- Satire and Sentiment, 1660-1830 by Claude Rawson
Cambridge, 309 pp, £40.00, March 1994, ISBN 0 521 38395 1
Item: in 1684, there appeared John Oldham’s posthumous Remains in Verse and Prose, with a prefatory elegy by John Dryden, ‘Farewell, too little and too lately known’. Dryden’s poem has been much admired and praised – but not by Claude Rawson, who calls it variously ‘pompous’, ‘self-serving’, ‘overrated’, ‘unctuously self-exalting’, ‘self-promoting’, ‘pontifical’ and ‘patronising’
Item: in a chapter on Richardson (wittily called ‘Richardson, alas’ after ‘Hugo, hélas’), Rawson quotes a curious letter in which the novelist asks a friend to come to Tunbridge Wells, where she will be able to see a figure more ‘grotesque’ even than Beau Nash or Colley Cibber, ‘a sly sinner, creeping along the very edges of the walks, getting behind benches ... afraid of being seen ... Come and see this odd figure!’ – who is of course Richardson himself. Rawson’s comment: ‘The specialist in our time of this species of histrionic self-oregrounding, with its teasing delusion of enhanced objectivity and its opportunities for a smirking inwardly directed irony, is Norman Mailer.’
Item: examining Oldham’s effort to replicate ‘the postures of the Rochesterian rakes’, Rawson detects in Oldham an occasional ‘note of hoity-toity tu quoque’.
Item: and, examining Boswell’s habit of draining every rhetorical situation to the lees, Rawson likens the Boswellian manner to that of ‘a hyperactive puppy on a benzedrine diet’.
I begin with this bill of particulars because Rawson, by any standard a powerful interpreter of the 18th century, can only be got at through the antechamber of his altogether individual style. You may love it, you may hate it, but you cannot overlook it. Reading Rawson, you’re forever being reminded of who it is you’re reading. What can be discovered, then, from the examples thus far?
First, he delights in the unexpected shock, both rhetorical and judgmental. Somebody else might have come up with the image of Boswell as hyperactive puppy (well, it’s possible), but on a ‘benzedrine diet’? Not for Rawson the cautiously self-protective. Where others would embed a renegade judgment on Dryden’s ‘To the Memory of Mr Oldham’ in the reassuring civilities of academic-speak (‘While most readers have judged it a triumph, it is in fact self-serving, even pompous’), Rawson opens his chapter on Oldham by letting you have it between the eyes – ‘“Farewell, too little and too lately known,” Dryden wrote in a pompous, self-serving poem.’
As for Richardson and Mailer, who else could have thought up such an odd couple – and so long held off the moment when Mailer’s identity as Richardson’s modern counterpart is revealed? Who else would have joined the insistent slanginess of ‘hoity-toity’ to the self-conscious tu quoque? Rawson insists on being attended to. You could even call him ‘uppish’ – one of his favourite epithets – and he would probably not mind.
Second, he loads up on attributives in order to establish tonalities: ‘pompous’, ‘pontifical’, ‘patronising’, ‘histrionic’, ‘teasing’, ‘smirking’ – and, among many others, ‘bossy’, ‘coy’, ‘festive’ and ‘genial’. For him, tonal precision, and precision about tone, matter hugely.
Vol. 17 No. 9 · 11 May 1995
I am warmly grateful for W.B. Carnochan’s handsome remarks on my book Satire and Sentiment 1660-1830 (LRB, 23 February). In the course of them, however, he ascribes to me a ‘Tory interpretation of history as decline and fall’ and a sense of being in ‘the dark and latter days of empire’. Since I’ve never knowingly proposed a Tory interpretation of anything, and thought I’d kept my nostalgia for empire under wraps, I’m led to wonder how a reading of the actual book could have led to such an impression. Some twenty years ago, in another friendly review, Carnochan ascribed to me, equally bafflingly, a Whig interpretation of history. My views were roughly the same as now. But times have changed, and Carnochan’s cultural shadow-boxing seems to be keeping in step with something or other.
Carnochan is a distinguished student of Swift, who has evidently instructed him in the art of getting ‘a thorough Insight into the Index, by which the whole book is governed and turned, like Fishes by the Tail’. The advantage of thus entering ‘by the Back-Door’, Swift continues, is that the front way requires ‘an Expence of Time and Forms’. To be fair, Carnochan does seem to have made some attempt at frontal penetration, by way of the table of contents, but got most of it wrong: thus, there are not three chapters on mock-heroic but two; the book is divided not into two sections, but three; Burke does not ‘come under the rubric of satire’, and so on.
So the index was evidently a better bet, and Carnochan correctly notices that it has no entries for ‘satire’ or ‘sentiment’ (but not that it lists only proper names), and also that it has four entries for Norman Mailer. Carnochan has for years been attentive to my mentions of Mailer, and now devotes five paragraphs to two of these. They discuss a particular mode of self-consciousness which Swift described as ‘modern’ and which in my view, expressed in passing, reaches a sort of nadir in Advertisements for Myself: it is this which classes me as a Tory in the latter days of empire, which on his account of my account must have been progressively darkening since some early 18th-century (and I would have thought preimperial) heyday. He also notes that ‘Flaubert and Yeats are frequent presences,’ but without reporting whether my discussions of them register a similar feeling of progressive decline. But then the index entries to these run to considerably more than four and must have been troublesome to follow up.
The closing words of the present review commend the book, as well as my earlier work, for their ‘long-standing attention to the 18th-century past as prologue’ and for heeding ‘the things that matter most’. But Carnochan’s single-minded harping on post-Augustan analogies runs contrary to the explicit emphasis of the book, its Preface and even its blurb, which state that my interest is in the 18th century as part of a continuous tradition that runs from the Classical past to the present. Its three central chapters contain detailed discussions of works by Homer, Lucan, Erasmus, Rabelais, Montaigne and Milton on heroic and military themes, and by some pre-18th-century authors on theories of style. You wouldn’t guess any of this from the review, least of all that modern instances, supposedly a trademark of mine, are more or less recessive presences throughout the book, though I wouldn’t dream of disowning them.
I rejoice to concur with Carnochan in his opposition to a pedantry, once endemic in 18th-century studies, which insisted that the only scholarly way to study the period was in terms of an earlier past. But I can’t help seeing his oddly skewed approval as the flipside of the same conservative discomfort with the outrageous (or eccentrically distinctive) idea that later authors like Mailer or Flaubert might throw light on Swift or Richardson, who after all (ha!) hadn’t read them. The assumption of my book, right or wrong, is that these authors, and Lucan and Erasmus and Montaigne, throw light on one another, and on the literary tradition as a whole, through difference as well as resemblance. I accept that it’s ungracious to respond in this way to kind words, but I’d have preferred to be disagreed with for a position I really hold than praised for one that I don’t.
Yale University, Connecticut