Kirk Combe. A Martyr for Sin: Rochester's Critique of Polity, Sexuality, and Society. Cranbury, NJ, London, and Mississauga, ON: Associated UP, 1998. 186pp. ISBN 0 87413 647 4 Cloth. Jim Daems
University of Wales, Bangor. firstname.lastname@example.org
Kirk Combe proposes "a theoretically informed close reading" of Rochester's work (20). The bulk of his theoretical approach, which draws on Nietzsche and Foucault, is developed in the opening chapter in order to construct a framework within which Rochester can be politicized. Combe reads Rochester as seeking "to create indeterminability and textual chaos as a means of disrupting the particular regime of truth in which he finds himself" (21). Rochester, using the epistemology of the court against itself, is both icon and iconoclast at once. Combe, however, is too concerned with stressing his politicized reading of Rochester as novel. Thus, while he draws on Marianne Thormahlen's fine work, Combe largely ignores the work of critics such as Harold Weber, Robert Holton, and the recent collection of essays entitled Reading Rochester.
As he develops his argument, Combe tends only to motion back to his theoretical opening chapter, rather than rigorously apply his theory to his close readings. Beginning with the second chapter, Combe constructs a portrait of the courtly consumer of Rochester's work and his (Combe's pronoun) relationship to the political and religious regimes of truth. This is the "target fop" who, Combe argues, is damned, left intellectually and hopelessly afloat by Rochester's verse: "If the fop does not realize what the piece is on about with regard to exposing the mechanics of power and the manufacture of truth, he condemns himself a fool....If the fop does understand the nature of the linguistic showdown before him, he is rendered foolish again," as chaos prevails over any human attempt to construct order (28). One is, perhaps, left wondering how this insight reflects on any literary critic's task.
When he turns to the major satires, Combe's aim of reconciling the "universal with the particular" (46), by looking not only at generic issues but also at content, produces some interesting insights. Combe argues that, while Rochester's audience would not be entirely ignorant of the generic conventions of satire, the present import of the piece would have been of greater interest. Indeed, reading Timon, for example, might well provide the target fop with "the actual intellectual frustration and social distress of living in close proximity to Charles II" that Rochester experienced (53). The narrator of these poems is himself, according to Combe, "the target fop who sees" (60). Yet, Combe's repeated suggestions that persons in the poems, such as the host of Timon and the absent man of wit in Artemisa, represent Charles II are somewhat problematic in relation to his theoretical approach, as is his discussion of Burnet. Both Charles II and Burnet, though they may well be privileged subjects within a regime of power, are not entirely responsible for the illusion of power and truth that Combe identifies them with. Charles II, Burnet, and Rochester are caught within a network of power, as Combe should realize from his reading of Foucault.
Combe does, however, produce some insightful readings, and it is a welcome surprise to see such attention paid to "Doctor Bendo's Bill." Yet, his intention to perform a Foucauldian "effective history" gradually collapses. His use of critical theory may seem anachronistic to some, though, initially, Combe disrupts literary and historical categories in a way that challenges our own notions of truth and power. But, seeing Rochester as anticipating "the arguments of the National Rifle Association" and contradicting Franklin Delano Roosevelt's speech on fear (80), as well as Combe's insistence on a whig Rochester that precludes a liberal bourgeois individualism, undercuts his argument by reverting to teleology. If part of Combe's purpose in writing this book is to explore our own regimes of truth and power, at moments such as this, the reader is left wondering whether Combe is fully aware that he, too, is located within an historically specific regime of truth and power.
Burns, Edward, ed. Reading Rochester. Liverpool: U of Liverpool P, 1995.
Holton, Robert. "Sexuality and Social Hierarchy in Sidney and Rochester." Mosaic 24:1 (1991), 47-65.
Thormahlen, Marianne. Rochester: the Poems in Context.Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993.
Weber, Harold. "'Drudging in Fair Aurelia's Womb': Constructing Homosexual Economies in Rochester's Poetry." The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation. 33:2 (1992), 99-117.
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