Reading for Our Time: ‘Adam Bede’ and ‘Middlemarch’ Revisited 
by J. Hillis Miller.
Edinburgh, 191 pp., £19.99, March 2012, 978 0 7486 4728 6
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Towards the end of Middlemarch, Dorothea spends a mostly sleepless night following a dream-ending encounter the day before. At dawn, she goes to her window:

She opened her curtains, and looked out towards the bit of road that lay in view, with fields beyond, outside the entrance-gates. On the road there was a man with a bundle on his back and a woman carrying her baby; in the field she could see figures moving – perhaps the shepherd with his dog. Far off in the bending sky was the pearly light; and she felt the largeness of the world and the manifold waking of men to labour and endurance. She was a part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining.

The passage moves through a graduated fading away, then a redefinition of focus. The minimally identified man, woman and baby – or man with bundle, woman with baby – give way to further, vaguer figures and an infinitely extended and repeating world far beyond the self. Finally, Dorothea is brought back, with Eliot’s moral firmness, to a middle place between two repudiated ways of seeing or not seeing the world – neither just looking nor failing to look at all.

Dorothea will now plunge back into selfless engagement (though her first move, after coming away from the window, is to summon a servant). As narrative reward, her lost illusions are soon restored. It turns out that she was wrong in her reading of the previous day: the man she now knows she loves – Will Ladislaw – loves her and only her after all. But the window scene remains in a place of its own: a paused, breath-taking, momentary suspension of narrative development. Poised between the despair of the night and the return of the day, the sight at the window frames a moving image that takes the watcher elsewhere; and takes the novel, for that still moment, away from the concerns of its particular milieu.

In Reading for Our Time, J. Hillis Miller is moved to comment more than once on this passage about a spectator alone with a view. To readers familiar with Miller, it will come as no surprise. In a literary journey that has now reached its seventh decade (his first book appeared in the 1950s), Miller has often stopped to dwell on scenes resembling this one. In a wonderful article of 1971, published in New Literary History, he looked at the suspension between night and day, and between city and country, in Wordsworth’s sonnet ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge’. Miller was at the time himself at a moment of transition, moving towards deconstruction. He read the poem as Wordsworth’s undermining of the naturalistic assumption that we can see the world without or before the cultural languages that shape it for us. ‘Never did sun more beautifully steep/In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill’: in these lines the beauty of the London morning is evoked and confirmed through a comparison with what it is not, and the speaker’s own situation comes to be seen as it would be if he were standing not in the city but in a more characteristically Wordsworthian place. ‘Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!’: this, in Miller’s words, ‘invites the reader to think of all those other contexts, scattered through Wordsworth’s poetry and usually involving pastoral rather than urban landscapes, in which the poet responds to what he sees with a combination of deep excitement and calm, calm hovering on the edge of ecstasy’.

Miller’s Thomas Hardy, published a year before the Wordsworth article, has the subtitle ‘Distance and Desire’. Here Miller was interested in the way this kind of hovering between two contrary states can become in effect the defining stance of an author or the characters he comes up with. For Miller’s Hardy, writing is a specific way of not engaging: of placing the involvement out there, in the world of his fictional people, and thereby protecting himself from the turbulence he projects and portrays. Miller describes this situation with great precision: ‘To change the real world as he has experienced it into a fictional world is to nullify it, to hold it at a distance, to make it over into a linguistic form which renders it less dangerous.’ Or again: ‘His goal seems to have been to escape from the dangers of direct involvement in life and to imagine himself in a position where he could safely see life as it is without being seen and could report on that seeing.’

Matthew Arnold, another of Miller’s subjects, presents a different scenario of ambivalent disengagement from a world seen as out there, beyond the control of an always precariously placed observer. Arnold and his poetic protagonists find reality ‘bewildering’; for the critic, literature itself – the reading rather than the writing of it – is the only potential source of stability. Stability, refuge (Arnold’s word is ‘stay’): this is what is sought, and sought as a counterbalance to an intellectual and spiritual crisis. In the opening words of ‘The Study of Poetry’ (1880): ‘The future of poetry is immense, because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay. There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve.’

Arnold was one of the five 19th-century writers whose works Miller analysed in The Disappearance of God (1963), the book that made his name before it was made all over again as one of the foremost practitioners of deconstructive criticism. (Coming across the Wordsworth article as a theory-hungry student in the late 1970s was a formative moment for me. It showed a way of putting together the new philosophy with the literature on the syllabus and it was written with a loving analytical attention to both kinds of text. But as if there had to have been a revolutionary cut-off point, it never occurred to me then to look back to what Miller had written before he took up deconstruction.) In that book Miller saw Arnold, in his poetry, situating himself or his central figures between two equally untenable places: either a dizzy immersion in (modern) life, or a deathly withdrawal. For Arnold there is no Eliot-like middle way: ‘Arnold cannot achieve the delicate equilibrium which has withdrawn from life to just the right distance … Man plunges either into society or into solitude, either into life or into death. Immobility is impossible, and each man is condemned to “oscillation”, to being miserably bandied to and fro like a sea-wave.’ Once, the world, the self and God were as one; but in the modern day that Miller identifies as Arnold’s and as ‘ours’ too, the sense of there being no valid and liveable mode of social and personal involvement is a reasonable response to how things really are.

Miller goes on to find in Arnold some hope for a better future. In a famous discussion of what he regards as a cyclical alternation between ‘critical’ and ‘creative’ phases of cultural history, Arnold, in ‘The Function of Criticism at the Present Time’ (1864), suggested a ‘promised land, towards which criticism can only beckon’. For the time being, in Miller’s summary, Arnold ‘must hover in the void, in one direction waiting for the lightning to strike, the dawn to come, and in the other direction sternly and implacably criticising all present cultural forms as false.’

Miller offered no explicit promise of a contemporary mission for his mid-20th-century interpretations of the five authors in The Disappearance of God (the others are De Quincey, Browning, Emily Brontë and Gerard Manley Hopkins), even though the book is profoundly concerned with its subjects’ own hesitations and hoverings between literary engagement and disengagement. That – in the 1960s – was then, and those were different critical times. But now, nearly half a century after The Disappearance of God, Miller’s new study of another Victorian writer is boldly given the title Reading for Our Time. He wants the book to do something in the world in which it appears: a world as apocalyptically on the edge as any that ever appeared in the alarmed vision of a 19th-century thinker. Miller’s first sentence speaks of ‘this time of irreversible global climate change, worldwide financial meltdown, with a new financial bubble already building, and the bamboozling of the American electorate (and other electorates around the world) by the media, advertising, the politicians and hidden right-wing contributors into voting in ways exactly contrary to their interests?’

At such a time, Miller says, there are no obvious justifications for reading old novels (or writing about reading them). But he offers two: in fact two of the oldest defences of literature in the history of criticism: education and pleasure. First, his subordinate aim: ‘I immensely enjoy reading Adam Bede and Middlemarch. I want to pass that pleasure on to others.’ As ever, he is winningly good at that. And second, a lesson in how to read: ‘It is just possible that some few readers here and there might learn something about how to unmask the lies that bombard us in the real world by reading Middlemarch or Adam Bede.’ Miller is under no illusions about the likely efficacy of this programme in getting its illusion-busting lessons through to those politicians and voters in need of it, ‘even if we could imagine these good people sitting down one evening to perform a thoughtful reading of Adam Bede.’ But he is quite sure of his ground when it comes to the object to be remedied. The world is what it is (gone or going to ruin), but if people could and would learn to read critically, then there would be some hope. Eliot’s writings have got it right, and Miller can show how she did it or does it, and thereby – this is the larger aim – enable his (and her) readers to bring that understanding to bear on the present global predicament.

I have paid so much attention to these preliminary statements because I am struck by their difference and distance from the starting points of Miller’s earlier criticism. Leaving aside any question of the validity or the practicability of his given purpose, the declaration of overtly political intent is notable in itself, and in one way not unlike Arnold; Miller’s title surely echoes him, too. For Arnold, criticism had a contemporary function. Like Miller now, he didn’t hesitate to unmask – and in his case, to rail against – the ideology of his social world; he was given to ad hominem outbursts against the rhetorical complacency of politicians. But there is also a big difference. Reading literature was not, for Arnold, a tool for that unmasking; it was instead the one source of consolation, the ever more needed fall-back in a whirling world.

Miller’s enlistment of literature and reading for political uses looks like the latest turn on a path that has now decisively moved away from treating literary criticism as an activity not in need of any special justification or defence. Before, he might talk about how to do it or what texts to do it to, but the value of criticism went without saying, more or less, throughout the long course of smaller and larger changes in his critical methods and allegiances. These changes are usually described in terms of Miller’s mid-century training in the New Criticism that dominated American English departments; then a phenomenological spell, much influenced by Georges Poulet; and then a further turn, initially via French structuralist writings, towards the deconstructive philosophies of Derrida and Paul de Man. Miller became part of what had become known by the late 1970s as the ‘Yale School’ of criticism, primarily identified with deconstruction (Derrida, de Man, Miller; as well as Shoshana Felman and Barbara Johnson), but also linked to other Yale critics, notably Harold Bloom, Peter Brooks, Geoffrey Hartman and Fredric Jameson.

In the decades since then, Miller’s work has continued to evolve, often along paths marked out by Derrida. (Derrida moved from Yale to Irvine in California when Miller moved there in the mid-1980s.) In such books as The Ethics of Reading (1987) and Speech Acts in Literature (2001), Miller has shown a gathering interest in thinking about what literary or critical works do, or should do, and how they explore questions of action and efficacy and truth-telling. The present book gives such issues a new social urgency. The reading of a couple of canonical novels can only be justified, he implies, if it might have some political utility in a mad extra-literary world. This is a long way to have come from ‘Literature is a form of consciousness, and literary criticism is the analysis of this form in all its varieties’ (on the first page of The Disappearance of God); or from ‘Literary criticism is language about language, or, to put it another way, a re-creating in the mind of the critic of the consciousness inscribed in the texts studied, generated there by the words’ (the opening sentence of Thomas Hardy). But that phrase ‘language about language’ seems to beckon towards the deconstructive moment that was yet to come.

While Miller’s assumptions and declarations about the practice of critical reading have undergone profound modifications in the course of his life, the texts he writes about have remained pretty much the same. His first book was on Dickens, and in addition to all the Victorians mentioned so far, he has devoted books or substantial parts of books to James, Hardy, Meredith and Trollope. It isn’t that there haven’t been other subjects; Wallace Stevens, in particular, recurs in all Miller’s work, and he has also written about various writers of the post-Victorian century, including philosophers and critics. But 19th-century authors have continued, through every other change, to provide him with matter for thinking with.

Sometimes it can seem that far from a story of steady or sudden critical change over all this time, what Miller presents is a picture of one single book, always in process, always absorbing to read, and never done. Time and again, Miller will say at the start of a book that it is just a spin-off from a larger project, or that an initial plan for a manageable piece resulted in something far longer. This is true above all of Ariadne’s Thread: Story Lines (1992), which spooled out from what had been meant as a short introduction to Fiction and Repetition: Seven English Novels (1982), and has never really stopped unravelling and rewinding into the corners and corridors of Miller’s private labyrinth. Reading for Our Time is presented as two abandoned chapters of Fiction and Repetition, deemed (by the publisher) to make that book too big, and now picked up again.

It isn’t easy to pinpoint the status of these two chapters. Over the years, they have become different from the texts that Miller originally submitted. They have been revised, he tells us, to take account of all the other work published on Eliot’s novels in the last thirty years. They are not meant to show their real age; or rather, they are meant to have been reconceived for the present generation, and now have the special mission of training the critical readers needed in our brainwashing times. As Miller half ruefully, half proudly points out, the peculiar processes of dispersal and reassembly that have resulted in Reading for Our Time – bits and pieces of each long chapter have been published here and there and now and then, and are brought back together again here – are both like and unlike what happens to the productions of Mr Casaubon in Middlemarch. He too sent out various short pieces, his ‘parerga’ and pamphlets, to test the scholarly waters for the monumental ‘Key to All Mythologies’ to which they were ultimately supposed to belong. Miller likens himself to Casaubon – ‘Don’t we all, we scribblers in whatever genre?’ – but then he doesn’t: ‘The difference, however, is that I have finally finished the ergon, or main work, such as it is.’

That remains to be seen. Unlike Casaubon, Miller has often changed key, and there is no reason to think it won’t happen again. But Reading for Our Time is very much, still, a continuation of his Ariadne story. At the start is a photograph of the sculpture of Ariadne that figures in Dorothea’s wedding trip to Rome, and the myth is threaded through Miller’s reading of Middlemarch. Dorothea finally coming together with Will Ladislaw after her night of misery is ‘another Ariadne accepting her rescuing Dionysus’, and readers are invited to identify with Ariadne at that post-labyrinthine, post-Cretan point in her mythical life: ‘Learning to read the signs in the ways George Eliot teaches us to do it will perhaps (to make a final reference to my frontispiece) make some of us at least Ariadnes awakening, though not, alas, opening our eyes to confront a saviour Dionysus.’ In a note Miller says, provokingly, after pointing the way back to Ariadne’s Thread, ‘for some obscure reason, obscure to me at least, the story of Ariadne has always struck me as among the most moving of ancient myths.’

Endnotes are places where loose threads can be both deposited and cut off. Miller will not come back as his own rescuing or interpreting Dionysus to take this thought (or confession) further, but the Ariadne-Dionysus moment does capture his characteristic mode of repeated return, in new times or new contexts, to the same much-loved literary and critical texts, to give them new reading and writing life. Yet the repeated stress on that would-be final moment in Ariadne’s story suggests a direction of travel towards some sort of semi-happy ending, however belated: there’s a second-chance husband for both Ariadne and Dorothea.

As a reader, what Miller has always sought to produce, whatever the critical method, is a work of elucidation. ‘A good reader,’ he observes in an article from the mid-1980s, ‘The Search for Grounds in Literary Study’,

notices oddnesses, gaps, anacoluthons, non sequiturs, apparently irrelevant details, in short, all the marks of the inexplicable, all the marks of the unaccountable, perhaps of the mad, in a text. On the other hand, the reader’s task is to reduce the inexplicable to the explicable, to find its reason, its law, its ground.

Or again, from Fiction and Repetition:

Twentieth-century thought – in linguistics, in psychology, in biology, in ethnology and sociology, in atomic physics, and in astrophysics – has been characterised by this recognition that the realms of man and nature are stranger than we had thought, along with the unceasing attempt to find out the laws of this strangeness and so make the unfamiliar familiar … Much in many works of literature seems unaccountable by traditional standards of coherence and unity. This book attempts to identify and to account for one form of this unaccountability.

Things do not add up – they are unaccountable – but their not adding up can be explained. In this double movement, the strange or obscure turns of the labyrinth will be sought out, identified as such and then clarified. Or ‘brought into the open’, a phrase to be found in every period of Miller’s writing. In Reading for Our Time, it’s an image of deconstruction: ‘The exploration of these [elements] will bring more clearly into the open the way Adam Bede puts its own overt assumptions in question.’

Miller picks out long passages and recurrent metaphors in both novels and demonstrates their interlocking contributions to what he takes to be Eliot’s own lesson (not his) in how to read her book: ‘It would not be extravagant to say that the narrator of Adam Bede performs a rigorous act of deconstructive reading avant la lettre.’ ‘We all of us,’ Eliot writes in one of the sentences from Middlemarch that Miller most loves to cite, ‘get our thoughts entangled in metaphors, and act fatally on the strength of them.’ For Miller, and for Eliot in this mode, there is no chance of having thoughts that are not metaphorically mixed in this way: thoughts are in language, language is twisted up into metaphors; ‘we’ can only try to unravel them, to separate out the strands.

Miller lays out the commonsense counterpart to this picture of linguistic thinking in his reading of Adam Bede. ‘A mimetic novel must employ straightforwardly mimetic words. A referential theory of signs is also consistent with the hard-headed realism, a resolute determination to call a hammer a hammer, that is associated especially with Adam.’ He sets up this simple theory of the novel’s simple theory only, in the best deconstructive way, to prise it apart, going on to show (or to show that the novel is showing) that after all Eliot is well aware, at least some of the time, that the toolshed model of the world and its words does not hold up.

I do have a small axe to grind about what can happen to realism in an argument of this kind. Realism tends to get identified with a demoted, simplified theory of language – a word for everything and everything consistently called by its name. But the ‘hard-headed realism’ Miller takes down in order to make the more complex argument is a caricature. It stands for the call-a-spade-a-spade stupidity that he uses rhetorically to make the case for a new version (or idea) of realism, one that, à la George Eliot, is capable of acknowledging the way language operates in forming and re-forming the reality we see (and fail to see).

The place where pre-Middlemarch Eliot is particularly aware of this, Miller argues, is in chapter 17 of Adam Bede, ‘In Which the Story Pauses a Little’ and the narrator engages in first-person reflections on the origins and uses of what (though the word was becoming current at the time of the novel’s writing, in the late 1850s) is not quite named as realism. Miller honours chapter 17 with a chapter of its own, mimicking Eliot’s own conscious pause by leaving it out of his discussion of Adam Bede and holding it over until his section on Middlemarch. He says that in spite of Eliot’s ‘overt affirmation’ of ‘realism as exact reproduction, the covert argument is for a certain use of figurative language. Such language does not say directly what it means. The language of realistic fiction is not based solidly on any extra-linguistic entities. It transforms such entities into something other than themselves.’

I think this is true, but to me it isn’t quite the most moving story of what goes on in this chapter. Eliot herself (or her proxy narrator) takes her reader – in words – away from language and story, and the suspension of fictional time leads her to stop instead in front of a series of ‘Dutch paintings, which lofty-minded people despise’. The paintings portray moments in eventless and humble domestic lives:

I turn without shrinking, from cloud-borne angels, from prophets, sibyls, and heroic warriors, to an old woman bending over her flower-pot, or eating her solitary dinner, while the noonday light, softened perhaps by a screen of leaves, falls on her mob-cap, and just touches the rim of her spinning-wheel, and her stone jug, and all those cheap common things which are the precious necessaries of life to her.

Eliot has altered the focus from a developing narrative to the capture of a single moment, and from a verbal to a visual medium. For Miller this may appear to be an ‘effacement of the problem of language’, because ‘the implication is that the language of realism is a literal, non-figurative language functioning like a photograph or like a scientific drawing. It goes by way of a one-to-one correspondence between the word and the thing to which it refers.’ But Eliot’s programmatic realist point is that representation in art gives a value to what would otherwise be unseen or untold. It doesn’t only tell or show (or try to), it chooses this particular reality over other possible subjects for representation: ‘these faithful pictures of a monotonous homely existence’ rather than the upper classes, or the fantastical creatures that precede her verbal sketches. The argument does not require that there be no mediating conventions, whether in image or in stories. But it does suggest that some things are more deserving of being brought into the frame than others.

Out for a walk last week with a head full of Miller’s theoretical realities, I suddenly thought that I’d just seen the word ‘deconstruction’ on the side of a parked grey van. Assuming I must have misread this (misreading does happen), I went back, curious to see what it was that I’d managed to twist. I hadn’t misread it. The van was marked ‘Deconstruction specialists’. The company’s name was Protech. Based in Bexhill. There were fax and phone numbers – a proper landline. Below, in two neat blue columns, a list of the services offered. Concrete Cutting. Concrete Bursting. Concrete Crunching. Structural Works. Temporary Support. Partial Demolition. A whole history of literary theory, if that’s the way you want to look at it.

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