- Miniature and the English Imagination: Literature, Cognition, and Small-Scale Culture, 1650–1765 by Melinda Alliker Rabb
When I was eight, my uncle gave me a catalog of the collection of eighteenth-century ship models at the U.S. Naval Academy.1 I poured over that book for hours on end, fascinated by the level of meticulous detail, both in the models made by professionals at various shipyards, which often highlighted their exquisite materials, and in those made by French prisoners of war, which were largely carved from beef bones. I've long regarded that early interest in eighteenth-century naval miniatures as formative: the conversion experience that launched me on the path that led to a career as a dix-huitièmiste. But it's not been until now, with the aid of Melinda Rabb's new book, that I have begun to understand why those models should have been so powerful (and why I actually preferred examining them to visiting the surviving examples of actual eighteenth-century ships, such as the U.S.S. Constitution, which is still anchored in Boston Harbor).
For Rabb, miniatures are good to think with, and were especially so in the eighteenth century, in the wake of the disasters, political and religious upheavals, and general desacralization of almost every sort of authority that was the legacy of the previous century. Indeed, the eighteenth century was something of a golden age for miniatures, with examples in the realms of furniture, ships, dollhouses, artwork, orreries, and industrial equipment being regarded by modern connoisseurs as the very pinnacle of ingenuity and craftsmanship in their respective fields. Rabb contends that the appeal of miniatures is, first and foremost, a cognitive one. They offer a "way of apprehending the familiar in a new and heightened way" (25), both because of how they exactingly replicate objects on a different (sometimes massively different) scale and because of the inevitable changes in function and value that accompany that alteration of scale. The result is that they "provide a kind of virtuality, a kind of alternative semblance of the real" (5) that "performed significant cultural work" (30) in the eighteenth century. In particular, they held out the "promise of comprehending the whole at once" (79), an attractive—if occasionally also terrifying—fantasy of mastery in an age of ever-expanding "globalization, changing ideas of the human subject, consumerism, and scientific inquiry" (4). They served as "ways, through indirection and displacement, to deal with problems of the full-scale world" (123), ways which blended "aesthetic gratification with a sense of certainty, possession, and control" (186).
To substantiate these claims, Rabb draws upon an unusual blend of miniature objects, literary texts concerned with miniaturization in various ways, mid-century French theory (most notably that of Gaston Bachelard and Claude Lévi-Strauss), and studies from current cognitive science that examine the relationship between representation and the real. I remain skeptical of the value of including the latter, given the methodological dodginess that can accompany the use of largely ahistorical psychological experiments to explain profoundly historical phenomena. But in her hands, it's at least not very jarring. For example, Rabb is correct to note that the rumor, in Gulliver's Travels, that Lemuel was having an affair with Lady Flimnap is, among other things, "a most notorious scale error" (61)—the cognitive term for "our tolerance for discrepancies of size and scale" (24)—and so can be productively glossed as such, because the Lilliputians are so [End Page 513] ready to disregard the obvious physical implausibility of such a liaison in order to exploit it politically. I'm not sure that the insights of cognitive science are necessarily adding all that much here (as Rabb acknowledges, David Garrick's Lilliput was knowingly joking about this same tolerance in 1756). But I suppose it's nice to know that the mental habits we can tease out of eighteenth-century texts have also been observed clinically in modern-day children.
As this example...