ADAM FIELED @ TEMPLE UNIVERSITY 20062011
Preface There is a slight advantage to doing serious critical and scholarly tasks if you happen to be younger than forty. Graduate students have varied, often specific interests— but their brains are still limber with the mutable fluidity of youth, and youth’s restless energy. I arrived at Temple University, having been awarded a University Fellowship, in August 2006— I was thirty, a reasonable age to do so. My intellectual interests were, in fact, varied— I was a publishing avant-garde poet (coterminous with my arrival at Temple were my first published poems in Jacket Magazine) with a vested interest in English Romanticism, which I had studied with Dr. Stuart Curran and others at the University of Pennsylvania. The lure of Modernism was not unknown to me, even as post-modernity appeared rather hollow and impoverished in comparison. Because I had done my MFA at New England College “low residency,” I found myself with two and half years of course work to plough through at Temple (for which I was rewarded with my second master’s degree). Writing seminar papers did not come especially easily to me— like most graduate students, I preferred to assay the topics and genres I felt most drawn to. Nevertheless, with some re-drafting from 2013, my better seminar papers go beyond the status of mere exercises. They are a hinge to a cohesive discourse. Several strong thesis arguments emerge from these pieces as a gestalt— that Romanticism and the nineteenth century were a significant advance in intellectual and affective depth over the sensibility and satire of the eighteenth where English-language textuality was concerned; that, in the twenty-first century, Romanticism and Deconstructionist theory must find a ways and means of cohabitation; and that terse brevity and clarity in critical and scholarly writing are preferable to discourses only extended to fill book-length publishing quotas, in the age of the Internet and the pdf. The long-term wrangle of textual interests between English (and German) Romanticism and Deconstruction would seem to be the most pressing and challenging crisis— the Internet is the beginning of a “site” for this crisis to become a chiasmus, but the theoretical ramparts blocking direct interaction between the two factions are formidable, and have remained obdurately entrenched for the first half-century of Deconstruction’s imperious and, to some, forbidding presence. As post-modernity recedes (with its adjuncts, multiculturalism and New Historicism), Deconstruction is what the twentieth century has bequeathed to us— inhering in it, an implicit rejection of America’s blarneying sociopolitical rhetoric. Romanticism and Deconstructionism both reject, from different positions and with separate ethos, the post-modern facility of the representatively American. Some of Deconstruction’s despair is this ineluctable American presence. It would be unfortunate for the two factions to begin to barter over a shared negation— but any complicity in 2013 would be a good start. Nor is it secure that a new textual America will not arise— these pieces, though not representatively American, were both conceived and delivered in the United States. North Philadelphia is not a particularly idyllic locale— but textual histories are often predicated on inversions. This inversion foregrounds a concrete jungle rather than, say the river Cam; at the onset of a monstrous economic recession, by a poet/critic in a subaltern hierarchical position who nonetheless worked from a disciplined nexus of ideas, which the re-drafting process has clarified. I hope this textual subject is able to locate his own complicity in readership.
Elucidating Derrida and “Differance”: Lecture Given at Temple University by Adam Fieled, 10-16-2006 “We provisionally give the name “difference” to this sameness which is not identical.” Derrida’s concept “differance” has its basis in contradiction. What Derrida is essentially “doing,” though he might balk at the notion that formulating “differance” could be “doing” anything, is moving Saussure’s theories of language into an expanded realm, that might be said to include the ontological, or the metaphysical, or both (or neither.) As we remember, Saussure, in founding Structuralism with his Course in General Linguistics, posited that “in languages there are only differences,” i.e. all phonemes and other elements of language take their identity from all other phonemes and language elements, and are defined relationally rather than individually. Derrida is telling us that in naming “differance” through a displacement of “e” to “a”, he is, among other things, broadening the parameters of Saussure’s insight beyond language and linguistic signs. The play of differences, Derrida tells us, is operational in every human sphere, and in all situations in which entities/substances/essences are perceived or intuited. All things are perceived and identified through the principle of “difference,” i.e. all things take their meaning (in the broadest sense) from other things from which they differ. By taking Saussure’s theory out of linguistics and casting it in a more expansive light, Derrida posits a “relative universe” in which individual identity, as “owned” by a constitutive and constituting subject, becomes problematic as it is seen that identity is structured out of “difference,” plays of difference. Derrida’s use of the word “provisionally” is important. It signifies a temporary condition, an impermanent usage. This sets Derrida apart from earlier philosophers, like Nietzsche and Heidegger, who were much more definite and authoritative in their pronouncements. The conditions by which post-Structural thought was created entailed a radical rethinking of writing, the author, authority, and “privilege,” so that once the individual, with his/her constitutive ego, was reduced by “differance” to a sort of “liminal limbo,” the act of writing, creating signs, and setting forth a specific “play of differences” became fraught with all sorts of complications and limitations that made every claim “provisional.” If not just language but people exist in a “play of differences”, and if this state is marked out by a permanent condition of “difference,” then how can any given “person” (and person does, in this context, need quotation marks) claim to use linguistic signs with authority? “Differance” is operative on people, and on language too, so that when a person attempts to use language instrumentally, a “double bind” inevitably and invariably arises. Even naming this bind is a double bind, or maybe a triple bind; the constitutive subject, the linguistic sign, and the anti-concept/anti-word “differance” all chafe against an attempted “stranglehold by definition” in linguistic signage. Thus, the language of qualification becomes imperative. Derrida cannot strangle “differance” into submission; it is too evanescent, too ungraspable; he must talk “around” it, and everything he says must be qualified and guarded against facile usage that guarantees misunderstanding. In fact, any claim to completely grasp “differance” would, to Derrida, seem fraudulent, because there is nothing to grasp, or a mere phantom. “Differance”
exists, or has its being, or its “charged non-existence,” in a crepuscular wilderness of shadows. If Derrida is to use language instrumentally, his strategy (and Derrida emphasizes in this article the importance of strategy and risk when dealing with “differance”) must be equivocation. It is not that “differance” is ineffable, but that once it is signified, it ceases to be visible. To use a quote from Wittgenstein, it cannot be “said,” it may only, possibly, be “shown.” Although, to be fair, it cannot really be shown either, as it may lie beyond our capacity for understanding. Thus, equivocation becomes the only means by which Derrida can avoid falling into the traps of authoritatively secure language, which is seen, ultimately, to be anything but secure. Equivocation is also the best way to deal with a “sameness which is not identical,” i.e. a process and a quality that are omnipresent where being, beings, and forms of communication persist, but which takes its expression through both the individual properties of any given entity and properties (or concepts or signs) shared between entities. “Differance is neither a word nor a concept.” This gets to the heart of the matter, and, revealingly, the heart of the matter turns out to be a negative proposition. A fundamental duality within “differance” reveals itself, in that Derrida has created a word which he claims is not a word. Either this is a rhetorical sleight-of-hand, or Derrida is once again equivocating against authorial authority, his own constitutive subject-ness, and the signifying confines of language perpetually caught in a synchronic (and, for many readers, hermeneutic) circle. If nothing else, Derrida can be said to be consciously moving a piece on Saussure’s chess-board. It might even be more accurate to say that he is stealing a piece, and in fact Derrida does at one point in this article use the analogy of a king about to be killed. “Differance” is seen to be not a word because Derrida posits “differance” as what happens between words. That is, “differance” is the play of differences by which words and phonemes define themselves, but because it is impossible to define this “play” without tautologically referring back to it, “difference,” in the negative space where it finds its definition, cannot be signified. Yet, for Derrida to lay this particular card on the table, it must be signified. We see that Derrida is playing the “sign-game” with the not-fortuitous and irrevocable knowledge that no victory is possible. If “differance” had to be defined and given “entity-status,” we would call it a “negative entity.” Just as words, things, and people cannot exist or subsist without other words, things, and people, “differance” has no positive existence (or Derrida might say, no existence at all) outside the context of a world inhabited by contingencies and contingent beings. Were Derrida to authoritatively call “differance” a word, he would be claiming for it the kind of pawn-on-the-chessboard existence that Saussure posits for words within his schema of the word-as-sign. Saussure, we remember, claims that words consist of the signifier, a sound image, and the signified, a concept. Once “differance” leaves the negative space where it belongs and becomes a sound-image, among thousands of other sound-images, it is no longer “difference.” “Differance” itself, as a sound-image, becomes something on which “differance” acts, from a place outside of “difference.” As nothing can act on itself from outside of itself, this is a logical absurdity. Derrida feels doubly absurd about this, as he is the one forcing “differance” to act on “differance” from outside itself, by naming it. So,
Derrida only feels comfortable in the authoritative role when he puts forth something he knows is contradictory, and, possibly, absurd. Were Derrida a strict Saussurian and nothing else, he might feel settled about positing “concept status” for “difference.” After all, an unnamed concept that is “talked around” still might avoid the play of differences that Saussure enumerates in language. However, because Derrida is not merely following Saussure’s precepts but radically extending them, and because this extension takes Saussure’s claims for language and applies them to many other things, we see that differance-as-concept is no more or less absurd than differance-as-sign. Derrida sees that concepts, like linguistic signs, are acted upon by differance, defined by what they have or lack in relation to other concepts. If differance were a concept, we would again see the logical absurdity of differance acting on differance from outside itself. Thus, on a theoretical level (differance-as-concept), as well as on a material one (differance-as-sign), Derrida is forced by the difficulty of his construct to hedge bets. Differance must be both a sound-image and a concept, and a nonsound-image and a non-concept. In both states of being, positive and negative, differance has no identity other than that of a differentiating phantom. “Differance indicates the closure of presence…effected in the functioning of traces.” Things present themselves to us, generally and initially, as discreet totalities. If we read a poem by Baudelaire, we (hopefully) focus our attention on it, to the exclusion of all other things. The poem grips us as we gradually apprehend its totality. We might read it once, twice, or three times. It is present to us, becomes our present moment within a surfeit of our attention. During this time-period, we do not think relationally about the poem. It is simply there, in front of us, a series of linguistic signs conspiring to present an impression of discreet totality-within-presence. However, the discreet totality of a poem by Baudelaire, or any work of art, or anything that rivets our attention, is eventually and inevitably mediated by differance. “Differance” indicates the “closure of presence” because when it begins to infiltrate our perceptions, we notice “traces,” parts of whatever we happen to be perceiving, which remind us that the perceived totality of our object is in fact an illusion, and that what we perceive exists, as all things do, only relationally. If we happen to be reading a poem, we think of other poems, other poets, other times we have seen words used in the poem in other places, etc. Once this process begins, our object ceases to be “present” to us, and the energy that constitutes “present encounters” dissipates and diffuses. “Traces” are important for Derrida because they are a constant reminder of “difference,” and that “presence” as such is easily closed in a relational, differentially-aware consciousness. “Traces” are perceived differently by different people, but the process by which traces “close presence” (i.e. the way we notice traces of things in other things, traces of words in other words, etc.) is consistent. Simply put, we do not perceive things individually. Everything that is perceived by us leads us to perceptions that mediate initial impressions, which continue to be mediated for as long as we perceive a given object. The process of mediation is internal, and means that when it begins (and it begins almost immediately), the object perceived is no longer wholly present to us. “Differance” thus distorts (though a less pejorative term like “mediates” might do just as well) our contact with things, diffuses our ability to focus. When we are not “present” for the objects we perceive, when “traces” lead us to
think relationally about objects, we have entered the “ghost-world” wherein “differance” exerts sovereign influence and where subjectivity is lost in shadows. It leads us out of the present, and we see that when Derrida brings in a spatio-temporal dimension to the discussion of “difference,” this is partly where he is leading us. For Derrida, “differance” places things in time, because where we are in time has to do with our “relational state,” how we are placed in relation to other things, how we and the world around us are “sequenced.” “Signification: differance of temporalizing” In this way, Derrida demonstrates that signification is a way of creating a sense of time passing. When we talk, we talk “in time,” as a way of “marking time,” i.e. summarizing “states of affairs” as they exist in a moment, or, depending on the context, many moments. We are able to demarcate, with linguistic signs, what “now” is and consists of, what “then” was and consisted of, etc. It is primarily through language, and other forms of signification, Derrida argues, that we are able to do this. Things that we place with linguistic signs are always placed “in time,” so to speak, and so the play of differences as they exist between moments are expressed in language. Again, a “meta” dimension creeps into Derrida’s thinking; the constitutive subject, the dialect, and the moment being expressed are subject to “differance” simultaneously and on both similar and different levels; thus, our attempts to place states of affairs in time are mediated by the play of differences in language and in the constitutive subject as well. Every human utterance is “timed”; it takes a certain amount of forethought to plan and a certain amount of time to say or write. What is expressed in speaking or writing is the creation of a moment among moments, a statement among statements, possibly a summation among summations. There is no way to escape the relativity and contingency of a world bound every which way by differance. Now that Saussure has been moved out of the confines of language and into the broader realities of space and time, we see that “in language there are only differences” might become “in the world of perceptible reality there are only differences.” If this is acknowledged and accepted as fact, it is easy to see why postStructuralism and Deconstructionism would argue against the belief in the reality of a discreet, closed, unmediated subjectivity. On the other hand, the very act of “accepting” a philosophical precept as fact becomes in and of itself problematic. Facts are closed entities, or are held as such by the constitutive subject. “Differance”, ghost though it may be, seems to open things up so that the very act of accepting it as a fact, or even calling it “it,” would belie Derrida’s intention. Because Derrida must equivocate, because “differance” is seen to be neither a word nor a concept, Derrida might’ve known that “intention”, as such, did not apply to his concept. “Intention” implies the kind of constitutive, authoritative self-hood that Derrida is negating. It is an irony that “differance” seems to have been no less confounding to its creator than it remains to us today. This probably accounts for Derrida’s admission in this piece that differance is a “difficult, confusing” concept. If in the perceptible world there are only differences, and if this applies to language as part of the perceptible world, and also to any constitutive subject, we are forced to recognize the nothingness, or near-nothingness, of human perception and hence human will. “Differance” may be seen as a ghost or a kind of haunting, a binding which no one and
nothing can undo. On the other hand, a more positive reading of â€œdifferanceâ€? might say that it is a mode of spiritual development, of getting beyond the confines of ego and subjectivity and into a more realistic realm, albeit one mediated by a ghost. It would be nice to conclude with a definitive statement, but that would seem inappropriate to this text. All that remains is to place this moment in time through language, and so, with apologies for any authoritative utterance, I end here. Adam Fieled, 2006
Wordsworth and De Man: Similitude in Dissimilitude
On the surface, there seems to be little common thread binding William Wordsworth’s preface to Lyrical Ballads and Paul de Man’s Criticism and Crisis. The contextual circumstances that gave rise to each were radically divergent. Wordsworth was consciously, boldly inaugurating a new movement in British poetics, away from abstraction and impersonality and into the personal, candid, emotional realm that we are now familiar with as that of British Romanticism. His strategy was earnest and direct, his use of language purposeful and linear. Conversely, Paul de Man’s Criticism and Crisis emerged right in the midst of a Deconstructionist and post-structuralist revolution. The terms of Deconstructionism, as applied to individual writers, necessitated that the “I,” the constitutive subject, be subsumed. Rather than start his own counter-revolution, as Wordsworth might have done, de Man took on Deconstructionism on its own terms. There is no “I” in his piece, and the rules of the then au currant critical style were closely, carefully followed. Nevertheless, a close reading of Criticism and Crisis reveals that de Man was, in fact, making a purpose-statement, in the manner of Wordsworth. Because convention precluded him from expressing himself in the first person, de Man resorted to a dizzyingly sophisticated use of irony and “mirroring” to make his points. That is, he used similar instances and “subjects” from the history of art and aesthetics to help make his aim clear. His central theme was the idea of the “crisis” as applied to literary criticism. De Man wanted to show that “all true criticism occurs in the mode of crisis”(8); in other words, that any new aesthetic reality forces a confrontation between a critic or audience and the innovative, “challenging” work. De Man’s piece, as it was a reaction against the new aesthetic theories being touted by trend-hungry Continental critics, is itself also a crisis-statement. It is de Man’s ironically rendered representation of a trendcreated crisis. Likewise, Wordsworth’s purpose-statement can also be seen as a crisisstatement. Wordsworth is not merely inaugurating British Romanticism; he is reacting against the “gaudiness and inane phraseologies”(77) of his contemporaries and immediate predecessors. The aesthetic conventions of his era forced this crisis, as the critical conventions of de Man’s era forced his. Purpose-statements are personal; they give an artist or critic a chance to set forth a personal agenda. Crisis-statements are social; they involve the activities of many others, as perceived by the constitutive subject, and of the Zeitgeist. Wordsworth and de Man stand united in the impulse to achieve a dual aim; to set forth a personal, purposive agenda, and to frame it in the larger context of a crisis existent around them. For de Man, this dual aim is doubled by a need not only to refute trends, but to question the entire endeavor of literary criticism; Wordsworth, conversely, states his fundamental faith in poetry-as-literary endeavor. Wordsworth, not constrained by a need to subsume his subjectivity, is able to present his personal agenda mostly unimpeded. He makes a novel claim for his poems and the language found therein; he is using the “real language of men”(76) to describe a universal interiority, how the mind “associates ideas in a state of excitement.”(78) Wordsworth never completely defines what “real” language might be, except to associate it with “low and rustic life”(78), which for him signifies purity, lack of social vanity, and freedom from the distractions of urban life. Wordsworth’s vision, though it makes claims on universality, is self-created; Wordsworth recognizes this, and his own limitations. His approach to the public display of his vision is cautious and calculated; he states his aim,
which is quite ambitious, humbly; he will gauge the receptivity of the public to the real language of men, and in due course gauge how much pleasure “real language” can impart on receptive minds. Implicit in Wordsworth’s claims for “real language” is a critique of the thencurrent modes of poetic production. Wordsworth feels himself surrounded by “deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse.”(80) His stance is one of resistance against fashion, rebellion against prevailing trends, and isolation from the mainstream. In other words, once his purpose is stated, and with it his personal agenda, it becomes clear that he is also in the midst of a crisis. His social position is uncertain, and his feeling about his contemporaries ambivalent at best. This ambivalence plays itself out in a shifting discomfort that appears when Wordsworth is forced to address them; he is sometimes willing to lash out, then retreats behind a more even-handed “I do not interfere with their claim, I only wish to prefer a different claim of my own.”(81) Always, the figure of an unseen, assumed reader looms large, and adds at least a modicum of self-consciousness to Wordsworth’s expressed subjectivity. The purely subjective, placed into a social mode of expression, is part and parcel of Wordsworth’s crisis. The purpose, easily stated and developed in solitude, becomes embattled and “crisis-like” when placed into the social context of a published preface. De Man, unlike Wordsworth, chooses to begin with an explicit acknowledgement of crisis. The piece is titled Criticism and Crisis, which gives an indication that it will address salient contemporary issues in criticism. He quickly tells us that “well-established rules and conventions that governed the discipline of criticism…have been so badly tampered with that the entire edifice threatens to collapse.”(3) We are placed squarely within a social context; we do not yet know who is doing the tampering, but it is clearly (we assume) not the work of de Man himself. He presents himself to us, initially, in a reactive mode and stance. Yet it is not a stance, as with Wordsworth, of raw subjectivity; there is no “I” here. We know that a social nexus of critics is being addressed; we know that the situation is designated as “crisis-like”; but we do not get an immediate sense of how de Man posits himself in this scenario. Since use of “I”, in the context of an attempted Deconstructionist or post-structuralist statement, would seem blasphemous, De Man opts to use a “sideways” or “ironic” method to pursue his agenda. De Man begins with a quote from Mallarme, which he then echoes. Just as Mallarme claimed that his French contemporaries had tampered with the rules of verse, so de Man claims that his Continental contemporaries have tampered with the rules of criticism. As the piece progresses, de Man seems to use Mallarme as a sort of mirror or “double,”a predecessor in an analogous situation. As such, everything that de Man says about Mallarme could equally be applied to de Man. The substantive, purposive element of this comparison occurs when de Man informs us that Mallarme is not really perturbed by what his contemporaries are doing. He “is using them as a screen, a pretext to talk about something that concerns him much more; namely, his own experiments with poetic language.”(7) Likewise, it would seem that de Man’s purpose in Criticism and Crisis is not to jump on any bandwagons or even to take sides in a public battle. His purpose is to talk about his own experiments with criticism. He wants to get to the heart of the matter, to address what criticism really consists of and whether it “is a liability or an asset to literary studies as a whole.”(8) What his contemporaries may or may not be doing is a detour, albeit a necessary and unavoidable one. Their battling and bickering
serves to demonstrate what may happen when self-scrutiny becomes lost, and this becomes useful to de Man as a means of representing his purpose. For both Wordsworth and de Man, historical awareness is paramount. Both take a long view of their respective disciplines, believing that historical awareness adds depth and gravitas to vision. To situate their endeavors in time is part of their purpose, and a lack of historical awareness among their contemporaries is part of the perceived crises. However, each must adopt a different strategy in order to effectively present a historical case for themselves. The pre-Romantic milieu in which Wordsworth was working put an emphasis on the objective, the impersonal. For Wordsworth to break through this wall, he had to adopt what was then an unconventional strategy. He dared to be personal, thus inaugurating a new era. Conversely, de Man conformed to the anti-subjectivist standards that surrounded post-structuralist discourse. Only then was he able to make his points in such a way that they would be listened to, possibly heeded. De Man’s submission to the trends of his day, however, were merely apparent. Through the use of irony, and through the indirect use of himself as constitutive subject, he was able to historicize himself, his purpose of self-scrutiny and the crises both within his own consciousness and without. Within his piece, De Man, unlike Wordsworth, is willing to stoop to selfcontradiction. First he tells us that the entire critical edifice may be collapsing, owing to conflicts on the Continent. Then he remarks that “we have some difficulty taking seriously the polemical violence with which methodological issues are being debated in Paris.”(5) So, almost immediately there is a sense, within this contradiction, that de Man is being subversive, and that his seeming dismay at his contemporaries’ flightiness is intended ironically. He is indulging in self-contradiction in order to achieve his purpose, part of which may be to put the Continental critics in their place. Indeed, he tells us that the authority of the best historians can be invoked to show that “what was considered a crisis in the past often turns out to be a mere ripple.”(6) De Man’s view of history, as seen in this piece, is cyclical. It is not that changes do not transpire; it is that they transpire slowly and almost invisibly. Thus, part of the crisis he is rebelling against is an attitude of shallow, ill-considered fickleness. It turns out that De Man’s crisis-statement is two-pronged; he castigates literary poseurs for their lack of historical awareness, even as he notes that the utility of literary criticism has not been proven conclusively. The first crisis applies to him, as an outsider looking in; the second is generally operative, and it applies to him directly. Just as Wordsworth makes universal claims for the utility of poetry, de Man makes universal claims against the utility of criticism, or shows that its utility must be proven and scrutinized. On this level, it is interesting to note that the analogues de Man chooses to act as his shadows or doubles are not critics; Mallarme is a poet, Husserl a philosopher, LeviStrauss, a structural anthropologist. Further, it is remarkable to note that not once in Criticism and Crisis does de Man mention one of the Continental critics whom he is taking to task. He mentions Sartre, Poulet, Starabinski, stars of an earlier era; but those who have created the seeming crisis that de Man is addressing remain unnamed (just as de Man, himself, does.) This returns to the fact that de Man is naming a crisis that exists to him only ostensibly. The more profound crisis is whether criticism, once scrutinized, retains any meaning. Historicity becomes a method whereby de Man, rather than making claims for criticism, sees the cycle of crises and purposes that defines any kind of literary
creation. The final question as to the ultimate validity or non-validity of criticism is never addressed directly, but merely suggested. This suggestion constitutes a substantial part of de Man’s purpose, just as his contemporaries neglect of the question forms part of the crisis. Wordsworth’s approach to historicity, like most angles of his approach, is more direct, less convoluted than de Man’s. Wordsworth is a poet, concerned with poetry; when he looks for analogues, in the context of a discussion of metrical language, he thinks of “the age of Catullus, Terence, and Lucretius, and that of Statius or Claudian; and in our own country, in the age of Shakespeare and Beaumont and Fletcher, and that of Donne and Cowley, or Dryden, or Pope.”(77) What we have here is a variety of implicit assumptions, none of which can be found in de Man. Wordsworth seemingly believes that poetry is an art-form valid both through history and in his present; that there is a stable canon of great work that can be relied upon unquestioningly; that knowledge of this canon is essential; and that Wordsworth, himself, is going to attempt to join the ranks of canonized, historically important poets. Wordsworth’s tremendous advantage over de Man, in making a purpose-statement, is that he does not have to resort to subversion, irony, and self-contradiction. On the other hand, his straightforward subjectivity leaves him open to accusations of pomposity and complacency. There is, in fact, a note of complacency running through Wordsworth’s preface. He idealizes the poet as a being “endued with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind.”(81) This attitude aids and abets Wordsworth in delivering the purposive element of his preface; he believes in the “poet”, as an idealized figure, in the same manner that he believes in “poetry”. Thus, he seems to suffer comparatively little cognitive dissonance regarding his agenda, and his ability to express himself and his purpose. His faith in the “inherent and indestructible qualities of the human mind”(80) gives his address assurance, and his tone rarely wavers from this measured, assured calm. When “crisis” issues arise, i.e. when Wordsworth mentions his contemporaries and immediate predecessors, he does not slip into another register, but maintains a dignified, even keel. We are able to infer from this that if a “battle” of sorts should take place for domination of British poetics, Wordsworth is confident of victory. Wordsworth sees a crisis all around him, and is able to name the crisis, and talk of how it must be overcome, but it does not seem to concern him overmuch. His tone is that of an already privately established eminence waiting to be crowned with justly-earned laurel. He sees his isolation as a temporary condition and waits without haste for the world to come to him. Circumstances, of course, proved Wordsworth to be correct. His eminence grew to be widely recognized, he was eventually made laureate, his avowed purpose was embraced by many poets, and the poetic crisis of “false refinement” and “arbitrary innovation”(79) resolved itself in the birth of British Romanticism. Consequently, a certain amount of complacency might have been justified. However, it could be argued that a lack of rigor makes many of Wordsworth’s claims untenable. Coleridge, for example, was disturbed by Wordsworth’s claim to the “real language of men”, “real language” not being definable or discussable by any objective measure. Such claims formed an essential part of Wordsworth’s purpose— to stake a claim for poetry as universal truth, “carried alive into the heart by passion.”(82) The sort of rigorous and
unstinting self-scrutiny advocated by de Man is not part of Wordsworth’s agenda. It may be that, as this preface was not his idea, but that of his friends who “advised me to prefix a systematic defense”(76), he did not feel the need to question himself, as he might have were it a poem. De Man, unburdened (at least on the surface) with complacency or egotism, makes no claims for criticism, universal or personal. His purpose, discernible beneath the twists, turns, ironies and meta-ironies, is to stake a claim for self-scrutiny, on all levels. Following in the footsteps of Mallarme, who is seen to be “ironical”(16), de Man suggests that the act of writing must question itself at every turn; “all true criticism occurs in the mode of crisis.”(8) Yet, de Man takes another detour, to an unlikely destination. He uses a lecture by Husserl to demonstrate that “the rhetoric of crisis states its own truth in the mode of error.”(16) Though never explicitly stated, we can use these two statements to make an inductive leap; if all true criticism occurs in the mode of crisis, and if the rhetoric of crisis states its own truth in the mode of error, then all true (and rhetorically based) criticism must be erroneous! It must be noted that this inductive leap is never made by de Man himself. It is left in wait for the attentive reader. The irony is that this passionate plea for self-scrutiny in criticism should suggest (albeit indirectly) that criticism, once scrutinized, may lose all meaning. Had Wordsworth wanted to make this point, he would have spelled it out explicitly. However, the context that de Man is working in precludes him from doing this. For the Deconstructionists, Romanticism, of which Wordsworth is so salient a representative, was the enemy. Any hint of egotism or complacency would be pounced upon and used to discredit the subject. Yet, it was clearly de Man’s intention to make this point, by whatever means available. He notes that “in the language of polemics the crooked path often travels faster than the straight one.”(14) This must, of necessity, be the path he takes. Because it is not stated overtly, de Man must hope that his audience is subtle enough to catch the purpose behind his twists and turns. Likewise, de Man must hope that his enemies, those who have created the crisis we encounter at the beginning of the piece, and who are never openly named, will appreciate the self-scrutiny that has led de Man to his rigorous conclusion; that nothing in literature can be taken for granted, and that literature itself might be a kind of nothingness. Here, we have two apparently simple designations: Wordsworth, the Romantic egotist, spelling out a personal purpose and reacting to crisis in a personal way; de Man, the objective Deconstructionist, subsuming subjectivity both in stating a purpose and reacting to a crisis. However, beneath the surface, things may not be so simple. Wordsworth, reacting as he is against objective modes of creation that (he feels) have grown stale, is using bare subjectivity to spell out a new vision. Subjectivity becomes the most attractive expedient, the shortest distance between what was and what may be. It is being purposefully used, and with self-consciousness. Complacency creeps in specifically because Wordsworth knows himself to be doing something original. Had Wordsworth’s “I” been subsumed, his entire construct would collapse, and he would not be making an original statement. His crisis would remain untouched, his purpose unstated. In the contextual framework of early nineteenth century Britain, nothing could have been more revolutionary or revelatory than a lone, rebellious “I” taking a bold stand against trends that had prevailed for decades. Likewise, De Man’s lack of subjectivity, his apparent objectivity, is a carefully
crafted illusion. De Man speaks of using the language of polemics, because Criticism and Crisis is polemical. It is a personal statement based on a subjective experience, both of criticism as a personal, purposive endeavor, and of criticism as it exists in de Man’s social milieu. This milieu is being dogged by crisis, and a crisis (of false refinement and arbitrary innovation) that closely resembles the one that Wordsworth is enumerating in his preface. Because de Man is not self-consciously inaugurating a new era but reacting against one, his strategy seems to be to outdo the Continental critics at their own game. His “I” is so cleverly concealed that, far from seeming like a “privileged consciousness”(9), it seems evanescent. Yet multiple re-readings of Criticism and Crisis reveal an “I” that is fluid, mercurial, and capable both of enumerating a two-pronged crisis (the fickleness of Continental critics and the uncertainty of criticism as a discipline) and stating a two-pronged purpose (to show that fickleness in criticism is fruitless and to show equally the need for continued self-scrutiny). In a way, de Man’s circuitous technique could be seen as even more egotistical than Wordsworth’s. There is an element of “dazzle” to de Man’s performance that is lacking in Wordsworth. De Man demonstrates that he can use irony, “mirroring,”and deliberate self-contradiction to craft a statement that is as essentially personal as Wordsworth’s preface. He is beating the Continental critics at their own “unprivileged” game, demystifying them in such a way that at no point does he reveal himself as the dreaded, Romantic subject. Yet every point he makes moves forward the argument that it is not the Romantic subject to be guarded against, but a contradictory awareness of literature as a “something that is really nothing”. De Man might choose to designate literature as a “nothing that may or may not be something”. There does remain one fundamental discrepancy between Wordsworth and de Man: their attitude towards language itself. This discrepancy was largely determined by the eras in which they lived; Wordsworth, right at the dawn of Romanticism, had no notion of words as arbitrary signs, nor that the connection between thing and word, signified and signifier, might be flawed or, worse, non-existent. When Wordsworth addresses language itself, he does so in such a way to reinforce the impression that he believes words are capable of “pure” signification. Wordsworth mentions “in what manner language and the human mind act and react on each other”(76-77), in the context of a complaint as to the general taste of the British public. We do not see Wordsworth questioning the inherent value of linguistic signification; we see him questioning the uses to which linguistic signification can be put. If language is seen to be stable, reliable, and just to the expressive intent of the human subject, then an attitude of confident selfrighteousness would seem to be, if not admirable, at least understandable. Wordsworth does not doubt that he can make clear his purposive agenda, nor that he can spell out the crisis in British taste as he sees it. His trust in language, and in his own expressive capacities, seems secure. For Wordsworth, language may be purified and simplified by a retreat into rural simplicity; the language of rural people “is adopted…because such men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived.”(78) Rather than admit of fundamental duplicities or confusions, Wordsworth advocates reducing language to its barest essentials. Here, there is likely to be less static between sign and meaning, less needless ornamentation. This simplification of language forms part of Wordsworth’s purpose, just as the ornate, “gaudy” language of his predecessors forms part of the perceived crisis he is
counteracting. Once simplified, language need not be scrutinized. This bedrock belief in the power and reliability of signification is part of what allows Wordsworth to be so straightforward. Purpose and crisis can be equally addressed, an even keel may be maintained, and faith in the ultimate triumph of truth and nature (both, in this context, assumed universals) are demonstrated. Wordsworth enacts the discourse of the privileged subject, making a singular claim for his finite notions of truth, in precisely the manner that de Man eschews. For de Man, things must be more complicated. In the post-Saussurian era, faith in language, even simplified language, had been drastically reduced. The arbitrary quality of the linguistic sign had become a guiding precept for both Structuralism and Decontsructionism. De Man works with the knowledge that every discourse falls prey to “the duplicity, the confusion, and the untruth that we take for granted in the everyday use of language.”(9) The kind of self-scrutiny that de Man is advocating would seem to preclude the confident vigor of Wordsworth’s tone and literary demeanor. De Man’s complete awareness, both of his own situation as a contemporary critic and of the situation of his Continental colleagues, allows him room to maneuver, to use the trends and tenor of his times to make a personal claim on, if not universal truth, at least enduring value. Whether there is a direct correlation between universal truth (the legitimacy of which took a beating, alongside linguistic signage, as the Structuralist movement developed) and enduring value is not, for de Man, the point. What de Man is demonstrating, with just as much confidence and vigor as Wordsworth (though sans the “I”, and the directness that it lends), is that certain situations and circumstances tend to repeat themselves, that trends pass, and that the self-scrutiny which “scrutinize(s) itself to the point of reflecting on its own origin”(7) has a value. De Man does not posit this value as universal; he does not need to. The very fact of Mallarme’s speech to an English audience at Oxford in 1894, the nature of Mallarme’s ironies, his twists, turns, and ability to turn trends and fickleness to his own ends in a sort of charade, show de Man (and, by implication, his readers) that Nietzsche’s “eternal return” might apply to aesthetics as to all other things. The end of Mallarme’s charade is adopted by de Man; to sneak “enduring value” (for want of a better, less authoritative sounding term) in through the back door, via irony. Through adopting Mallarme’s stance, de Man gets to have his cake and eat it too; he makes a personal purpose-statement without ever using the first person, while revealing a seeming crisis to be a trifle (and one with many antecedents in the history of literature.) Mallarme becomes a Virgil figure (albeit a highly ironical one), leading de Man through the dark wood of conflict, into the open air of disciplined thought. As this “air of disciplined thought” entails a fundamental ambivalence or uncertainty towards de Man’s chosen discipline, this metaphor might be misleading. Better, perhaps, to say that de Man’s “Mallarmean mask” allows him to tell the truth (or, at least, his version of the truth). Wordsworth does not feel compelled to wear a mask. His only artifice involves the use of rhetoric to make his perceived crisis clear and his purpose known. His famous “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”(79) seems more rhetorical than reality based. “All”, in this context, universalizes a sentiment that, in its time, might have seemed shocking. It would be difficult to imagine Paradise Lost as a “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”, or The Rape of the Lock. Wordsworth exaggerates the aspects of his argument that make
him seem singular, atomized, and extraordinary. The exaggerations are subtle, but they color the entire enterprise of the preface. Perhaps this is the essential similarity between Wordsworth and de Man, as reflected in these two pieces: both feel the need to make calculated overstatements. De Man’s “all true criticism occurs in the mode of crisis” is mirrored by Wordsworth’s “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” These two pieces are joined, not only by the need to assert a purpose and a crisis, but by the ambition to be bold, to “think big.” These are pieces written to be read. They demonstrate a keen awareness of an assumed audience, and both display a sense of intellectual showmanship, a certain “bravura” quality. These two figures, writing to such different ends and audiences in such radically dissimilar eras, are showing us (one through earnestness, one through irony) how a literary gauntlet might be laid down. Judging by the intense reaction these pieces received, De Man and Wordsworth both succeeded at meeting their divergent, contradictory, but not entirely dissimilar goals.
De Man, Paul. Blindness and Insight. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1983. Wordsworth, William. The Essential Wordsworth. Hopewell, NJ: The Ecco Press, 1988.
On Swift’s A Description of a City Shower
The Georgic, as a poetic genre, could aptly be described as “blended.” It does not evince the consistency of the sonnet or (most) pastorals; rather, it moves between various modes of expression. Virgil’s seminal Georgics were posited by Christine Gerrard as “moving between passages of natural description, patriotic emotion, practical rural advice, solitary meditation” (Gerrard, 40). A blended poetic genre would seem to lend itself to an inclusive approach; the poem could be used to portray, analyze, or compare complex realities. Anything deemed relevant, owing to a subjective sensibility, could be included. The Georgic was generically developed in such a way that heterogeneity became the rule. Resistant to a single interpretation in a way that the pastoral and the sonnet often were not, the Georgic became a site where many textual and aesthetic roads could meet. This heterogeneity encouraged a continuation of the Georgic through history. The “loose” quality of the Georgic made it susceptible to change and transformation. The Georgic, as genre, could be made and remade to fit particular circumstances. The circumstances surrounding the composition of Jonathan Swift’s Georgic, A Description of a City Shower, were very particular to Swift’s time, an era in which “most poets were shaped, even defined, by political allegiance”(Gerrard, 37). The main split was between Whigs and Tories, and Swift was a dedicated Tory. He had switched from Whig to Tory, influenced by a “Financial Revolution” of which he did not approve. This particular Georgic was written before the Whigs had gained a decisive victory. The Georgic, as a genre, allowed Swift to be partisan in verse without being reductive or simple— formerly an agent of literary patriotism, it now became a site for affirmation of a specific, political allegiance that eschewed nationalistic or jingoistic rhetoric. Swift was also able to let it retain its informal character and blended essence. A Description of a City Shower is exemplar of a genre flexible enough to withstand change, without losing the characteristics which express its unique quality. One four-line passage seems to underscore the manner in which the Georgic has
both been transformed by Swift and retained its blended heterogeneity: “Here various Kinds, by various Fortunes led,/ Commence Acquaintance underneath a Shed,/ Triumphant Tories, and desponding Whigs,/ Forget their Feuds, and join to save their Wigs” (Swift, 76). Parsing this line by line is rewarding. In “Here…led,” we see a heterogeneous mass of people, mirroring the Georgic form. The difference that Swift has introduced is that this heterogeneity is the result of an urban environment, where once the Georgic had been “rustic.” The eighteenth-century city has become a new kind of landscape, from which the poet may draw inspiration and impressions, anticipating the flaneur and the dandy. The poet’s manner of seeing within the Georgic may not have changed; he represents himself “taking everything in,” recording his impressions in a manner not unlike a classic Georgic; the “what” of his impressions has changed (from the rural to the urban), the “how” has not— personages, rather than dissolving into nature (as in a classic Georgic), highlight the diversity of the urban landscape. Swift’s political intentions are not quite camouflaged, even in this line; “various Fortunes” underlines the dark undercurrents of urban life: poverty and disease accompany joy and prosperity. Poverty would be something that Swift could attribute to Whigs, and the Financial Revolution that was, to him, their doing. The Georgic demands that Swift not make this the singular focus of the poem; yet, owing to its inclusiveness, Swift can make the political points he wants to make, with his wonted satiric bow-thrusts. The second line (“Commence…shed”) shows the evolving relationship of man to nature in a novel, urban landscape. Rather than allowing men to live in harmony with each other, nature (in the form of a rain storm) forces encounters which are neither desired nor valued. The city, as a landscape to reflected upon, seems to present a kind of contradiction: the poet observes a great, heterogeneous mass of people, who nonetheless want nothing to do with each other. The “acquaintance” that Swift describes happens by chance and necessity, rather than out of mutual desire. The place of nature in the Georgic has also changed, as is evidenced by this line; nature, rather than being a blessing or a tyrant, it is presented as a mere inconvenience. It seems inconvenient because daily business (financial and otherwise) must cease. Communion with nature is not seen to be relevant in this landscape. The “Shed” is not insignificant; in a rural setting, a shed might be a place where nature’s products are collected or processed; here, it is a gathering place for people to avoid a natural disruption. Politics is overt in this line, but indirectly; just as rain forces people to huddle together, political business forces Whigs and Tories to deal with each other. “Acquaintance is commenced” because political strife is unceasing. Indirect statement is followed by direct assault: “Triumphant Tories, and desponding Whigs.” Swift points out that politics, rather than being part of the Georgic’s broad landscape, are a facet of everyday life. The Tory/Whig divide is so preponderant that even a chance rain storm becomes an occasion to see it manifest. Yet politics is discreet; it consists of two parties, one continual brawl. This brawl blends into the Georgic as part of the landscape, but threatens to overwhelm the whole poem. The poet, from being a muted Other (or prototypical flaneur) recording impressions and musings, becomes passionately engaged: he puts himself “into the picture” assertively. The Tories, whose side Swift takes, are not just victorious but “triumphant.” The predicted, eventual triumph of the Whigs demonstrates that Swift might be a somewhat unreliable narrator; however, what seems more important within this Georgic is the outward display of passion, attached to contingent political realities. This passion shows Swift again
stretching the Georgic form. It now can include direct, political, partisan iterations. Yet, the flow of impressions continues: the moment has passed, and Swift demonstrates, as the poem continues, that he lets even his own political predilections camouflage. The Georgic is mutating, in its recurrence; it never reifies in the same place. The final line of this four-line passage brings Swift back to a more objective reality. In “Forget…Wigs,” political realities become humanized in a quotidian vignette. At the same time, “wigs,” as in hair-pieces, take the urban landscape and emphasize its artificial quality, in a satirical Swiftian crescendo. Urbanites are involved in artifice and appearances; they are out, not to harmonize with nature, but to make a favorable (and self-serving) impression on each other. In this context, the politicians hiding in a shed are victims of nature, but only in a trivial fashion. Nature, as a “player” in this landscape, has diminished stature and importance. On the other hand, we see it capable of leveling things— erasing political divides, and evoking commonality, albeit briefly. Everyone is inconvenienced on a minor level; no one seems fundamentally engaged with it in a major way, as Wordsworth would later be, as the nineteenth century rejected Swift’s facility. What seems most natural in Swift’s Georgic is political engagement. It is the byproduct of urban life, the seeming substitute for an engagement with nature. Political engagement evokes the most passionate moment in the poem; it is the backdrop for nature, rather than nature dictating politics. Yet artificiality and “appearance orientation” (often, as here, visible in politics and politicians) only serve to humanize those that are caught up within their vicissitudes; Swift never loses an overarching (and, the stereotype subsists, satirical) sense of humanity as a whole. It is this dual sense (party allegiance within contingent politics, knowledge of unchanging human concerns) which animates Swift’s Georgic. It shows the manner in which a genre may bend to accommodate an individual author’s sensibility. The Georgic leant itself to continued use through this ability to bend and to accommodate— even if Romanticism found its very mutability, which could be taken as evanescence against depth, unsettling. Adam Fieled 2007-2013
End Notes Gerrard, Christine. “Political Passions.” The Cambridge Companion to EighteenthCentury Poetry, Ed. John Sitter. Cambridge University Press, 2001. Swift, Jonathan. “A Description of a City Shower.” Eighteenth-Century Poetry, Ed. David Fairer, Christine Gerrard. Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
Passion and Fury in Sense and Sensibility
In the context of an essay on the novel, Northrop Frye employs Jane Austen as an example of an author bound to a “comedy of manners” aesthetic. Austen’s novels, for Frye, are “typical,” because “plot and dialogue are closely linked to the conventions of the comedy of manners.” (Frye, 6) In a comedy of manners, we observe characters as they are perceived in society, in relation to the mores of their time. Unlike the romance, to which Frye ascribes the attributes of interiority and subjectivity, the novel (as extension of the comedy of manners) is objective and focused on exteriors. As such, the heightened emotion and magnified individuality of the romantic hero and heroine are diminished. For Frye, “the tragic emotions of passion and fury…would shatter the balance of tone in Jane Austen.”(Frye, 6) However, it is possible to find numerous incidences of both passion and fury in Sense and Sensibility. The interiority of characters is explored in depth, and we see characters both in society and in vacuo, as Frye posits the romantic hero/heroine. In one sense, it could be asserted that the balance of Austen’s tone acts as a foil for the passions and furies of her characters, rather than precluding passions and furies from the text altogether. This makes the work seem less “typical,” and more hybridized, generically, than Frye would seem to suggest. Romance overflows into the comedy of manners, and a psycho-affective chiasmus is created for the reader. Marianne Dashwood would seem to be the pivot point for this overflow. A passionate, impetuous figure, we see her fall through many floors of interior anguish. Austen’s representation of Marianne is prosaic; but Marianne herself lives with an intensity that is mitigated by self-understanding only in the book’s denouement. One description of Marianne runs thus: “Marianne abhorred all concealment where no real disgrace could attend un-reserve, and to aim at the restraint of sentiments which were not in themselves illaudable, appeared to her not merely an unnecessary effort, but a disgraceful subjection of reason to commonplace and mistaken notions.” (Austen, 88) Parsing this leaves no doubt as to the passionate vehemence of Marianne’s character; she doesn’t merely dislike, she abhors. Her interiority is such that it cannot be contained; she
does not value propriety or “mannered” behavior, where it would impinge on her expressiveness. Her abhorrence of “concealment” demarcates her as a problematic figure in a comedy of manners, in which artful concealments and evasions abound. Austen’s inclusion of Marianne as a central figure in this work serves to add liveliness and interest; without Marianne’s romantic sensibility, Sense and Sensibility’s landscape might seem arid. It also seems significant that Marianne finds conventional manners “disgraceful,” rather than merely tedious or distasteful. Her sensibility (as sensibility was understood in and pre-Regency England, a kind of expressed and refined cognitive-affective sensitivity and receptivity) is extreme, and Austen sketches it with wry detachment. The disjuncture between these two contingencies, Marianne’s romantic, extreme sensibility, and Austen’s wry narrative detachment, gives the text a sustained tension that is lacking in other novels from this era. It makes Frye’s claim that passion would shatter the balance of Austen’s tone seem somewhat unfeasible; Austen does write from inside her characters, and her rhetorical flourishes in support of the characters she favors are heated. To be fair, Austen often adopts a somewhat chastising tone when Marianne is dealt with. We see Marianne at the conclusion of her affair with Willoughby, “giving pain every moment to her mother and sister, and forbidding all attempt at consolation from either.”(Austen, 115) Austen cleverly portrays Marianne as selfish and needy, her romantic sensibility exercised to the detriment of herself and those around her. Thus, Austen gets to have her cake and eat it too; her inclusion of Marianne gives the text the vivacity and drama of a romance, while her narrative balance and slightly patronizing tone keeps the romance in check so that the also-included comedy of manners can unfold. Austen’s self-bifurcation in a third-person narrative construct is precisely executed; her objectivity and vistas into streams-of-consciousness are evened out. The scope of passion and fury in this text does grow to include other characters. Marianne’s passionate sensibility is a mirror of the sensibility of her mother, the elder Miss Dashwood. Elinor Dashwood stands opposed to them, grounded in practicality and reason. Elinor looks at her mother and her sister, and knows that “what Marianne and her mother conjectured one moment, they believed the next—that with them, to wish was to hope, and to hope was to expect.”(Austen, 58) Thus, balance and conventional “manners” live side-by-side with passion, abandon, and romanticism. For the romantic sensibility, the relation between facts and reality is hazy, and boundaries are a problem; Marianne and her mother dwell in an “unbounded” realm. Wishes are always prepared to take on flesh. For Elinor, and the balanced, reasonable approach she represents, things are not quite so simple; things may go amiss, details are important and cannot be neglected, bargains and pacts must be sealed. The dynamic tension between these two approaches is largely what animates Sense and Sensibility. It is this dynamic tension that Frye’s claim does not account for. The tragedy of the romantic approach, with all its allures and passions, proves to be all too real for both Marianne and her mother. It is important to note also that neither Marianne nor her mother are presented as caricatures to be laughed at, as might be expected in a typical novel. Austen’s patronizing tone aside, they are presented as authentic women, whose suffering we may feel and whose passions become our own. There is nothing to prevent us from identifying with Marianne, nor with what she undergoes. The straightforward narrative form employed allows us “easy access.” Marianne’s passion also comes to be reflected by her erstwhile suitor Willoughby. In what is perhaps the most “charged” scene in the book, Willoughby appears with a goal
passionately expressed—to justify himself and his behavior. In the throes of self-hatred and self-abasement, Willoughby recalls to Elinor “Her sorrow, her disappointment, her deep regret, when I told her that I was obliged to leave Devonshire so immediately—I never shall forget it—united too with such reliance, such confidence in me!—Oh, God!— what a hard-hearted rascal I was!”(Austen, 331) Willoughby is first introduced as charming, graceful, and good-mannered; here, he is reduced almost to incoherence by passion and fury. There seems to be no escape for him, nor does Austen seek to make light of Willoughby’s weakness. He seems genuinely, authentically, passionately unhappy. Tragedy is added by the fact that his acts are irrevocable; Marianne’s heart has been broken, and there is nothing he can do about it. A scene of such pathos cuts much deeper than might seem possible for Frye’s posited “typical novel.” It certainly would not seem at home in a comedy of manners. Tragedy and passion are conflated in stark terms, with Elinor’s steadfast control and reason grounding them. It may seem that Elinor, more than any other character, allows Austen to retain “balance of tone” when other, more passionate characters must be dealt with. Elinor may be said to represent “sense,” practicality, while Marianne’s romanticism is given the moniker “sensibility.” The book swings between these two poles, and it would be easy to read in an allegory—Marianne, laid low by too much passion, is forced to become more moderate, while Elinor, steadfastly moderate, is rewarded with the man of her dreams. Any reading that addresses the range of thought and feeling in this book must deal somehow with the passion which vivifies Marianne, her mother, and Willoughby. It would seem strange to call a work filled with passionate people a “typical novel,” if by that we mean a novel which excludes passion and fury. Sense and Sensibility seems to create a realm in which romance and “manners” are simultaneously embodied, and thrown in together. To what extent “romance” or “manners” predominate is an open question, but Frye’s initial claim belies the craftsmanship, dexterity, and divergent sensibility with which Austen has sculpted this book, and its binary tension between passion and reason, which has more Realism in it than is generally believed. Adam Fieled 2007-2013
ENDNOTES Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Orchard Park, NY: Broadview Press, 2001. McKeon, Michael, ed. Theory of the Novel. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2000.
Ideality and Sidney’s Golden Mean
In writing An Apology for Poetry, Philip Sidney set himself a daunting task: to reconcile contradictory principles derived from antithetical philosophies, in the context of manifesto-like celebration of a neglected and ridiculed art. Sidney clearly wanted his piece to appeal to the widest possible audience (though this piece was not published until after Sidney’s untimely death in battle), and his rhetorical gestures strike a conciliatory note. Nevertheless, it was Sidney’s aim to make a brazen assertion for poetry and poets: that poetic works could effectively act as a Golden Mean between two different and difficult forms of ideality; Plato’s abstract transcendental ideality, which posited effective truth in intangible forms, and Aristotle’s concrete ideality of artistic mimesis, and the knowledge of man which might be gained through such imitation. There is a clue in the title of the piece that the Golden Mean might be tilted slightly to one side. Unlike Shelley, who “defended” poetry, Sidney is “apologizing” for it. A literal-minded approach to this piece is perhaps not best, as Sidney’s title reveals a preoccupation with Plato’s assertion (indirectly seconded by the neglect and scorn of the general public) that mimetic works of art are inherently inferior, “ruinous to.. understanding”(29). Aristotelian ideality is what Sidney is drawn to, what naturally pleases him; Platonic ideality is what he must answer for, why he must apologize. Sidney’s “apologetic” stance betrays a fundamental awe of Plato’s logic which outweighs his contentment with Aristotle’s more worldly aesthetics. Yet, because he is himself an artist, Sidney is as ineluctably bound to Aristotle as he is to Plato. This piece finds Sidney groping for a solution to a Sphinx-like riddle: how can Plato (whose logic and wisdom are superior) be made to mesh comfortably with Aristotle (the archetypal aesthete) in such a way that both approaches (which exist simultaneously in Sidney’s psyche and have been internalized by him) are fruitfully and ineluctably at work? Sidney seemed to sense the labyrinthine complexity and difficulty of his task. His approach is a winding rather than a straightforward one, grasping at an essential, formidable divergence between two approaches to ideality (abstract transcendental and concrete), then poking, prodding, looking for openings. Sidney opines that poetic works are “milk,” enabling people “to feed afterwards on tougher knowledges”(186). The use of
“milk” as a metaphor reveals both Sidney’s devotion to Aristotelian ideality (mimesis-inart) and a certain transcendental spirit that would align Sidney with Plato. Milk gives nourishment in a simple, straightforward way to our bodies; it requires no cognitive or psycho-affective effort to confer its nourishment. It is homely, in the same way that acts of aesthetic imitation can be homely (in the sense that they may reveal “home truths” about ourselves and our world, or deal with family and the most “private” issues of our lives). Thus, Sidney demonstrates faith in the power of Aristotelian ideality at the same time he limits it with a basic, earthy metaphor. The rest of the statement bears out the impression that “milk,”though nutritive, ultimately fails as telos for active intelligence. Milk is not even seen to be nutritive in and of itself; it derives its value from the manner in which it conditions the mind for later encounters with “tougher knowledges”. Sidney is in the bizarre, uncomfortable posture of being bound to an ideology (Aristotelian ideality) that he finds ultimately inferior. The dual sense of the title remains; Sidney is addressing poetry (ostensibly because it is good, because it needs and deserves attention) while at the same time apologizing for it (because it is merely “milk,” earthy, basic, not bound to the superior transcendental ideality which Plato represents). It is not surprising, given the “pretzel logic” that Sidney is forced to resort to by conflicting passions and aims, that a move is made to backtrack, to demonstrate that superior knowledge (as represented by Plato) is, in some sense, beholden to the homely, earthy “milk” of which Aristotelian mimesis consists. When Sidney addresses Plato’s work, he notes that “the skin as it were and beauty depended most on poetry”(187). In the convoluted schematics of this statement, Sidney uses another earthy, basic metaphor (“skin”) to address the surface level of Plato’s work, which consists, quite often, of metaphors and similes (i.e. “the poet is like a painter who…”or “like faces which were never really beautiful”(32)). That Plato was as dependent on metaphor and simile as any poet is not in doubt; nevertheless, the ideality-as-ideology which Plato espouses does not take issue with metaphor or simile as such, but with mimesis. Whether or not Plato can be considered to have “depended on poetry” is debatable, and depends largely on how poetry is defined. If poetry is defined loosely (as Sidney seems to wish), then use of metaphor and simile betrays a poetic sensibility. If poetry is defined in the more strict sense that Plato himself defines it (as an act of artistic mimesis), then use of metaphor and simile alone would not qualify a dialogue as poetry. Sidney reveals the strained nature of his position twice in his short statement: first, in talking of the “skin” of Plato’s work, which a canny reader would realize was (to Plato and his intended audience) probably the least important part; secondly, in addressing the “beauty” of Plato’s work, which Plato (and his latter and current disciples) would probably deign a superfluous aspect of his discourse. Plato’s work is predicated on the belief that truth, not beauty, is the supreme virtue; when Sidney wrote this, John Keats had not yet proclaimed truth to be beauty and beauty truth, but it is unlikely that a dedicated Platonist would find much succor in his assertion. Sidney is unable to “give up the ghost,” admit the fundamental incompatibility of Aristotelian and Platonic ideality. His prose has the quality of a dance on tip-toe, an attempt to impress with lightness (in the form of dedication to Aristotelian mimesis and the power of art) and heaviness (in the form of fundamental awe before Platonic ideality) simultaneously: a demonstration of courtly sprezzatura. Once Sidney has established this dual allegiance, which involved a great amount of intellectual daring and derring-do (and Sidney’s verbal facility certainly rises to the
occasion, though his deftness does not hide cracks, fissures, and flaws in the structure of his argument), he becomes free to make the claim that is the crux of his “apology,”and which attempts most boldly to forge a link-through-poetry between the austere rigor of Platonic ideality (and its dependence on transcendental forms) and the more sensual accessibility of Aristotelian mimesis (with its emphasis on physically and emotionally “enacted” representations of human truth). The poet, he claims, “doth grow in effect another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature”(188). Sidney’s claim here is, in many ways, quite radical. By granting the poet the ability to grow “another nature,”Sidney grants a “natural” character to the poet’s (inevitably artificial, and, to a Platonist, fraudulent) creations. If, as Aristotle claimed, it is natural for men (and women) to imitate, why shouldn’t the effects (and affects) of imitation also have a natural quality? As with Sidney’s treatment of “poetry” (which bended to include under its aegis use of metaphor and simile, mimesis, Plato’s main concern, notwithstanding), “nature” here is treated to a new method and manner of definition. It is unlikely that a Platonist would grant any act of artistic mimesis the “natural” moniker, and “nature” (in the sense of what is naturally true) would not include any act of representation, an imitation of an imitation, which Plato could only deconstruct into dissolution. On one level, however, this rhetorical gesture of Sidney’s can be construed as a movement towards the kind of abstract transcendental ideality that is associated with Plato. Plato, of course, emphasized the importance of abstract Forms, which override concrete forms such as we are familiar with in the physical universe. Platonic “truth” involves the presupposition that the Forms exist in a timeless realm and that each material entity derives its identity from its association with these Forms, which represent “material things perfected.” Simply put, the Forms are ideas, “made by God”(30). The Platonic Form is the idea that we represent is our modes and manners of being. We “imitate” the Platonic Forms on multiple levels, whether concretely (as in making a bed based on our idea of the “ideal bed”) or abstractly (as in loving another based on our idea of the “ideal lover”). Therefore, Sidney’s idea of poets growing a “another nature” through artistic mimesis is another way of saying that poets can reach for and attain Platonic ideal Forms, and then express them concretely and instrumentally (just as a bed-maker, if he is skilled, can actualize the Platonic ideal of “bed-ness” in his craft). This is Sidney’s essential claim, and the prophesied Golden Mean between two antithetical forms of ideality; that the poet may use the Aristotelian “tool” of mimesis (just as a bed-maker might use hammers, nails, and the like) to reach the Platonic telos of ideal Forms, “other (better) natures,” even in their liminal subsistence as representations. That the Forms the poet grows might be “quite anew” adds another layer of depth and solidity to his argument. It also adds an irreducible complication, which once again sets Sidney apart from Plato and in alignment with Aristotle; that, for Plato, nothing can ever be “quite anew,” i.e. everything already exists perfectly (“ideally”) in the mind of God, thus nothing can ever be brought into existence that does not already exist timelessly in an ideal realm. Sidney’s brash language in claiming a sovereign creative power for the poet is eminently un-Platonic, and to a Platonist might be considered misguided and naïve. Sidney’s Golden Mean requires a “suspension of disbelief” for the dedicated Platonist, who must accept that the poet can create “new” things. Aristotelian ideality posits just such a role for the poet, and again a critical reading of Sidney must
place him largely in the Aristotelian phylum, fencing a phantom and Ideal Platonist. It would seem likely that Sidney knew this, and that the frustrated force of his words derives from the knowledge that a perfect fusion of Plato and Aristotle was (and remains) fundamentally impossible and would always be just a little bit beyond his ken. Sidney plays the role of intellectual Quixote, charging at the windmill of Platonic ideality and getting dashed down into the mud. Whosoever could believe that a poet might create an other, better, newly-born nature would almost certainly be a confirmed Aristotelian. A Platonist would almost certainly lose interest once it became clear that ideal Form was being achieved through mimesis, and Sidney’s text “beseeches” us as it would a lover. Sidney’s quagmire deepens when the truth of his position bursts forth in an even bolder rhetorical gesture of Aristotelian grandiosity; “nature,” Sidney says, “never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers(e) poets have done”(188). To a Platonist, this would seem like cheating; Plato does posit a “better nature” than the nature that is “given” to us in the physical realm; but it is an austere world of bare, perfected Forms, and Sidney’s use of “rich tapestry” as a metaphor for Aristotelian mimesis would certainly strike a false note to someone reading with a Platonic viewpoint. Sidney is aiming to prove that Aristotelian ideality, like Platonic ideality, can be abstract and transcendental; the key distinction is that while the world created by the Aristotelian artist is transcendental, it is still sensually rich and not at all abstract (composed as it may be of the “Heroes, Demigods, Cyclopes, Chimeras, Furies”(188) of the poet’s imagination, which still must involve itself in the imitation of physical life). “Rich tapestry” slots in next to “milk” and “skin” as sensual metaphor, except that the sensuality is magnified, made central to the metaphor rather than merely serving as the metaphor’s platform. A tapestry is made to be appreciated through sensory stimulation; colors, patterns, texture, all woven together to delight eyes and hands. As such, the “tapestry” of accomplished poetics surpasses nature in its raw sensual appeal. All this, being as it is an intensification of worldly enjoyment, would be anathema, in and of itself, to a Platonist. However, Sidney is still building his construct (albeit with what a Platonist might see as misplaced metaphors), which will lead him to equate Aristotelian poetics with Platonic dialogues in a mediated discourse of Forms as pure intuitions. Sidney must prove to us that sensory enjoyment serves an educational purpose as well, which validates it “transcendentally.” It may be strained for “milk” and “tapestries” to serve a Platonic purpose; if they merely delight, then Sidney has no argument at all. There must be Ideals at work, and the Ideality which can conceive of them. The Aristotelian impulse-to-form must be balanced by the Platonic will-to-transcend-form. This turns out to be Sidney’s ideal poet; a Formalist Idealist, or those poets who “most properly imitate to teach and delight, and to imitate borrow nothing of what is, hath been, or shall be; but range…into the divine consideration of what may be, and should be.”(189) Here, the balance tips, and Sidney finally gains the ground he has been looking for; the ground where Aristotelian and Platonic ideality can cohabitate comfortably, or at least feasibly, in a kind of harmonious didacticism. Still, Sidney’s struggle is not over. To “teach” according to an Aristotelian agenda would be to show what persists in the heart of man, what our nature, as it exists in this world, is. To teach according to a Platonic agenda would be to show that this world is full of snares, blinding us to the reality of the eternal forms. It is clear from the context of Sidney’s statement that the knowledge to be gained from poetic, mimetic teaching is not
knowledge of transcendental reality but of human reality, and that the “better nature” he espouses lies in worldly virtue rather than abstract understanding. “Divine consideration” can be seen as a sop to Platonic ideality, but Sidney gives no evidence that “what should be” is anything other than his (Aristotelian) vision of Dasein, being-in-the-world. The vision of transcendental poetics, as it is seen here, shows us a better version of what we are already living, rather than a world (Plato’s world of ideal forms) that we can strive to understand but never concretely know. The “tapestry” shows us an enhanced version of “nature,” but Sidney never imitates that nature, as it exists to him, does so in the Platonic manner (a timeless realm of ideal forms) rather than the Aristotelian manner (an earthly realm of virtue improved by artistic mimesis). Sidney’s poetics are tied inescapably to the world, and the idea of worldliness, though the divine is brought in to add gravitas to his argument, is key to understanding what Aristotelian mimesis can impart on a sensitive, responsive audience. “Divine consideration” is never developed by Sidney into a coherent transcendental system; the most cohesive parts of his argument are fastened to a sense that Aristotelian ideality can lead us to a better world, rather than a better after-world or world-beyond-sense. Plato might have stung Sidney into a confrontation with the limitations of the mimetic process, but Sidney’s admiration for Plato and Plato’s perceived superior wisdom did not lead Sidney to posit his own version of ideal, inaccessible, indirectly realized form. Plato is placed to play “king of his court.” Once this point is seen, we are able to come back, full circle, to Sidney’s assertion that poetics, while existent as “milk,”can lead men (and women) forward to “tougher knowledges”. It turns out that Sydney, far from being oblivious to the course of his own discourse, has set up his “winding route” beforehand so that we appreciate many of his early points only once later points have been made. Platonic ideality is seen to be the “tough(er) knowledge” that Sidney initially and briefly mentioned, and his strategy of Quixote-like exclamation becomes quite canny once we know that the limitations of mimesis are appreciated. If Sydney is positing poetry not as a direct rival to Platonic ideality but as a vehicle to reach “Platonic beginnings,” then Sydney no longer needs to wrestle with the implications of artistic mimesis pitted directly against Plato’s system. All his self-scuffles and grandiose pronouncements have been leading us, not to see poetics as a counterpart to Platonic thought, but to see it as a sort of miniaturized simulacrum of Platonic thought; better “worldly nature” becoming a stand-in for the world of eternal forms, consideration of which is deferred until the “milk” has been digested. The impulse-to-improve is conflated with the impulse-to-transcend, Aristotelian mimesis becomes a “positive snare” that can move men to “join in,” and poetry “move(s) men to take that goodness in hand, which without delight the would fly as from a stranger.” (189) Sidney’s rhetorical flourishes maintain a stately air of the legal. Sidney is concerned with “movement”, in more than one sense; men must be moved to involve themselves in a participation in, or appreciation of, artistic mimesis, which may (in the manner of Sidney’s own unique ideality) move them further along the path to Plato’s more strict, demanding rationales. Aristotelian mimesis, in serving an ancillary role to Platonic ideality, becomes as “useful” as “milk,” “skin,” or a beautiful tapestry. This is the measure of Sidney’s admiration for Plato; the only way Aristotelian ideality can co-join Platonic ideality is to serve it, while Plato and Platonists are under no obligation to serve Aristotelians (though they might, perchance, be grateful for “converts” and/or new recruits). Loyalty of the king’s minions to the king is essential.
The central irony of this piece is that, while downplaying the importance of Aristotelian mimesis in-and-of itself, Sydney makes clear that he himself is a dedicated Aristotelian (albeit a beleaguered one). Sydney never considers renouncing Aristotelian mimesis altogether; it never becomes an issue that either side be “given up,” though it is equally clear that this (in other circumstances and contexts) might be the most natural course. Sydney fulfills a stubborn, single-minded ambition to fuse (or, at least, relate) two antithetical philosophies. He does so by showing in what manner the “easier” philosophy might serve the more difficult. Aristotelian ideality can lead men on to the “tough,” the Platonic. Platonic ideality can expand upon and broaden the horizons of the Aristotelian, make it “transcendental.” So, it can be said that both sides are “fulfilled,” in as much as both sides are affirmed and validated. The philosophies remain antithetical, but Sidney, through pure effort of literary will, has forged a convincing connection between them, as befits a courtier skilled in political and other forms of rhetoric. Adam Fieled 2007-2013
Adams, Hazard. Critical Theory Since Plato. Boston: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2005.
AN UNLIKELY CONJUNCTION: ORTEGA Y GASSET AND THACKERAY
Jose Ortega y Gasset reports, in his Notes on the Novel, that “the imperative of the novel is autopsy”(296).Ortega y Gasset’s notes themselves perform a kind of autopsy on the novel, which is seen to be in decline, potentially moribund. Ortega y Gasset’s notes are prescriptive—he demonstrates an angle of approach that he feels can take the novel where it needs to go. The angle that Ortega y Gasset argues for is a movement away from action, adventure, and plot-dependency, and into detailed analyses and contemplative evocations of characters, who he calls “personages.” The movement away from plot orientation and towards character orientation entails a diminished awareness of outward circumstance; Ortega Y Gasset says, “what…pleases is not so much the fortunes of the personages, as their self-presence”(296). Ortega y Gasset uses the analogy of
Impressionist painting, how it conveys “existence in the present tense”(297), as well as the detail-rich technique of Proust and Dostoyevsky, to convey his points. In the ideal novel that Ortega y Gasset imagines, “action…ought to be reduced to a minimum”(305) so that “we are liable to remember….only the personages themselves”(308). Ortega y Gasset ornaments these essential ideas with the thought that “density” and “sluggishness” should both be desirable textual characteristics, in order that a proper amount of character-data can be conveyed. This information can lead us to a contemplative appreciation of personages, rather than a mere surface-consonant engagement with action and adventure, such is we find in pop culture narratives. Vanity Fair might seem like an unlikely candidate to exemplify Ortega y Gasset’s prescription. It is, after all, a comedy of manners, with an interesting and intricate plotline that moves us briskly from one scene to another. Whatever “density” we might see in this work might come only from its extreme length. However, perhaps alone among the personages we meet in Vanity Fair, Becky Sharp exudes a magnetism, an intense “selfpresence,” that can linger long after the book is read, and serve as a synecdoche for the book as a whole. Her status as a personage in the book might be said to overshadow the status of other characters, and her character is painstakingly revealed and displayed throughout the length of the book. She gives us food for contemplation, of the sort that Ortega y Gasset discusses, and the memorable nature of her appearances in the book would tend to bear out Ortega y Gasset’s claim that “we are liable to remember…only the personages themselves”(308). The birth of the character from the death of the author? Why does Ortega y Gasset make this claim? The novel, to him, is a place, a “hermetically sealed universe”(308), where (ideally) we contemplate ethics, human passions, and motives. W.M. Thackeray certainly gives us an abundance of ethical, motivational, and passion-related material in his rendering of Becky Sharp. What is essential about this rendering, and how it dovetails neatly with Ortega y Gasset’s theory, is that Becky’s character is not always manifest in grand flourishes; often, it is the miniscule things she does, in polite company or in the domestic milieu (as an antiVictorian non-angel in the house), that give her character its memorable piquancy. Early in the novel, upon leaving Miss Pinkerton’s academy, Becky is offered a finger to shake (in that day a condescending gesture); instead of acquiescing to her superior’s wishes, “Miss Sharp only folded her own hands with a very frigid smile and bow, and quite declined to accept the proffered honor”(7). Ortega y Gasset wants “long looks at…personages…in all the wealth of their lives”(298). He wants a kind of “lingering” effect. This vignettes which Thackeray offer cannot help but linger in our minds, for a number of reasons. We have tacit rules being thwarted, in a comedy of manners—Becky refuses to follow the convention of humoring a superior. Thus, Becky Sharp immediately stands out as a character both willing and able to thwart convention. An incident like this signifies Becky’s “outlaw” status, her quality as a unique personage in VF. Yet it only takes one well-constructed, detailed sentence to convey this data. Thackeray’s use of language is very skillful, “dense” in the sense that Ortega y Gasset wants a novelist’s language to be; for example, “quite” gives a much more distinct flavor, an impression of agency and volition to Becky’s action that would not be there were it omitted. Ortega y Gasset does make a point that “dramatic interest is a psychological necessity”(305). So, this initial revelation of Becky’s character does not happen in solitude, while Becky herself is in a
contemplative posture, but in a scene that is both modest (no grand flourishes) and subtly dramatic (as most scenes are wherein social mores are transgressed). It is true that Thackeray’s treatment of Becky Sharp in VF is somewhat unique. She is “revealed” more often and with greater panache than other characters. We get more than the “good long look” that Ortega y Gasset prescribes, and, where Becky Sharp and the “things” that make up her life are concerned, Thackeray certainly “turns from the conventional signs to the things themselves”(297). Thackeray loves to “linger” on Becky, and everything she does is invested with meaning. When we see how “Rebecca sprang about the apartment…with the greatest liveliness, and had peeped into the huge wardrobes, and the closets, and the cupboards, and tried the drawers that were locked…”(71), we are seeing an action which can interest us on both a superficial level, and as grist for contemplation. Becky Sharp can be imagined as an archetypal representation of ambition, or curiosity, vanity, or bravery, rapacity. Her complexity makes all her actions, even seemingly modest ones like snooping through someone else’s drawers, significant. We are seeing what Ortega y Gasset calls a “construct(ed) human soul”(315). As Ortega y Gasset asks of the novel form itself, we may feel “surrounded by (her) on all sides”(311). What gives Becky her sharpness, in the context of VF, is that she does things instinctively that others would or could not do. To use a Freudian cliché, she is a walking Id. Her amorality becomes the “wealth of her life” that Ortega y Gasset mentions, even, paradoxically, when it reduces her to poverty. It is a wealth that may or may not be appreciated by her; the real wealth, the contemplative wealth, is for us, the audience; and the contemplative duration of this wealth is extended. Ortega y Gasset emphasizes personages over plots, contemplation over action, density and atmosphere over adventure. As a densely-detailed personage worthy of contemplation, Becky Sharp would seem to be what Ortega y Gasset might prize most about VF. There is one final detail worth mentioning. Ortega y Gasset equates the inner density of a novel with “high pressure”(303). This brings to light another aspect of Becky Sharp worth exploring and contemplating—the manner in which her intense energy strains people and situations to the breaking point. Though married, we see Becky with “a score of generals now round Becky’s chair, and she might take her choice of a dozen bouquets when she went to the play”(350). Becky’s intensity is matched by the intensity of the reactions she elicits. She is both magnetic and repellent. This is one reason why her social interactions often have an unusual tinge. In a comedy of manners, Becky’s overt charisma and anti-charisma make her seem almost like a visitor from another story. Becky’s “self-presence” pleases us because she is so manifestly unlike everyone else in VF. We may not grieve when she falls from grace, because she herself does not grieve. We may get pleasure from everything she does. She gives us everything that Ortega y Gasset could want from a single character, and is in a sense “pimped” to us by the author. Ortega y Gasset’s prescriptive suggestion for novels and novelists—an emphasis on character and contemplation—may have been fulfilled by Thackeray’s rendering of Becky Sharp in VF; this novel is, however, from a bygone era, while Ortega y Gasset is speaking to a more recent audience. If someone wanted to create a Becky Sharp for our day and age, challenges would present themselves—how to create a figure both in and out of our society, an “outlaw” who knows the rules by heart; how to convey the piquancy of mores transgressed, of ambition fit to burst; how to represent magnetic and repellant power. Ortega y Gasset’s Notes suggest that it is just such questions that
novelists should be asking themselves. Though the pairing of Thackeray and Ortega y Gasset may seem unlikely, the pairing of Ortega y Gasset and Becky Sharp might be a match made in heaven. The inner “wealth” of her character has demonstrated superior staying power—her lingering uniqueness is left with us today. She is an unrepeatable original, and, as the future of the novel in the Internet Age is beleaguered, the kind of textual feat that must recur if the novel-as-form is to prosper or even survive. Adam Fieled 2007-2013
Exhausted Sense: Sensibility and Synecdoche in Gray and Burns
A complete and completely realized discussion of the poetic trope synecdoche, as applied to the poems of Thomas Gray and Robert Burns, and contextualized by an awareness of “sensibility” as an eighteenth century cultural phenomenon, could probably fill a half-dozen books. The task of this paper will be to open up a discussion, “start things off,” heighten awareness of how the many levels and layers of these texts interact, coalesce, disrupt themselves, and achieve wholeness (to whatever extent “wholeness” may be achieved in a poem, as interpretations and standards of wholeness may vary from poet to poet, and from critic to critic.) What is at stake is the possibility of a new theoretical approach to these texts, using sensibility and synecdoche (and the textual interaction between the two) to break them open, and show them in a new light. When seen in the light of my arguments, I hope to convey a sense that these texts may be reevaluated, that interpretive possibilities have not been exhausted, and that there is a subtle connection between the trope synecdoche, and the cultural phenomenon sensibility, as it finds its way into Gray and Burns’s texts. This will become clearer once my thesis argument is clearly stated. In engaging Burns and Gray, specifically Gray’s “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” and Burns’s “To a Mouse,” I noticed a sense of weariness creeping into the texts. It is a personal weariness, a kind of feeling that Gray and Burns, though still
Fieled 2 engaged in many of the projects of sensibility (which will be defined shortly), have reached the ends of their respective ropes, hit a psycho-spiritual brick wall. That is, they seem unwilling or unable to extend themselves to the objects of their respective enquiries. They seem exhausted. My central argument is that one textually palpable manifestation of this exhaustion, as expressed in “Eton” and “Mouse,” is the use Gray and Burns make of the trope synecdoche (also to be more fully defined shortly.) In using this trope, Gray and Burns cut their objects down to size, to make them manageable. This cuts against the grain of sensibility, which, by most definitions, involves fellow-feeling, an engagement with “wholes” rather than “halves.” I am arguing that, in the context of these poems, synecdoche acts as a kind of resort, a refuge away from the demands of sensibility. The implications of my argument are complex. What I will go into in this paper is the implication that sensibility, as a theoretical entity, may not have been a sustainable reality for Gray and Burns. This could (I hope) force a reevaluation of these poets’ achievements, focusing on the limits of sensibility, how sensibility led eighteenthcentury poets to exhaust themselves, and how tropes like synecdoche became a textual manifestation of this. Careful investigation of my thesis has led me to two sub-theses. Each of these deserves its own paper (or book.) Though I do not have the space to do that here, I feel that I cannot, in good conscience, leave these arguments out, even if they must be subordinated. Upon looking deeper into the respective oeuvres of Gray and Burns, I noticed another mode of synecdoche. We will see how, in “Eton” and “Mouse,” Gray and Burns contract their objects. However, in poems like Gray’s famous “Elegy Written in a
Fieled 3 Country Church Yard” and Burns’s “Red Red Rose,” something else is happening. Rather than a subtraction taking place, a kind of multiplication transpires, wherein not only are wholes recognized, they are expanded, blown up beyond life size. In these poems, sensibility seems to be working in expansive, rather than contractive mode. Gray and Burns are using poetic devices (Gray reuses synecdoche, Burns uses simile) to take wholes, and through application of these devices, make them bigger. Ordinarily, this would seem to refute my basic argument. However, my sub-argument here is that blowing things up shows a will to distort that again shows sensibility strained. Too big and too small both chafe against the tenets of fellow-feeling. I will explore these texts as adjuncts to the main ones. The final sub-thesis acts as a kind of synthesis. It gives a place for the reader, and the manner in which Gray and Burns hope to activate sensibility in the reader. My argument, as it dovetails with my thesis and first sub-argument, is that what is operating in these texts is a kind of “Double Circuit.” Gray and Burns seem to be aware that they are connecting with a reader (or readers), who will then make a connection both to them, standing at the center of their own texts, and to their objects. We look at Gray and Burns looking at their objects, and quite often it seems that Gray and Burns might be looking back at us, as well. If we posit this Double Circuit as an entity in these poems, my thesis argument stands, but is slightly modified, for this reason: though the tenor of the poems may seem to be (and actually be) exhausted, the Double Circuit allows us to feel Gray and Burns’s exhaustion. Thus, we can exercise our own sensibility with the two poets, have fellow-feeling with them. The Double Circuit ensures that some sensibility remains
Fieled 4 operative, even if the note of exhaustion remains dominant. This is, I am well aware, cumbersome for one seminar paper, but so it goes. Now, for some brass tacks definitions: synecdoche, a poetic trope, has been defined as “a figure of speech in which the part stands for the whole, and thus something else is understood within the thing mentioned” (Cuddon, A Dictionary of Literary Terms). A second definition of synecdoche I came upon is this: “A common figure of speech by which something is referred to indirectly, either by naming only some part or constituent of it or— less often— by naming some more comprehensive entity of which it is part” (Baldrick, Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms.) A final, perhaps more interesting, take on synecdoche, comes from Edmund Burke, who writes, “The “noblest synecdoche,” the perfect paradigm or prototype for all lesser usages, is found in metaphysical doctrines proclaiming the identity of “microcosm” and “macrocosm”” (Burke, 508). Burke’s definition is somewhat relevant to my argument. We will see that when, in “Eton” and “Mouse,” Gray and Burns use synecdoche, the “macro” element is, if not metaphysical, certainly somewhat indeterminate, and must be read in. As synecdoche is being paired with sensibility, it will be necessary, first to have a working definition of sensibility, then to explore the risks and hazards that Gray and Burns faced in mixing these two elements. Jerome McGann has described sensibility as “an equivocal condition even for those who gave their hearts to it” (McGann, 3), for which “tears are the proper emblem” (McGann, 7), and that assumed “that no human action is possible…that is not led and driven by feeling, affect, emotion” (McGann, 6). It is important that this was a specifically cultural phenomenon, not merely one that
Fieled 5 applied to the psycho-spiritual realms. As Julie Ellison wrote, “The eighteenth century witnessed the decisive popular fusion of sensibility and taste, so that emotional susceptibility was allied to popular expression” (Ellison, 6). Yet the match of emotiondriven, affective sensibility and culture was not always a happy one. Jerome McGann also notes that for many, sensibility was seen to be “an embarrassment to high culture” (McGann, 1). Between McGann and Ellison, we see that there was a push-pull between culture and sensibility; sensibility was “popular,” but not “high.” A poet wanting to balance these things would have to walk a fine line to appeal to a “sensible” public. Nor was sensibility unproblematic for the theorists who initiated it. Adam Smith would probably be the foremost sensibility theorist. This is how David Marshall sums up Smith’s dilemma: Adam Smith bases his theory…on the presumption of a universal need for sympathy…he describes a society in which sympathy seems unlikely and even impossible— not so much because people are disinclined to enter into situations that are painful or distressing, but rather because…people know the characters and sentiments of others only through representations they form in their imaginations of what they think others feel. (Marshall, 180) For Smith, though we may become “interested in the fortunes of others” and “conceive of what we ourselves should feel” (Smith, 9) in others’ shoes, the limits of sensibility were the limits of the imagination. Yet, as Julie Ellison pointed out, sensibility, using the imagination to establish fellow-feeling (a correspondence of feeling on a similar level), became a cultural phenomenon in England. It was commonplace for poets to demonstrate emotional susceptibility, to put themselves on the line in their poems. In attempting to demonstrate sensibility, Gray and Burns were placing themselves in the
Fieled 6 mainstream, and keeping their audience in the company of flesh and blood. It is important to note that, while Adam Smith clearly understood the limitations of sensibility (and its dependence on imaginative power), others went out of their way to glorify sensibility and the sensible. Oliver Goldsmith, as quoted in Paul Goring’s The Rhetoric of Sensibility in Eighteenth-Century Culture, wrote, “He that is sensibly touched, sees things with a very different eye from the rest of mankind. All nature to him becomes an object of comparison and metaphor, without attending to it” (Goldsmith, 78). Here, the one with sensibility is set apart, and valorized. Interesting that Goldsmith specifically mentions metaphor. Metaphor involves one thing standing for another, an implied comparison; synecdoche involves a part standing for a whole. Metaphor does not necessarily involve a diminution in size; synecdoche often does; both are imaginative. Between Goldsmith and Smith, it easy to see that definitions and interpretations of sensibility varied widely. It was read by some as limited and limiting, by others as nearly boundless. For our purposes, it is useful to keep both in mind. Perhaps the most essential thing necessary to my argument (once we have a working definition of sensibility, which I hope these quotes have provided), is that, for both Gray and Burns, sensibility, the presence of it and the cultural demand for it, were unavoidable. It was what was in the air, especially for Gray. Burns came in at the tail end, but it was still very present for him as well. I would say that Gray and Burns’s engagement with sensibility, then, was not entirely volitional. They were compelled by circumstance to write “sensible” poetry. What is demonstrated, in “Eton” and “Mouse,” is that these poets were more in line with Smith’s appreciation of sensibility’s limits than with Goldsmith’s
Fieled 7 valorization of it. Imaginative power is seen to be very much bounded by individual concern; instrumental use of parts to stand for wholes expresses this. To gird this discussion for the introduction of the two primary texts, I thought it might be useful to go into some detail as to what my qualms are, where the conjunction of sensibility and synecdoche are concerned. Some of these qualms have been mentioned in the intro, but bear repeating. For me, there is an incompatibility that is readily visible, where these two entities, the trope and the cultural phenomenon, are concerned. It is not unequivocal, but as a “possible,” worth discussing. Sensibility, as we have seen, involves the individual’s imaginative power. This power is engaged in a perceived ability to see what another is seeing, and feel what another is feeling. It may or may not be a pretense to think that this is possible, but it is sensibility’s ground zero. It would be hard, however, to deny that if we see/feel along with another person, we are (at one and the same time) recognizing and affirming their wholeness. We “become them,” to whatever extent it is possible to do so. Simply put, sensibility encourages recognition of wholes. An ideally sensible person would, in his or her imaginative power, accept humanity with all its flaws and eccentricities, feeling the affects behind them. This would lead to a willingness to exercise compassion. For a poet, this is a process that would enact itself in text, which would posit a mirroring of this “well-roundedness.” Synecdoche, as we have seen, is a trope that involves instrumental use of parts; things are not accepted as wholes, but made to serve ends through textual usage. As this enacts itself, imagination limits itself, puts constraints on its objects. When Gray and Burns and their texts enter the picture, this confrontation between sensibility, exercised
Fieled 8 through imaginative power, and synecdoche, exercised through narrowing and focusing imaginative power, comes to seem, in “Eton” and “Mouse,” like a head-on collision. The next obvious question that presents itself is, why would Gray and Burns choose to use the trope synecdoche, if its appearance might constitute a kind of breach, a rupture of the implicit bond between the poet and the tenets of sensibility, other than exhaustion? There are a number of different potential answers to this question. In the context of this paper, I am arguing that Gray and Burns are using synecdoche as a kind of resort. It is a mode and a method of retreat from the demands sensibility makes on an individual’s imaginative power. This retreat is necessitated, as I stated in my introduction, by an exhaustion of sensibility. Sensibility may become exhausted because, among other reasons, the absorption of “wholes” (whether they be people or nature as a thing-in-itself or categorical dimensions of life) becomes unmanageable, too draining, demanding, and disruptive of healthy ego-functioning and human agency. Exactly what constitutes “healthy ego-functioning” is debatable; here, I define it as an ability to maintain a strong sense of self-hood, with functioning boundaries, so that an individual has a certain amount of agency regarding what gets in (and assimilates into consciousness) and what does not. Dealing with “parts,” via synecdoche, becomes more manageable than dealing with wholes. Objectivity is simpler with parts, too. This process, where the exhaustion of sensibility leads into a kind of codification (in this case via synecdoche), plays into something Paul Goring said about the transference of sensible attitudes into art: “In order for it (sensibility) to be truly affecting, it must be managed and refined within an aesthetic code” (Goring, 138). I am
Fieled 9 arguing that “managing” and “refining” sensibility, as Gray and Burns have done, is in some respects a form of limitation, a constraint on sensibility. This may point us back to Jerome McGann’s assertion that sensibility is “equivocal.” It seems equivocal because, often, it seems to posit an ideal person in an ideal relation to an Other that may be imperfect but does not preclude the exercise of compassion. So the texts of Gray and Burns, which engage in the kind of codification that Goring mentions, may, for the purposes of my argument, bear the title of equivocal texts. This can be argued because to be “sensible” and yet use a part to represent a whole (thus perhaps nullifying, or, as Goring would say, “managing” or “refining” a complete acknowledgement) would create an inherently equivocal scenario. Synecdoche, when it crosses paths with sensibility, is suspect, even as it facilitates credible imaginative objectivity. I would like to defer the gratification of getting to the primary texts just a little while longer. I feel the need to “fill in the blanks” of my sub-theses, as I (hopefully) have with my central argument. Briefly: though my primary texts deal with sensibility in “exhausted” mode, other texts, specifically other texts by Gray and Burns, show sensibility in a different mode. This mode may broadly be called the “energetic” or “expansive” mode. Here, wholes are not contracted but expanded. Objects, rather than being “halved,” through synecdoche, are blown up bigger than life-size (through synecdoche, as in Gray’s “Elegy,” or other tropes, in this case, Burns’s “Red, Red Rose,” simile.) Rather than refuting my central argument outright, this tends to augment it, because sensibility in this mode still constitutes a distortion of the Other. My other sub-thesis is where these two roads (modes) meet. The Double Circuit is
Fieled 10 the way in which Gray and Burns are committed to activating sensibility in their readers. In this model, the wholeness of the reader is leaned on. We see what Paul Goring notes is the “tendency to encourage emotional responses in readers and to prescribe the manner in which such responses should be manifest” (Goring, 143). The Double Circuit functions in many ways: Gray and Burns become Objects, as well as Subjects, and their Objects also remain Objects; Gray and Burns stand between the audience and their Objects, activating the reader’s sympathy as they exercise their own; synecdoche multiplies itself as Gray and Burns also become synecdoches (and exhaustion, because it activated sympathy, could become an advantage.) The notion of Gray and Burns standing between their Objects and their readers brings to mind Stanley Fish’s “rhetorical man,” who “manipulates or fabricates himself, simultaneously conceiving of and occupying the roles that become first possible and then mandatory given the social structure his rhetoric has put in place” (Fish, 208). In other circumstances, Fish’s formulation could have pejorative connotations; here, the way Gray and Burns occupy their roles (which, in both primary texts, involves a kind of enervation) allows the Double Circuit to operate, and to activate sympathy in their readers (which does not necessarily change the equivocal functioning of sensibility in the poems.) Their text is a synecdoche for themselves. Now, finally, to the first primary text: Thomas Gray’s “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” was released in 1753. Historically, this was the “prime time” of sensibility. Though my argument hinges on the theoretical assumptions of sensibility, rather than its historical development, it must be noted as significant in comparison to Burns’s poem, which was released when sensibility, though still very visible, had begun
Fieled 11 to fade. Here are lines that exemplify the malady I see in Gray: Alas, regardless of their doom, The little victims play! No sense have they of ills to come, Nor care beyond to-day: These shall the fury Passions tear, The vulturs of the mind, Disdainful Anger, pallid Fear, And Shame that sculks behind; (Gray, 51-54, 61-64) It is immediately apparent that Gray is not talking about the children in a specific way (as someone like Dickens might have, in Oliver Twist or David Copperfield, though the analogy of poetry to prose might be strained); the children stand for something. They are a part standing for a whole. I would argue that Gray is using them as a synecdoche for all in nature that is innocent, untainted, and (perhaps most saliently) ripe for decay and corruption. It is important to note that we wind up learning far more about Gray in these lines than we do about the children; “Passion, Anger, Shame, Fear” are all dealt with in complete, world-weary “knowingness.” Gray has felt them, is aware of himself (implicitly) as a feeling, suffering, being. Because he can speak with authority on the travails of human life, he is “sensible.” His text has an objective wholeness for us. Yet, how much of Gray’s imaginative power is being used to feel what the children are feeling, to feel along with them? It would seem, very little. Rather than feeling along with the children, accessing the parts of himself that remain insouciant, carefree, and joyous, Gray’s internalization of the children leads him into his own suffering which, bitter predictions aside, has nothing to do with them. Whatever imaginative power Gray might have is in remission here. I would argue that this
Fieled 12 is transpiring owing to an exhaustion of sensibility, and the sensible. Gray has exhausted himself by letting too much in; there is no longer room for anything else. According to Janet Todd, Gray is the poet who “feels too much,” whose feelings are “too exquisite for the acquisitiveness, vulgarity, and selfishness of the world” (Todd, 4). For the poet that feels too much, a breaking point may be reached, after which nothing new can get in, or after which what does get in is distorted by bitterness and a retroactive narcissism. Both bitterness and retroactive narcissism (which may be defined as an inability to live in the present, owing to attachment to feelings about a negative past) can be taken as evidence of exhaustion. It is a claustrophobic ambience which encases this, and “sensibility.” This is complicated by the fact that, though Gray is unable to feel along with the children, he is, through his own past, attempting to feel what they will feel in the future. Yet this projection of the children he is watching into an abrasive future is not based on any concrete data; Gray makes the assumption that, like him, these children are “too exquisite for the world,” in Todd’s terms, and will suffer from the same implosion of sensibility that he has. His narcissism cannot allow that the children might be more fortunate than he is, that the “little victims” might not be victims at all. Simply put, rather than using imaginative power in the way which Adam Smith hoped, Gray assumes that all the children are like him. It is the reverse of sensibility’s aim; yet it is born out of a sensible temperament. Exhaustion has turned imagination of the Other into projection of the Self; there is little fluidity in Gray’s representation; it grasps for reason. Other critics, without actually bringing in “exhaustion” as a keyword, have noted how this process works in Gray’s text. Gray is often seen as “melancholic,” and uses his
Fieled 13 melancholy as a badge of honor, to elevate himself. Suvir Kaul notes that Gray’s “isolation is the condition of his knowledge, and everybody else’s ignorance” (Kaul, 81). The way Kaul formulates this is very revealing. If there is Gray on one side, and everybody else on the other side, it would be hard going to show that sensibility, in the form of imaginative power and fellow-feeling, is going on. The irony is that this happens specifically because Gray feels too much. His imagination is overburdened and overextended, making retreat (owing to exhaustion) the only option. Furthermore, the extremity of Gray’s isolation leads him to “sensationalize” (Todd, 52) his subject. In a textual context, synecdoche may be seen as a partial solution to Gray’s problem. Synecdoche cuts in half what Gray needs to internalize; rather than the children being themselves (and carrying the possibility of a happier fate than Gray’s), the children are symbols, generalized and indistinct. Synecdoche, in its textual enactment, mediates between Gray and what is seen as an overbearing, insensible world. It is a refutation of Schiller’s assertion that “from the depths of our impotence…we raise our eyes to the child’s…pure innocence” (Schiller, 266). For Gray, his own impotence is reflected in the children who (he believes) are destined to experience it as well. Gray’s famous “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” puts a slightly different spin on things, where synecdoche is concerned. Here, synecdoche serves not only to “halve” but to inflate (or, as Janet Todd said, sensationalize): Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast The Little Tyrant of his fields’ withstood; Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest; Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood. (Gray 56-60)
Fieled 14 In the context of this poem, we see that the working class people do function a kind of synecdoche. They stand as part of the whole of people that are ignored or disregarded in the world. However, when we compare this to “Eton,” it is easy to see a kind of antithesis to the first poem; it is in the valorization of these working class people. Rather than halving a whole, Gray takes a whole, lifts it up, and makes it bigger than it actually was: the commoners are not merely commoners (as the children were merely children), they are Miltons, Cromwells, and Hampdens. Though space constraints will not allow me to draw this out much further, it is important to note that, in within Gray’s body of work, there are myriad uses of synecdoche, and exhaustion is by no means a dominant note. However, in a subtle way, the manner in which Gray sensationalizes does reinforce my central argument; it shows that mere imaginative power, when put into a textual matrix, tends to get distorted. Straightforward sensibility often seems not to be good enough for a poet like Gray to achieve his ends. Whether distorted by exhaustion or desire to valorize (both realized in the trope synecdoche), sensibility remains problematic. Returning specifically to “Eton,” what place is there for the reader in all of this? Are we to hate Gray for his narcissism, or are we meant to sympathize with him, or the children, or both, or neither? I would argue that, in this poem, Gray is encouraging his readers to exercise more sympathy towards him, the poet, than towards his Objects, the children. We feel more strongly Gray’s bitter isolation than we do the children’s joyousness. We see demonstrated, not Gray’s imaginative ability to feel what the children are feeling, but Gray’s worldly wisdom, and what it has cost him to obtain it. This construct, more often than not, points back to him. We, through our imaginative power,
Fieled 15 can join Gray more readily than we (or Gray) can join the children. If we want to see what I have called the Double Circuit here, the children would seem to be the weakest, most incidental link; the closest bond possible is between us and Gray. We can imagine his exhaustion, and feel it along with him. In marked contrast, Gray’s “Elegy,” sensibility in its expansive mode encourages us to join Gray in constructing a larger whole out of small parts. This happens through the manner in which Gray simultaneously halves the villagers (by making them a synecdoche for neglected humanity) and breathes solid, expansive life into them, by comparing them to Milton, Cromwell, and Hampden. There seems to be more equality (and equality here could signify Gray’s acknowledgement of a reading audience) for the reader in “Elegy”; “Eton” seems relatively self-involved. This self-involvement can be taken as an expression of sensibility in its exhausted mode. Before I delve into Burns, I want to make a brief point. It is important to remember, where my central argument is concerned, that I am not staking a claim that exhaustion is the dominant mode of sensibility, or that all expressions of sensibility entail expression of exhaustion on some level. The point I am trying to make is that expressions of exhaustion reveal themselves with enough frequency, in the literature of sensibility, for a viable case to be made that, on a theoretical level, sensibility may often be seen to exhaust itself, in its textual enactments. My very need for sub-theses (the expansive mode of sensibility, and the Double Circuit) makes clear that the issue is a many-sided one. My task here is merely to open a conversation; nothing will (or, perhaps, can be) be proved. To Burns, and the primary text being addressed: “To a Mouse.” This poem was released in 1785. This was, technically speaking, past the prime of sensibility. Thus,
Fieled 16 seeing exhaustion expressed here would align Burns more closely with historical forces than Gray could be aligned. However, I will be working under the assumption that many of the theoretical notions that shaped Gray’s texts also helped to animate Burns’s. This is, of course, a famous poem, dotted with familiar lines: I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion Has broken Nature’s social union, An’ justifies that ill opinion Which makes thee startle, At me, thy poor, earth-born companion, An’ fellow-mortal! (Burns, 7-12) Carol McGuirk, in Robert Burns and the Sentimental Era, writes that in sensible poetry we see “the hero’s egotism in pursuing the humble; for the lower the object he encounters and reclaims, the more status he achieves in perceiving its significance” (McGuirk, 5). She elaborates on this, calling it a “downward view of a pathetic object” (McGuirk, 5); Burns “transposes human social relations onto the animal world in order to narrate and comment on human behavior” (Palmieri, 83). I see a conflict here, which relates to my central argument; if Burns wants to increase his status by vouching for a mouse’s significance, that is legitimate; yet he is also transposing human realities onto a mouse’s oblivious consciousness (this brings in the manner in which the mouse is a synecdoche.) How can Burns make the mouse significant if the mouse cannot merely be a mouse, is a part of a larger whole? Perceiving something and transposing onto something would seem to be very different operations. Burns is straining his imaginative power in two directions at once: towards “mouse-recognition,” and towards something larger. It is noteworthy that Burns seems to sense this split; he is “truly sorry” that Man
Fieled 17 and Nature are “squared off.” Part of this squaring off process is expressed in Burns’s need, both to justify himself (and Man in general) and to humanize the mouse. It is a need born of an incommensurable disunity between “Man’s dominion” and “Nature’s social union.” Not only does the mouse become a synecdoche; Burns’s relationship to the mouse, his projection, and the fact that the mouse is incapable (we shall assume) of responding in kind, formulate another synecdoche, which has as its basis exhausted effort. Burns stands for “Man’s dominion,” the mouse for “Nature’s social union.” The more this poem is glossed, the more its “leveling” seems remarkable and complex (especially because it may seem simple or “domestic” on the surface.) The final lines of the poem reinforce this complexity: Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me! The present only toucheth thee: But Och! I backward cast my e’e, On prospects drear! An’ forward, tho’ I canna see, I guess an fear! (Burns, 43-48) It would seem odd that a sensible poem should end with an assertion of ego: “I canna see,/ I guess an fear!” It is a statement of beleaguered ego, but ego nonetheless. The poem is called “To a Mouse,” but ends with Burns alone; between these two facts, we see that, as in “Eton,” something is happening here that has more to do with the poet than with his objects. As with Gray’s children, the mouse is used. Rather than Gray’s children, who seemed to be a representation of something pure, Burns’s mouse seems to be a representation of something vulnerable, or of vulnerability itself. The whole that the mouse is a part of could be “everything in nature (and its’ social union) that is
Fieled 18 vulnerable.” The poem ends with an admission of personal vulnerability on the part of the poet, and, more importantly, the poet’s consciousness of his own vulnerability (which the mouse does not have.) The mirroring that Burns wants to see in the mouse, of this selfconsciousness, is illusory; the mouse-as-synecdoche precludes any acknowledgement of what the mouse actually is. This preclusion, which adds a sense of falsity to the poem which, if we are going to factor in intentionality, was probably not Burns’s intention, may be seen as the breakdown of sensibility, of imaginative power exercised in good faith, and a dissipation of imaginative force into half-truth, necessitated by incomplete thought. Other thinkers have delved into roughly the same waters that I am delving here. Adela Pinch noted that “Passions…have a close relation to personifications” (Pinch, 18). Pinch’s relation could, if interpreted literally, get Burns off the hook to a certain extent; Burns needs an outlet for his passion, and the mouse happens to be the closest thing at hand. Rather than holding him culpable, we can see him as a victim, not of falsity and exhaustion but of passion. I would argue that both sides of this binary (passion v. exhaustion) have equal weight, but it is the exhaustion that I am interested in here. Exhaustion, as I have said, has as a possible byproduct instrumental usage of objects: in “To a Mouse,” what we see is what Paul Goring, in The Rhetoric of Sensibility in Eighteenth-Century Culture, calls “a version of physical weakness which is codified for the purposes of eloquent effect” (Goring, 160). This cuts right to the bone of my argument; if the entire purpose of a sensible production is to produce an eloquent effect, how can Adam Smith’s sensible imaginative power, his fellow-feeling, operate? If the effect produced is the point, the theoretical basis would seem to have to “ride shot-
Fieled 19 gun.” Producers of text like Gray and Burns were ultimately more interested in eloquence than in sensibility. Yet, they were, of necessity, involved in the theoretical assumptions of sensibility that were fashionable in the eighteenth-century. They were thus forced to walk a fine line, the strain of which often led to a sense of textual disunity, anti-objectivity. Yet Gray and Burns were both resourceful poets. They were both able to find a way to be “rhetorical men” (to paraphrase Stanley Fish), whilst walking the aforementioned tight-rope. We have seen how, in Gray’s “Elegy,” synecdoche was used alongside a kind of expansiveness; Gray made the villagers stand for something, while also using his imaginative power to blow them up life-size, or even bigger than they actually were, rather than merely halving them (and there are, to be sure, problems with expansive sensibility too, but I do not have room to include them here.) Robert Burns, in his famous “Red, Red Rose,” rather than using synecdoche-plus, uses simile to demonstrate imaginative power, expansively realized: My love is like a red, red rose That’s newly sprung in June: My love is like the melody That’s sweetly played in tune. As fair art thou, my bonnie lass So deep in love am I: And I will love thee still, my dear Till’ a the seas gang dry (Burns, 1-8) Both “Mouse” and “Rose” ask us to feel along with Burns; the difference is that “Mouse” features Burns talking down to another creature, while “Rose” shows him looking up, expansively. Neither poem evinces the solipsism we see in Gray; what we do see in “Mouse” is instrumental, convenient usage, which makes it harder to feel along with
Fieled 20 Burns than when he is straightforwardly admiring his sweetheart. The similes he uses allow us to partake of her beauty, even is she herself remains invisible to us. “Rose” shows Burns getting out of the way, rather than taking center-stage, as he does in “Mouse”; he is showing us something, rather than (indirectly) telling us something. Where the Double Circuit is concerned, “Rose” is direct; we see Burns looking at his love, and we may join him. In “Mouse,” the Double Circuit may be seen to function in a more convoluted fashion; we see Burns talking to mouse, but really talking to himself, and the mouse seems incidental. We can use our own imaginative power to feel Burns’s doubts and fears, even if his own attempts at imaginative power seem half-hearted. In the conclusion, I would like to address what is at the root of my central argument— if we grant that the textual enactment of sensibility often led to exhaustion, a kind of strain, then what are the implications? Historically, this question may be more or less answered; sensibility declined, the Romantic era was initiated, things moved on. However, if the texts that sensibility produced are still worth studying, and I would argue that they are, then a reinvestigation of the theoretical assumptions that helped to shape sensible texts might be useful. I would say that the implications of my central argument are myriad. The use of the trope synecdoche may have been a kind of falling back, for a specific reason: sensibility, the use of imaginative power to conceive what others were feeling, was not always practical, where the creation of texts was concerned. Schiller called an attempt at complete acknowledgement “pure affectation” (Schiller, 265), and sensibility may be seen as an affected, if culturally necessary stance, against cognition. Part of this affectation would have to do with the idea of agency: in this case, the
Fieled 21 agency of the poet writing the text. I would argue that, in writing a poem, a poet needs to, to whatever extent possible, sustain agency. The poetâ€™s imaginative power must be focused, via willpower and determination; simply feeling what another is feeling is not enough. The feeling must be concretized in words. Inevitably, poets like Gray and Burns did feel a need to sustain agency within their texts. This is true, even if the theoretical assumptions of sensibility are carried through and one is writing about another. The poetâ€™s sense of agency needed an outlet somewhere in the text; sympathy, compassion, and imaginative power were slanted by individual and individualized sensibility. Yet, I believe that Gray and Burns wanted to be sensible. The engagement with imaginative power is there. Conflict arises because textual enactment requires more than merely imaginative power. The implication is that, as far as literature was concerned, sensibility may have been more useful as an aspiration than as a sustainable reality. This is true, even regarding my sub-theses; expansive sensibility has as much non-truth in it as contracted sensibility (expressed in synecdoche); only here, the poet enlarges things, rather than cutting them in half. Gray imagines a villager to be Miltonic; yet his object is dead, and imaginative power is wasted on a ghost. What would ideal sensibility in text be? It would be objects imagined as they are, from the inside out. Since we are all limited by subjectivity, that would seem to be a tall order; the Romantics has better luck at it. The Double Circuit may come to seem like a silver lining. The most solid link in the Double Circuit is, ultimately, not Gray or Burns or their objects, but the reader. The reader can fill in the blanks that Gray and Burns miss; the reader can see past the distortions and the slanting; the reader can use his/her imaginative power to co-create
Fieled 22 the text along with Gray and Burns. In this context, the poet may be seen, balanced in the center of his or her own constructs. For all the distortions, all the disunities, and all the postures that sensibility might have necessitated, the presence of the poet, him or herself, points the reader back to his or her own imaginative power. The Double Circuit is created by the poet; its enactment, via imaginative power, is squarely in the hands (and heart) of the reader. We, ourselves, become the most important link; the ultimate test of a sensible text may be to what extent we are engaged to extend our own imaginations. It is the birth of the reader at the expense of the exhaustion of the author.
Baldrick, Chris. Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962. Cuddon, J.A. A Dictionary of Literary Terms. London: Penguin Books, 1977. Ellison, Julie. Catoâ€™s Tears and the Making of Anglo-American Emotion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Fairer, David, Gerrard, Christine, ed. Eighteenth-Century Poetry: An Annotated Anthology. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. Fish, Stanley. Is There a Text in This Class?: The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980. Goldsmith, Oliver. Collected Works of Oliver Goldsmith, ed. A. Friedman. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966. Goring, Paul. The Rhetoric of Sensibility in Eighteenth-Century Culture. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Kaul, Suvir. Thomas Gray and Literary Authority: A Study in Ideology and Politics. California: Stanford University Press, 1992. Marshall, David. The Surprising Effects of Sympathy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. McGann, Jerome. The Poetics of Sensibility: A Revolution in Literary Style. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. McGuirk, Carol. Robert Burns and the Sentimental Era. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1985. Palmieri, Frank. Humans and Other Animals in Eighteenth-Century British Culture. Miami: Ashgate Press, 2006. Pinch, Adela. Strange Fits of Passion: Epistemologies of Passion, Hume to Austen. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996. Schiller, Friedrich. Essays. London: George Bell and Sons, 1884.
Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976. Todd, Janet. Sensibility: An Introduction. New York: Methem, 1986.
Published on Jul 29, 2013
A collection of representative seminar papers, all first presented by Adam Fieled at Temple University in Philadelphia between 2006-2011, wh...