- The Shape of Things to Come
Lately, stuff has been clamoring for our attention—at least books and articles about it have. Both works under consideration here, engaging first books by young critics of manifest promise, attend to some of the things that preoccupied people in eighteenth-century Britain: residues of various kinds in Sophie Gee’s Making Waste, and assorted “novel objects” in Julie Park’s The Self and It. Both books bear witness to the waxing importance of such things in current literary scholarship. And both claim that the modern world was shaped in unmistakable ways by eighteenth-century stuff.
In Making Waste, Gee professes interest in three aspects of waste: actual physical detritus, period ideas about waste matter, and the residue that is “the fallout of representation itself, leftovers created by the fact that objects in literary texts have symbolic meaning, meaning differentiated from the natural object itself ” (4). “Waste,” Gee concludes, “marks the spot where literary meaning has been made” (143). The individual chapters of Gee’s book offer illuminating readings of well-known works from the Restoration and early [End Page 93] eighteenth century, including Dryden’s Annus Mirabilis, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Pope’s Dunciad, a range of Swift’s poetry and prose, and Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year. Though the book’s introduction invokes Julia Kristeva, Mary Douglas, Aurel Kolnai, and other “theorists of abjection” (3) to explain the ambivalence and anxiety provoked by waste matter, and though Gee touches on both the material dimensions of waste (the charred remains of London after the Great Fire) and the philosophical and theological dimensions of waste (invoking debates about waste land and about the resurrection of the body), she treats waste primarily as a pressing literary theme, as “one of the most resonant tropes for eighteenth-century English literature” (42), rather than as either a physical phenomenon or a subject of theoretical speculation. The great coup of Making Waste is Gee’s recognition of the ubiquity and centrality of this trope, together with the elegance and subtlety of her analyses of a range of literary texts that explore waste, residue, and excess as at once a problem and an opportunity for period writers. Gee’s book demonstrates that there is a future in eighteenth-century waste studies.
Nonetheless, some of the larger ambitions of the book remain unfulfilled. Its claim that a clear path may be traced from the Great Fire—and Dryden’s tour de force response to that event—to the literary wastelands of modernity is provocative but unsubstantiated, for Gee does not survey literary waste management after midcentury or engage with a broader European tradition of meaningful rubbish, as in Francesco Orlando’s magisterial Obsolete Objects in the Literary Imagination: Ruins, Relics, Rarities, Rubbish, Uninhabited Places, and Hidden Treasures (1993). Indeed, even more local versions of the book’s genealogy of waste are problematic. For instance, a chapter discussing the influence of Milton’s Paradise Lost on the London depicted in Pope’s Dunciad, alert to poetic recycling and philosophical borrowing alike, offers many of the rewards evident elsewhere in Making Waste. However, when Gee notes, “The line ‘Here one poor word an hundred clenches makes,’ the ‘embrace’ between tragedy and comedy, the procreation of farce and epic, at once pay homage to, and burlesque, the active, self-moving substance of Paradise Lost” (74), her fresh account of the influence of Milton’s materialism on Pope’s poem comes at the expense of a less schematic version of literary history, one that hears between Milton’s depiction of animate substance and Pope’s “one poor word” the intermediary echo (subterranean wind?) of Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe. Dryden’s allusion to Shadwell’s capacity to “torture one poor word ten thousand ways” serves as a more proximate source for Pope’s “one poor word,” and his “realms of Nonsense,” and “relics of the bum” build a bridge of...