The Burdens of Perfection

The Burdens of Perfection : On Ethics and Reading in Nineteenth-Century British Literature

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"In some moods, or for some people, the desire to improve can seem so natural as to be banal. The impulse drives forward so much in our culture that it can color our thoughts and shape our actions without being much noticed. But in other moods, or for other people, this strenuous desire becomes all too noticeable, and its demands crushing. It can then drive a sleepless attention to ourselves, a desolate evaluation of what we have been and what we are."-from The Burdens of Perfection


Literary criticism has, in recent decades, rather fled from discussions of moral psychology, and for good reasons, too. Who would not want to flee the hectoring moralism with which it is so easily associated-portentous, pious, humorless? But in protecting us from such fates, our flight has had its costs, as we have lost the concepts needed to recognize and assess much of what distinguished nineteenth-century British literature. That literature was inescapably ethical in orientation, and to proceed as if it were not ignores a large part of what these texts have to offer, and to that degree makes less reasonable the desire to study them, rather than other documents from the period, or from other periods.


Such are the intuitions that drive The Burdens of Perfection, a study of moral perfectionism in nineteenth-century British culture. Reading the period's essayists (Mill, Arnold, Carlyle), poets (Browning and Tennyson), and especially its novelists (Austen, Dickens, Eliot, and James), Andrew H. Miller provides an extensive response to Stanley Cavell's contribution to ethics and philosophy of mind. In the process, Miller offers a fresh way to perceive the Victorians and the lingering traces their quests for improvement have left on readers.
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Product details

  • Paperback | 278 pages
  • 149.86 x 226.06 x 20.32mm | 453.59g
  • Ithaca, United States
  • English
  • 0801477182
  • 9780801477188
  • 1,862,104

Table of contents

Preface


Resisting, Conspiring, Completing: An Introduction

Improvement and Moral Perfectionism

Moral Perfectionism in the Winter of 1866-67

Historical Sources

Implicative and Conclusive Criticism


Part I. The Narrative of Improvement


1. Skepticism and Perfectionism I: Mechanization and Desire

Standing Before Camelot

Skepticism as Ungoverned Desire: Browning's Duke

Skepticism as Mechanization: Carlyle and Mill

Mr. Dombey Rides Death


2. Skepticism and Perfectionism II: Weakness of Will

Victorian Akrasia

Perspective and Commitment

Hard Times and Akrasia

Daniel Deronda and Second-Person Relations

Orchestrating Perspectives

Mark Tapley's Nausea


Interlude: Critical Free Indirect Discourse


3. Reading Thoughts: Casuistry and Transfiguration

Casuistry and the Novel

The Theater of Casuistry: Dramatic Monologues

Exemplary Criticism


Part II. The Moral Psychology of Improvement


4. Perfectly Helpless

The Reticulation of Constraint

Sigmund Freud and Richard Simpson


5. Responsiveness, Knowingness, and John Henry Newman

"An Evil Crust Is on Them"

The Violence of Our Denials

Watching and Imitation

Close Reading


6. The Knowledge of Shame

Skepticism and Shame

Three Scenes of Shame

Edith Dombey's Shame

Shame and Being Known

Shame and Great Expectations

Shame and Narration


7. On Lives Unled

Nailed to Ourselves

Environments for the Optative

The Jamesian Optative


Afterword

Notes

Bibliography

Index
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Review quote

"The Burdens of Perfection pioneers future directions in criticism. After reading this book, one can never think of the relations between literature and philosophy the same way again. It will engage a wide audience-not only scholars of nineteenth-century Britain but also all scholars of English, and, beyond that, philosophers, historians, and comparativists."-Laurie Langbauer, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill "In his practice of moral reflection, Andrew H. Miller explicitly reveals what has often been thought but not so well expressed, that literary criticism has returned to ethics. Miller charts this return through philosophers who have not been so visible in our climate of new historicism-Stanley Cavell, Stuart Hampshire, Bernard Williams-and novelists and essayists who have. The results are agitating, like moral improvement."-Regenia Gagnier, University of Exeter "The Burdens of Perfection is both a book about a major, underappreciated phenomenon of modern culture and a recursive meditation on the ethical and interpretive challenges facing literary study today. With exemplary sensitivity, flexibility, and tact, Andrew H. Miller does what he shows the Victorian novel as committed to doing: he explores the frontiers of a 'second-person' relationship to prior 'exemplar' texts and minds. The result is a display of critical casuistry in the best sense. This book is destined to become a bellwether of the recent 'ethical turn' in literary studies."-James Buzard, MIT "The passion and the learning throughout Andrew H. Miller's marvelous book constitute a brace of virtues much admired by the Victorians he justly admires. The demonstration that the transcendent novels of the Victorian period precisely confront skepticism with respect to the minds of others serves as a standing rebuke to theories of knowledge in the bulk of what became university philosophy."-Stanley Cavell, Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value, Emeritus, Harvard University "Andrew H. Miller's book can't help but seem path-clearing. The Burdens of Perfection is as fresh as it is learned; original in its conception, structure, and emphasis; and notable for the gait and responsiveness of its lucid, meditative prose. Miller's scholarship is seasoned and searching, both assured and bravely speculative, with the readings of fiction often elating in the compressed rightness of their surprise and the exemplarity of their selection."-Garrett Stewart, James O. Freedman Professor of Letters, University of Iowa "The Burdens of Perfection is one of those very rare books that stimulates me to rethink almost everything I know about Victorian literature, and a good deal beyond. In analyzing the nineteenth-century preoccupation with perfectionism, Andrew H. Miller offers a rich, brilliant study of the ethical allure of narration-our appeal to narrative as a means of understanding ourselves, our relations to other people, and what we might become. As he explores the burdens of perfection, Miller offers compelling insights into a broad range of contemporary literary and philosophical reflection, and develops a remarkable and distinctive critical voice of his own."-James Eli Adams, Cornell University "Andrew H. Miller makes the compelling, persuasive argument that the moral perfectionism so deeply embedded in nineteenth-century writing, particularly in Victorian fiction, represents not a position adopted by some writers and rejected by others but rather 'a field on which writers arrayed themselves.'"-Choice "One of the best books on Victorian writing to have appeared in the last ten years."-Philip Davis, Victorian Studies
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