Dancing on Bloody Stumps: Samuel Butler’s Turn against the Baroque

Let me begin by saying how much I enjoyed reading this chapter about Butler. It’s been a long time since I read a literary history that was as substantial as this one was, which seamlessly integrated intellectual history with literary history in its treatment of the culture of the Baroque, even while it sustained a through-line of argument from beginning to end. For this reason alone, I’m grateful I came upon this book, which to me seems like a natural for teaching in a course like my Restoration-Eighteenth century Preseminar, which is designed to cover the major authors, genres, and issues of our period for grad students beginning work in the long eighteenth.

Since Triumph synthesizes so many of the classic critical texts and arguments I’ve used for teaching this material (Eliot, Wasserman, Miner, etc.) over the years, it seems like a good choice for that kind of wide-ranging period-based course. One of my recurring experiences while reading the book was seeing Parker explain his constellations of authors (Butler-Swift-Sterne, for example) in ways that I had intuited but never fully articulated to myself. This quality makes it a good model, I think, for those trying to teach students to devise their own literary histories, or trying to write their own.

As I mentioned last night, I also liked the fact that Triumph maintains a global view of generic relations during this period, and tries hard to see these authors as engaged in debates and problems that predate their careers and ramify for the rest of the period. The specifically figurative terms highlighted in this study, terms like “analogy” or “literal,” or the period terms, like “Baroque” or “neo-classical” or “Augustan,” clearly group together texts from different genres, written for disparate purposes, but which reveal the pressure of a particular episteme on the writers of the same era.

(Incidentally, though BP faults Foucault and the other “Zeitgeist historians” for neglecting the fissures of interest and divisions of thought which mark every culture (24), it’s unclear to me how important these fissures are to his own argument, since both Butler and Benlowes, Cowley and Dryden, in their own ways experience a culture-wide “eclipse of analogy,” though Benlowes and Cowley suffer an irrevocable irrelevance because they are less capable (or less aware?) than Butler and Dryden of responding to this Zeitgeist shift in their own writings.)

As for Butler, Butler’s importance in this account stems from the fact that he represents the first historical instance of what BP calls the “rhetoric of exclusion,” (25), the “special elements of modernity in English Restoration and eighteenth-century writing–disaffection from ritual, alienated individualism, positivism, mistrust of language, and the cult of taste” (27). Butler becomes especially important because of his role as formal, stylistic, and moral-intellectual model for the Augustan generation of writers, chiefly Swift and Pope (25), but it seems to me that Butler’s advantage over writers like Cowley or even Dryden seems to lie, as with Hobbes, in his self-awareness of his own modernity, and his lack of nostalgia for the inherited authorities that other writers of his generation still tried to rely upon.

In this shared contempt for inherited authorities (classical and biblical), Hobbes along with Butler seem interested in the prestige of the new science, even if they both had deeper interests in the antique or the arcane than earlier commentators had once believed. But I wished while reading this chapter that BP had also spent a little more time considering the fact that perhaps the greatest reason for mid-century writers of every political background to reject inherited authorities was the massive failure of elite culture to protect its interests during the Civil Wars.

This may be my own hobby-horse, but I do think that we could substitute “anti-rhetorical” for BP’s “anti-analogy” or “anti-Humanist” while describing Butler or Hobbes, and come up with a fine explanation for what inspired royalists like Hobbes and Bramhall to tangle with one another for much of the mid-century over Free Will. So I wonder whether Parker would accept my substitution of “rhetoric” for “analogy” in this argument, to designate the common enemy for both Butler and Hobbes in the political ruins of the mid-century? (Cf. for example, 48-9)

Though I find no mention of Habermas or Koselleck here, it seems to me that the rhetorical-polemical move BP identifies with Butler–equating Protestant enthusiasm with superstitious Catholic (or Anglican) demands for persecuting one’s opponents–is congruent with Habermas and Koselleck’s observations about the momentous step taken when Hobbes equated “conscience” with “opinion.” (Cf. Public Sphere, 90 and n.) The result was that in Habermas’ terms, “it was of no consequence for the state from whose perspective one was worth as much as the other.” This doctrinal indifference fosters an erastian distrust of any group who claim a “religious” motivation for their political views, and reinforces a skeptical look at the motives of anyone who uses religious identity as the basis for political participation. This is what underlies what BP calls his “genius to discover the underlying likeness between all the varieties of religious imagination” (33).

I think the emphasis later in the chapter on the intellectual debts of Hume and Gibbon to Butler’s “even-handed” rejection of enthusiasm and superstition (what else is there?) reveals something about the polemical strand of Enlightenment hostility to religious institutions and especially popular sectarianism, though I don’t think it tells the whole story. I was also intrigued by the few comments about the Butler/Sterne connection, which I think would properly center on the question of the figural in Sterne, and our difficulty in deciding where the boundary between the literal and the figural lies in much of Sterne’s bawdy. Calling this quality in Butler novelization seems like a partial gesture, but it doesn’t really explain how this kind of figuration traveled from Butler’s poetry into Sterne’s novelistic prose.

Finally, it seems to me that the closing pages’ story of modernization as debasement, materialization, literalization, etc. simply reopen the problem I wondered about at the outset of this essay, which is what authors escape this logic, if these supposedly fissured or uneven set of developments seem nonetheless to demand in every instance a “search for the literal,” or a language that “evades the necessity of metaphor”?



Comments are closed.