- Deceit, Desire, and The Dunciad:Mimetic Theory and Alexander Pope
Anxiety expressed over what is often termed "information overload"1 is by no means solely a phenomenon of our electronic age. Recent scholarship has traced this concern as far back as the early modern period. The increased production and dissemination of books in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was a source of "wonder and anxiety"2 for authors and prompted the need for a "substantial reorganization of the intellectual world."3 Seventeenth-century French scholar and critic Adrien Baillet gave warning of an impending barbarism unless there was a "separating [of] those books which we must throw out or leave in oblivion from those which one should save."4 The most recognizable expression of this imperative to sort the printed wheat from the chaff comes from the voices of some of eighteenth-century England's most studied, most admired, yet also detested authors, the Scriblerians. From this celebrated literary group came "the three great Tory satires, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, John Gay's Fables and Alexander Pope's The Dunciad."5
Christian Thorne, in his discussion of these works in relation to the rise of the public sphere in early modern England, defines the Scriblerian rallying cry as a protest against "the rise of print culture . . . in which signification will [End Page 1] run amok, flooding the polity with an undifferentiated mass of contradictory opinions and arguments and thus corroding traditional forms of citizenship or civic virtue."6 Pope saw the deluge of aspiring authors and their printed output as a destructive force, a force that had a leveling effect on what he perceived as the traditional structure of the cultural hierarchy. In this article, I will look specifically at the career of Alexander Pope and his lifelong struggle against all but a small number of those who populated what Samuel Johnson called the "Age of Authors."
Pope's career is indelibly marked with conflict. This conflict stemmed from Pope's untiring efforts to regulate the field in which he worked, to promote himself and his friends, and to do everything at his disposal to thwart the efforts of those whom he saw as threatening his literary endeavors. His adversaries, most often the professional ranks of Grub Street writers and publishers, served as fodder for Pope's satire and were deeply entwined in Pope's literary output. However, the adversaries he most wanted to be rid of—the primary target of his purposeful and brilliant satire—were not the "hackney scribblers" typical of Grub Street but those most threatening to Pope's professional writing career: "verbal critics" or literary scholars.7 The threat came in the form of the newly emerging critical techniques of philological scholarship. It is my contention that the literary scholars possessed knowledge that Pope showed himself to be desirous of, but that he was incapable of attaining.
In this paper I will apply René Girard's mimetic theory both to Pope's relationships with these scholars and to his depiction of them in The Dunciad. The application of Girard's theory helps to explain Pope's motivation in writing, expanding, and obsessing over a poem that was seemingly more trouble than it was worth. The publication history of the poem, which is "exceedingly complicated,"8 "cost [Pope] as much pains as anything [he] ever wrote"9 and brought down an avalanche of ridicule and abuse on him, prompting many to wonder "what can possibly have impelled him to do what he did?"10 This article will go some distance toward answering this question and will also provide insight into the way The Dunciad operated in the service of Pope's attempt to shape the literary culture of early-eighteenth-century England. I will do what no critic to date has yet attempted: I will use Girard's theory to clarify the relationship between Pope's work with the classics and that of his rival classical scholars, and to show how these two threads are woven into his magnum opus, The Dunciad.
René Girard's insightful and controversial theory of the nature and origin of human culture may be grouped into three...