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Caleb William and 'Cruel Identities'

It's been two weeks since my new third-year option module kicked off, and after beginning with de Quincey and Descartes, this week's text was William Godwin's paranoid political-gothic novel Caleb Williams. There's something pleasingly concentrated and intense about third year teaching (I guess the looming prospect of degree classification must focus the mind!) and I was really impressed with the discussion.

We began by thinking about Caleb as both narrating and narrated. Caleb is quite a self-conscious (and potentially suspicious) narrator, something made clear quite early on - 'I shall interweave with Mr. Collins's story various information which I afterwards received from other quarters...to avoid confusion in my narrative, I shall drop the person of Collins, and assume to be myself the historian of our patron' - right up until the point where he essentially revokes the vindicatory aim of his 'half-told and mangled tale'.

Yet he is also narrated. Picking up from critics, students noted the way his early schooling in reading, novels and romance pre-forged, to an extent, the trajectories of his own life. What else is the fatal doubling between Falkland and Caleb but a kind of chivalric romance? The identities he adopts (Jew, Irishman, writer, robber?) seem outcast or tellingly marginal, as if borrowed from various literary genres. The fact he becomes both writer and subject of criminal narrative emblematises this collision of narrating/narration.

This then became politicised. The 'narrated' aspect of Caleb's identities (and they are plural!) can be usefully linked to ideologies and institutions: the ways that political 'subjectivity' is more passive ('to be subject to') than active, or, pace Althusser, the way we are beckoned or 'hailed' into certain identities that we recognise and accept as our own. Ideology 'pre-narrates' us. This, by no coincidence, is also one of the key problems of Godwin's political philosophy, which tries to separate a 'pure' rational self away from all the various formations created by upbringing, education and the ideological status quo. 

Taken this way, Caleb Williams because a novel about the various ways that Caleb ends up accepting subject positions - identities - which he has been 'trained' or 'formed' to accept. For all his desperate striving for freedom, he continually entraps itself: defining himself through the very political order he struggles with, never able to shake or dissolve the complex relation with Falkland and Falkland's history that defines him. The seminar seemed to very much like the idea (borrowed from Alex Gold's 1977 article) that he also compulsively repeated the familial/affective structure - the passionate dependence - he had sought and lost in his relationship with Falkland. Every subject position - guilty, rebellious, persecuted, fugitive, reverential, penitential - can be seen as him twisting on a snare that won't let him go.

And it is a snare: I really liked a particular turn in the discussion which noted that the subject positions which Caleb moved to occupy are self-destructive; indeed, the Falkland-Caleb axis itself is mutually destructive, with both men scoured and reduced by the novel's close (at least in the published ending). Of course, to note that Caleb's situation becomes more and more brutal (to the point of madness and bare existence, in the manuscript ending) is fairly obvious. What is interesting is that if we accept Caleb is to some extent 'narrated' by ideology - that his 'identities' are responses to power, to some extent shaped and determined by structures of power - then we have a useful and informative paradox. The sites that Caleb seeks to produce or maintain his sense of self are sites that continually erode and break down identity. In his most authentic 'strivings' for freedom, he ends up adopting disguises which blur who he is; his resistance to power repeatedly incarcerates and restrains him; his hiding places (e.g. as the author of highwaymen and criminal biography) ultimately do not secure him safety but expose him to capture.

Perhaps it's because I've been reading Lauren Berlant's Cruel Optimism (which theorises we maintain attachments to ideas of self and life which ultimately harm both ourselves and our lives), I was much taken with this aporia of 'self-production/self-destruction'. Perhaps we see its ultimate embodiment in the novel's later stages, where Caleb finally tries to unburden his 'secret' and condemn Falkland. Throughout the novel, he has held to a fantasy - to a single 'attachment' - that despite his suffering and persecution, he could always finally accuse Falkland and end it all. That 'truthful' speech-act, held in reserve, was his consolation and, to some extent, the thing that rooted his sense of self among all the paranoia and surveillance. Yet, when he does accuse Falkland, the 'truth' changes nothing. His subject position as accuser is impotent; the consolatory fantasy has been groundless all along. As such, all his agonies about holding back the secret, fearing the revenge of Falkland, have been broadly pointless. Yet again, the subject position he has struggled into was not an identity he could properly know or control: indeed, it was one that broke him down, eroded and weakened him - for little or nothing. I don't know whether this is a novel of 'cruel optimism', but it certainly is a novel of cruel identity. 

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