Wednesday, November 27, 2013


Franco Moretti's new book from Verso is called The Bourgeois : Between History and Literature. He subjects Victorian fiction to automated analysis, hoping for help with a definition of that commonly-used-but-usually-vague term, bourgeois. Moretti's quantitative methods often feel alien to me, but he deploys them with persuasive energy. The dust jacket reproduces a painting of 1832 (now in the Louvre) by Ingres, his portrait of Louis-François Bertin.

Here is part of Franco Moretti's argument (a lapse - for him - into old-fashioned close reading, without numbers) about Tom Brown's Schooldays 

'Shall I tell him . . . he's sent to school to make himself a good scholar?' wonders Squire Brown, as his son Tom is about to leave for Rubgy. 'Well, but he isn't sent to school for that', he corrects himself: 'Greek particles, or the digamma' are not the point; rather, 'if he'll only turn out a brave, helpful, truth-telling Englishman, and a gentleman, and a Christian, that's all I want'. Brave, sincere, a gentleman, and a Christian; that's what Rugby is for. And its headmaster (the real, not fictional one) agrees: 'what we must look for here', he tells the Older Boys to whom he liked to delegate his authority, 'is, first, religious and moral principle; secondly, gentlemanly conduct; thirdly, intellectual ability'. Thirdly, intellectual ability. 'Rather than have [physical science] the principal thing in my son's mind', he adds, in a less guarded moment, 'I would gladly have him think that the sun went around the earth'.

The sun going round the earth. The schoolboy Tom Brown has more common sense than that; still, when at the end of the novel he is asked what he wants 'to carry away' from Rugby, he realizes that he has no idea; and then: '"I want to be A1 at cricket and football, and all the other games . . . and to please the Doctor; and I want to carry away just as much Latin and Greek as will take me through Oxford respectably."'  Sports; then the Doctor's approval; last, and least, learning 'just as much' for another perfunctory educational cycle. On at least one thing, therefore, Squire, Doctor, and Boy are in perfect agreement: knowledge is at the bottom of the educational hierarchy.