Rights of Man

Thomas Paine, Rights of Man

Thomas Paine is a curious character, whose legacy is hard to assess. But perhaps this is why it is all the more important to (re)read him. His difficulties, ambiguities, and ambivalences, in the midst of the eighteenth-century “Age of Revolutions,” may resemble our own in what are at first sight rather less revolutionary times. But perhaps our times are every bit as revolutionary as Paine’s: he spends much of his celebrated Rights of Man reporting back from abroad; and we are also faced with upheavals elsewhere (from Syria to Venezuela, Egypt to the Ukraine) that give rise to divided opinions and uncertain allegiances.

The first part of Paine’s book is, after all, given over mostly to a stinging attack on Edmund Burke’s critical account of the French Revolution. For Paine, Burke provides more fiction than fact. Specifically, his conservative opponent concocts a kind of moral drama full of “theatrical exaggerations” and “poetical liberties [. . .] omitting some facts, distorting others, and making the whole machinery bend to produce a stage effect” (23-4). In response, then, Rights of Man provides a rather soberer description of recent history, stressing the “cool deliberation” characterizing the creation of a National Assembly (60) and its lack of “mean passions” or vindictiveness against its enemies (64). Indeed, if anything, Paine rather downplays the novelty of the revolution itself, framing it as the logical result of a prior collective prise de conscience: “The mind of the nation had changed beforehand, and the new order of things has naturally followed the new order of thoughts” (51).

Yet it is not as though Paine himself were above playing to the gallery. This book was originally a pamphlet (two, in fact) that sought–and achieved–high circulation thanks as much to its witty ripostes as to its patient explication. Paine shows himself a master of rhetorical and literary figures, from metaphor to hyperbole: Burke, for instance, is described as “mounted in the air like a balloon, to draw the eyes of the multitude from the ground they stand on” (35); his discourse is discounted as “a wild unsystematical display of paradoxical rhapsodies” (35). And yet there is something rhapsodical about Paine’s text, too, and unabashedly so. Indeed, in part two Paine relishes the popular success of the first part of his tract (“I suppose the number of copies [to have been . . .] not less than forty and fifty thousand” [100-1]) and then immediately takes the opportunity to make a pun on Burke’s charge that it should be subject to “criminal justice”: “it must be criminal justice indeed that should condemn a work as a substitute for not being able to refute it” (101). In short, the Rights of Man is infused throughout with a sort of glee–one might even say jouissance–that might be thought to undercut the emphasis it otherwise places on the triumph of reason.

It helps of course that Paine feels he is very much on the right side of history. The problem with Burke, he claims, is not so much his failure to understand what was going on in France (or America) as his insight into the implications for England: “He writes in a rage against the National Assembly, but what is he enraged about? [. . .] Alas! It is not the Nation of France that Mr Burke means, but the COURT; and every Court in Europe, dreading the same fate, is in mourning” (88). Paine, meanwhile, takes the same revolutionary events to indicate that “spring is begun” (196), that we are promised “a new era to the human race” (106), and goes so far as to venture that he does “not believe that monarchy and aristocracy will continue seven years longer in any of the enlightened countries in Europe” (102). “The present generation,” he tells us, “will appear to the future as the Adam of a new world” (191). Sadly, perhaps, Paine’s enthusiasm is not exactly borne out by events. He himself would go on to be arrested (and very nearly executed) by the French. And one wonders what he would make of his glowing account of American Exceptionalism now.

But what kind of revolutionary was Paine? Given that he seems to think that the main burden of government (corrupt or otherwise) comes in the form of taxation, he could easily be read as a forerunner of the Tea Party or other right-wing libertarians. At the same time, he also seems to believe in a kind of basic sociability or commonality promoted by everyday interaction and habit (as well as trade). And yet he spends much of part two of his book coming up with a rather detailed plan of how to redistribute surplus tax revenue (once the monarchy and privileges of landholders have been abolished) that sounds much like the foundation of what could almost be a welfare state: in place of large monopolies of land, pensions and child benefit. In short, one might even believe that Paine was not only as rhapsodical but in some ways as paradoxical as Burke, as he see-sawed between calls for less government on the one hand, and on the other comprehensive proposals that would bring on more government. The new era that he proclaimed combines both the right to revolt, the refusal to be weighed down by tradition, and also the beginnings of biopolitics, the ever more insidious advance of power relations within the population.

Posted in Uncategorized

Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey cover

Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey pulls off the difficult feat of being both relentlessly self-reflexive and (on the whole) a genuinely enjoyable read. It is, after all, a commentary on the writing and reading of novels, and more specifically on the then-popular genre of the gothic romance. The commentary is both diegetic and extradiegetic: conveyed by individual characters and also by a narrator who claims (to some extent at least) to transcend and stand outside the action. I say that the narrator is only able to transcend the action “to some extent” in that she (or he) recognizes that this novel, too, is bound by (or chooses to be bound by) many of the same conventions that structure the object of its reflection. Hence the form of Austen’s novel itself also provides a commentary on novel-writing and, again, on popular genres in particular. Any distance that Austen takes from what she (or her narrator) sometimes calls her “sister author[s]” (81) can only be temporary or provisional. Ultimately, they are all in this together even (especially) if Austen chooses to parody and so implicitly criticize (but also mimic) some of the structural expectations of the genre.

To put it another way: this is a novel that repeatedly switches between critique and indulgence. It plays a double game of ostensibly taking its distance itself from the gothic commonplaces (“gloomy passages [. . .] ponderous chest[s] [. . .] unintelligible hints [. . .] violent storm[s]” [115]; “dreadful situations and horrid scenes [. . .] midnight assassins or drunken gallants” [122]) that it so hilariously sends up, and at the same time indulging itself in precisely these same clichés. It’s as though Austen were allowing us to partake of a guilty pleasure: her critical jabs at the genre absolve us of most of the guilt, and leave us with almost all the pleasure. In short, here Austinian irony comes close to the postmodern sense of the term: a knowing imitation whose knowingness supposedly absolves it from complicity.

Except that Austen doesn’t quite let her readers–or even herself–off the hook. She undoubtedly agrees with Henry Tilney, her heroine’s suitor, that “the person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid” (77). We can’t, or shouldn’t, deny the pleasure that novels bring us. But this is not to say that we cannot question that pleasure. Indeed, Austen has quite a complicated relationship to pleasure: she is far from averse even to the simplest (“unaffected” [23]) of pleasures, and indeed is skeptical of the mannered pedagogy in taste that Henry elsewhere offers in the form of a “lecture on the picturesque” (81). At the same time, she is consistently critical of those characters whose only concern is with their own pleasure, and who neglect therefore duty and responsibility. A novel, for Austen, also has its responsibilities–and in the case of Northanger Abbey, that involves perhaps above all an education in the power of self-reflection, and its significant but subtle difference from self-regard.

Ultimately, however, I think that Austen shows herself to be dissatisfied by her approach in this early novel. Her rush to conclude at the end, jumping through the hoops of formulaic conventions without taking the time to allow us to enjoy them, pulls the rug from under our feet. In the novel’s final few pages, which hurtle us towards our hero and heroine’s marriage (“the bells rang and every body smiled” [186]), while reminding us rather too insistently of “the rules of composition” (186), feel churlish at best: as though she felt she had to fulfill the promises that her acceptance of generic conventions implied, but no longer got much pleasure in doing so… or perhaps feared that she had already over-indulged both herself and her readers. There is something anticlimactic about this conclusion, and it makes sense that in subsequent novels she will perfect a properly Austinian irony, leaving behind the (perhaps too crude) pleasures of imitations whose knowingness is never alibi enough.

Posted in Uncategorized

Things Fall Apart

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart, cover

Chinua Achebe’s classic novel Things Fall Apart (1958) is often seen as a riposte to European representations of African life and culture, not least for instance Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which Achebe memorably described as the work of “a thoroughgoing racist.” Achebe’s critique is that Conrad’s novella treats “Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril.” Moreover, he continues, “The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world.”

I wonder, however, about the effectiveness of this riposte. Not least because Things Fall Apart reads as an extended obituary to a vanished way of life and as such mimics a quasi-anthropological perspective on colonized cultures. However much Achebe wants to distinguish himself not only from Conrad but also from the colonial District Commissioner who features at the book’s conclusion as a would-be ethnologist contemplating writing a book to be entitled “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger” (209), he sustains rather than undermines the tropes that enable such Eurocentric visions.

Achebe’s novel is certainly obsessed with mourning and death: both the ultimate suicide of its protagonist, Okonkwo, a strongman in an Ibo village called Umuofia, and the vanishing of the precolonial customs and structures with which Okonkwo’s demise is associated. Okonkwo is an ambitious striver, whose rash actions lead first to his exile from the community and later to his killing himself (an unholy action) as he realizes that resistance to cultural invasion is apparently futile. But this has already been foretold: towards the end, after a convert interrupts a ritual performance and unmasks one of its participants, we hear that “the Mother of the Spirits walked the length and breadth of the clan, weeping for her murdered son. [. . .] Not even the oldest man in Umuofia had ever heard such a strange and terrible sound, and it was never to be heard again. It seemed as if the very soul of the tribe wept for a great evil that was coming–its own death” (187). We are, I think, to share in this sorrow, and thus to condemn the coming of the colonizers.

But such lamentation is a typical feature of colonial discourse itself, which regularly mourned–and continues to mourn–the destruction of indigenous practices and lifestyles for which it itself was and is responsible. From the cult of the “noble savage” and The Last of the Mohicans to the fascination towards supposedly uncontacted tribes from Amazonian Peru to the Andamans, imperial powers have always professed ambivalence towards the consequences of modernization and/or development. But this mourning is expressed so as to suggest that these are the inevitable victims of a progress that is unstoppable, the price we pay for so-called civilization. At the same time, the anthropological lament tells us that as soon as the pristine authenticity of the indigenous is compromised, they cease to be (really) indigenous at all. Hence, it is not only no use trying to save the victims of colonization: in that as soon as we know of them they are irredeemably transformed (acculturated, inauthentic), it is not worth saving them either.

Perhaps the success of Achebe’s book, as no doubt (and by some distance) the best-known and best-selling novel written by a black African, is due to its playing into precisely this colonial fantasy. It helps that its narrative is set in some rather vague and imprecise past: the Ibo are presented very much as people without history, whose way of life is perpetuated through constant repetition undergirded by folk memory. As the colonizers arrive, inducing a “terrible sound” never heard before and “never to be heard again,” this is the eruption of a new mode of temporality into an otherwise relatively static (at best, cyclical) way of life. Okonkwo then has to die, in a foolhardy act of useless resistance, because his life is unimaginable after the taint of Western corruption has come.

In fact, however, the Ibo (now usually called Igbo) have had a rather more interesting postcolonial history than the novel suggests. Indeed, the very notion of Igbo identity is itself largely the product of colonial contact, and led to a dramatic twentieth-century history (not least the Biafra rebellion) in which Achebe himself played a not insignificant part. But this afterlife of the I(g)bo would come as a surprise to a reader of the novel, riven through as it is with an air of chilling finality. And I would argue that this attempt (almost literally) to close the book on I(g)bo culture is as dehumanizing as anything to be found in Conrad or his ilk. For it denies them their human complexity, even as the figure of Okonkwo himself (twice over traitor to his tribe) points indirectly to the mythic dimension of the dream of precolonial purity.

For more, see my lecture on Arts One Open.

Posted in Uncategorized