Theses Doctoral

Bad Logic: Reasoning about Desire in the Victorian Novel

Wright, Daniel

How do Victorian novels, those detailed imaginative records of psychic interiority and social life, put into language the aspect of our interior lives that seems most stubbornly nonlinguistic: that is, the insistent claims and impulses of erotic desire? If Victorian culture valued reason and accountability over sheer erotic fulfillment, and at the same time represented love and desire as important social experiences, then how did the Victorian novel represent the process of reasoning about desire without diluting its intensity or making it mechanical? In "Bad Logic," I argue that a surprising array of novelists, including Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, George Meredith, and Henry James, registered the troublesome opacity of erotic life by experimenting with forms of "bad logic," from hasty conclusions to contradictions to tautologies, and finally to the ethical and erotic possibilities of vagueness. These forms bring into view the limitations of logic as a rubric for moral accountability, while at the same time they work as ironic and tacit ways of speaking and thinking about erotic desire. In other words, in the Victorian novel, the singular, embodied feelings of erotic life are imagined not as ineffable, nonsocial, or fully beyond the explanatory powers of logic and the rational mind. Rather, erotic desires represent a profound depth of psychic and affective life that, even in its resistance to sound propositional language, wants to be understood. The resurgence of interest in theories of logic in nineteenth-century England was in fact intimately related to the philosophical problem of the deep, idiosyncratic self that seems to exceed scientific knowledge about thought and its structures, but which nonetheless guides so much of psychic, ethical, and erotic life. Philosophers and social critics as diverse as Thomas Carlyle, John Stuart Mill, George Boole, and George Eliot took up the stubborn problem of logic and its complex relationship to character. But it was the realist novel, I argue, that allowed for the fullest development of this problem through its own strategies for developing fictional character and representing the fullness of psychic and affective life and its often difficult social expression. That the Victorians talked and wrote endlessly about sex and sexuality, in a variety of medical, scientific, sociological, and psychological vocabularies, has been taken for granted since Foucault provided us with our most enduring account of the Victorian "logic of sex." With "Bad Logic," I enter into an ongoing reappraisal of Foucault's influence on the study of sexuality by suggesting that the Victorian impulse toward talking about and representing sexuality and desire may have had a more complex rationale than a utilitarian desire to manage and regulate sexual behaviors. Foucault's late work turned to sexual practice or ethos as a potentially utopian alternative to the "discourse" of sexuality, and yet I argue that novelistic representations of eroticism in language can extend well beyond issues of social power and regulation. Rather, they insist upon the ethical significance of erotic life and upon the importance of balancing the imperatives of rationality against the imperatives of idiosyncrasy. They take seriously, in other words, the difficulties of registering the impulses of the body in language. In addition, "Bad Logic" takes a new approach to a very old question in the study of the novel: how does this genre balance idiosyncrasy with social compromise, or assimilate the individual consciousness to the historically specific social pressures that necessarily shape it? Many critics have answered this question either by detailing the ways in which the novel form itself habituates the individual to ideology (Bersani, Armstrong, D. A. Miller), or on the other hand by showing that some normative models of social intelligibility, such as the liberal ideal of detachment or the ethical ideal of perfectionism, are not incompatible with a powerful model of individual agency (Anderson, Hadley, A. Miller). In "Bad Logic," I propose that in the Victorian novel, even the opacity of erotic life finds its way into models of sociability. Moreover, I show that novelists struggle to make their theories of ethical responsibility capacious enough to accommodate the insistent pressure of erotic desire as it tries to make itself heard.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Marcus, Sharon
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 16, 2013