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Reviewed by:
  • Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance
  • Drew Daniel
Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance. Daniel Tiffany. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. Pp. xiii + 254. $66.00 (cloth).

The curious troika of Tiffany’s subheading presents a suitably Sphinx-like demand: what do riddles, nightlife, and substance have in common? The answer proposed by this ferociously original book—obscurity—puns upon three constitutive senses of the term: formal difficulty, subcultural affiliation and (im)material substance. Careening between Leibnizian philosophy and the history of tavern demimondes, Infidel Poetics uses obscurity to rethink the ontology of poetry itself. If it would seem obvious that riddles have answers and hence are only ever temporarily “obscure,” Tiffany finds in the antechamber to their resolution a volatile account of readerly experience that he makes persuasive and portable to a broad range of poetry . For Tiffany, what connects metaphysicals, Eliot, various Romantics, and Milton with nursery rhymes, drinking songs, and jail cell graffiti is a shared dynamic in which writing performs its own veiledness, with each text displaying a jargon of impenetrability seemingly rooted in a demotic location but set adrift by the unpredictable pathways of popular circulation, and, at a deeper level, by the monad-like independence of poetic substance itself.

If the Leibnizian framing lends a highly original metaphysical ambition to the work, it also carries with it a certain all-or-nothing corollary risk. There is a basic commitment to the power of the analogical that drives the argument as it achieves its startling equations: poems are like monads, poetry is like philosophy, Anglo-Saxon riddlers are like Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mallarmé is like Mother Goose. This magic trick—or tic—of critical transmogrification is thoroughly Leibnizian, running as it does through Leibniz’ thought from its very beginnings. Consider a representative passage from Discourse On Metaphysics (1686):

Every substance is like a complete world and like a mirror of God or of the whole universe, which each one expresses in its own way, somewhat as the same city is variously represented depending upon the same different positions from which it is viewed. [. . .] It can even be said that every substance bears in some way the character of God’s infinite wisdom and imitates him as much as it is capable. Or it expresses, however confusedly, everything that happens in the universe, whether past, present, or future— this has some resemblance to an infinite perception or knowledge.1

For the young Leibniz the intuitive fact of resemblance is simply posited, wagered as a means by which to join concepts together: everything is literally like everything else. When Tiffany declares that “The visible netherworld of infidel culture, like the naked, slumbering existence of monadic substance, makes darkness visible [ . . . ] in a manner resembling the open secrecy of the riddle or the canting song,” his own analogical leaps draw their sanctioning rationale from [End Page 951] Leibniz’ founding example (216). Sometimes the result is a stretch. When he asserts that “the dialectic of obscurity in underground culture is precisely what aligns nightlife historically and conceptually with lyric poetry” the word “precisely” sounds willful, even perverse, because the statement itself performs the very work of alignment it also reports (215).

If such gestures risk losing readers who choose to demur, or fail to intuitively share the binding force of these alignments, that would be a shame, for the inspired sequence of readings and trans-historical assemblages within this book makes good upon these intuitions of resemblance with a satisfyingly cumulative richness. In the most acutely historical chapter, “Flash Crib,” Tiffany fastens upon the turn of the nineteenth century to draw provocative connections between tavern culture, the “canting crews” of criminal underclass poetry, pro-Jacobin circles, and Spencean radicalism, arguing that “the topos of the nightspot became a place where the politics of pleasure, radical dissent, and infidel culture intersected” (191). When Blake, Keats, and Shelley rub shoulders with more obscure figures such as “illiterate mulatto seaman and Antinomian preacher” Robert Wedderburn, the resulting friction estranges standard accounts of the social space of Romanticism: “Queen Mab” reads differently when one scans it through the lens of the radicals and pornographers who drew permissive license from its otherworldly fragility. At...


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