Reading History in 2020

[following is a (final) lecture I wrote for a course I’m teaching on the historical novel—i will adapt for a more formal presentation at some point]

Is Milkman (2018) a historical novel? I think by any definition the answer is yes, unless we refuse to recognize in it a particular time (the 1970s, “The Troubles”) and place (Belfast) that Irish readers instinctively do recognize. The jacket copy—speaking of an “unnamed city”—is rather misleading, since there is no other city which during the 1970s was in the midst of a civil war or insurgency involving defenders and renouncers, with one country across the water and another over a border. Though Belfast only appears on the back cover of the book in the author’s note, the city in the novel is unnamed but not unidentified. Its techniques of modernist defamiliarization then seem to find their justification not so much in psychic universals but in conditions of mass trauma and mass hallucination. Seen this way, as psychological history, as history told by its psychic conditions, and as naturalistic portrayal of a life under siege, the book is quite devastating and, I think, successful as history. But why is that so hard to recognize? Or is it that its success as history requires misrecognition?

That the novel is packaged in generic misrecognition is particularly significant since the novel is fundamentally propelled by misrecognition and its black comedies. We meet our first-person narrator while she is walking down the street, eyes trained and mind focused on the copy of Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe that she is carrying, oblivious to the fact that she is being stalked by a leering and seemingly omnipresent character, Milkman, a paramilitary who (we realize before our narrator) grooms and torments young girls during hours off. In other words, this historical novel that doesn’t want us to think it is a historical novel has a first-person narrator we first meet when she has her head in a historical novel to the effect of causing her to be blind to the world around her, which is the world historical from our vantage. And it’s not just any historical novel, but one by Walter Scott, more or less accepted as the progenitor of the genre. And not just any historical novel by Walter Scott, but the historical novel with which Scott broke his own mold, projecting back not just sixty years as with Waverley, his first attempt, but all the way back to a twelfth-century Anglo-Saxon Britain. This is significant because Middle Sister admits that she wants to project herself as far away from Belfast in spacetime as she possibly can, and reading while walking, a considerably perilous activity in an active warzone, even without a nearby stalker, is one of the  “mental aberrations” that Middle Sister notices about herself and her familiars, like her habit of obsessively running, repressive automatisms that are the clear consequences of a world in which nearly half of everyone you know has been killed and, as a result, the other half are justifiably insane. No sane mind could bear it.

The novel then traces Middle Sister’s drift through this period of time, and her attempt to figure out what is happening to her. She is an exceedingly alert, curious, intelligent narrator, but also entirely passive, unable to act in any except automatic ways, inasmuch as she lives in a warzone controlled by men and violence, and, where men have not established some law, by the gossip and rumor of imagined community. So she drifts, sometimes losing feeling in her legs and the rest of her body, but she also attempts to make sense of her trauma by observing others likewise traumatized. This leads to some moving, horrifying, hilarious passages, such as the scenes in the center of the novel which concern her poisoning and the poisoning of some of her peers by a particularly disturbed member of their community, Tablets Girl. Middle Sister has difficulty distinguishing the effects of poisoning from the general scrim of anguish, paranoia, and recrimination, even as she is having her stomach evacuated by many women who are telling her she is poisoned. Eventually she works out what has happened in her head. Her cogitations are helped, usually, by an encounter with some fellow sufferer in whom she can use her skill as a narrator—that is, as a literate and careful observer—to note something about the other that is in fact something about herself:

The violence of the dogs brought a gasp from over the way and I looked and there was tablets girl’s sister, the one who, like me, and by the same person, had recently been poisoned unto death. Again like me, she was holding on to railings, looking startled, looking too, as they said she was, as if at the beginning of her poison ordeal instead of having already undergone the purge of her poison ordeal. She was squinting over, first at me, then at the dogs and I saw it was true too, that ever since her poisoning they said she hadn’t recovered her shininess – also that she could no longer properly see. They said she didn’t use a stick and here she was, not using one. Instead she was adapting what was left of her eyesight, plus walls, palings, lampposts, hedges and it was in that manner she negotiated her passage, bringing her face close to objects and feeling her way along. ‘She’s fine, out and about’ was the communal prognosis upon her, also the communal euphemism for ‘mended though broken’, itself another euphemism for “urgent need of medical care and attention’, all of which the person in need unfortunately was not going to attend hospital to get. As for her shininess, I now had my own confirmation that it was damaged, patchy, hardly to be discernible. Apart from a few dithering blinks and the odd, sullen twinkle, she could have been any one of us with our heavy, slumbering loads.

But in this is there anything particularly historical about this moment in history? Because if the answer is no, then it cannot be psychological history, for this would mean there is no historical content to the psychological in this case. I will argue there is history in Milkman, but to understand it we need to be specific about what our object of interpretation is when we talk about history in the novel. At stake are always at least two and perhaps three kinds of history, kinds of history and also moments in history, and good Marxist literary interpretation, not to mention the theory thereof, must bring all of these kinds and moments of history into alignment—it does this by reinscribing all the narratives involved within another interpretive metanarrative, and there is no better guide to this kind of interpretive history than George Lukács in his writing on the historical novel.

Lukács’s Tower

Take the two novels, Waverley (1814) and War and Peace (1869), around which Lukács threads his narrative. Walter Scott is writing about a historical event roughly sixty years prior, the Jacobite uprising of the 1740s. By insisting in his subtitle, first sentence, and introduction, on the span of sixty years, he means to indicate continuity of past and present. In fact, the accent of his effort is sharply anti-historical, since he associates historical change with superficial contingency. He has taken as his subject “a description of men rather than manners,” and thinks then to have snared as his subject “passions common to men of all stages of society.” So Scott’s historicism is only a romantic realism, one that doesn’t really admit history, but discovers it despite itself. In writing about what has been, the present perfect, he discovers the enduring origins of the present.

For Lukács, though, it’s more complicated, since from his vantage, writing in the 1920 and 1930s, he sees what Scott can’t, that he has invented historical consciousness by accident. Scott thinks he is discovering passions common to all humanity but really he has discovered passions common to his era of humanity, not the one he thinks he is writing about, an era that can be more or less named metonymically by Waterloo (1815). The interchangeability of Waterloo and Waverley  thus inscribes Scott within a narrative of the emergence of the bourgeois class and its chosen literary genre, bourgeois literary realism, through which it can gain some partial consciousness of itself and its own historical particularity, connected but of course not identical to the French Revolution and aftermath. There’s more, though, since Lukács then puts Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869) on the other end of Waverley, linking it through the pivot point of the Battle of Waterloo, the defeat of Napoleon and with it the final historical payload of the French Revolution. Tolstoy situates his novel during the period when Sir Walter Scott first published Waverley. Tolstoy’s sixty years links up with Scott’s and—voila—by another sixty years connects, roughly to the time when Lukács is first beginning his study of the historical novel. There is a tower spanning from 1745 to 1930. I call it a tower and not something horizontal like a bridge because I want to emphasize its precarious constructedness. These are worlds upon worlds, nested stories, imaginary and real, with which Lukács tries to tell a story, a story ending in the future. Tolstoy, in Lukács reading, can see about the emergence of the bourgeois order in the early nineteenth century what Scott couldn’t, and Lukács can see about the revolutionary period in which Tolstoy is immersed what Tolstoy can’t. And the tower can be extended, as Lukács intends, since the whole point of his study is to anticipate the great historical novel of the world revolution of 1917, which would perhaps have to be written in the 1970s, when Ragtime (1975) and Song of Solomon (1977) were published.

Lukács’s interpretive tower therefore is designed to allow him, and us, to peer into the stars from a tower of text. In light of this conception, any novel brings together one imaginary time, let’s call it History Zero, with another real time, let’s call it History One. History Zero for Waverley is 1745 (really it should be a range) and History One is 1815 (also better thought of as range rather than moment). These can be thought of as the two axes of a conventional graph of two real number lines, or better as the intersection of a real timeline and an imaginary timeline. Thus the space of their intersection is the complex plane, in which each point is a complex historical number whose real part is its date of publication and whose imaginary part is its represented date, Waverley can be written as W=1815 + i1745 {Re(w)=1815}, {Im(w)=1745)}. This can be done not just with historical novels but with any work that is a representation of historical time. Costa-Gavras’s film Z for example, would be written as Z=1969+i1963. The novel 1984 would be written N1984=1949+i1984, a point that lies in the conjugate region of science fiction.

Lukács is able to span this distance using the standard measure of sixty years, which he gets from Scott. The measure of the standard aperture is sixty years because that’s the duration of “living memory” more or less, the point at which the collective present perfect slips into the simple past. Changes in life expectancy may have widened this aperture but it’s notable, to me at least, that the two novels we began with this semester conform loosely to the sixty-year gap. They were both written in the 1970s and revolve around incidents in the early part of the twentieth century, though Song of Solomon is sprawling, tracking events from the 1850s to the 1960s and Ragtime comparatively narrow, running from 1906 to the 1920s with most of the action happening between 1906 and 1910. The narrated events in Song of Solomon run from 1931 (when Morrison was born) to 1963, but as the narrated characters move forward in time they encounter elders who, in dialogue, allow the novel to revolve around events in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Each novel then presents these histories, kinds of histories, together, but allows them to be accessed differently. History Zero is history for the characters, history that can both written and read, interpreted and theorized. History One can be neither written nor read though it can be interpreted and written about; it is the history for the author and their world. History Two, real history as it unfolds, the continuous churn in which each of us immersed, can’t even be interpreted. It has no object, it can only be theorized, as Lukács attempts to sketch out the necessity for the proletarian realist novel after the crisis of bourgeois realism and its devolution into antinomy with the novel of democratic humanism. History Two can only be an object for some other critic who comes after (and for whom it is simply another History One), such as Jameson who, reading both Lukács and Ragtime, noted in his way that the historical novel of the world revolution never did get written. That fact has something to do with the fact that the world revolution was a failure, a failure no subsequent success has rectified.

From Zero to One

To ask if Milkman is historical then is to ask what we can say about History Zero (the 70s), History One (2018), or History Two (2020). Note that I am assuming History One and Two are distinct, but that’s something that must be demonstrated first. It’s possible for them to be the same, for the time of writing and reception to be the same, as it is from the framework of a reviewer writing in to the London Review of Books about a contemporary novel. As far as the 70s goes, it needs to be said now that one possible answer as to why the novel won’t appear as historical is that from someone’s vantage it is simply too soon for a historical novel of The Troubles, one that is specific about what happened and how and where the blame for it falls. The sixty year—or perhaps eighty—aperture is meaningful because it is likely that such anxieties will pass once the people involved are no longer alive, at least enough for some people to feel a reckoning other than psychological is in order. This isn’t that book. It tells you what it’s like after everything has gone to shit, not how it goes to shit. It also provides a story where the fundamental physics of this mode of insurgency, predicated on a command hierarchy division of labor forced by the requirements operational security, means that characters like Middle Sister are incapable of becoming actors, or doing much of anything, in this world. Doing things is for men, and the only moment where women have any agency (except for the exceptional group of feminists who float around the novel like a chorus) is where they beat down Middle Sister’s new, would-be stalker in the ladies’ bathroom, which is quite pointedly the space where they are allowed some agency.

The novel seems, then, to suggest that what’s historical about the trauma here is its proximity to the international women’s movement—already well underway around the world—the possibility (seemingly imminent) that women might become actors in this world, whose only possibilities are sketched out by the aforementioned beatdown, the poisoner Tablets Sister, and the group of mysterious feminists that occasionally gathers to offer challenges to the bands of armed men who run things. And not just sex and gender is at stake, but sexuality itself, since Middle Sister will have to learn about her own sexuality through discovering that her boyfriend is in fact in love with his male friend. Everyone’s desire is foreclosed in this novel. She experiences her disempowerment, her loss of feeling in her body, quite pointedly as an “anti-orgasm,” one directly connected to her memory of her father telling her, on his deathbed, that he has been raped. Sexuality, then, knowledge of the body and what it can do and know of itself, is at stake, and quite pointedly historical here, as the new social movements visible on the margins will soon blow up the map of possible locations. This is made palpable by Burns’ narration, which though often enough limited to the obscuring cloud of inquisitive anguish in which Middle Sister is trapped also often allows itself the knowledge, insight, and awareness of a future Middle Sister mature and able to recognize things the younger could not.

What happens, effectively, then is that History Zero and History One collapse. No liberation occurs but the fact of this future knowledge does seem freeing, and in the end of the novel there is a curious moment where, it seems, the future of 2018 does appear, if only briefly. There is a pause in the mesh of bombings and assassinations, when all the young girls of the area, inspired by a local celebrity dancer couple – the parents of Middle Sister’s boyfriend—decide to dress up in whatever finery they can find and start whirling through the streets in a kind of punk version of ballroom dance, banging themselves against each other and buildings. This is of course an image of a kind of dancing mania, like St. Vitus’ dance, sometimes associated with the end of a period of plague or disorder. These fits of manic, uncontrollable dancing were a consistent feature of the premodern world going back at least to the Dionysian cults of Greece and Rome, and there are dozens of examples, each with its own folkloric image. But one can also see in this scene also, perhaps, the women’s marches of 2018, and the emergence, in the face of a worldwide fascist imaginary, of a kind of broad, though not unproblematic, feminist consciousness not available to Middle Sister. So that, then, is History Zero and One, bound by the glue of the mythic.

From One to Two

We read Milkman in 2020, though, from quarantine, in the midst of the worst pandemic perhaps in history, in the midst of a massive economic depression, after a sequence of riots and mass mobilizations the largest in the 50 years. Here in History Two the conditions of mutual poisoning, blindness, repression automatism, distraction, chaos, and violence, are it seems to me at least easier to understand as realism. Here in History Two I have to think about Middle Sister’s trauma and the trauma of my own children, my son is only a year younger than Middle Sister, over this terrible year. I have to think about how maybe I too am a little traumatized and so also probably are many of you taking this class. Why wouldn’t you be? It has seemed ridiculous sometimes to do this class in this period of history. Unlike the French teacher in the novel who helps Middle Sister see the colors of the sunset that are right in front of her I worry I am providing a book you can bury your head in, that I can bury my head in, while the world burns. Why is it that this history cannot appear as history? And how, in this history of unknowing, can we see what we do not know about our own moment, which has rendered us all, to some degree, incapable of really understanding it? I must tell you that I do not really know, but I do believe that together we might cobble together from these partial views some approximation of a total one.