“Jayne Elizabeth Lewis’s Air’s Appearance is unique in its provocative brilliance and startling originality. Lewis extracts from a comprehensive series of works and authors the revealing interrelationships of atmosphere as a descriptive literary term and as an object of scientific inquiry in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In subtlety and suggestiveness, in critical inventiveness, historical range, and intellectual depth, her book is a revelation.”
Air's Appearance: Literary Atmosphere in British Fiction, 1660-1794by Jayne Elizabeth Lewis
In Air’s Appearance, Jayne Elizabeth Lewis enlists her readers in pursuit of the elusive concept of atmosphere in literary works. She shows how diverse conceptions of air in the eighteenth century converged in British fiction, producing the modern literary sense of atmosphere and moving novelists to explore the threshold between material and immaterial/i>
In Air’s Appearance, Jayne Elizabeth Lewis enlists her readers in pursuit of the elusive concept of atmosphere in literary works. She shows how diverse conceptions of air in the eighteenth century converged in British fiction, producing the modern literary sense of atmosphere and moving novelists to explore the threshold between material and immaterial worlds.
Air’s Appearance links the emergence of literary atmosphere to changing ideas about air and the earth’s atmosphere in natural philosophy, as well as to the era’s theories of the supernatural and fascination with social mannersor, as they are now known, “airs.” Lewis thus offers a striking new interpretation of several standard features of the Enlightenmentthe scientific revolution, the decline of magic, character-based sociability, and the rise of the novelthat considers them in terms of the romance of air that permeates and connects them. As it explores key episodes in the history of natural philosophy and in major literary works like Paradise Lost, “The Rape of the Lock,” Robinson Crusoe, and The Mysteries of Udolpho, this book promises to change the atmosphere of eighteenth-century studies and the history of the novel.
“Air’s Appearance is witty as well as elegant. The subject is original, the research breathtakingly wide-ranging, and the language lyrically clear. Its suggestiveness alone opens up so many new interpretive possibilities, so many new ways of historical thinking, so many new perceptions of air in text and air around. It makes you think and see differently.”
“Air’s Appearance will electrify eighteenth-century studies. In this wide-ranging, original, and iridescently stylish study, Jayne Elizabeth Lewis demonstrates how from the Restoration until the 1790s efforts, variously, to define or to soak up atmosphere linked the spheres of natural philosophy and modern fiction. Over the course of that demonstration she gives us a startling new account of how readers learned to believe in novel fictions whose distinguishing feature was their air of truth.”
“Comprehensive and fascinating.”
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Air's AppearanceLiterary Atmosphere in British Fiction, 1660–1794
By JAYNE ELIZABETH LEWIS
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chapter OneRounds of Air
AIR. Any thing light or uncertain. SAMUEL JOHNSON, A Dictionary of the English Language (1755)
As eighteenth-century writers often remarked, the atmosphere of the British Isles is novel at every turn. "In many parts of the world, wet and dry are regularly expected at certain periods," Samuel Johnson's Idler complained in 1758, "but in our island, every man goes to sleep, unable to guess whether he shall behold in the morning, a bright or cloudy atmosphere." Such volatility marks a moment in time as well as a point in space, since in Johnson's lifetime Britain passed out of the so-called Little Ice Age. Floods alternated with droughts, hard frosts, and apocalyptic storms; temperatures fluctuated so wildly that consecutive summers could yield the hottest and coldest temperatures on record. In the late seventeenth century, dust storms in East Anglia brought John Evelyn to mind of "sands in the Deserts of Libya"; yet on several occasions between 1690 and 1728, Eskimos kayaked up Scotland's river Don. Johnson's words thus seem to domesticate the unsettling sense that British insular "atmosphere" is itself only insofar as it never quite is.
Air should be a more stable matter. But what, come to think of it, is air? The question teased the material- and mechanical-minded of the day; the definition of air that we find in Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language (1755) tells us why it did. "AIR," begins the Dictionary, confidently enough:
AIR. n.s. [air, Fr. aer, Lat.] 1. The element encompassing the terraqueous globe. 2. The state of the air; or the air considered with regard to health. 3. Air in motion; a small gentle wind. 4. Scent; vapour. 5. Blast; pestilential vapour. 6. Any thing light or uncertain; that is as light as air. 7. The open weather; air unconfined. 8. Vent; utterance; emission into the air. 9. Publication; exposure to the publick view and knowledge. 10. Intelligence; information. This is not now in use. 11. Musick, whether light or serious; sound; air modulated. 12. Poetry; a song. 13. The mien, or manner, of the person; the look. 14. An affected or laboured manner or gesture; as, a lofty air, a gay air. 15. Appearance. 16. [In horsemanship.] Airs denote the artificial or practised motions of a managed horse.
No one has seen air at any time. It has this in common with God, if not the other elements. And to this invisibility, Johnson's "AIR" owes its own uncertainty, its suspense among so many different meanings that, in the end, all we "see" in his definition are the words that work to make air apparent. Its head possibly turned by its descent from one of the flightier romance languages, Johnson's "AIR" signifies both matter and "an affected or laboured manner," no more or less an "element" (or a solid "state") than pure "appearance." In English an air might be an "utterance" or a piece of "musick" ... but then again it might just be a "look." A transient, invisible "scent," it is also a lasting "publication" held up for "exposure to the publick view." Air, "light or serious," can be either a "small gentle wind" or "a blast." Even though "knowledge" is one thing that it conveys, "AIR" is, as Johnson's sixth definition admits, always "uncertain." "Any thing light or uncertain" is air.
The twenty-first-century scholar who sets out to ascertain much at all about the air that appears in eighteenth-century anglophone documents such as Johnson's Dictionary thus sets herself a task at least as foolhardy as any the lexicographer undertook. This is not just because air is everywhere and can be almost anything but because, "light and uncertain," it is so easily mistaken for nothing itself. That was often its fate in the literate culture that informed Johnson's Britain, a culture whose certainties apparently depended on its skepticism of anything that did not take visibly substantial form. Those who treated uncertain air as a material body subject to empirical analysis came in for ridicule from figures as various as Shadwell, Hogarth and Swift; of course, those who treated it as an immaterial one reaped their share of scorn, often at the same hands. A burgeoning literary marketplace supported both schools of derision. But here came an irony. Balanced just tenably between matter and not matter, air mimicked the material bought and sold in that marketplace—the writing, visible purveyor of things invisible, that had become a cutting-edge technology of national identity, cultural authority, and common knowledge. To make matters yet more interesting, as it found itself dispersed far and wide via the novel medium of print, writing in English set out to emulate, capture, contain, displace, and (at least notionally) replace the air. "Intelligence; information," Johnson writes, citing the tenth of air's sixteen possible meanings. "This is not now in use."
Johnson, it is well known, arrived at all of his definitions of English words by reading, taking notes, and vetting and arranging marks made by earlier English writers; the irreducibly literary nature of this undertaking is what makes his Dictionary of a piece with the building of the English literary canon through such works as the comparably massive Lives of the English Poets (1779–81) and gives it ground common with both contemporary natural philosophy and the literature of the supernatural. In concert with both of these traditions, Johnson's Dictionary reached through the dense textual medium in order to "lash the wind"; its aim was to make at least one kind of air—the kind shaped and traded in English speech—apparent in the visible and material form of letters. "That fine matter" (as Johnson calls it) only laughs at this ambition's pretensions, its airs.
Yet there is a twist. Haunted by the ephemerality of all sublunary things, including English and including air, Johnson's lugubrious preface to the Dictionary never cracks a smile. At the end of it, the lexicographer puts down his pen and sinks into "the gloom of solitude," resigning himself with "frigid tranquillity" to the wind of "empty sounds" that he has learned he cannot lash—that, if anything, lashes him (Johnson, Preface to Dictionary, 113). He is convinced that (by definition) he has done nothing of significance. Yet aside from what Johnson's preface says about the relationship between thin air and thick letters, its melancholy mood differently, if less directly, registers "uncertain" air. His contemporary George Cheyne associated the notorious "Moisture" and "Variableness" of insular air with the "Lowness of Spirits" that constituted the "ENGLISH MALADY." Ill-defined and unknowable through conventions of reference, the shifting atmosphere in which English speech took shape permeates and yet seems to rise from Johnson's own melancholy writing. So is that writing informed by the very air that, at the referential level, has so obviously escaped it. Over time, it has been his air of frigid tranquility that has allowed Johnson's readers not just to analyze his hefty work of reference but to sense its presence. So does Raymond Williams register the "air of massive impersonality" that permeates Johnson's lexicography, and Freya Johnston note his "fear that what he has written will be received in a severely cold spirit."
Almost against its will, Johnson's Dictionary suggests that to communicate through or in English is to engage with more than one kind of air and to do so in more ways than one. Still, in a last-ditch effort to take the guesswork out of "AIR," Johnson turns to the hymnodist Isaac Watts and his Logick; or the Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry after Truth (1725). No help, alas, is at hand: "If I were to tell what I mean by the Word Air," Watts wrote, and Johnson echoes under his first stab at defining air, "I might say, it is that thin Matter which we breathe in and breathe out continually; or it is that fluid Body in which the Birds fly a little above the Earth; or it is that invisible Matter which fills all Places near the Earth, or which immediately incompasses [sic] the Globe of Earth and Water." Watts already knew that "Logick" is defied by a "Matter" as "fluid," as "thin," and as "invisible" as air. So how do we know whether air is "matter" at all? In the case of both Johnson's Dictionary and Watts's Logick (in its eighth edition by 1745), it seems to become matter according to the variable "manner" in which it is articulated and received. Hence Watts declined to say what air was, coyly tendering only what he might have said "if I were to tell what I mean by the Word Air." In fact, in Watts's Logick the definition that Johnson's Dictionary uses to stabilize air appears merely as a way to show that "a Definition of a Name [is] only a Declaration in what Sense the Word is used."
One moral, at least, seems clear: instead of asking what air is, these two writers propose, we may be better served by asking how we say anything about it at all. Because "the 'spirit' is afflicted with the curse of being burdened with matter," Karl Marx was to generalize, it "makes its appearance in the form of agitated layers of air, sounds, in short of language." There is no subject matter that makes the "sounds," or indeed the rounds, forms and postures of human articulation more apparent than air does; in Watts's words, as echoed by Johnson, "that thin Matter" cannot be isolated from the schemes of those compelled to "breathe [it] in and breathe [it] out continually." Air can itself be grasped only peripherally, as it is transferred in specific languages from one such dependent to another. As Marx's example shows, this is scarcely a perception unique to English writers of Johnson's day. Aristotle's Meteorologica (350 BCE) begins with the confession that "our first difficulty concerns what we call the air"; in its quest for information about natural phenomena from clouds to comets, his book acknowledges air's unique, necessary, and difficult implication with "what we call it." The Stagirite even implied a certain reciprocity between the way one would speak about the air (literally what one would call it) and what one holds it to be, which was, in Aristotle's view, a composition of the exhalations, hot or cold, moist or arid, that rise from particular patches of earth (Aristotle, Meteorologica, 29). To "see" air as made of exhalations is in turn to see that vocal expression must literally participate in its composition. When voice is transferred to writing (and especially when it seems to rise from it, and even just when we say it does), what transpires is best summarized in the parlance of postmodern culture's ethereal Facebook: it's complicated.
Air's relationship to the written word was especially complicated in Johnson's insular Britain, within whose English writing culture both modern meteorology and the modern novel took shape. Indeed, the complicity between these two nascent genres is surprising and, like the word "atmosphere" itself, can be traced back to the middle of the seventeenth century. During the English Civil War, Puritans and Royalists both floated competitive readings of atmospheric "appearances" from comets and cloud banks to miasmas and the northern lights. The air studies later sanctioned by the Royal Society thus grew out of literary evidence that visible aerial events support rival interpretations. Reading the skies became in itself a reflexive quasi-literary practice, at least insofar as suspense among competing systems of meaning was built into it. In an evocative study of "romantic weather," Arden Reed captures this sense of being in weather as being adrift in a system of signs that are "unstable, unpredictable, indeterminate," the preformal formalism of "something evermore about to be." Following Michel Serres, however, Reed deems a Newtonian eighteenth century to have been preoccupied with the "erasure" of this aspect of meteorology; "the Enlightenment response" to mutable air was apparently to bring it indoors as an object of study so as to derive uniform principles in "a visual form of reconciliation." In Reed's own view, it was then for the romantic poets, in effect, to unsee air.
Not to put the romantics (or the romanticists) out of a job, but by the end of the eighteenth century many English aerial philosophers had nursed a deep sense of writing as a medium of reflexive investigation continuous with its aeriform object and indeed animated by it. True, representative figures such as John Pointer and Bernard Annely gave their books unimaginative titles, such as A Rational Account of the Weather (1738) and A Theory of the Winds (1729). But they also published them self-consciously in a medium whose appeal to the analytic eye was frankly disingenuous. For example, John Mills's Essay on the Weather (1770) voiced a commonplace: "The only model by which the changes of the wind can be traced with precision, undoubtedly is to keep regular registers of the weather, and mark every appearance in the heavens of the earth." The "regular registe[r]" that Mills stereotypically envisions is easily seen as a fictional and experimental form within typographical possibility, one that produced a graphic cloud through which the environment itself was seen, if not precisely by the physical eye. Mills's own prescription for "regular registers" is conspicuously underwritten by the language of art. Explicit frames interacted with the aerial objects that they organized so as to delineate—and produce—a novel and common literary environment, one with its own claims to immediacy and its own rules of order.
These claims and rules turn out to have been more coherent with the aspirations of fiction than they were with those of poetry. This is because eighteenth-century writers developed a theory and practice of fiction that held it to be an act of conspicuous pretense, one that incorporates the presumption of distance into its apparent claims to immediacy and retains the language of reference as pure form. To eyes trained to make their way through the printed page according to such protocols, the skies themselves were legible as just such a fiction. "Sights have been seen, even in England," claims the anonymous Wonderful History of all the Storms ... that Have Happened in England (1704), "Apparitions of fiery Armies, Castles, Towns, Monsters, and many other wonderful and dreadful Sights in the Air." Such reports, of course, potentially store the marvelous and the sublime in the air. But our Wonderful History actually looks another way. It is more interested in speculating that the splendors of the skies may be the projections of "certain Glasses and Instruments." Then again, they may "proceed from the Reflections of things on Earth, ... being a mixture of Forms, as if a History was confusedly painted, and, the reflections of the Sun carrying the Images of Things on its refracted Beams to the Clouds, they impress themselves there." Here the analogy between a confusedly painted history and cloudy apparitions is less important than the "as if " that makes them both dependent on the medium at hand for their perception.
It is through an autocritical, explicitly self-constituting British literary history that some sense of this dependency has been at once transmitted and preserved. There has never been a writer more informed by (or about) what she called Britain's "ordinary library" than Virginia Woolf, and it was Woolf who got at the intricate relationship between literary experience and its atmospheric counterpart. In 1926 the modern woman of letters found herself adrift in a slow-moving biography of four eighteenth-century sisters and braced herself for the long haul with the reflection that we common readers must "remind ourselves that there is such a thing as atmosphere." Woolf identified such atmospheric reading—at once detached and immersed—with the "interminable experiment with gold shafts and blue shadows" that one conducts while simply gazing up at the sky. Atmospheric reading, at least in Woolf 's book, never pretends to pin stable signs on some posited referent. Nor is it merely a lyric interlude. It keeps disappearing into writing, and writing itself is construed both as an activity and as the atemporal physical form to which that activity gives rise.
"Weather is a literary specialty," Mark Twain thus very accurately wrote in the preface to an 1892 novel, The American Claimant, set in predictably atmospheric England. "And no untrained hand can turn out a good article of it." Even the trained hand is challenged. Thomas Uzzell's best-selling 1923 creative writing manual, Narrative Technique, warns that "the atmosphere story" is "a field of literature attempted by but few." Why? While "it is necessary to make a powerful impression about the quality of the atmosphere," to this end "no mere description of a scene will suffice"; air must be registered through its effects on the "characters [that] have to be chosen to act for it." For Uzzell, these were both "human characters" and, as a diagram laying out "the pattern of the atmosphere story" made clear, graphic ones that both effected and represented the interplay of actions and effects (fig. 2). And what was choosing the characters "to act for it"? It's not clear.
Excerpted from Air's Appearance by JAYNE ELIZABETH LEWIS Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Jayne Elizabeth Lewis is professor of English at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of, most recently, Mary Queen of Scots: Romance and Nation.
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