1985. BOOK REVIEW: Philip WEINSTEIN, The Semantics of Desire.

written by C. George SANDULESCU, Monaco.

published in Études Irlandaises,   No.10  (Nouvelle Série),   December 1985,   pp. 326-327.  Université de Lille III, "Pont de bois", B.P. 149,   F-59653 Villeneuve d'Asq, France.

WEINSTEIN, Philip M., The Semantics of Desire. Changing Models of Identity from Dickens to Joyce, Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1984, 310 pp.  

            Weinstein's critical study is solidly anchored in present-day French philosophy: as the author himself puts it, its very title -- The Semantics of Desire -- is derived from the opening page of Paul Ricoeur's essay on Freud. In order to be understood, a man of desires, on account of being opaque to others and to himself, must, in Ricoeur's opinion, be subjected to a hermeneutical scrutiny that will unravel his utterance by locating the kernel of unacknowledged desire that is serving as its orientation (p.10). The work further reinforces its theoretical framework resorting (for inspiration) to Les Mots et les choses and L'Ordre du discours by Michel Foucault as well as to S/Z by Roland Barthes.

            Starting from a "hermeneutics of suspicion", the author finally obtains a counter-model that is phenomenological in two respects:

(page 13)        It reads the work of art as expression, as a complex of imaginative gesture toward wholeness and self-discovery on the part of the author who created the work. And it proposes, as the task of criticism, the most intimate relationship possible to the creative voice at the heart of the work.

            And in so doing, the author further relies on the phenomenology derived from the writings of Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Paul Ricoeur,  most especially so Le Conflit des interprétations, and Vincent Descombes.

            Once the theoretical premises in point of area and method of investigation are carefully laid out, the book is quite symmetrically structured into three parts of near-equal length:  ONE:  Mid-Victorian;    TWO:  Late-Victorian;  and THREE: Modernist. This symmetry is further sustained and enhanced by the fact that  each of the three parts deals with two, and only two, distinct authors, and for each of them two novels only are taken for analysis (with the sole exception of Joyce, where Ulysses is taken alone).  David Copperfield is analysed in terms of a "palimpsest of motives", and the starting point is again Paul Ricoeur's Freud and Philosophy, stating aphoristically "the adult remains subject to the infant he once was", and "human beings can experience entry into culture only in the mode of conflict" (page 23). In its turn, Little Dorrit becomes a set of "enigmas of power and impotence". The other mid-Victorian writer is George Eliot, whose novels are viwed from the angle of V. S. Pritchett's harsh but accurate phrase "the idolatries of the superego". The discussion starts with the question whether Maggie, from The Mill on the Floss, is "a Feuerbachian model of self-transcendence, or a victim of adolescent and swooning day-dreams. Is she actually in love, or merely infatuated ? Is she heroic, or self-deceived ? Is she a figure of ennobling passionate sensibility ?" (page 74).

            And it is in the same vein that philosophy-minded critic Weinstein discusses the late Victorians Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad as well as Modernist D. H. Lawrence, with the obvious choices of books throughout, only to come round to Irish writer James Joyce in the very last section of the book. The Irish-French Connection is omnipresent in the discussion as in addition to Paul Ricoeur and Merleau-Ponty, the kick-off remark isprovided by Hélène Cixous's brilliant analysis of the condition of exile; Weinstein adds --

(page 253)        Joyce must break radically from allegiances that deform experience by cloaking it in the wrong names. From Dubliners at least mid-way through Ulysses, his art is an art of exposure [ . . .] he seeks to recover the 'whatness' of experience by removing the conventional paradigms . . .

            The discussion of Joyce's novel is pursued almost episode by episode at the same level of abstraction; the reader remains very pleasantly impressed at the critic's comprehensive and thorough knowledge of current Joyce scholarship. Some analysts may feel uneasy at the occasional obscurity or apparent vagueness of the critical text: this effect is in no way due to Weinstein's alleged bombastic manner, but rather to the price he has to pay for attaching the phenomenological-hermeneutic component to his critical theory, and further tagging to it certain psychoanalytical postulates.

          The book ends with an Afterword which offers "as another form of summary,  a brief review of the gallery of virginal, violated, and adulterous women", presented in this critical study. Its strongest point most certainly is the parallel established between Connie Chatterley and Molly Bloom as modernist versions of emancipation: the blurred outlines of Tess and Maggie, Little Em'ly and Amy Dorrit, pale and remote against a rigid background, help only too well in bringing out the contrast. In this frame of reference,

Molly Bloom's Yes is not the Yes of  victory, the Yes of some achieved idea of herself. It is instead the Yes of unthinking acceptance . . .

            Of desires in the first place ! And that brings us round, the Vico way, to where we had started.