Dragos Ivana, 2014. Embattled Reason, Principled Sentiment and Political Radicalism: Quixotism in English Novels, 1742-1801.
A Mind at once so enlighten'd, and so ridiculous ': Eighteenth-Century Quixotes
The topic of Dragoc Ivana's book is generous, exciting and thought-provoking: the appropriation of the figure of Don Quixote in eighteenth-century British novels. In seven Chapters and a Coda devoted to texts that invented a variety of Quixotes for the delight and instruction of English readers in the second half of the eighteenth-century, Ivana shows us that what may look like a strictly literary topic lies in fact at the intersection of literary with moral-philosophical, religious, economic and political thought. The interesting thing that happens when such a complex perspective is adopted is that it allows us to understand anew analytical concepts like 'genre', which we tend to treat as confined to literary history. Indeed, the interplay between the cross disciplinary approach and the analysis of the vagaries of such generic labels as 'romance' and 'history' during the chosen period is one of the noteworthy aspects of this book. But behind all this theoretically stimulating apparatus there lies the conundrum of the Don's figure, one that is possibly the trans-historical core of his so many historical incarnations: in the words of a character in Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote (1752), it is the conundrum of 'a Mind at once so enlighten'd, and so ridiculous' (qt. p. 209), one that inhabits the liminal realm between what is wise and what is unreasonable, between the morally refreshing and the outrageous.
This double liminality of the Quixote figure, at once epistemological and moral, is the master theme of the book. Ivana pursues it through his texts with the aid of two critical authors who are his constant theoretical guides: Michael McKeon, who in The Origins of the English Novel 1600-1740 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002) advanced the idea of the interplay between 'questions of truth' and 'questions of virtue' in the rise of the novel, and Wendy Motooka, whose Quixotism, Sentimentalism and Political Economy in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Routledge, 1998) argued for the relativizing effect of Quixotic 'unreason' in the context of eighteenth-century moral and political thought. Armed with this perspective, the author proceeds to anatomize the English Quixotes by first setting the scene (in Chapters 1 to 3) with two texts by a canonical author: Henry Fielding's comic play Don Quixote in England (1734) and his 'comic romance' Joseph Andrews (1742). These are followed by two chapters on relatively well-known, although hardly canonical, authors: Sarah Fielding with her Adventures of David Simple (1744) and its sequel, Volume the Last (1753); and Henry Mackenzie with The Man of Feeling (1771). It is in these chapters, which comprise half of the book, that the main themes of the study are established and developed in detail: the scandal of reason and morality figured by the Quixotic characters, put forth by these texts as exemplars both of human folly and of the possibility of human renovation; their indebtedness to the eighteenth-century culture of sensibility, understood to rest both on an empiricist epistemology and on the theory of moral sense; relating to the latter, their promotion of the values of benevolence, which are read here not only in a moral, but also in an economic-political sense; and encompassing all of this, the grounding of their portrayal in the new ethical-aesthetic-political endorsement of (Whiggish) amiable laughter, which gradually superseded the older (Tory) cultivation of biting satire in the first decades of the eighteenth-century.
The second half of the book brings in much less known texts, by marginal authors, but whose contribution to both the shapes of Quixotism and the generic and political shapes of the novel is defended by the author. Chapters 6 and 7 discuss Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote (1752) and Richard Graves' The Spiritual Quixote (1773), while the Coda closes the book with Charles Lucas' The Infernal Quixote (1801). These are more evidently political Quixotes, in both the broad and the narrow sense of the term: the first two filter Quixotism through what we today call the politics of genre and of religious identity, respectively, while the third is a participant in squarely political events. These chapters are thus concerned with explaining the place of these Quixotes within ideological struggles, between gendered attitudes, between Methodism and the established Church of England, between Jacobin radicalism and British conservatism.
One might think that this group of texts is distinguished from the former precisely on account of its political-ideological thrust, yet it becomes clear that the analysis adopts an ideological tone early on. Indeed, the main thrust of the argument, as Ivana announces in the Introduction, is that the English Quixotes are 'marked out as political tools or reformers engaged in both satirizing and renovating an ethically corrupt society' (14). The author is thus engaged in unraveling the 'Quixotic ideology' (15), which should be understood as 'an alternative ideology' (243), opposing, criticizing and aiming to renew established cultural norms. While the first half of the book seeks to go back to eighteenth-century intellectual sources so it can explain empiricist epistemology and such moral and economic concepts as 'sensibility', 'sympathy', 'benevolence', 'charity' or 'interest' (via Locke, Shaftesbury, Hume, Smith and Mandeville), this potentially intellectual-historical endeavour is in fact subsumed under an ideological, cultural-studies inflected agenda. Which is, of course, fine, but then Ivana's claim that his study 'has been substantiated by a history-of-ideas approach' (267) is less convincing.
The Quixotes' reformist ambitions come in a variety of shapes. It is only in the two Fieldings' and in Lennox's novels that we find successful Quixotes who, although 'cured' of their madness, are ultimately recognized as carriers of heart- and mind-lifting values. The others fare less well: Mackenzie's is an exemplar of the failures of excessive sentiment, and is thus more of a Quixote rate; Graves' is prey to religious 'enthusiasm' (not a word of praise in the eighteenth century) and is himself the butt of (admittedly ambivalent) criticism; and Lucas' is simply a political villain. Quixotic 'ideology' seems thus uneasily poised between positively and negatively portrayed reformism, which is in itself a political issue that would have warranted some more pointed discussion.
Overall, the author's analysis gives us a good sense of the interplay of madness and alternative/reformist reason in the novelistic depiction of the Quixote characters. However, while the reformism is well grounded in the core stance of the book, this reviewer was left wondering how best to understand their madness. To see it in a relativist key (via Motooka), as the author generally does, is perhaps less than helpful, since the reformism appears thus rather implausible. Ivana gestures towards two other possibilities: a Foucauldian perspective (in Chapter 6) and one rooted in an intellectual-historical inquiry into the religious-philosophical-medical phenomenon of early modern 'enthusiasm' (in Chapter 7). While the book does not solve the problem, it certainly opens up the question and may well inspire further research.
University of Bucharest, Romania
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|Publication:||European English Messenger|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2015|
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