Tragic mediation in The White Devil
Thomas J. Moretti
Observe, that no society hath the privilege to be free from a Judas.
Thomas Adams, ‘The White Devil’ (1613)1
For decades, John Webster’s The White Devil has been pushed and pulled
between the poles ‘early’ and ‘modern’: on one end is the claim that the play in
fact offers a complexly moralist, even providentialist worldview; on the other
end is the reading of The White Devil as a cynical, even radical tragedy, one
which bears witness to a culture facing nihilistic anxieties and which represents the
are inscribed (literally) on the map and, by extension, on the material fabric of the city itself. Sinclair attempts to summon the lost presence of Rodinsky (emblematic of the lost Jewish presence in Whitechapel) by revivifying his walking practices, quasi-magically invoking him through an urban ritual based upon journeys inscribed on Rodinsky’s map.
Franco Moretti, in his book Atlas of the European Novel 1800–1900 (1998), offered an entertaining and illuminating set of analyses of novels and stories of the nineteenth century, illustrated
, where Exxon (which is, as Sinclair explains in the London Orbital film, the company of US President George W. Bush) has its storage tanks. The economic logic of vampirism as mapped onto contemporary capital. Although I have elsewhere suggested that Sinclair’s mode of critique gestures towards the transcendent rather than being strictly materialist (or Marxian), the connection between Marx and vampirism occurs even in Das Kapital . Franco Moretti, in Signs Taken for Wonders , notes that vampirism is a ‘metaphor for capital’ in Stoker’s Dracula . According to Marx
. Judith Walkowitz suggests that London had been understood as a ‘bifurcated city’, east and west culturally and economically opposed: labour and capital, poverty and leisure, criminal and bourgeois, alien and nation. Franco Moretti, in his Atlas of the European Novel 1800–1900 (1998), makes a similar argument about London’s duality, which he diagnoses in Dickens’s Oliver Twist :
Two half-Londons, that do not add up to a whole … It is Dickens’ great wager: to unify the two halves of the city. And his pathbreaking discovery: once the two
Peter, was a mapmaker and surveyor) and an imperial one (the
generational transition from colonial expansion to, with Thomas,
the settling of the continent by an independent United States).
Both Jeffersons, though, embody the Enlightenment imperative to
self-regulate, to overwrite the landscape with what Franco Moretti
has described as ‘the impersonal and automatic mechanisms of the
In Mason & Dixon this imperial geography is competing with an
already crowded terrain, for the land is inscribed with earlier – and
differently configured – markings
, ‘James Kelman interviewed’, Scottish Studies Review, 5:1 (2004), 106.
31 Maley, ‘Denizens, Citizens, Tourists’, 66.
32 Nancy Armstrong, ‘The Fiction of Bourgeois Morality and the Paradox of Individualism’, in Franco Moretti (ed.), The Novel. Vol. 2: Forms and Themes (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006), 387.
33 Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 148.
34 Willy Maley, ‘Swearing Blind: Kelman and
the complex dynamics of Herkunft and change, might indeed come
to different conclusions.
While also partly committed to a questionable notion of empiricist
factuality, Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees (2005) can count as
one of the most radical recent redrawings of the traditional understanding of what genre is and how it works. It sets out to present ‘[a]
more rational literary history’ by means of ‘distant reading’.46 In the
first section of his book, Moretti uses a quantitative approach to graph
a wealth of data that he eventually uses to explain the rise
the genre, The Way of the World (1987), the
Marxist critic Franco Moretti developed Bakhtin’s insights. For
Moretti, the birth of the Bildungsroman was called forth by the
traumatic birth of modernity in the French and Industrial revolutions.
The Bildungsroman, he argues, ‘comes into being . . . because Europe
has to attach a meaning, not so much to youth, as to modernity’.29 With
its young protagonist who is painfully negotiating the journey of selfformation, while simultaneously struggling to find a place in the social
world, the Bildungsroman gave narrative shape
prevalent. In the first part of his essay, Robertson applies the
methods of Franco Moretti’s ‘distant reading’ in support of his contention
that Parliament’s 1643 ordinance, on the whole, successfully restricted the
London press’s output when it came into effect that June. In the context
of this increased control of the press, Robertson then traces the battles
waged in print and in courtroom trials (accounts of which were, of course,
then printed) over the liberties, or lack thereof, enjoyed by authors and
publishers during this tumultuous decade. Whereas traditional
undertaking would only be possible with an
army of researchers, perhaps utilising the statistical methodology of
Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees.10 Selection is necessary, so it is the
novels that are most demonstrative of particular types of closure, rather
than ones that use biblical iconography or geological metaphor, that are
included. Moreover, the novel is such a fertile form that it is not feasible
to assert that narrative fiction changed direction in this period.
Nonetheless, the novels selected show that these new forms were not
hidden away in experimental