Breaking and Remaking:

Ronald Paulson (1989)

(published in The Dalhousie Review, 1991)

Not counting his monumental Hogarth: His Art, Life and Times, of 1971, this is Ronald Paulson’s tenth book in the field of eighteenth century English cultural studies, and in one respect his oddest. “To describe the aims of this book,” he says, “is to explain its origins,” but he goes on only to describe its origins and leaves the reader, for whom this infelicity bodes ill, to work on “aims.” These seem to lie in furthering the claim that, by the eighteenth century, the English penchant for iconoclasm (Reformation, civil war, regicide, Glorious Revolution, imported monarchy and so on) had taken over as the motor of artistic practice. Hence the title “Breaking and Remaking,” which identifies a process in the arts that involved the demolition of established canons, the recovery of meanings that such canons repressed, and the re investment of the resulting “shards,” along with other “infra dig” materials, in new art. This schema, he claims, was so well established by 1703 that Swift could write of “modern rhymers” as blasting “The poetry of ages past,/Which after they have overthrown,/They from its ruins build their own.” Elaborated on, and woven elaborately through the book as these ideas are, however, the author early on equivocates about them: “This is not … a book with a close and continuing argument … ” but rather “an occasion for a series of essays on some major works of poetry and painting.” Such frankness is disarming, yet the way he argues “Breaking and Remaking” makes him sometimes seem to be developing an all-pervading, immanentist principle.

The book’s six chapters, amounting in the end to twenty rather separate essays (pace the disclaimers), examines six “aesthetics,” beginning with “The Aesthetics of Iconoclasm,” in the satire of Swift, whose blame-by-praise irony achieves the status of an ontology (and who even self-iconoclasts in “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift”), and in the satire of Pope and Hogarth. This is followed by “The Aesthetics of Georgic Renewal” and then “The Aesthetics of Mourning:” Gray’s Elegy represents all three: “the interface of Georgic renewal with iconoclasm and then of iconoclasm with mourning:” in the first stanza, what Gray does is “wipe out the lowing herd and the ploughman … to clear a page on which to write,” and what he goes on to do, “through displacement,” is to render Milton himself “dead, mute and inglorious,” along with other poetic precursors, in a poem that “bulges” with their now iconoclasted words—a claim that those less erudite than Paulson have to take on trust.

“The Aesthetics of Georgic Renewal,” is a chapter devoted almost entirely to Pope—a Roman Catholic and therefore a victim of iconoclasm, who copes with his popish predicament by adopting the model of the Virgilian ploughman-poet who turned even ordure to productive purpose. “The Aesthetics of Revolution/Restoration” involves a breaking and remaking sequence isomorphic with the shift from “iconoclasm” to “Georgic renewal.” It links the seventeenth century Caroline satirist Rochester (with his constipation) to Pope (with his crooked back) and to Byron (with his clubfoot), all three of whom respond to the stigmatized body politic by conflating it with their own bodily stigmata—while Wordsworth responds by conflating it with his amatory disillusionment among the French.

In the second half of the book we come to visual artists. “The Aesthetics of Modernity” is devoted to Hogarth—“elevating variety, liberty and subculture above unity and order,” troping the empty signifiers of classical sculpture in terms of an anti-heroic this-worldly “desire,” contending with Burke, inverting Hutcheson, and so on (can “post-modernity” be far behind?). “The Aesthetics of Mourning” gives the opportunity for inter-textual insights on Wright, linking the famous “Brooke Boothby” portrait not only to Rousseau’s St. Preux but also to Gray’s Elegy and to funerary sculpture, and thence to Roubiliac—a friend of Hogarth’s whose funerary sculptures in Westminster Abbey are themselves uncovered as Hogarthian.

Throughout it all, the author’s emphasis is on aesthetic practice, an emphasis which marginalizes the eighteenth century civic humanist aesthetics of Shaftesbury, Addison, Hutcheson and the rest. For they, the Whiggish theorists, ignored the specificity of poems or paintings and built spectator-oriented systems, concentrating either on affective states within the observer or on the problem of judgement and taste. As for larger, ideological forces, the part they seem to play is by default—for major artists “turn up meanings repressed by the various impositions of order in their time;” they “stand outside the political and all other orders and they are … major artists because they write or paint in this way.” Short shrift is therefore given in the final chapter, “The Aesthetics of Possession,” to historians who see artists as “trapped in a determinist net of ideology.” Commensurate with this, the author also makes a new proposal, viewing the artist “as an active party to the contest for possession of the representation” (for psychological “possession,” that is, as distinct from physical ownership).

This intriguing theory is developed by recourse to Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, which holds that the right to property derives from labour—and thereby invites a discourse of property in the arts where the spectators, connoisseurs, critics, owners and patrons, with their belief in the primacy of the Shaftesburian “idea” (over the maker’s individual hand), are pitted against the painters or poets with their Lockean awareness of the primacy of labour. For it is this primacy, Paulson argues, that, in different ways, informs Pope’s “georgic” concern over textual possession, Hogarth’s Engraver’s Act, Gainsborough’s handling, Stubbs’ treatment of animals and servants, Constable’s creation of landscapes from his very family property, or, say, Reynolds’ complex essay on “possession” in his 1771 Mrs. Abington as Miss Prue. One may cavil from time to time, but much of this is brilliant stuff (and congruent with the then emergent claim of artists to an elevated social status, in spite of its “hand” and “labour” terminology). The author’s analysis of the Reynolds portrait in the context of Congreve’s Love for Love, for instance, gives that artist, often seen as a confused and pompous theorist, a human face, and his work a wholly new poetic lustre. It remains to emphasize that there are many such passages, full of sparkling erudition, though they all pay homage to the canon. There is no iconoclasting of the canon here.