From the Print Journal

Strange Likeness: Description and the Modernist Novel by Dora Zhang

Zhang, Strange Likeness cover
Strange Likeness: Description and the Modernist Novel. Dora Zhang. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2020. Pp. 240. $95.00 (cloth); $27.50 (paper); $26.99 (pdf).

© 2022 Johns Hopkins University Press

With its tight focus on figuration in a hypercanonical trio of authors—Henry James, Marcel Proust, Virginia WoolfDora Zhang’s Strange Likeness feels almost deliberately unfashionable. Its fine readings, its deft deployment of narrative theory, its rigorous illuminations of the uses of description and metaphor in modernism, all read in many ways like the work of an earlier and more confident moment in the history of literary studies. It is refreshingly free of the cant that can seem everywhere now: the trumped-up claims for ethical urgency, the desperate engagements with novel and often barely relevant theoretical frameworks, and the confused substitution of criticism for politics. At a moment when not just modernist studies but literary studies writ large are facing institutional eclipse, it is thrilling to be reminded that, in the right hands, the old tools can still do so much. (This is not to imply that Zhang insulates herself from contemporary theoretical developments. In particular, she avails herself of some of the newer ways of talking about emotion that have become popular in recent years.)

Zhang goes in chronological order—from James to Proust to Woolf—but I’m going to begin at the end, with Woolf. Zhang picks out a feature of Woolf’s writing that every reader of Woolf will recognize, even if they hadn’t been aware that they had noticed it before. That’s the tendency, in moments of charged epiphany, or baffled love and inarticulate affection, or accesses of transcendence or just the suspicion of transcendence, for Woolf’s free indirect discourse to resort to the demonstrative or the deictic, “This” or “That.” Think of Mrs. Dalloway’s “This moment of June,” or, more idiosyncratically, “She knew nothing; no language, no history; she scarcely read a book now, except memoirs in bed; and yet to her it was absolutely absorbing; all this; the cabs passing; and she would not say of Peter, she would not say of herself, I am this, I am that” (4, 8–9).

In an unforced historicization, Zhang draws on Woolf’s fellow Bloomsburyite Bertrand Russell to illuminate the peculiar character of meaningful meaninglessness that such deictics involve. Russell wanted to pin down the linguistic features of two different kinds of knowledge: knowledge by acquaintance, that is, knowledge proper to oneself and premised on one’s own unshareable experience, and knowledge by description, that is, knowledge rendered into language that can be shared. “This,” I might think, confronted with a table: that’s acquaintance. “This round, wooden table,” I might say to another, describing something that can become a shared object of knowledge.

Zhang shows that Woolf’s deployment of deictics at moments of intensive subjectivity is not just another weapon in the modernist novel’s arsenal of deepening psychological interiorities, but itself a species of simulated knowledge by acquaintance that makes possible a form of knowledge by description. Novels, or at least modernist novels, offer “the experience of the other, but rendered intimately as if experienced by the self; put otherwise, descriptions that aspire to the condition of acquaintance” (152). Zhang takes up a familiar thesis—that innovations in modernist poetics make available newly precise representations of psychology—but she shows how much we still have to learn about the stakes and the formal mechanisms of that enormous and still fertile project. One of those stakes, as I’ll discuss below, is that psychological interiority, especially to the extent that it is a function of social relatedness, is not exactly “subjective”; it has an objectivity of its own. 

The logically solipsistic character of the experience of thisness is a high point of modernism’s poetics of communicable incommunicability. “Unlike a Romantic sublime beyond comprehension,” Zhang writes, “the ineffable in modernism is what we know too well for words” (157). I am reminded of Wallace Stevens’s tautologies and also of the last sentence in his “The Man on the Dump,” a tautology mystically beyond deixis: not “This the” but “The the.” (This tautology, as the whole line makes clear, is another name for the truth: “Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.”)[2] As in Woolf, the ineffable is immanent in the quotidian: “Days pass like papers from a press,” Stevens writes (Collected Poetry, 184).

Strange Likeness begins with Henry James. Like Woolf, James’s experimental forms of figuration are expressions of the period’s interest in cognitive and emotional opacities. Whereas Woolf’s “this” names a definitionally private kind of precision, what Zhang calls “James’s vagueness” achieves a similar kind of subjective specificity by other means (62). Following David Kurnick, Zhang focuses on James’s routine “underdescription”; in place of the sort of descriptions one might find in realism, we get metaphors like this one, from The Golden Bowl’s description of Adam Verver: “His neat colourless face, provided with the merely indispensable features, suggested immediately, for a description, that it was clear, and in this manner somewhat resembled a small decent room, clean-swept and unencumbered with furniture, but drawing a particular advantage, as might presently be noted, from the outlook of a pair of ample and uncurtained windows” (62; quoted in Zhang, 1).

James, here, takes realist description and strips it of mimetic reference. As Zhang writes, “the vivid images conjured up in modernist descriptions direct us to ‘see’ something other than how the world looks” (3). After all, “however vivid the image is in its own right, it actually obstructs us from picturing a face, directing us forcefully instead toward imagining an empty room” (22). Zhang’s James uses description to capture the feeling of social relations: “What we are really instructed to ‘see’ is not the object itself . . . but the likeness of one thing to another; that is, we are directed to see relations rather than things” (23). What Zhang calls “affective matching”—a descendent, as she observes, of the Baudelairean correspondance—is modernism’s way of using descriptions to evoke emotions and atmospheres (23). Another word for “strange likeness” might be “symbol.”

What Zhang calls James’s “vibes”are, crucially, not so much a departure from realist ambition as an extension of it (70). The Jamesian poetics of atmosphere adumbrates a social fact; as such, it “run[s] counter to the subjective idealism often associated with his (and a wider modernist) interest in psychological interiority.” While, in the realist novel proper, “physical objects and surroundings such as dress and habitat can be carriers of social information, so, too, can atmospheres” (71). In bolstering her claim that such metaphorically indicated atmosphere—which is “in a certain way . . . just a name for the spatialization of relationality”—is “real,” Zhang invokes the sociologist Georg Simmel on “the pure forms of sociation”and on mood (Stimmung) (79; quoted in Zhang 83). As with her reading of Woolf via Russell, the pairing of Simmel and James nicely uses a contemporaneous thinker to shed real light on a novelist’s technique.

The sociological stakes of modernist figuration are also a theme of Zhang’s reading of Proust, whose elephantine strings of analogy she sees as both inheriting and detranscendentalizing the correspondences of Baudelaire and “his symbolist inheritors” (97). (She quotes Barthes: “Proust’s work is much more sociological than is thought”—something surely no one any longer disputes [110].) Zhang’s interest in the sociological as opposed to symbolist Proust means that she emphasizes not the epiphanic flood of the memoire involuntaire but humbler chains of likeness: “By paying attention to the ways in which ubiquitous analogies make of the Proustian world a vast network of relations, we are able to move beyond the heroic boundaries of identity and antithesis that the novel itself sets up: either the trauma of difference wrought by time or the redemption offered by escape from time’s shackles via involuntary memory” (98). Zhang focuses instead on the compulsive and quotidian quality of Proust’s will to compare, for instance in this passage from Time Regained, in which Marcel explains that writing his book will require “perpetual regroupings of forces like an offensive, and he would have to endure his book like a form of fatigue, to accept it like a discipline, build it up like a church, follow it like a medical regime, vanquish it like an obstacle, win it like a friendship, overfeed it like a child, create it like a new world . . . .” (quoted in Zhang, 89).

Out of such strings of humble comparison—Comme, comme, comme, as one of the chapter’s sections is called—Proust’s social world takes shape. His prose gives rise to “the feeling of relating itself” (88). And that feeling of relating, “likening as a way of making sense of the world,” is the signal method of Proustian sociology (107). In describing, for instance, the socially snubbed Mme de Gallardon as “like those trees which, born in an unlucky position at the brink of a precipice, are forced to grow backward to keep their balance,”  Proust evokes what Zhang calls “a whole set of relations and rules, or what Vincent Descombes, following Mary Douglas, calls ‘the world-system of a social group,’ which orients its members and gives meaning to their actions and gestures” (109). Zhang’s is a realist or naturalist Proust, his metastasizing comparisons and analogies part of an effort at mapping a social totality. But (and this is one of the things that makes them modernist), they go a step further: with relentless and sometimes exhausting self-reflexivity, they evoke the feeling of mapping a social totality.

Assured in its learning, passionate about the authors it studies, and often a pleasure to read, Strange Likeness shows how much there is to say, still, about a high modernism fast receding into an ever more distant past. Zhang helps us see that there’s still a lot to discover about even the most apparently familiar figures of what T. J. Clark called “our antiquity . . . the only one we have.”[2]


[1] Wallace Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose (New York: Library of America, 1997), 186.

[2] T. J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 3.