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defoe’s novel of the future and the aggregate

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1. Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year as a (pseudo, semi, proto) novel composed almost entirely of such moments. Unplotted (almost) protagonism. He walks, he sees, he walks some more. He survives, but there is no drama to it. The narrative arc a natural (historical, social, biological) event happening in the background. The dramatic turns are local, discrete, episodic, anonymous. In fact, aggregate.

2. The opening of the Journal and the initial confrontation with those “weekly bills of mortality”:

This increase of the bills stood thus: the usual number of burials in
a week, in the parishes of St Giles-in-the-Fields and St Andrew's,
Holborn, were from twelve to seventeen or nineteen each, few more
or less; but from the time that the plague first began in St Giles's
parish, it was observed that the ordinary burials increased in number
considerably. For example:--

     From December 27 to January 3  { St Giles's      16
     "                              { St Andrew's     17

     "     January 3  "    "    10  { St Giles's      12
     "                              { St Andrew's     25

     "     January 10 "    "    17  { St Giles's      18
     "                              { St Andrew's     28

     "     January 17 "    "    24  { St Giles's      23
     "                              { St Andrew's     16

     "     January 24 "    "    31  { St Giles's      24
     "                              { St Andrew's     15

     "     January 30 " February 7  { St Giles's      21
     "                              { St Andrew's     23

     "     February 7 "     "   14  { St Giles's      24

Whereof one of the plague.

On the one hand, the “novel” turns from this initial confrontation toward narrativization, making the numbers come to life as individuals through the reportage of its protagonist / narrator. On the other hand, reverse-angled, we might say that the work never escapes the gravitational (computational?) force of this primal scene – that unlike its “realist” descendants, it can never quite attain escape velocity to become properly focalized upon the persistent developmental arc of an individual or small set of individuals.

3. His visit to the Aldgate plague pit as a climactic re-confrontation with the numbers, the lists, at the beginning of the work:

This was a mournful scene indeed, and affected me almost as much as the
rest; but the other was awful and full of terror. The cart had in it
sixteen or seventeen bodies; some were wrapt up in linen sheets, some in
rags, some little other than naked, or so loose that what covering they
had fell from them in the shooting out of the cart, and they fell
quite naked among the rest; but the matter was not much to them, or the
indecency much to any one else, seeing they were all dead, and were to
be huddled together into the common grave of mankind, as we may call it,
for here was no difference made, but poor and rich went together; there
was no other way of burials, neither was it possible there should, for
coffins were not to be had for the prodigious numbers that fell in such
a calamity as this.

Here, the aggregate turning horribly back into the mass. The difference between the mass or crowd or undifferentiated group and the aggregate, which is vital and promiscuous if also sporadic, distracted, and brief.

4. From religion to politics and back again. Aggregation then almost algebraically  an inversion of the pit’s memento mori, a reminder that we live?

Written by adswithoutproducts

August 17, 2010 at 11:01 am

Posted in aggregate, defoe