Toward a Computational Historicism. Part 3: Abstraction at the Time Scale of History

Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which humanity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sign to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
–Percy Bysshe Shelley

In the first post in this series, Discourse and Conceptual Topology, I reviewed network models on three scales, micro, meso, and macro. In the second post, From History to Abstraction, I moved to the micro scale and argued that the mechanism of abstraction proposed by David Hays gives us a way of thinking about how a historical process can lead to subsequent abstraction and illustrated the model through an examination of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129. In this post I examine Heuser and Le-Khac on the 19th Century British novel and undertake a formal comparison of The Winter’s Tale and Wuthering Heights in which I argue that Brontë had the advantage of conceptual machinery unavailable to Shakespeare, though in some way anticipated by him. I hope to conclude this series with a fourth post in which I return to purely theoretical and methodological matters.

History: Showing and Telling

As we all know, one of the major problems of literary studies up to now is that it has concentrated its attentions on a relatively small body of texts, the so-called canon, and has allowed the examination of those texts to stand as a proxy for all of literary history. The assumption is either that, because of their quality, those are the only texts that matter or, perhaps, their quality allows them to “stand-in” for the rest. The widespread availability of powerful computers now allows as to put these assumptions to the test or, rather, simply to abandon them.

Sister disciplines have developed techniques for analyzing large bodies of texts, corpus linguistics, and literary critics are applying these to newly available digital text collections. I want to examine one such study, Ryan Heuser and Long Le-Khac, A Quantitative Literary History of 2,958 Nineteenth-Century British Novels: The Semantic Cohort Method (Stanford Literary Lab, Pamphlet 4, May 2012; HERE is an older post on this study). Their corpus included almost 3000 British novels spanning the period from 1785 to 1900. What they discovered, roughly speaking, is a shift from abstract terms to concrete, which they characterize as shift from telling (abstract terminology) showing (concrete terms). They read this shift through Raymond Williams (The Country and the City) as reflecting a population shift from small rural closely-knit communities to large urban communities where people are constantly amid strangers.

Here is how Heuser and Le-Khac characterize the texts toward the beginning of the period (p. 35):

Thinking in terms of the abstract values, the tight social spaces in the novels at the left of the spectrum are communities where values of conduct and social norms are central. Values like those encompassed by the abstract values fields organize the social structure, influence social position, and set the standards by which individuals are known and their behavior judged. Small, constrained social spaces can be thought of as what Raymond Williams calls “knowable communities,” a model of social organization typified in representations of country and village life, which offer readers “people and their relationships in essentially knowable and communicable ways” (Country 165). The knowable community is a sphere of face-to-face contacts “within which we can find and value the real substance of personal relationships” (Country 165). What’s important in this social space is the legibility of people, their relationships, and their positions within the community.

Toward the end of the period writers wrote and readers read texts Ryan and Le-Khac characterize like this (p. 36):

If this is how the abstract values fields are linked to a specific kind of social space, then we can make sense of their decline over the century and across the spectrum. The observed movement to wider, less constrained social spaces means opening out to more variability of values and norms. A wider social space, a rapidly growing city for instance, encompass- es more competing systems of value. This, combined with the sheer density of people, contributes to the feeling of the city’s unordered diversity and randomness. This multiplicity creates a messier, more ambiguous, and more complex landscape of social values, in effect, a less knowable community… The sense of a shared set of values and standards giving cohesion and legibility to this collective dissipates. So we can understand the decline of the abstract values fields—these clear systems of social values organized into neat polarizations—as a reflection of their inadequacy and obsolescence in the face of the radically new kind of society that novels were attempting to represent.

The upshot (p. 36): “Alienation, disconnection, dissolution—all are common reactions to the new experience of the city.”

I have no problems with this, as far as it goes. But, in light of Hays mechanism of abstraction, where abstract terms are defined over terms, I want to suggest that something else might be going on. Perhaps all those concrete terms in the later novels are components of abstract patterns, patterns defining terms which may not even be named in the text (or elsewhere).

That is to say, abstract terms do not contain their definitional base somehow wrapped up “inside” them. The signified is not enclosed within the signifier. It lies elsewhere. When constructing discourse intended to circulate within a known world one can rely on others to possess, internally, the defining pattern of terms. But when sending a text to circulate among strangers, a message in a bottle, one cannot rely on them to already to have internalized the definitional patterns. One must also supply the patterns themselves. And once the patterns are there, perhaps the terms they define become irrelevant. Perhaps, in fact, this situation is an opportunity to gather new patterns – which others may or may not name and rationalize.

The fact that these later novels do not use abstract terms so liberally thus does not necessarily mean that those texts do not imply abstraction. Perhaps they are but using abstraction in a different mode; they are supplying the patterns themselves.

Let us consider a text from the end of that period, Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness. If alienation, disconnection, and dissolution are your cup of tea, that text abounds in them, though it’s not a novel of the city at all. To be sure, it starts with four men on a yacht in the Themes River, but those men are not really of London in that moment, though they may be in it. Though the story moves to the European continent, and ends there too, its heart is in Africa, but colonial Africa.

I don’t have the means to examine the lexical usage in the whole text, so I don’t know where Conrad’s text appears on the continuum between showing and telling. But the text is a highly abstracted and elliptical. A key rhetorical indicator: only two of the characters are known by name, Kurtz and Marlow; the rest are known by title, the Director, the Intended. People are merely nodes in a social net, one stretched to the breaking point.

But I want to focus on one paragraph; at about 1500 words it’s the longest one in the text. Prior to this point Marlow has made it clear that his African crew was just barely competent, his helmsman in particular. It this point in the trip the boat is attacked from the shore and the helmsman is speared. Bleeding profusely, he falls to the deck. At this point Marlow interrupts the story and delivers a long set of comments about Kurtz – the paragraph of interest – and then, when he’s done, he returns to the helmsman bleeding on the deck and throws him overboard. This paragraph is strongly and dramatically marked.

The paragraph starts with the Intended and moves from there to Kurtz and his bald head and then to the all-important ivory, the “fossil” as it is called. Then there’s talk of the moral comforts and pressure of home, which are gone in the jungle, Kurtz’s pan-European background – “His mother was half-English, his father was half-French. All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz…” – his education, his ideas, his beautifully-written report to the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, the unspeakable practices Kurtz allowed himself, and, of course, the report’s postscript: “Exterminate all the brutes!” The paragraph ends with something of an abbreviated eulogy for his helmsman:

I missed my late helmsman awfully,—I missed him even while his body was still lying in the pilot-house. Perhaps you will think it passing strange this regret for a savage who was no more account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara. Well, don’t you see, he had done something, he had steered; for months I had him at my back—a help—an instrument. It was a kind of partnership. He steered for me—I had to look after him, I worried about his deficiencies, and thus a subtle bond had been created, of which I only became aware when it was suddenly broken. And the intimate profundity of that look he gave me when he received his hurt remains to this day in my memory—like a claim of distant kinship affirmed in a supreme moment.

Immediately before those lines Marlow weighs Kurtz against this helmsman: “No; I can’t forget him, though I am not prepared to affirm the fellow was exactly worth the life we lost in getting to him.” He thus implies that the dead helmsman was more to him than Kurtz. The fellowship of one African is worth more than the accomplishments of a remarkable Englishman.

Marlow is not only measuring one man against another in that sentence, he’s measuring African against Europe, which is rather a more abstract comparison. In that moment Africa noses out Europe in the comparison, a rather extraordinary thing, no? To be sure, the terms of comparison are rigged, as Chinua Achebe pointed out in a lecture entitled “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” Still, it is an extraordinary moment.

But was it prophetic in Shelley’s sense? With the advantage of hindsight one might claim it was, for not long thereafter Europe was singing and dancing to the music of the African diaspora and sun tans came in vogue, perhaps in imitation of African skin, as Ann Douglas argues in Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920’s (Farrar, Straus, 1995).

But the point I really want to make is more modest. And I want to make it by way of Leslie Fiedler. Early in Love and Death and the American Novel (1966, pp. 32-33) he says:

The series of events which includes the American and French Revolutions, the invention of the novel, the rise of modern psychology, and the triumph of the lyric in poetry, adds up to a psychic revolution . . . a new kind of self, a new level of mind; for what has been happening since the eighteenth century seems more like the development of a new organ than a mere finding of a new way to describe old experience.

Is Fiedler correct about this? But I do not see how one can account for this “new organ” by reference to our biological nature – Fieldler is talking metaphorically – for this new organ arose long after our biological nature had stabilized. Its origin thus must be found in the culturally evolved refashioning of biological materials.

This new organ is more is constructed in the mind and not the body or, if you will, it is in the brain, but not thereby of the body. It is the sort of thing that culture can craft and I suggest that Piaget’s notion of reflective abstraction and Hay’s concept of abstract definition tell us something of the machinery culture has at its disposal. The kind of evidence Hauser and Le-Khac offer about the British novel is consistent with this view, though it would require more work to offer a stronger statement on the matter.

[I’ve examined the Conrad paragraph in some detail. I situate this paragraph in Conrad’s text in this post: The Heart of Heart of Darkness. I undertake an informal analysis of that paragraph, almost at the sentence level, in Heart of Darkness 6: Some Informal Notes about the Nexus. I examine Marlow’s comparison of the helmsman and Kurtz in Marlow’s Calculation. All of these posts are included in Heart of Darkness: Qualitative and Quantitative Analysis on Several Scales (PDF).]

From Shakespeare to Bronte

Now let’s take a look at Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Both narratives span two generations in which the first generation narrative ends in tragedy while the second-generation narrative ends happily. To be sure, the happy ending of Wuthering Heights is muted and rather bizarre in that Heathcliff must reunite with his beloved Catherine in the grave whereas Leontes’ beloved Hermione turns out to be alive at the end. But Heathcliff goes happily to that grave.

The first thing that interests me is that Brontë’s novel uses a complex double narration—Nellie Dean to Lockwood, Lockwood to the reader—of a sort that is completely absent in Shakespeare (and his contemporaries). I’m suggesting that she has conceptual machinery that he didn’t have and that double narration is the most obvious trace of that machinery. This machinery allows how to manipulate and reorder the events of her story in a way that Shakespeare could not.

Brontë opens her narrative with events that in fact happen late in the two-generation history she is telling. Catherine Linton née Earnshaw has been long dead and her daughter is coming into her majority. Heathcliff has taken over both estates, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, while residing at Wuthering Heights. Lockwood has just come off a failed summer romance and has decided to rent Thrushcross Grange.

As the novel opens Lockwood is narrating the story of his visit to Heathcliff at the Heights, two visits actually. Those visits extend through three chapters (of 34). It isn’t until the fourth chapter that we meet Nelly Dean and get a clear indication that this is not going to be the story of Lockwood getting over his failed summer romance, but rather a story about the Earnshaws, Lintons, and Heathcliff.

While there is much to remark on in these opening chapters, I want specifically to look at the second. What happens is that Lockwood makes a series of mistaken inferences about the relationships among the people residing at the Heights. There are five, Heathcliff, Catherine Linton, Hareton Earnshaw, and two servants, Joseph and Zillah. First he presumes that Catherine was Heathcliff’s wife:

‘It is strange,’ I began, in the interval of swallowing one cup of tea and receiving another–‘it is strange how custom can mould our tastes and ideas: many could not imagine the existence of happiness in a life of such complete exile from the world as you spend, Mr. Heathcliff; yet, I’ll venture to say, that, surrounded by your family, and with your amiable lady as the presiding genius over your home and heart–‘

‘My amiable lady!’ he interrupted, with an almost diabolical sneer on his face. ‘Where is she–my amiable lady?’

‘Mrs. Heathcliff, your wife, I mean.’

‘Well, yes–oh, you would intimate that her spirit has taken the post of ministering angel, and guards the fortunes of Wuthering Heights, even when her body is gone. Is that it?’

Perceiving myself in a blunder, I attempted to correct it. I might have seen there was too great a disparity between the ages of the parties to make it likely that they were man and wife. One was about forty: a period of mental vigour at which men seldom cherish the delusion of being married for love by girls: that dream is reserved for the solace of our declining years. The other did not look seventeen.

Then it flashed on me–‘The clown at my elbow, who is drinking his tea out of a basin and eating his broad with unwashed hands, may be her husband: Heathcliff junior, of course. Here is the consequence of being buried alive: she has thrown herself away upon that boor from sheer ignorance that better individuals existed! A sad pity–I must beware how I cause her to regret her choice.’ The last reflection may seem conceited; it was not. My neighbour struck me as bordering on repulsive; I knew, through experience, that I was tolerably attractive.

‘Mrs. Heathcliff is my daughter-in-law,’ said Heathcliff, corroborating my surmise. He turned, as he spoke, a peculiar look in her direction: a look of hatred; unless he has a most perverse set of facial muscles that will not, like those of other people, interpret the language of his soul.

Notice that, upon correction, Lockwood infers that Hareton is married to Catherine and is Heathcliff’s son. He is mistaken on both counts. Heathcliff is without issue (his son had died shortly before Lockwood arrived) and Catherine and Hareton are not married, though they will have become engaged by the end of the novel, after we’re been told some 30 chapters worth of events.

Lockwood’s mistaken inferences were natural enough given the existing customs about who lives together under one roof, customs which aren’t so different from current one, though servants are not so prevalent now as they were in the 19th Century. The effect is to turn the story into something of a mystery, it seems to me, is to foreground the fact of family-hood. Just how is it that these came to be living together under one roof?

Not only do these two texts span two generations, both are explicitly concerned about character as well. In The Winter’s Tale this takes the form of commentary about how a lowly shepherdess, Perdita, is nonetheless worthy of a prince, Florizel. In Wuthering Heights it takes the form of remarks about how the personalities of second-generation people are blends of the personality traits exhibited by their first generation parents. Such discussion, I submit, was just beyond Shakespeare and his audience, but was routine for Brontë and hers.

Let us first examine a passage from The Winter’s Tale. Polixenes arrives at the Shepard’s hut and Perdita sees him for the first time, Act IV Scene IV:


A fair one are you–well you fit our ages
With flowers of winter.


Sir, the year growing ancient,
Not yet on summer’s death, nor on the birth
Of trembling winter, the fairest
flowers o’ the season
Are our carnations and streak’d gillyvors,
Which some call nature’s bastards: of that kind
Our rustic garden’s barren; and I care not
To get slips of them.


Wherefore, gentle maiden,
Do you neglect them?


For I have heard it said
There is an art which in their piedness shares
With great creating nature.


Say there be;
Yet nature is made better by no mean
But nature makes that mean: so, over that art
Which you say adds to nature, is an art
That nature makes. You see, sweet maid, we marry
A gentler scion to the wildest stock,
And make conceive a bark of baser kind
By bud of nobler race: this is an art
Which does mend nature, change it rather, but
The art itself is nature.

Though Perdita and Polixenes are talking of the breeding of flowers, we in the audience can’t help but read this conversation against the characters in the play. Perdita appears to be base born but in fact she is not. And that seems to be the burden of Shakespeare’s concern: appearances do not tell all.

Turning to Wuthering Heights, we see that Brontë is much more direct and explicit in her examination of character through descent. She takes great pains, almost geometric in their precision, to show how the personalities of second generation characters are derived from the personalities of their parents. It’s not only that this derivation is obvious to readers, but it is obvious to characters in the story, who comment upon it, e.g. Nelly Dean and Joseph. Note the passages Joseph Carroll quotes as he describes these relations of character descent (The Cuckoo’s History: Human Nature in Wuthering Heights, Philosophy and Literature 2008, 32: 241-257:

Heathcliff and Catherine are physically strong and robust, active, aggressive, domineering. Edgar Linton is physically weak, pallid and languid, tender but emotionally dependent and lacking in personal force…. Isabella Linton, in contrast, is vigorous and active. She defends herself physically against Heathcliff, and when she escapes from him she runs four miles over rough ground through deep snow to make her way to the Grange. Her son Linton, weak in both body and character, represents an extreme version of the debility that afflicts his uncle Edgar. …. Isabella’s son has “large, languid eyes—his mother’s eyes, save that, unless a morbid touchiness kindled them a moment, they had not a vestige of her sparkling spirit.” Despite his inanition, Linton Heathcliff can be kindled to an impotent rage that recalls his father’s viciousness of temper. Witnessing an episode of the boy’s “frantic, powerless fury,” the old servant Joseph cries in malicious glee, “Thear, that’s t’ father! … That’s father! We’ve allas summut uh orther side in us.”. … The younger Cathy is as physically robust and active as her mother and her aunt Isabella. She also has her mother’s dark eyes and her vivacity, but she has her father’s blond hair, delicate features, and tenderness of feeling. … Her cousin Hareton Earnshaw is athletically built, has fine, handsome features, and his mind, though untutored, is strong and clear. He has evidently not inherited the fatal addictive weakness in his father’s character. (pp. 247-248)

There is nothing like this in Shakespeare. Thus, while he may be unmatched in his capacity to create rich and subtle characters, for all the talk of nature, breeding, and descent in the fourth act of The Winter’s Tale, he did not use his powers to show this kind of process. In this matter Emily Brontë has—if I may be so heretical—done the master one better. She is depicting an aspect of human life that eluded him.

I leave it as an exercise to the reader to consider whether or not Brontë has factored this descent of personality into components of nature and nurture (breeding) and, if so, what techniques she uses to do so. Were I to undertake this exercise I would probably begin by noting Brontë’s depiction of dogs, some of which are large and violent (e.g. Wolf and Skulker) while others seem quite tamed (the small dog the Linton children fought about in Chapter VI). That is, some dogs seem more or less wild while others are more highly bred for human companionship. Nurture vs. nature exists in both the human and the animal world.

Thus, while the two-generation story at the core of Wuthering Heights bears a strong resemblance to the stories in Pandosto and The Winter’s Tale, the narrative displays two signal characteristics that are absent in those earlier narratives: a complex double narration and a depiction of the descent of character. The two-generation story exists independently of the narrative frame and can be told without it, as I did above. The narrative frame thus exists in addition to the story itself; its narrative machinery is meta to the basic machinery of the story itself.

My argument, then, is that Brontë had the use of conceptual machinery unavailable to Shakespeare, machinery that emerged from the interactions of many readers and writes over the intervening years. Among other things she had the formal strategies embodied in the modern novel itself. Those strategies imply and stand upon the existence of earlier modes, but they also move beyond them. They allow novelists to present and thereby identify new patterns of human experience.

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