Roach, ch. 6: whittling IT down


 [“Karen Carpenter” and “Agnes Carpenter,” from Todd Haynes’s Superstar (1987)]

As our earlier commenters have noted, Joe Roach’s IT is more concerned with the play of surfaces in history than with a full investigation of its depths.  Yet as anyone who has undressed a Barbie knows, the magic does not come from what is in the clothes, or underneath the clothes, but in the quality of belief invested in the object, however it is clothed.

This is something I learned from watching Todd Haynes’s Superstar many years ago, when I was first amused, then unspeakably moved, by the death of “Karen Carpenter,” as she was portrayed by a Barbie doll that was literally whittled away in successive scenes.  As Haynes’s dwindling Karen-doll demonstrated to me, it does not take much to inspire the strongest possible feelings from an audience, but that little something–that IT-factor–is always poised between loathing and admiration, and digging deep tends to complicate, not simplify, such matters. 

This, I think, is Roach’s tacit message about conventional Enlightenment narratives of demystification, which assume a completed historical process of Weberean disenchantment, along with the emotional distancing that such a completion would entail.  Roach, however, concentrates his attention upon a past that is not and perhaps never will be completed in his subjects’ affective lives: his version of the past features semi-historical ghosts, uncanny recurrences, surprising afterlives, out-of-control personal fantasies–in other words, all the possibilities of idiosyncratic retellings–that allow his historical narratives to reverberate indefinitely into the future.  Consequently, IT focuses upon the stakes of “reenchantment” in a world where the eighteenth century has never really gone away, because its magic, meaning its fairies and its monsters, are still with us in ways that we are barely conscious of (16).  All we need to do is clap our hands.

 Though Roach’s final chapter title, “Bones,” might seem to offer readers the metaphor of an essential structure disclosed beneath appearances, we soon learn that the bones of this chapter have never settled down to silence and stillness, nor are they content to serve as the moralizing conclusion of the story, its memento mori.  No, the mummified head, lips, and torso of Queen Katherine of Valois (sadly detached from her legs and pelvis) lead us from her posthumous encounter with the pervy Samuel Pepys, to a quick march over to Macheath and a procession of his offspring–both legitimate and illegitimate–via Polly Peachum, Lucy Lockit, and Lotte Lenya.  Then, in this chapter’s watery underworld, we discover, as if by a miracle,  Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, parading Lady Di and Emma Thompson on each arm like a pair of Vegas showgirls, a vision that leads to a final flourish with the closing scenes of Henry V and the romance of kingship with which we began, and which apparently has no end.

As this sketch might suggest, this chapter is both a dialogue and a somewhat frantic dance of the dead.  Like the book as a whole, I think it could be accused of flittiness, or of being so pleased with its own associations and historical analogies, which are indeed dazzling, as to lag behind a little in its explanations, like the little boys who once had the job of following Anne Bracegirdle onstage, holding her train and parasol.  (I will remember this image of Bracegirdle for a long time) Though I don’t think such a response would do justice to the strengths of this book, I did develop some reservations along the way, which I’m hoping other commenters, or perhaps Roach himself, might like to comment upon.

I wondered, for example, how such idiosyncratic uses of history (Charles II as Glyn’s “Dear Good King,” Macaulay’s whipping-boy, or Barrie’s strange pirate-king compound of Captain Hook) might relate to one another, or how they might relate to more conventional scholarly accounts, though I do admit that this kind of plonking discussion might destroy our delight in Roach’s fast-moving argument. 

More importantly, the relative degree of representativeness or idiosyncrasy in these responses would constitute important evidence for Roach’s claim that we are dealing with synthetic, which I take to mean collective and therefore shared experience.  So to what extent are these fantasies spun out of private or public materials?  We know, for example, that Glin’s fantasies of a naughty Restoration were shared by many popular histories and editions of Restoration writing sold in the early 20th century.  Equally common was the stock anti-bolshevism of her would-be aristocratic attitudes.  These elements, then, seem common enough, though their condensation into the specific forms of her lifestyle and writings does indeed seem unique.  Then again, Glin, for all her loopiness, may very well have helped to create a new and perhaps more popular taste for the Good King Charles, and so we might also pursue her after-effects, and examine how much her retelling of this story affected scholarly or popular views of Charles.  In other words, is it possible to document how far this reading of the Restoration traveled beyond her and her own self-image?  At the same time, Roach’s treatment of Glin invites us to ask similar questions about Macaulay’s and Hazlitt’s versions of this period, and to assume that all these accounts were to some extent fashioned from idiosyncratic motives and materials.  This juxtaposition of Macaulay’s canonical account of the period with Glin’s is one of the greatest strengths of this book, and responsible for some of its most surprising insights.

Despite my occasional reservations about method, I do think that Roach has generated an extremely powerful set of historical metaphors in this book, largely because of his willingness to approach the past from the perspective of unofficial, popular, or idiosyncratic histories (that is, through kitsch or fantasy, which are, after all, merely the despised modes of historical imagination).  This openness to kitsch, pathos, and anachronism actually helps readers to reimagine, and therefore comprehend, the book’s ultimate subject: the historicity of performance, and the often tacit social contexts in which it occurs.


5 responses to “Roach, ch. 6: whittling IT down

  1. Laura Rosenthal

    Hi Dave,
    I really liked what you said about enchantment, disenchantment, and re-enchantment. I think that’s exactly right about this book, or at least it works for me in thinking about it.

    About your reservations: how does /It/ relate to conventional scholarship in the field? (Putting aside for the moment the fact that in a sense JR is really not exactly in the field of English lit as most departments define it.) In a sense, /It/ follows and takes seriously the very things that conventional scholarship would challenge (demystifying and disenchanting, perhaps, at the same time). For example, a friend of mine spent an entire summer trying to track down the source for Nell Gwyn calling herself the “Protestant whore” and finally gave up. I’m convinced that if it was findable, she would have found it. How much is there to, as you put it, the ‘naughty Restoration’? Who invented it? What stake was there in inventing it? I think similarly of Robert Hume’s classic article, in which he argues that of all the plays produced between 1660 and 1700, only a tiny handful could be said to advocate libertine practice, in spite of the period’s reputation.
    Yet, when I can fit one play into an 18th-century course, it’s going to be The Country Wife or The Man of Mode or The Rover, and not something more ‘representative’ of the ‘true’ moral landscape.

    So /It/ is in a sense at least as much about the myth of the Restoration as it is about the Restoration. There are ways of approaching the period that would be more accurate, in a sense, but then there are the elements that have continued to resonate, whether they were part of the period or not (ex: NG calling herself a whore). Do they resonate for good reasons–ie, The Country Wife is a really great play–or do they resonate for ‘bad’ reasons–ie, The Country Wife confirms a conservative version of gender ideology? BTW, I don’t in particular believe this about The Country Wife, but ideological criticism of the last 20 years in our field I think has been shaped by such concerns.

  2. Laura Rosenthal

    BTW, I should note that JR is very careful to note that he is dealing with mythic constructions, which is in part why the 19th century reception of the Restoration I think becomes so important to his study.

  3. Hi Laura,

    It does seem to me that JR’s attitude to enchantment and reenchantment is really different than most conventional literary critics and theorists. My assumption is that it is his dual focus on history and performance that dictates his approach. Performance studies demands a less text-based method of interpretation, which means much more attention to social contexts, but “social” in the sense of Charles Taylor’s “background understanding” in Social Imaginaries, the tacit values, narratives, and understandings used by people to make sense of their surroundings, but not always with their full awareness.

    I, for one, think it’s as important for scholars to do things like textual editing (i.e., doing the hard work on issues like chronologies and sourcing) as well as the meta-interpretive work of JR. And it’s not necessarily a division of labor, either. But I think that the real virtue of JR’s book is his ability to make literary scholars see the meaningful, non-trivial aspect of material like wigs. There have been quite a few recent treatments of hair and wigs, for example, but none of these can really compete with JR’s treatment here.


  4. Anna Battigelli

    Isn’t one of the strengths of Roach’s imaginative work his implicit suggestion that the English Reformation is always in the process of performing itself into being? In this sense, the past haunts the present in ways that conventional Whig historians might not like to admit. Debates over specific Restoration plays or actors become ways of claiming the Reformation as at least somehow as having happened, for better or for worse, depending on the critics’ sensibilities.

  5. Dave wrote: “I do admit that this kind of plonking discussion might destroy our delight in Roach’s fast-moving argument.” I totally concur with this view, and would add to it that notwithstanding the absence of this “plonking” in the pages of /It/, I felt while reading as though much “plonking” had taken place behind the scenes, before the writing, and over the course of likely several years. The very ingenuity of the book seems to suggest this, as do the many creative comparisons and analogies that would seem to me to be possible only after much exposure to literature, visual art, etc.