July 06, 2012

Remember to wind up the clock

My battered Penguin classics edition of Tristram Shandy

"[W]hen they are once set a-going, whether right or wrong, 'tis not a halfpenny matter, --away they go cluttering like hey-go-mad" (Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, (London: Penguin, 1997, p. 5).

As Tristram insists, and as his life demonstrates, beginnings are both difficult to get right, and vitally important. The concept of a miscellany makes me less anxious than the fictional autobiographer, though -I hope my writing here does clutter away like hey-go-mad. Sterne's wonderful book, along with Wordsworth's Prelude, were the two texts that set me a-going, which, whether right or wrong, made me want to spend further time studying the period in which they were written. Much as I love Wordsworth, he doesn't have a detectable sense of humour (I'd love to be corrected on this). For this reason, in this particular celebrity death match, Sterne wins the honour of blog godfather (blog midwife? I don't think I want to go there).

You can tell how much I love this book by the battered state my personal copy is in. I first read it as an undergraduate. I have a strong memory of reading some of it under an oak tree while 'watching' cricket. I think it must have been the Easter vacation. That reading is where all the coloured tabs come from. Sometime not too long after that, I went to visit one of my best friends at her parents' house in Sutton-on-the-forest. We toured the village visiting various points of extreme significance in her childhood development, including the church. I was uncharacteristically observant, and scanned the list of past vicars. And there he was! Laurence Sterne. My friend's mum was so excited that finally someone appreciated the significance of this, having failed to awaken any enthusiasm in her own kids about Sutton-on-the-forest's claim to fame.

My site's logos, as well as the title of this miscellany 'Scrapeana' is openly but respectfully plagiarised from Scrapeana (1792) edited by John Croft. The genre of the miscellany isn't something I know a huge amount about. It's a form of print culture which I can see could be pretty fascinating. A Leverhulme funded project led by Dr Abigail Williams at Oxford University is currently creating a database of eighteenth-century poetic miscellanies; the participants blog about it here.

Like me, the title page of the 1792 Scrapeana pays homage to Sterne:

Sterne epigraph

The Sterne quote combined with the picture of the monkey shaving (!) is intriguing. While at first I was just amused by this image as an example of a facile sense of humour (which I share), the more I think about it, the more interesting and serious it seems. Its general significance seems to relate to the idea of mimicry, and of the division between the human and the animal. Is man no more than a shaved monkey? Or is the monkey mimicking man, but is this attempt at mimicry futile -is he about to cut his own throat? I found a fable where the latter happens, printed in 1788, in another miscellany, The American museum: or, Repository of ancient and modern fugitive pieces, etc. prose and poetical, at vol. 3, page 279.

In my view, the fable reinforces the idea that certain parts of the population are capable of governing, and of electing, while others are not. As such, it participates in the contestation of the concept of popular sovereignty (the focus of my first book, currently under consideration as "The Majesty of the People: popular sovereignty and the role of the writer in the 1790s"). My sense is that underneath it all the monkey shaving is about a division between those capable of politics and those not. This argument is bolstered by another fable from another miscellany The Hibernian magazine, or, Compendium of entertaining knowledge(1774) vol. 4, page 53:

I find it fascinating that the division between the political elite and the rest of the human race is reinforced by figuratively separating them into different species. The use of animals is, of course, a convention of the fable, but the political unenfranchised don't always shake off this zoomorphism outside of the fable -even if the fable is the original source. The most famous eighteenth century example of this is Burke's 'swinish multitude'. One of the 'logics' behind this seems to be that of the aristocratic discourse of civic humanism -the idea that the people at large are too preoccupied with the necessities of life to become truly 'political animals'. Here I am very much influenced by John Barrell's account of civic humanism in The Political Theory of Painting from Reynolds to Hazlitt : "The Body of the Public" (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986) passim., but particularly 6-8.

Why not stop there, I have cluttered away, and the post has gone in directions I didn't expect, but I could have predicted (given my preoccupation with this stuff). And I thought the monkey shaving was just the 18th century equivalent of a cat playing the piano.

sterne, digression

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