Experience on trial: criminal law and the modernist novel

Ferguson, Rex (2009) Experience on trial: criminal law and the modernist novel. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Printed Thesis Information: https://eleanor.lib.gla.ac.uk/record=b2701603


The cultural forms of modernity become truly modern only when specific experience, as opposed to tradition or faith, is made the basis of epistemological authority. By taking the primary examples of law and literature, this thesis argues that the criminal trial and realist novel of the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries perfectly conform to this statement. But by the early twentieth-century, experience had, as Walter Benjamin put it, ‘fallen in value’. As such, the modernist novel and trial come to have foundations in a non-experience which nullifies identity, subverts repetition and supplants presence with absence. The philosophical basis of experience, its fundamental basis within the novel and trial, and the theoretical manifestations of its dissolving, are outlined in the substantial Introduction to this thesis. Chapter One then specifically examines E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924) within the context of the administration of justice in British India. Adela Quested’s supposed assault within the Marabar cave is argued to be a non-event which in no way conforms to the modern sense of experience outlined in the Introduction. This resonates with the state of the trial in British India, in which many magistrates became convinced of the rampant perjury of the natives, turning their decisions into a matter of deciding between the less untrue of two false accounts. Like the non-event in the Marabar cave, the crime that was supposedly at the heart of the trial, the experience at its core, was thus slipping from view. In the second part of Chapter One, it is argued that in his theoretical work, Aspects of the Novel (1927), Forster, responding to anxieties about the novel’s experiential loss, attempted to codify the laws of the realism. This project had much in common with the Acts of legal codification that took place in British India in the 1860s and ‘70s, particularly that of Sir James Fitzjames Stephen’s Indian Evidence Act 1872, which sought to retain a form of representation that was congruent with a traditional conception of experience, thus safeguarding judgment. In Chapter Two, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915) is analysed in the light of legal developments in expert witnessing and criminal identification. One of the specific issues of Ford’s novel is the kind of identity it portrays. Without commensurable experiences that can be reasonably assimilated and communicated, the identities of The Good Soldier resist the common recognition of a realist character. Legal developments in the attribution of responsibility and the identification of criminals are argued to parallel the methods by which Ford’s ‘Literary Impressionism’, by contrast, provides the image of his actors. In many ways, these issues were matters for expert witnesses, a growing number of whom were taking the stand in British courts. By taking judgment out of the hand of the layman, expertise was supplanting experience. But this was not limited to the legal forum – in the final part of Chapter Two it is suggested that Ford’s novel, itself, responds to a sense of expert reading. Chapter Three discusses Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (1913-1927) in connection to two points of legal interest. Firstly, the Dreyfus case, which, in its reliance upon absent evidence parallels the denigration of presence that exists in Proust’s novel. Secondly, Dreyfus’ supporters, in calling for a re-trial, asked for a certain form of repetition to take place. The repetitious legal forms of review, appeal, and precedent are then examined in relation to the various forms of repetition that exist within Proust’s work. By utilising Platonic, Nietzschean, and Freudian theories of repetition, it is argued that experience has truly fallen in value when the origins of repetition can be only obliquely discerned. In the Conclusion, the continuity of a realist tradition, and a modernist impulse of non-experience, will be traced in contemporary works – Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001) and The Staircase (2005), a documentary film by Jean-Xavier De Lestrade about a real murder trial in North Carolina. Finally, a view is offered of the future of experience in the novel and courtroom: one which, based upon John D. Caputo’s reading of Jacques Derrida’s work, stresses the ethical nature of doing truth and making reality in the very act of allowing experience to slip away.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Modernism, Law and Literature
Subjects: K Law > K Law (General)
P Language and Literature > PR English literature
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts & Humanities > School of Critical Studies > English Literature
Supervisor's Name: McLoughlin, Dr. Kate and Farmer, Professor Lindsay
Date of Award: 2009
Depositing User: Mr Rex Ferguson
Unique ID: glathesis:2009-1319
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 07 Dec 2009
Last Modified: 04 Feb 2013 15:38
URI: https://theses.gla.ac.uk/id/eprint/1319

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