Thursday, March 09, 2006

Read it and weep!

Discretion compels me not to say much about this wonderfully (and very precisely) scathing piece by Claude Rawson in the TLS (no subscription required), A dot com history of English Literature (a review of The Cambridge History of English Literature, 1660-1780, edited by John Richetti). I haven't seen the volume in question, I know and admire the editor and any number of the contributors, in short I really must not get myself enmired in controversy here. But I do want to take this chance to say how very much I owe to Claude, from whom I learned the lion's share of what I know about eighteenth-century literature. (Also Claude was a student of C. S. Lewis, and it gives me a thrill to think that I was the student of the student of C. S. Lewis--a Monty Pythonesque formulation, somehow, but still one that means a lot to me.)

Claude was one of my two dissertation advisors in graduate school (the other was David Bromwich), and I cannot imagine a better pair. From Claude I learned how to read widely as well as deeply, to attend to the smallest fluctuations of tone and style and to make imaginative but responsible connections between works from different times and places (also to use the correct editions and to be scrupulous in my footnotes). Every time I read Swift (and this is true for other authors as well, Dryden and Fielding in particular and mock-epic in general, but Swift especially), I feel grateful to Claude for having opened it up to me in the first place. (And David Bromwich is the person who taught me how to think and argue, in the first instance by taking the time to read Burke and Hume and Adam Smith very closely and in the second by giving the most perceptive and helpful comments on my dissertation chapters that you can imagine. And how to read ethically, in the most serious sense.)

From both my advisors, I also learned the kinds of lesson that you might take from Orwell or Flaubert: that clarity of thought depends on precision of style, and that saying or writing things because you think you should will lead to a kind of intellectual and ethical bad faith that will be immediately visible to your more attentive readers. I think I was already fairly intellectually honest when I got to graduate school, but I learned there to be absolutely scrupulous; indeed, to this day I never write a sentence without asking myself whether it's something I could stand by even for these most stringent readers.

Anyway, that was an awfully long preamble, I don't know why I'm in such a rambling mood today, but here's a paragraph of Claude's review that will give you a lovely if minor feel for his style:

There is a vaguely panic-stricken geniality about this book, constantly looking over its shoulder and anxious to keep everybody happy. The suggested canon-changes are affirmed with a kind of flagging aplomb. The language is habitually undercut or qualified, as if subject to an unseen censorious gaze: “in large measure”, “one might even say”, “to some extent”, “in some important sense”, “as it were”, “as they have been called”, “it can be argued”, “as they called it”, “in many ways”, “to some extent”, “to take a few obvious examples”, “in a word”, “steadily and comprehensively if not always directly or chronologically”, “In some cases”, “to use an ugly but accurate contemporary term”, “what is now labelled”, “In an obvious and important sense”, “what we now consider”, “that we would now label”: all of these in a brief nine-page introduction.

And if you want more of the feel of Claude's thinking about eighteenth-century writing, Swift in particular, here are his remarks from the review on the contribution by my colleague Michael Seidel:

It is a fresh, wide-ranging discussion, knowing, coat-trailing and oblique. You would not go to it for reference-book information. But it is one of the livelier things in the volume, expounding in its own idiosyncratic way the often poorly understood but indispensable notion that Swift implicates himself in his own satire. Seidel is acute on the subject, though he engages in special pleading when he argues that the praise of Swift by the “impartial” commentator in the Verses on the Death of Dr Swift is to be read as a self-deflating exposure of Swift’s own delusions about himself. This seems an indulgent treatment of, for example, that extraordinary panegyric (“Fair LIBERTY was all his Cry; / For her he stood prepar’d to die”), spoken by the “impartial” commentator, not Swift himself, whose gist is mainly that Swift deserved the praise, which he did, while being shy of using in his own name a “lofty Stile”. Swift lacked Pope’s unabashed way with self-exalting grandeurs, a characteristic which, for some readers, gives Swift’s poetry the advantage, but which here amounts to a subtle bad faith. He wants the praise while disclaiming responsibility for affirming it. The fact that this part of the poem is especially full of elusive and self- undercutting in-jokes, and a teasing amalgam of autobiographical truth and untruth, is better understood as a sign of general embarrassment than of self-deflation. The latter is an activity Swift seldom really risks, except in bits of Shandean foolery designed to conceal rather than castigate his prickly self-importance.

I highly recommend the collection of Claude's essays titled Order From Confusion Sprung, and Satire and Sentiment, 1660-1830: Stress Points in the English Augustan Tradition is another good entry-point into his criticism (it includes an indispensable essay on Burke and other matters called--I don't have the book here to hand--"Revolution in the Moral Wardrobe," about images of clothes and drapery and the idea of covering-up--it is a remarkable piece of writing and thinking and scholarship).

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