The Pleasure of the Eighteenth-Century Texts: The Conflation of Literary and Critical Discourse in the Early Novelistic Tradition

By Maciulewicz, Joanna | Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies, July 2009 | Go to article overview

The Pleasure of the Eighteenth-Century Texts: The Conflation of Literary and Critical Discourse in the Early Novelistic Tradition


Maciulewicz, Joanna, Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies


ABSTRACT

One of the prominent characteristics of contemporary literature is its assimilation to critical discourse. The self-reflexivity in literature, which transforms literary texts into acts of criticism, is paralleled by theory's tendency to encroach on the literary domain. One of the findings of the poststructuralist literary theory is that descriptions of reading experience elude scientific language and are more aptly conveyed by metaphors. (A good example is Roland Barthes' The pleasure of the text.) The conflation of literary and critical discourse is not, however, peculiar to postmodernity only. The same phenomenon is observable in the eighteenth-century writings. It turns out that the self-reflexivity evident at the times of the proclaimed "death of the novel" is manifest also in the times of its birth. The aim of my paper is to analyse the metafictional reflection on readerly pleasure incorporated in early novelistic texts.

The publication of Roland Barthes' The pleasure of the text (1975) is one of the crucial points in the history of criticism since it demonstrates that the description of the process of reading eludes all scientific descriptions. Barthes rediscovers the truth that had been emphasised by traditional critics before him but has been understated by the twentieth-century critics, perhaps as too obvious to be talked about. The quintessential quality of literature, as well as its most effective weapon, is its capability of providing pleasure, and pleasure does not lend itself to precise explanations. "It is not enough for poetry to be beautiful", says Horace in Ars Poetica, "it must also be pleasing and lead the hearer's mind wherever it will" (1989:100). Sidney repeats the opinion in his Apology of poetry. "Now therein of all sciences ... is our poet the monarch.... he comes to you with words set in delightful proportion ... with a tale which holdeth children from play and old men from chimney comers" (Sidney 2001: 340-341). Barthes' publication demonstrates that in order to talk about what "holdeth children from play and old men from chimney comers" the literal, tangible language of linguistics, the language of signifiers and signifieds, employed by the structuralists with a view to provide the scientific analysis of literary discourse, will not do. He renounces it in favour of the figurative and tantalising language used by literature itself. "The text you write must prove to me that it desires me. This proof exists, it is writing. Writing is: the science of the various blisses of language, its Kama Sutra (this science has only one treatise: writing itself)" (Barthes 1975: 6). The aim of texts, Barthes argues, is "the seduction of their readers" and from this point of view they can be categorised as "flirtatious" or "frigid".

It would seem that eighteenth-century fiction did not associate its own values with pleasure, that they were frigid rather than flirtatious, if we were to use Barthes' terminology. After all, it was produced in the Puritan times and not in the permissive conteporaneity. The eighteenth-century literati apparently subscribed to Horace's opinion that literature should in equal degree instruct and delight but in fact, as Paul Hunter argues, "English writers regularly saw their public function in more utilitarian terms than a strict reading of Roman literary theory would support, and the Horatian ideal usually meant an attempt to make instruction palatable, as delightful as possible within the understood--but seldom directly stated--assumption that instruction was the only appropriate end" (1990: 240). Puritan culture, lasting according to Hunter, from the Civil War to mid-eighteenth century, could not create a conducive climate for the flourishing of pleasure. (Jeanette Winterson's character from Sexing the cherry describes Puritans as walking with "their starched linen to their noses for fear they might smell pleasure and be infected by it" (Winterson 1990: 26-27).

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