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Vous consultezModernism, Impressionism, and Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier
AuteurMax Saunders du même auteurKing’s College London
Ford Madox Ford is one of the most Francophile of British writers. He left England in 1922, and until his death in 1939, he spent most of his time in Paris or Provence. Best known as a novelist, he was also a tireless interpreter of France. At least four of his books are largely devoted to French culture (many others discuss it), and several of his novels and autobiographical works are either set in France or deeply preoccupied with it. The inclusion of The Good Soldier on the syllabus for the agrégation, and the recognition of Parade’s End by the Centre National du Livre, both this year, are signs that French scholars are beginning to recognize him as a major novelist, rather than merely as Conrad’s collaborator, the discoverer of Ezra Pound, D. H. Lawrence, and Jean Rhys, or the editor of James Joyce, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. This is a welcome development; and, given Ford’s prominence in 1920s Paris modernist circles, as well as his involvement with French writers, it is to be hoped that it will foster much-needed research on Ford and France: not only on his role in Parisian literary networks, but also on the French contexts for his novels, and on books like A Mirror to France, No Enemy, or Provence.
2 It is not hard to see why The Good Soldier has proved the most analysed of Ford’s eighty or so books. Certainly it is among the best of them: many would say the best. It has a precision, a clarity of focus, an economy, that many of his books don’t: especially his exuberant, genre-defying works—such as Mightier Than the Sword, Provence, or Great Trade Route—which weave together memoir, criticism, and cultural history into apparently casual if unsettling wholes. Of his other novels, the one that is most regularly accorded comparable stature, Parade’s End, is not one, but four: the series of novels published from 1924-28 about the extraordinary and baffling Christopher Tietjens. Malcolm Bradbury’s judgement that Parade’s End is “a central Modernist novel of the 1920s, in which it is exemplary” is representative of recent assessments, suggesting that rumours of Ford’s neglect now seem exaggerated (Bradbury xii, xv).
3 This exemplary modernism is also what makes The Good Soldier so appealing to teachers. Its obtuse first-person narrator and repeated time-shifts stand out so clearly as to exemplify Modernist technical self-consciousness. There is, though, a danger in such exemplariness, and one that affects other Modernists too, when they are held to be significant, or valuable, to the extent to which they are Modernist. Ford’s fiction is profoundly transitional: Janus-faced, looking back to its Victorian and Edwardian predecessors as much as sideways and forwards to its Modernist contemporaries and heirs. (Little-known fact: not only did the structure of The Good Soldier anticipate that of The Great Gatsby, with its limited, ironic narrator, “four-square coterie,” romance, disillusionment, and brutal tragedy; but Ford had published a detective story in 1910 about “the Great Gadsby Fraud”!). In practice, Ford’s transitionality is often felt as compromising his claim to be Modernist, and thus compromising his originality or value. Critics are less concerned by comparable tensions in other exemplary Modernists: Stephen Dedalus’s preoccupation with the church or aestheticism in A Portrait of the Artist; the snobbery in Proust or Woolf. We should recognize that both The Good Soldier and Parade’s End are doing something these other writers do too: taking a long view of a period of transition: exploring how people had been becoming modern throughout the Edwardian years, and through the First World War. That is, they are about transition.
4 In two characteristically mordant and inaugurative essays, Roger Poole approached the question of Ford’s relation to modernism. He began the first, “The Unknown Ford Madox Ford,” with a provocation: “The great Modernist novelists are James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf and Ford Madox Ford.” His justification for according Ford such pre-eminence is an ingenious reading of The Good Soldier, which takes as its starting point what has seemed to many a sticking point. For this book whose narrator so fetishizes chronology is structured around a chronology which doesn’t work. The date of the 4th August 1904 is the date the narrator Dowell gives for the crucial outing he and his wife Florence take with the Ashburnhams to the town of “M—”. Yet it is also the date he gives for the evening on which the Dowells and Ashburnhams are supposed to have met for the first time (Cheng 387). Poole poses a reading in which Dowell’s chronological inconsistency is seen not as Ford’s muddle, but as a stroke of subtlety. According to this reading, Ford conceals in the chronological folds evidence that Dowell is a more unreliable narrator than the New Critics had ever imagined; that instead of being someone who cannot be relied upon to understand what he tells us, what he tells us cannot be relied upon either. Poole then reads The Good Soldier as a murder mystery, in which, rather than being the story its readers had previously assumed—of Ashburnham’s serial adulterous romances, finished by his hopeless passion for his ward, Nancy Rufford, and a tragic denouement in which Florence and Ashburnham both commit suicide, and Nancy goes insane—instead of this, it becomes a story of Dowell and Leonora conspiring together to murder her philandering husband and his heiress wife, with Dowell lying to us to cover up their crimes.
5 For many readers this interpretation is perverse. And by definition there is little reliable evidence for it, other than the inconsistency in the chronology, since if it were true, the deceitful narrator would attempt to conceal it. Poole cunningly couples his insight with an argument about realism, or “vraisemblance,” claiming that Ford’s “game” in The Good Soldier is continually to disconcert his readers’ expectations about genre. Thus any details that from a realist point of view might militate against the murder-story reading are made to disappear, reconfigured as games Ford plays with the idea of realism. For example Jimmy, the young man with whom, according to Dowell, Florence had been having an affair when they first came to Europe, the imminent discovery of which affair Dowell gives as one of her main motivations for committing suicide, is seen by Poole as an impossible character; as someone who simply never existed, but is conjured up by Dowell as an alibi for his hatred of Florence.
6 While he claims to be freeing the novel from what Frank Kermode called a “single right reading,” from another point of view, Poole wants to tie it to what is merely another single reading claiming to be right: a reading in which the chronology is made to work, as a sign of a concealed murder story. But if his arguments hold, what can prevent any interpretation from being valid? If nothing the narrator says can be trusted, if any particular detail can be discarded as the need arises, what cannot be argued about this narrative, or any narrative? For example, at the beginning of Part III, Dowell recounts how Leonora reveals to him that Florence had committed suicide. “Did Florence commit suicide?,” he asks her: “I didn’t know” (126). According to Poole’s reading, this conversation can’t have happened. If Dowell and Leonora had murdered Florence they would both know how she died, and that it hadn’t been suicide. So his narration here would be deceitful. But if that is a lie, how are we to know that anything else he tells us isn’t? How could we be certain that he ever had a wife called Florence; that she and Edward Ashburnham committed adultery with each other and with other people; that she was an heiress; or that they are both dead?
7 Personally I am not persuaded by Poole’s interpretation, for these reasons and also for others that will emerge later. Nevertheless, he is right about Ford’s interest in detective fiction; and more importantly, he seems to me to be responding to genuine qualities in the novel. Much of what Dowell says seems exaggerated, implausible. And I believe Ford consciously sought to arouse a scepticism, a mistrust about many of Dowell’s and the other characters’ utterances (including a scepticism about whether the other characters actually uttered the speeches Dowell reports them as uttering). That’s not to say that such mistrust immediately brands Dowell a liar and a murderer. Rather, that Ford is interested in the ways in which things people say may arouse our suspicions, often at a subliminal level, even as they remain the only things we have to go on. This is the opposite of a response that seeks to stabilise interpretation (as by redescribing what Dowell calls suicides as murders).
8 However, Poole’s argument is significant for another reason. He wanted to “do Ford the elementary courtesy of assuming that he knew what he was doing.” But of course being self-conscious about your technique doesn’t count for much unless the technique works. So the claim for Ford as a great modernist needs to be supported by a demonstration that Ford’s technique is as masterly as it is self-conscious. As suggested, this is where the label “Modernist” slides from being a purely descriptive term denoting certain formal and technical qualities, into a value-judgement. Ford is ajudged a great writer to the extent that his Modernism is exemplary.
9 I suspect that, as his reading of The Good Soldier evolved over several years, this question of Ford’s relation to Modernism began to trouble Roger Poole, and that this concern lies behind his second essay, “How Should We Read Ford?” This wide-ranging essay returns to his claim for Ford’s stature and his reading of The Good Soldier, but broadens the scope to consider his other major work too, and to explore why Ford has not been better recognised. He considers Ford’s own sense of his relation to Modernism:
11 The March of Literature is a vast and idiosyncratic survey, subtitled “From Confucius to Modern Times.” It was aimed at the text-book market, though Ford’s profoundly anti-academic cast of mind ensured that the book’s many qualities don’t include the usual text-book virtues. Nonetheless, it would have looked even less like a text-book had Ford devoted much of it to placing his own work amongst those of his contemporaries, and for a writer often accused of egotism in the literary memoirs in which he did discuss his significant contemporaries, he should be credited with humility in not writing about himself here, rather than charged with omission. Nevertheless, Poole is right about the basic division, which, as he says, is not merely one of history, but also of technique. It turns on the notion of “Conscious Art,” which Ford introduces in Chapter 6 of the final part of Book II, seeing Stendhal and Jane Austen as its precursors, and Flaubert as its master in Chapter 7. As Poole playfully paraphrases:
14 Poole finds what Ford does not say in this book more staggering than what he does: “Why does Ford, who has hobnobbed with the most eminent Modernists of his day, helped many of them into print indeed, supported and cheered on unpopular figures like Joyce and Pound, not present himself as being part of that illustrious group?” (192). It is true that Ford was closely involved, both as friend and editor, with many of the writers we now think of as great modernists: Conrad, Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, Pound, Joyce, Hemingway, Stein, Jean Rhys, and many more. And his role as editor of two literary reviews placed him at the heart of two key Modernist space-times: pre-war London and Paris in the twenties. His detailed knowledge of contemporary writing was virtually unequalled. So yes, there is much force in Poole’s question: “Why is the category of Modernism never discussed, never even mentioned” (192). His frustration that Ford has not written the book he wanted him to is evident: “The fact that Ford has not grouped his literary friends in terms of what they were all trying to do, means that the presentation of The March of Literature is hopelessly skewed” (192).
15 There is of course a danger in defending a claim for Ford’s self-consciousness and technical expertise by rubbishing his criticism as being unaware of his own and his contemporaries’ aims. Poole even goes so far as to accuse Ford of writing The March of Literature as if “in total absence of mind”: so much for self-consciousness! (192). That even such an ardent defender as Poole becomes this exasperated with Ford’s critical writing says much about the risks of his provocative opinions and exaggerations: risks of which he was well aware, and which make his criticism more like Pound’s or Lawrence’s than the patrician authoritativeness of, say, T. S. Eliot’s: “in the end,” he wrote, “it is as useful to have something that will awaken you by its disagreements with yourself as to live for ever in concord with somnolent elders. It gives you another point of view, though you may return to the plane from which you started” (The English Novel 6). The point is to get beyond the phase of startled disagreement, to the superimposed points of view. Poole’s arguments seem worth entertaining further because they suggest a new point of view on Ford, Modernism, and Impressionism; and it is to this relationship I now wish to turn.
16 Are there, then, other ways to account for Ford’s silence over Modernism, without undermining his claim to be a major Modernist? I think there are, and shall outline two of them. First, there is the history of the term “Modernism.” When Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane wrote the introduction to their influential collection of essays, Modernism, that was to define the field for a generation, they seemed untroubled by the fact that none of their many witnesses cited discussing the “Modern” or the “New” actually use the word “Modernism.” One of the first uses of the term as applied to literature is said to be A Survey of Modernist Poetry, published by Robert Graves and Laura Riding in 1927. (The OED doesn’t cite this source, but its earliest instance of “Modernist” or “Modernism” is one about painting from the same year.) Yet “Modernist” here may be a case of a new meaning emerging. That is, “Modern-ist” poetry may simply be a concise way of referring to “Poetry of the modern type,” rather than “Poetry belonging to an established category of ‘Modernism’.” For example, when Ford wrote a poem called “On Heaven” just before the First World War, Ezra Pound wrote to Harriet Monroe (who published it in Poetry) telling her it was “the most important poem in the modern manner” (Selected Letters, 23 May 1914, 37). In 1914 many of the defining works of what we now call Modernism were still to be written. The prevalent meaning was the theological one, which might have caused confusion. If the adjective “Modernist” began to be used of the arts in the late 1920s, the noun “Modernism” appeared later. It is not until the 1930s that both terms begin to take on the meanings they have now, labelling a broad conscious movement, analogous to Impressionism or Symbolism or Expressionism. Ford could, then, just, have used the term in the late 1930s. But it was by no means common currency until much later. In general, Modernists didn’t discuss “Modernism;” it was left to their successors to establish the discourse that drew together the different schools and movements that the Modernists did discuss: fauvism, post-Impressionism, cubism, futurism, imagism, Vorticism.
18 Discussions of “Impressionism” as a literary term tend to begin by acknowledging different types of resistance to its use. It appears to be transferred from painting, where it has a clearer (though also contested) application. What it means in a verbal rather than visual art is less clear. This leads critics to question both the value of transferring such terms between the arts, and whether “Impressionism” can mean anything very specific in literature. The term famously began as an act of ridicule: the art critic Louis Leroy taking up the title of Monet’s Impression: soleil levant and posing what seemed to him an impossibility: making a school out of the sketchy and the numinous. Though the name did indeed come to define a movement, the derogatory sense is still available, as when we criticise an argument as “impressionistic.” The vagueness that “Impressionism” can connote seems integral to its signification as a critical term. Is literary Impressionism like Impressionist painting; writing of intense visuality; writing which moves on rapidly (by analogy with the speed of Impressionist brushstrokes) without full elaboration; a preoccupation with the processes of perception rather than the thing perceived; particularly concerned with aesthetics and the perception of beauty?—and so on.
19 This definitional problem is compounded by a historical one. Again, in Art History the chronology is much clearer. Pictorial Impressionism is decidedly an affair of the late nineteenth century and the fin-de-siècle. The first of the group exhibitions held by the “Société anonyme des peintres, sculpteurs et graveurs,” was in 1874; the last in 1886. “Post-Impressionism” was already identified early in the twentieth century, as in the famous exhibitions organised by Roger Fry in London in 1910 and 1912. In literature one can distinguish two ways of understanding Impressionism chronologically. One is very specific, and sees Impresssionism in writing as exactly contemporary with Impressionism in paint: something occupying the space between Realism and Modernism, and coinciding with the moment of Phenomenology. The other is more concerned to trace the notion of the “Impression” further back: philosophically, to its origins in British empiricism and scepticism in the work of Locke, Hume, and Berkeley; in literature, to the psychological realism of the mid-nineteenth-century.
20 This broader use of the term is Ford’s. Indeed, his is broader still, because he also uses it to cover later literature, including his and his contemporaries’ work in the 1920s and 1930s. It is this breadth that Poole objected to. For Ford, Literary Impressionism overlaps with Realism at one end, and with Modernism at the other, claiming writers such as Joyce, Stein, Dorothy Richardson, and even Hemingway and Pound, as its next generation.
21 Ford’s notion of literary Impressionism has thus seemed wrong-headed to subsequent critics with an investment in a retrospective periodization, seeking clear demarcations between Realism, Naturalism, Aestheticism, Expressionism, and Modernism. Fordian Impressionism offends such notions of periodization by telling a story of continuities from the 1850s to the 1930s, rather than the story critics of Modernism like to hear, of paradigm shifts and epistemological fractures. And it offends both in its historical and technical aspects. Historically, why call Maupassant an Impressionist rather than a Realist or a Naturalist? Why call Pound an Impressionist rather than a Modernist? And technically, why call Maupassant and Pound the same thing, when their work is so self-evidently from different schools?
22 The objections to Ford’s version of Impressionism in literature are thus understandable. And they have contributed to his marginalisation. As Michael Levenson argues, once Ford became “the acknowledged representative of Impressionism” it made him “the target of the anti-Impressionist reaction” amongst fellow Modernists (Levenson 49). And, as we have seen from Poole’s argument, it has been hard for later critics to accord him the status of a major Modernist if they think he didn’t really know what he or his contemporaries were doing. And yet … What if, in Poole’s phrase, we do Ford “the elementary courtesy of assuming that he knew what he was doing” in his criticism as well as in his fiction. What if we take his version of Impressionism as seriously as Poole—rightly, in my view—takes his fiction?
23 After all, Ezra Pound could see Ford’s point. In an influential early essay, “Mr Hueffer and the Prose Tradition in Verse,” Pound endorses Ford’s view that modern poetry “should be as well written as prose,” and that the prose it should be as well written as was that of Flaubert and Maupassant. Even as he was being sceptical about Impressionism, Pound accepted Ford’s emphasis on the line of technical self-consciousness running from Flaubert through Henry James and into the formal experiments practised by Conrad, Ford and Pound. (The great Poundian critic Hugh Kenner, who shared Pound’s admiration for Ford, saw a comparable line, in his book The Stoic Comedians, running from Flaubert, through Joyce, to Beckett.)
24 When Thomas Moser published The Life in the Fiction of Ford Madox Ford in 1980 he said: “The history of literary impressionism remains to be written,” and after giving a sketch of the immense ground that would have to be covered—from British empiricism to phenomenology, from Dickens to Ford—he suggested that “It will probably never be written” (Moser 123-24). Since then, however, there has been significant study of literary Impressionism. Besides monographs focusing on individual writers such as James, Stephen Crane, Conrad and Katherine Mansfield in relation to Impressionism (Hoople, Nagel, Peters, van Gunsteren, Saunders), there have also been comparative studies by Peter Stowell and Todd Bender.
25 But the work of two critics in particular has transformed the history of literary Impressionism and its relation to Modernism. Paul B. Armstrong’s The Challenge of Bewilderment: Understanding and Representation in James, Conrad, and Ford concentrates on the three writers in English most often now called Impressionist, and offers a powerful philosophically-inflected reading of their fiction which certainly contributes to the understanding of Impressionism. Though Armstrong doesn’t discuss Impressionism directly in this book, he does in two related essays on “The Hermeneutics of Literary Impressionism” and “The Epistemology of Ford’s Impressionism.” Where Armstrong gives the chronologically narrower account of Impressionism (as falling between Realism and Modernism), the critic who really has written the longer history of literary Impressionism is Jesse Matz, in Literary Impressionism and Modernist Aesthetics. This excellent study follows critics such as Frederic Jameson and Michael Levenson in arguing that Impressionism is a fundamental antecedent to literary modernism. Its achievement is to establish literary Impressionism as something that can be seen to have a coherent history. Matz’s negotiation of the philosophical tradition investigating the mental “impression” is a tour de force. His central literary figures include the James/Conrad/Ford trio, and also Hardy and Proust. But these are framed with extensive discussions of Walter Pater and Virginia Woolf.
26 Matz combines several complex arguments in ways too intricate to elaborate here. But I want to indicate some of the major implications, especially those which bear on a reading of Ford. He traces the ambiguities in the “impression” from its Empiricist origins, when it is both the passive receiving of the stamp of the world, but also the mental activity of perceiving and thinking about what is received. He begins with Proust, showing how he poses moments of intensely visual sensation and pictorial prose, only to reject them in favour of another kind of impression: the classic moments of involuntary memory in which a present impression recalls a past one. It is this structure connecting impressions across time, and thereby “regaining” or appearing to transcend time, that constitutes Proustian impressionism. By redefining the impression in this way, Matz is then able to trace striking continuities from the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth. The gem-like flame with which Pater wants to burn; the wondering or haunted consciousnesses of James’s novels; Conrad’s rigour in trying “to make you see;” the Modernist epiphanies of Proust, Joyce and Woolf: all these (and one could add others: Lawrence’s visionary vitalism; Eliot’s Tiresias foresuffering all; Pound’s desire to reconnect with the divine energies of Homer or Dante) represent a specific paradigm, which corresponds to a new way of thinking about how the mind works (where Phenomenology, Pragmatism, and Bergsonian Vitalism co-exist); about the experience of knowing, and the relationship between perceiving and understanding.
27 Told in this cogent way, the history of Impressionism does indeed overlap with both Realism and Modernism. Or, to put it a different way, it complicates both Realism and Modernism, showing that Impressionism was not just the fundamental antecedent to Modernism, but the ground on which Modernism is constructed. The style indirect libre of Joyce as well as Flaubert is, after all, a technique for rendering impressions. Though Matz doesn’t argue that Proust and Woolf aren’t modernists, he shows how they are also Impressionists. Their work is still profoundly engaged with the idea of the impression, and how to represent it. Thus Joyce may ironise the Aesthetic movement in A Portrait of the Artist, but even as he does so, his method is Stephen’s Impressionism.
28 This understanding of the history of Literary Impressionism seems to me definitively to answer Roger Poole’s questions about Ford’s neglect of “Modernism,” and his inclusion of writers now called Modernist under the banner of Impressionism. Rather than being a case of critical myopia, Ford’s version of literary history shows extraordinary perspicacity. The work of Flaubert, James, Conrad, Proust, Joyce and Hemingway is so varied that in terms of its subject matter or techniques it seems counter-intuitive to categorise it together. Yet once it has been demonstrated, the concern with the nature of the impression is visible as the connecting thread.
29 This has the consequence of calling into question the claim in Michael Levenson’s influential study A Genealogy of Modernism that “the Impressionist influence on pre-war literary activity was transmitted entirely through Ford’s interpretation of that method” (Levenson 49). It could be true of Conrad, who would have discussed Impressionism with Ford during their ten years of literary collaboration. And it is probably true of Pound and Hemingway. But not of James, Proust, Woolf or Joyce, who came by their Impressionisms by other genealogies.
30 To say this may seem to diminish Ford’s significance as an Impressionist. But another, and less intended, consequence of Matz’s argument is to do quite the reverse. For, of all the writers he discusses, it is Ford who had already constructed the history of Impressionism that corresponds closely to the one Matz demonstrates. Of course there are differences. Ford concentrates on the novelists, and omits the Empiricist philosophers or writers like Pater that did not interest him. And his Impressionism is avowedly international, including Flaubert, Maupassant, and Turgenev, whom Matz does not discuss. (Proust aside, Matz’s Impressionism is predominantly anglophone.) Nevertheless, there Ford is, pioneering an interpretation of literary Impressionism that begins in Realism, goes through Aestheticism and into Modernism.
31 There are several possible reasons why Matz does not acknowledge this. It would disturb his argument, which erroneously conflates Ford with the narrator of The Good Soldier, reading Dowell’s sadness as the self-undoing of Fordian Impressionism. It would steal his thunder if Ford had already done the job of constructing a coherent narrative of literary Impressionism. It is also, perhaps, because the extent to which Ford had already done this doesn’t appear in the two critical texts on which Matz bases his argument: The Critical Attitude (1911) and the essay “On Impressionism” (1914).  He does cite three other critical texts, but so as to suppress...
suite But—as Levenson suggests—Ford’s role as interpreter of Impressionism is not reducible to two texts or a brief moment. From as early as 1905 (when he published The Soul of London, the first volume of his impressionistic trilogy about England and the English) to his last book in 1938, Ford produced a large body of critical writing focusing on Impressionism. Other works that should be added to the list include: the essay “Impressionism—Some Speculations” (which was revised into the Preface for Ford’s 1914 Collected Poems; the two monographs Henry James and Joseph Conrad; the critical serial “Stocktaking” Ford contributed (under the pseudonym “Daniel Chaucer”) to the Transatlantic Review; his study The English Novel: From the earliest days to the death of Joseph Conrad; the essay “Techniques”; the book of critical reminiscences, Portraits from Life (published in the UK as Mightier Than the Sword); and the many passages of criticism in his other memoirs, such as Ancient Lights (published in the USA as Memories and Impressions), Return to Yesterday, and It Was the Nightingale. This is not to mention his literary journalism, most of which remains uncollected. Taken together with The March of Literature this body of criticism comprises literally thousands of pages, and constitutes the most sustained and extensive investigation into Literary Impressionism in the twentieth century.
32 Even so, it is as a novelist that he matters most. And in the space that remains, I want to sketch how an understanding of Ford’s version of Impressionism can contribute to a reading of The Good Soldier. Martin Stannard’s excellent Norton Critical Edition of the novel presents relevant discussions of Literary Impressionism by Ford and others. And there have been valuable discussions of Ford’s impressionism, as for example in Moser’s study; or Ian Watt’s Conrad in the Nineteenth Century. But Matz’s rehabilitation of literary impressionism suggests other ways in which this might be done.
33 Ford’s remarks on Impressionism can sound like a naïve psychological realism if taken out of context as they often are by critics; as when he says:
35 Characteristically, rather than definining these impressions abstractly, he gives examples, written as illustrative fictions. In Joseph Conrad he invents the figure of ‘Mr Slack’ and gives an entertaining account of how one could render his building and painting of a greenhouse, described first as bald narration, then as remembered impressions. “And, if that is how the building of your neighbour’s greenhouse comes back to you,” he adds teasingly, “just imagine how it will be with your love-affairs that are so much more complicated. …” (182).
36 Two of his other examples give a fuller sense of this complexity, and shed light on his aims for The Good Soldier. The first (written while he was working on that novel), from the essay “On Impressionism,” gives an intensely visual sensation (of the kind that leads critics to associate literary impressionism with painting):
38 The “queer effects of real life” visualised here are multiple but essentially static—“all going on simultaneously.” The other example, again from Joseph Conrad, is also about the building up of a superimposed multiple perspective. In this case it is an impression of a man: one who has much in common with Edward Ashburnham. And the passage describes perfectly the method of The Good Soldier, which moves from Dowell’s first impression of Ashburnham as one of the impeccable “good people,” to a much more ambiguous awareness of him, and the complexity of his love-affairs:
40 Indeed, it is also the method of the brilliant memoir of Conrad from which it comes. Here the emphasis is on process: on the instability of impressions; how they constantly transform and astonish; how they militate against chronological straight-forwardness (and indeed moral straight-forwardness too), and necessitate time-shifts—the working “backwards and forwards.” Where the first example concentrates on the phenomology of impressionism—what the experience of perceiving things is like—the second is also attentive to its epistemology—its processes of knowing and understanding.
41 What they both have in common is the idea of multiple interpretations, views, of the object; whether something seen, or something thought, or something remembered. The multiple perspectives produced on the “English gentleman at your golf club” are comparable to those Dowell ends up with on all the other major characters by the end of the book. Not only Ashburnham, the model English public school product, who emerges as a serial adulterer overwhelmed by a quasi-incestuous passion for his ward. But also: Nancy, the fresh schoolgirl who reveals a desire and cruelty Dowell finds shocking; Leonora, the perfect, chaste wife, who at times seems a cold control freak, and who rushes into a second marriage with a neighbour who is likened to a rabbit; and even Florence, who though always brash and flirtatious, turns out to have been faking a heart condition so as to conduct her affairs.
42 Put like this it sounds like a story of disillusion; the gradual destruction of all Dowell’s ideals, and consequent ironising of British society and its ideology. But if that were all, it wouldn’t be particularly original or compelling. We all make mistakes; realize; learn from them. But what Ford wants isn’t a linear narrative of illusion replaced by disillusion, as the idealized view of people gets destroyed by gradual revelations of their intrigues and squalor. Rather, it’s the way the gradual knowledge exists superimposed over the idealized view, without managing to destroy it. Like views seen through bright glass … But we still need to ask why Dowell doesn’t just accept that he was wrong; why he doesn’t let go of the idealization once it’s been shown up as illusion, treachery, futility. One of the best accounts of Dowell’s predicament is Paul Armstrong’s:
44 That last touch is brilliant, and I shall return to it later. But Armstrong’s intelligent philosophically-inflected reading seems to me nonetheless to misrepresent Ford’s purposes. The language here is of an intellectual game: of playing with an epistemological issue; of feeling forced to make a rational choice. But unlike the critic, Dowell is not a philosopher; he is a participant whose life has been devastated by the story he pieces together. It is not, for him, a question of choosing between faith and unmasking. He has lived them both. He has had both impressions, and they are still with him.
45 At this level, the narrative as a whole is striving for something once again comparable to the overlayering of views seen through bright glass. As in Matz’s reading of Proust, the connecting of different impressions across time gives the whole “affair” a shimmering presence beyond the flow of time. The difference in subject matter perhaps obscures the extent to which The Good Soldier, like À la recherche du temps perdu, is organized around the remembering of impressions. But to describe the novel as aiming at a life-like multiplicity of impressions, a coexistence of contradictory views rather than a choosing between them, is again to reduce it to the philosophical; to a philosophical cliché, even; since if all Ford were saying were that people and their experiences are ambiguous, contradictory, and ultimately unknowable, we’d be less interested.
46 The crucial question about Fordian Impressionism—and one which I have not seen addressed—seems to me to be why this technique of overlayering, and the psychology it is based upon, might be correct; and why it matters. The reason Dowell can’t let go of his idealized first impressions of his “good people” is surely because he loved them. If you meet a man at a dinner who impresses you as a decent, appealing person, but you later find out he is untrustworthy, you’d be unlikely to cling onto that first impression unless you had really cared about it. Dowell’s description of his first sight of Ashburnham is so full and tender that it reads like a case of love at first impression. Ford’s Impressionism, that is, is as much concerned with the feelings as with perception and knowledge. Which is one reason why he subtitled The Good Soldier “A Tale of Passion.” Passion, as both love and suffering, is the hallmark of the Fordian impression. For it is passion which makes the deepest impression, or allows other things to make their impression under its sign. After all, disillusion is only painful when we care about the illusions.That is why there is such an investment of nostalgia in narratives of disillusion, such as The Great Gatsby or Le Grand Meaulnes.
47 Psychoanalysis gives a different account of how our first impressions persist even after we know better: in the unconscious. But Ford’s ideas about impressions can be seen as a parallel version, and one that places comparable stress on affect and transference. Dowell is explicit about how he has loved or desired all the women characters, who then become impossible objects of passion. Indeed, the novel suggests that at one level it is precisely the taboo that arouses passion (which is perhaps one reason why Ford had originally called the novel The Saddest Story).
48 With the female characters, Dowell’s disillusion turns to negativity. He says he can’t conceal from himself that he dislikes Leonora. His contempt for Florence is evident. Nancy’s tragic fate leaves him sounding drained of feeling and bitter. But after Ashburnham has died, and Dowell is in full possession of the facts of his treachery, Ford gives his tale of passion a very strange last turn of the screw. Dowell is in the position where he ought to hate Edward Ashburnham. Edward, his friend, who first of all has been committing adultery with Dowell’s wife; and who then, without quite realizing what he’s doing, declares his love for Nancy too. So Ashburnham is Dowell’s successful rival twice over, and has destroyed both desire-objects (Florence has committed suicide; Nancy has undergone a kind of moral or mental suicide, plunging into catatonia).
49 Why, then, doesn’t Dowell hate Ashburnham? He certainly has more than enough motive for his tale of passion to turn into the story of crime passionnel that Roger Poole proposed. The answer appears to be that, emotionally, Ashburnham is too close to him. Dowell has identified with him to an almost bizarre degree, loving the women he loves, even, in the end, living where he lived. And there are two things to be said about this identification. First, it is a form of love. Something else Dowell says he “can’t conceal” from himself is “the fact that I loved Edward Ashburnham—and that I love him because he was just myself. …” (291).
50 This may seem extreme; absurd even, given that Dowell has until then consistently portrayed himself as diametrically opposed to Ashburnham as a type or character: the feminised American in contrast to Ashburnham’s macho Englishman: woman or solicitor or eunuch or nurse-maid as opposed to good soldier, raging stallion, man’s man. It also conjures up the homoerotic (a queer effect, or affect, indeed), not least because the terms of identification match Dowell’s description of Ashburnham’s passion for Nancy:
52 The second point is that this desire to lose your identity is also Ford’s Impressionist desire for vicarious experience: the desire to see, touch, and hear the sensations of the other.
53 This is the ultimate aim, I think, of Fordian impressionism. To be able to hold in mind, or heart, simultaneously, two (or more) violently opposed feelings towards someone or something: identification and betrayal; generosity and jealousy; love and hate. It is not a trick like that of the murder story or thriller writer: “Ah, you thought so-and-so was an innocent bystander, a harmless vicar etc, but I’m going to show you s/he was really the murderer or the spy.” Instead, it seeks an emotional vraisemblance: to capture the dynamic and conflictual nature of the passions. Once you’ve loved someone, and they’re etched into your heart, you can’t just discard those feelings because you feel betrayed, or have discovered their coldness. It’s not that Dowell is inadequate to judge, but that judgment is inadequate to Ford’s sense of human complexity and ambiguity. In fact, Dowell is doing what Ford said the novelist should: rendering without moralizing. This position is a crucial aspect of Ford’s account of Impressionism, and it is with it that I shall conclude.
54 What most exercises him in the writers of what he disparagingly called “nuvvles” is how they pronounce moral judgements upon their characters. This tendency seemed to him a particularly English vice; its absence was one of the qualities he prized most in the writers he most admired: Flaubert; Maupassant; Turgenev; James; Crane; Conrad; Joyce; Pound; Hemingway. It may now be clear why Armstrong’s comment about Ford “forcing his readers to make a decision …” needs qualification. It is critics who tend to force such a decision. Whereas The Good Soldier seems to me to preclude such detached rational choice. Armstrong is right that it doesn’t warrant such judgementality, but his language still insists on it, rather than acknowledging that Fordian Impressionism seeks a fuller response than can be accounted for by epistemology or ethics. Dowell is someone to whom readers often feel drawn even as they find him preposterous or possibly deceiving or self-deceiving. Transference between character and reader can make a powerful impression too. It is not just judgments within the novel, but also the reader’s judgments about characters that can be inflected by love.
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[ 1] He does cite three other critical texts, but so as to suppress any sense of the development of Ford’s aesthetics, the easier to condemn him for a “politics of nostalgia”—a phrase Matz borrows uncritically from Robert Green, who only uses it of Ford’s Fifth Queen trilogy. See Green, chapter 2. A similar problem is visible in Matz’s failure to distinguish between the two versions of the other novel he discusses in detail: Ladies Whose Bright Eyes. Though he gives both dates, he seems unaware that the 1911 version was revised in 1935 to include the reference to Russia; a revision that precisely indicates Ford’s move to the political left during the 1930s.
Ford Madox Ford est de plus en plus reconnu en tant que romancier moderniste de premier plan. Cet article commence par étudier les arguments qui plaident en faveur du modernisme de Ford. Il avance ensuite que la critique fordienne annonce des études récentes qui associent Modernisme et Impressionnisme. Enfin, il montre comment la conscience de cette relation contribue à la compréhension de The Good Soldier, le roman le plus célèbre de Ford.
Ford Madox Ford is increasingly recognized as a major Modernist novelist. This essay begins by assessing recent claims made for Ford’s Modernism. It argues that Ford’s criticism anticipates recent studies relating Modernism to Impressionism. And it ends by indicating how an understanding of this relationship might enrich a reading of Ford’s best-known novel, The Good Soldier.
POUR CITER CET ARTICLE
Max Saunders « Modernism, Impressionism, and Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier », Études anglaises 4/2004 (Tome 57), p. 421-437.
URL : www.cairn.info/revue-etudes-anglaises-2004-4-page-421.htm.