- Walter Scott and Contemporary Theory by Evan Gottlieb, and: The Life of Sir Walter Scott by John Macrone Edited by Daniel Grader
Not so long ago the publication of these two books — one aimed at students, the other at specialists — would have been unthinkable, given the low critical status of Walter Scott. Their appearance in the same year testifies to the spectacular resurrection of the author.
Evan Gottlieb sets a daunting agenda. He aims to use ‘cutting edge’ theory to illuminate a selection of Scott’s fiction while using the fiction ‘to explain and explore the state of contemporary theory’ — all within 134 pages. He rises to the challenge impressively, pairing early and late novels and selecting key issues for reassuringly clear exposition. In the process he gives us a thoroughly up-to-date Scott, one who is already ‘asking some of the same questions about modernity that theory excels in pursuing’.
Gottlieb’s approach is inevitably most successful when he can show that the questions asked by novelist and theorists really are ‘the same’. When, for example, he turns to theorists who are concerned with the operations of state power, the results are genuinely illuminating. Michel Foucault may no longer be ‘cutting edge’, but his concept of ‘governmentality’ truly does throw light on the central concerns of Heart of Midlothian. Gottlieb explains governmentality as a historically specific means of exercising power, ‘a set of institutions, attitudes and apparatuses that includes, but is not limited to, the more conventional elements of formal government’. His argument that Scott’s novel explores ‘multiple modes of governmentality’ clarifies the thematic relationships between apparently quite separate areas of the novel — including Scott’s representations of the Anglican Church, the realm of crime and punishment, and the managerial role played by the Duke of Argyle. In a comparable way, Gottlieb approaches Quentin Durward through Giorgio Agamben’s discussion of the historical development of sovereign power, and of ‘bare life’ (‘a product of the “biopolitical machine” that claims authority to protect or destroy it at will’). Scott’s novel is set in a period when the state’s monopoly of legitimate violence is still being consolidated, and much of that violence is directed at civilians. The reign of the Machiavellian Louis XI illustrates Agamben’s claim that ‘the sovereign and his [End Page 160] most oppressed subjects exist in a relationship that is simultaneously antagonistic and mutually constitutive’. In Gottlieb’s persuasive account, the novel reveals an intimate connection between the monarch’s piety and his worldly ambitions: Scott’s insight here is akin to Agamben’s view that moderns maintain the ‘theological model of the government of the world’.
This kind of approach reveals a highly sophisticated Walter Scott quite unlike the naïve romancer critics used to patronise. Gottlieb makes excellent use of Slavoj Žižek’s account of ideology-as-fantasy to illuminate the hero’s seduction by Jacobitism in Waverley, and of Žižek’s concept of the Jew as ‘capiton or quilting point’ (a symptom of fundamental antagonisms and contradictions within ‘a given sociosymbolic order’) to explain Scott’s presentation of Isaac and Rebecca in Ivanhoe. It has to be said that Gottlieb is not uniformly successful in demonstrating the relevance of the theorists he evokes. He works hard to persuade us that Manuel Delanda’s unsettling materialist ontology, which describes human minds and bodies as ‘mere coagulations or decelerations in the flows of biomass, genes, memes and norms’, can help to illuminate the relatively simple confusion in Redgauntlet between a genetic legacy (a mark on the forehead) and a culturally conditioned one (a commitment to Jacobitism). I am afraid I was not persuaded. He introduces The Talisman with an explanation of Judith Butler’s challenging discussion of how one ‘performs one’s gender by adhering to a set of more-or-less prescribed codes and norms in the domain of attire, behaviour and...