class remained quite weak in terms of political and cultural sway. Precapitalist values retained some of their heft in an age that had supposedly surpassed them. Dressed up in themes of “the paternalism of the master, who promises to take care of the workers’ entire life,” these values, Moretti argues, allow industrialists to “secure their workers consent.” The Gothic revival of the 19th century thus effects “the metamorphosis of the one-sided bourgeois into a hegemonic gentlemen,” with Britain as “the first instance of cultural hegemony in modern history,” what Moretti calls Victorianism. Evoking precapitalist values for the purposes of parading about in their borrowed finery is only one of its features. Others include imputing sexuality to prudish motives to conceal any intimations of its transactional nature, downplaying troubling insights by submerging them in convoluted grammar, revising iron economic inevitabilities in the direction of mere ethical choice, and imposing meaning on the world rather than attempting to fathom its truth.

Bourgeois political dominance would not take full hold until the 1930s. When it did, it did so as fascism, a pathological consensus whose grip was broken only by arms. Whatever vestiges of power remained to the bourgeoisie after the Second World War were put asunder by a commodity culture in full flower, a consensus defined by a democracy of material possessions rather than ideas or values. This consensus defines the present moment and weds a postindustrial U.S. to its Industrial Age forebears across the pond. The “American way of life” Moretti considers to be “the Victorianism of today”; common to both is “the drastic infantilization of the national culture.” Symptoms of this condition include excessive television viewing and the “anti-intellectualism” expressed in biases for “useful knowledge” and the prescriptions of “much educational policy,” as well as “addiction to sports” and “thinly disguised contempt for intellectual and emotional seriousness.” It is every bit as much an anatomy of decline as you will find in Thomas Mann, Max Nordau, or Oswald Spengler.

With decline comes declining expectations. In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh (1856), an echt-bourgeois text, the titular heroine insists that “All men are possible heroes, every age, / Heroic in proportions.” Such verities remain merely theoretical, however, because “every age / Appears to souls who live in it … / Most unheroic.” Folks today may instead arrive at the conclusion Aurora inveighs against, that theirs is “An age of scum, spooned off the richer past; / An age of patches for old gabardines; / An age of mere transition, meaning nought, / Except that what succeeds must shame it quite.” They may feel themselves doomed to hold out for a hero who holds out on them. Their assessment would accord with Moretti’s, that “where capitalistic structures solidify, narrative and stylistic mechanisms replace individuals as the centre of the text.”

If the present age could be said to have a characteristic point of view, you might be tempted to call it “first-person deficient.” Moretti’s The Bourgeoisis, finally, an illuminating, data-rich analysis of a fraught and nuanced null set.