- Quite Contrary:Defoe’s Dialectics
Robert James Merrett’s Daniel Defoe: Contrarian (Toronto, 2013) is an immensely ambitious and frequently absorbing examination of Defoe’s methods as a thinker and writer, with an emphasis on the ways that Defoe anticipates and shapes readers’ responses to his deceptively artless-seeming prose. The book displays both a deep familiarity with Defoe’s oeuvre and a careful and well-considered engagement with important works of Defoe scholarship, meticulously recorded in ample endnotes.
It is also quite a difficult book to read, and it is perhaps worth first addressing that difficulty before going on to suggest why the effort might still be worthwhile for students of Defoe. Some of the difficulty of Merrett’s book is doubtless a function of its ambition. Merrett wants to examine Defoe’s works in multiple lights, showing their engagement with questions of religion, politics, and society. These questions prove not only to be entangled with one another, but also with Defoe’s sense of narrative and of rhetoric, with his conscious (if idiosyncratic) verbal art, and— ultimately— with his sense of how the human mind works. These are big questions that would be difficult enough to handle separately, much less in their complex inter-implications, and Merrett seeks to keep them all continuously in play.
A related source of difficulty is the variety of critical vocabularies that Merrett employs, which is, in part a response to the complexity of his topics. Arguing that Defoe’s texts are “too rich” to be explicated “by means of singular interpretive modes” and “explicitly call out to be placed in plural and interdisciplinary contexts” (xiv), he borrows, by turns, from fields as varied as discourse analysis, cognitive science, and modern theology. Keeping track of the way these vocabularies overlap in Merrett’s analysis is sometimes difficult, especially as the component parts of his eclectic conceptual framework are not always introduced especially clearly. Variations on one of Merrett’s key concepts, “polarity thinking,” appear, for instance, more than fifteen times before [End Page 385] it’s glossed (in passing, in an endnote referenced some 20 pages into the first chapter) as, in essence, “dialectic” (see 293n47). A final source of difficulty, frankly, is that the argument could be more perspicuous if its structure were more consciously highlighted. Readers would benefit from clearer argumentative signposts along the way: Merrett offers many sensitive and incisive readings, but it can be exceedingly difficult to grasp their significance for want of a clearer sense of where they fit in the argument.
With those caveats, it must be said that Daniel Defoe: Contrarian offers much food for thought. Merrett sees Defoe’s texts as being structured by a rhetoric of contrariety that arises from— and answers to— Defoe’s epistemology (an epistemology that, in turn, grows out of his theology). In Merrett’s account, Defoe was a fundamentally dialectical thinker: rather than advancing linear arguments, he presents readers with contrary ideas and positions, with whose tensions and ironies they must grapple. If readers can never fully resolve such contraries (something that only God can do), the contemplation of them can nevertheless be “informative and revelatory” (25). Merrett suggests that Defoe was concerned, above all, with readers’ responses. Defoe’s use of dialectic, he argues, is a means of moving readers successively through different mental states in order to sensitize them to ambiguity, irony, and the concordia discors of all providentially ordered human affairs.
The discussion is organized topically, with each chapter pursuing a set of themes through several of Defoe’s works. After an opening chapter tracing Defoe’s use of contraries from the verbal texture of his prose upward to his larger narrative structures and, finally, to his theological conviction of God’s providential agency in the world, chapters 2, 3, and 4 develop different aspects of Defoe’s spiritual project for readers. Chapter 2 examines the repeated use of a favorite phrase (“just Reflections”) in order to show how Defoe’s narratives put readers on their mettle to realize the spiritual lessons that his narrators claim to have learned in moments of insight, but claim also to have let slip away. “Since...