Certain things never go out of vogue. For English scholars, these things include James Joyce’s Ulysses, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, and George Eliot’s Middlemarch. These four novels, among the most consistently popular in the English canon, were the focus of the three-day “Forms of Fiction: The Novel in English” conference at the Logan Center, which began on Thursday. The series of lectures attempted to both deconstruct the history of the novel and “engage with questions about the role of narrative in contemporary life.” Led by English scholars and writers from around the country and world, novelists Tom McCarthy and A.S. Byatt were among those to deliver speeches on the novels at hand. On Saturday, to end the conference, Fredric Jameson, a leading American literary critic and Marxist political theorist from Duke University, gave the final lecture, appropriately titled “The Persistence of Narrative.”
Jameson began his lecture by saying, “It’s pleasant to be back here. But what’s not so pleasant is to follow so many wonderful and intelligent papers.” However, it was no surprise to the audience of enthusiastic English professors, scholars, and students that Jameson’s lecture was thoughtful and deeply nuanced. As noted by University of Chicago English professor Bill Brown, who introduced him, Jameson has spoken at the University a number of times in the past but “each time in a different context and a different conversation, which…speaks to the power of [Jameson’s] imagination and his analytic capacities.”
In his lecture, Jameson spoke about the notion that the commonly accepted narrative form disintegrated in modernist novels like Joyce’s Ulysses, resulting in books that were “plotless in comparison with what preceded them in the 19th century.” But, as the argument goes, the narrative has reemerged in the postmodern age. The two related issues on which Jameson centered his talk were “the survival or not of the narrative in modernism and its novels” and “narrative interpretation,” or, as Jameson calls it, “degenerate allegory.” The thing about narrative, Jameson argued before delving into the dense body of his paper, is that “one grows tired of it.” “It seems by the very nature of things to wear itself out, to fail by succeeding, to call more and more consistently for its replacement,” Jameson said.
Jameson charted the evolution of the modernist narrative with a focus on three quintessential modernist novels: Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Joyce’s Ulysses, and Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, which he argued function in the past, present, and future, respectively. Directing his argument toward the future of the novel and the narrative form, Jameson argued that “the short story is an archaic form,” in a way akin to the film, both of which are “closed systems.” Conversely, the novel functions in a similar way to the modern TV series, both of which are “endless systems” about everything and nothing.
At 79, Jameson, who has written over 20 books, was the sixth recipient of the Modern Language Association Award for Lifetime Scholarly Achievement. Best known for his books Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism and The Political Unconscious, Jameson has expertise ranging over a vast number of subjects. On Saturday, Jameson’s talk succeeded both in proving an uninterrupted need for the narrative form and in drawing a large and attentive audience that had gathered precisely to discuss why there will always be a need for stories and fictions.