Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: A Sentimental Journey and Other Writings by Laurence Sterne

A Sentimental Journey and Other Writings
 by Laurence Sterne
Oxford World's Classic Edition
p. 2003

   Sterne is best known for his Rabelaisian tour-de-force Tristam Shandy, a novel which I had the "pleasure" to struggle through for the best part of a year back in 2008.  Shandy is a sprawling, discursive comic masterpiece which has more in common with novels of the 20th century then those which followed it in the 19th.  But Sterne also wrote another, minor, classic,  A Sentimental Journey.  First published in 1768, six months before the author's death, A Sentimental Journey was one of the first "novels of sentiment and sensibility" a genre which rose and fell by the turn of the 19th century, but one which would have a decisive impact on the Brontean/Austen wave of fiction which would define the 19th century.
       Sterne's A Sentimental Journey was published three years before Henry MacKenzie's The Man of Feeling.  Man of Feeling was in instant hit, selling out within two months and being reprinted six time in the following decade.  Both novels echo the on-going debate in 18th century about the impact of modernity on the nature of man.  As G.J. Barker-Benfield persuasively argued in his book, The Culture of Sensibility, "popular novels written by men in the 1760s and 1770s were preoccupied with the meanings of sensibility for manhood...and the ambiguity we now tend to read into the novels of Laurence Stern or Mackenzie reflects this contemporary ambivalence."
       Regardless of how one interprets the underlying debate OR the role of the "novels of sentiment" in the 18th century, it's clear that these tales had an audience.  Of course, in light of the rise of female novelists in the 19th century,  I am left wondering who was buying all the copies of MacKenzie's The Man of Feeling.  Was it men, interested in getting a fix on their identity in a rapidly changing world?  Or was it largely women, interested in men who were depicted behaving in a traditionally "feminine" manner?
      Sterne's Sentimental Journey is a clear way-station on the way to MacKenzie's mincing, sobbing Man of Feeling.  Unlike MacKenzie, Sterne is a comic genius, and his book is filled with episodes of satire and wit that are sorely missing in Man of Feeling.  There is also an element of bawdiness in A Sentimental Journey that is so clearly an element of Sterne's Rabelaisian style- something lacking in MacKenzie, let alone the oft humorless novels of sentiment that were published after the turn of the century.  Blame the Victorians, or don't, it matters little.
      However it's clear to me that the "Sentimental Man" was a cultural trend with all the complexity and force of later trends like Rock and roll, and it's interesting because it was one of the FIRST such modern trends whose influence was reflected in a contemporary art form that was ITSELF just rounding into form (the novel.)  For that reason it's worth thinking about, because by learning about people then, we can learn about ourselves now.
       In conclusion I'd just like to note that like the last classic novel I read (Castle Rackrent), A Sentimental Journey clocks in at around one hundred pages- so be warned- not a great value in that regard.

Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe 900-1900

This is a Virus- it was the built up immunity to Viruses that Europeans obtained as a result of direct contact with 4000 years of civilization that gave their life forms a built in advantage over life forms in the global periphery: The Americas, Australia, the Oceanic territories. 

Ecological Imperialism:
 The Biological Expansion of Europe 900-1900
by Alfred W. Crosby
Cambridge University Press
p. 1986

   This book is what you call "a hit."  The edition I read was printed in 1990 and represented the fifth repress.  In fact,  Ecological Imperialism is such a hit that inspired a second, even more monstrous hit: Jared Diamond's popularization of Crosby's thesis, the execrable "GUNS, GERMS & STEEL: THE FATES OF HUMAN SOCIETIES."  I'm not positive of the direct connection because I shall not stoop to read Diamond's book, but Crosby's book could have been called "Weeds, Germs & Pigs: The Creation of Neo Europe"

     Crosby's broad topic is the manner in which a handful of European nations managed to replicate their societies in places like North America, Southern South America, Australia and New Zealand.  As an initial task he needs to make the widely recognized distinction between places where European colonization resulted in the mas or menos eradication of the native populations (those places above) vs. places where the native populations retained control (Middle East, South Asia, East Asia.)

    The main thrust of Crosby's intelligent thesis is to demonstrate the biological differences between the Old Eurasian and New American/Australian worlds in terms of biology.  Europeans were the direct heirs to four thousand years of pre-European civilization stretching back to Sumer, and with that came some distinct advantages when they eventually crossed the oceans to the New World.  Specifically, European conquerors brought the small pox virus with them (in addition to a host of other diseases).  Small Pox functioned like an advance army for the Europeans, clearing the way for them before they even arrived.  No where is this more clear then within the United States, where a little known civilization with many resemblances to the Meso-American Aztec area flourished and disappeared before Europeans even got serious about exploring the place.

  Crosby also makes good on a less obvious sub thesis having to do with why European weeds were dominant in their conquest in the New World (as much as their human counterparts) while their New World equivalents wholly failed to make their presence felt on the return trip to Europe.  Here, he notes that weeds require environmental destruction to thrive (deforestation, slash and burn agriculture, etc.) and so the type of disruption caused by European colonial efforts was precisely what was required to foment the spread of European weeds (like the dandelion, for example.)

  Throughout Ecological Imperialism, Crosby goes out of his way to downplay the importance of military technology- the fact is that in every single one of the major areas where the Europeans wiped out Indigenes, diseases led the way.  And in place where diseases did not work in favor of the Europeans, the colonial experience was either a draw (South Africa, where whites held onto power but lost the population race) or an outright failure (India, China, Japan) where Europeans failed to do anything other then put down glorified trading posts.

  As it should be clear from this summary, there was no moral or "natural" superiority of one civilization vs another, only what could be called the "luck of inheritance."  The European conquerors combined their cultural inheritance with a (native) desire for expansion.  In this way, they don't deserve credit for introducing small pox to indigenes around the world, but they certainly reaped the long term rewards.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Why Don't People Read Ivanhoe Anymore?


Book Review
Sir Walter Scott
p. 1820
Oxford World's Classics Edition
p. 2008
by Ian Duncan

   For the purposes of this discussion, please assume that Sir Walter Scott was the 19th century equivalent of a George Lucas or Elton John: A certified maker of hits of the literary persuasion, and by certified I mean that the cover of Ivanhoe says by "SIR Walter Scott."  That isn't some made up bullshit 20th century knighthood either, in those days, Artists had to EARN their respect.

  Walter Scott earned his popularity by blending literary trends that were already well established (Gothic) with trends that were on the rise (Historical, Regional novels.)  He punched home the message with a smooth/"modern" awareness of novelistic conventions and a trendy setting, specifically SCOTLAND.  To the extent that a modern American has an awareness of Scotland outside of ancestry, that awareness probably owes some debt to the output of Sir Walter Scott.  For example, Scott was a huge influence on American Popular Song in the early 19th century, i.e. the beginning of the tradition of American Popular Song.

  However, Ivanhoe was a critical point in Scott's career, and it was critical in the fact that it was the exact moment when sales momentum (good) reached it's height and started to peter out AND critical momentum (bad) jumped on several stylistic choices that Scott made in an attempt to retain popular appeal.  The date of original publication, 1819, comes at the very height of Scott's popularity, but also represents the point at which his status as a contemporary novelist begins to decline.  As a work of art, Ivanhoe elicited a complex reaction, but it's status as a classic hit lasted for centuries.  That is, until,

 "The most popular novel of one of the best loved of British authors throughout the nineteenth century, in the twentieth it has come to represent the decay of an unfashionable literary monument. Today its dwindling popularity can no longer outweigh the neglect or disdain of professional readers.  According to the standard modern criticism, Ivanhoe executes the fatal turn in Scott's career from a once influential historical realism (in the novels about the making of modern Scotland) to a tinsel and tushery medievalism."

  I think one of the phenomenons of social aesthetics is the way that this book started out by being a popular hit in it's original format, and over time became recycled into different media (films, other novels) while the original artistic product became forgotten.  Specifically, I'm talking about how Ivanhoe is THE touchstone for the revival of "Robin Hood" stories.  All subsequent Robin Hood revivals derive from Ivanhoe.

   And although Ian Duncan doesn't really address it directly, the fact that Ivanhoe has a "Jewish" plot line that contains some cringingily awful stereotypes puts it squarely in the corner of questionable tasteful ethnic portrayals in the 19th century novel.  Certainly if you are going to be looking at assigning Ivanhoe or say, Rob Roy, you would pick Rob Roy because of the Scottish setting.

  Regardless of current popularity, the fact that a mere sub plot of Ivanhoe (Robin Hood) has become one of the most well re-told tales of the United Kingdom is a hardy testament to the enduring quality of this novel.  In his critical introduction, Duncan slyly alludes to Ivanhoe finding kinship with the hyper aware literary post modernism of Umberto Eco and I'd have to say that he wins the point in my book.  I did appreciate the fact that Scott just fucking plunges into the middle ages like a 19th century Hunter S. Thompson.  He is not going to get bogged down by niggling details, my friend.  He will create a heroine who is referred to as "the Jewess" and is quite literally saved from being burned at the stake for witch craft by a "Black Knight" who happens to be Richard the Lion Hearted, King of England (the Robin Hood story.)

       That actually happens in this book, and god bless us, we could use a little bit more heroism in the contemporary novel.  Part of the myth making function of "HITS" in whatever genre is that they create memorable art in the mind of the reader/listener/viewer.  If you create an artistic product that is unmemorable then you have failed, my friend.

    I'm not justifying Ivanhoe as some kind of "ripping yarn," I'm saying that the baroque accumulation of detail around the central plot is highly interesting.  Ivanhoe is not...boring, in the sense that you would expect a 500 page book from the 19th century to be.  It also incorporates the flavor of gothic without really being gothic in the sense of a (relative) absence of the supernatural.  Scott proves himself to be a rationalist in the pages of Ivanhoe, after all, the main heroine is a Jewish woman, a bold move indeed for the UK in the early 19th century.

  The ability to weave styles together is an important element of success in the artistic world of mass culture.  An artist needs to master multiple styles/idioms in order to appeal to a broad swath of the general audience.  An artist also needs to be aware of what styles appeal or WOULD APPEAL to the general audience.  The career of Walter Scott is an interesting place to review this phenomenon, as well as comparing similar concerns in the work of novelists like Charles Dickens and Jane Austen.

  Oh wait, there is a book on that: Modern Romance and Transformations of the Novel: The Gothic, Scott, Dickens (1992) written by the same guy who wrote the introduction to this book!  Coincidence?

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