On Simon Dickie’s Cruelty and Laughter
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Chances are that you are going to enjoy Simon Dickie’s Cruelty & Laughter quite a bit more than you were meant to, or, perhaps, that you are going to find yourself wanting to like it more than you do. Or both. Liking it to the proper degree, at any rate—and in just the manner that it demands to be liked—is going to prove difficult. Dickie’s subject is eighteenth-century England’s sense of humor—its comic literature, for a start, the books you have probably read (Tom Jones, Roderick Random), alongside a great many others that you almost certainly haven’t (the downmarket imitators of Fielding, Smollett’s pedestrian rivals, the scores of clowning Adventures published at midcentury), and also the jokes that its people cracked even when they weren’t reading and the capers they cut on the streets. One of recent cultural history’s niftier stunts has been to get the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to trade places—to get Victorian England to swap its received image with its Georgian predecessor, like two schoolkids each hungry for the other’s lunch. It has become possible, indeed, to forget that we once associated the nineteenth century with primness and moral fervor, so often have we been reminded that it was actually full of crossdressers and sadomasochists and ten-year-olds who drank gin. Eighteenth-century studies, in the meantime, having first developed a reputation for pissing boozily into any corner, has since retrieved for its students what we might call the other Hanoverians: polite, sentimental, Richardsonian, proto-evangelical—Victorian, in a word, if that word hadn’t come to mean “secretly pornographic.” But perhaps these revisions have by now gone as far as they were ever going to go. For Dickie’s is part of a recent group of books—the list includes Jessica Warner’s history of Gin and Debauchery in the Age of Reason (2002) and Vic Gatrell’s City of Laughter (2006)—that mean to reinstate older perceptions by resurrecting the hard-living eighteenth century, an Enlightenment bibulous and syphilitic, less an Age of Johnson than an age of johnson. Cruelty and Laughter is the kind of book you can consult if you want to learn the many nicknames for noses devised by eighteenth-century men and women, always eager to draw attention to a drinking companion’s peculiarities—to turn their fellows into animate caricatures: Saddle Nose, Razor Nose, Ruby Nose, &c. It is an almanac of boisterousness.
The next thing you need to know about Simon Dickie, then, is that he is daring you to find any of this even the least bit amusing. His list of topics is easily named: a chapter each on joke books; on humor directed against the misshapen and the halt; on humor directed against the poor; on the compulsive malice of Henry Fielding’s humor, which pretends to a benevolence that it cannot put into practice; on rape jokes and the insistent smirking that overran even court transcripts of sexual assault trials; and on the vogue in England in the 1750s for cut-rate picaresque fiction. What really distinguishes Dickie’s work, though, more than its chosen subjects, is the unrelieved contempt with which he treats them. As early as the second page, he calls his materials “abhorrent,” and the rhetorical pelting never lets up from there; the jokes he discusses are variously “awful,” “vicious,” and “ghastly.” “Appalling” is one of his favorite words, as is “nasty.” Dickie’s stance might best be described as a pseudo-Marxist moralism, which finally doesn’t amount to much more than the unedifying insight that rich people in the eighteenth century were unkind. I could put the point in a somewhat fancier way: There are few literary critics now writing who identify more closely with the social historians. Dickie more than once refers to himself as a “historian” and keeps naming the “social historian” as his implied reader. But he is entirely stuck between his literary training and his historian-envy. He despises the archive he has made his own and so cannot even be bothered to pose any of the interesting literary questions about it. The loathing he feels towards his bibliography terminates in an intellectual weariness or indifference towards that writing’s inevitable intricacies. Dickie has obligingly read a great many noncanonical novels that you are never going to get to, but working through Cruelty and Laughter, you won’t learn much about them except that first, they existed, and second, you probably won’t like them. The literary historian longs to ask: Did laughter really only come at the expense of the lowest and most vulnerable? Is there really nothing to be said in defense of the carnival and people’s laughter? What about satire or hilarity directed against the great? Does knowing about the culture of cruel laughter change our views on those forms? Was there no affirmative laughter or Shandeism—rehabilitating laughter, that is, or laughter that defied misery—and if there really wasn’t, how did Laurence Sterne manage to convince himself that there was? Even if we agree to discuss malign laughter exclusively, then what do we make of its uneasy compound of delight and disgust—its high-spirited repugnance or mood-lifting hate? Does such laughter develop unwitting investments in the baseness and abnormality that it seems to scorn? How exactly do we know what in such laughter is contempt and what celebration?
Alternately, we could take Dickie’s commitment to social history at face value and thereby allow a second round of questions to emerge. When we think about European fiction in the several generations before the major innovations of the 1740s, the books that spring to mind are mostly comic: Rabelais, the Spanish picaresque, Cervantes, Swift. If we conclude that this was not just some belated canonization effect—and Dickie gives us good reasons to think that it wasn’t, by suggesting that literary historians if anything downplay the preponderance of comic literature in earlier periods—then the question poses itself: Why was comic fiction once so widely read? What is the relationship between laughter and the formation of the nation-state? Or between laughter and colonization? Or between laughter and early capitalism? Will major social upheavals tend to produce the human anomalies or mock-epic incongruities—the mushroom and mimic men—on which comic fiction thrives? But Dickie shies away from these questions, too. He is not, finally, trained as a historian and will not, as a discourse-minded English professor, allow himself the kind of sophisticated speculation from multiple evidence streams that is the hallmark of good social history. So instead he compiles endless lists of verbal bullying: Eighteenth-century writers made fun of deaf people; they made fun of blind people; they made fun of the crippled, amputees, the pock-marked, and on and on and on. The book is a forceful exercise in anti-patrician counter-repugnance, but one begins to suspect that this is all it is.
The matter is perhaps more curious than that. Dickie’s single most consequential argument is that the historians of sympathy, sentiment, and moral sense theory have tricked us all into according too much centrality to those topics—that a bourgeois culture of compassion and decency was very long in coming. One does not have to disagree with Dickie on this score to want to point out that Dickie is not, in fact, writing against sympathy. Quite the contrary: He is writing against the historians and critics of sympathy and sentimentalism, but those concepts—and the cultural formations they name—remain entirely uninspected. One expects, indeed, that it has to be that way. For Dickie is himself a sympathetic writer—a practitioner of benevolence and striker of sentimental stands—more perhaps than he is either literary critic or social historian, striving to put back in place a set of mid-nineteenth-century judgments against the vulgarities of the dram shop and the pleasure garden. He objects to jokes as “desympathizing.” “One wonders how anyone could have laughed.” He says things like: I don’t want to sound too Victorian, but Horace Walpole really was kind of an asshole.
Of course, such judgments are not alien to social history. One can still hear in that last sentiment the ricochet of E. P. Thompson’s writing—the working-class historian’s animosity towards “the creatures of Walpole’s …circle” (that’s Walpole père in Thompson’s case), or his disbelief that the English aristocracy could have ever concluded that it was justified to execute a man for stealing a fish with his face covered. At his best, Dickie not only channels the spirit of Thompson and Hobsbawm and Hill, but also devises inventive ways of cross-breeding their arguments with disability studies and so of extending the concerns of English Marxism beyond field preachers and radical mechanics and towards the ragged and the abject. Foucault closes ranks with the Communist Party Historians Group. The category of the poor laborer merges with the category of the freak. Dickie, who possesses a social historian’s eye for the telling detail, takes as his subject “the anonymous, wretched victims of the consumer society so lavishly evoked by recent historians.” In one eighteenth-century version of charades, party-goers would imitate various trades for their companions to guess: Are you a baker? A tailor? A weaver? Successful imitations would typically hinge on reproducing a given tradesman’s characteristic deformity: his stoop, his squint, his abbreviated life.
And yet even here there are difficulties. Dickie’s emphasis on disability eventually changes the character of the English Marxism he often ventriloquizes, or, if you like, blocks some of its signature arguments. The status of class in Dickie’s argument is finally rather unclear, as it is, of course, in histories of humor more generally. The now orthodox position on rude laughter is Mikhail Bakhtin’s, which holds that low comedy is leveling and liberating—a suspension of the rules, an upending of accustomed social hierarchies, a joyful reduction of the body back to it mostly widely shared functions. Mardi Gras, if you believe this account, is the one space in otherwise regulated cultures where grotesque bodies are fully welcome, the one space, that is, in which beauty doesn’t move you to the front of the line, the space where half-naked fat men can dance with dwarfish women and find delighted onlookers cheering them on. This, tellingly, is an argument that Dickie doesn’t even consider long enough to dispute. One question we might now ask is: What do we say back to Bakhtin once we realize that the gentry also liked a good fart joke? Such is the importance of Gatrell’s City of Laughter, which reproduces hundreds of comic prints from the late eighteenth century and the Regency, all of them to varying degrees goatish and none of them within the budget of a saddlemaker’s apprentice. This prompts the student of comedy to modify Bakhtin’s case in two ways: In the eighteenth century, carnival was if anything more the property of the great than of the plebes—the low laughter of the high-born—and for some of them it was permanent and hence not just a holiday mood. Scurrility wasn’t so much the overturning of hierarchy as its habitual and sodden mode. Gatrell is a historian, but philosophically his account presupposes a kind of untutored Nietzscheanism or even a light vitalism: He asks us to think of London’s aristocratic crapulence as a culture without negation, a capacity for taking pleasure in just about anything without having to worry about who sins and who suffers. The visual arts produced a different, more joyous, less alienated city than the Londons one finds in literature, which is condemned to moralism by the simple fact of narrative sequence—compelled, in other words, to care about actions and their consequences. To note the Nietzscheanism in City of Laughter, a book so unbridled one suspects that Gatrell wrote most of it with his pants off, is at the same time to draw attention to the grindingly un-Nietzschean qualities of Dickie’s work. And this is worth dwelling on because the latter has affiliated himself with disabilities studies, a field which typically positions itself as fully beyond good and evil. Or to be more precise: Disability studies is an unlikely compound of Nietzschean and anti-Nietzschean—Christian and universalist—arguments, but from this synthesis Dickie has stripped away the Nietzscheanism (the cruelty, the laughter), and so fashioned a wholly prayerful version of the disability project, preoccupied with fragility and the beleaguered preeminence of the meek. At the same time, then, that he is injecting a set of Foucauldian concerns into English Marxism, he is terminating the Foucauldian thread in disability studies itself: “Scholars have been far quicker to acknowledge the sexual freedoms of early modern libertinism than the equally important freedoms of violence and destruction.”
And yet Dickie’s very universalism keeps eating itself. His book’s basic position is that eighteenth-century laughter came mostly at the expense of the poor. Gentlemen chuckled into their cuffs while watching worn-down old women shit into ditches. An instability is then introduced into his argument when he notes, as rigor demands, that the laboring classes often laughed along with their betters. Cheap joke books contained the same malicious jokes as their expensively bound counterparts. A butcher was just as likely as a baronet to mimic a cripple’s limp or lead a blind man smack into some wall. And eventually Dickie pulls the plug on E. P. Thompson altogether: “No one can now overlook the nastiness of early modern plebeian life: the violence and long-held grudges, the insults and catfights in alleyways, the elaborate vengeance for unpaid debts or borrowed goods not returned.” The English Marxism which had seemed to furnish Cruelty and Laughter with its guiding ethos turns out to be one of its sadder casualties. “Cruelties in Common,” he might have called this book, in which the beautiful soul compiles its ever-growing catalog of the eighteenth century’s universal wantonness.
And yet this moral stand is probably something of an intellectual dead end. That the problems attending rude humor are not simply ethical ones, but are rather formal and rhetorical, is amply demonstrated by Dickie’s own book, which itself falls into nearly all the traps that he has identified in eighteenth-century comedy. The only novel that Dickie discusses at any length is Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742), about which he makes two points: first, that Fielding, despite his professed intention to reform humor and elicit from his readers an un-cruel laughter, compulsively reproduces the knockabout of his own earlier stage comedies; and second, that eighteenth-century readers mostly appreciated Fielding’s novel as a bit of silly fun—a farce between covers—and thought of Parson Adams, in particular, not as an amiably eccentric paragon, but as a comedic butt and scapegoat, just another foolish old man to be swatted on the back of the head. We can, on Dickie’s behalf, extrapolate his argument into something of a method: We should be bothered whenever an attack on low comedy replicates what it critiques, and we should take bad readers as authoritative in this regard and so remain vigilant against an amoral audience’s ability to laugh for the wrong reasons. Any “instability of tone,” Dickie often insinuates, is just an unforgivable moral foot-dragging, a reluctance to condemn. I am only demonstrating my fidelity to Dickie’s project, therefore, if I now point out that Cruelty and Laughter extensively reproduces eighteenth-century jest-books in the process of attacking them, and that the book’s jacket promises that its collection of rape jokes and pranks perpetrated upon the sick will be “wildly enjoyable”—“entertaining,” the back cover calls the book, a work of “verve” and “joy.” Dickie himself pauses to explain what eighteenth-century people called it when a person soiled himself: “buttered eggs in the breeches,” they said. He also, in that Fielding chapter, tells us to be on our guard against elite figures who unconvincingly perform their solidarity with the eighteenth-century poor. One can learn a lot from Cruelty and Laughter and still wish that it weren’t so haplessly self-hoisting. If you are convinced of Dickie’s argument, then the only consequent way of showing this will be not to read his book.