Wharton on stream-of-consciousness

I just cracked open Edith Wharton’s The Writing of Fiction, and I’m getting a kick out of her dour, nothing-new-under-the-sun dismissal of the stream-of-consciousness approach.

[T]he slice of life [approach of the French realists] has lately reappeared, marked by certain unimportant differences, and relabelled the stream of consciousness; and, curiously enough, without its new exponents’ appearing aware that they are not also its originators….

The stream of consciousness method differs from the slice of life in noting mental as well as visual reactions, but resembles it in setting them down just as they come, with a deliberate disregard of their relevance in the particular case, or rather with the assumption that their very unsorted abundance constitutes in itself the author’s subject.

This attempt to note down every half-aware stirring of thought and sensation, the automatic reactions to every passing impression, is not as new as its present exponents appear to think. It has been used by most of the greatest novelists, not as an end in itself, but as it happened to serve their general design: as when their object was to portray a mind in one of those moments of acute mental stress when it records with meaningless precision a series of disconnected impressions.

The value of such “effects” in making vivid a tidal rush of emotion has never been unknown since fiction became psychological, and novelists grew aware of the intensity with which, at such times, irrelevant trifles impinge upon the brain; but they have never been deluded by the idea that the subconscious — that Mrs. Harris of the psycologists — could in itself furnish the materials for their art. All the greatest of them, from Balzac and Thackeray onward, have made use of the stammerings and murmurings of the half-conscious mind whenever — but only when — such a state of mental flux fitted into the whole picture of the person portrayed.

 

I’m looking forward to Hermione Lee’s forthcoming Wharton biography. I wonder how she’ll deal with the more troubling facets of her subject.


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