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Lawful Writing: Common Law, Statute and the Properties of Literature

From: New Literary History
Volume 27, Number 4, Autumn 1996
pp. 761-783 | 10.1353/nlh.1996.0047

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New Literary History 27.4 (1996) 761-783

"[T]he King . . . gathered his council to wit what they would advise him, how he might bring the Fox to the law."

Caxton, Reynart the Fox (1481), ch. 10.

John Locke struck a typically modern note in 1690 when he opened Some Thoughts Concerning Education with the assertion that "Of all the men we meet with, nine tenths are what they are, good and evil, useful or not, by their education." Crucial to this education was learning to read. As with his theory of government, consent was essential: since "[w]e naturally . . . even from our Cradles, love Liberty," the tutor must seduce, not force, the child into reading by exploiting his fondness for "Play and Recreation." What, however, to read? Locke's promotion of the utility of the pleasures of the imagination was far from universal. Texts must be carefully selected: "entertainment" certainly, but not "such as should fill his Head with perfectly useless trumpery, or lay the principles of Vice and Folly," or terrorize him into "subjection." Acutely aware as he was of the dangerous popular narratives lurking in the servants' quarters, Locke could, however, only think of two suitable texts, Aesop's Fables, and Reynart the Fox--a paltry canon, to be greatly augmented in due course by an entire industry of children's literature designed to supply the deficiency.

Reynart the Fox (1481) was one of the first books printed by Caxton, in his own translation, and its reappearance here, on the eve of the explosion in the publishing industry that characterized the eighteenth century, offered as an example of the importance of imaginative reading in the formation of the modern citizen, signals the relationship between the commercial press and the development of our modern category of "literature." But that is not its only interest. The book was written, the preface tells us, with the didactic purpose of helping the reader "understand and feel the . . . subtle deceits that daily ben used in the world." But in the very same breath, it betrays a telling anxiety, so typical too of early eighteenth-century narrative, that the reader may enjoy these "deceits" the wrong way: "not to the intent that men should use them, but that every man should eschew and keep him from the subtle false shrews, that they be not deceived." The central paradox, and perhaps the justification, is this: the proverbially cunning, amoral trickster Reynart is a highly effective teller of stories; it is by getting others to believe his tales that he survives, exploiting, satirizing, or punishing the powerful and the helpless, and entertaining and scandalizing the reader. Reynart the Fox is, in short, a compelling tale that tells us not to trust compelling storytellers. Thus, while the "entertainment," in Locke's words, "draws us on," that is not what "reading" really means: the reader "must oft and many times read in this book, and earnestly and diligently mark well that he readeth it," the preface continues, "for a man shall not with once over reading find the right understanding." In the same way as the story of Reynart consists in the attempts of the lion King to "bring the Fox to the law" (RF 64), so too a Lockean education grounded in the pleasures of the literary imagination is conducted within the control of the law of correct reading. In this way, as Ian Michael has shown, as literature made its way into "English schools" during the eighteenth century, teaching literary texts became increasingly associated with their "explanation."

After all, an education through reading is also an education in reading. Is literary theory too an attempt to "bring the Fox to the law," to bring under intellectual control the Reynart-like energies of language and the instability of interpretation they provoke, bounding them within limits of intelligibility in order to disarm and denounce misleading and destructive readings? Steven Mailloux dramatizes his attempts at persuading a literature student who insists on supporting a patently ideological misunderstanding of a law by a government military spokesman as follows: "Somewhat amused, I spent the next ten minutes trying, with decreasing amusement, to show this student that the Reagan administration's...


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