For a while, I tried to think through Mary Douglas’ “cultural theory” in relation to attitudes towards waste in nineteenth-century British poetry. The upside of the theory is that it allows for comparisons between cosmologies, classifying not the substance of beliefs, but the density and frequency of internal and external classification scheme boundaries along two axes. Some individuals feel much pressed upon by classificatory boundaries but are also cocooned by a strong sense of group to which they belong (hierarchical), others are pressed upon by classificatory boundaries without any sense of group (fatalists, at the mercy of the universe), others still view themselves as free from boundaries and group alike (individualists), and then there are the enclaves/cults where individuals feel strong group borders but within those borders are not organized excessively. From the simplicity of the two axes, Douglas seeks to derive and explain (as far as “explanation” means much in the context) a wide range of group responses to crisis, risk, and danger.
The trouble in general is that the scheme is relative and an individual may be situated in one sector in some areas of her life and another in other areas; sometimes it depends on the allegiance to group they profess or require at a given time; sometimes, two allegiances to group (or no group) may simultaneously be in play. How to decide between them? The answer, for Douglas, is to begin with the response to risk, and work back to classify. It is not, however, often possible to analyze someone’s place in group and grid without knowing already the response that such a place explains.
In terms of literature, the trouble is related but sharpened: literature contains within it contradictory impulses and allegiances. The scheme threatens to obliterate the arguments of a text against itself.
But what Douglas claims about cosmology being comparable in terms of a few variables that can be generalized across difference remains tempting for those wishing to think more deeply about the nature of judgments, and the conditions of judgments, across authors.
The trick in applying Douglas’ ideas to literature is to a) grant that two extremes of any axis will be acknowledged, to varying degrees, in a work and then to work out how/what that entails and b) assume that the notions of the axes are themselves subject to the judgment of texts and authors, rather than underlying them. I would also offer a third axis; the sectors in which authors might be placed is considerably enlarged, but the sectors become less significant than how each axis provides a heuristic for comparing and interpreting the judgments of authors.
Taking Douglas’ work as a starting point, I would suggest for the three axes:
–Openness towards external influences and travelers/closure to external influences and travelers.
–Tolerance for ambiguity/fear of the irresolvable.
–Sense of abundance/anxiety over scarcity.
The meaning of each will be different for each poet or era, but I think it a general characteristic of the Romantics that they trust greatly in the abundance of the world, tolerate a great deal of ambiguity and are open to external influence, both of the foreign, but also of the otherworldly and classes of people; at the same time, they isolate themselves in regard to the reading public, performing a drama of alienation and inspiration that closes them to one external source of energy; they often fear clear resolution in poetic form and in decisive action (or in the “enclosure” of Clare); and they are anxious over the scarcity of their own powers, since a world that is teeming with feed does not ensure that they are strong enough to graze.
The generations succeeding the deaths of Shelley and Keats were aware of the scarcity of new forms, exhausted by the inventiveness of the Romantic imagination, but also the scarcity of that generation itself, its having distanced itself either by death or by retirement; yet their sense of abundance lay in the inheritance it bequeathed, they mine and return and mine some more, not to reheat and rehash but to renovate their own thoughts. The world for them is abundant, but scarce in the most valuable materials for creation (Browning’s monologues, and other poetry, is a perpetual dramatization of this; the language is flabby at times because the world, though ever-present, is not ever-worthwhile). At times, the abundance of the world is an ominous abundance of wreckage (of the personal history, as in Hardy, or creation, in Tennyson). They accept the inevitable presence of ambiguity and uncertainty but the yearning for closure is greater; their invention of form, the dramatic monologue, implies the inevitability of closure, by circumstance, speaker and audience. Closure, in fact, often becomes a theme for the Victorians as it is not for the Romantics: the Victorian death-swoon, for instance. In the range of speaking subjects and states of consciousness, Victorian poets extend the Romantic trend: poetry is open to more of both. There is not one state of inspiration, not one speaking self. It is a stage that will be carried furthest in the Modernist era. But then against that openness, there is an attendant tightening of the grip on the notion of a self at all, so that sometimes it seems that the Victorian achievement is in part a diversifying of the experience of isolation, with the awareness of the diversity providing little to overcome the condition itself. More broadly, there is in Victorian literature an anxiety about the fading of class borders that gets into poetry by a representation of voices from more classes.
My question when I first pursued this line of thought, with Douglas as a guide, was “why”? Her answer, in addition to being a heuristic for further analysis is: comparison and explanation not so much of any one sort of behavior but of why different people cannot agree on their response to a situation. For poets and eras of poetry, what needs to be explained is not why they do not agree in a debate but how the common stock of techniques and inheritance available at any time is differently managed by contemporaries; and then, looking across eras, to explain what changes and what is continuous; Douglas points towards a renewed way of approaching literary history that is neither narrowly literary nor ultimately ideological, but that instead balances both.