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  • ‘Where Ignorance is Bliss’: The Folly of Origins in Gray and Hardy
  • Rachel Bowlby (bio)

In the years and months that led up to the ‘Folly’ conference in July 2007, I found that I developed a fairly compulsive habit of noting down every time the word turned up in something that I was reading. I think I must have been hoping for general enlightenment on the subject, but in reality it seemed I was simply building up a rather dull and predictable empirical confirmation of the hunch that it was in the eighteenth century that folly had its verbal heyday, just at the time when tangible, material follies were beginning to pop up on the ground in every odd corner of the well-acred English gentleman’s estate. I was reading a novel by Richardson, and follies there were in profusion, on every other page it seemed, to the point that I stopped even bothering to list them in that uselessly industrious way. Jane Austen, same story, almost: a lot of folly about, though less of it than there had been a few decades before. Then, through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a steady decline, to the point that folly almost seems to appear only as a sort of citation of bygone ways of thinking or speaking; it becomes self-conscious, more like a deliberate archaism or eccentricity. Had folly no real place in the modern world? There’s an interesting moment in Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway when the quaintness of the word almost acts as a cover for far more surprising and newly speakable admissions of feeling: we are told that Clarissa Dalloway ‘could not resist sometimes yielding to the charm of a woman, not a girl, confessing, as to her they often did, some scrape, some folly. And [. . . ] she did undoubtedly then feel what men felt’.1 A kind of supplementary admission – ‘undoubtedly’ – of Mrs Dalloway’s lesbian attractions, in veiled but simple terms, is prompted by the sweet confidings of the ‘scrape’ or ‘folly’.

In this, we can feel the tension between old-fashioned folly and more modern styles of suppression and confession; and there are moments too when the folly of folly’s own glory years can look like a childish, colloquial [End Page 271] version of what a later time would call, in its psychologically abstract vocabulary, the unconscious. There’s for instance a marvellous passage in Dryden’s play All for Love:

Men are but children of a larger growth; Our appetites as apt to change as theirs, And full as craving too, and full as vain, And yet the soul, shut up in her dark room, Viewing so clear abroad, at home sees nothing; But like a mole in earth, busy and blind, Works all her folly up and casts it outward To the world’s open view.2

Folly is here at once idiosyncrasy and a universal state. It’s the peculiarities and shameful appetites, the childish or animal compulsions that each person is unaware of in themselves, even though they may be adept at spotting them in others. In some respects, this folly does resemble the Freudian unconscious: it is an underground repertoire of secret, frequently infantile desires, unknown to and hidden from the day-to-day self – desires that are always trying to work their way out from the dark to the daylight world, and that may at times appear obvious to others who in turn are equally ignorant of their own. And again like the unconscious, there’s no getting away from it, no possible moment of release or resignation when the mole might stop vainly, interminably working away, forever shovelling his folly out into the light. You can show him the evidence, but the mole (or the soul) would no longer be himself if he ceased to go on throwing up more of it.

I intend to make a mountain out of this molehill. In its tiny way, the heap of earthy folly may lead us in the direction of more obviously large questions, taller stories at least, about human identity. Dryden’s soul-mole, with its striking conflation of toil and metaphysics, proposes an intimately dialectical relation...


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pp. 271-288
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Archived 2009
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