When Tristram Shandy’s mother chooses an especially unpropitious moment to ask her husband if he’s remembered to wind the clock, her interruption throws Tristram’s conception off course. Although Laurence Sterne’s novel does not play a leading role in Darryl Domingo’s new book, Tristram Shandy’s opening scene embodies (quite literally) the question that Domingo takes up in The Rhetoric of Diversion: what is the relationship, in the eighteenth century, between the pursuit of pleasure and techniques of interruption and intrusion? The word ‘diversion’, with its double meaning of ‘entertainment’ and ‘turning aside’, is key to Domingo’s answer to this question: a cultural climate in which novelty was integral to pleasure required that one constantly change course to please one’s audience. The very features that impede narrative coherence, like digressiveness, cater to a different sort of pleasure—one that responds to consistent stimulation rather than overall aesthetic unity. This view of pleasure is not one that emerges from literature, but rather from the burgeoning English leisure industry, which explains why the linchpin of Domingo’s argument is not Tristram Shandy, but rather James Ralph’s The Touch-Stone (1728), a self-described survey of the ‘Reigning Diversions of the Town’. As Domingo is aware, the history of eighteenth-century leisure is a well-trodden path; The Rhetoric of Diversion’s own novelty lies in bringing together the ‘history of English leisure and the development of self-conscious literature’ (p. 8). Domingo aims to show that the latter, which we consider highbrow and cerebral, was indebted to the attention-grabbing techniques of eighteenth-century popular entertainments. Domingo aims to provide an account of eighteenth-century diversion that is sensitive to the particularity of cultural and literary forms and the distinct sorts of pleasure they encouraged. As such, he allies himself with ‘historical formalism’, distancing his study from both new historicist methodologies that reduce leisure to a site of ideological conflict and poststructuralist accounts of textual pleasure that are transhistorical in approach (p. 13). The long first chapter lays the groundwork for the book by explaining how commercial leisure ‘came to influence the content and form of commercial literature’ (p. 30). As this sentence suggests, Domingo asserts a causal relationship between the leisure industry and commercial literature, although sometimes he frames them more as parallel commercial spheres in which entertainers and authors shared motivations and, as a result, employed similar techniques. Subsequent chapters emphasize the reciprocal relationship between these two spheres of entertainment. Chapter 2 focuses on the surprising interplay between poetry and pantomime, whereby poets and critics invoke Harlequin as a pejorative figure for linguistic excess, and defenders of pantomime view Harlequin’s antics as embodying a kind of universal language. This chapter deftly reveals the shared aesthetic investments of unlikely allies such as Alexander Pope and John Weaver, the latter a staunch defender of pantomime who, in several fascinating treatises, develops a mimetic theory of dance. Likewise, Chapter 3 ingeniously compares the popular appeal of ‘monster’ exhibitions to the appeal of printed ellipses and other paratextual devices in literary texts, showing how such textual anomalies mimic the deficiency and excess attributed to monstrous bodies. The fourth and final chapter shifts its focus to the novel, examining how Fielding’s Tom Jones represents and enacts diversion, combining puppet shows, masquerades, and theatre with the asides of Fielding’s famously intrusive narrator. One of Domingo’s central and most compelling points is that disruptive print techniques, even as they interrupt mimesis, mimic cultural diversions (p. 24). Domingo’s study enriches our understanding of mimesis in the period, both expanding our view of which literary techniques operate mimetically (so rhetorical devices like ‘catachresis’ imitate Harlequin’s exaggerated antics) and of the cultural forms (such as dance) we might consider mimetic. Domingo’s book approaches shakier ground when it considers consumers’ reactions to diversions. Some of the weaker moments in the book occur when Domingo overstates what we can reasonably be said to know about the kinds of responses that these shows and texts elicited. Even as Domingo acknowledges the difficulty in knowing how typical audiences responded to monster exhibitions, he leans towards endorsing satirical accounts of such audiences, asserting that engrossed spectators ‘did not always think acutely about the broader implications of their fascination’ (p. 127). Domingo calls this attitude ‘blank wonder’, and it sets up the comparison that follows with texts in which authors substitute blanks for certain words, a technique, he claims, encourages ‘mindless speculation’ (p. 172). While Domingo acknowledges that perhaps ‘the curious’ might be induced to fill such gaps, he seems to assume the default attitude is simply to ‘gawk’. At moments like this, Domingo’s examples strain under the pressure of bearing the burden of his claim that recent scholarship on the period’s leisure culture has been overly ‘intellectual’, with the effect of overwhelming ‘the pleasure of the original activities’ (p. 9). In restoring the balance, he seems to assume that readers are ‘either’ ‘credulous’ ‘or’ ‘curious’, and that pleasure is ‘either’ ‘voluptuous’ ‘or’ intellectual (p. 79). But in the eighteenth century, it is surely sometimes both, as Sterne’s dirty joke about Lockean associationism with which I began illustrates. Domingo would argue, however, that Sterne is a special case, and that the tendency of scholars to ‘anachronistically read the digressiveness of earlier writers’ through Sterne’s writing produces just this type of ‘intellectualiz[ing]’ of earlier digressive literature and culture (p. 220). Domingo’s study culminates with a reading of Tom Jones because it represents the last hurrah of this earlier mode of digression in which writers ‘co-opt the energy of extra-textual diversion for their readers’ pleasure and their own profit’ (p. 21), whereas Tristram Shandy inaugurates an epistemic shift in which digression signifies the movements of a mind self-consciously removed from the commercial sphere (p. 21). Domingo’s bet in closing the book with a reading of Tom Jones is that Fielding’s self-conscious narration will feel different in the wake of our exposure to London’s popular diversions—and it does. Domingo has so effectively conveyed the characteristic tone and techniques of the earlier digressive literature that we can readily appreciate how Fielding’s narrator echoes the inflections of Ralph’s Touch-Stone. Yet even as this context undoubtedly enriches our appreciation of the novel, it does not capture the full range of Fielding’s digressive effects. In support of his thesis that Fielding’s digressions simulate commercial amusements, Domingo cites, for example, the famous passage in which Fielding’s narrator compares Sophia to a host of beauties from ‘the Statue of the Venus de Medicis’ to the ‘Toasts of the Kit-Kat’, arguing that the narrator’s comparisons divert ‘readers from the pathos’ of Tom and Sophia’s romance. But, as readers of Tom Jones may recall, the narrator’s comparison culminates with the poignant reflection that ‘most of all she [Sophia] resembled one whose image never can depart from my breast, and whom, if thou dost remember, thou hast then, my friend, an adequate idea of Sophia’. This part of the comparison resists Domingo’s reading; it invokes an intensely private image that eludes commerce’s reach. It ‘produces’ pathos, exemplifying the sort of digression Domingo sees Sterne as pioneering, in which ‘introspective writers communicate their thoughts and emotions to sympathetic readers’ (p. 218). This latter mode of digression is not, however, Domingo’s primary concern; his study succeeds in recovering an alternative tradition of diversion that gives pride of place to James Ralph, John Dunton, and John Weaver, rather than Sterne, Diderot, and Schlegel. Domingo’s work is an important corrective to the scholarly tendency to reflexively privilege epistemological playfulness as the eighteenth century’s default mode. While he sometimes overcorrects, The Rhetoric of Diversion offers a fascinating window into the relentlessly pleasure-driven forms of commercialized leisure with which eighteenth-century literature was deeply imbricated. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press 2017; all rights reserved
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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