Doing things with style

I hesitate to admit this, but it’s quite rare for me to find an academic book that I enjoy reading. Maybe it’s because I’m picking the wrong authors, or maybe it’s because I always come to these volumes with such a utilitarian mindset that I make myself capable of taking pleasure in them. Sometimes, however, I do read books of this nature as recreation, and this post is dedicated to one such text: Joseph Roach‘s It, which came out in 2007 and, to quote the blurb, travels between the long eighteenth and twentieth centuries in a discussion of “the easily perceived by hard-to-define quality possessed by abnormally interesting people”: in other words, “It”.

There’s no way of doing justice to the richness of this book in a blog post, and I’d recommend it to anyone at all intersted in these things, whether academic or not. I bought it (another rarity for me: I’m more of a borrower) because I think a crucial connection between actors and Shakespeare in this period is the ablity of each to fascinate, and this is the best study of fascination around.

It is also, and this is no coincidence, extremely well written. The dexterity this book requires is, after all, staggering. To leap between the centuries, Roach makes use early on of the idea of a ‘deep’ eighteenth century (as opposed to the well-trodden claims to there being a ‘long’ (17th to early 19th century) and a ‘wide’ (i.e. global) one). The defining mark of the ‘deep eighteenth century’ is that it is not yet over, and so analysis of issues from the 1700s leads to insights still relevant today. Garrick’s mechanical whig, or the big hair of Anne Bracegirdle, is set alongside comments on Margaret Thatcher’s hairdo during the Falkland’s War; Sarah Siddon’s skin tone offers insight into Michael Jackson’s; the effigies of Charles II and Katherine of Valois (on show in Wesminster Abbey in the 1700s) frame the funeral and memorials of Diana, princess of Wales.

The dexterity and ambition of Roach are things I would like to emulate. They operate on a grand level, in the way he organises each chapter around a different, transhistorical aspect of the presence of “It”: accessories, clothes, hair, skin, flesh, and bone – and the order here is significant, of course. They also, operate, however, on a much smaller level, as in this passage from his introduction, where he talks of the social innovation of the Elizabethan theatre:

That people would part with good money to experience experience (by vicariously living through someone else’s embodiment of it) was a discovery as exciting as fire. To them, theatrical performance, like fire – releasing energy from matter that is utterly consumed in the process, disappearing as a condition of its iteration, and leaving behind little trace of itself except the desire for more – roared to life as charismatic attractions on the cusp of medieval vernacular religion and the magic of the market, a revolutionary change in the nature of performances and their reception: hence Shakespeare’s famous invocation of “a Muse of Fire” in the prologue to Henry V.

This is elegant stuff: the idea of performance as fire appears naturally and helps explain some crucial aspects of the phenomenon, it is only then, however, that Roach allows the idea to ground itself in Shakespeare, and so let what seemed at first a slightly hyperbolic way of describing the sixteenth century reveal itself as an approach native to this era.

I could keep quoting like this, but want to finish this post with a different kind of passage, one of a kind familiar to anyone who has done research: the literature review. This particular review appears near the start of Roach’s chapter on ‘Bone’, and its discussion of pirates and “It”:

That icon [the pirate] is both strong and unstable. Because pirate crews were historically multinational, multilingual, and multiracial – as well as democratic (the pirate captain served by popular fiat and could be deposed by majority vote) – piratophiles have depicted them as proto-revolutionary, progressive social democracies before the letter. Because pirates seemed to live as they pleased in a confined wooden world of libidinous masculinity, historians of sodomy have looked to them in hopeful inference, the slender documentary evidence bearing on their onboard sexual practices generously supplemnted by the spirit of common-sense deduction, tinting the Atlantic triangle pink. That at least two women in the Golden Age, Ann Bonny and Mary Read, famously passed as male pirates for a time and then continued to win honours among their startles shipmates after their sex had been unveiled, has excited the interest of feminist scholars (and not only feminist scholars).

Again, this is a literature review, but amongst the most enjoyable I know. The answer for this lies in that last little parenthesis “(and not only feminist scholars)”: it smiles at the reader, and tells us loudly and clearly what we really knew all along, namely that Professor Roach is enjoying writing this book immensely. We can’t help but smile too; passion and curiosity shine out in its stylishness, and are contagious; and ultimately that’s what makes this text so enjoyable.


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