Jenny Davidson teaches 18th century British literature at Columbia University in New York. She has published two books, the novel Heredity and a monograph, Hypocrisy and the Politics of Politeness: Manners and Morals from Locke to Austen. A new novel, The Explosionist, will be published next year. Jenny blogs at Light Reading. Here she writes about Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France.
Jenny Davidson on Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke
One of the best books about reading that I know is Francis Spufford's The Child That Books Built, and I'd have to say that there are hundreds of novels that built me, so to speak. Among these must be tallied the complete works of Austen and Dickens, Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising novels, everything ever written by Anthony Burgess and Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows, but of course there are hundreds more: Gore Vidal and Robert Graves, Dorothy L. Sayers and Joyce Carol Oates, Kazuo Ishiguro, Alan Hollinghurst, James Baldwin's Just Above My Head and countless others.
It's a smaller number of intellectual books that have really shaped my thinking about life, literature and the world: Orwell's essays, definitely, Erving Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Raymond Williams's The Country and the City and Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden come to mind (and my 17-year-old past self is suggesting that I might also mention Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus and Roland Barthes' S/Z). Some of the books of this kind I love most - Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian Wars, for instance, or Plato's Symposium - are undoubtedly still mediated for me by my childhood novel-reading (Mary Renault's Last of the Wine looms large in this respect).
I suppose that in the end what draws me to the 18th century and holds me there is its density of writers who cut me to the quick in their combination of the cerebral and emotional pleasures. I fell in love with Defoe and Richardson as an undergraduate; I first read Swift really seriously in graduate school, and he remains my touchstone for thinking about everything to do with style and language and tone. But it's the political and philosophical writing of 18th century Britain that most reliably blows my mind, a body of writing without which my brain would just look different.
I remember reading Godwin's Political Justice for the first time with my jaw practically hanging to the floor. I remember reading Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments with a kind of painful identification and longing for his vision of a system for regulating the emotions. I remember altogether falling for Hume's sly cunning slipperiness and the novelistic formulations of the Treatise of Human Nature, which along with Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons is surely one of the two great classics of philosophical writing that reads most like a novel.
But the 18th century writer who's most fundamentally affected my understanding of things in the world is undoubtedly Edmund Burke. I'd read bits and pieces of Burke before, but my first serious engagement with his writing was in the fall of 1995, in a graduate seminar taught by David Bromwich, who would become one of my dissertation supervisors and whose readings of Burke continue to shape my engagement with this stuff. Reading Burke pretty much just rewired my entire brain, and I think about Burke all the time.
It's partly his prose style - the sublimity, the intelligence, the savage Swiftian wit! - but it's also the perverse persuasiveness of his strong opinions. Like many other readers before me, I found myself perplexed by the way I responded to Burke. Could I really be agreeing with this so-called reactionary, this man whose violently hostile response to the revolution in France led to his being picked up and paraded about by all sorts of unsavoury Cold War-era American thinkers, and whose extravagant and histrionic laments for the plight of the Queen of France led a host of his contemporaries - among them some of my particularly favourite writers, including Godwin and Wollstonecraft - to mock him on what seemed to me entirely legitimate grounds, as when Paine observed that Burke 'pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird'?
And yet Burke's language and his insights seemed to me in many respects nonetheless indisputable. This was not the more attractive Burke of the writings on India and America, this was an avowedly reactionary Burke who talked of tradition, reflex, gut responses, all things that when we are young we deeply distrust. But Burke thought that young people's responses were in this sense inherently untrustworthy. Could it be?!
I don't know that I've ever taught a class on 18th century literature in which I haven't quoted Burke, usually more than once: on the theatre being a better school of moral sentiments than churches, on the decent drapery of life rudely torn off, on what it means to confess, 'in this enlightened age..., that we are generally men of untaught feelings'. I still couldn't tell you exactly what I think about this aspect of Burke's writings, or why I'm so drawn to it, but Burke has come to seem to me almost the only voice I can't do without. Of course I want to keep Locke and Hume and Smith and Godwin also, and many others, but I mostly find myself invoking them in order to make points about the specific history and culture of a Britain with which our own Anglo-American societies are more or less continuous, whereas Burke makes me see and think things about human nature and human culture that I can't find anywhere else.