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  • The Rape of the Lock and the Economy of “Trivial Things”
  • Stewart Crehan (bio)

In this analysis of Pope’s The Rape of the Lock I shall effect a number of exchanges between poetry and economics, poetics and political economy. Such border-crossings will, I hope, not only demonstrate that the “imbrication of literary and monetary terminology” 1 occurs in Pope’s early work, but remind us that these exchanges occur in the very metaphors we use. Indeed, the metaphor of “use” which, as Derrida has shown, is invariably used in discussions of metaphor, is caught up in a notion of usure that is economic, though not, for Derrida, bound by history: “the paradigms of coin, of metal, silver and gold have imposed themselves with remarkable insistence.” 2 Thus Nietzsche writes of truths as worn-out metaphors which he likens to coins whose inscriptions have been effaced through overuse. Other examples come to mind: the “coining” of new words and phrases, writing as a hoard of gold (Palgrave’s Golden Treasury), and comparing the way poetry defamiliarizes language with accidentally dropping a coin (exchanged so often it is hardly noticed), picking it up, and seeing its inscription as if for the first time. The inscription on coinage—money as written symbol—becomes, says Derrida, “the scene of exchange between the linguistic and the economic;” 3 the question of metaphor in Saussurean terms would then derive from a theory not just of signification but of value. 4

The kinds of exchange I intend to effect in this discussion of Pope’s poem will be less free than those Derrida so admires in Mallarmé, whose play of associations produced an entire disquisition on Or (“gold,” but also the conjunction [End Page 45] that marks a turning point in the argument) that showed how “expert he was in alloying—in the literal alchemy of such an ironic, precious, and overinflated signifier—the sensible, phonetic, graphic, economic, logical, and syntactical virtues of this stone in which the ‘two ways, in all, in which our need is bifurcated: esthetics on the one hand and also political economy’ intersect.” 5 The exchanges that take place in Pope’s poem, I shall argue, are not free, but arise out of certain historical and socioeconomic conditions in which, nevertheless, we may find the seeds of such modern tendencies as the cultural narcissism of “the society of the spectacle” 6 and the circulation of images in a world of simulations. 7 Since both these tendencies have deep historical roots, one way of theorizing them, according to Callinicos, “starts from Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism.” 8

Metaphor, it has been said, “is essential to economic thinking,” and economics “can be seen in many ways as an instance of literary culture.” 9 Yet most of today’s economists and poets still regard economics and poetry as antinomies. In Pope’s day, of course, political economy was not alien to poetry that dealt with public affairs. We should not be too surprised, then, to find in a poem of such “gossamer” lightness a concern with issues such as trade and imports, the circulation of commodities, labor and manufacture, “natural” economy versus money economy, use-value and exchange-value, value and price, the division of labor, inflation and deflation, money as specie and as paper credit, and the relation between the country and the city. In the early eighteenth century such themes were part of the proper study of mankind, and hence, of the poet. On a more mundane level, writing and economics were brought together by the growth of a new reading public and the corresponding growth in publishing. It was not only the Dunces who wrote for money; Pope acquired financial independence largely as a translator of Homer. Discursive encounters such as these are thematic and sociological, yet one need not abandon a socioeconomic perspective in order to discover more subtle encounters at the level of the signifier. The discursive traces and threads of political economy in The Rape of the Lock are, I shall argue, inseparable from its literary economy, its ironic enactment of what, for a thematic and sociological criticism, it can be said to “represent.”

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pp. 45-68
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