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“Terrible Iterations”: Reading Tess without Consent

  • Molly Clark Hillard

Extract

In the fall of 2017, a year into the current U.S. administration, a month into the #MeToo movement, I reread Adorno's 1962 essay “Commitment,” on the creation and consumption of art in an authoritarian world. I reread it at the same time that I became brave enough, and angry enough, to teach Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891) for the first time in my fifteen-year career. Adorno says that Sartre's question, “‘Is there any meaning in life when men exist who beat people until the bones break in their bodies?’ is also the question whether any art now has the right to exist” in the wake of atrocities like the Holocaust. Adorno ultimately resolves the question in the affirmative, but only at the end of an essay otherwise dedicated to the difficulties of producing literature that resists a consumerist regime. For Adorno, committed literature (that is, progressive, instrumentalized, messaged) all too often assimilates itself to the brutalities against which it protests, while autonomous literature (that is, art that exists for itself) runs the risk of degenerating into a “fetish . . . an apoliticism that is in fact deeply political” (177). In returning to both Tess and Adorno after a longish absence, I wondered whether, in spite of Adorno's overtly modernist leanings, we might nevertheless consider that certain Victorian novels manifest his concept of tensed oscillation between commitment and autonomy. Adorno suggests that certain nonrealist art forms (one of his examples is Picasso's Guernica) neither “do” nor attempt to compel others to “do” anything instrumental, and yet such works simultaneously both illuminate and (precisely in their turning away from action) condemn systemic brutalities. We need not entirely agree with Adorno's reading of Guernica specifically, nor his fetish-treatment of modernist art broadly, to entertain the idea that—even in their realist projects—certain Victorian novels also “negate empirical reality, [and] by merely existing endlessly reiterat[e systemic] guilt” (190). I'll return to this question more directly later in the essay; for now, let it lurk in the corners of my discussion of Tess.

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References

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“Terrible Iterations”: Reading Tess without Consent

  • Molly Clark Hillard

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