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Chloe Chard, Pleasure and Guilt on the Grand Tour: Travel Writing and Imaginative Topography 1600-1830. Manchester University Press, 1999. ISBN 0719048052. Price: £16.99.

  • Sophie Thomas

…more information

  • Sophie Thomas
    University of Sussex

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This is, on the whole, an impressive and resourceful book that takes as its main subject the rhetorical strategies travel writers make use of in accounts of their journeys. These accounts take many forms, from generic first-person narratives to descriptions of travel—or attitudes to travel—that find a home in a range of literary genres, including novels and poems, although few canonical works of literature receive any sustained analysis. This is not, Chard emphasizes, a socio-historical project, but an examination of the rhetoric of description and response used in the encounter with the foreign. The "foreign" primarily designates Italy, since the book focuses on the Grand Tour, but physical geography is emphatically sidelined in favour of what Chard calls an "imaginative topography" (10)—a site for producing rhetorical and theoretical strategies for understanding and appropriating the foreign, a site, thus, that gives rise to certain identifiable forms of language. Since these forms of language register "pleasure" and "guilt" one might expect questions of consciousness, subjectivity, and identity to come into play, but Chard clearly eschews psychoanalytic considerations for a more descriptive account of "discursive formations": their implicit rules and regularities (common themes, assumptions, speaking positions, and so on), and their appropriations of other discourses, such as aesthetic theory, art criticism, geology, botany and demography, and other discourses of travel, such as primitivism, Orientalism, and Romantic Hellenism (13). Important theoretical questions are occasionally raised, but Chard prefers to remain the detached compiler of an at times excessively itemized array of examples.[1]

Chard's first chapter pays particular attention to the rhetoric of opposition and intensification that writers make use of, and these are carefully analysed in all their variant as well as constituent parts. An engaging review of the rhetoric of travel emerges, some aspects of which remain alive in attitudes to travel today. Much is made of the opposition between the familiar and the foreign, in which the familiar must be loyally defended against the excitement, and challenge, of the foreign. The relation of the traveller to the foreign, moreover, is expressed in terms that barely suppress a sense of rivalry, in which the right balance must be struck between appreciation and censure, between immersion in the new, and maintaining the stance of the detached observer (the gendered configuration of this conflict pits a submissive, luxuriating effeminacy against manly liberty and independence of mind). Implicit appeals to caution notwithstanding, the rhetoric of travel in the eighteenth century also involves an acute sense of drama or intensification, and the use of hyperbolic formulations to convey it. Chard draws these forth from an extensive catalogue of examples: some emphasize strategies of comparison and/or incompatibility, some make use of 'itemization' as a way of underlining the uniqueness of a series of objects, and the sense of wonder they elicit (curiosity is another important factor in seventeenth century accounts of the Grand Tour in particular). Profusion, excess, immoderate production (e.g. the natural fruitfulness of Italy, the sheer number of Bernini statues...) also suggest of course (and not without a significant trace of guilt) the pitfalls of immoderate consumption. Much of the pleasure derived from travel is directly related to its control or containment, which makes Chard's attention to rhetoric itself both appropriate and productive.

The self-consciousness of hyperbole relates in no small measure to the self-dramatization of the writer, to the way in which certain travel accounts especially emphasize the position, or function, of the speaker as the provider of a verbal experience that must equal the "extravagance and intensity of the topography" (64). In this sense, rhetorical ingenuity is complicit with a topographical extravagance that it also emulates. Even so, writers make frequent recourse to a self-protective use of irony, so that the implication of the self in the act of experience (or the observation of experience) is similarly shielded by language. The extensive use of hyperbole, with its direct rhetorical relation to the excesses of the topography, nevertheless seems to conceal-by-hiding (or at least by attempting to hide) a deep anxiety that travel elicits. Chard's implicit attention to the hidden "negative" of travel—hidden by, among other things, hyperbolic rhetoric—is sustained in a subsequent chapter that deals directly with hyperboles of the unrepresentable. In the attempt to fit language to the topography, there are inevitable moments when description fails, when no linguistic formation is adequate to the task. The familiar trajectory of the sublime is apparent in such cases, which make unabashed use of the inexpressibility topos. The effect of this is to confirm the status of the eye-witness, and confirm his or her authority along with that of the experience itself. It also emphasizes immediacy by suggesting or even claiming that the account is being composed on the spot. There is, Chard notes, a corresponding attempt at spontaneity in the writing, and this comes across in a deprecation of literary extravagance and scholarly reference. The claim that a given commentary is being written before its object, is made on the level of an exclamatory syntax, one given to repetitions (oh! too!) that attempt to catch the writer in the very moment of being struck. Displays of responsiveness do individualize the commentary, though there is a danger in excessive indulgence (an effeminate lack of control) that must be guarded against. Anxieties—about maintaining authority, about originality of response, about falling into tedious repetition in relation to other accounts, or simply that the landscape might fail to generate the desired hyperbole—are shown once more to determine key aspects of the rhetoric of travel. Indeed anxiety seems more important to Chard's study than guilt, and it is a pity she does not pursue its psychoanalytic implications.

The experience of the sublime is ostensibly fresh and intense: it is rhetorically useful as well because it conveys an experience of strangeness that familiarity cannot diminish (113). Moreover, as an exceeding of limits—a "throwing beyond," as its etymology suggests—hyperbole offers an apt trope for the sublimity of the natural world. Curiosity and wonder, those staples of eighteenth century accounts, are replaced by Burkean astonishment, and this has the effect, certainly, of breathing new life into the rhetoric of response (even though one might want some attention, here, to the distinction to be made between experience and the representation of it). One of the strengths, however, of Chard's account is to show precisely how the rhetoric of the beautiful and the sublime is mapped on to the experience of the Grand Tour-ist. The central terms, once again, are power and authority. The experience of the sublime is self-confirming, at least in its final stages, when the rational powers are restabilized and one "swells in triumph" (115). But the incitement to this is of course an awareness of threat, in which self mastery has been thoroughly undercut by a sense of the self's utter insignificance. All this makes the discourse of the sublime a difficult, if highly appropriate, discourse to adopt for travellers anxious to balance the intensity of their experience with their narrative authority and self-control. The concept of the beautiful, by contrast, is often deployed as a useful counterpoint that restabilizes the authority of the observer.

The sublime and the beautiful are both overdetermined, in Burke and after, by gender associations, and the terms travellers use to convey what is effectively the same opposition affirm this (e.g. the savage and the gentle, the wild and the cultivated, the barren and the fertile). Chard makes effective use of Burke's analysis of the "physical causes of love": that relaxed langour that is so often associated, in a geography of the passions, with warmer climes. Travellers are yet again required to manage their rhetoric carefully, for if beauty, along with a langorousness induced by warmth, is effeminating, then there is threat here too. Chard suggests that loss of control has been displaced from the sublime to the beautiful, although this is to some extent countered by Burke's emphasis on the invigorating effects of simply making an effort, of rousing the self, in the way the traveller implicitly must. Probably most telling, though, is the way the sublime, with its manly qualities, is preserved by predominantly northern European travellers as a northern phenomenon. The sublime is experienced primarily at a point of transition, during the crossing of the Alps: on the periphery, thus, between north and south, and in a zone recuperable as "northern" in contradistinction to the more temperate and benign southern regions.

The important place of gender in Chard's analysis comes across especially clearly in a chapter devoted to spectator and spectacle, in which the associations of women with the antique are explored. Women are useful, rhetorically, as metaphors for lack of restraint, but also for difference, and for that mysterious otherness that is also characteristic of the foreign. They present disguises and obstacles to "knowledge," although the implication is generally that the resistance of the feminine, and with it the topography of the foreign, can be conquered readily enough. Ruins and antiquities share this quality of appearing to belong to a remote and inaccessible past, to which the antiquary responds with the zeal of a lover: nor are they entirely beyond the reach of the traveller's efforts to understand and assimilate them, and here too, the power of obscurity to stimulate and "seduce" the imagination plays its part. Ancient ruins that have a direct female association, such as the tomb of Cecilia Metella on the Via Appia Antica in Rome, elicit responses that elide the antique and the feminine in such a way as to "convert historical time into personal time" (133—the example here is Canto IV of Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, where the speaker proclaims an intuitive understanding of the tomb's "inmate"). The result is a transportation of "antiquity" into "a private domain of emotional intimacy" (135), an effect also achieved in the case of living women who either appear in ancient sites, or who somehow resemble antiquities (de Staël's Corinne).

From the mid eighteenth century on, travel writing frequently considers the relationship between past and present as one in which "the past is always poised to resurge disquietingly within the contemporary topography, and [poised to] use various repositories of memory, such as ruins, antique fragments, and ghosts, as sites or vehicles for such resurgence" (140). This is a suggestive idea that comes across most strongly in accounts of ruins that bear the mark of a female presence. On the other hand, women who appear in ancient sites not only evoke the destabilizing possibilities of memory, but also suggest a reviving, a resurgence, of life (an example Chard uses here is Jensen's Gradiva and Freud's account of it). Women with the power to revive the ancient past include, famously, Emma Hamilton, whose "attitudes" (live performances in imitation of antique figures and statues, e.g. Medea, Niobe) became a noteworthy sight in Naples in the 1780s and 90s.

Chard argues that models for the viewing of artworks provided the main metaphor for the activity of observation undertaken by the traveller in late eighteenth century commentaries, but that these models were open to the possibilities, and dangers, of crossing the boundary between viewing subject and viewed object. In certain instances, the writer suddenly finds him- or herself in the position of the spectacle, rather than spectator (as in Mary Wortley Montagu's account of her visit to the Turkish baths, when her clothing—understandably—attracts the attention of the naked female bathers). There is a certain attraction in allowing oneself to be absorbed into the spectacle in this way, but the careful writer avoids compromise by artfully preserving the status of the spectator throughout. Chard turns here to Fried and his model of absorptive viewing as another way of crossing the divide between spectator and spectacle. Moments of intense emotional identification, or enthrallment, occur in response to objects or figures encountered by travellers too, but perhaps the traveller can avert danger (once again) because the itinerary, the necessity for moving on, exerts a not unwelcome counter-force.

The resistance of the traveller to the dangers and enticements of travel, which the rhetoric of travel writing clearly negotiates, appears to weaken in the final decades of the eighteenth century, to be replaced by a view of travel that acknowledges and welcomes the (perhaps permanent) change that boundary crossings invite. This includes a direct exploration of the more unsettling aspects of travel, of the kind Freud undertakes in "A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis" of 1936 (another example falling outside Chard's circumscribed chronology, but also yet another reference to Freud in a book that resists the psychoanalytic dimensions of its subject). One longs to travel in order to escape, or exceed, the restrictions of home and family, and this longing is perhaps more familiar than the eighteenth-century commitment to acquiring and ordering knowledge of the world through an effort of observation and comparison. A discourse of travel that is prompted by "a passionate need for self-realization," and that views travel as an "adventure" of the self answering to personal needs and desires, takes greater hold in the nineteenth century, and makes the self the primary reference point of experience (183). Indeed, the question of an authentic freedom is at stake, and the discourse of the sublime is now engaged in plots of "pleasurable liberation" (187); it is admitted more freely that a superior form of freedom is to be found abroad.

These ideas resonate with twentieth (and twenty-first) century attitudes to travel, where longing for (sublime) transcendence is often felt. Chard notes variations in the "plot of destabilization" emerging in the early nineteenth century, in expressions of restlessness, in the implicit acknowledgement that travel is "an addictive search for an unattainable goal" (203 & 206). Her final chapter addresses an attitude to travel that actively opposes the view of travel as transgressive and destabilizing, namely tourism. Here, Chard departs from the view that tourism as we know it emerges from the end of the Grand Tour, and argues that if tourism is to be seen as "a system for managing pleasure and keeping danger and destabilization at bay" (208), then its precondition must be the "Romantic, destabilized" approach, where it is possible to see early stirrings of the general attitude informing the touristic approach. It is important, as Chard notes, that while opposing rhetorical strategies evolve, they also coexist: the central thrust of her project is to chart a range of possibilities that often operate in tandem. Even today, she suggests that what we can say and write about foreign places is determined by the tension between these two main approaches: tourism, and destabilizing travel.

Chard's study is comprehensive, detailed, and thoroughly researched, even if her impressive recourse to examples can come across as a mechanical act of cataloguing, or of matching texts to conclusions. Her approach clearly involves a kind of travel through travel writing, where the necessity of moving on, so to speak, prevents her from staying, conceptually, in one place for very long. And yet the book is at its strongest when there is a sustained engagement with a single text, or set of texts, as in parts of the chapter on "Spectator and spectacle," which is especially persuasive and engaging. One feels, moreover, some uneasiness about how its chronological and even geographical scope is managed. On the one hand, a compelling picture emerges of how attitudes to travel develop in response to each other, and to social and historical forces, over the centuries, and across traditional period boundaries. On the other, frequent references to the twentieth century—though outside the main focus of the book—can be unduly generalizing. The focus on the Grand Tour, however defensible, can also be frustratingly narrow. This is felt when Chard makes reference to texts or examples beyond it, such at Mungo Park's Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa, or to Mrs. Belzoni's account of women in Egypt, Nubia and Syria. One misses, finally, a few considerations nearer to home: in her discussions of how aesthetic theory infected the rhetoric of travel, there is no mention of the picturesque, which was surely important for the language of viewing, and for the discourse of eighteenth travel abroad as well as in England. These quibbles aside, though, this is a rich and rewarding book that contributes greatly to current interest in the literature of the Grand Tour.

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