Some rather vague remarks on the latter half of Catherine Belsey’s “Constructing the Subject, Deconstructing the Text”. Here are some of my notes on that essay.
“classic realism… roughly coincides chronologically with the epoch of industrial capitalism” (663). As does autobiography.
The cultural work of classic realism (and, let’s suggest, autobiography) is to represent liberal-humanist subjects, offer the reader a “position” similar to that of the characters (whether fictional or historical) in the text.
As Belsey writes: ” It performs… the work of ideology, not only in its representation of a world of consistent subjects who are the origin of meaning, knowledge and action, but also in offering the reader, as the position from which the text is most readily intelligible, the position of subject as the origin of understanding and of action in accordance with that understanding” (663).
Both of these modes of writing– realism, autobiography– were profoundly shaped by the Romantic movement (in poetry in particular) which constructed a poetic subject– a subject moved by the intensity of his self-perception, who took a subjective yet transcendent view of the world.
Granted the poetry and prose of this era (we’re talking about the 19th century) are different in one particular: while Romantic poetry privileges the “I” of the text, classic realism tends to efface the author. Those two genres, then, have two different strategies of representation. Yet the author– even of a realist novel– is always present, even if only by virtue of his or her name on the book’s cover.
Now let’s consider autobiography. Usually the autobiography features an “I” (though of course not all do). If, by effacing the author (and even, as Belsey argues the text itself as a text) classical realism creates a kind of opening for the reader to inhabit then what is the effect on the reader of encountering the autobiographical I? In other words, if realism offers its readers a kind of god’s eye view of a (fictional) world then what does autobiography offer them? A chance to identify with the autobiographical subject? But this won’t be an uncomplicated identification because (for example) of possible differences between reader and author in terms of class, gender, race, historical moment, etc. Even so, there is clearly some form of identification at work here. Such that conceivably, someone reading Douglass’s Narrative might find ways to bring that text into the present and make it applicable. Or, more along the lines of Belsey’s essay, even in his difference from a given reader Douglass exemplifies the kind of subjectivity which is the “goal” of ideology and classical realism.
The rest of Belsey’s essay is helpful in that she suggests a possible critical practice which enables us to move beyond a “common sense” reading method, one that relies upon an understanding of the basic features by which classical realism “works.” These include “illusionism,” “closure,” and “a hierarchy of discourses which establishes the ‘truth’ of the story” (664).
To simplify: there are “certain recurrent patterns” in the realist (autobiographical) text which govern the shape a given narrative will take.
So, the text opens with a conflict or an enigma (love, war, a journey) which then must be resolved or solved. That moment of “disclosure” in the text is a moment of intelligibility for the reader. (Ah! It was Col. Mustard in the Conservatory with the Candlestick!). It is “a position of knowingness which is also a position of identification with the narrative voice” (664).