Metahistorical Romance

Metahistorical Romance

Christopher Douglas
Sublime Desire: History and Post-1960s Fiction
Sublime Desire: History and Post-1960s Fiction
Parallax: Re-Visions of Culture and Society. Series ed. Stephen G. Nichols, Gerald Prince, and Wendy Steiner. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. 352 pages. $45.00

On Amy Elias’s view of fabulation in the moment of American corporate power, a postmodern novelistic aesthetic that is consistent with Sir Walter Scott’s early nineteenth-century mix of romance and Enlightenment-inspired historiography.

In Sublime Desire: History and Post-1960s Fiction, Amy J. Elias traces the generic debt that a group of postmodern novels owes to the historical fiction of Sir Walter Scott. While neither the thematic and formalistic grouping of the texts nor the particular approach is without precedent - one thinks of Diane Elam’s Romancing the Postmodern for example - Elias argues provocatively that the particular tension between realism and fabulation found in many postmodern novels is partially inspired by Scott’s simultaneous use of romance and Enlightenment-inspired historiography. Elias’s claim, as she puts it in her Preface, is that “the metahistorical romance reverses the dominant focus of the classic historical romance genre from history to romance, and that it does so because, like the postmodernist historiography and postmodernist philosophy of its own time, it turns from belief in empirical history to a reconsideration of the historical sublime”(xi). While not without flaws to this reader, Sublime Desire ‘s primary argument is compelling: that, to make sense of postmodern fiction’s much-discussed interest in history, we must turn back to and examine anew history’s uses in early nineteenth century historical fiction.

Elias contends that, while Scott was able to incorporate elements of romance in his historical novels, these elements of fabulation were typically subsumed under the realist, empirical, Enlightenment historiography that Scott was influenced by (and which he appeared to influence as well). In contrast, postmodern attention to history - here termed “metahistory,” which is “the ability to theorize and ironically desire history rather than access it through discovery and reconstruction” (xvii) - is characterized by the “antifoundationalist historiography” and poststructuralist theory of its time, such that postmodern novels’ use of history is typically self-limited and subsumed under its use of fabulation. In the late twentieth century, which is characterized as “post-traumatic” because of events such as the Holocaust that are understood to be aligned in an important sense with the Enlightenment processes of empiricism and reason, the postmodern consciousness now figures history as “a desired horizon” (xviii) rather than something that is fully comprehensible or attainable. While acknowledging the contested nature of the term postmodern and summarizing its various definitional schools (epistemological, sociocultural, and aesthetic), Elias nonetheless posits that what seems an important (or indeed only) “ariadnean thread” among them is history itself (xxvii).

Chapter One establishes a basis for her ensuing discussion of the ways in which the “metahistorical romance” has “evolved,” as Elias puts it, from the Scottian historical romance. She reviews Scott’s philosophical debts to contemporaneous ideas about history: that history worked according to natural laws analogous to Newtonian physics; that human nature was unchanging; that history was linear and characterized by progress; that human history developed in social stages; and that “historians could be social scientists in a true sense, observing cultures impartially and extrapolating through inductive logic the organizing patterns of societies, cultures, and history” (11). That Scott complicates these historiographical assumptions with a romantic nostalgia is well-trod critical territory, Elias notes, but what’s important for her argument is that in doing so, the historical romance summarizes and anticipates this tension within many postmodern novels. Whereas Scott had his sights set on the historical real but stumbled over romance, the postmodern metahistorical romance has its sights set on romance, but sometimes stumbles over the real.

There are other issues at work in the book, and one of them is that postmodern writers are as influenced by contemporary historiography as Scott was by the historiography of his time. Elias spends considerable time discussing history as an idea and a discipline in the late twentieth century. Invoked in particular are Foucault and Lyotard, as the latter’s theory of the sublime is to become especially important for her work: “The significant feature of the sublime for Lyotard is not its inspiration of terror or ecstasy (the feature of the sublime, in contrast, seemingly most important to Edmund Burke and the British Romantic poets) but its unpresentability “(27). Whereas modernist aesthetics signals missing information but tries to contain that message formally so as to give, in the words of The Postmodern Condition,”solace and pleasure” to the viewer or reader, postmodern aesthetics removes the “solace of good forms,” underscoring instead the lack, that which is missing (quoted in 28). Elias likens the Holocaust in particular as the unrepresentable historical content for postmodernism, although, as she points out elsewhere, there are plenty of other exceedingly violent moments in our past.

Of particular interest is Elias’s discussion of the discipline of history, and here her book excels. She is not merely content, as other writers of postmodernism might be, to assert changing conditions in historical knowledge, but she tries the difficult cross-disciplinary work of immersing herself in another body of knowledge, and another disciplinary theory of knowledge, so as to substantiate her claim that literary postmodernism has been influenced by contemporary historiography. She thus traces how 1960s “social history” grew out of the “new history” advanced by the French academic journal Annales in that decade and before it, although, as Elias notes, the phrase “new history” has since become associated with worldwide revisions in history studies. Among the characteristsics of this “new history” paradigm was a broadening of focus from politics, the state, and great men to “history from below” and an attention to a wider range of human activity; an expansion of what constituted the official record to include “visual, oral, and statistical evidence”; and the recognition that the writing of history would be biased and culturally relative (31). This new paradigm of social history, reports Elias, has largely won the day, only to be challenged in turn by more radical conceptions of historiography theorized or at least suggested by “Foucault, Lyotard, and poststructuralist language theorists”(32). There are not always clear distinctions here, for post- Annales historiographers have been more and less receptive to the critiques generated by poststructuralism, and this debate is ongoing.

I have spent some time summarizing Elias’s attention to questions of history, partly because it is so important to her book, and partly because I admire the difficult labor of trying to comprehend what is happening outside one’s own discipline. This section of her book opens, after all, with the claim that “In particular, the historical philosophies - or philosophies of history - of Michel Foucault and Jean-François Lyotard construct a radical alterity to modernity’s historical modeling and have erupted into disciplinary history as well as into the literary territory of metahistorical romance”(23), and that we are to understand a parallel in contemporaneous historians’ influence on Scott. Yet when we get to Elias’s list of postmodern historiographers, what startles (or doesn’t) is the underrepresentation of actual historians: “such thinkers about history might include intellectual historians, literary theorists, and cultural critics, among them Hayden White, F. R. Ankersmit, J. Rüsen, Michel de Certeau, and Robert Young; historians and narrative theorists such as Joan Scott and Dominick LaCapra; in varying degrees, memory and trauma theorists such as Shosana Felman and Cathy Caruth, who reframe an older psychoanalytic approach to history”(35). Though I am not familiar with the work of all of these writers, it appears as though only Ankersmit, Rüsen, and Scott are members of “disciplinary history,” so the issue is not really that contemporary writers of postmodern, metahistorical romances are being influenced by disciplinary historians, as by more atmospheric “historiographical trends in the academic world, themselves a part of the postmodern zeitgeist” (36). While this is no doubt probably true - and one might add the fact many contemporary postmodern writers, with some exceptions like Pynchon, are also part of University English departments, where they might become conversant with poststructuralist theory whether they want to or not - Elias is not able to establish traceable influences of this historiography on postmodern writers, in the same way that Carla Cappetti, say, has been able to establish the influence of the discipline of sociology on modern writers like Richard Wright, James T. Farrell, and Nelson Algren.

Elias takes up one particular aspect of this historiographical trend, the critique of history generated in Hayden White’s work, especially his charge that history is affected by historians’ “choice of tropes, aesthetic modes, and narrative techniques” (37). Importantly for the discussion that follows, Elias establishes White’s argument that professional, disciplinary history aligned itself in the nineteenth century with realism, against utopian thinking, thus suppressing revolutionary potential. In response, White in Content and Form sees social change as possible, but only if “sublime history” is not disciplined: “Constructing history as sublime,” says Elias, White’s approach to an event such as the Holocaust would advocate not understanding but action, a response of human self-preservation in the face of this horrifying and incomprehensible event”(40). A history so reconfigured, or reconsidered, would finally allow “contemplation and enactment of ethical action”(42), rather than the moral paralysis that Realpolitik history teaches with its lessons. Elias’s point here is to establish the historical strain in postmodern fiction as attention to this sublime: “The place of intersection between Lyotard’s postmodernism and White’s post- Annales history is the territory of the metahistorical romance; after 1960, there is a conjoining of poststructuralist theory, post- Annales historiography, and postmodern fiction at the nexus of the historical sublime”(45).

In the second chapter, Elias elaborates her definition of the “metahistorical romance.” The issue for Elias is that metahistorical romances, even of the 1980s and 1990s variety, which she sees as less formally avant-garde than those that preceded them in the 1960s and 1970s, perform critiques of traditional historiography, and don’t, contra Frederic Jameson’s construction of postmodernism’s history as commerciable pastiche, treat it as (mere) play. Her elaboration of the metahistorical romance takes the form of four propositions. The first is that metahistorical romances represent in part the West’s becoming aware of its own history, and confronting that history as sublime, not contained by traditional disciplinary history. Arguing that twentieth century history in the West has been experienced as a kind of trauma, Elias argues that the metahistorical romance “attempts to articulate a post-traumatic imaginary,” and in doing so, it’s a kind of narrative “that bears striking similarities to those produced by traumatized consciousness: it is fragmented; it problematizes memory; it is suspicious of empiricism as a nonethical resistance to ‘working through’; it presents competing versions of past events; it is resistant to closure; and it reveals a repetition compulsion in relation to the historical past” (52). Its critique of disciplinary history is signaled by a return to fabulation in many texts. Her second proposition is that metahistorical romance “confronts the historical sublime as repetition and deferral” (55), in that it gestures not at a historical presence but at an historical absence that is the sublime. This deferral too is a mechanism of a traumatized consciousness, but one in which, often by allusion, these “secular postmodernists…attempt reconnection with ethical meaning and creative Being in the absence of the Word” (64). Reading Charles Johnson’s Dreamer and Jim Crace’s Quarantine, Elias invokes the uncanny as that which characterizes the border between the present and the unknowable, but “revisited” past (64).

Her third and more important proposition characterizing metahistorical romance is that its critique of historiography is not always undertaken through a radical form, but, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, can still be the radical content of a more traditional realist form. She cites here Robert Coover’s The Public Burning and Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo as examples of formally avant-gardist metahistorical romances (1976 and 1972 respectively), and places them beside Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger (1992), though even here Unsworth’s novel’s central event, the mutiny on the slave ship, is not conventionally narrativized. “The need to wed experimental narrative form with narrative content becomes less imperative after 1980” explains Elias, and she surmises that this may result from the politically conservative turn of the time, or, “as poststructuralist theories of language [became] increasingly mainstreamed in literary culture, writers’ faith in the ability of narrative form singlehandedly to rescue narrative from historical nostalgia or totalitarian politics [was] lessened, and therefore the need to produce avant-gardist form [was] lessened as well” (75).

Following a discussion of novels by a couple of historians, Simon Schama and Eric Zencey, comes Elias’s fourth and final proposition, that the metahistorical romance is an evolved, not revolutionary, form of Scott’s historical romance. In Elias’s schematic summary of this point, “while Walter Scott’s novels often attempt to mute their romantic elements and foreground their historicity or grounding in a realist representation of life, postmodernist metahistorical fiction often foregrounds or conspicuously incorporates fabulation/romance” (98). Similarly, Elias sees metahistorical romance’s debt to modernism as one of transformation rather than negation; thus the modernist focus on consciousness and perspective (even as it was attentive to history, as in Faulkner or Dos Passos) is underplayed as questions of historical ontology (not only epistemology) come to the fore.

In the third chapter, Elias explores in more detail some of the formal innovations of the more avant-garde metahistorical romances, focusing on texts that spatialize history. Her argument is taken up through reference to Jameson’s assertion that postmodernism is constituted as a kind of depthless surface (as opposed to modernist depth) against Foucault’s questioning of univocal historical periods, such that “History [becomes] layered because it is made up of many different kinds of history: social history, material history, economic history, philosophical history, etc.” (110-11). Understanding history as Foucaultian archaeology makes sense of the “anachronism” in novels like Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry or Reed’s Flight to Canada, and even Walter Scott’s “wedding of science and romance” in his historical romances (111). While literary modernism might have spatialized form, metahistorical romance spatializes history: “Historical periods themselves are subject to quick cutting, montage, and juxtaposition in a postmodern attempt to signal the layered indeterminacy of History and its lack of order and comprehensibility,” and, Elias notes with a nod to Leslie Silko’s Almanac of the Dead and T. Coraghessan Boyle’s World’s End, the existence of myth and legend as part of those historical layers (119).

Metahistorical romance uses “two primary narrative techniques to spatialize time and interrogate disciplinary models for history: parataxis and simultaneity” (122). Through parataxis, histories and periods are combined without narrative connections among them, as in the multiple endings of John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, or in the multiple beginnings of Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot. Conversely, metahistorical romances spatialize time, understanding history not as linear (which, Elias explains through a reference to Edwin Abbott’s Flatland, allows only one pertinent point to exist at any given location), but as simultaneous and “dimensionally complex” (141). One example of spatialized time is N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, says Elias, though she means N. Scott Momaday’s autobiography The Way to Rainy Mountain instead. (Though she talks about the novel House Made of Dawn for several pages here, both her Appendix and bibliography list correctly the book her discussion refers to, Momaday’s autobiography. This problem may have been caused by the fact that the “frame story” that particularly interest Elias in the Kiowa Momaday’s “heteroglossic, spatialized” [142] 1969 autobiography The Way to Rainy Mountain is largely reprinted from the narrated life story of the Kiowa character Tosamah in his novel 1968 House Made of Dawn. Both, in turn, are slightly different versions of an article published by Momaday in The Reporter magazine in 1967.) The Way to Rainy Mountain prints the author’s autobiographical reminisces spatially alongside Kiowa myth and legend, and other passages of academic ethnography about the Kiowa and other Southwest Native peoples. Leaving aside the question of whether this unusual and widely-read autobiography can be considered a “metahistorical romance” generically, Elias suggests, in anticipation of a later chapter, that metahistorical romance writers situating themselves outside of dominant First World narrative traditions often engage in these strategies of simultaneous metahistory (147).

Chapter Four, a version of which was previously published in Contemporary Literature in 1996, theorizes that one explanation for the large number of contemporary novels set during the eighteenth century is that metahistorical romances are returning, in a sense, to the scene of the crime, with the Enlightenment Age of Reason standing in as the birthplace of modernity. “Confronted with the emptiness of everyday life, the dehumanizing ideology of technocracy, economic inequalities in massively wealthy nations, political corruption and the transformation of statesmanship into media performance, gated communities and Hollywood history,” says Elias, “the postmodern sensibility turns back to the Enlightenment and questions the sanctity of its proffered gifts” (152). These novels tend to be more formally conservative - not making use of the paratactic and spatialized histories of Chapter Three - and support a range of “positions concerning the value of Enlightenment tradition and modernity itself” (153). The range of positions that Elias identifies makes this a rewarding chapter, and reveals the ways in which metahistorical romances, while sharing key strategies, do not always share the same ideological goals. One possibility is examined through the single example of a (not quite sufficiently meta-)historical novel whose postmodern reflex is to look back with nostalgia upon a premodern, aboriginal past “within an intact Western metaphysics”: Jonn Steffler’s The Afterlife of George Cartwright (155). In contrast, Elias identifies three metahistorical romances which together constitute a critique of Enlightenment practice rather than Enlightenment theory; they reflect a sort of Habermasian position, in which some good promises of modernity remain unfulfilled. In Frances Sherwood’s Vindication, Lawrence Norfolk’s Lemprière’s Dictionary, and Allen Kurzweil’s A Case of Curiosities “an Enlightenment artist/scholar suffers (and her/his creation is threatened) at least to some degree because of the French Revolution and the mindless violence of the upsurging masses” (160). Elias sees the aesthetic politics of these works as prizing the beautiful, rather than the sublime (162). Again in contrast, a third and larger group of novels seem to pursue Lyotard’s proposition that the postmodern is latent in the modern, for in them, “on the side of Reason and the representatives of Enlightenment are slavery, drudgery, and freedom only of the mind; on the side of the Sublime is terror, chaos and mad liberation of both mind and body. What is valorized, even implicitly, is passion over reason, disruption over order, life over theories that allow one to ‘develop’ or ‘appreciate’ life” (178). These novels, which include J.M. Coetzee’s Foe, Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor and Chatterton, John Fowles’ A Maggot, and Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover, figure variously the Other, the occult, the criminal, or revolution as unrepresentable, sublime forces. These metahistorical romances return to the birth of the modern so as to interrogate the Enlightenment’s gifts.

Many of these same novels raise the problem of the relation between Western modernity and the colonial, and so in Chapter Five Elias turns her attention to the relation between the kinds of metahistorical politics generated by postmodern novels and postcolonial ones. The latter, asserts Elias, constitute an outsider’s critique of modernity, and the former constitute an insider’s critique of it that may politically align itself with the postcolonial although it does not always do so, as she makes clear by a reading of William T. Vollman’s The Rifles set beside Leslie Silko’s Ceremony. On this point, her inclusion of Native writers (who may be Western citizens) as part of the postcolonial is persuasive. Her interesting conclusion is that the continuum of metahistorical responses, “from ironic, even nihilistic, deconstruction on the one hand to a reconstructed ‘secular-sacred’ belief on the other, as in the narrative technique of simultaneous history” (190), generally aligns itself with First World authors pursuing the former path, and postcolonial writers outside the First World pursuing the later path. Thus Vollmann and Gunter Grass’s The Flounder can critique “Western cultural imperialism,” but they, unlike Silko, can’t find a “workable solution or a system of belief to combat it” (192). (Gratifyingly, this conclusion mirrors my own analogous, but more facile - because based on fewer texts - conclusion about racialized minority and white writers confronting the hegemony of American ideology in Reciting America.) (Douglas’s book of 2001 is reviewed in ebr What is at stake in this difficult process of Western unforgetting is that metahistorical romances often see history “as (a weirdly healthy) repetition compulsion, a loss of the self and a journey from the center to the margins that is repeated endlessly because the borders of knowable history it seeks are themselves constantly receding” (202). In these cases, there is renewed attention to the oral and the mythic, the former of which at least Elias links to the West’s “reappraisal of its own (past and present) colonial history”(212), which marks these metahistorical romances as different from their generic origins in Scott, for whom the oral was merely a supplement to a mostly already established history (215).

The final chapter, called by Elias a “Coda,” offers a sustained reflection on John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor (1960)and Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (1997). These paradigmatic novels allow her to trace the overarching development of the metahistorical romance over the last 40 years. Metahistorical romance moves, Elias says,

in pendulum motion from the “realism” of Scott’s historical novel form, through the abstraction of modernist spatial form and postmodern fabulation, back toward the “realism” of postcolonial politics. Because they inherit the dialectic between realism and romance structuring Scott’s novels, writers of metahistorical novels seem to hang suspended between these poles and captive to pendulum motion, acutely self-reflexive about their inability to break free to a real access to History and confined within two literary genres they tend no longer to associate with the Real. Through metahistorical romance, these novelists often problematically attempt to voice the Other that their own national histories have demonized and rendered historically silent. (222)

Elias argues that history functions as mere setting in Barth’s novel, thus producing no ethical questions for the West; though it plays out on the stage of history, its drama is of existential pathology and individualist assertion. “This is the romance element on its way to being redefined within what will emerge later in the century as metahistorical romance, the preoccupation with and incessant return to history by writers who, because they operate within a cultural imaginary traumatized by its own self-awareness, return to romance - with difference, as différance ” (228). Through a couple of really neat intertextual allusions to Barth’s novel that Elias reads in Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, Elias establishes the distance between them. Pynchon’s history is not just setting, for his novel opens up questions of “the social construction of history,” with one of the main characters realizing that “disciplinary science constructs explanations of the world in order to provide comfort to the citizenry and to exercise social control,” a process in which his labor too will be embedded (231). Calling Mason & Dixon a “definitive metahistorical romance” (242), Elias notes that it centers slavery as a thematic concern, and not, as does Barth’s novel, use it as a mere historical setting. “Barth’s vision is very much aligned with that of the existential modernists, while Pynchon’s is closer to that of the postmodern metahistorians: for the latter, what is needed is a social response to sublimity, not an individualistic one” (232).

In these particular moments of contrast, Sublime Desire does considerable work in helping us name the currents and transformations in contemporary literature, locating in particular our debt to Walter Scott’s dynamic linking of romance and history. As this last example shows, corroborating other work in the field, the “black humor” fiction of the modernist-inspired middle part of the century seems to have given way to more overtly (and implicit, Elias shows) political fictions toward the last decades of the century. I admire this book partly because of the difficult cross-disciplinary labor it attempts; though clearly disagreeing with many of the premises and methods of traditional historiography, Elias has tried to give it its due, and to immerse herself enough in the field to figure out its own disciplinary fractures and debates. When Elias says that “The humanities not only take seriously the challenge to history in fantasies and novels; they have forcefully asserted that history is fantasy and fiction allied with power, and have thrown down a gauntlet to the social sciences to prove otherwise” (99), we should understand Sublime Desire to be part of that “throwing down,” and that not too many traditional historians are taking that gauntlet up is not Elias’s fault. There is clarity here too in that Elias does not, as sometimes happens in writing about postmodern fiction, confuse postmodernist artistic forms or epistemes with poststructuralist theory. Nor does she conflate literary modernism with the New Critical ways of reading it, though I could have wished on occasion (55, 56, 121) for her to assert that distinction a little more forcefully.

One quibble is with the clarity of dates in Sublime Desire. Elias sometimes fails to give the original publication dates, or any dates, for novels under discussion, even in instances in which the timing of their publication is part of her argument. One example is her contention that there is a “shift from avant-gardist metahistorical romances such as Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada to more conventionally realist narratives such as Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger ” (75). Elias has earlier stated Sacred Hunger ‘s original publication date to be 1992, but she doesn’t here nor hasn’t earlier stated Flight to Canada ‘s publication date, and a reader seeking confirmation who flips to either the Bibliography or the separate Appendix listing metahistorical romances will be surprised to find its date listed as 1989 in both cases - thus casting into doubt her pre-1980 / post-1980 distinction. This, of course, is the date of the edition that Elias uses in her study, but Reed’s novel was first published in 1976, as a brief search in WorldCat assures. Thus Elias’s point is confirmed, but only after the curious reader has done some fingerwork to clarify.

There also, unfortunately, seems to be a logical problem with this general distinction that Elias makes between 1960s and 1970s metahistorical romance that is formally avant-garde on the one hand, and 1980s and 1990s metahistorical romance that tends to drop the avant-garde form for more traditionally realist style even as it still maintains a critique of traditional Western historiography, on the other. After describing this general distinction, illustrating it with the Flight to Canada / Sacred Hunger example, and positing the increasing influence of “poststructuralist theories about language” on writers who consequently lose faith in the sufficiency of radical form to perform a critique of historiography (and therefore tend to abandon it altogether), Elias briefly discusses Little Big Man as an “example”. Here the trouble begins. Elias notes that there are some non-realist formal elements in Thomas Berger’s novel, such as his use of an interview setting for the telling of parts of the story, and how “the novel focuses intently on language and the social and linguistic construction of identity” (75), but concludes by downplaying the form’s role in its critique of traditional historiography: “Form plays some role in interrogating history in this novel, yet equally important is the commentary on history provided by largely realist narration” (76). But here, however, she appears to attribute to a 1964 novel the skeptical quality toward the radicalness of form (and the reasons for that skepticism) that she says characterizes metahistorical romances after 1980:

This metahistorical romance raises the question of history’s meaning and location because its author has learned the lessons of poststructuralist language theories, that narrative is both complicitous with and subversive of power and is never disinterested, and because modernist faith in the revolutionary force of avant-garde form has been eroded in the face of late capitalism, postmodern economies that can absorb any avant-gardist form into their own ideological programs. Poetics alone, it implies, will not rescue a meaning for history. (76)

Berger, Elias says, has learned poststructuralist lessons with enough time for him to incorporate them into his 1964 novel, and she seems to use it as an example of how post-1980s metahistorical romance departs from radical form to concentrate anew on thematic critiques of traditional historiography. This problem may be related to the fact that Berger’s book appears in the Bibliography as the 1964 Dell edition, but appears in her Appendix as the 1989 Delacorte edition. In any case, since this is one of her key examples of the distinction she is trying to draw, the distinction itself is cast into doubt. This error, strangely, appears almost as an example of an “old history” teleology of the kind that Elias sees metahistorical romances critiquing, in which facts are somewhat misconstrued in order to fit a developmental model (here, the way 1960s and 1970s radical form is abandoned in the 1980s and 1990s for a more traditional form, even as historical critique is thematically retained).

There are of course concerns about focus, as there would be with any study that undertook a comprehensive argument about a literary period, but these are really only quibbles. The Appendix lists 70 “metahistorical romances,” and in it we do not find Russell Banks’s Cloudsplitter or Don DeLillo’s Underworld. Banks’s revisiting of John Brown and the Harper’s Ferry rebellion certainly raises the kind of metahistorical questions dealt with in Sublime Desire, and the novel is certainly part of the movement of First World insider authors looking back on the West’s history - here raising questions about the ethics of slavery in the United States. It seems to me too that a fabulation manifests in its examination of religion, which is a topic that has interested Elias in a couple of reviews here in ebr. (The World is Flat and Metaphysics After the Western Wall Has Come Down)

Perhaps a stronger query about focus is the absence of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which certainly interrogates our traditional image of how the (South-)West was won. I would really like to have heard - scratch that: I would really like to hear - Elias’s evaluation of Blood Meridian in relation to its metahistorical peers, and what better place than the electronic book review for a (second) coda in this regard. Elias spends several pages (204-11) devoted to Madison Smartt Bell’s All Soul’s Rising, a white southerner’s rendition of the slave rebellion in Haiti, but it seems to me that McCarthy’s novel is a more important, and maybe more violent, example of the West turning its gaze back on its own history of violence and national mastery. I’m not sure if Blood Meridian would complement and extend, or instead trouble Elias’s thesis. Elias points out that Bell’s novel is naturalistic when depicting colonial violence, perhaps in a way that Blood Meridian is not quite, as when its band of hired scalpers slaughters an Apache encampment:

The dead lay awash in the shallows like the victims of some disaster at sea and they were strewn along the salt foreshore in a havoc of blood and entrails. Riders were towing bodies out of the bloody waters of the lake and the froth that rode lightly on the beach was a place pink in the rising light. They moved among the dead harvesting the long black locks with their knives and leaving their victims rawskulled and strange in their bloody cauls. The loosed horses from the remuda came pounding down the reeking strand and disappeared in the smoke and after a while they came pounding back. Men were wading about the red waters hacking aimlessly at the dead and some lay coupled to the bludgeoned bodies of young women dead or dying on the beach. One of the Delawares passed with a collection of heads twisting like some strange vendor bound for market, the hair twisted about his wrist and the heads dangling and turning together. Glanton knew that every moment on this ground must be contested later in the desert and he rode among the men and urged them on. (157)

Nor, perhaps, are its romance elements introduced “to construct its political and ethical themes” as Elias finds in All Soul’s Rising (207). In other words, I’m not sure that McCarthy’s fabulation (I’m thinking primarily of the figure of the judge, but also the constant and anxious attention to design in the novel) is devoted to utopian possibilities in the face of sublime history, rather the assertion that there might be some historical, natural, or theological principle that keeps us scalping one another. Certainly McCarthy links Enlightenment science and imperial violence in the judge’s character, who is a veritable philosophe and encyclopedist in his own right, as well as crafter of gunpowder, botanist, geologist, and evolutionary theorist. As Elias asks at the end of her discussion of All Soul’s Rising, “Is this the First World working through its own history in relation to colonialism, or excusing it?” (211). I can think of a number of complications or useful extensions that Blood Meridian makes for Sublime Desire, and would have liked to hear (would like to hear) Elias’s analysis of a book that is surely more widely-read than Bell’s novel.

I strongly recommend Amy J. Elias’s Sublime Desire for those interested in contemporary or postmodern fiction and those interested in historical fiction generally. Its individual readings of texts are good, and its argument about metahistorical romance constitutes an important intervention into the field and definition of postmodern literature - one to be considered alongside of Diane Elam’s Romancing the Postmodern (Routledge, 1992). Like any good theory, it is useful in assessing novels that Elias does not deal with, and so her particular application of postmodern and poststructuralist theory will keep us thinking about contemporary fiction for some time to come.