The Moments of Realism


Ben Parker reviews Fredric Jameson's The Antinomies of Realism, in the LA Review of Books:

THE ODD THING about literary “realism” is that it is not a descriptive term at all, but a period: roughly 1830–1895, from Stendhal’s The Red and the Blackto Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. Many classics of 19th-century realism would be conspicuously ruled out if plausibility were any criterion. Balzac’s first successful novel, La Peau de chagrin, is about a gambler who purchases a magical, wish-fulfilling animal skin that shrinks with every wish granted; Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma is essentially a swashbuckling romp through Napoleonic Europe; Anna Karenina includes the interior monologue of a dog, long before Kafka; Flaubert’s works include a lurid, violent novel about the fall of ancient Carthage, and a play in which Saint Anthony confronts the Buddha, Isis, the Devil, and the Seven Deadly Sins in the desert. “Magical realism” is something of a pleonasm; 19th-century realism is already reliably outrageous, phantasmagoric, and credibility-straining.

The past tends to be evacuated of its specifics, and so realism becomes, in the folk vocabulary of everyday criticism, simply “the way that we used to do things.” The implication here is “… before we learned better,” where modernism, and most often Virginia Woolf, plays the role of pedagogue. By a curious twist, “realism” then becomes descriptive once again, as the term now encompasses a warehouse of discarded, seemingly ingenuous (but covertly ideological) techniques for the misguided project of grasping “reality.”

In her 2008 essay “Two Paths for the Novel,” Zadie Smith — in the same vein of condescension toward a hazy, credulous past — identified realism, specifically “the nineteenth-century lyrical Realism of Balzac and Flaubert,” as “a literary form in long-term crisis,” an archaic obstruction on the highway of literary culture. This realism was supposedly built on “the transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity of the self.” Realism was a “bedtime story,” propagating the ideology that “the self is a bottomless pool,” and dating to a prelapsarian epoch when “novels weren’t neurotic.” All of this would come as a surprise, I think, to readers of Balzac and Flaubert: surely the latter is the most neurotic of novelists.

In fact, realism was never this way. Nineteenth-century realism was not a “bedtime story.” On the contrary, the prevailing idea that before modernism we all innocently believed in an essential plenitude of the self is itself a comforting fable by which to tuck in undergraduates. Even in as Masterpiece Theatre–ready a work as Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the heroine is crucially “absent” (narcoleptic, automaton-like) from her own attention at catastrophic, life-determining moments of rape and violence.

More here.