Friday, December 3, 2010

Musselwhite Extract #2: Tess

By Tracy

This is from David Musselwhite's 2003 book, Social Transformations in Hardy's Tragic Novels: Megamachines and Phantasms.

... in Tess, Hardy seems to be working with a wholly new conception of what is entailed in the 'construction' of a 'character' or of a 'consciousness' -- a conception that finds parallels in the psychoanalytical notion of the phantasm where the human becomes human -- acquires character and consciousness -- when the accumulated and consorted bruit or dit -- the lore -- of the tradition or the culture becomes accreted around and inscribed on the blank surface of the physiological body...

...In a sense what Tess becomes is a kind of 'phenomenological palimpsest' -- or, to recall another favourite image of Freud for the unconsciousness, a 'magic writing block' -- of all that she unconsciously registers of what has been said or thought about her, of all that has anticipated and been brought to bear upon her, of all the phantasmatic events that she has passed through. What this means is that Tess becomes something like an 'expressive digest', or 'phenomenological prism' of the world into which she has been born -- a world not just of material conditions but of a host of pre-existing roles, attributes and singularities. I think this accords well, in fact, with what we sense of her luminous presence. Much has been made of Tess as the object of voyeuristic fantasy but much less has been said of the degree to which we see the world through her. Indeed at times in the course of the text Tess seems to function like an 'expressive cursor' or like one of those ruler magnifying glasses that come with miniaturised editions of the Complete Oxford Dictionary. (p. 117)

Even in this glimpse of only one chapter* of Social Transformations..., we can see David's typical ability to think things through from an "opposite" angle, to consider Tess as see-r and not just seen; and the outlandish but exact and just image of something unexpected (Tess as a dictionary-accessory!). The theoretical underpinnings of the book, again in Deleuze and Guattari but even more extensively in Laplanche and Pontalis's work on the "phantasm" are too complex to paraphrase here -- so I urge anyone interested to get hold of Social Transformations for themselves.

*There are actually two chapters on Tess in this book. The other novels studied are The Mayor of Casterbridge, Jude the Obscure (also two chapters) and The Well-Beloved.

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