Some More Dunces


The disdain for learned disquisition, or what has been termed “useless” knowledge, is therefore an intrinsic aspect of the English imagination. One of the most popular comedies of the seventeenth century was Thomas Shadwell’s The Virtuoso, in which the virtuoso of the title is a scientific theorist, Sir Nicholas Gimcrack, who is found imitating the movements of a frog in order to learn how to swim. “I content myself with the speculative part of swimming,” he declares. “I care not for the Practick. I seldom bring anything to use; ’tis not my way. Knowledge is my ultimate end.” An intrinsic aspect of Gimcrack’s dramatic character lies not so much in his pedantry as in his desire to carry all things to extremes. This is a sin against the common wisdom of the English imagination which maintains the importance of moderation and compromise. That is why Shadwell’s satire on the “new science” had political ramifications. Sir Nicholas Gimcrack decides to bottle the air from various parts of England so that it might be weighed. Pepys records meeting Charles II in the Duke’s Chamber where the monarch passed “an hour or two laughing . . . Gresham College he mightily laughed at, for spending time only in weighing of ayre, and doing nothing else since they sat.” Gimcrack, in thus becoming a dramatic caricature of “fanaticks” and “enthusiasts” of every kind, represents a distaste for the extremities of the civil war but also manifests an English aversion to feeling.

The character of Gimcrack, so obvious a dupe for English pragmatists, was elaborated by Pope and Gay in the deluded collector and scholar Fossil in their Three Hours After Marriage. Pope was an inspired opponent of false learning in a period which less deserves the epithet of “the Age of Reason” than “the Age of Sense.” The most fruitful forms were those of the parody, the burlesque, the satire and the mock-heroic. Works such as A Tale of a Tub (1704), Gulliver’s Travels (1726), The Dunciad (1728), Shamela (1741), Jonathan Wild (1743) and Tristram Shandy (1759) parodied sentiment and innovation, scholarship and heroic posturing, enthusiasm and pedantry, metaphysics and theological speculation. In The Dunciad Pope berates false scientific learning as an instrument of “Dullness”:

Impale a Glow-worm, or Vertu profess, Shine in the dignity of F.R.S.

The real wit of The Dunciad, however, emerges in the plethora of interpretations and commentaries with which Pope surrounds the poem. Its prefaces, letters, testimonies, prolegomena and marginalia far exceed in quantity the verses themselves. Even the title of the poem is immediately the subject of scholastic controversy. “The DUNCIAD, sic MS. It may well be disputed whether this be a right reading: Ought it not rather to be spelled Dunceiad , as the Etymology evidently demands? Dunce with an e, therefore Dunceiad with an e”—which enquiry is followed by a disquisition upon Theobald’s “restoration” of Shakespeare.

Pope was part of the “Scriblerus Club,” among whose other members were Swift, Arbuthnot and Gay; it was a social club, a closed literary coffee-house on the English pattern, but its larger purpose was the promulgation of satires on “party writers, critics, editors, and commentators . . . men of learning, whether philosophers or artists, antiquarians or travellers, teachers or poets, lawyers or dancers.”All come under the title of “Martin Scriblerus,” a fictional dullard, who is deemed to have published or composed various works; real, as well as feigned, material could then be ascribed to him. The achievement of the Scriblerians, therefore, lay in “the double process of putting out apparently serious works by their hero under his own and other names, and at the same time claiming for him things [and books] actually done by real people.”This conflation of the artificial and the genuine, the blurring of distinction between fact and fiction, is a truly English joke; it combines “ostensible solemnity” and “frequent use of real material.”3

Amongst the publications composed by “Martin Scriblerus” was Pope’s Peri Bathous: or the Art of Sinking in Poetry, a disquisition upon the “profound” in English poetry which has always been the object of English mockery—whether out of fear, or incapacity, is an open question. Pope defines paraphrase, for example, as “another great aid to Prolixity; being a confused circumlocutory manner of expressing a known idea, which should be so mysteriously couched, as to give the reader the pleasure of guessing what it is that the author can possibly mean, and a strange surprise when he finds it.” Pope then adduces real examples, from John Cleveland to Ambrose Philips, to illustrate this tendency. In conventional English fashion, therefore, he mocks periphrasis and aureate diction as somehow repugnant to Anglo-Saxon common sense.

“Shut the door” becomes in poetic diction:

“The wooden Guardian of our Privacy Quick on its Axle turn.”

It is funny, but it is also traditional and appropriate to the English imagination.

Thus, in A Tale of a Tub, Jonathan Swift mocks the wordiness of scholars which breeds “an infinite Number of Abstracts, Summaries, Compendiums, Extracts, Collections, Medulla’s, Excerpta quaedam’s, Florilegia’s.” It is perhaps not surprising that, in the contemporaneous battle between the “Ancients” and the “Moderns,” Swift should align himself with the “Ancients.” The delusion of the “Modern” is that “every Branch of Knowledge has received such wonderful Acquirements since his Age, especially within these last three Years, or thereabouts.” Swift is assaulting the false learning of those who seem to believe that the world was created on the day they were born, and that whatever slight glimmerings of knowledge they since have acquired are of immense relevance and strength. They were the writers who “cryed up” the latest text or the latest invention as the most important of its kind, and who argued seriously upon the merits of the vain ramblings of their contemporaries. All this was profoundly inimical to Swift, and also to those aspects of the English imagination which eschew innovation and avoid the self-congratulatory stance of those who deny the claims of history. Swift satirises one exponent of “modern” learning for his strictures upon Homer— “I mean, his [Homer’s] gross Ignorance in the Common Laws of this Realm and in the Doctrine as well as Discipline of the Church of England. A Defect indeed, for which both he and all the Ancients stand most justly censored.” Here the vanity and foolishness of censoring the “ancients” for not manifesting modern preoccupations are evident. So Swift berates certain of his contemporaries who “have discovered a shorter, and more prudent Method, to become Scholars and Wits without the Fatigue of Reading or of Thinking”; their way is to adopt the fashionable vocabulary or terminology of the day, which they will learn from “ Systems and Abstracts,” and then to parrot it unthinkingly. In this world of chaos and of dullness the learned “deal entirely with Invention, and strike all Things out of themselves, or at least, by Collision, from each other.” “Invention” here covers the aptitude of modern thought to beget more fake learning, misperceptions and misunderstandings, all the time accompanied by a babble of errant voices; modern learning resembles “A Man ever in Haste, a great Hatcher and Breeder of Business, and excellent at the Famous Art of whispering Nothing.”

And yet A Tale of a Tub is written by nobody. Throughout its several editions it remained an anonymous work, which somehow managed to parody all the mannerisms of the books which it attacked. It is, as one critic has put it, “an anonymous book-compiling machine itself.” 4 This of course lends substance to Swift’s further perception that the “moderns” have no definable or decided personality. They are so much the creatures of their age, and repeat so faithfully its assumptions and conditions, that they have no self or soul to speak of. That is why he parodies those who claim “inspiration” or the “inner light,” a species of modern idolatry which as a believer in the community of history he utterly despised. In another place he conjures up a windy picture in which “the sacred Aeolist delivers his oracular Belches to his panting Disciples; of whom, some are greedily gaping after the sanctified Breath; others are all the while hymning out the Praises of the Winds.” It may be that the enormous concentration upon farts and farting in eighteenth-century literature is a somewhat noisome allusion to the fatuity of self-expression in the “modern” fashion. It might also be suggested that Swift, as prescient as he was witty, was prophesying that change of consciousness which would one day be heralded as the “romantic revolution” and that he already saw the first dim stirrings of that movement in the work of his contemporaries. For him it was a kind of madness incurring “manifest danger of phlebotomy, and whips, and chains, and dark chambers, and straw. For what man, in the natural state or course of thinking, did ever conceive it in his power to reduce the notions of all mankind exactly to the same length, and breadth, and height of his own? Yet this is the first humble and civil design of all innovators in the empire of reason.” Once more the hostility to innovation is evinced.

But Swift was not entirely alone. In A Tale of a Tub he introduces blanks and asterisks into his narrative, and upon one digression he notes that “if the judicious Reader can assign a fitter [place], I do here empower him to remove it into any other Corner he pleases.” The inescapable analogy here is with the narratives of Laurence Sterne. In The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy it is asked, “What has this book done more than the Legation of Moses, or the Tale of a Tub, that it may not swim down the gutter of Time along with them?” Sterne’s novel does indeed swim down with A Tale of a Tub because it is part of the same stream of wit, which may be paraphrased as learned wit. Sterne borrows from the Memoirs of Martin Scriblerus, too, and lifts whole passages from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. In his gift for wholesale adaptation and assimilation he is a truly English writer.

Tristram Shandy is part burlesque, part parody, part satire; it includes sermon and farce, treatise and biography; it is in turn learned and obscene, pathetic and pantomimic. Its principles are misalliance and extravagance, shot through with a whimsical indifference to the conventional modes of reading and of writing, or, as Sterne put it in a “Rabelaisian Fragment,” “in which the reader will begin to form a Judgement, of what an Historical, Dramatical, Anecdotical, Allegorical, and Comical Kind of a Work, He has got hold of.” Sterne himself was consistently drawn to encyclopaedic works, among them Ephraim Chambers’s Cyclopaedia and the early volumes both of Biographia Britannica and of An Universal History, from the Earliest Account of Time; they emphasise his aversion to theoretical speculation and his delight in accumulative and unsystematic learning. His was a knowledge of fragments, as in some decorative mosaic; like Browne or Burton he was a delighted hunter of trifles. When, in Tristram Shandy, he quoted at length a French treatise on inter-uterine baptism, in the original language, it was widely believed that he had invented the matter entire. To dispel any confusion, however, in the second edition of the novel he appended a footnote on his original source. He delighted in theft and plagiarism, incorporating everything within the interlaced texture of his narrative. As Nietzsche said, “he was familiar with everything from the sublime to the rascally”; it was this breadth of vision which truly constituted his genius. One contemporary noted that it was “one of the odd qualities of this very odd person, to join contradictions.”

He was born in Ireland, in 1713, of an English military family; at the age of ten he returned to England, where he was eventually accepted at Cambridge. He was a whimsical, melancholic, sentimental man plagued by ill health. It was quite natural, therefore, that he should enter holy orders and he retained various livings in Yorkshire for the rest of his life. At the age of forty-six he began The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, which caused an immediate sensation. He awoke and found himself famous, and remained in that happy condition until his death from pleurisy in his fifty-fifth year.

A critic in the Monthly Review understood his native genius very well, and had no hesitation in naming Harlequin as the father of Tristram Shandy and the novel itself as the “PANTOMIME OF LITERATURE.” As Sterne’s most recent biographer has noted, the book “is constructed on just such a principle of moving rapidly from one idea to another, in shifting from the serious to the light-hearted, of exploiting the possibilities for bawdy in the most innocent of ideas,”5 the latter characteristic being perhaps the most suggestive of national traits. Sexual matters can only be addressed in innuendo and smut, as if the idea of sexual passion itself were humiliating and embarrassing in the extreme.

The contradictoriness, or the rapid changes of tone and perspective, is also a matter of authorial detachment; that detachment or diffidence is compounded in Sterne’s case by what his biographer calls “the difficulty of knowing exactly what one’s feelings are.”6 The lack of “inwardness” in English writing has often been discussed; it may be ascribed to embarrassment or absence of passion, but it can also be associated with the love of surface and surface decoration which is so integral to English art. It is sometimes suggested that this absence of interior feeling leads to loss of profundity or seriousness, but we have already seen that the “profound” can be manifested in disparate ways. It is certain, however, that it leads to self-effacement. TristramShandy itself has been said to have “created a generic self-mockery” which “ostentatiously outfaced the parody of self-cherishing modernism in Swift’s A Tale of a Tub.”7 Sterne captured an English trait, and gave it immortal shape; that is why Byron wrote of his own Don Juan that “I mean it for a poetical T Shandy.”

Yet at the time Tristram Shandy was received “evidently as a prose Dunciad,”8 as exemplified in Sterne ’s own comment that he was satirising “the Weak part of the Sciences, in which the true point of Ridicule lies.” In that sense, of course, he was continuing an old tradition in the witty dismissal of pedantry and speculative thought. In the novel there are parodies of legal language, of theological argument, and of abstruse learning in general. “He had never in his whole life the least light or spark of subtlety struck in his mind, by one single lecture upon Crackenthorpe or Burgersdicius, or any Dutch logician or commentator.” Sterne acquired his own learning through volumes of “popularised” thought and through entries in the encyclopaedia; he was not a “serious” thinker and could thus brilliantly redeploy the arguments advanced by others. Like Browne and Burton before him, his was a triumph of the synthetic rather than the analytic imagination. He was a magpie, rather than an eagle soaring into the empyrean.

It is entirely appropriate that out of this parodic, unsystematic medley of a book should emerge one of the greatest of all English characters in Uncle Toby. This old soldier, who received a wound in his groin at the siege of Namur, has what Sterne describes as “a HOBBY-HORSE” in the science and practice of fortifications. With the help of his servant and ex-corporal Trim, Uncle Toby builds a model of French battlefields with their batteries, ditches, siege engines and pallisades. He is, in himself, a model of the eccentric in English fiction, close to Commander Trunnion in Peregrine Pickle and Mr. Wemmick with his Walworth fortifications in Great Expectations. Here are the martial virtues of the English, fortitude and practical engineering, in miniature; once more there is something both deeply comic and deeply reassuring about their transposition to a smaller scale. Uncle Toby is abashed in the presence of women, and only really himself in the company of his corporal, but somehow he becomes ensnared in the matrimonial plans of Widow Wadman. “These attacks of Mrs. Wadman, you will readily conceive to be of different kinds; varying from each other, like the attacks which history is full of, and from the same reasons.” Mrs. Wadman desires to wound Uncle Toby’s groin in another sense, and Sterne joins the line of English humorists who cannot resist the caricature of the voracious female. It is a part of the tradition. But Uncle Toby himself is a genuine and singular creation who combines common sense and eccentricity, embarrassed delicacy and assumed gruffness, conviviality and melancholy. As one historian of the English, Peter Vansittart, has remarked in this context, “contradiction, muddle, inconsistency and humour proved as necessary to the social psyche as fortitude, forbearance, decency.”9 Indeed they help to define it. But then on a larger scale, as Hazlitt put it, Uncle Toby remains “one of the finest compliments ever paid to human nature” and of course to the English imagination itself.

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