previous | next

Dissertation Abstracts

Neimann, Paul Grafton, Jr. Mechanical Operations of the Spirit: The Protestant Object in Swift and Defoe. The University of Texas at Austin, 2010.

This study challenges histories that understand the eighteenth century in terms of an epistemic shift between religious ways of knowing and the technical apparatuses of the modern, secular state. It acknowledges persisting spiritual thought by broadening our sense of what counts as early modern religion in literature. I argue that parish-level disputes around the liturgy evolved a language for evaluating mental habits conditioned by everyday devotional and cultural objects. Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe, drawing on this Protestant folk psychology, confront even paradigmatically modern artifacts (from trade items to scientific techniques) as a spiritual ecology—that is, a network of edifying practices and idols that provoke familiar forms of mental-spiritual wellness and illness in well- or ill-formed individual subjects.

Current historiography, as I argue in chapter one, neglects the post-Reformation focus on sectarian objects that not only discipline religious subjects but also provoke ambivalence and anxiety. Swift’s A Tale of a Tub (1704) (the subject of chapter two) exemplifies this hermeneutic: Swift describes Catholic knavery and Puritan hypocrisy as psychic strategies for extracting pleasure from immiserating styles of material praxis. Swift’s ridicule of liturgical conflict thus expresses a coherent cognitive prescription for conscious mastery, rather than idolatry, of social imperatives, a flexible regard for the spirit, not the letter, of the Law.

Dominant models of religious belief as dogmatic certainty or, as in Weber, totalizing enchantment, too readily equate Swift’s Anglican moderation with secular pragmatism or cynical priestcraft. Conversely, zealous dissent, in these narrow epistemological terms, appears as a fragile, otherworldly sensibility eroded by commercial or scientific competence. Critics burden Robinson Crusoe, for example, whether read as spiritual autobiography or materialist fantasy, with unconvincing accounts of Defoe’s faith in providence’s magical guidance. By looking to a more practical piety, I read Robinson Crusoe (1719), in chapter three, as a phenomenology of spiritual exercises for habituating psyches to adverse conditions faced by dissenters in England.

Swift’s partial re-imaging of Crusoe as Gulliver in the Travels (1726), discussed in chapter four, represents an orthodox rejoinder to Defoe’s claims for freelancing Protestants, yet in the same interpretive mode. Compared as devotionals, rather than as variations on the novel or travel narrative, Crusoe and the Travels yield conflicting visions of the church ekklesia as a guarantor of psychic health and problem-solving. Isolated from the established church, Gulliver identifies with material cultures that produce recognizable iterations of sectarian illness.

The final chapter explores Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (1722) as a pragmatic application of links between objects and states of the soul. With graphic reproductions of vital statistics, quarantine orders, and quack medicine advertisements, the text has been associated with bureaucratic governance and aggressive commodification in an Enlightenment project. But Defoe’s archive of public speaking more plausibly models London as an interpretive Protestant polity. His view of the city as the ideal unit of governance reflects a culturally Presbyterian sensibility—attuned neither to the national territorial church nor to the isolated or amorphously networked godly communities of enthusiasm or independency. Plague, no respecter of sectarian boundaries, but determined by physical vectors of contagion, demands consideration of medical data from the city as a comprehensive unit. But Defoe points out dissenters’ legal or civic invisibility as a crucial gap in London’s historical and statistical records: the failure to realize a unified Protestant hermeneutic community is both unchristian and a health hazard.  

previous | next


Contact Us - 2009 Digital Defoe | ISSN 1948-1802 (online)