impersonality and the individual
“Of the vaporization and centralization of the Ego. Everything depends upon that.” (Baudelaire, “My Heart Laid Bare”)
Henri Lefebvre toward the end of the first volume of Critique of Everyday Life, in the course of arguing on behalf of American literature and against the French stuff of the period:
Petty-bourgeois individualism has reached the extreme limit of exhaustion, and that goes for the intellectual as well as the writer. In the ‘human sand’, each grain, which is so dreadfully similar to all the others (unless we look at it through a psychological microscope) thinks it is frightfully original, even unique! Individualism ends up as the impersonality of the individual. It is the dialectical result of the ‘private’ consciousness and of its internal contradiction: the separation of the human being from the human. Nothing is easier to express than that abstract ‘psychology’ of this individuality, devoid of any content which might be difficult to express. Only a little knowledge of grammar is necessary. And there is plenty of that around! But unfortunately the tone of all these confidences and all these descriptions happens to be that of impersonality; therefore of boredom. The accusation that the Marxist dialectician levels at modern French literature as a whole is not that it expresses individuality, but rather that it expresses only false individuality, a facade of individuality, and abstraction. Nor is it by working in an element of ‘anguish’ that a young writer can give his descriptions or his story the direct, visual, physical, moving style, so much more individualized and varied, that one finds in Faulkner’s characters and novels. (237)
Yes. Not so worried about the Faulkner issue right now. But what’s interesting about this is the way that it maps on to the complicated issue of literary impersonality, which is significantly different from the impersonality (actual individual impersonality, that is lack of a personality, an interesting one) that Lefebvre’s discussing right here. That is to say, literary impersonality, which is generally understood to mean the distancing or problematization of the notions and ideas of the author (you knew what Dickens wanted to tell you but with Joyce it’s much harder) is a formal stance, not a psychological status or condition.
Maybe you know Eliot’s exquisite joke about this…. He really was funny sometimes in his essays. This is from “Traditional and the Individual Talent”:
Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.
But here’s the thing. Literary impersonality, which in its narrative manifestations generally takes the shape of some variety of free indirect style, tends as it happens to be a priviledged means of exposing just the sort of impersonality that Lefebvre’s describing above. The free indirect form penetrates the interiority of the character, but only in such a way that we seem to remain outside of the character. We are not probing it, like a headshrinker, nor is the poor guy or girl spilling his or her guts – it’s just there on the surface of the prose for us to see. As a form, free indirect discourse depends upon the exteriorization of the interior. Or – and I should show my math, but just bear with me for the moment – it depends upon the exteriorability of the interior, even the pre-exteriority of the interior. It doesn’t take too much in the way of mental gymnastics to see that for what goes on inside to come out in a shape that (sometimes, often, in the best cases) is intelligible, fairly coherent, and not really all that out of step with conventional narration (in step enough that you have to teach people to see this fact, right?) might well have been, well, conventional, available for this sort of presentation right from the start.
It’s no wonder that Flaubert pushes the form to the fore in the work that he does – in a way, a romance novel about a woman who reads romance novels is a straight shot…. One even starts to wonder whether the theme that he chose didn’t invent the form rather than the other way around.
We’re coming pretty close to what I would call the tacit, implicit, or unconscious formal politics of modernist prose. Lefebvre believes we learn something important when we, having passed through the moment of the Cogito, come to a further step along the path toward self-understanding – the step which takes the alienated, flimsy self for a marker of both alienation and the possibilities that might come of the social forms that generate it. The recognition that we are not simply ourselves turns from a tragic consequence of modernity into the announcement itself of the imminence of another sort of world, a better sociality and sociability.
(There – I’m going to count that as having worked on the m’script today…. That’s clearer than usual and I’ll work with it….)