In one of Matthew Arnold’s most celebrated lyrics, ‘Dover Beach’, the speaker projects his state of mind onto the sea, which he perceives as cold, unfeeling and foreign. Only at the beginning of the fourth stanza does he find some kind of comfort, in the presence of a beloved. But even this brief glimpse of hope is undercut and quickly gives way to disenchantment:

Ah, love, let us be true 
To one another! For the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

‘Dover Beach’ appeared in Arnold’s last collection of poetry, New Poems (1867), which was a swan-song of sorts: Arnold seems to have felt that poetry was unable to alter human conduct in ways appropriate to modern life. He therefore turned to criticism, in an attempt to craft the conditions that would reinvigorate poetry’s potential to do so. One of his most significant contributions to criticism was, in his preface to Culture and Anarchy (1869), the redefinition of culture as ‘a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits’. It was through the cultivation of this disposition that men of different classes would be able to meet on equal terms. Shedding light on the darkling plain of the present, culture would abolish the typically English religion of inequality. Born out of his experiences on the Continent, this definition of culture was a controversial one, as it challenged an older and very different idea of culture as a set of customs and traditions: given the weight that patriotism carried in Victorian public discourse, many of Arnold’s fellow citizens would have been reluctant to alienate themselves from this more traditional notion. As a result, the Arnoldian quest for culture became something of a phantom formation, its potential unrealized and its purposiveness elusive. It is this constitutive instability that gave rise to a discourse in which culture began to speak about itself and its conditions of existence.

In an earlier study, Culture/Metaculture (2000), Francis Mulhern charted the course of this discourse in the twentieth century while, from the side-lines, taking aim at many of its practitioners for collapsing the sphere of politics into that of aesthetics. Statements in metacultural discourse, in Mulhern’s analysis, tend to usurp the place of judgements that properly belong to the domain of politics. It is this observation that led Mulhern to posit a hidden continuity between the elitist cultural criticism of the first half of the twentieth century (as practised by such different figures as F. R. Leavis and T. S. Eliot) and the more popular criticism within the discipline of Cultural Studies of the second half (whose foundational figure is Stuart Hall). Mulhern’s characterization of these two seemingly opposite schools of thought and the implication that they are antagonistic variants of a shared metacultural discourse did not go unchallenged, however. In the pages of this journal, for instance, Stefan Collini’s review sparked a critical exchange. It was from this ‘timely provocation’, as Mulhern describes it, that his new book was born. In Figures of Catastrophe, Mulhern examines how metacultural discourse sustains a current in the twentieth-century novel: not only do these novels suggest the usurpation of the place of politics in metacultural discourse, but they arguably do so in the name of a specific selectivitythe ‘best that has been thought and said’—within the totality of significations that comprise any given culture. Mulhern thus effectively taxes what he calls the ‘condition of culture’ novel with performing a double distortion, masking an order of power as an order of meanings, and doing so in the name of a particular, arbitrary hierarchy of meanings.

One of the fundamental insights of Figures of Catastrophe is the observation that the matter of culture has been dealt with in novels, presumably that most bourgeois of literary forms. For Arnold, after all, it was only in (classical) poetry that an imaginative engagement with the conditions of modernity could be staged. Many later thinkers about culture also favoured the lyric. W. B. Yeats famously lamented that in the present ‘all neglect / monuments of unaging intellect’. T. S. Eliot, too, clothed his critical metier with his authority as a poet. And in ‘Cultural Criticism and Society’, Theodor Adorno declaimed that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’. To suggest that the novel has taken part in the development of metacultural discourse is thus not self-evident. Perhaps this built-in lack of affinity partly explains why, as Mulhern shows, the twentieth-century novel proved to be an inhospitable environment for Arnold’s critical enterprise.

Mulhern raises the stakes by suggesting that these metacultural novels constitute a distinctive genre—the ‘condition of culture’ novel. He maintains that it has its roots in the industrial novel, a nineteenth-century form in which a widespread social problem is dramatized through its effect on characters of flesh and blood. In the more modern genre of the condition of culture novel, this social problem takes shape as the threat posed to culture by, to stick with Arnold’s critical vocabulary, various forms of anarchy, or, to use Mulhern’s term, figures of catastrophe. In his definition of the genre, Mulhern opts for a flexible framework, which allows him to draw very different texts into his ken. In his introduction, he conceptualizes genre ‘in the broad traditions of Georg Lukács and Mikhail Bakhtin’ as applying ‘at a relatively low level of historical generality, identifying groups of texts sharing a distinctive topic or set of topics’. Although these criteria are strongly thematic and may seem quite arbitrary at first (next to Bildung, ‘topics’ include suburbanization and the consumer economy), Mulhern’s readings illustrate that these very different novels chime in with one another, often in unexpected and illuminating ways. His selection also has the benefit of overriding the distinction between modernism and post-modernism, thus yielding a more comprehensible picture of twentieth-century fiction than studies which insist on these two shibboleths.

In the readings that follow, Mulhern frequently has recourse to a particular method. Inspired by Fredric Jameson, he creatively reshapes Algirdas Julien Greimas’s figure of the semiotic square. As Mulhern points out, the square often adds little to what is not already apparent in other ways, but it can be a powerful interpretative aid and reveal narrative possibilities that are not always visible to the naked eye. In Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, for instance, Mulhern detects a non-necessary opposition between ‘nobility’ and ‘literature’, which has ‘reputation’ as its narrative resolution. This in turn produces a second opposition between ‘common people’ (the non-resolvable opposition of ‘nobility’) and ‘life’ (opposed to ‘literature’), which has ‘obscurity’ as its narrative resolution. The newly formed opposition between ‘nobility’ and ‘life’ creates another outcome, ‘ecstasy’, whereas that between ‘literature’ and ‘common people’ creates ‘calm’. The peculiarity of this particular square is that all the narrative resolutions (‘reputation’, ‘obscurity’, ‘ecstasy’, ‘calm’) are present in the novel and all of them put the protagonist, Orlando, in a favourable position. The novel thus creates ‘an unchallengeable ideal of cultural wholeness’. As Mulhern concludes, Orlando’s development ‘is not the outcome of transforming contact with others—as in Margaret’s case in Howards End, for example—but rather a process of self-elaboration’. In short, the semiotic square reveals how in Orlando the Arnoldian ideal of culture has become deeply narcissistic.