- Scott’s Surprising Contemporaneity
What could be a more fitting tribute to Sir Walter Scott around the bicentennial of Waverley’s publication than the appearance of an original, revitalizing approach to his work? Evan Gottlieb’s new book, Walter Scott and Contemporary Theory (Bloomsbury, 2013), sweeps away any lingering assumptions about Scott’s work as fusty entertainment or outmoded literary strategy. Gottlieb acknowledges that Scott and theory “may not immediately sound like a natural fit,” but he demonstrates Scott’s profound engagement with the most urgent questions now addressed by contemporary theory (vi). Rather than simply using theory to explore and interpret Scott, Gottlieb exposes Scott’s own theoretical dimensions and his contributions to investigations of current critical interest. The book provides intriguing introductions to Scott’s novels and to theory as well as sophisticated interpretations of both. At the same time, the range of this volume poses problems for the reviewer because it makes so many different kinds of arguments, so here I will simply try to indicate the value of the book for a variety of academic purposes and populations.
The introduction presents “contemporary” theory as more capacious and diverse than the “high” theory derived from Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault of the 1980s and 1990s. Despite their differences, the theorists canvassed in this book have a “common identification with progressive, in many cases radical political positions” (9). Because Scott’s novels engage so directly with the relationship between history and fiction, exploring what we now recognize as modern conceptions of subject, society, political commitment, nationhood, and historicism, they lend themselves to theoretical investigation in these contemporary terms. It is refreshing to see such diverse theories represented at a time when theory textbooks in the U.S. tend to focus on theories of identity. Gottlieb reminds us as well that Scott’s work, especially with respect to its self-referentiality, was also crucial for the development of the realist novel, the [End Page 397] professionalization of authorship in its current form, and even a postmodern approach to style and subject matter, positioning Scott “to represent fictionally the sociopolitical passage to modernity” (6). Each chapter treats two Scott novels (one early, one late) in detail, usually paired with two or three contemporary theorists. Gottlieb discusses literary history and the Continental philosophical tradition in accessible and precise expositions that illuminate both Scott’s texts and the theoretical work under consideration. Accordingly, this book deserves a wide audience among students and their teachers, including Romanticists, scholars of nineteenth-century literature, those interested in the development of the novel, modernists and postmodernists, and anyone interested in contemporary theory.
In chapters that explore subjectivity, historicity, hybridity, performativity, governmentality, hospitality and community, and the posthuman, Gottlieb’s crisp readings co-illuminate text and theory. For example, students will find it easier to understand the Lacanian idea of the subject as a function of the Symbolic register when they follow how Waverley’s sense of identity changes as he loses his status as a subject within the big Other of the English army and then joins the Chevalier. Using Slavoj Žižek’s Lacanian model, Gottlieb considers Waverley’s separation from the Jacobite army as an instance of “traversing the fantasy,” identifying with a fantasy so completely that one realizes that the fantasy actually belongs to the Other, in fact that one has attempted to live out a desire that actually originates elsewhere.1 Once he has illustrated the basics of this theory with examples from the text, Gottlieb then puts theory to work providing fresh perspectives on standard interpretive cruxes. So, while many scholars have taken Waverley at his word in order to emphasize his maturation (foregoing “the romance of his life” for “real history”), Gottlieb’s reading discloses that Waverley ends the novel as much under the spell of fantasy as when he wore the white cockade.2 Then Gottlieb shifts to explore Scott’s own theoretical investments. Countering a tradition of reading Waverley’s installment at Tully-Veolan as an expression of Scott’s own nostalgic politics, Gottlieb demonstrates how Scott anticipates Peter Sloterdijk’s “cynical reason” in the “studied urbanity” and “barely suppressed irony” of the narrative...