Denis Donoghue writes about the Age of Rawson, and Rogers

  • Literature and Popular Culture in 18th-Century England by Pat Rogers
    Harvester, 215 pp, £22.50, April 1985, ISBN 0 7108 0981 6
  • Eighteenth-Century Encounters: Studies in Literature and Society in the Age of Walpole by Pat Rogers
    Harvester, 173 pp, £22.50, April 1985, ISBN 0 7108 0986 7
  • Order from Confusion Sprung: Studies in 18th-Century Literature from Swift to Cowper by Claude Rawson
    Allen and Unwin, 431 pp, £30.00, August 1985, ISBN 0 04 800019 1
  • Jonathan Swift edited by Angus Ross and David Woolley
    Oxford, 722 pp, £6.95, June 1984, ISBN 0 19 281337 4

Now that the main ideas at large in the 18th century have been elaborately described, students of the period have been resorting to more oblique procedures. In 1968, in The Counterfeiters, Hugh Kenner turned 18th-century ideas into systems, and derived a comedy of entrapment from the spectacle of men coping somehow with systems designed to suit other people. Install a man in an ill-fitting system, and you may witness that discrepancy between the organic and the mechanical which Bergson regarded as the provocation of comedy. Kenner probably got the hint from Wyndham Lewis: if so, it is explicable that his account of Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe makes them seem like Monstre Gai and Malign Fiesta, respectively. In The Great Cat Massacre (1984) Robert Darnton described a night in Paris in the late 1730s when two apprentice printers went on the hunt for cats and staged a mock-trial before hanging them, to the raucous delight of their apprentice colleagues: the episode, as Darnton tells it, was an instance of elaborately vengeful symbolism in which workers taunted their bourgeois masters, mocked middle-class sexuality, and enjoyed Rabelaisian carnival on the margin of a society they resented. The moral of the story doesn’t seem as dramatic as the massacre of the cats, but street-history is bound to show disproportion between actions and their social meaning.

Pat Rogers’s approach to 18th-century literature is by way of popular culture. He agrees with other scholars that Augustan satire gets much of its vitality from its relation to Lucian and Juvenal, Rabelais and Erasmus, Scarron and Cervantes, but he emphasises its nearer relation to ‘the actualities of 18th-century life’. He is far less concerned with the history of ideas than with pantomimes, freak-shows, raree-shows, masquerades, bear-baiting, boxing matches, newspapers, gossip, advertising. When he refers to Heidegger, he doesn’t mean the philosopher but the operatic impresario John James Heidegger (c.1665-1749). In Literature and Popular Culture in 18th-Century England, as in his Grub Street (1972) and its abridged version Hacks and Dunces (1980), he proposes to describe ‘how things were’ or how they seemed to be to the people who lived among them. It would be accurate, but too high-minded, to describe Literature and Popular Culture and Eighteenth-Century Encounters as studies in the economics and sociology of England in that century. Both books are gatherings of essays in which Rogers comes to a culture by asking what people did to pass the time, what they thought about Italian opera, why they were so fascinated with Jonathan Wild, what exactly went wrong in the South Sea Bubble, and why Swift’s Laputa has more to do with money-making gadgetry than with the Royal Society and its proceedings.

Rogers’s trust in facts is such that he often appears content to be what Kenner thought some 18th-century writer was, an amanuensis of verity. He has a remarkable flair for sensing the particular atom of verity he needs on a particular occasion. His interpretations of the major works are not especially novel. Poems and pamphlets off the official track are likelier to catch his interest than the standard masterpieces. A splendid essay in Eighteenth-Century Encounters studies Gay’s ‘On Mr Pope’s Welcome from Greece’ (1714) by comparing Gay’s parody-account of the arrival of George I in London on 18 September 1714 with Oldmixon’s version of the same event. Gay didn’t publish it at the time, because – according to Rogers’s interpretation – it was politically dangerous. I find the argument decisive.

Literature and Popular Culture includes essays on Hogarth’s ‘Masquerades and Operas’, the rope-dancing episode in Gulliver’s Travels, Elkanah Settle’s role in the Dunciad, a very convincing account of the coronation of George II as a motif in the Dunciad, and the history of Jonathan Wild as narrated by Defoe and other writers. Eighteenth-Century Encounters has a fine essay on Laputa, much detail on Pope’s ‘The Court Ballad’, the essay I’ve mentioned on Gay’s poem, an essay on Pope’s rambles, a new reading of Defoe’s Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain, an interpretation of Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (1722) partly as an allegory on the Bubble, and an essay maintaining that Peachum in The Beggar’s Opera touches not only Jonathan Wild and through him Walpole but also Defoe’s system of values in The Complete English Tradesman. There is also a short essay on Gulliver’s spectacles which I don’t find persuasive. Rogers’s argument is that ‘Gulliver’s quasi-objectivity as Spectator, the one who observes, represents the intrusive intellect; the over-intent scrutiny of what is better left unexamined, because it causes pain and revulsion when pried into by the modern empiricist.’ This is a bit glum. The merit of glasses is that they help you to see things as clearly as people do who don’t need them: not more clearly than they do. The need to get the perspective right applies equally to everyone. Glasses give us all the same chance to get things right. For once, Rogers seems to me to have got something wrong. But it happens rarely in his essays. Like Defoe in Rogers’s description, he is one ‘habituated to placing things; to comparing, contrasting, sorting and arranging experience’. Like Defoe, too, his essays are ‘a rhetoric of process, which disposes and aligns facts within a historical sequence’.

What Rogers seems especially to enjoy is the chance to show that a poem, say, emerges far more immediately than we have thought from a local context. In such a case, the facts have simply to be produced, they hardly need to be glossed. Swift’s ‘Upon the Horrid Plot’ is agreed to be about Walpole’s hounding of Bishop Atterbury, and the standard accounts of the poem are for most purposes adequately informative – it is well enough annotated in the new Oxford Authors Swift – but Rogers gives far more pointed detail than any annotation I have seen. It’s an occasion on which if you take care of the facts the interpretation takes care of itself. No wonder Rogers is dismayed when he finds an interpretation misleading. In Eighteenth-Century Encounters he reverts to his disagreement with E.P. Thompson about the Berkshire Blacks and the Waltham Black Act of 1723 which made it illegal for anyone to go disguised into woods. The particular issue between Thompson and Rogers is the bearing of the episode upon Pope. Thompson’s sense of history, as he makes clear in his attack on Althusser in The Poverty of Theory, is much the same as Rogers’s: neither of them has any time for current doubts about the validity of facts or the alleged fictiveness of historical narration. But Rogers, even more than Thompson, seems to find it alarming that facts have to be interpreted. ‘Events fascinate me more than ideology,’ he says, but unfortunately it’s impossible to hold a line between ideology and interpretation. The dispute between Rogers and Thompson has issued in some of Rogers’s most vivid writing.

The particular problem Rogers’s scholarship has to face is one that Kenner alludes to: the tendency of topical arts to become formal. Precisely because 18th-century literature thrived upon quotidian detail, and the distinction between popular culture and high culture was not yet enforced, modern readers have had to decide either to bone up on the topical references or let them go. Rogers wants to keep the local details alive and to add to them. The Dunciad always needed footnotes – Pope couldn’t assume that Grub Street’s doings would be familiar to all his readers. Most modern readers, I assume, take the local references as meaning something, but are happy enough to see the poem become formal and choreographic. Knowing nothing about Elkanah Settle doesn’t disqualify anyone from reading the Dunciad: the poem survives on the choreography alone. Rogers’s scholarship would have it survive in both respects, topical and formal.

Pat Rogers and Claude Rawson write about many of the same 18th-century books, but they deal with them in quite different ways. Unlike Rogers, Rawson doesn’t spend much scholarly time in ‘that lowest of all high places, the Grub Street garret’. He believes that 18th-century writers ‘are not only rooted in their own time and culture, but exist in an older and continuously evolving tradition’. He doesn’t think of literary periods as ‘sealed units’, or assume that to believe they are is ‘in some sense more historical than to register movement and interaction and variety between and within different times’. What he particularly repudiates is zeitgeist criticism, ‘the notion that periods, centuries and generations have thoughts and beliefs in the same way as individual human beings have, and apparently that these thoughts and beliefs impose themselves with a somewhat surprising consistency, coherence and universality of assent on individual writers of varied and complicated character’. So we don’t find Rawson referring, as some other scholars still do, to the Age of Reason or of Compromise or of Perilous Balance. Rogers, I should say, has no dealings with these notions either.

But it is a difficult issue. It doesn’t seem foolish to say that in a particular society at a given time there are notions at large, most of them received and rarely forced to define themselves. If they are highly developed, we call them ideas; if not, sentiments. Rawson is right to be sceptical about the assumption that these ideas or sentiments necessarily impose themselves on particular writers. I recall a fine remark by Harold Rosenberg, that if a man is in a given situation, it doesn’t follow that his conscious will be there with him. But it would be wrong to run to the other extreme and claim that a writer is totally unconstrained in his images and motifs. A valid history of ideas would indicate the limits within which a writer in, say, 1727 could think at all: limits enforced by the language or languages he speaks and the notions and sentiments available to him. Historians of ideas should try to discover the range of what a writer might think: what, within those limits, a particular writer thought or imagined is the business of a more intimate scholarship and criticism. A writer like Defoe certainly didn’t exhaust the range of sentiments available to him: his recourse was strategic. Swift made a different choice among notions in his vicinity. Writers ignore much of what is available so that they can move unimpeded to what interests them.

I don’t disagree much with Rawson’s position, but I wish he would expound more fully the theory of his method. He is a comparatist, in a sense consistent with his belief that writers at any time ‘resist assimilation to official world-pictures, real or imagined, and may well resemble writers of other periods in ways that repay study’. But I want to hear more about resemblance. If you say that A is like B in some respect and like C in another respect, what have you said? This makes a problem for me in reading essays in comparative literature. I rarely disagree with the procedure, but I’m left wondering what it’s supposed to prove. In Order from Confusion Sprung Rawson compares Swift with Sterne, Camus, Beckett and Ionesco. He compares Gulliver’s Travels with Heart of Darkness in the matter of colonialism, and with Malamud’s God’s Grace in the matter of cannibals. Fielding, Cleland and the Joyce of Ulysses are compared on the jargon of morality; Fielding and Ford Madox Ford on authorial intrusiveness; Fielding and Richardson on a question of moral obtuseness. Some of these are glancing blows, and are evidently not meant to be definitive. But I don’t understand what claim is being made when a resemblance at one point is noted. Sometimes the claim is clear. The comparison between Richardson and Fielding is meant to conclude in an important moral discrimination: ‘the point is not that Fielding would have been incapable of recording sentiments like Pamela’s, but that he would normally have felt compelled to present them as repellent.’ Here the point is indeed clear, and it issues in a local discrimination which a reader of Pamela and Joseph Andrews can test. But some of the other comparisons seem illuminating when you first meet them and arbitrary a bit later. Why Camus? Why Ionesco rather than any other writer? If an 18th-century writer resembles a 20th-century writer in some respect, is it because sentiments and imaginations are more constant than literary historians like to think; because historians have a professional interest in change; or because we are all brothers under the skin?

In an essay on Swift’s poems Rawson compares ‘Description of the Morning’ with Baudelaire’s ‘Crépuscule du Matin’ and T.S. Eliot’s ‘Preludes’ as ‘poetic treatment of cities’, a comparison he extends in these sentences:

But Swift’s Betty should most strongly be contrasted with those solitary fallen women who appear in such post-Baudelairian city poems of Night and Dawn as Wilde’s ‘Impression du Matin’. There ‘one pale woman all alone’, standing under a gaslight, is set against Whistlerian colours of fog and river, the central figure in a sentimental set-piece. Betty is neither a central figure, nor sentimentalised. Swift’s poem has no Wildeian luxuries of fascination or recoil ...

But no one, so far as I know, has ever claimed that Swift’s poem and Wilde’s are similar: so why is a contrast between them to be made ‘most strongly’? A year from now, I think I’ll recall Rawson’s phrasing – ‘no Wildeian luxuries of fascination or recoil’ – more warmly than the contrast that occasioned it.

I don’t want to make too much of this question of method, or to imply that Order from Confusion Sprung is seriously damaged by confusions of its own. The book is a large collection of Rawson’s essays, and readers of this journal have good reason to know how vigorously intelligent his work is. But the question of his method is worth arguing about. I don’t know the full history of the comparative method in historical and literary studies, but I gather that it developed from many different experiences: the migration of social groups, which made them alert to differences and similarities between themselves and their new neighbours; the recognition of cosmopolitan rather than national forms of life; revulsion against extreme nationalism and its culmination in war; and, in some social scientists, the desire – in Dilthey’s phrase – ‘to rise to truths of greater universality’. But this last desire is questionable, and it has been questioned, notably in Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method, where the main argument is that ‘the essence of comparison presupposes the freedom of the knowing subjectivity, which is in control of both members of the comparison: it makes things contemporary as a matter of course.’ So the comparative method doesn’t, according to Gadamer, satisfy the idea of historical knowledge. This seems to explain why Rawson’s comparisons ignore historical differentiations so long as he is pointing to psychological similarities. He knows the consequences of Baudelaire’s coming after Swift and before Eliot, but he suspends this knowledge or holds it in abeyance so that he can establish the continuity of sentiment and attitude as the ground of his discourse, and local differences of mood as his nuance. But it is not clear to me that, in particular cases, this amounts to more than the ping-pong of likeness and difference. Truths of greater universality don’t seem to get themselves established.

Rawson’s writers in this collection of his essays include Swift, Pope, Johnson, Fielding, Boswell, Cowper and Christopher Smart. There are major essays on the character of Swift’s satire, Gulliver’s Travels, ‘A Modest Proposal’, the poems, Pope’s ‘Essay on Man’, the Dunciad, Fielding’s Journey from This World to the Next and Tom Jones, and a severe account of Boswell’s journals for 1778-1785: ‘the journals deal not only with (in Gray’s words) “what he heard and saw” but also with what he thought and felt, and the interest of that, as distinct from its quantity, is eminently exhaustible.’ One essay has a formidable argument, continuous with Leavis’s, about A Tale of a Tub: ‘There is in the Tale no vivid alternative presence that we can hang on to, which will assure us that things are really more sane than the speaker makes out, and the presupposition (so prominent in the satire of Pope or of Fielding) that writer and reader are in healthy and honest complicity against vice and folly is here totally blocked.’ It may be that the Tale is unreadable. I don’t think it can be read by invoking presences and speakers: our best chance is by thinking of printing-presses and anonymity. It is not just that Swift won’t write a dull sentence even to anatomise Dulness, but that he resorts to the expediency of the sentence to prevent us from imposing upon paragraphs and pages the complacent assumption of recognisable voices and coherent viewpoints.

A word about the Oxford Swift. It is a very good selection of Swift’s writings, including a decent number of poems, letters, pamphlets, and the Tale complete. The editors have worked over the texts afresh, settling for the early readings where there are variants, and modernising the spelling. Gulliver’s Travels is omitted ‘as being easily available elsewhere’: a pity – I would have liked to see one of the Voyages included if at all possible. The annotations are helpful, though the editors have a way of sending you off somewhere else to get the information. Comparison with Pat Rogers’s essay on ‘Upon the Horrid Plot’ shows that he explains all the proverbs in the poem, while Ross and Woolley keep telling you that a particular phrase is indeed proverbial and that you can find out what it means by consulting the Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs.