Archive for September, 2019

Defoe and the history of the novel

Defoe’s novels, in an 1809-10 collected edition. Published by James Ballantyne and Co., Edinburgh, the set includes 3 volumes ”Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe,” 2 volumes ”Memoirs of a Cavalier,” 2 volumes ”The Life of Colonel Jack,” 2 volumes ”The Adventures of Captain Singleton,” 2 volumes ”A New Volume Around the World,” and ”The History of the Plague in London in 1665.”

I’m re-upping an old augmenter’s post of my own that may help us think with greater precision about Defoe’s novel as a novel.

One version comes from Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, which he began writing in 1771 and was first published in 1790. In a passage I particularly love, Franklin, who spent his formative years setting type and writing for newspapers, recalls the emergence of a new style of prose narrative around the turn of the eighteenth century. He begins with a chance encounter, during his initial voyage from Boston to Philadelphia, with John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a book he knew well from his youth:

In crossing the bay, we met with a squall that tore our rotten sails to pieces, prevented our getting into the Kill,[25]and drove us upon Long Island. In our way, a drunken Dutchman, who was a passenger too, fell overboard; when he was sinking, I reached through the water to his shock pate, and drew him up, so that we got him in again. His ducking sobered him a little, and he went to sleep, taking first out of his pocket a book, which he desir’d I would dry for him. It proved to be my old favorite author, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, in Dutch, finely printed on good paper, with copper cuts, a dress better than I had ever seen it wear in its own language. I have since found that it has been translated into most of the languages of Europe, and suppose it has been more generally read than any other book, except perhaps the Bible. Honest John was the first that I know of who mix’d narration and dialogue; a method of writing very engaging to the reader, who in the most interesting parts finds himself, as it were, brought into the company and present at the discourse. De Foe in his Cruso, his Moll Flanders, Religious Courtship, Family Instructor, and other pieces, has imitated it with success; and Richardson[26] has done the same in his Pamela, etc.

[Footnote numbers take you to the etext of Franklin’s book.]

There’s more to be said here about what this new mode of writing represented to Franklin, but at minimum we should note that he associates it with popularity and with aesthetic experience — with a kind of voyeuristic pleasure, as if we’re allowed to eavesdrop on characters. Certainly Defoe got high marks from contemporaries for excitement, in spite of the fact that some of you may find his account of the plague a little tiresome between the zombie episodes. (Can we talk about those, by the way?)

The second version of the history of the novel I wanted to bring to your attention is perhaps best represented by the classic 1957 text by Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel, which places three eighteenth-century male writers — Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and to a lesser extent Henry Fielding — at the center of the history of the English novel. Watt’s book was an important departure from dominant modes of criticism in the middle of the twentieth century in his interest in plotting the relationship between society and social institutions and the production of literary works. (At that point, the dominant New Criticism advocated reading literary works as enclosed worlds, separate from the real world of authors and readers.) Watt offered an enduring analysis of eighteenth-century English novels that suggested the genre’s importance to understanding the rise of the middle class (especially the rise of economic liberalism, or liberal individualism) and the spread of Protestant values. He suggested that the novel didn’t simply reflect these changes but actually participated in them, by helping to form new kinds of reading audiences. He draws attention to Defoe’s significant contribution in creating memorable protagonists — Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, etc. — who are believable individuals. The novel’s association with individualism is present even in the tendency of early novels to take on the names of their protagonists. Watt thinks individualism’s emergence has something to do with Protestantism, especially its enshrinement of individual dignity and labor, but also recognizes the appeal to readers of imagining a character’s entire life, of identifying vicariously with a central character who is at once heroic and quite ordinary. We don’t just want to eavesdrop on characters, he’s suggesting. We might want to be like them, or perhaps even to be them, which is perhaps precisely what someone like Defoe wants from us.

Watt’s account has been subject, over half a century, to criticism on several fronts, but it remains enormously influential, even as authors seek to replace it with new histories that recognize transnational influences or the centrality of early female novelists. I’d like to take up some of these issues at some point, maybe when we turn to the question of H.F.’s medical and political opinions, if you think they can be discerned. What does H.F. mean, for example, when he writes about the “Moral” of the story of The Three Men? What is his “End in recording it,” and why does he contrast that end to giving an “Account” that is “exactly according to Fact”? (100).

Plague time: balance between social order and restrictive policies

This scientific paper aims at highlighting the importance of accurate and calculated social and political measures which were beneficial at curbing the spread of the Plague Epidemics during the 17th and 18th centuries on the Ionian islands. The emphasis is on the lack of scientific knowledge regarding the epidemic. In spite of this, the authorities were able to curb the plague to the point where it was almost non-existent.

The islands affected by the plague epidemic

One policy that I would like to highlight is that the Venetian authorities did not intervene in the responsibility and actions of the local health inspectors. They understood that intervention could potentially cause unrest in the society and hence allowed the local doctors/health inspectors to work with the people how they deem fit. This seems starkly different from the way the plague was dealt by authorities in London where houses were placed under surveillance and families tried to escape the constraints placed by authorities leading to unrest in the society.

There also exist similarities between the two periods. Defoe has praised government officials for taking correct measures. Similarly, the Venetian authorities took effective measures ensuring who was arriving at the islands by a thorough interrogation of sailors entering the Venetian ports.

It is a rather difficult task to balance the society’s decorum while enforcing policies which are much needed for restraining the spread of a life-threatening disease. As the convener’s post asks us: How harshly should we criticize the government in moments of natural disaster?

SARS Outbreak in China

  SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) is an animal virus said to have spread from civet cats to humans first in the Guangdong province of southern China in 2002. The SARS epidemic affected 26 countries and resulted in thousands of deaths. 

   In a 2003 article from The Irish Times, we notice similarities between Defoe’s depiction of the 1665 Plague to the SARS outbreak in China. The spread of rumors and apprehension of the epidemic resemble the way people responded to the news of the Plague. 

   Another similarity is that the SARS epidemic brought Chinese businesses to a halt and had a tremendous impact on the Chinese economy, much like how the Plague affected businesses in London. In fact, one of the most memorable facts about this incident was the way the Chinese government intervened. The government is said to have withheld information about the spread of the disease from the public to preserve the international image of the country. The convener’s post discusses how the limits of authority is a strong theme in Defoe’s writing. The Chinese government’s response to the SARS incident somewhat resembles this as it prompts us to question what the “common good” is. Was the government right to protect the Chinese image and thus its economy instead of being truthful about the occurring deaths? 

Here is the link to the article from 2003,

Map of the Plague Year

The narrator’s description of the plague is interlaced with numerous detailed explanations and geographic anchor points, but to a non-Londonian audience these places sound very foreign (and probably even for Londonian audiences the archaic names are unfamiliar). Most confusing of all is the narrator’s discussion of the plague not having reached the City even though the people in the other End of Town were dying. For example; “It was observ’d indeed, that it did not come strait on towards us; for the City, that is to say within the Walls, was indifferent healthy still …” (Defoe, 16) and the narrator, living in Aldgate, is not yet fearful of the plague that is growing in St Giles. So is he implying that there is a City of London but there’s more city outside the City of London?

Apparently, yes.

The City of London and the city called London are two very separate places, and this video should help you understand.

The map at the beginning of the book essentially encloses the city of London, and Aldgate is at the eastern end of the City. Hence exists the narrator’s initial hopes that the plague may pass him, as St Giles, where the Plague first is reported, is far outside to the west of the City of London, situated at roughly the center of London. The various churches and parishes that slowly succumb to the plague shows a steady and sure march east, then north, then back down south into the City of London.

The map of the book and the map of London produced in the mid-late 1600s correspond quite nicely and shows a painstaking realism that the author put into his story.

Defoe: DePlague

Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year is a unique text which provides both historical fact and emotional narrative in order to portray the experience of London during the plague. Defoe references (or re-creates) Bills of Mortality, policies, signs on door, etc. throughout his piece, which gives the text a historical tone, yet he weaves personal narrative and the importance of talk between people as ways to further legitimize his depiction of plague. 

A post from Feb. 2019 poses questions about Defoe’s intention in using this format. 

What could be Defoe’s intention to write in that manner? Was he trying to make a historical account more gripping by including urban myths? Or was he trying to make fiction seem more relatable by supporting it with statistics?

These are very important questions when we consider the motives behind Defoe’s writing. Regardless of the intent, however, the effect is that we both believe the sources presented, and are gripped through the personal anecdotes and intrigued by the accounts he presents of the city. 

If his intention was to depict both historical and narrative perspectives of the plague, Defoe does this well through examining the attempted minimization of the impact of the plague, showing initial human resistance to accepting its spread in order to maintain order and not become objects of surveillance. For example, measures were taken to conceal the extent of its spread. He writes, “for all that could conceal their distempers did it, to prevent their neighbours shunning and refusing to converse with them, and also to prevent authority shutting up their houses; which, though it was not yet practised, yet was threatened, and people were extremely terrified at the thought of it” (10). People attempted to evade social stigma and the authorities as well, trying to hide their sickness. But at a point, it becomes impossible to conceal, and measures are taken. For example, houses are placed under surveillance. Yet, families still escaped the constraints placed by the government. This shows a disconnect between the on-the-ground reality of the plague, of which Foucault writes (in “Panopticism”, talking about disciplinary power) that “the plague-stricken town, traversed through­ out with hierarchy, surveillance, observation, writing; the town immobilized by the functioning of an extensive power that bears in a distinct way over all individual bodies – this is the utopia of the perfectly governed city.” In fact, we see how the exercise of power is not totalizing and people managed to move around and spread disease beyond the rules of quarantine. 

Regardless of intention, Defoe has a very clear framework for considering plague. He regularly mentions the parishes, in fact his entire account of plague-London is almost always set-up through a geographical account of the city and especially its limit (a.k.a. the city walls). We see that the plague is not fully feared by Londoners until it breaches the wall, even though the affected sick are just on the other side, and people move freely in and out of ‘the city’. 

One of the key questions we ask here is how do physical and socio-economic barriers play a role in how people perceive the plague as a threat? Moreover, does having a wall to prevent the disease from spreading and reaching the other side? Do people find having a physical barrier a way of reassuring their protection? On the other hand, how much more does the socio-economic barrier help in preventing the plague from reaching the people or be it more exposed to them?

We can also consider these questions in the context of our discussions on the barrier indifferent nature of the plague which affects all regardless of class, race, gender, etc. 

Though Defoe’s plague may seem, at least early on, to not cross physical barriers, it certainly seems to affect people regardless of class. However, he is also acutely aware of the rich people’s ability to escape the plague. Defoe notes, “The Truth is, the Case of poor Servants was very dismal… and of them abundance perished” (28) – bringing up, and then going on to elaborate on the way the plague impacted the servile classes, who were forced to continue working and lacked access to adequate support or treatment. This is in contrast to the excerpt from the Decameron, where the servants are not given much attention and whose health is not of importance in contrast to the Brigata.

Defoe simultaneously praises government officials for taking any action during this chaotic time, but also criticizes them for their inefficient policies. For example, a policy of quarantine is enacted in which watchmen are sent to guard the houses of the diseased in order to ensure no one enters or exits the houses, however, we learn through “Defoe’s” direct witnessing, as well as through second hand accounts told to him that this and many other policies do not actually work. 

“This is one of the reasons that I believe, that the shutting up Houses by force and imprisoning people in their own Houses…it was rather hurtful having forced those desperate People to wander abroad with the plague upon them” (Defoe, 61).

This consideration poses the following questions: How should the government respond to mass-hysteria? To plague? If people don’t feel free, can they ever accept quarantine? How harshly should we criticise government in moments of natural disaster? 

Whether or not this text is reliable or simply engaging, it offers us a platform for considering many questions about plague, human experience, religion and society.

Setting up shop with The Decameron

Allow me to point you to two older convener’s posts for The Decameron. I’m especially drawn to the following questions:

What does it mean that Boccaccio directly addresses a female reading public at the outset? How might this invocation — and the predominance of female characters — give us meaningful inroads to discuss gender and gendered bodies in the selections you’ve read so far.

What do you make of the contrast between the morbid plague and the peaceful garden? Is storytelling a form of escape or a form of talk therapy for the brigata, something with salutary effects?

We’ve talked a little bit about the function of theodicy in contexts we’ve examined so far. How could a just God allow such things to be? What explanations might be required to preserve a sense of God’s omnipotence or benevolence? The Decameron also allows us to consider another set of explanations: Fortune.

From Brown University’s awesome Decameron site:

Fortuna is a classic literary motif that along with wit and love represents one of the main themes of the Decameron. Medieval society was greatly interested in the workings of Lady Fortune. Most of the stories told by the Brigata members entail instances of Fortune because adventures by defintion are usually the product of fateful encounters. Fortune is usually kind in the Novellas, except for Day 4, bringing characters in contact with the right people at the right time, or more often, at the right place at the right time. In some of the stories, the protagonists are able to change the course of fate by using wit, deception or undergoing a clever action to escape harm, punishment or loss of love. In other stories, fate has total control over the characters and dictates the course of the Novella. In the end, Fortune usually brings lovers together either for life, or a few precious nights.

What kind of explanation is this? Just a way to ease survivor’s guilt?

Finally, a question about government. What happens when Pampinea declares it necessary to “choose a leader”? (20). What kind of government does she aim to instate?

There is not one of you whose sickness equals mine

We’ll want to encounter Oidipous/Oedipus on the text’s own terms, and so pay attention to what this translation tells you about its title character, or what he tells you about himself. Think too about how you would summarize this story. Where would you start? With the King addressing his people? With the Priest describing the plague? With the Oracle’s news? With the cursed child or his parents? And what might taking any of these as a starting point tell us about how the play works or why it has endured so powerfully?

Would you summarize it this way?

Or this way?

One way for us to approach this play will be to think about the plague’s place in it. In a convener’s post I wrote for Contagion 2012, way back during the course’s first run, I mentioned a strain of recent scholarship on Sophocles’ play that takes the plague setting seriously. This makes some sense. The assumption on scholars’ parts has long been that Sophocles introduced an epidemic as the setting for his version of the Oedipus myth because Athens had so recently suffered from plague (as recounted in the brief excerpt you’ll read from Thucydides). With mass deaths so fresh on their minds, these critics ask, wouldn’t Sophocles and his audience have understood the plague to be an actual fact of life rather than a literary symbol?

My assumption, in that post, was that we’d be approaching the plague in Sophocles’s novel as either representing medical situations Sophocles’s original audience would have recognized, or that the plague was being used metaphorically, for something sick about the community — or its leader. As I noted in that original post, we read this play at the start of this course not just to recognize how long the plague-as-metaphor idea has been around, but also to question whether the literal and figurative registers are as separate or opposed as we commonly take them.

In more recent iterations of the class, however, we encounter Oedipus just after our brush with network and contagion theory, including Tony Sampson’s strong endorsement of Tarde’s and Deleuze’s critique of Freud’s definition of the unconscious. (At stake in his reading of these thinkers is how to understand crowd behavior — and, by extension, how imitative behavior from fashion to fascism operates.) Here we’ve already encountered Oedipus, whose centrality to Freud’s thinking makes him an easy symbol for everything Deleuze in particular wants to resist. He and Guattari, recall, even named their original collaboration Anti-Oedipus (1972). If we want to understand why, we’ll have to think about both what Oedipus meant to Freud and why that would come to stand for the things the rest of our folks seem to be resisting.

Freud, famously, in The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), writes:

There must be something which makes a voice within us ready to recognize the compelling force of destiny in the Oedipus[.] … His destiny moves us only because it might have been ours — because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that this is so. (301)

For Freud the subject is an individual, and its formation is a family romance. For Deleuze and Guattari, however, the unconscious is not an individual, but part of a crowd, like wolves in a pack. “Who is ignorant of the fact that wolves travel in pack?” they ask in A Thousand Plateaus (1980). “Only Freud. Every child knows it. Not Freud” (28). In their Anti-Oedipus, desire is framed as fundamentally social, not familial:

[T]he family is never a microcosm in the sense of an autonomous figure [but is] by nature eccentric, decentered. We are told of fusional, divisive, tubular, and foreclosing families. … There is always an uncle from America; a brother who went bad; an aunt who took off with a military man; a cousin out of work, bankrupt, or a victim of the Crash; an anarchist grandfather; a grandmother in the hospital, crazy or senile. The family does not engender its own ruptures. Families are filled with gaps and transected by breaks that are not familial: the Commune, the Dreyfus Affair, religion and atheism, the Spanish Civil War, the rise of fascism, Stalinism, the Vietnam War, May ’68 — all these things form complexes of the unconscious, more effective than everlasting Oedipus. (97)

This heady stew, I take it, is what they mean in their later book when they refer to the unconscious as multiple, as “the buzz and shove of the crowd,” not to be mistaken for “daddy’s voice” (30). The big picture here is how we understand the very definition or nature of the individual. For Freud, the individual is always going to be Oedipal. For Deleuze and Guattari (and by extension Sampson) the alternative is, as their contemporary Michel Foucault put it in the preface to their work, to “‘de-individualize’ by means of multiplication and displacement, diverse combinations” (xlv). Referring to Anti-Oedipus as an “Introduction to the Non-Fascist Life,” Foucault summarizes one of its key imperatives this way: “Do not demand of politics that it restore the ‘rights’ of the individual, as philosophy has defined them. The individual is the product of power. … The group must not be the organic bond uniting hierarchized individuals, but a constant generator of de-individualization. Do not become enamored of power” (xlv).

For all their resistance to Frued’s reading of the story, could it be possible that Sophocles’ Oedipus the King had been making a similar point all along? And why would this matter in a time of plague?

Keywords: Rhizome

Our discussions of Tony Sampson’s Virality this week will almost certainly send you Googling some names and terms. Among Sampson’s most important influences are Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. We’ll regard them as rabbit holes you can head down if you’re interested in further reading — and we’ll bring them up again, at least briefly, when we talk about the enduring influence of the Oedipus story — but for now if you want to sample the flavor of their thinking, or figure out why they may appeal to Sampson as he attempts a non-Darwinian contagion theory, you could do worse than starting with this little video explainer. Another helpful resource: the Deleuze dictionary.