Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

"Pranks, Unfit for Naming": Pope, Curll, and the "Satirical Grotesque"

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

"Pranks, Unfit for Naming": Pope, Curll, and the "Satirical Grotesque"

Article excerpt

1

On March 28, 1716, Alexander Pope surreptitiously administered an emetic solution to the bookseller, Edmund Curll, in return for his unauthorized and (Pope claimed) potentially damaging publication of a text titled Court Poems. Drawing upon a gentlemanly model of retribution against rogues, but intimating the clemency with which he himself exercised this right to revenge, Pope wrote to John Caryll that his action had been designed to "save a fellow a beating by giving him a vomit."1 The encounter with Curll was described by Pope in a short prose pamphlet, published anonymously within a few days of the poisoning, titled A Full and True Account of a Horrid and Barbarous Revenge by Poison, On the Body of Mr. Edmund Curll, Bookseller; With a faithful Copy of his Last Will and Testament. In the pamphlet, Pope imagines the effects of the emetic's working upon Curll's body; causes the fictionalized Curll to dictate a "verbal Will," which constitutes an ironic confession to his dishonest and disreputable publishing practices; and positions Curll's cowering and pecuniary responses to his "great bodily Pain" as signs of his lack of masculine fortitude and spiritual integrity.

A Full and True Account forms the first in a series of three pamphlet satires which, taken together, represent a concerted, discursive attack upon Curll.2 Using debased images of the body as the vehicle for their defamations, these pamphlets depict the bookseller in a variety of indecorous attitudes: vomiting; defecating in company; and undergoing a monstrous, exaggerated circumcision. In this essay, I want to apply Bakhtinian notions of the body and discourse to the satiric methods of the pamphlets and, more generally, to the methods of textual attacks upon individuals in the early decades of the eighteenth century. Within this culture of ad hominem abuse and counter-abuse, I shall argue, writers such as Pope, Swift, Samuel Wesley, and Jonathan Smedley employed what Bakhtin termed the "satirical grotesque"-a localized weapon of discursive estrangement and degradation. While Bakhtin himself may have rejected this rendition of the grotesque as a narrow, monological construction (as opposed to the liberatory energy of the Rabelaisian grotesque), the term is valuable for its drawing together of the kinds of bodies figured in these satires with the function, or ideological trajectory, of such figurations. Within the personal satires under discussion here, I shall argue, the imagery of the grotesque body and of what Bakhtin termed the "material bodily lower stratum" is deployed directly for the purposes of discursive punishment.3

In this attempt to rethink the early-century culture of antagonistic satire, I shall also draw upon a conception of linguistic enactment derived from "speech act theory," which has been developed in recent work by Judith Butler and others.4 Where discussions informed by speech act theory tend to focus on the efficacy of particular words, phrases, or actions, however, I want to propose a model of performativity which is more closely tied to the notion of literature as material, social practice outlined in the work of Raymond Williams.5 Reconfigured into a broader model of textual performativity, Williams's cultural materialism is well adapted to explain the functions that writers such as Pope envisaged their corpor(e)al satires fulfilling during this period. In a detailed reading of the first two pamphlet satires upon Curll, for example, Eric Chandler has contended that Pope's narration of the emetic administration and its effects was designed "to make sure that his trick was publicly immortalized and that it was doubled."6 As I shall argue, however, the sequential and relatively untroubled movement implied by Chandler's account of the textual "doubling" of Pope's actions is complicated in the pamphlets, as Pope proceeds to describe excesses and mutilations of the Curllean body which bear no direct signifying relationship to pre- or extra-textual events and abuses. …

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