The Burdens of Perfection

The Burdens of Perfection: On Ethics and Reading in Nineteenth-Century British Literature

Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 278
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    The Burdens of Perfection
    Book Description:

    "In some moods, or for some people, the desire to improve can seem so natural as to be banal. The impulse drives forward so much in our culture that it can color our thoughts and shape our actions without being much noticed. But in other moods, or for other people, this strenuous desire becomes all too noticeable, and its demands crushing. It can then drive a sleepless attention to ourselves, a desolate evaluation of what we have been and what we are."-from The Burdens of Perfection

    Literary criticism has, in recent decades, rather fled from discussions of moral psychology, and for good reasons, too. Who would not want to flee the hectoring moralism with which it is so easily associated-portentous, pious, humorless? But in protecting us from such fates, our flight has had its costs, as we have lost the concepts needed to recognize and assess much of what distinguished nineteenth-century British literature. That literature was inescapably ethical in orientation, and to proceed as if it were not ignores a large part of what these texts have to offer, and to that degree makes less reasonable the desire to study them, rather than other documents from the period, or from other periods.

    Such are the intuitions that drive The Burdens of Perfection, a study of moral perfectionism in nineteenth-century British culture. Reading the period's essayists (Mill, Arnold, Carlyle), poets (Browning and Tennyson), and especially its novelists (Austen, Dickens, Eliot, and James), Andrew H. Miller provides an extensive response to Stanley Cavell's contribution to ethics and philosophy of mind. In the process, Miller offers a fresh way to perceive the Victorians and the lingering traces their quests for improvement have left on readers.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6083-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. Resisting, Conspiring, Completing: An Introduction
    (pp. 1-32)

    The pages that follow study the desire to improve and the history of that desire. In some moods, or for some people, such a desire can seem so natural as to be banal: why should I not want to improve, to be in some sense better tomorrow than I am today, to be, indeed, all that I can be? The impulse drives forward so much in our culture—our education of children, our habits of consumption, our spiritual lives, our careers, our ascetic regimens of physical training—that it can color our thoughts and shape our actions without being much...

  5. Part I. The Narrative of Improvement

    • 1 Skepticism and Perfectionism I: Mechanization and Desire
      (pp. 35-53)

      In preparing for a more direct engagement with moral perfectionism in later chapters, in this one I have several aims. First, I attempt to gather together some passages from nineteenth-century texts that I take to study skepticism. The skepticism of the Victorians has received markedly less direct treatment in recent years than when, long ago now, Walter Houghton presented it as a defining fact of the period. As I have already noted, their skepticism was not merely a matter of religion, expressed as doubt of the existence of God, or of the historical truth of scripture. It found worried expression...

    • 2 Skepticism and Perfectionism II: Weakness of Will
      (pp. 54-83)

      In chapter 1 I considered skepticism as a matter of theme and figure; in the present chapter I turn to consider more fundamental matters of structure. Skepticism—whether imaged as desire ungoverned or the self mechanized—concerned the Victorians especially as it appeared to disable the will. Carlyle made the point resonantly: “Doubt, which . . . ever hangs in the background of our world, has now become our middleground and foreground. . . . At the fervid period when [man’s] whole nature cries aloud for Action, . . . doubt storms in on him though every avenue” (“Characteristics” 28–...

    • Interlude: Critical Free Indirect Discourse
      (pp. 84-91)

      In earlier versions of the chapter just concluded, I claimed that Cavell’s writing about Chuzzlewit was an example of “critical free indirect discourse,” critical writing that adopts the words and manner of writing or thinking of the texts on which it has focused its attention while maintaining a third-person reference and the basic tense of criticism.¹ But this surely isn’t right: as I just noted, Cavell’s words sound nothing like Dickens’s. Nonetheless, the intuition, however inexact, stayed with me, and did so because it seemed to address not only Cavell’s prose but also the writing of other readers of the...

    • 3 Reading Thoughts: Casuistry and Transfiguration
      (pp. 92-120)

      If chapter 1 began to indicate the lines of stress shot through nineteenth-century society by those forms of thinking I have called skeptical, chapter 2, while presenting yet another expression of these doubts, went on to suggest some of the ways that the novel responded to them by the manipulation of perspective. That manipulation was regularly achieved through the solicitation of second-person relations, both within the novel and between the novel (or its narrator) and the reader. The present chapter more amply specifies the nature of these second-person relations, again both within novels and as they work on readers.


  6. Part II. The Moral Psychology of Improvement

    • 4 Perfectly Helpless
      (pp. 123-141)

      In this second part of The Burdens of Perfection I consider various dispositions regularly associated with the perfectionist narrative sketched in the previous chapters. As I noted in the introduction, that narrative was powerful in large part because it engaged nineteenth-century moral psychology. I can easily imagine (having shared it) a quite suspicious response to this preoccupation with moral psychology: in treating so persistently the psychology of these characters, aren’t I treating fictional characters as if they were real—asking once again after Lady Macbeth’s children? In one respect I am treating fictional characters as I treat people outside of...

    • 5 Responsiveness, Knowingness, and John Henry Newman
      (pp. 142-161)

      Continuing to draw out those traits of moral psychology most strikingly associated with moral perfectionism, I turn in this chapter to knowingness. When we are disappointed by the limits of reason, after reason had seemed to promise so much, one temptation is to deny this disappointment, to insist on all that reason unassisted can secure for us. In calling this temptation or impulse “knowingness,” I do not mean merely the possession of knowledge. I mean instead the condition in which, first, one takes knowledge to be a sufficient guide within our world, and second, one believes oneself already to have...

    • 6 The Knowledge of Shame
      (pp. 162-190)

      This is the first of two chapters that take as their point of departure Dickens’s writing of the late 1840s, a period when in his writing many features of modernity found graphic expression. In the novels of these years, Dickens presents his characters as part of a psychosocial world in which the tension between individualism and the abstracting powers of exchange is intensely felt: even as I can conceive of myself as unique, I also have the pressing sense that others can stand for me, occupying a homologous place within social networks. As I have stressed, moral perfectionists tended to...

    • 7 On Lives Unled
      (pp. 191-218)

      I opened the last chapter by stressing what I called Dickens’s structuralist management of the modernity he committed himself to representing in Dombey and Son, stressing more particularly his proposal that we come to understand ourselves through others. This chapter begins again with those thoughts and that novel, in order to identify a mode of ethical reflection that shadows the moral perfectionism on which I have concentrated in this book. That mode, which I will call the “optative” (following a remark by Stuart Hampshire), conceives of one’s singularity—the sense that one has this particular life to live and no...

  7. Afterword
    (pp. 219-222)

    Whitman’s lines are of the open air, giving us permission to enter the graces of the present. They are words “which speak of nothing more than what we are,” and their beauty derives, in part, from the austerity of the discipline they escape: they have that quality of beauty that attends a reprieve (Wordsworth ll. 811–12). The burden of improvement, of being better tomorrow than one is today, has lifted. It is a prospect on which one might gaze rather wistfully at the end of a book on perfectionism—were one to talk of the beginning or the end....

  8. Notes
    (pp. 223-234)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 235-250)
  10. Index
    (pp. 251-260)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 261-262)