Thursday, August 05, 2010

Bruce Thomas Boerhrer, Renaissance Overeating: The Sad Case of Ben Jonson

Bruce Thomas Boehrer, Renaissance Overeating: The Sad Case of Ben Jonson, PMLA, October 1990, Volume 105, Number 5, pp. 1071-1082.

Jonson’s drama and poetry alike castigate vicious excess—including, in poems like “On Gut” (epigram 118) and “To Captayne Hungry” (epigram 107), immoderate dining—and critics of Jonson’s verse regularly praise its “clarity and restraint” (Woods 84), virtues it ostensibly promotes both formally and thematically. The result is one of the remarkable spectacles of English literary history: a famous fat man and legendary drunkard constructing a cult of personality around his own excessive girth while excoriating his contemporaries for eating and drinking too much. (1072)

Further, this age- and class-specific gluttony (which Stone convincingly relates to social display and conspicuous consumption) contrasts with the economic discomforts of the Jacobean peasant and merchant classes. (1072)

In short, I argue that Jonson’s work embodies the unstable interplay between two theoretically distinct notions of economy; committed on the one hand to celebrating the “civilized values” of the Stuart ruling class (Woods 82)—values that include conspicuous consumption and programmatic overindulgence in food and drink—Jonson’s verse seeks on the other hand to assimilate those values to a discourse of restraint, balance, and classical severity. In the process, each of these notions of economy adopt the qualities and contours of the other; … (1072)

…a poem like Jonson’s “Inviting a Friend to Supper” (epigram 101) can be, and consistently has been, regarded both as a “triumph of the plain style” (Loewenstein 491) and as a celebration of temperance. … Wesley Trimpi contrasts this poem to Petronius’s Trimalchian feast, concluding that for both Jonson and Petronius, “the richness of [a] banquet becomes a symbol for the moral poverty of the host,” and argues that Jonson’s ideal supper, like his epigram, avoids extravagance and vulgar ostentation (188)

…Trimpi compares the poem with the house rules that Jonson composed for the Apollo Room of the Old Devil Tavern—rule that explicitly insist on “moderate cups” and “refined taste rather than...expense” (187). /
Here I intend not so much to contest these findings as to explore the conditions or their possibility. For if “Inviting a Friend to Supper” can be read an as invitation to temperate dining, the temperance the poem represents proves highly unstable. Richard Peterson rightly observes… a celebration of temperance represented as satiety; and for this ideal satiety or fullness, Peterson concludes, “Jonson’s own bulk [can serve] as a fit emblem” (31). Likewise, Joseph Loewenstein regards Jonson’s corpulence as a defense mechanism, “an attempt to shore up a fugitive being within a bulwark of flesh” (510). Thus epigram 101 navigates the distance from Jonson’s … utopian laws for the community of the Old Devil Tavern from his reputation as pub crawler, fat man, and rowdy. (1073)

If any single line from “Inviting a Friend to Supper” encompasses the instability of Jonson’s rhetoric, it is the poet’s assurance after reciting the menu: “Of this we will sup free, but moderately” (35) (1073)

The house is poor, the far unworthy of esteem, and the entertainment insufficient to attract the guest, whose presence would indeed dignify the feast. Still, having portrayed himself and his house as simple, unable to secure his guest’s appearance by purchase or bribery, Jonson nonetheless immediately proceeds to attempt what he has just said he cannot possibly do: to lure the guest to supper with the promise of an extravagant meal. (1073)

And indeed, in Jonson’s promise not to subject his guests to his verse—a promise that, composed in verse itself, of course cannot be delivered without violating its own spirit—we may once more see the poet’s typical method of producing moderate behavior. “Inviting a Friend to Supper” consistently describes immoderate, even hypersophisticated pleasures (like listening to a manservant read aloud from Vergil) and then calls these offerings simple and poor. The poem immediately breaks its pledges, forcing itself to ignore the space thus generated between assertion and performance—or perhaps simply pretending, like Jonson’s sources in Martial 5.78 and 11.52, that its logical discontinuities are a matter of jest, with no bearing on the essential coherence of the poem’s vision. In so doing, Jonson’s epigram embodies the sort of contradiction that Marx has ascribed to bourgeois subjectivity in general:
The petit bourgeois, by the necessity of his position, acts as part socialist and part economist, that is to say, he is dazzled by the magnificence of the big bourgeoisie and sympathizes with the sufferings of the people…Such a petit bourgeois deifies contradiction, because contradiction is the basis of his existence. He himself is nothing but social contradiction, put in action. (53)

Thus, at its most obvious, epigram 101 invites the reader to have some homely, unpretentious brie and wash it down with a little humble Dom Perignon. (1074)

Stanley Fish’s counterclaim that “the concept of an inner moral equilibrium escapes Jonson’s verse which is always citing the concept as its cause, but never quite managing to display or define it” (39)

…for Greene (and for Jonson) the notion of moral equilibrium ultimately reinscribes the scriptural adage “To the pure all things are pure”(Titus 1.15): “the married lecher is still in a sense adulterous” (332); Jonson can eat and drink until he chokes and still remain temperate; “Captayne Hungry,” by contrast, remains vile and gluttonous even when he refuses to eat (“Come, be not angrie, you are Hungry; eate; / Doe what you come for” [31-32]). Moderation becomes not something one does but something one is. (1074)

Hence the space of simple “liberty” that epigram 101 constructs (42) proves finally to be neither very simple nor particularly free. Indeed, just as Jonson’s menu can be both unworthy and sumptuous—and Jonson’s guest can be both immune to seduction and infinitely seducible—… (1074)

The freedom of the night’s revelry is constructed through a process of rigorous surveillance instituted and controlled by the host; Jonson himself can guarantee safety and good cheer only by occupying an absolutist position within his poem—seeing all, controlling all, and defining all. From this position alone, totalizing and transcendent, can Jonson claim to embody the contradictions that structure his verse: humility and luxury, freedom and constraint, simplicity and sophistication, moderation and indulgence. (1075)

In the early moths of 1613, at the very time that Jonson was assembling his first and only book of epigrams, the policing of one’s dining room might have struck any citizen of London as an immediate concern. That, at least, is how it struck Thomas Middleton, who in the same year satirized Jacobean sumptuary regulations with his comedy A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. … the harvest of 1613 was expected to be poor, and there was wide-spread fear of food shortages. As a result, austerity measures were in force; a sort of Jacobean food police watched over the populace of London, … Prowling the streets and confiscating prohibited foodstuffs, these promoters assume the same power of surveillance— (1075)

Moreover, they use those powers and abilities to much the same end as Jonson does, creating a little private party for themselves and a few select friends, a party in which gluttony can reign under the sign of moderate: … (1075)

Noting “the obvious conflict between the real-life Jonson and some of his dignified artistic posturings,” Arthur Marotti persuasively argues that Jonson is “an artistic schizophrenic, with a Dionysian and an Apollonian side” (210, 209). (1076)

He scorns the very kinds of social regulation that he promotes in “Inviting a Friend to Supper” and in his house rules for the Old Devil Tavern. … the more he overindulges in food and drink and audacity, the more he confirms his unique social and literary privilege. (1076)

Jonson’s behavior in this last anecdote suggests the social grounding of his reputation, for it parallels one of Jacobean history’s most famous moments of drunken immobility: the year is 1606, the place is Sir Robert Cecil’s residence at the Theobalds (soon to become crown property), the horrified spectator is Sir John Harrington, and the inebriated principals are none other than King James I of England and King Christian IV of Denmark: … Elsewhere King James could find sympathy aplenty, not least of all from Jonson himself. As Loewenstein notes, Jonson’s masques display a fondness for matters of food and drink, fatness and revelry, and in Pleasure Reconcild to Vertue the Mount of Atlas, the “anthro-mountain,” functions as a symbol of “roial education” (506). The relation between Jonson’s authority and James’s id oddly symbiotic: Jonson derives his privileged status from James’s approval and returns that approval to James in part by representing “roial education” as a figure of indulgent corpulence. /
In short, Jonson’s work embodies a popular Jacobean strategy for social aggrandizement: conspicuous consumption in the name of an all-powerful and all-virtuous monarch. (1077)

Indeed, only when viewed through the glass of courtly behavior can Jonson’s own eleven-course in literary dyspepsia, “Inviting a Friend to Supper,” assume the contours of moderation. … One may recall, for instance, Stone’s account of the great feast with which Lord Hay welcomed the French ambassador to Essex House in 1621: … the food placed on the table is very largely there to be wasted, and this waste confirms both his own status and the status of his guests, whose “worth will dignifie [his] feast.” (1077)

Still, Jonson’s own formidable talents as a courtly flatterer are crucial in enabling him to promote his ideas of friendship, independence, and personal integrity. As a child of humble parents and as a former bricklayer and soldier, he insists that personal worth and moral value are independent of court display, that the true friend and worthy supper guest cannot be bought or coerced; yet it is precisely his participation in the discourse of display that validates his voice and that leads to the material success he enjoys. Hence the sad case of Ben Jonson: he cannot successfully assert his notion of moral value without transgressing it in the same gesture; he cannot become the monarch of literary moderation without weighing 280 pounds. (1078)

“To Penshurst”…a Magic Kingdom replete with fauns, satyrs, and enchanted copses, maintained “with no man’s ruine, no mans grone” (46), accessible to an beloved by all equally…This social utopianism culminates, predictably, in the poet’s own promotion to king; for at Penshurst one’s comforts are limitless and promiscuous… Yet to be king, Jonson himself must be served, and he is… to be a meaningful place of comfort and cheer, Penshurst must be served, and it is… to be an authoritative exponent of civilized leisure, the poet must be able to poke gentle fun at the clumsiness of those less refined than he, and he does. (1078)

The entertainment at Penshurst, like that of epigram 101, is “free” to the point of “gluttony” (68) at the same time that the estate itself if modest, even humble… In short, Penshurst becomes a perfect nigh spot for the author of “Inviting a Friend to Supper”; small wonder, then, that the poet enters his work in person only once: at the dinner table. (1078)

The sad case of Ben Jonson: the poet can only affirm the authority of his “centered self” by compromising its very centeredness and centrality. The Horace and Anacreon of Jonsonian classicism yield inevitably to the politics of conspicuous consumption, so that even when Jonson pretends to be talking to himself, he is mounting yet another literary spectacle for the benefit of others. As Harris Friedberg remarks, Jonson’s verse seeks “a point of contact between the realms of poetic language and orginary reality,” aiming to affirm the poet’s personal values and identity “in nature” (118); but what it repeatedly discovers, instead of a point of contact, is a nonnegotiable discontinuity. The ideal of stoic restraint collapses into the coercive, self-assertive rhetoric of dinner invitations and drunken tomfoolery: “Huskes, Draffe, to drinke, and swill.” A failed supper party turns honored and noble guests into livestock form the common street. (1080)
His discourse of moderation—assertions of stoic calm, gestures toward classical restraint and the plain style, the pretence of cheerful humility—repeatedly melts into the language of royal absolutism and autocratic display. (1080)

While agreeing with Wayne that Jonsonian classicism is “potentially if not intentionally egalitarian” (151), I must immediately add that Jonson’s egalitarianism will forever reamin merely potential. Hence the tense interplay between Jonsonian simplitictas and the gluttonous expense of King James’s masques: to promote plainness, Jonson must participate in extravagance, and he typically mystifies this relation by renaming display restraint and vice versa. Is a series of formulations that could have come directly from Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, Jonson claims that anger is calm, that surveillance is liberty, that nobility is humble, and that drunken groumandise is sober diet. This strategy rehabilitates the fat Jonson of courtly excess in the image of an almost revolutionary classical severity, much like the Roman republican virtue that would later inspire revolutionary movements in England, France, and America. (1080)


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