This passage has been excerpted by Philip V. Allingham from Carol Levine's The Serious Pleasures of Suspense: Victorian Realism & Narrative Doubt. London and Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003. ISBN 0-813 9-2217-8, which is reviewed elsewhere in the Victorian Web [GPL]
By contrast, truthful mimesis begins with the separation between representation and the real and then invites us to bring them into relation. Recognizing representation's limitations pushes us, or provokes us, to learn about the otherness of the world. While imitation delights us with both its cleverness and our own, truthful art encourages a process of doubting and testing to arrive at a tentative understanding of the relationship between art and its objects. It invites us to enjoy our own curiosity.
Far from prizing the illusions of a perfect mimesis, Ruskin's realism relentlessly insists on the inadequacies of representation. And if we take Ruskin to be the earliest theorist of realism, then the very concept of realism in English comes into being with a denunciation of mimetic transparency. Indeed, mimesis, imitation, and representation had been synonymous before Ruskin, but "realism" came onto the scene by breaking them apart, claiming for itself a role distinct from that of the cleverly life-like trick. It is thus with the critique of trompe l'oeil that Victorian realism is born.
Ruskin requires rigorous testing because his basic presumption is that visual representation is always playing us false. And I want to suggest that Modern Painters rejects imitation not only as a goal for painting but also for narrative. Indeed, the realist experiment — like the scientific experiment — never purports to describe the intrinsic emplotment of the real. What Ruskin's plot chronicles is a method. Suspense is the experience by which readers learn to doubt their own convictions and approach the mysteries of alterity. Suspenseful plotting, then, is not the form of the real; it is the form of the acquisition of knowledge — and specifically of a skeptical epistemology that insists on testing authoritative claims to truth.
Protagonists in the Victorian novel, like Ruskin's readers, doubt and test the conventional images that surround them, and wait, expectant, ready to come to a more unconventional knowledge of the world. And so Ruskin's experiments allow us to bring together notable innovations of nineteenth-century fiction: a self-conscious realism, the doubts and pleasures of suspenseful plotting, and the bildungsroman — the plot of coming to knowledge. Although it may seem somewhat paradoxical for Ruskin's "realism" to insist on the relentless deficiencies of representation, it represents a paradox only if we put our emphasis on the artwork rather than on the process of looking and representing. The goal of Ruskinian realism is the creation of a responsible relationship between the viewer and the real by way of the art object. For Ruskin, representation is valuable because, whether it succeeds or fails, it teaches us a new relationship to the world. [pp. 60-61]
- A review of Levine's The Serious Pleasures of Suspense
- Charlotte Brontë's Undermining the Conventions governing the feminine
- Walter Pater's Rebuttal of Ruskin
Last modified 7 September 2007