The Chapter: A Segmented History from Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

The Chapter: A Segmented History from Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century

The Chapter: A Segmented History from Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century
by Nicholas Dames

Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2023
384 pp. Trade, $35
ISBN: 9780691135199.

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
June 2024

In literary studies the interest in the chapter as a literary form or device is not totally new, but this book – this impressive and admirable book – breaks new ground by the depth of its historical as well as generic scope and the profundity of its thinking on the cultural meaning of capitulation, a textual feature or compositional technique whose very ubiquity seems to make it almost invisible. Although Nicholas Dames explicitly builds on the well institutionalized Francophone research on this topic (see the pioneering publication by Ugo Dionne, La Voie aux chapitres (2008) and the ANR funded collective program “chapitres”, [1] his main objectives are neither taxonomic, as in Dionne, whose work remains in line with the classic structuralist take on literary studies, nor case or genre studies oriented, as in the ANR project, which prioritizes more recent practices (19th and 20th Centuries). Granted, Dames is an equally superb close reader, and his examples are often the starting point of subtle analyses that go beyond the mere deciphering of local singularities and classifications, yet the real objectives of his work are much broader and ambitious.

Through his work on capitulation, Dames investigates two fundamental and inextricably linked questions. First that of the chapter as a form, which he approaches from a very pragmatist and phenomenological point of view. The second question is that of the link between chapter and time, an equally multilayered notion and experience.

The chapter, whatever form it takes, is not a natural given. It is a cultural practice and typical product of Western literature (it is a pleasure to stress that the author has the intellectual honesty to stay away from all generalizing claims on “world literature”, while his work testifies of an excellent knowledge of various foreign languages, mainly French, German, and Spanish, but also Latin and Greek for the older texts). This chapter form, which is not monolithic, has a history and can only be studied from a historical point of view. The Chapter follows that history form its beginnings, more than two thousand years ago, till the most cutting-edge practices of today’s digital era, when the chapter seems to vanish in the endless scroll of the internet. Moreover, this history is for Dames not only “literary” in the modern and narrow sense of the word (the author is a specialist of the classic English novel, but he refrains from taking this corpus as the implicit model of his study). It also involves the history of technology (that of writing, storing, reproducing, disseminating, and reading, but also seeing and listening to, texts) while crossing the frontiers that separate “fiction”, more precisely the novel as the still prototypical form of fiction, and other types of written discourse, ranging from all kinds of informational texts such as encyclopedias and legal texts to the Scripture.

The stepping stones of the book lead the reader from Antiquity and early Christianity (with of course the debates that accompany the shift from scroll to codex) to the fifteen century (a period of intense rewriting of older manuscripts), and from the turmoil of the printing press to various highlights of the modern Western novel (with a special focus on Sterne for the 18th Century, Tolstoy, and Dickens for the 19th Century, and perhaps more surprising but dramatically relevant examples such as Agnès Varda’s 1962 Cléo de 5 à 7 for the more recent periods). Many other examples are analyzed, but never in a purely taxonomic or illustrative perspective: Dames chooses these examples very carefully to make room for real close reading; his book wonderfully illustrates the fact that broad scholarship is something else than namedropping and list-making. In each of these segments and historical turning points, Dames lays bare the profound historicity of capitulation. Each period explores, discovers, and eventually elaborates its own way or ways of dividing either a (nonnarrative) string or a (narrative) sequence and each time these changes are made meaningful by the author’s analyses. The chapter is shown to reflect as well as shape a new take on the material presentation of a text, but also – and this is the key point of the book –  to disclose an idea as well as an experience of time (the author cleverly relies here among others on Raymond Williams’s theory of “structures of feeling” and the complex relationships between residual, dominant and emergent forms, even within the work of single authors.

To analyze these complexities, Dames combines two ways of looking at chapters. First of all, rather than trying to define the chapter in general terms, he uses a certain number of dichotomies and descriptive units that help him build a general approach of the chapter form, such as for instance the difference between the chapter as a technique allowing the nonlinear access to various types of information and the chapter as a technique that interrupts an unfolding sequential narrative, the difference between the chapter as a “dividing” and the chapter as a “gathering” took, the difference between “closure” and “hiatus”, the distinction between “breaking” (the interruption of the textual continuity, whatever form this interruption may take), “marking” (the highlighting of the gap with the help of a wide range of visual instruments, for instance a white space) and “filling” (the verbal and visual commentary of the break, for instance with the help of a chapter title or an explicative table of contents) and, most importantly of course the difference as well as relationship between various forms of time (history, story, narrated time, narrating time, reading time, but also clock time, etc.). All these elements are parts of a matrix laid out in the opening chapter of the book. Second, Dames also examines the sometimes contradictory and rapidly changing preferences of a certain period in light of their relevance for the analysis of time, as something that is objectively given and culturally experienced. We know the stereotypes: time flows; the present moment is something we can never really grasp; the past is something we think we know while the future is always something that remains open… In practice, Dames observes, this is not how things really work in texts: the flow of time is always divided, just as we permanently try to seize and fix the fleeing moment, in order to change our take on both the past and the future. The chapter as form and practice is a symptom of that effort, but also the instrument that makes this effort visible on an individual as well as collective scale.

The result of Dames’s investigation is truly impressive. It is impossible not to think here of the all-time classic of comparative literature, Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (first published in 1946, but written in exile between 1942-1945). The lens of The Chapter may seem smaller than that of Auerbach, whose analysis is based on the relationship between the “what” and the “how” of more than two millennia of Western narrative (Mimesis focuses on what is told and what not and which stylistic register is applied to represent this or that particular type of subject). Yet the outcome of Dames’s study is not unlike that of Auerbach. What The Chapter brings to the fore is thus the coherence of a very long history and the progressive unfolding of one of its essential dimensions – not “realism” like in Auerbach, but the awareness of the central position of time and the literary attempt of both grasping what it means to textually sculpt time in texts and seeing ourselves as beings in time.

Time will tell whether The Chapter will become as important and influential as Mimesis, but the exceptional qualities of this book make it a good candidate to achieve such a status. The scholarship is breathtaking, yet never asphyxiating. One remembers that Auerbach had to write in a moment where he hardly had any access to secondary literature. Dames’s work is based on 10 libraries, so to speak, but the breadth and depth of his research are so well implemented in the text that the reader has the impression to listen to a lecture (and a voice, for the author writes remarkably well, with a keen eye on jargon free sharpness). The immense background information never interferes with the immediate readability of the text. Next to that, there is also the really astounding quality of the close readings, soberly but astutely reinforced by insights and data from genetic studies and distant reading technology. Whatever the author, the book, the period, the genre, or the style under scrutiny, Dames succeeds in giving with great elegance and concision essential and often highly innovative readings of his corpus. Literary-technical discussions on chapter breaks and structures are always closely connected with both the poetics of the author and general considerations on the temporal consciousness of a given historical and literary moment, resulting in special and sometimes happily unexpected readings of Goethe, Jane Austen, or Barbara Pym. Even the best specialists of these authors will find here fresh forms of understanding, capable of joining the best of both worlds, that of close reading and that of literary history. It may however be safer to say here: the best of “many” worlds, for this book is not just about literature and time, it is also about philosophy, history, ethics, politics, in short “humanities”, an endangered species in today’s academy whose essential position can only strengthened by books such as The Chapter.


[1] Chapitres – Pratique et poétique du chapitre aux 19e et 20e siècles (