Sunday, August 27, 2006

Novels and Gin: Some Versions of 18th Century Escapism

Jen's discussion of the novel and Sharon's fascinating online materials from the Old Bailey made me think about "escapism" as a cultural category (in the case of prisoners, a literal category). It opens up an interesting vista on the uses and abuses of pleasure in our period, and how pleasure might relate to moral or social norms.

First off, from John Richetti's fine resource, the Cambridge Guide to the Eighteenth Century Novel, we find this interesting description of the novel's emergence from earlier forms of narrative, a process which he aligns with the European Enlightenment:

"[In contrast with the novel,] traditional narrative forms such as romance and allegory have much less strict sense of fact and fiction, and indeed they depend upon a view of the world in which notions of probability and single and stable meaning do not necessarily obtain. For such traditional forms of storytelling, readers agree implicitly that the everyday world of common fact is insufficient, and they take pleasure precisely in the distance between that world and separate narrative realms featuring a fullness of meaning and significance such as quotidian existence radically lacks . . . . The history of the novel in Britain . . . is precisely the story of the emergence of a quite distinct fictional narrative, which defines itself, sometimes aggressively and polemically, by a process of rejection, modification, and transformation of previous forms or practices of storytelling, that are seen as insufficiently attentive to a narrow view of what constitutes truth and reality." (2; my emphasis)

A little further on, Richetti describes Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment readers and writers as having a "hunger for actuality," which seems to be the particular mode of pleasure sought in the fictional forms that strove to distinguish the "actual and the ideal" (3). Richetti, however, is too much the hegelian (consciously or unconsciously) not to acknowledge the varied historical responses to this "narrow view of reality," in the form of "popular subtypes" "such as the amatory novella, the sentimental, and the Gothic novel," which he calls a "clear and perennial protest against that rationalistic preference for the actual and historical, with its exclusion from narrative of the improbable, the marvelous or the melodramatic."

So here we have the novel offering both the rigor of the actual and an escape from the prison cage of rationality, figured in Richetti, anyway, as the distinction between the "quite distinct fictional narrative" exhibiting novelistic realism, and the "popular subtypes" that protest against it.

On the other hand,

When I think about the deeper stakes of escapism and fantasy in the 18c, I have to add one of my favorite passages in Mandeville, his brilliant rhetorical defense of gin and gin-drinking from the Fable of the Bees, from Remark (G.):

Nothing is more destructive, either in regard to the Health or the Vigilance and Industry of the Poor than the infamous Liquor, the name of which, deriv’d from Junipera in Dutch, is now by frequent use and the Laconick Spirit of the Nation, from a Word of middling Length shrunk into a Monosyllable, Intoxicating Gin, that charms the unactive, the desperate and crazy of either Sex, and makes the starving Sot behold his Rags and Nakedness with stupid Indolence, or banter both in senseless Laughter, and more insipid Jests: It is a fiery Lake that sets the Brain in Flame, burns up the Entrails, and scorches every Part within; and at the same time a Lethe of Oblivion, in which the Wretch immers’d drowns his most pinching Cares, and with his Reason all anxious Reflexion on Brats that cry for Food, hard Winters Frosts, and horrid empty Home.


This passage, for my money anway, is one of the foundational moments in the emerging self-consciousness of "commercial society," in which Mandeville discusses the absolute necessity of oblivion for the functioning of people and things, and what this does to our inherited moral norms and traditions (as argued, for example, by Hundert).

So do novels belong in the same category as gin?