What About the Rogue?
Survival and Metamorphosis in Contemporary British Literature and Culture
Ana Raquel Lourenco Fernandes
Comparatism and Society Series, vol. 15
Brussels-Oxford-New York: Peter Lang, 2011
Paperback. 284 pp. ISBN 978-9052017334. €34.50 / £31.10 / $53.95
Reviewed by Camelia Elias
Roskilde University (Denmark)
The Fool Takes All
The new book by Ana Raquel Lourenco Fernandes, What about the Rogue? Survival and Metamorphosis in Contemporary British Literature and Culture is a fresh and illuminating addition to the critical history of the rogue, the fool, or the bum. This character has many names, as its nature has never been to settle on anything. The rogue, by whatever name he goes, resists concrete categorisation. Quite appropriately then, Fernandes titles her book with a question, which is not asked merely rhetorically. Beginning with the title, this book suggests a double irony at stake in attempting to redefine the rogue. Not only is the reader meant to understand that there is a whole venerable tradition of conceptualising the figure of the rogue which goes back to the 15th century, but also that whatever we might come to think of the rogue in our time, we can also let him be. What About the Rogue?, in addition to titillating our curiosity, thus has a ring of resignation. There is little one can do for the rogue. This subtle tone in the title points to what diverse British writers have always seen as problematic for the rogue, namely to find a place in society, and problematic for the rest of us: how do we feel about the rogue?
If one thinks of the rogue as he was conceptualised already in medieval times, as a fool, a madman, or an irresponsible person, one could argue that where the tension arises is in this contradiction: we like the fool, but we cannot live with him. Having to account for the fool’s meandering according to societal rules and regulations has never been either useful or enlightening. The fool floats in space, is not conscious of anything, amounts to nothing, and is only useful to others insofar as he functions as a catalyst for everyone he comes into contact with. Usually, however, contact with the fool ends quickly, often in bitter tears and bewilderment. For, who can understand what a fool is up to, or why he does what he does? If anything good remains after the encounter with the fool—in literature or otherwise—then it is our hidden desire to be as free as the fool. Yet, as no one in their right mind will admit to being fascinated with the idea of bumming about as a fool, independently and irresponsibly, the task of making some sense of the fool has been left to the poets and literary folks.
What about the Rogue? does a good job at charting different portrayals of the rogue, and playing them against each other in a polyphony of voices which all say the same thing: let us celebrate the fool. Now, while this may be harder to achieve if we identify fools in politics—who can celebrate a moron who can declare wars as he pleases?—Fernandes’ book brings out the complexity of this character against the background of tradition. Beginning with a solid survey of the critical history of the rogue and literature of roguery since the 16th century, when we learn that the rogue was thought of as a confidence man, Fernandes updates this history to include other representations of the rogue up to the year 2000. This book is a great piece of scholarship that is as playful and provocative as it is thorough in its approach to how we might not only identify the rogue in a contemporary context, but also to how we can think of this figure in more nuanced ways than before.
Divided into three main chapters, this book is a comprehensive study of the survival and metamorphosis of the rogue through centuries, and it focuses on contemporary literary texts and visual and cinematographic productions. The book engages in a nuanced and reflective way with a discussion of the revival of the rogue in the 50s, while also approaching the topic from a comparative angle. Both in its method and conceptual organisation, this book achieves a high level of mastering the art of balance.
In the First Chapter, Fernandes tackles the development of the rogue as a concept throughout history, law, and literature, adding a touch of what haunts English literature. The argument here is that insofar as the very character of the rogue relies on instability, it thus also persists in many guises. Not only does the rogue survive, because he cannot be pinned down to anything, but he also infiltrates and permeates all the dominant discourses. Bakhtin’s work is invoked with great efficiency here, and Derrida’s recovery of the term is also addressed in a sophisticated way. In deconstructive parlance, the underlying question here is how to think of the rogue, who is insignificant politically, as having agency? The challenge is in understanding the rogue’s function beyond his character. In other words, how to speak of the rogue, the forever (in)visible character who breaks all reasonable patterns, in reasonable terms without betraying the very resistance to reason that the rogue insists on?
Chapter Two continues the track of the consequence of acknowledging that while the rogue is there, visible, he has no voice. By indicating turning points in the literatures by Iris Murdoch, James Donaghue, John Wain, Kingsley Amis, John Braine, Jack Clayton, and others, Fernandes suggests that the voiceless rogue still makes us laugh or cry. He may be part of the satirical or tragic undercurrent in society, but having acquired new epithets signalled by the neo-picaresque novels’ titles, such as the rogue as an artist, a lucky man, a wonder of the world, a rebel with a cause, the rogue is on the verge of becoming a type of a hero who gets to exert his agency in unsolicited projects. In the literatures of the 50s and 60s, the rogue has stopped bumming about yet speaking wisely on matters that do not concern him, as he is now some sort of an amorous anarchist activist. Between playing tricks on people and dating married women, the playboy rogue is an existentialist male chauvinist. Yet, as Fernandes argues, it is precisely such qualities as “individualism and money, violence, love and marriage, unfaithfulness and trickery, male-chauvinism vs. women’s emancipation” that form the backbone for “a substantial argument for the survival of the rogue and the importance of this character in literature today” .
Here, although Fernandes does not draw on irrelevant secondary sources, it would have been interesting to hear what she might think of placing the rogue in an analogy with figures such as Oscar Wilde’s Mrs Erlynne from Lady Windermere’s Fan. Especially Mrs Erlynne’s views of marriage come close to the very philosophy of the rogue—if the rogue has a philosophy. If the woman escapes the traps of rules and conventions that keep her in her place, the rogue intuitively realises what the woman already knows, namely that marriage is a game that ruins man, a room without windows that gets smaller and smaller, and a limitation in all aspects. Not only does the rogue run as fast as he can from such constraints, but he is also not interested in the dominance of the dull world. Furthermore, when Lord Darlington addresses the core issue close to any (rich) rogue’s heart, “Who are the people the world takes seriously? All the dull people one can think of, from the Bishops down to the bores”, we come to think of the essence of roguery, namely to destabilise all unimaginative states.
Fernandes’ fine discussion of the parodic elements in both literature and film adaptations of the 60s spills into her Third Chapter where she tackles the postmodern rogue in the works of Martin Amis and Irvine Welsh. Here we encounter the nihilist rogue on the verge of suicide, the hybrid rogue who embodies ‘skag’ and ‘porn,’ erudition and popular knowledge, and the sentimental rogue, who sticks around when things fall apart. This latter characteristic is very unlike the picaro, but here, as Fernandes argues, it is not the act of ‘sticking together’ that is significant, but the material that enables this sticking. Taking her cue from the lyrics of Lou Reed’s Velvet Underground, “I’m sticking to you, ‘cos I’m made out of glue,” Fernandes suggests that the postmodern rogue, at least as depicted in Welsh’s Glue, is an Emperor whose clothes are changed by powerful women. The substance of the Emperor of Glue, as it were, is to go against moral plans. Yet, morality is there, but not articulated in any reasonable terms. It is for this reason that the 90s rogue, while having acquired a consciousness about the futility of trying to be part of the system, moralises on the necessity of accepting the system. The 90s trickster is thus not a mere confidence man anymore, but a man of discernment. When to speak with authority and when to be silent becomes his primary task. Which yet, is in itself, and befitting the postmodern challenge, as foolish as it gets.
From Ana Raquel Lourenco Fernandes’ book one learns that what the figure of the rogue teaches us is that wisdom and kindness can be achieved beyond codes of morality. One learns that the rogue survives precisely by virtue of his being able to situate himself against all currents. We learn something from the rogue who never expects anything. In this sense, we can say that the rogue is powerful because he is the only one who knows what it means to have no expectations. Having no expectations means being free of disillusions and disappointments.
The book finishes with an illuminating interview between the author and David Lodge, in which a number of other titles of potential interest for readers of this genre are discussed. It is as if there is no end to how many ways we can actually think of the rogue. This is both good and bad. For, in places, instead of having to listen to the voice of authority, Lodge, instructing Fernandes on what other literature there is out there concerning the rogue, one would like to see Lodge actually address the significant questions which Fernandes poses, rather than ramble on about titles. Take this issue, for instance. Says Fernandes: “The question of morality or amorality is extremely interesting because there seems to be no explicit morality but in-between the lines there is: through the actions of the central character the reader is put in such a position that he/she has to make a judgment.” Answers Lodge: “Yes, I agree about that. Have you included Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar (1959)? Do you know the book? You definitely ought to read that”. And so it continues, with Lodge saying nothing at all interesting about morality.
In conclusion, Ana Raquel Lourenco Fernandes’s book is a superb piece of work. Rooted in very thorough scholarship, the book is also written in a very clear and accessible language, as well as being playful in its arrangement of texts and paratexts. The excellent epigraphs counter the numerous notes—which, although too many, testify to a great wealth of knowledge. And the quotes often perform the arguments that the author advances. The book is an excellent toolbox for any reader interested in literature that tackles the subversive, as it simply touches on all the significant aspects worth paying attention to in this genre. The book also comes with an extensive bibliography, which supports the many original insights that Fernandes graces us with.
Cercles © 2011