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Andrew Miller. The Burdens of Perfection: On Ethics and Reading in Nineteenth-Century British Literature. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-8014-4661-0. Price: US$39.95

  • John McGowan

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  • John McGowan
    University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

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Andrew Miller has written an engaging book about moral perfectionism in Victorian literature while also raising some provocative questions about the uses and aspirations of literary criticism. Miller describes his work as “moral psychology” (xi) and certainly he is at his best when tracking the emotional intricacies that follow from an ethics that relies more heavily on situational relations to others than to set rules.

At [perfectionism’s] heart is the complex proposition that we turn from our ordinary lives, realize an ideal self, and perfect what is distinctly human in us—and that we do so in response to exemplary others. How exactly do we become better? Certainly we often imagine ourselves improving through following rules, commandments, laws, guidelines. Without denying this, moral perfectionism stresses another means of improvement, one in which individual transfiguration comes not through obedience to such codes, but through openness to example—through responsive, unpredictable engagements with other people.

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Future-oriented, and hence particularly suited to narrative, perfectionism projects alternative selves—and always ponders those alternatives and sometimes even acts to realize them. This “moral project of self-cultivation” requires “attentive and scrupulous self-reflection” (99). Miller insists that selves can be spurred to such self-reflection only through an encounter with an other, “a second-order relation with this character as his deliberations, his accommodations of perspective, are presented to me as mine” (102). Novels—or Robert Browning’s novelistic dramatic monologues—are technically well suited, with the use of free indirect discourse, privileged access to characters’ inner thoughts, and foils to pull readers toward the imagination of alternative selves. The urge to perfect oneself and the means to improvement must be carefully taught—and novels are the teaching machine.

Miller makes some tentative claims about moral perfectionism being typically or widely Victorian, but he doesn’t push these very hard, sticking instead to close readings of canonical authors (Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Robert Browning, Henry James, and John Henry Newman are the main players) from whom it would be perilous to make wider cultural generalizations. Wisely, he avoids comments on Victorian moralism or earnestness. More surprisingly, he inoculates his discussions of improvement from any non-moral content. Yet, if only to dispute the argument, Miller should consider the possibility that perfectionism is the bourgeois drive for self-improvement, linked (as in Great Expectations) to issues of social climbing and self-creation in societies supposedly open to talent, but transposed to a moral key. To imitate in hopes of eventually consorting with one’s betters is not always, or even primarily, a moral undertaking.

Miller’s own exemplar as a literary critic is Stanley Cavell, whose ideas he liberally uses and whose manner at times infects Miller’s own voice. Following Cavell, Miller strives to connect perfectionism’s preference for personal relationships to skepticism, particularly to that version of skepticism that worries about my ability to know others’ minds and others’ inability to understand me. I must admit that I find this connection strained and unconvincing. Moral behavior is publicly displayed; exemplars are rarely chosen because we have access to their deliberations. Yes, learning more about the inner lives of these exemplars can be enlightening, but I don’t see how an anxiety about the possibility of gaining such knowledge would motivate the perfectionist’s imitative impulse in the first place.

Miller would have been better served by turning to a figure who, save for one brief reference, is surprisingly absent from his book: Immanuel Kant. The third Critique takes up precisely the issues Miller pursues, albeit in an aesthetic rather than moral register. How do we understand—or create—instances of beauty (Kant asks) in the absence of any rule by which to recognize or produce them? Only examples, Kant tells us, can do the job. Plus, Kant struggles with the problem of “communicability” in ways clearly germane to Miller’s concern with skepticism. Since examples are singular, how do the lessons or messages they convey carry over to other instances? Miller quotes approvingly Alexander Gelley’s assertion that “the rhetorical force of examples is to impose on the audience or interlocutor an obligation to judge” (102), where judgment is understood less as a decision about right or wrong, beautiful or ugly, than a question of relevance. What features of the example speak to my situation and provide me with useful guidance as I decide how to proceed? And what features are irrelevant? In the absence of rules, the use of examples is a very tricky business indeed, and appealing to judgment covers a multitude of sins, practices, and (often enough) inspired (or not so inspired) guess work. And then, after all this very imprecise work, we are often called upon to communicate to others why we acted as we did, what we took to be the grounds or the reasons, for the judgment we made. This is territory Kant would have helped Miller to explore.

More than enough complaints. What Miller does well he does very well indeed. Which brings us to his reflections on literary criticism. He eschews “conclusive” criticism, by which he seems to mean criticism that aims to compel consent through argumentation and that claims to produce knowledge. Of course, abandoning such claims is risky since the reader—and the critic himself—will then be troubled by the question of significance. Why does criticism matter, what does it deliver, if knowledge is taken off the table? Still, Miller’s move mostly removes the embarrassing (because based on such slight evidence and such hasty generalizations) need felt by most academic critics to characterize whole societies on the basis of six authors.

Miller calls his alternative practice “implicative” criticism. His goal is to elicit from the text at hand an account of the byways the psyche travels in communion with itself and with others. If Cavell is the critical model, Henry James is the literary one since the effort is to wring from a situation (or a text) every drop of possibility. Implicative criticism, Miller tells us, is

marked first of all by the display of thinking. . . . Such writing grants reading criticism its due drama: something is happening now, here, as this prose passes before my eyes. (Thinking is thickened, its pacing palpable.)

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Those familiar with James’s novels and Cavell’s criticism will note that such writing requires stalwart narcissism. The writer must pursue his obsessions relentlessly, must worry each minor concern to death, oblivious to the reader’s patience or regard. In both James and Cavell (two writers I love to read), the results are an odd combination between the most naked display of the writer on the page (full neurosis indulged) and a cloying, even coy, delight in the intricacies of thought presented so costumed, so theatrically, that we suspect nothing about the writer is being revealed. Skepticism about the ability to know another enacted, we might say. More becomes increasingly less as complications and qualifications pile up.

Miller, for better and for worse, is no heroic narcissist. He does not impose upon the poor reader as ruthlessly as James or Cavell, which does drain his text of drama for long stretches. Too often he tells instead of shows. Decorously, he actually cares about what Dickens or D.A. Miller thinks; these other authors are not mere fodder for his own torturous reflections. And, like a good teacher, he wants us to learn something about these other writers. Which we do. Miller is a marvelously generous reader of other critics—Amanda Anderson, Eve Sedgwick, and Alexander Welsh among them—while drawing inspiration from a wide range of contemporary philosophers who should be better known to literary critics: Richard Moran, Stephen Darwall, Stuart Hampshire, and Bernard Williams to name a few. Finally, Miller is a wonderful reader of certain texts, particularly Dombey and Son, which serves as the backbone of Miller’s whole book, but also of Great Expectations, Daniel Deronda, and various tales by James.

It is as a moral psychologist that Miller shines. His reading of Dombey centers on the shame that precipitates (in some cases) or accompanies (in other cases) the failure of the perfectionist project of improvement. Inspired by Cavell’s justly famous reading of King Lear, Miller tracks Dombey père and Edith Dombey through the labyrinths of their inability to face themselves or others. Then Miller turns to an exploration of regret, the emotion characteristic of an “optative” mood (in both the grammatical and emotional sense of that word) that ponders the unactivated possibilities of my life’s trajectory, the unchosen or unavailable paths that would have produced a different me at this present moment. Miller chooses to highlight the “nausea” experienced in confronting these contingencies, the fact that one could have easily become someone else, where I, less existentially and more socially, would have been inclined to emphasize envy and resentment. But there is no doubt that implicative criticism gets its full innings in Miller’s explorations of shame and regret. His work here is rich, consistently thought-provoking, intricate without being precious, and provides exactly the kind of drama to which he aspires. In short, here is literary criticism of the highest order—illuminating in and of itself and inspiring as a model for what other critics can do.

It is in tracing the niceties, the peculiarities, of particular interactions—within texts and between readers and texts—that literary criticism does its best work. Cavell and Eve Sedgwick are good models here, anatomists of the emotions, trackers of the paths of human feeling and thought through the forest of particular texts, touching only lightly on how to translate the singularities of this example (King Lear or “The Beast in the Jungle”) to other cases. As Miller rightly notes, literary criticism is a form of education, about learning a way of thinking, of developing an attunement to the intricate entanglements of thought and feeling in our relation to self and to others. And, oddly enough, criticism often most fully communicates to others when it is narcissistically focused.

Miller comes closest to the sublimities that Cavell and Sedgwick often achieve when he ponders the uncanny ways a child can both represent a possible life the parent never led and seem an unreal figment of the parent’s imagination. The byways of unspeakable, and perhaps unbearable, familial relations are opened up to view here in ways that are profound and unreachable by any other mode of discourse. Moral psychology—or maybe just psychology itself—becomes exactly the province where literary criticism can makes its distinctive contribution, can make a compelling case for itself as a needed enterprise.

J. S. Mill famously thought poetry a private mediation that is “overheard.” To a certain extent, Miller’s practice, as well as his explicit retreat from “conclusive” criticism, suggests that criticism is not well suited to various public chores. These other chores exist, of course, but they require different modes of address and argumentation, and a different relation of the writer to both subject matter and audience. The attempt to combine the pursuit of private obsessions in criticism and public prescriptions more suited to scientific (knowledge-based) and/or political prose can lead to the strains evident in the work of John Ruskin and William Morris, to just name two Victorian examples. Many—maybe most—literary critics (certainly my own work travels this road) of the past forty years have tried to follow Ruskin and Morris, with honorable intentions and sometimes laudable results. Miller’s work makes me think that such work, no matter that it is done by literary critics, is not literary criticism. So, in the optative mood, let me acknowledge that Miller’s work indicates a different possibility. He sticks very close to the particularities of specific texts and to the dogged pursuit of his own concerns. The gamble is that the critic’s own obsession can be made ours, that he can, without explicit arguments or special pleading, cross the divide between his mind and other minds through the mediation of texts that serves as exemplars. It is a risky gamble, shot through with hubris, but criticism that pulls it off accomplishes something distinctive. Andrew Miller is to be honored for taking that risk, for clearly articulating the nature of the risk and why he thinks it worth taking, and, in certain exalted moments in his own text, for exemplifying the kind of criticism that he provides us ample reason to admire.

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