Making Waste: Leftovers and the Eighteenth-Century Imagination

July 15, 2010

The contemplation of the horrid or sordid or disgusting, by an artist, is the necessary and negative aspect of the impulse toward the pursuit of beauty." Thus T.S. Eliot insists on the symbiosis between beauty and its opposite, an interdependence that Sophie Gee also advocates when she talks of "the proximity of vitality and waste". But if beauty and filth are locked in a reciprocation, limiting and defining each other, it is not a symmetrical arrangement. Eliot goes on: "But not all succeed as did Dante in expressing the complete scale from negative to positive. The negative is the more importunate."

It is waste's urgency that makes it surprisingly, even paradoxically, engaging, and Making Waste celebrates its compelling force in a variety of forms - from accounts of the wastelands of uncultivated commons (which justified their enclosure), to the overabundance of Eden and the imbroglio of Chaos in Milton's Paradise Lost (1667); from the apocalyptic ruin of London after the Great Fire in the writing of John Dryden, John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys to the rural devastation of Jonathan Swift's Ireland and the lurid abomination of the plague pits in Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year (1722).

This is an impressive, thoughtful and eloquent examination of the underside (or backside) of a period more usually associated with the pioneering optics of Isaac Newton or the lucent architecture of Christopher Wren, both of whom literally put the "light" into Enlightenment. But as Gee so persuasively declares, in a development of Eliotic aesthetics, "Waste marks the spot where literary meaning has been made."

While the 18th century has no monopoly on the scatological - one thinks of Chaucer at one extreme and James Joyce at the other - it is a truth universally acknowledged that, as Gee states so unflinchingly, a "glut of waste matter fills the pages of eighteenth-century literature", and later, Swift's "writings are filled with waste matter: excrement, snot, sweat, nail clippings, garbage, dead dogs".

She suggests that the key figure looming over the work of these 18th-century authors is Milton and she offers lively accounts of Comus (1634) and Paradise Lost in terms of their representations of superfluity and emptiness: Milton "pays scrupulous attention to God's dregs and discards: substance that has no value takes up almost as much of the poem as the matter that does". In prelapsarian paradise, Nature's unkempt plenitude "leads to a sense of delicious fullness, not fruitless emptiness". Although, ironically, it is their determination to prune this fecundity that leads to the separation of Eve and Adam in the name of horticultural efficiency, Nature's "teeming foison" (as Lucio puts it in Measure for Measure (1603)) is symbolic of God's generosity. In the postlapsarian world of Comus' temptations, by contrast, "wherever there is excess there is the anxiety that desire and disgust ... arouse".

Gee demonstrates how Milton's Chaos, "characterised both by surplus and void", leads to the bewildering and squalid topology of The Dunciad (1728). She offers an ingenious analogy between cosmological and literary creation. "Pope's reworking of Milton's Chaos explores the secular phenomenon of the making of books through a theological account of the making of the universe." Swift, similarly, displays a debt to Milton, parodying the epic invocations of Paradise Lost. "Swift's is a worldly, temporal vocation, not heavenly and philosophically dense as Milton's is."

Her discussion of Defoe's account of the plague effectively recapitulates the superimposition of beauty and horror, life and death. "The flesh that decays is the flesh of the same body that, in life, generated energy, vigor, and abundance." Gee has done for 18th-century literature what Mary Douglas did for anthropology: she has demonstrated that the apparently opposed ideas of purity and danger are mutually dependent.

Making Waste: Leftovers and the Eighteenth-Century Imagination

By Sophie Gee Princeton University Press 216pp, £18.95. ISBN 9780691139845. Published 9 February 2010

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