Self-control and holding back in 19th century realist fiction
My project seeks to trace links between the representation of self-control, of reserve and holding back in realist fiction and specific aspects of realist aesthetics and poetics.
In order to describe this properly I introduce a heuristic distinction between self-control and reserve. Self-control is an affirmative, future or at least goal oriented behavior that follows a logic of economy. It is a bourgeois virtue. Reserve is a behavior that doesn’t necessarily affirm the status quo and that seeks to keep present possibilities open rather than moving towards a goal and optimizing a future.
In a first step I analyze the self-controlled behavior and practices of holding back of the figures of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest: Which semantical and metaphorical realms are used here? How does self-control and holding back work, i.e. which kind of understanding of affective processes are implied? Display of affect as well as the holding back of expressions of affect is for men and women a way to present themselves vis-à-vis a social environment that has certain claims on them and that constitutes them which in turn lets self-control and holding back become an ethical practice in the sense of Foucauldian subject formation. Agency and affect appear as intertwined: there are even instances where affectivity is, if not a sign of agency, then at least an emphatic position and an active stance. Agency in this respect is no autonomy, it is generated in the midst of the heteronomy of social repression. Thus - without diminishing human suffering and female repression – it seems crucial to not oversee the enabling aspects of women’s identification with emotionality.
In a second step I explore affinities between on the one hand the semantics and imagery of self-control and holding back in the text, the style in which these scenes are presented and the manners of the figures and on the other hand aspects of realist aesthetics and the ways in which Flaubert, Eliot and Fontane describe their own writing. Fontane uses the idea of ‘measure’ and ‘balance’ both in his description of the figures behavior and in his aesthetic criticism, Eliot states that German Literature lacks ‘tact’ and realism and Flaubert famously cultivates a style of ‘impassibilité’ that can only be obtained by reaching a state of calm through the evocation of intense feeling.