Andrew H. Miller (Indiana), ‘A Case of Metaphysics: Counterfactuals, Realism, Great Expectations’, Thursday 26 January 2012
by Isobel Armstrong
Andrew Miller inaugurated the Birkbeck Forum for Nineteenth-Century Studies with a lecture whose urgency and seriousness came from that vitality that characterizes work in progress. This lecture is part of a wider project stretching into modernism and back into the eighteenth century and the philosopher David Hume, ‘On Not Being Someone Else’. Beginning with George Stanley’s poem, ‘Veracruz’ (2003), where the poet recomposes the geographies and gender of his life, imagining having being born a woman and thus having mothered his son, Miller explored the ‘optative imagination’, our capacity to imagine another life and other choices for ourselves. He pursued this theme mainly through Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1860–61) but through many other Victorian texts.
The ‘optative’, a category originated by Stuart Hampshire and taken up in many disciplines, is a conditional mode of self-understanding, in which we wish or imagine not to become but to have been someone else. We understand who we are by what we might have been. This is a counterfactual move because in understanding who I am by what I am not I am free from empirical constraints and can imagine unrealized selves, an act that calls up, Miller implied, both the profound imagining of another life that reaches into the life we actually live, and the fantasy of a life unlived. What happens and what does not happen are, he said, ‘laminated’ together in our moral imagination. He brought these alternative histories vividly alive in moments from the novel, Pip’s sudden shamed understanding of his working class identity and his longing for another genteel past precipitated by Estella’s contempt for his hands, his thoughtlessly cruel speculations to the listening Biddy on an alternative life being married to her which he has no intention of pursuing, his understanding at the end of the novel of what he might have been when he sees Pip the younger, Joe and Biddy’s son, in his old place by the fire.
Counterfactual contemplation, he says (following Anthony Giddens), is at the heart of the modern experience of identity. Through it and the ‘as if’ of imagining possible worlds, we discover that we are both singular and typical. Miller isolated three ways in which modernity and the optative are, to use his earlier phrase, laminated together. First, the market economy of exchange value in operation since the Enlightenment is founded on opening possibilities of social mobility and inviting alternative possibilities. Second, as work and the career assumed dominance in society, underwritten by the law, choice became crucial to the modern subject, inevitably inviting optative contemplation — the road taken, the road not taken. Marriage, a form of career instantiated by the law, invites the optative for women in particular. The poignant example of Miss Havisham — warding off regret for an unconsummated marriage by warding off the future and attempting to make time stand still — illuminated the way a defining moment, a crucially decisive event, becomes a narrative trope in the optative novel. Finally, parenting and children, and the death of children, evoke a passional imagining of other lives.
Miller’s rich talk set up a new category of modern experience founded on loss and desire. Ontological disappointment is its driving force.
Isobel Armstrong is a Fellow of the British Academy and Emeritus Professor of English (Geoffrey Tillotson Chair) at Birkbeck, University of London. She has published widely on nineteenth-century literature and culture and feminist thought. She has lectured and taught in many contexts, including Harvard and Johns Hopkins University. Among her works are a critical history of Victorian Poetry (1993) and a co-edited anthology of nineteenth-century women’s poetry (1996). Her most recent book,Victorian Glassworlds: Glass Culture and the Imagination 1830–1880, won the Modern Language Association’s James Russell Lowell Prize for the best book of 2008. Poems by her appeared in Shearsman’s anthology of poetry by women, edited by Carrie Etter, Infinite Difference: Other Poetries by UK Women Poets (2010).