REPORT ON PROF. TILOTTAMA RAJAN'S LECTURE

In continuation with the Occasional Lecture Series of the Forum on Contemporary Theory, a talk by Professor Tilottama Rajan, Canada Research Chair and Distinguished University Professor at the University of Western Ontario was organized on 3 December 2010. Professor Tilottama spoke on “ The Powers of Pathology: Godwin’s Mandeville and the End(s) of the Historical Novel.” Professor Rajan has authored four books–Romantic Narrative: Shelley, Hays, Godwin, Wollstonecraft (2010), Deconstruction and the Remainders of Phenomenology: Sartre, Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard (2002), The Supplement of Reading: Figures of Understanding in Romantic Theory and Practice (1990), and Dark Interpreter: The Discourse of Romanticism (1980) and over seventy articles, also edited and co-edited seven book collections. Her research and supervisory interests include British Romantic literature (the 1790s novel, Mary Shelley, etc.), Romantic philosophy and science, and Contemporary Theory (particularly deconstruction and phenomenology) in its interrelations with Romantic and Idealist philosophy. At present she is working on two projects: a genealogy of encyclopedic and comprehensive thinking from Idealism and Romanticism to Deconstruction; and a book that reads between Hegel and Schelling on a number of topics including aesthetics, historiography, the life and earth sciences, and organizations of knowledge.  

In this lecture she focused on how Mandeville is concerned with political justice, even though it ends with the defacement of Godwin’s utopian project by a barbarism that still “lives on,” a spectre not confronted, but also a potential. In exploring this past which can become the future, she read Godwin’s novel in terms of a negative dialectic. According to her, in Mandeville Godwin transferred his focus on individual pathology from the domestic to the historical sphere, given that, as he had written in 1798, he would rather “follow [a man] into his closet” than “be contented to observe” him “upon the public stage.” Godwin’s historical novel about the Cromwellian period is thus focalized through the experience of a tormented royalist, a mediocre hero like Waverley, but one who never enters history because the novel never proceeds beyond his psychic history: his implacable, paranoid hatred for his “rival” Clifford. Since the text works through an ambiguous strategy she called it “perverse identification.” Perverse, because the republican Godwin must identify against himself with a paranoid-schizoid Royalist, and even more because the reader is drawn into the fantasy of identification with a character who so unreasonably opposes those who provide the novel’s moral centre. But this identification, strangely, functions as a kind of deconstruction, as Mandeville’s absolute war against everything that is “good” and beautiful in his sister Henrietta and Clifford draws the reader into a pathology that we experience, in the medium of fiction, as transference. By forcing us to know what the “good” abjects or excludes, the supreme condescension even of its attempts to be “understanding,” it makes us feel the violence of the good as a form of normalisation. Pathology thus becomes the most radical form of critique, albeit not as enlightenment, and rather as the unworking – as yet without any guarantee of reparation– of all political, discursive and even emotional “institution.”  

In the discussion that followed questions about the psychological dimensions of characterization in Mandeville, the socio-political scenario of the novel, Godwin’s ideological positions, the characteristics of romantic literature and the like were addressed.