- The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century by John Brewer, and: The Age of Reasons: Quixotism, Sentimentalism and Political Economy in Eighteenth-Century Britain by Wendy Motooka
Among the many memorable passages in Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759–67) is the opening of volume 1, chapter 23, in which the hapless hero and narrator speculates regarding the advantages of possessing “Momus’ glass,” which would allow people to look inside the breast of others and to discern their characters immediately. Tristram remarks:
Nothing more would have been wanting in order to have taken a man’s character, but to have taken a chair and gone softly, as you would to a dioptrical bee-hive, and look’d in,—view’d the soul stark naked;—observed all her motions,—her machinations;—traced all her maggots from their first engendering to their crawling forth;—watched her loose in her frisks, her gambols, her capricios; and after some notice of her more solemn deportment, consequent upon such frisks, &c.—then taken your pen and ink and set down nothing but what you had seen, and could have sworn to.(Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, ed. Ian Campbell Ross [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983], 59–60)
As it happens, this particular passage is quoted in both books under review, John Brewer’s The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (first published in 1997 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and Wendy Motooka’s The Age of Reasons: Quixotism, Sentimentalism and Political Economy in Eighteenth-Century Britain (first published by Psychology Press in 1998), both reissued by Routledge. It is certainly not surprising to come across such a touchstone passage when reviewing two works in the field of eighteenth-century studies. It is especially unsurprising given the common scope of each book. Yet, in thinking about these two books together and the impact they have had on the field since their first publication, Brewer’s and Motooka’s quite different interpretations of the same passage stood out. [End Page 173]
Brewer’s Sterne exemplifies the sentimentalism that the author regards as operating both in conjunction with and in opposition to “politeness” during the eighteenth century. Brewer associates the popularization of the concept of politeness with the emergence in the period of a new category of “fine arts” appealing to “the pleasures of the imagination,” in part a response to the transformation of the arts into popular commodities. While it remained “possible to represent the growing cultural public not as a sign of luxury and degeneracy, but as a symptom of a healthy political order, uniquely modern and British” (87), for many it was not quite so simple. The imbrication of the arts with commerce produced inevitable anxiety. Defenders of the arts saw that they would need to distinguish them from “fashionable recreations” (81), positioning the arts as objects of taste rather than of appetite. However, the concept of taste created its own problems to work out, particularly with respect to how the “disinterested perspective [of taste might] be obtained” (83). Many continued to give an advantage to those who could claim the status of gentility (and command the requisite independence and leisure), at the same time as it was recognized that gentility could not alone ensure the attainment of good taste. One means to good taste was identified in the cultivation of politeness within the context of sociable interaction. Yet politeness itself was potentially problematic in contributing towards the increasing focus on “external appearances and the trappings of society” (104), encouraging a competing association between taste and “sentiment,” given popular expression by writers such as Sterne.
In contrast, Motooka discovers in the above-cited passage a Sterne bent upon exposing the...