Duncan, "The Trouble with Man: Scott, Romance, and World History in the Age of Lamarck"

Romantic Frictions

"The Trouble with Man: Scott, Romance, and World History in the Age of Lamarck"

Ian Duncan
University of California, Berkeley



1.        What was Walter Scott thinking when he wrote Count Robert of Paris? The last but one of the Waverley novels breaks the decorum of “the classical form of the historical novel,” first of all, with its setting. Constantinople, the end of the eleventh century: far outside the developmental continuum through which the “classical form of the historical novel,” according to Lukács, should render its “concrete prehistory of the present” (269). Scott’s readers would have understood the Byzantine Empire as doubly cut off from the path to modernity—by the schism between the Greek and Roman churches, which made Byzantium the decadent shadow of a more vigorous western civilization, and then by the Ottoman Conquest of 1453. The cast of characters conforms less to a set of historical types than to one of those fantastic oriental taxonomies we read about in Borges. Its specimens include Greeks, Turks, Normans, Varangians, Moors, Scythians, a homicidally irascible warrior-princess, a philosopher nicknamed “the Elephant,” a real elephant, a tiger, a mechanical lion, and a giant orangutan named Sylvan. Scott bedevils the historical novel—his signature genre—with an alien history and alien races and species.

2.        Scott composed Count Robert of Paris in fits and starts between December 1830 and September 1831. He was harassed by ill health, including a serious stroke, and by disagreements with his publisher, Robert Cadell, and his executor and son-in-law, John Gibson Lockhart. Just over one year later he was dead. Critics have not hesitated to diagnose the excesses and irregularities of Count Robert of Paris as symptoms of encroaching apoplexy—the cloudy effusion of Scott’s dotage, the decline and fall of the Author of Waverley. [1]  Much of the incoherence of the published novel is due to Cadell and Lockhart, who cut and rewrote Scott’s manuscript as it went to press. J. H. Alexander’s new restoration of Count Robert of Paris for the Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley Novels allows us to read it, at last, in something like the form the author intended. [2]  Among the passages published for the first time is an epilogue in which the ailing Scott reflects on the experimental character of what he thought might be “the last of my fictitious compositions” (Count Robert of Paris 362). The quest for “novelty at whatever rate” has driven him outside the usual ground of historical fiction, “domestic nature,” to “lay his scene in distant countries, among stranger nations, whose manners are imagined for the purpose of the story—nay, whose powers are extended beyond those of human nature” (362). Invention crosses a geographical and racial limit at which the “manners” that are governed by human nature turn into “powers” that exceed it. As examples of romances that go beyond human nature Scott cites Robert Paltock’s The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins (1751), a tale of a sailor shipwrecked on an island of flying people, and “a late novel, also, by the name of Frankenstein, which turns upon a daring invention, . . . the discovery of a mode by which one human being is feigned to be capable of creating another” (363).

3.        Of the two prototypes, it is clearly Frankenstein that grips Scott’s imagination. He had written one of the few appreciative reviews of Frankenstein, for Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1818; the present reference may have been prompted by advertisements for the forthcoming Bentley’s Standard Novels edition, revised by Mary Shelley, published one month after he completed Count Robert of Paris, in October 1831. On Scott’s own authority, it seems, we are to read Count Robert of Paris not so much as a historical novel than as a work of anthropological science fiction. Here at the foundation of both genres in British Romanticism, with Waverley and Frankenstein, the link between them is revealed to be genetic as well as analogical.

4.         The name of that link, “man,” identifies the philosophical question posed in Count Robert of Paris. It marks the work’s historical station not just at the end of Scott’s career but at the end of the philosophical project of Enlightenment, and specifically of the historical and anthropological turn that project had taken in eighteenth-century Scotland. In 1739 David Hume had given the project a name: “the science of MAN” (Hume 42). “There is no question of importance, whose decision is not compriz’d in the science of man,” Hume wrote: “In pretending to explain the principles of human nature, we in effect propose a compleat system of the sciences built on a foundation almost entirely new, and the only one upon which they can stand with any security” (43). The science of man would also supply a foundation for that modern, post-metaphysical upstart among literary genres, the novel. Hume’s contemporary Henry Fielding justified the “new province of writing” with the claim that it could provide a complete, authentic representation of “Human Nature” (Fielding 30, 68). The philosophical prestige attached to human nature would outweigh such defects as the novel’s lack of a classical genealogy, its identification with a mass market and with women readers, and so on. Reinforced by developments in the technology of fictional realism, human nature would remain the guarantee of an otherwise suspect genre for at least a generation after Charles Darwin’s decisive restructuring of a post-Enlightenment human science in The Descent of Man (1871).

5.        By the last third of the eighteenth century, meanwhile, Scottish philosophers had elected history as the discipline best equipped to realize the science of man, in conjectural histories of society, of manners and institutions, and of the arts and sciences, as well as of particular nations. It was the attempt to totalize these inquiries, to write the history of man as a species, which laid bare a fault-line in the category’s foundation. “The Human Species is in every view an interesting subject,” affirmed Lord Kames, in the preface to his Sketches of the History of Man; however, “there is still wanting a history of the species, in its progress from the savage state to its highest civilization and improvement” (Home I: 1). “The subject of this volume is the History of Man,” wrote Lord Monboddo, introducing the fourth volume of Antient Metaphysics, “by which I mean, not what is commonly called History, that is the History of Nations and Empires, but the History of the Species Man” (Burnett 1795: 1). These best-known of Scottish essays in the history of man are notorious for their disruption of the category they invoke: Kames for his contention that mankind consists of different species, branded with physiological as well as linguistic difference; Monboddo for his insistence that the mysterious great ape, the Orang-Outang, is man in his natural state, lacking only the artificial acquirement of speech. For these accounts, it seems, “man” signifies at once too much and too little.

6.         Kames’s and Monboddo’s cues are taken up with a vengeance in Count Robert of Paris. In Scott’s Constantinople—pullulating with different sects, nations, races, species—the boundaries between race and species, and between human and non-human species, melt and blur. The main figure for this boundary-flux is Sylvan, the Orang-Outang, who (among other accomplishments) speaks his own “unintelligible” language and understands Anglo-Saxon. Sylvan’s role has been well noted by the few critics who have discussed Count Robert of Paris. Graham McMaster reads the orangutan as an extreme declension of the noble savage, in a symbolic antithesis between nature and art (214-15), while Clare Simmons reads him as the “Romantic symbol of a loss of belief in human nature” (21). Their accounts frame “nature” as primarily a moral rather than a biological category in the novel. The newly restored text makes clear as never before, however, Scott’s pervasive play with forms of biological difference, including sexual as well as racial and species difference, in this most bizarre of all his works. Sylvan is only the most conspicuous figure in a horde of prodigies and monsters which overwhelms the traditional boundaries of “man.” Like Frankenstein, Count Robert of Paris opens to scrutiny the “specifically anthropological discourse of man” which underwrote, according to Maureen McLane, the newly-won autonomy of “literature” in British Romanticism as a distinctively human praxis (10-13, 84-108).

7.         Key to what McLane calls the “ideological biologization of species difference” in Frankenstein (107), played out through a Malthusian discourse of territory and population, is that novel’s speculative reach beyond a national geography. Victor Frankenstein travels beyond the habitable limits of Europe, to an alpine glacier and the Arctic Ocean, while the monster proposes the settlement of his new race in the deserts of South America. This sublime planetary range accommodates Shelley’s radical speculation on the potentiality for other races, other species, to challenge human dominion and human uniqueness. The mise-en-scène of Count Robert of Paris, while less spectacularly that of an early nineteenth century world-horizon, marks an analogous abandonment of the geography of national history as well as of that history’s philosophical foundation, a unified human nature. Scott’s Constantinople instantiates a new kind of setting for a new kind of historical romance: the cosmopolis, or world-city, as conjectural arena for a post-Enlightenment world history—the natural history of man.


8.        Recent scholarship has focused on the national contexts of Scott’s work, in the legacies of Scottish Enlightenment moral philosophy and historiography, in British Romanticism, and in the early nineteenth-century rise of Scottish fiction. This emphasis has fortified a traditional preference for the novels that take their subject matter from Scottish history, especially the great series of novels on the modernization of Scotland, from Waverley (1814) to the third series of Tales of My Landlord (1819; with the supplement of Redgauntlet, 1824). The romances after Ivanhoe (1820), with their miscellaneous British, European and Asiatic settings, remain comparatively neglected. An intermittent but decisive widening of scope across Scott’s career, from the philosophical domain of national history to that of world history, remains largely unexamined. Forecast as early as Scott’s second novel Guy Mannering (1816), with its Gypsies and off-stage Indian episodes, that shift of scope is fully established in Ivanhoe, in which dispossessed Saxons, Norman warlords, Jews, returning Crusaders and their Moorish slaves contend in the ancient forests of twelfth-century England; it is further developed in The Talisman (1825), a tale of the Crusaders in Palestine, and The Surgeon’s Daughter (1827), partially set in South India on the eve of the second Mysore War. The critical attention recently paid to Scott’s Oriental fictions has tended to frame them within the geopolitical horizon of British Empire, whether in proleptic analogy (Ivanhoe, The Talisman) or historical actuality (Guy Mannering, The Surgeon’s Daughter). [4]  The case for reading Count Robert of Paris within this national and imperial field of historical-geographical reference is harder to sustain. Far from being part of British imperial history, Constantinople was “a seat of universal empire” (Count Robert 4)—and a rival universal empire, involving a rival conception of universal empire, at that.

9.         The next section of this essay will consider the symbolic status of the world city, a new and vexed topos in Great Britain by the 1820s. But before we inquire what Scott meant by setting his novel in eleventh-century Constantinople, let us ask: Why Paris? Why should he have highlighted Paris, not Constantinople, in the title of a romance of the late Byzantine Empire? Fifteen years after Waterloo, Paris might have ceded geopolitical primacy to London: but it could still lay claim to being capital city of the ascendant domain that Pascale Casanova has called the “world republic of letters.” From the late seventeenth century onwards, according to Casanova, Paris established itself as the western capital of “international literary space” in its first modern formation, the Enlightenment republic of letters, with the French language as its universal medium (11, 67-73). In its ideology as well as its practical diffusion beyond France the republic of letters was universal, cosmopolitan, pre-nationalist (87). It was in a reaction against the cosmopolitan dominance of French that a second developmental stage of world literary space took shape at the end of the eighteenth century: the proliferation of distinctively national literatures, which Casanova calls “the Herder effect,” otherwise known as Romanticism (75-79).

10.        Casanova perfunctorily acknowledges the eighteenth-century rise of a rival British literary empire and pays next to no attention to Scotland. Nevertheless her analysis frames Scotland as a highly interesting case, one which we may extrapolate through Tom Nairn’s influential account of Scotland’s anomalous relation to the historical pathways of modernization and nationalism in his book The Break-up of Britain. Scotland’s project of cultural modernization, the Scottish Enlightenment, depended on the establishment of what Murray Pittock has called a “separate public sphere” of letters and science in the Lowland university towns (13). Distance from the seat of government (after the 1707 Act of Union) made possible Scotland’s modern entry into “world literary space,” even as Anglo-British assimilation provided ideological cover. Rather than exemplifying the binary antagonism between core and periphery analyzed in the second part of Casanova’s study, Scottish literature made itself modern in a triangulation with rival centers, London and Paris. While the Scottish literati harnessed English as the linguistic vehicle of Enlightenment, they sought to integrate their philosophical projects with the European republic of letters of which Paris was the capital city. If the Scots invented British literature, as a strong line of recent scholarship has argued, [5]  it was to annex it to that Paris-based horizon of world literary space—over and against a London that remained relatively provincial in literary and philosophical terms even as it was achieving global geopolitical supremacy.

11.         Scott’s fiction did not promote a separatist Scottish national destiny according to the Herderian model. Rather than the Anglo-British absorption with which he has often been charged, though, Scott extended the Enlightenment project of an integration of Scottish literature within the larger domain of European literature, the “world republic of letters”—although (to be sure) that domain was very different in 1830 from what it had been before 1800, or from what it had been, for that matter, in 1814 or 1819. This integration took place largely through the medium of French translation, as recent scholarship on Scott’s European reception has shown. French versions of the Waverley novels, by Auguste-Jean-Baptiste Defauconpret, provided the texts for their diffusion into other national literatures, and foreign authors who adapted Scott’s example, such as Manzoni and Pushkin, read him in that language. [6]  The many operatic versions of Scott, including Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, were based on French stage versions adapted from Defauconpret rather than on Scott’s originals. Scott helped create the conditions for this massive French-mediated reception across world literary space by actively engaging continental, especially French, literary traditions in his novels; in his new book on the European historical novel, Richard Maxwell makes a convincing case for the genre’s articulation along a Franco-Scottish axis, from Mme de Lafayette and Prévost through Scott to Hugo and Dumas. Scott, in short, belonged to French literature, and thence to the world republic of letters, quite as much as he did to Scottish and British traditions.

12.        Meanwhile, late-Enlightenment Paris incubated the most extreme developments of that general project of the republic of letters: the Science of Man. It was in Paris, more definitively than in London or Edinburgh, that formulations of the natural history of man exposed the deep trouble with man as a universal category, as what had been the putatively unified project of Enlightenment (unified in its theoretical articulations rather than in practice) splintered into competing systems, disciplines and ideologies. By the time Scott began work on Count Robert of Paris in 1830, the trouble had blown up into scandal. The eccentric conjectures of Kames and Monboddo had been overtaken by more comprehensive and radical theories emanating from the world capital of Enlightenment, where materialist declensions of the science of man accompanied the revolutionary reframing of man as a universal political subject. Amid a rising tide of morphological speculation on the origins of life and the transmutation of species, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck cited the orangutan as a human prototype—not just a type of natural man, but a figure for man’s animal genealogy.

13.        Although it was not translated into English until the twentieth century, the arguments of Lamarck’s Philosophie zoologique (1809) were well known in British scientific circles, above all in Edinburgh, which was the center for advanced physiological thought in Britain until the founding of the University of London (on Scottish principles) in the late 1820s. In the decade after Waterloo (the era of the ascendancy of the Waverley novels) Scottish medical graduates flocked to Paris, where they imbibed the controversial philosophical anatomy of Lamarck, Xavier Bichat and Geoffroy St. Hilaire, and brought the new science back with them to Edinburgh. As James Secord has shown, “the earliest favorable reaction to Lamarck in a British scientific periodical” appeared in an anonymous article in the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal in 1826. This was the period when the young Charles Darwin was studying at Edinburgh; both Darwin’s mentor, Richard Edmond Grant, and Robert Jameson, the Regius Professor of Natural History, have been identified as the author of the article. Grant, a far more radical figure than Jameson, was appointed in 1828 to the new chair of Natural History at London, where his Lamarckian enthusiasm stoked the fires of French philosophical anatomy and democratic politics in the age of Reform. [7]  However, Secord makes a persuasive case that Jameson, not Grant, wrote the article. Jameson belonged to the moderate Tory Edinburgh establishment (Scott knew him); his even-handed comments on Lamarck elsewhere, and his journal’s attentiveness to the latest scientific developments in France and Germany, indicate the presence of “a wider circle of Scottish naturalists interested in evolution” (15-17). Secord suggests that it was the tolerance for Lamarckian transformationism in respectable Edinburgh—rather than its vogue in radical London—that provoked Charles Lyell’s high-profile refutation in the second volume of Principles of Geology, published just one month after Count Robert of Paris in January 1832. Lyell ridicules the “progressive scheme” promoted by Lamarck, whereby “the orang-outang . . . is made slowly to attain the attributes and dignity of man” (193). Principles of Geology proposed an influential solution to the late-Enlightenment crisis of world history as the history of man: that of a detour around the history of man, that minefield of radical and infidel speculation, altogether. Translating the discourse of history from the human sciences onto the world considered as a physical system (as in James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth), Lyell proposed a history of the earth from which human origins were sedulously excluded (a strategy that Darwin would imitate in the Origin of Species). [8] 


14.         Count Robert of Paris finds its imaginative opening in the contemporary crisis of world history and the science of man, of which the epicenter was Paris—the forum of a once progressive, now decadent Enlightenment. Conservative British ideologues had cast France as the source of an absolutist and then revolutionary cosmopolitanism against which local, organic forms of national identification could be mobilized (e.g., in Spain). [9]  After 1815, according to Jon Klancher, a new conception of the cosmopolis or “world city”—imperial, modern, the ganglion of deterritorializing networks of capital as well as of corrosive new demographic and ideological forces—had superseded the old-regime cosmopolitanism of the republic of letters. [10]  So Scott’s title means what it says: the Constantinople of Count Robert of Paris situates a fantasia on the multinational, heterodox world city, the decadent capital of the Enlightenment human sciences. Now, circa 1830, that discursive domain is falling apart, its relation to historical futurity cast in doubt. If the progressive claims of Enlightenment had been discredited by the terrorist meltdown of the French Revolution and its Napoleonic sequel, now a second French Revolution threatens the restoration of the old regimes prescribed at the Congress of Vienna. Revolution—with its claim on a political reinvention of the human—has re-entered modernity to establish itself as a normal rather than a singular event. Meanwhile Catholic Emancipation has legitimated a domestic heterodoxy at home in Britain, and Reform, specter of a homegrown revolution, lowers on the horizon. The world city accommodates not an “end of history” (see Christensen) but its disintegration.

15.        The opening paragraphs of Count Robert of Paris reflect upon the decadence of artificially restored empires. Scott compares Constantine’s New Rome with “a new graft . . . taken from an old tree,” bound by an organic fatality to resume an internal chronology of decline (Count Robert 3-4). The world-city is overflowing with heterogeneous creeds, nations, races, and species, while alien hosts (Crusaders, Moors, Turks, Scythians) besiege it from without. The mix of competing monotheisms overlays strange heresies (including, in a canceled episode, Manicheans, 367-77) and Pagan survivals, such as the “brutal worship of Apis and Cybele,” decayed from a state religion into popular superstition (89). More than once, Scott compares Byzantine court ceremony with the “court of Pekin” (7, 147), drawn into the geopolitical horizon of British knowledge through the embassies of Lord Macartney (1792-94) and Lord Amherst (1816). [11] 

16.         One effect of this monstrous distention of world space is a diffusion or fragmentation of historical time, in which we lose any sense of a unitary direction along which history might be unfolding. Count Robert of Paris thwarts readers’ expectations that the western Crusaders, for instance, might represent a romantic futurity—associated with individualist virtues of honour and courage—that will supersede the orientalized decadence of the Byzantines, according to the “clash of civilizations” and “nature versus art” schemata that some critics have detected in the novel (e.g. McMaster). Such an historical destiny is not made apparent in Count Robert of Paris, in which the Emperor Alexius successfully manages the Crusaders and diverts the threat they represent. (Scott’s informed readers would have known, of course, about the sack of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade as well as the Ottoman conquest, but the novel refrains from harping on these future catastrophes.) The eponymous Count Robert and his warrior-bride Brenhilda, formidable and glamorous on their first appearance, prove worse than useless in the novel’s plot. Brenhilda’s valour culminates in a grotesque Amazonian duel with the historian Anna Comnena, in which she succeeds only in endangering her own pregnancy. Count Robert, despite an outburst of action-hero alacrity in the middle of the story, accomplishes nothing towards the resolution of the various predicaments he crashes into. He does not even keep his promise to rescue the noble captive Ursel; that task is taken care of by the Emperor, in one of Scott’s virtuoso essays in anticlimax. Byzantine policy triumphs over Crusader prowess, however much the Western narrator might profess contempt for the former and admiration for the latter. The Emperor’s disavowed virtuosity consists above all in rhetoric, a crafty linguistic excess, aligned with the supervening practice of the Author of Waverley. The narrator’s mockery of the “fair historian” Anna Comnena, sealed with a formal parody of her Alexiad in the fourth chapter, frames the open secret of their stylistic affinity. “Scott moves to become what he beholds,” notes Jerome McGann; since “[his] own style has over the years grown increasingly elaborate and formulaic[,] [t]o pastiche Comnena’s prose . . . is to fashion a critical measure of his own” (124)—ornate, murky, “Byzantine” indeed.

17.         Any sense of a governing historical progress or developmental direction is exploded into a multitude of competing paths. The world-city opens up for the imagination alternative modes and directions besides the progressive model of Enlightenment conjectural history, supposed to structure particular national destinies. Scott’s opening rendition of the translatio imperii, as a civilizational grafting that reiterates an inexorable process of decay instead of a renovation, has already been mentioned. Later, we learn how the Anglo-Saxon rebels who sought refuge in the greenwood after the Norman Conquest “made a step backwards in civilisation, and became more like their remote ancestors of German descent, than they were to their more immediate and civilized predecessors. . . . Old superstitions had begun to revive among them,” drained however “of the sincere belief which was entertained by their heathen ancestors” (Count Robert 209). Scott reimagines Robin Hood and his band—mythic figures from his own Ivanhoe—as inauthentic and degenerate. At the same time these “Foresters,” natural Malthusians, regulate their population by chaste practices of “moderation and self-denial” (210). It appears that those who regress from civilization to the woods, as a consequence of world-historical defeat, are better able to constitute a virtuous organic community than those who have not yet left the woods.

18.        Volume Two of Count Robert of Paris closes with a striking instance of what the narrator calls “retrograde evolution” (255). The Crusaders have crossed the Bosphorus to the Asian shore on their way to Jerusalem, after swearing an oath “never to turn back upon the sacred journey.” When they learn that Count Robert and his bride are in trouble back in Constantinople, they must figure out a way to rescue them without breaking their oath. “Are we such bad horsemen, or are our steeds so awkward, that we cannot rein them back from this to the landing-place at Scutari?” one of them suggests: “We can get them on shipboard in the same retrograde manner, and when we arrive in Europe, where our vow binds us no longer, the Count and Countess of Paris are rescued” (253). The inhabitants of Scutari are duly treated to the spectacle of a column of knights riding their horses backwards onto the transport barges.


19.        The Crusaders’ “retrograde evolution” is a grotesquely literal acting-out of a developmental dynamic or potential that pulls at the various histories, destinies and identities entangled in Count Robert of Paris. History is not bound to move forward—whatever forward might mean; it might fall backwards, or slide sideways, or go off in some other, unheard-of direction. It is not only progress that is at stake, more than ever discredited by its Lamarckian application to an evolutionary account of natural history. Scott’s Constantinople accommodates an imaginary breakup of the monogenetic developmentalism that (this novel lets us see) has underpinned the national history addressed in the great sequence of his Scottish Waverley novels. “Monogenesis” designates the orthodox anthropological principle that all humans are descended from a common origin and thus comprise a single race or species. The principle governs the ideology of unified development, or a shared single history, which a particular people or nation, such as Scotland, must join on the path to modernity.

20.        In those key reflections on his art, the prefatory chapter to Waverley and the dedicatory epistle to Ivanhoe, Scott cites a universal human nature, constant across all differences of time and place, as the philosophical basis for the kind of novel he is writing:

Considering the disadvantages inseparable from this part of my subject, I must be understood to have resolved to avoid them as much as possible, by throwing the force of my narrative upon the characters and passions of the actors;—those passions common to men in all stages of society, and which have alike agitated the human heart, whether it throbbed under the steel corslet of the fifteenth century, the brocaded coat of the eighteenth, or the blue frock and white dimity waistcoat of the present day. . . . It is from the great book of Nature, the same through a thousand editions, whether of black letter or wire-wove and hot-pressed, that I have venturously essayed to read a chapter to the public. (Waverley 5-6)
In observing the sameness of “the passions . . . in all stages of society,” the historical novel advertises itself as a faithful edition of “the great book of Nature.” The gap between past and present in Waverley—“sixty years since”—becomes a gulf of six centuries, rather more difficult to navigate, in Ivanhoe:
What I have applied to language, is still more justly applicable to sentiments and manners. The passions, the sources from which these must spring in all their modifications, are generally the same in all ranks and conditions, all countries and ages; and it follows, as a matter of course, that the opinions, habits of thinking, and actions, however influenced by the peculiar state of society, must still, upon the whole, bear a strong resemblance to each other. Our ancestors were not more distinct from us, surely, than Jews are from Christians[.] (Ivanhoe 19-20)
The story that follows turns the proposition into a profoundly uncomfortable question: How distinct are Jews from Christians? In drawing an equivalence between the diachronic difference between ourselves and our ancestors and the synchronic difference between Jews and Christians, Scott alludes to the scriptural resolution of that equivalence, whereby an archaic Jewish dispensation is redeemed into an enlightened Christian one. Ethically speaking, however—that is, viewed with an enlightened disregard for dogma—Rebecca the Jewess turns out to be more chivalrous and a better Christian than any of the Christian knights in Ivanhoe. She speaks more eloquently than anyone for a humane futurity. She is more human than “our ancestors.” All the same she is exiled from the proto-national community, the English destiny, evoked at the novel’s close.

21.        The sublime widening of historical distance in Ivanhoe, and that novel’s disintegration of “England” into a welter of alien ethnicities and castes, look forward to the more radical experiment of Count Robert of Paris, which opens up a “polygenetic” potentiality of evolutionary trajectories and forms, enabled by its setting of a world-city severed both from western religious orthodoxy and from the developmental path to modernity. Polygenesis, the heterodox doctrine that humankind consists of different races or species with separate origins, had been broached in Scotland by Kames in his Sketches of the History of Man. Addressing the question “whether there are different races of men, or whether all men are of one race without any difference but what proceeds from climate or other external cause,” Kames concluded that “there are different species of men as well as of dogs” (Home I: 3, 20). Species differentiation occurred, along with linguistic differentiation, as “an immediate change of bodily constitution” after the fall of the Tower of Babel (I: 76). Polygenetic speculation was becoming increasingly current in advanced scientific thought by the late 1820s and 1830s, undermining what had been a monogenetic orthodoxy, until it informed an ascendant racial science in mid-nineteenth century Britain and the USA. (The most notorious polygenetic thesis, The Races of Men: A Fragment (1850), would issue from a Scottish pen—that of Robert Knox, the radical anatomist tainted by the Burke and Hare scandal in 1828-29, classmate of Robert E. Grant and one of Scott’s bêtes noires. The actual terms, monogenesis and polygenesis, would not be formulated until the 1860s. [12] )

22.         The weight of polygenetic conjecture is felt throughout Count Robert of Paris. By the logic of “retrograde evolution,” cultural difference seems always to be on the point of falling into racial difference, and racial difference falling into species difference—since, as Buffon, Monboddo and others acknowledged, the terms race and species have no clear definition in the period. [13]  “Race” is a problem everywhere in the novel, its status and boundaries the objects of constant interrogation. Count Robert, Hereward the Varangian, and Anna Comnena dispute whether or not the Normans and Franks are the same people (Count Robert 142-43). Alexius lectures Brenhilda on the clash of civilizations memorialized in the Iliad: “the offences of Paris were those of a dissolute Asiatic; the courage which avenged them was that of the Greek Empire” (195). The character of his own Greek Empire, more dissolute and Asiatic than heroic, belies this racialized distinction.

23.         Most striking is the novel’s set of limit cases of human racial difference. The first of these is instantiated (predictably) by Africans, reduced to slavery and subject to a not-always-specified physical deformation. (Mutes and eunuchs seem to share the same kind of disability.) The philosopher Agelastes holds forth hypocritically on the separate status of “the race of Ham” as justification for their enslavement (128). His slave Diogenes rebukes as “childish” Hereward’s suspicion that he might be the devil, and ironizes the signs of his own difference:

“Thou objectest sorely to my complexion,” said the negro; “how knowest thou that it is, in fact, a thing to be counted and acted upon as a matter of reality? Thy eyes daily apprise thee, that the colour of the sky nightly changes from bright to black, yet thou knowest that this is by no means owing to any habitual colour of the heavens themselves . . . How canst thou tell, but what the difference of my colour from thine own may be owing to some circumstance of a similar nature—not real of itself, but only creating an apparent reality?” (90)
Well might he ask, in a city where the doctrinal difference between eastern and western Christianity has acquired a biological, embodied cast, so that heterodoxy is expressed as a physical deformity: the Orthodox Patriarch complains that, whereas the Greek cross exhibits “limbs of the same length,” in the Latin cross an “irregular and most damnable error prolongs the nether limb of that most holy emblem” (84).

24.        Disproportion of the limbs characterizes the most spectacular of the novel’s limit cases, both of which involve a monstrous distortion of the human. The narrator comments that in Constantinople “the race of the Greeks was no longer to be seen, even in its native country, unmixed, or in absolute purity; on the contrary, there were features which argued a different descent” (125). The reflection takes a nightmarish turn:

A party of heathen Scythians, presented the deformed features of the daemons whom they were said to worship—that is, having flat noses with expanded nostrils, which seemed to admit the sight to their very brain; faces which extended rather in breadth than length, with strange unintellectual eyes placed in the extremity; figures short and dwarfish, yet garnished with legs and arms of astonishing sinewy strength, disproportioned to their body. (125)
Scott alludes to a legend cited in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, according to which “the witches of Scythia . . . had copulated in the desert with infernal spirits, and the Huns were the offspring of this execrable conjunction” (qtd. in Count Robert 525). The allusion infects the novel’s anthropology with its conjecture of monstrous descent. [14]  The combination of “strange unintellectual eyes” with nostrils that admit “sight to [the] very brain” suggests, meanwhile, a weird short-circuiting of a human physiology of vision-based cognition—a topic that recurs elsewhere in Count Robert of Paris.

25.         The novel’s main exhibit of what Nancy Armstrong has called “the polygenetic imagination”  [15]  is Sylvan the Orang-Outang: a creature that wears “the form of a human being” yet stands eight feel tall, like Frankenstein’s monster, with “limbs . . . much larger than humanity” (Count Robert 169-70). Sylvan represents a more up-to-date challenge to the monogenetic ground-plan of philosophical history than fables of miscegenation with devils. In admitting Orang-Outangs to fully human status as “a barbarous nation, which has not yet learned the use of speech,” Monboddo contradicted his principal source, Buffon, who insisted that the creature was “nothing but a real brute, endowed with the external mark of humanity, but deprived of thought, and of every faculty which properly constitutes the human species” (Burnett I: 270-312 (270); Buffon X: 37). Buffon acknowledges however that this verdict relies on faith in a “divine spirit” which has endowed humanity with reason and language—since physical evidence alone would compel us to regard the orangutan “as a variety of the human species” (X: 27). [16]  Evicting the divine spirit, Lamarck claimed the Orang-Outang as not just a human relative but a human ancestor. This liminal being enjoyed a vogue in Romantic fiction, with versions by Peacock, Hogg, and Poe, as well as Scott himself; more thoroughly than its precursors, Count Robert of Paris exploits the categorical confusion and instability marked by the Orang-Outang in early nineteenth-century natural philosophy, rather than endorsing any particular scientific theory (McMaster 212; Simmons 25). Where various characters mistake Sylvan for the devil or a knight transformed by witchcraft, the narrator is carefully equivocal. “The creature . . . it would have been rash to have termed it a man,” he calls it (Count Robert 170): “the tremendous creature, so like, yet so very unlike to the human form . . . the creature in question, whose appearance seemed to the Count of Paris so very problematical, was a specimen of that gigantic species of ape—if it is not indeed some animal more nearly allied to ourselves—to which, I believe, naturalists have given the name of Ourang Outang” (171). A dozen years earlier, Scott had alluded to the enigmatic status of the orangutan in his depiction of pre-modern human communities in Rob Roy—not to suggest that the Highlanders are literally a sort of Caledonian apeman, or even a separate race, but rather to conjure the possibility of a separate developmental path that the novel begins to imagine (if only optatively) for them, in a departure from the monogenetic British history invoked in Waverley. Moderns and primitives coexist within an imperial world order which sustains itself upon the perpetuation of radical forms of difference. [17] 

26.         Those forms of difference attain monstrous extremes in the “seat of universal empire.” McMaster contends that the Orang-Outang belongs to a conjectural-historical chain of versions of “natural man” in the novel, along with Hereward the Forester (whose physical beauty, extolled in the opening episode, has something grotesque about it) and Count Robert himself (McMaster 214-15). On the other side of the species barrier, Simmons shows how the Emperor’s menagerie of non-human beings—elephant, giraffe, tiger, clockwork lion—involves the orangutan in a satirical “confusion between beasts, man-beasts, and man-made beasts” (Simmons 27). To these we should add the human monsters in the novel that are marked by another sort of biological difference, namely sexual difference. The Countess Brenhilda is persistently characterized as “[s]omething between man and woman” (Count Robert 180), thanks to the “fantastic appearance of her half-masculine garb” (133). It turns out that the warrior-woman is pregnant, even as she takes up arms in the novel’s bizarre climax. Biology trumps habit: Brenhilda faints before she can engage battle. The duel confirms the status of her opponent, Anna Comnena, as a complementary freak, the bluestocking. Early on we are told that intellectual activity has unsexed Anna: “she had somewhat lost the charms of her person as she became enriched in her mind” (37). “A woman who is pitiless, is a worse monster than one who is unsexed,” the Empress Irene (herself something of a monster) upbraids her daughter (284).

27.        Meanwhile the appearance of the Scythians foreshadows uncanny crossings between the human and demonic after all. In the course of a diatribe against Christian “superstition,” Agelastes is surprised by the sudden intrusion of a figure resembling “the Satan of Christian mythology, or a satyr of the heathen age” (270). This turns out to be Sylvan, the Orang-Outang. Monboddo had accepted satyrs, along with mermaids, men with tails, dog-headed men, and men with eyes in their breasts, as legitimate varieties of humankind alongside the orangutan, although Scott is alluding to a more modest conjecture that ancient accounts of satyrs might have been based on travellers’ tales of great apes (Burnett 1784: III: 254-64). [18]  Sylvan’s role as satyr will be confirmed at his last appearance in the novel, as closing act to the tragi-comical sequence of combats. More consequential is his role here (not for the first time) as the devil. Agelastes has just been scoffing at “the Christian Satan,” whose “goatish figure and limbs, with grotesque features,” in violation of the scriptural principle of monogenesis, represent a bad theology as well as bad aesthetics and bad biology (Count Robert 270). Sylvan proceeds to throttle Agelastes, an event interpreted by the onlookers as “the judgment of Heaven.” Certainly this is a startlingly abrupt explosion of poetic justice. Agelastes is the worst of the book’s villains, a seditious freethinker, just the sort of rogue who would be promoting evolutionary, polygenetic and other materialist speculations for subversive political ends in Scott’s day. Yet Sylvan, conjured up by Agelastes’ denunciation of the Christian Satan, realizes a euhemeristic demystification of that improbable demon, in keeping with the demystification of the heathen satyr: he is himself the grotesque hybrid that Agelastes ridicules. Scott reinscribes the heterodoxy that is ostensibly being punished, in the form of a complicated joke. The orangutan may not be the devil—all the same, the devil may be nothing more than an orangutan.


28.        Whenever he shows up in Count Robert of Paris, Sylvan provokes strange textual disturbances. His intervention in the tale sets off figural mutations and slippages which trace a lateral or retrograde motion—an associative logic not of science, of an empirically verifiable scheme of cause and effect, but of something like dreamwork, of metaphor and metamorphosis: a logic of romance. Consider the Orang-Outang’s second irruption into the novel, which leads to the recasting of Hereward, a soldier in the imperial guard, as a “Forester,” a virtuous version of the “man of the woods.” A beautiful young lady rushes onto the scene with the Orang-Outang in pursuit. After chasing him away Hereward recognizes his long-lost love, Bertha, who recognizes Hereward in turn by the scar of a boar’s tusk on his brow. We find ourselves rapt into a suddenly intensified zone or atmosphere of romance, charged with allusions not just to the Odyssey but (as Simmons points out) to The Faerie Queene, in which the chivalrous forester Sir Satyrane defends virgins from giants and wild men. “Have I but dreamed of that monstrous ogre?” Bertha asks. Hereward’s reassurance, “That hideous thing exists,” gives the cue for the recognition scene and—true to the Odyssean analogue—a retrograde narrative plunge to his youthful encounter with another “hideous animal” or “monster,” the wild boar (208). The recognition scene generates, in turn, the back-story of the Foresters, the Saxon insurgents who “made a step backwards in civilization” and returned to the woods.

29.         The regressive, oneiric, metamorphic logic of romance is sustained most powerfully in the outré sequence, midway through the novel, in which Sylvan makes his first appearance. On this occasion the orangutan closes rather than initiates the series of figural mutations. Invited to dinner at the imperial palace, Count Robert is startled by the ramping of the Emperor’s mechanical lion. He smashes its skull with a blow of his fist—clockwork cogs and springs litter the floor. After the banquet, Robert wakes up (he has been drugged) to find himself in an underground dungeon, where he is menaced by a tiger—a real tiger, this time, not a mechanical one. Once again he reacts by smashing its skull. Scott’s description renders the tiger, despite its reality, more like an effect in a magic-lantern show—“two balls of red light”—than a flesh-and-blood animal: “he gazed eagerly around, but could discern nothing, except two balls of red light which shone from the darkness with a self-emitted brilliancy, like the eyes of a wild animal while it glares upon its prey” (161). This apparition generates the voice of a fellow prisoner, invisible in the darkness, who informs Robert that his eyeballs have been put out with red-hot irons. The mutilation of eyes or tongues (or, less explicitly, genitals), in a metonymic chain of disfigurements that recurs across the novel, marks the victim’s removal from fully human status. Deprived of the organs of speech or vision, he is reduced to a mere body, to “bare life,” the condition of a beast or slave. (The prisoner’s name, “Ursel,” also recalls “bear,” the anthropomorphic beast of the woods that historically precedes the theriomorphic man of the woods, the Enlightenment orangutan.) So at last the grotesque semi-human captive, Sylvan, makes his appearance, babbling strange sounds that—in the absence of his tribe—may or may not constitute a language.

30.         What logic moves this strange narrative sequence, with its delirious transitions and transformations, its cryptic series of antitheses? Mechanical animal versus living animal; animal eyes without body versus a human body without eyes; the man bereft of the endowment of humanity (vision) versus the animal that possesses it (language). These symbolic oppositions recapitulate the historical set of conjectures about the essential distinction between humans and animals which informed the Enlightenment project of the “science of man”: from the Cartesian account of the animal as machine, through the empiricist abstraction of a vision-based cognition, to the Romantic investment in language as the uniquely human property. [19] 

31.        The set of conjectures resurfaces, recombined, near the end of the novel. The captive Ursel turns out not to have been blinded after all. Released from prison, high on a terrace overlooking the city, he experiences a return of vision that is scarcely less traumatic than an actual blinding:

His eyeballs had been long untrained by that daily exercise, which teaches us the habit of correcting the scenes as they appear to our sight, by our actual knowledge of the truth as it exists in nature. His idea of distance was so confused, that it seemed as if all the spires, turrets and minarets which he beheld, were crowded forward upon his eyeballs, and almost touching them. With a shriek of horror, Ursel turned himself to the further side[.] (295)
This particular instance of “retrograde evolution”—from blindness to a sight that bears the violent effect of blindness—does not so much look forward (for example, to the urban agoraphobia of the view from Todgers’s in Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit) as back: to the Platonic allegory of enlightenment as emergence from a cave. Scott’s formulation however is radically empiricist rather than platonic; it recalls the conjecture on the reality of pigment with which the slave Diogenes taunts his interlocutors, quoted earlier. If the operation of the senses is plastic rather than fixed, subject to conditioning, neither is it the case that “our actual knowledge of the truth as it exists in nature” precedes any sensory input. Cognition and physical organization, rather, shape one another in a process of experimental “correction.”

32.        Shortly afterwards the narrator recurs to this moment, in the reaction of the conspirator Nicephorus Briennius to the reversal of his plans:

The pardoned Caesar . . . found it as difficult to reconcile himself to the reality of his situation as Ursel to the face of nature, after having been long deprived of enjoying it; so much do the dizziness and confusion of ideas, occasioned by moral and physical causes of surprise and terror, resemble each other in their effects on the understanding. (322)
Nicephorus suffers what is more explicitly a narrative vertigo, as he discovers himself to be a character in a plot when he had imagined himself to be the author of it. His “dizziness and confusion” mirror the dizziness and confusion that perturb readers of Count Robert of Paris. Only, as readers of a novel, we are apt to experience that perturbation—the regression from a conditioned blindness to a vision that is itself blinding—as sublime effects of an aesthetic enjoyment, rather than as sensory distress.

33.         Scott’s late romance does not attempt to pacify the turmoil afflicting the “science of man” circa 1830 into any fixed knowledge. We are not to look in these pages for a determination, even an allegorical one, of the taxonomic status of man as a race or species. “In our culture,” writes Giorgio Agamben, “man has always been thought of as the articulation and conjunction of a body and soul, of a living thing and a logos, of a natural (or animal) element and a supernatural or social or divine element. We must learn instead,” he adds, “to think of man as what results from the incongruity of these two elements, and investigate not the metaphysical mystery of conjunction, but rather the practical and political mystery of separation” (16). Scott’s novel, through the techniques peculiar to fiction, begins that work of disarticulation. The uncanny underground apparition of “two balls of red light,” at once juxtaposed with and detached from the prisoner who believes he has been blinded, constitutes the reflective core of Count Robert of Paris —the figure for vision, metonymically dislodged, as mark of the reader’s gaze. Here, disoriented from a daylight logic of cause and effect, flung deepest into a delirium of romantic adventure, we catch a glimpse of ourselves: neither as human countenances nor organic bodies but as dislocated perceptual fragments embedded in a meaning-generating apparatus, the literary work. What we are seeing is the reflection of our own vision, bloodshot with passionate amazement and with the sheer effort to see—reading in the dark. [20] 

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[1] See, e.g., Hobsbaum: “Everyone who has not read Count Robert of Paris . . . knows it to be unreadable” (153). BACK

[2] See Alexander; Gamerschlag. BACK

[3] The direction was set by the most influential works in the field in the 1990s: see Ferris and Trumpener. More recently, see Duncan; Gottlieb; Jones; Lincoln; Mack; McCracken-Flesher; McNeil; Wickman; the essays in Davis, Duncan and Sorensen; and in Duff and Jones. BACK

[4] See, e.g., Wallace; Watt; Lincoln, 89-120. BACK

[5] See Crawford 1992; Crawford 1998. BACK

[6] See Casanova 146; Barnaby; Maxwell, “Scott in France”. BACK

[7] On Darwin, Jameson and Grant, see Desmond 398-402; Browne 69-88. BACK

[8] See Rudwick 6, 158-60. BACK

[9] See Newman; Colley. BACK

[10] Klancher; see also Langan. BACK

[11] Scott may have had an intimate informant in his friend Basil Hall, who accompanied Amherst’s expedition and published a Voyage to Loo-Choo, and Other Places in the Eastern Seas, in the Year 1816 (1817), reprinted as the first title in Constable’s Miscellany (1826). BACK

[12] See Stepan; on Knox see Desmond 77-80, 388-89; Kitson (who argues that Knox’s polygenetic views were not characteristic of Romantic-period thinking about race). BACK

[13] See Burnett 1774: I: 313-17. BACK

[14] Sutherland, reading the Scythians and the Orang-Outang as figures of “degeneration,” invests Count Robert of Paris with a later nineteenth-century preoccupation (343-44). BACK

[15] Armstrong refers to late-Victorian Gothic romances by H. Rider Haggard and Bram Stoker, flourishing in the imperial heyday of scientific racism. BACK

[16] Buffon was following the lead of Linnaeus amid a long-standing controversy; see Agamben’s summary of Enlightenment taxonomies of the anthropoid ape and human, 23-27: “Homo sapiens . . . is neither a clearly defined species nor a substance; it is, rather, a machine or device for producing the recognition of the human” (26). BACK

[17] See Duncan 111-14. BACK

[18] The identification of great apes as “the satyrs of the ancients” goes back to Tyson; see Nash 16-41. BACK

[19] See Thomas 30-41; Agamben 33-37. BACK

[20] An early version of this essay was presented at the 2007 International Scott Conference; I thank Caroline Jackson-Houlston and the community of Scott scholars for their feedback. For responses to later drafts I thank Kevis Goodman, Maureen McLane, Matthew Ochiltree and Meg Russett. BACK