The Lapwing's Feather (Wuthering Heights)
Below is the text of a very short talk I gave at the symposium, "Novel Failures," hosted by Thom Dancer and Danny Wright at the University of Toronto (held on Zoom), March 25, 2022. Participants were asked to select a single novel to discuss and I chose Wuthering Heights --how could I not? Thanks to Thom and Danny for this invitation to think alongside a group of sincerely brilliant writers and readers.
I’m grateful to Danny and to Thom, two readers I really admire, for this chance to think through the concept of failure by way of a single novel. One time many years ago now, when I was in graduate school, I was talking with Nancy Armstrong about an idea for a panel at a conference, which I still think is a good idea, which was that each panelist would think of an old Victorian novel that hardly anyone had read or heard about, that was in some way representative of a broader trend or ideology or whatever, and spend all their time on the panel, the full twenty minutes, explaining why nobody should ever read this novel, and should instead read Wuthering Heights. So I’d like to think of this as a way of trying to deliver on that idea, especially since the questions we were joking with, about exemplarity and the singular and the flattening effects of instrumental reading practices, are ones that Wuthering Heights is itself engaged deeply in. I don’t know about “the novel form,” but I’ll say here that this novel wages its concern for the nonexchangeable and particular against what it charts as a rising extractive epistemology, an instrumental thought-form or mental grammar that we turn out to share with the Lockwoods and Edgars of the book’s owning class.
That is to say, then, that Wuthering Heights, is in no way a failure but instead the greatest book ever written, or at least top five, though of course not everybody thinks so, or has thought so. My favorite early review says “This is a strange book… wild, confused, disjointed and improbable,” which is true. This history of incomprehending reception, extending well into the present day and into even my own reading of it, is part of what I want to hold in the background here, whole generations of Lockwoods, and me too, meeting this incomprehensible object and seeking always fruitlessly to make it cohere, to still it into successful closure. And that dynamic of invited but also frustrated readerly involvement that Hillis Miller and others have noted is helpful in illustrating that whenever we talk about “Wuthering Heights,” we are really talking not about the object itself, the book or the story, but the subject-object dynamic of necessarily interactive sense-making that includes both the historical situation of Wuthering Heights and our own position and desires as we stare at it, confused, and try to figure out what it’s doing, whether it’s failing or maybe we are.
This dynamic of entrapment is true of all readerly encounters, maybe, but built into the program of Wuthering Heights, what it’s about, with its nested screens of narratorial address and vertigo-inducing frames-within-frames. Janet Gezari notes that all editors have had to contend with the purely typographical problem that if you handled quotation marks properly you’d have what she calls massive “banks” of quotation marks, quotes within quotes within quotes. So as with all the best novels it’s already way ahead of us, thinking of us thinking of it, so I want to note that dynamic here and try to tease out the implications for (what I’m saying is) the book’s immanent critique of the thought-forms it describes as proper to an extractive modern system; the novel goes further than this diagnosis to intuit that the extractive modern episteme we share with certain ironized characters in the book can end only in catastrophe, the outcome of modern reason is disaster. It is in this admittedly mediated sense that I think Wuthering Heights is a novel about climate collapse.
What is success, anyway? I imagine many of us will be talking about this today, but if we mean closure or satisfaction or achievement, in the sense of coming to rest in a final form, Wuthering Heights is not that. I don’t know if Theodor Adorno ever read Wuthering Heights, but when he was thinking about figures of closure and resolution in Beethoven, he noted that harmony was the “humanistic aspect” of any artwork, its affirmative moment and its attempt to assert a kind of sentimental positivity in the face of (what he called) “the rising chaos of the dominance of nature and nature’s rebellion against such dominance.”[i] So success in this sense is a species of imperial-humanist triumphalism, the assertion of civilizing mastery over material that is disinclined to wear that yoke. There’s another kind of success, too, besides the violence of formal completion, which is the more basic one of do people like it or not, and here for Wuthering Heights the tale is more complicated, since as I said it was subjected to the most hilariously uncomprehending reviews at first, but then to a cycle of general apologetics and rehabilitation and taming romanticization, all of this started by Charlotte herself, who edited the book for the second edition, straightening out the weird parts and “fixing” foreign dialect, and prefigured nearly all of the novel’s future misreadings in her framing introduction. Since then of course the novel has become hypercanonical, beloved, and the centerpiece, with Jane Eyre, of a whole industry of fetishization whose origins reach back to the start of the Bronte Society in 1893 and forward to this moment, when a talk on it kicks off a whole roundtable about “novel form.”
This is a history of declawing and commodification but, more precisely, it is a history of the adjustment of a bristly and recalcitrant object to fit the conceptual categories of the subjects viewing it. And again, that misfit and process of overwriting is what Wuthering Heights is fundamentally about. We all recall Lockwood’s narcissistically masculine tendency to impose himself onto a foreign object world. This becomes physical in his tendency to push open gates, barge into rooms, and charge through social cues: “I commenced again,” he says after Cathy meets his idiot’s comments about the weather with silence. She ignores him still, but he keeps going, “I continued,” he says, and “I hemmed once more, and drew closer to the hearth, repeating my comment on the wildness of the evening” (7). All of this imbecilic self-assertion reinforces Lockwood’s position as the bourgeois reader par excellance, always trying but failing to subsume the object world into himself: “I’m running on too fast,” he famously says in describing Heathcliff, “I bestow my own attributes over-liberally on him” (3). However ridiculous, this rage toward the object world blinds him to concrete specificity of what he encounters and matches Nelly’s efforts to cover Cathy’s face when she’s saying the unthinkable. (In a gorgeous reading of this scene in Bad Logic, Danny says Nelly notices something “dangerous” about Cathy’s thought.)
True to his namesake John Locke, who in the Second Treatise told all future liberal imperialists that extraction was coterminous with improvement, Lockwood vows to “extract wholesome medicines from Mrs. Dean’s bitter herbs” and turn her raw material to “wholesome” use (136). His compulsion to grab and to use and to know (“comprehend,” remember, comes from “to grasp”), makes him a paradigm of a rising extractive rationality whose goal is mastery, a word whose variants run like electric current through the novel, appearing in different forms – master, mastery, my master, her master, the old master, the young master—more than two hundred times. A preliminary list of extractive economies alluded to in the novel would include stone quarrying, coal mining, land enclosure, rent collection and plantation slavery, extending even as I said to the demand for narrative itself. New game laws too, help confirm the book’s crazy and hyperbolically precise dating scheme, but also limn the edges of the extractive common-sense gathering around the novel’s events. Cathy will describe with particularizing care the species of birds whose feathers have made her pillow, “ranging them on the sheet according to their different species” (108).
In this throwaway moment the novel pays intricate attention to Cathy’s ability to see differences where others see sameness, her careful disassembly of these biotic remains-- turkey, wild-duck, pigeon, moorcock, and lapwing-- also showing how the tender and individuating engagement with the object world cuts against the rising rational program that would flatten all of this to commodity. While she arrays the feathers Nelly says “you’re wandering. There’s a mess! The down is flying about like snow” (108). In contrast to Cathy’s wandering care for nonhuman remains (“I should know it among a thousand,” she says of the lapwing feather), Nelly’s mind sees not singular life-forms but their appearance as a commodity, “down.” And even this she instantly switches with something else, using the exchange logic of simile to equate Cathy’s specific feathers to another thing, “snow.”
Evident across both the minor and major registers of the novel’s practice, such moments show the conversion process by which “normal” or bourgeois thought transforms life into use and extracts value from it. In disclosing the brutality on which these processes of conversion depend—animal bodies turned to downy pillows, hatless children into Disney princesses--Wuthering Heights draws attention also to the instrumentalist cognitive dispositions from within which we ourselves read the novel. Who wants success? Lockwood wants it, he has business in town and throws cash at the feet of servants so they remember him as a gentleman. Readers want it, since even some of the best ones have claimed that the book is ultimately progressive and upwardly-tending, that its ending is “happy,” even when this conclusion is held to be ideological or, from the critic’s perspective, bad.[ii]
But Lockwood’s narration of the “benign sky” and “soft wind breathing through the grass” at the very end of the book dares to believe, in line with the emergent official reason he represents, that closure has come to the novel’s world, heteronormative conciliation achieved, ghosts stilled in “quiet earth” (300). It is an apparently successful conclusion that offers to readers whatever pleasure might accompany the reduction of the novel’s spinning, entangled chaos into something like closure. The problem is that it’s a lie. [SLIDE] The soothing conciliation of sibilants and voiceless fricatives (“moths fluttering among the heath, and hare bells,” “soft” “grass” “slumbers” “sleepers”) performs resolution and peace, the prose seeming to agree with Lockwood’s reading that ghosts have been stilled and all is quiet. But on inspection we see hints that this allegedly dead world sleeps unrestingly: it is not a bee but a moth, emblem of night, that flutters among the flowers, and the soft wind “breath[es]” because it is charged with the life that the novel’s peasants, if not Lockwood, know still to walk the moors. Located as it is in the point of view an imbecile tourist and serial misreader of the unruly territory he visits, this stilled set-piece becomes legible not as closure but as the fantasy of it -- albeit a fantasy whose definitive liquidation is, by virtue of the groundless narrative architecture of the novel, withheld from us. We cannot rest in even closure’s refusal.
The Great Acceleration was only beginning to rewrite earth history when Adorno wrote that “the successful work is not one which resolves objective contradictions in a spurious harmony, but one which expresses the idea of harmony negatively.”[iii] In the aftermath of the logistical rationality that brings Heathcliff to Liverpool, drives Earnshaw’s rackrenting, and structures Lockwood’s “business,” Bronte’s novel asks us to spend a moment with the feathers, each different from the last, and to care for them. Nelly won’t like it.
[i] “Late Work without Late Style.” In Beethoven: The Philosophy of Music. Edmund Jephcott, trans. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998.
[ii] Koegler’s account of the conclusion of the book refers to “the pervading sense after Heathcliff’s demise” being “one of a “right order” having been reestablished, an order that sees a repatriation of property to rightful owners and the promising union of two young, white offspring—Catherine II and Hareton— who will likely build a new, joint lineage for both houses.” (Koegler 281) But the “pervading sense” of order is Lockwood’s reading only, and that of the critics who share his cognitive biases. My suggestion is that this pervading sense is pervasive only for those whose categories of humanity, civility, decency and right order are disturbed by the challenges to them waged across the book: liberal readers both Victorian and modern.
[iii] ” (Cultural Criticism and Society,” (written 1951) in Prisms (1967) 32, qtd Jay, Dialectical Imagination 179)
Nathan K. Hensley
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