I recently wrote about a book that puts too much faith in the growing digitization of English departments (exempli gratia). And I’ve just finished another book that gets it right. A curious new volume by Brad Pasanek at the University of Virginia purports to be a study of eighteenth-century writers and poetry but is really about its own radical methodology, which, for better and worse, is probably what most scholarship will look like a hundred years from now.
Pasanek is a “metaphorologist.” That means he loves metaphors—specifically the kind that compare the human mind to a coin or a lump of wax or a piece of paper or to some tangible thing. He scours the literature of his favorite period, the long eighteenth century, with the deft use of a search engine and some trusty search terms. And when he finds one of these metaphors he copies and pastes it into his list. “Desultory reading,” he calls it: skimming; squeezing the juice and discarding the pulp. His ongoing project is a free, user-friendly database of these metaphors, which at the time of this writing contains some 14,700 entries. Click through the “Architecture” category, where this choice nugget from John Dunton awaits:
Twice every day a thousand Fancies and Fegaries crowd into my Noddle so thick as if my Brain kept open-house for all the Maggots in nature.
Or search for “David Hume,” and discover the Scot’s affinity for the mind as a painter’s canvas and the imagination as a cosmos. Or chase the innatist/empiricist argument from Descartes, in 1628—
For the human mind has within it a sort of spark of the divine, in which the first seeds of useful ways of thinking are sown;
to Locke’s groundbreaking image, in 1690—
Let us then suppose the Mind to be, as we say, white Paper, void of all Characters, without any Ideas; How comes it to be furnished?
to Leibniz’s elegant retort, in 1705—
"Une pierre de marbre qui a des veines plutôt que d'une pierre de marbre tout unie ou de tablettes vides, c'est-à-dire de ce qui s'appelle tabula rasa chez les philosophes."
This giant list is not an arbitrary exercise. The eighteenth century—an era freshly and increasingly aware that the psyche is its own place, and certainly the first era equipped to vocalize this awareness on a large scale—is worth studying under the microscope. In fact it’s Pasanek’s subject—the imperishable world of Locke, Berkeley, Pope, Swift, Defoe, Addison, Steele, Johnson, Hume, and Gibbon—that stands between his charming obsessiveness and pedantry.
Pasanek’s new book, a four-hundred-page footnote to his online efforts, tries to make sense of the mass of excerpts by filing them into eleven main categories and dissecting them in a petri dish of philosophy and history. It’s interesting, if stiff, reading for anyone invested in the Enlightenment, and it covers a lot of territory: the slave trade, for example; England’s court system at the time; fashion; the minting of currency; food; horses. And with so much poetic material packed into the discussion one realizes how pressing it was to these writers to describe the inner workings of the mind with accurate yet accessible imagery. But there are no big revelations here. Pasanek knows this. Rather, the effect of this deluge of excerpts is to immerse the reader in bath of the Enlightenment. One gleans a closer intimacy with that fascinating creature, the eighteenth-century reader, and his milieu, the way one’s fingers get inky when flapping through a newspaper.
And that’s about as far as it goes for a mountain of data. (The book’s identity is its strongest aftertaste.) One of the virtues of Pasanek’s pet project is that it knows its limits. It aspires, wisely, to breadth, not depth. “Though routinized,” Pasanek writes, “these researches were not automated and, had I world enough, and time, could have been done ‘by hand.'” Despite the “technoscientific” methodology, despite the book’s graphs and charts which often toe the line of medieval angelology, Pasanek understands that his subject, a distant historical consciousness, is not quantifiable, and that a keyword trudge through an online database can can only supplement an evening on the couch with, say, Tristram Shandy or Clarissa, two of the grandest metaphors ever conceived for the human mind. He seems to understand T. S. Eliot’s plea,
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
Or at least Pasanek has reminded me of these lines, which will continue to haunt me as the gap closes between technology and culture
Metaphors of Mind: An Eighteenth-Century Dictionary, by Brad Pasanek; Johns Hopkins University Press, 392 pages. $49.95.