Fill in the xxxx with an accurate MLA Works Cited entry for your chosen work (a real book review would include the total pages of the book and price in this form-- Pp. 235. $8) but just omit that part.
Rabb, Melinda Alliker. Satire and Secrecy in English Literature from 1650 to 1750. New
York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Pp. 235. $85.
Satire and Secrecy redefines early modern satire as performative, aggressive language, but not solely masculine language, and charts its role in a history of the self. Ms. Rabb provocatively concludes that the postmodern speaking subject, as adumbrated in our current criticism, is best understood as a paranoid subject trusting no one power or authority, and that this self first takes shape in the Restoration's efflorescence of satire. She reanimates "the hidden violence of struggles over succession and authority during the formative years of 'the modern liberal subject'" (179). Satirists including Dryden, Behn, Manley, Pope, and Swift pioneered an overlooked "charismatic pugilism" (178) that was illiberal, aggressive, and anxious; these acts of verbal aggression ground her informed, ambitious plan to bring the theory of satire in better line with current theories of literature, ideology, power, and gender, including D. A. Miller's, Judith Butler's and Slavov Žižek's. Her argument, sometimes too diffuse, sporadically jargony, assumes some comfort with intersecting lines of Freudian, Lacanian and Marxist theory (Žižek vs. Freud on paranoia; Butler's Althusserian "acts of interpellation") making it likely to scare off some, mystify others, and intrigue many. She charges such heavy theoretical artillery to challenge many important critics of satire, including Robert Elliott, Alvin Kernan, and Michael Seidel, in her revisionist history of satire from a flexibly feminist perspective. The book's prominent, welcome emphasis on developing a more comprehensive theory of satire puts Secrecy in good company with works like Satiric Inheritance (1978) and Theorizing Satire (1995). No single reading in Secrecy sparkles or especially surprises, but collectively they are persuasive as a broader cultural history in which suspicious Britons from 1650-1750 cultivate paranoia as a constant state of mind. This striking thesis returns in her conclusion, "Postmodernizing Satire," to link Manley, Pope, and Dryden in novel kinship with Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and Michael Moore, and put post-Restoration concerns in line with our "post-9/11 world" (4).
The historical argument opens with New Historicist methods, reading much like a dissertation as it establishes a discourse of secrecy from 1650-1750 in the textual record of cultural practices within multiple fields of human interest and endeavor, including "[t]echnology, space and place, politics, commerce, learning, sexuality and the subject" (45). Her argument resembles J. C. D. Clark's revisionist history (absent from an otherwise extensive bibliography) in showing what more optimistic Whig histories of the period as triumph of liberalism and enlightenment ignore or repress, including Jacobites. For her the public sphere has its secretive underbelly, and the evidence of her broad and sometimes obvious cultural anatomy promotes her argument against Jürgen Habermas on the public sphere as predominantly progressive, democratic, liberal, and rational. Ms Rabb generally endorses psycho-sexual interpretations in seeing satirists' persistent need for secrecy as driven by repression of inadmissible desires, whether for the same sex, prostitutes, or colonial others; she follows Michel Foucault on sexual history by showing that repressed desires nonetheless produce myriad texts.
Closer readings follow arguments that gossip is as crucial to the satirist's art as irony, and that the Secret History genre catalyzed the satires of male and female writers alike. That the book calls two chapters "Toward a Theory of Satire" shows how its center of gravity is unapologetically theoretical. A better theory, she argues, needs to revise traditional assumptions about gender and power in satire. Gossip should not be scorned as some weak female shadow of male satire, but seen as a key satiric strategy. Gossipy secret histories like Delariviere Manley's New Atalantis become a guide to how secrecy, sexuality, and satire function without and within the high male canon. Gossip and its cousin slander enable public print to foster a private, exclusive group of those in-the- know, and because their shady verbal violence disrupts traditional views of the male satirist as the one good or true voice in corrupt world. Satirists' selves are "fractured by the violence of aggressive language" (161) with confident masculinity exposed as merely public pose and protective screen. Secret Histories matter most in her account for bringing sexuality and legitimacy directly into history and literature. They enable readers to recognize that secret histories of sex among politicians are not merely seamy, but a vital kind of knowledge to have or contest when male potency and female fertility to produce heirs is the root of royal politics, primogeniture, and patriarchy.
In the book's thick tapestry of ideas the more knotty and interesting points are general or theoretical. The textual and literary evidence is often broad but sometimes thin. The last two chapters could be condensed to avoid repeated passes through Manley, Pope, and Swift; early emphasis on J. L. Austin's speech act theory as feminized by Shoshana Felman leads to little more than claiming words are also acts that matter greatly in a period when increasingly Whiggish power is vested in contracts. About major figures, we hear that Swift believes secrecy determines politics and is as obsessed with the secrets of women's bodies as Manley is; that the Duke of Monmouth was a libertine lightning-rod; that Pope's Lock is born in social gossip, and he, as satirist, is more the Monthly Chronicle's "snarling elf" (169; qtd. in Guerinot, 117) and Don Juan-want-to-be than Virgilian vir bonus. Aside from some notable suggestions to see Gulliver in Brobdingnag as a parody of Gilbert Burnet's trumped-up advisory role to William and Mary, and to compare Dryden's Absalom directly with Secret Histories for shared strategies and assumptions about sex and politics, the book's power to illuminate specific, complete texts is less than expected after the time and care spent theorizing new reading possibilities. Readers are likely to learn the most about works they might not know at all, like Shadwell's The Libertine, Grey's Secret History of the Rye House Plot, and D'Aulnoy's Mack-Beth. Rabb's style is clear but pragmatically bland, unmemorable for pithiness or personality. However, the book remains a thoughtful and useful contribution to rethinking the satiric canon and its place in ongoing questions about gender and power and the history of ourselves.
John Morillo, North Carolina State University