Friday, May 17, 2019

Andrew Franta's "Systems Failure"

Andrew Franta is an associate professor of English at the University of Utah. He is the author of Romanticism and the Rise of the Mass Public.

Franta applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Systems Failure: The Uses of Disorder in English Literature, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Systems Failure: The Uses of Disorder in English Literature tells a story about romance, enlightenment, and gothic possession. The chapter in which the page appears argues that, in his 1794 novel Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, William Godwin makes a case against both sides of the English debate about the French Revolution. Through the story of a curious and intelligent servant unjustly accused and persecuted by his aristocratic employer, Godwin demonstrates the shortcomings of the conservative response to the Revolution and the radical defense. He does so, moreover, by depicting a series of failed handshakes—socially significant gestures that, in the story he tells, never bring about the agreements they are intended to effect. On page 99, I argue that the failed handshake between Caleb’s master, Falkland, and his antagonist, Tyrrel, sets the pattern for the novel and determines Caleb’s fate. Caleb is curious about the secrets that lie in his master’s past; he is determined to discover the truth, but the truth does not set him free. Instead, it binds him to Falkland and destroys them both.

I argue that the handshake is a powerful gesture for Godwin because it shows both how people are connected and how they are torn apart. Caleb and the others characters in the novel can’t live up to their promises, but, at the same time, they can’t avoid making them. In his 1793 political treatise Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Godwin maintained that “we ought to be able to do without one another”; Caleb Williams, by contrast, dramatizes “the ‘invincible attachment’ that inescapably and involuntarily binds one individual to another.” Godwin’s philosophical anarchism attempts to rationalize social relations by doing away with them; his novel makes it clear that this effort must fail. This failure links page 99 of Systems Failure to the book’s larger argument about how a range of prominent writers from Samuel Johnson and Laurence Sterne to Jane Austen and Thomas De Quincey take up civil and cultural institutions designed to rationalize society only to reveal the weaknesses that undermine their explanatory power. This obsession with the failure of systems is the source of some of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English literature’s most penetrating insights about the structure of social life.
Learn more about Systems Failure at the Johns Hopkins University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue