When Jonathan Sachs asked me to participate in this round table, I immediately accepted. What could be more important or sustaining, at this moment of precarity, than talking with colleagues I admire about the future of our field? I could spend my very short time arguing with clichéd and uninformed narratives of the decline of the humanities, or deploring the rhetorics of austerity, corporate start-up culture and markedly presentist, STEM-oriented and instrumentalizing “interdisciplinarity” that threaten the mission of the great public university where I earned my doctorate and am lucky enough to teach. I could talk about how, as director of a center and a world-class rare book library dedicated to supporting new scholarship in our field, I spend more time fundraising than I do thinking about research. I could talk about how we need scholars who labor to understand the past more than ever at a moment of data fetishization, alternative facts, and mass forgetfulness.
That’s how my talk began when I presented it at the MLA roundtable on “Eighteenth-Century Studies and the Future of the Profession” in January, 2020. At the moment which I sit down to revise these remarks, five months which feel like a century later, during a global pandemic and a remarkable period of international mass protest triggered by the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police, at a moment when systemic racism and injustice have never been more visible, and when structural change has never seemed more necessary, all of the issues that preoccupied me in January, issues that perpetuate the structural inequality at the heart of the academy and fuel our ongoing efforts to decolonize the eighteenth century, have been put into even starker relief. Like many of my colleagues, I was especially riveted by footage of the statue of seventeenth-century slave trader Edward Colston, taken down, defaced, rolled through the streets of Bristol and pitched into the sea. Monuments across the US, Europe and the UK, including an Edinburgh statue of that epitome of eighteenth-century reasonable sociability, David Hume, have undergone similar treatment. This protest sign, posted on Twitter, speaks volumes:
As I struggle to write during a period of extended and repeated crisis, of simultaneously accelerated and stopped time, one thing seems clear: we must keep moving. Monuments are meant to slow us down. In what follows I want to think about how literature propels us forward, how it resists the reification of the past and points us toward the future. I want to ponder a project that has preoccupied me for the past decade: my as-yet unfinished book about an unfinished book that makes demands upon the future, in particular the future of our field. Put simply, I believe very passionately in the power of literature to speak to us from the past, and the future of eighteenth-century studies depends upon our recognition of that power and our response to its demands.
My book, tentatively titled The Last Amateur, takes up the relationship between Jonathan Swift and Edward Said in order to argue for the importance of eighteenth-century studies to the future of literary studies. Another possible title that conveys the balance I’m trying to strike between these two ironic and angry warriors for justice is Jonathan Swift Unfinished. Working on this book makes me feel as if I’m hearing, and joining, an ongoing conversation across centuries: a literary-historical version of what Edward Said would have called, with music in mind, a “counterpoint.” Consider, for example, the eccentric pianist Glenn Gould, who showcases the centrality of literary form as music to Said’s thought. In Said’s account, Gould invented the eighteenth century by “coming upon it” (the word invention’s literal meaning) and performing it, in the form of Bach’s music, anew. The musical metaphor is key, animating the text and performing it in the present moment. Gould, and Swift—the former through creative performance that revives the past with a difference, the latter through his satire’s ironic unsettling of modern projects at their inception (think here of the anger seething beneath the cool surface of Swift’s “Modest Proposal”)—shape Said’s own catalytic engagement with our period. Both demonstrate that the eighteenth century, as Joseph Roach famously pronounced, isn’t over yet. Rather, it makes demands upon us in the present.
My book argues that Swift was an important and enduring influence on Said, whose abandoned book would have been titled Swift in History, and would have followed his first book, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (1966). I have spent some of the most thrilling hours of my scholarly life with Said’s papers at Columbia University, documenting his research and teaching on Swift, a truly absorbing and moving experience. But my experience in Said’s archive confirmed my sense that I was not writing a traditional monograph; instead, it started my search for a form that stays true to the notes, the fragments, the urgently underlined jottings that kept Said’s thought alive and unfinished. Swift was a model for Said of how to be a public intellectual: how to speak, from a position of exile, for a human collective that might never exist. In the Drapier’s Letters (1724), Swift called “the whole people of Ireland” into imaginary being a century before an Irish nation was a reality. Author of monumental field-defining monographs though he was, Said was also, as he described Swift, “an occasional writer, an essayist, a pamphleteer.” Accordingly, I read Said in a minor key, building to my final claim that Said’s early unfinished book on Swift inspired his last unfinished book on late style.
This book thus stakes everything on the conviction that Said’s unfinished monograph, which would have made him a certified eighteenth-centuryist, was far more important than any finished book would have been. What would have ended as Swift in History began a transhistorical conversation and a struggle with Swift that preoccupied Said for the rest of his career. In his complex and still-current essay “Swift’s Tory Anarchy” (1969), Said turns to Swift’s late poem, “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift,” in which Swift imagines his own death, the indifference of his friends and acquaintances, and concludes with a glowing yet ironic self-eulogy spoken by an “impartial observer.” Out of Swift’s blithely grim irony, Said finds hope, characterizing Swift as a writer with “an extraordinarily proleptic sense of himself as a problem for the future” (emphasis mine). That phrase was the catalyst that started my book. The writer who, at the height of his powers as the hired gun of the Tory Ministry, could take down the Duke of Marlborough with his words, turned his exile to Ireland at the end of his career into an exigent demand to which Said was compelled to respond. For Said, the loss of power was both Swift’s defining theme and exigent legacy. Swift was alive for Said, speaking to him from within the constraints of an eighteenth-century moment that defined authorship not as a vehicle for aesthetic self-expression but rather as a failed instrumental intervention into the present.
Said’s career-long engagement with Swift exemplifies the ways in which eighteenth-century literature in particular, and literature in general, matter profoundly when we practice reading as Said did: as a process of ongoing engagement with both the text and the world. Said believed in the canon not as dogma to repeat or a monument to revere, but rather as a force, in his phrase, to “wrestle” with. By engaging with Swift, Said heeded a call from an author whom in many ways he found profoundly alien, whose conservatism he abhorred, and whom he wouldn’t have wanted to encounter in real life. It wasn’t until Said discovered Yeats’ version of Swift, which he characterized in his late book Humanism and Democratic Criticism (2004) as “magnanimous,” that Said was able to fully engage with him. It wasn’t until I heard Said calling in the Al-Ahram Weekly, shortly after the second Iraq War broke out, in the words of Wordsworth’s sonnet to Milton, “Jonathan Swift, thou shouldst be living at this hour,” that I discovered Said as a kindred spirit. (It seems likely that neither Said nor Swift would have given me the time of day in real life).
My book posits a model of criticism that rejects a relationship to the canon defined by mastering, mirroring, and shoring up a monument. I’m arguing instead for a mode of reading that responds to and re-animates the writers who make demands on us without erasing or taming their otherness. This is as true, I hope, of my relationship to Said as it is of Said’s to Swift. It is also, as Sean Silver observed some years ago, a model that comes to writers through other writers, that is not historicist in a way that shuts down connections to the present but rather genealogical, engaging in a mediated but nonetheless immediate conversation with writers who call to us across time.
I’ve spent my career as a feminist eighteenth-centuryist who writes about the old-school canon, striving for a literary practice that confronts uncomfortable differences without giving up on the conversation. We forget that Said, the great founder of postcolonial theory (which he would come to reject), was a profoundly literary critic. One of the central questions that working on this project has raised for me, and which is at stake in the future of literary studies broadly conceived, is what it might mean to identify as a critic rather than a scholar. Not that I’m not a scholar, I would nervously add, but in my heart—and here I am summoning the amatory dimensions of the word “amateur”—I am a critic who chafes against the boundaries of a historical period, who writes out of a passionate, perhaps even unprofessional, belief in the power of literature. For both Swift and Said, literature in the eighteenth century falls from political power, yet (or perhaps therefore) has the potential to create what the great Swift scholar John Traugott calls “a revolution in consciousness.”
I could close by evoking Said’s sense of reading as a practice of imagining others that honors the individual particular of the text. I could talk about how we create that revolution in consciousness for our students and our readers by striving for clarity and accessibility in our teaching and our writing. I could talk about how decolonizing the eighteenth century must mean freeing our minds. But for today I will close on the amatory dimension of “amateur” and say that if we love literature we, as scholars, make a claim upon the future. I close with a passage from Said’s favorite essay of Theodor Adorno’s, “Resignation,” which is a talisman for my project and my belief in the future of our field. When I returned to it for the roundtable, I remembered how much it resonates with Swift’s savage indignation, how it merges irony and satire with thought:
What once was thought cogently must be thought elsewhere, by others: this confidence accompanies even the most solitary and powerless thought. Whoever thinks is not enraged in all his critique: thinking has sublimated the rage. Because the thinking person does not need to inflict rage upon himself, he does not wish to inflict it on others. The happiness that dawns in the eye of the thinking person is the happiness of humanity. The universal tendency of oppression is opposed to thought as such. Thought is happiness, even where it defines unhappiness: by enunciating it. By this alone happiness reaches into the universal unhappiness. Whoever does not let it atrophy has not resigned.
Let’s not give up. Let’s continue the conversation with each other, our students, our teachers past and present, and the canon, ever-changing, intransigent, and exigent.