- The Beautiful, Novel, and Strange: Aesthetics and Heterodoxy, and: Imagining Monsters: Miscreations of the Self in Eighteenth-Century England, and: Uneasy Sensations: Smollett and the Body, and: Witnessing Insanity: Madness and Mad Doctors in the English Court
Several years ago Michael McKeon put forward in these pages a notion of interdisciplinary studies that sought to establish a clear awareness of the dialectical nature of disciplinary formation. Interdisciplinarity was not automatically the perquisite of cultural studies, but instead an ongoing project of recovering from the faded sweep of eighteenth-century intellectual history certain moments, glimpsed in different ways, when the interdisciplinary aspect of disciplinary division became visible (“The Origins of Interdisciplinary Studies,” ECS 28 : 17–28). Something of the same ambition may be found in each of the books under review here, interdisciplinary in different ways, which offer a daring extension of the visual field, a broad cultural context for the Scriblerian project, an acute material reading of the Smollett oeuvre, and a quantitative history of the insanity defense in the British courtroom toward the end of the long eighteenth century.
Ronald Paulson’s The Beautiful, Novel, and Strange offers an innovative anatomy of cultural aesthetics in England from around 1712 until the picturesque decade of the 1790s. The keyword from the title is the middle one. Paulson throughout treats the emerging novel as a shifting category of mixed aesthetic experience, and the term Novel (always capitalized to distinguish it from the limited sense of prose fiction) comes to name the intersection of empiricist aesthetic, visual poetics, and the desire to create ever newer fictional narratives. The central figure is the William Hogarth we have come to know from Paulson’s biography (rev. ed. 1991–93), appearing now in much more skeptical guise than before. As part of a continuing effort to create a national countertradition in the visual arts, Paulson argues, Hogarth modified the Whig aesthetic of discovery in Addison’s Spectator papers on the pleasures of the imagination and made it his own. The resulting program influenced not only his fellow artists Zoffany, Rowlandson, and Gainsborough, but also Fielding, Goldsmith, and Sterne (whose Tristram Shandy Hogarth would of course illustrate). A third term mediating between opposed binaries, the aesthetic Novel bridges [End Page 329] the historical gap between the diminished feminine Beautiful of Addison and Shaftesbury and the masculine Sublime of Burke, and so may be aligned with the late-century landscape theory of Gilpin and Price. Earlier an aesthetic of novelty had allowed the family portrait of the conversation piece to take precedence over the imported academic tradition of history painting, and for Hogarth the conversation piece would lead boldly to the modern moral subjects and eventually to the Analysis of Beauty (1753). Paulson reads Hogarth’s project persuasively as at once an aesthetic of pursuit enlivened by contrast and variety and again as a skeptical deist hermeneutic of profound visual playfulness. Both aspects are then traced into the emerging novel. Interdisciplinary by definition, The Beautiful, Novel, and Strange posits a distanced and nuanced four-term analogy across the arts where abstract qualities in the visual field are likened to similar qualities in literature (Wendy Steiner, The Colors of Rhetoric: Problems in the Relation between Modern Literature and Painting [Chicago, 1982], pp. 1–6). A late chapter takes the form of a reception study to show how from its beginning the interpretation of Hogarth was in one period commentator or another novelized—filtered either through the theatricality of Fielding, the morality of Richardson, or the physical particularity of Sterne.
Ernest Gilman and others have shown that the academic theory of painting, with its hieratic aura of mystery and its hierarchical ranking of genre, was never very...