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Fredric Jameson’s Ideological “Rip Van Winkle”

Fredric Jameson’s Ideological “Rip Van Winkle”

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Published by Andrew N. Adler
Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” provides an test case for an analysis of Fredric Jameson’s “Marxism and inner form”
Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” provides an test case for an analysis of Fredric Jameson’s “Marxism and inner form”

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Published by: Andrew N. Adler on Jun 22, 2011
Copyright:Traditional Copyright: All rights reserved


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Fredric Jameson’s Ideological “Rip Van Winkle”
Copyright © 1998 by Andrew N. Adler. All rights reserved.
Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” provides an intriguing test case for an analysis of FredricJameson’s “Marxism and inner form” (Jameson 401-16): Comparable to science fiction, the storyunfolds within a seemingly basic genre (folk tale). But, unlike Jameson’s examples of sciencefiction and of Hemingway’s fiction, “Rip Van Winkle” explicitly propounds a fantasy about productivity and social life. Arguably, then, one need not excavate beneath various layers of censorship in this tale, for the “original” social experience (Jameson 404) remains at the surface:a desire to avoid overly taxing work and to loll around with colorful drinking buddies.I suggest, however, that the fable’s obvious mechanism to bring about suchcompanionable leisure — supernatural translocation and transformation — conceals a dreary andall-pervasive capitalist enterprise. Despite surface indications to the contrary, nobody escapeseven for a moment from an alienated routine. Specifically, Rip must continually interpret theconcrete gestures of the ruling class and then appease that class. A Jamesonian reading helpfullyreveals how this short story buries Rip’s daily servility beneath a magical aura. Yet I concludethis essay by showing how irony significantly undercuts such a reading and deconstructsJameson’s notion of a stable “hierarchy of motivations” (which places an artwork’s commentaryupon actual working conditions at the core of its concentric repressions) (409).This story’s outer form conforms to folk tale. It thus leads the uncritical reader through ahighly gratifying battle to an anticipated happy ending. One scholar has detailed how most of Vladimir Propp’s folk-tale functions appear in the story, creating “its peculiar mixture of recognition-pleasure and mystery” (Brooke-Rose 131). According to Christine Brooke-Rose,Dame Van Winkle looms as a wicked stepmother figure, a manifestation of the real villain, Time,who will not yield Rip enough repose. Rip “transgresses” in a “non-serious” way, by refusing towork. In Propp’s terminology, Rip departs, is tested, receives magical aid in a task, struggles withhis “identity,” and transfigures into a respected patriarch (129-30). Although Brooke-Roseconcedes the “underdetermination” of the tale’s symbolism, she concludes that Irving has written“a typical American story of the hero opting out of society” (130).However, the first step in a Marxist reading discovers “seriousness” in Rip’stransgression: While not lazy, the protagonist dislikes any “profitable labour.” He “would never refuse to assist a neighbour even in the roughest toil,” but he will not perform his “family duty”
Adler 2(Irving 30): That is, he will not willingly alienate his labor. He will not stockpile a capital surplusto bequeath his children a patrimony (30-31). (His son “belonged to nobody” because he“promised to inherit” his father’s “habits” — outmoded clothes and manners — rather thanmoney (31).)Dame Van Winkle represents the voice of capitalism, the ideological pressure that forcesRip from his “perfect contentment” and into a series of instructive encounters with the rulingclass: He ostensibly escapes her, first, to the “club of sages” presided over by Nicholaus Vedder;then, into pristine Nature; third, to drink and cavort with Henry Hudson and his crew; fourth(albeit twenty years later), to the new village leader’s posse; and, finally, to the realm of serenestorytelling. Yet, as hinted above, Rip never truly eludes alienated labor but rather, in eachsetting, he tries to learn the procedure for accumulating “symbolic capital.” Specifically, to borrow further from Bourdieu, the story teaches that moods of powerful people change arbitrarilyand that you must accurately read these moods in individuals’ mechanical gestures. If you can in-dulge the powerful and do their bidding, then you can perhaps become one of them and prosper.This reading refuses to attach overarching importance to Rip’s time warp and “identitycrisis.” Instead, significance lies primarily in the fact that a ruling class dictates the collective life both before and after the Revolution, both in the village and in the forest.First, consider “the patriarch” Vedder, who owns the inn where his “junto” assembles andwhose opinions “completely control.” Rip can avoid his wife and remain one of Vedder’s“adherents” if and only if he follows Vedder around, anticipating and placating Vedder’s moodswings. Vedder, though, rarely speaks. Instead, he shifts to avoid the sun, “so that the neighbourscould tell the hour by his movements as accurately as by a sun dial.” Moreover, to those in theknow, he “perfectly” expresses anger with short, frequent puffs from his pipe, and he conveys pleasure with slow, “placid clouds” and vapor curls of smoke (32).So long as Rip correctly divines these precisely-calibrated gestures, he is permitted someagreeable scope through harmless, self-important male bonding. “Obsequious and conciliating,”Rip contributes to “endless stories about nothing” (30, 32). So long as he does not contradict theleader, Rip feels that his opinions matter.Yet when Dame Van Winkle flushes him out of the tavern, Rip’s “only alternative” is to

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