Jul 20 2009

Tracking Sam Halliday’s Ideas on Pierre

by at 9:14 pm

“The predominant means whereby most characters in realist novels resemble themselves is undoubtedly physiognomy, the influential ‘science’ of human nature formulated by Johan Caspar Lavater (1741-1801) and others in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In Kant’s useful definition, physiognomy is the ‘art of investigating the human interior through external, involuntary signs.’ Physiognomy, we can therefore say, assumes the legibility of the body, and grounds the possibility of judging character in the body’s availability for inspection. And though the scientific credentials of physiognomy were often queried–Kant, in fact, dismisses them–its assumptions continued to inform the artistic and literary practice long into the nineteenth century […] Throughout nineteenth-century fiction, then, characters typically ‘represent themselves’ and are represented to the reader by means of their bodily appearance: the stances they adopt, and the expressions of their faces” 79).

Physionomic accuracy, the ability to read the interior through the exterior, is intimately tied to portraiture, where the physignomic exactitude is thought to be the stamp of an excellent portrait. Portraits are, of course, often not what they seem (as depicted in Pierre: Halliday brings the example of the contradictory portraits of Pierre’s father: one of a sinful womanizer, and one of an older patriarchal figure, 80):

“The ways in which nineteenth-century novelists represent their characters thus occasionally contain autotheorizations of the dialetic of truth and deceit, credence and suspicion, and disguise and revelation that the imperative of self-resemblance sets in motion. Many such cases center on the subject of portrait paintings, where the artifice involved in fashioning representations is placed in the foreground […] an apparently irreducible gap is opened up between the character one really is, and the representations fashioned of it” [79-80]

In the following passage, Halliday draws links between portrait making, self representation, and communication technologies (in this particular case, the telegraph):

“By now, the complex of anxieties surrounding ‘the imperative of resembling oneself’ should be clear. It may be far from clear, however, how this has anything to do with the telegraph, or indeed any other communication technology. The connection does exist, however, and again, Pierre allows us to locate it. In one of the first interviews between Pierre and his half sister Isabel, the latter reproaches the former for the looks he casts upon her, and the feelings these betray (an inference, incidentally, grounded in the logic of physiognomy). Pierre answers that these looks do not represent him as he truly is but correspond instead to ‘vile falsifying telegraphs’ (157). Melville alludes here to a practice that had, by the middle of the nineteenth century, become sufficiently prevalent to attract attention: the use of telegraphy for the dissemination of lies. By virtue of the very time and space-effacing qualities that made it useful, it was discovered that the telegraph lent itself easily to ‘falsification,’ since it could convey information, and inspire action based upon it, before this information could be empirically verified. The telegraph thus became the technology of deceit; or, in Pierre’s words, a means of ‘falsifying’ people, and thus more particularly a technology of misrepresentation” (81).

Question: More generally, Isn’t Pierre really just a novel about misrepresentation? Halliday certainly hints at this, but never quite goes there. Isabel claims to be Pierre’s half sister but, even by the end of the novel, we never know if she is who she says she is.

More on the connection between the telegraph and the portrait and the separation of actual body to representation of a body (either via code or the image in a portrait):

“Physiognomy and portrait painting, two of the predominant techniques for ensuring adequation between self and representation in nineteenth-century culture, share an obvious similarity: their dependence on the body. As I suggested earlier, each assumes not only this, but also the body’s legibility, or ability to be ‘read’ by an observer” (81).

“With the advent of communication technologies, people become able to interact with each other in the absence of each other’s bodies. More specifically, people are faced with the need to ascertain the truth about other people, and their sincerity or lack of it, who may be many miles distant, and whose palpable, physical being is unavailable for inspection. It is obvious that such technologies suspend the operations of those physiognomic rules that govern the correspondence of persons and representations in the realist text. One consequence of this, to which we return shortly, is that alternative means must be found to verify the truth of people in the absence of such visual cues” (83).

All passages from: Halliday, Sam. Science and Technology in the Age of Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, and James. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

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