Sunday, August 16, 2015

Lauren Shook: “Literature and Luxury”

Lauren Shook

Book Review

Alison V. Scott, Literature and the Idea of Luxury in Early Modern England. Ashgate (Farnham, 2015), vii + 237 pp. ISBN: 978-0-7546-6403-1

1> In Literature and the Idea of Luxury in Early Modern England, Alison V. Scott sets forth an intriguing question: how did the concept of luxury become, in the postmodern world, an essentially “morally neutral concept” when it was a hotly debated moral, political, and economic issue in seventeenth-century England (1)? Previously presumed to be a one-dimensional concept synonymous with “lust” and “lechery,” luxury was a protean concept affiliated with “riot, excess, indulgence, rankness, revelry and dissipation” and disorder, “ill rule and sedition” (7). Throughout her study, Scott demonstrates that seventeenth-century English writers, ranging from preachers to comic satirists, discussed luxury in ambiguous and ambivalent tones and indulged in luxury while deriding it as immoral, illusory, and dangerous. Most importantly, this befuddled reaction to luxury opens the way for a dynamic transformation of luxury from a “classical vice or medieval sin to modern social benefit…and marker of distinction in postmodern, capitalist society” (1). To mirror this dynamic transformation, Scott uses each chapter to tease out the nuanced meanings of luxury, beginning with the “moralized luxury” found in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and ending with a “particularizing abundance” in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, which marks luxury as commercial lack rather than immoral excess as depicted in Spenser (26, 175). Scott is right to note that this transformation neither happens in a strict chronological timeline but operates more on a continuum so that luxury, at times, remains a moral issue even at the same time it takes on economic affiliations. What Scott uncovers is that seventeenth-century English literary discussions of luxury are deeply concerned with order and hierarchy: social, moral, political, and to a certain extent, gender, although Scott leaves the latter relatively unexplored.

2> Chapters 1 and 2 emphasize the early modern roots of luxury as an amalgamation of medieval, Christian “luxurie” (lust) with the classical, Roman luxuria, a concept describing social disorder and misrule of the commonwealth due to masculine reason that has succumbed to feminine passions and carnal desires. Lust and misrule go hand-in-hand, a perhaps unsurprising premise of Scott’s argument given the wealth of scholarship on the relationship between gender and the body-state. Chapter 1 suggests that Spenser’s Acrasia personifies Luxuria and lust to argue that Guyon’s defeat over “luxury is also an engagement with it” (41): Guyon must simultaneously take sensual pleasure in the sin of luxury by visually consuming Acrasia’s Bower of Bliss even as he seeks to destroy it. Moving from Spenser’s epic to early modern drama (the study’s most represented genre), Scott shows how Cleopatra became “a byword for luxury.” Despite Roman constructions of Cleopatra as a Venus-Luxuria figure, which threatens to consume Antony’s masculine virtu and Rome’s political order, early modern appropriations of Cleopatra by Thomas Heywood, Samuel Daniel, and Shakespeare reveal “the growing complexity of contemporary attitudes toward the feminine, sensual, and material luxury she embodied” (62). Both Heywood and Shakespeare use Cleopatra and her famed pear banquet to dislodge luxury from its pejorative connotations. For example, in Heywood’s If You Know Not Me, Thomas Gresham reenacts Cleopatra’s consumption of the pearl, fashioning it from the purely erotic realm into an “aristocratic language of luxury” (70). Scott returns to notions of aristocratic luxury in Chapters 3-5 but first provides a compelling reading of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra. In Shakespeare’s hands, Cleopatra at once embodies Luxuria and “a Hellenistic aesthetic of luxury as beneficial excess (bounty) pleasure and beauty" (82). Here Scott’s interrogation of Cleopatra’s relationship with luxury uncovers the positive associations of luxury in political, economic, aesthetic, and, I would add, ethnic terms. Indeed, an interesting addition to this chapter would delve more into the conflation of gender, class, and ethnicity regarding luxury and Cleopatra, which Scott flags as a divide between “eastern fashion” and “western magnificence” (56). In combination with recent work by Edith Snook (Women, Beauty and Power in Early Modern England) and Laura L. Knoppers current research on luxury, gender, and power,[1] Scott’s informative study offers exciting directions for exploring the early modern gendering of luxury or even how the gendering of luxury might have possibly made discourses available for other positive connotations of luxury.

3> Chapters 3, 4, and 5 effectively highlight exactly how seventeenth-century English literature opens space for luxury to become a marker of class distinction and a strengthening point of the nation, even despite displaying an ambiguity with luxury. Chapter 3, moving from the fictional space of the Bower of Bliss and the historical conceptualization of Cleopatra’s luxurious East, centers on the burgeoning urban center of London, a symbol of Luxuriosa, as it became a teeming hotbed of prostitutes, pickpockets, panders, and playhouses. As the commerce market saw increased expansion, London developed a luxurious atmosphere of self-abandon and abundance ripe for satirists such as John Donne and John Marston. Much like Guyon’s battle with Acrasia, satirists condemn luxury by indulging in a poetic abundance. Their poetry stands as “an art form of morally dubious excess” and becomes an “aesthetic object of luxury” (95). Chapter 4 stresses how seventeenth-century satirical comedy, particularly by Ben Jonson, blends moral and socio-economic denotations of luxury in order to affiliate luxury as lust/sensuality with material wealth and an indulgence in objects. The playhouse offers audiences a place to see, hear, and consume luxury but then decide “whether or not to license luxury in imitation of the elite, or to renounce it and depart” (122). Chapter 5 explores luxury as “public benefit,” noting that seventeenth-century debates adapted luxury to secure social order and strengthen the commonwealth. Luxury is no longer seen as a civilization’s undoing but the way in which civilization is made. Poetry, art, and entertainment begin to shift into a category of “luxurious edification” (159). Jonson, The Entertainment at Britain’s Burse, a play written for Cecil’s New Exchange, weighs in on this shift to show its English audience the dangers between emptily embracing accepting luxury instead of understanding its value in promoting class distinction.

4> Scott concludes with a return to Rome, in a sense. Focusing on two Roman tragedies, Jonson’s Catiline and Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Scott suggests that with the burgeoning socio-economic life of Jacobean England came a renegotiation of luxury as “an inevitable product of the regulation of the body politic” (176). Jacobean writers revisited the history of Roman civilization in order to understand the role luxury, lack, and excess played in Rome’s demise as a way to conceptualize those concepts in relation to England. According to Scott, Jacobean writers were still wary of luxury’s crippling effects on the body politic but saw it as a masculine failure of regulation rather than a product of feminine excess; a new concern, too, is projected upon the gap between the rich and poor rather than a concern with luxury’s sway with political leaders. Scott most productively identifies the latter concern with her acute attention to the starving body-state in Coriolanus, which as she notes, is a stark juxtaposition to the “rich sensuality and luxurious plenty” found in Antony and Cleopatra, with which her study opened (194). In Coriolanus, the patrician’s storehouse of grain simultaneously occupies a abundant space of balanced political order (for the patricians) and an excessive space of unjust governance (for the plebeians), which for Scott symbolizes a concrete moment in Jacobean England where luxury begins to resemble its modern counterpart and from which eighteenth-century reassessments of luxury arise.

5> Much more than just a contextualization of eighteenth-century debates on luxury, Scott’s study is a fresh addition to scholarship on how Jacobean English drama, especially that of Jonson, shaped seventeenth-century commerce and socio-economics. Scott also contributes to the growing interest in new/historical formalism, feminist formalism and formal studies, more generally. There are moments when Scott speaks directly about aesthetics and form, such as her note that Samuel Daniel’s The Tragedie of Cleopatra uses Senecan drama “to assert a moral high ground and distance from luxury’s ambiguous and destructive spectacle” (66). Might we then think about genre’s effect on luxury and luxury’s effect on early modern aesthetics? Finally, Scott’s book inaugurates an altogether new interest in seventeenth-century concepts of luxury, precisely because Scott persuasively argues that “luxury” is vital to understanding seventeenth-century literature, economics, and politics. As Scott’s study ends with how luxury strengthens the early seventeenth-century commonwealth, I look forward to future scholarship that might explore luxury in the mid-seventeenth century England. In particular, are Scott’s identified definitions of seventeenth-century luxury challenged, refashioned, and redeployed as nation gives way to unprecedented political and social upheaval?

[1] See Knopper’s biography on her university webpage .

Lauren Shook is at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her current book project centralizes the female body as an active agent of early modern authorship. She has an article on Lucy Hutchinson’s Order and Disorder in Modern Philology.

Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature and Culture,
Volume Eight (2015): Dialogues & Exchanges

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