Reflection by Mary L. Mullen

Devin Griffiths’s The Age of Analogy is an ambitious book. The project unfolds much like the analogies that Griffiths studies: through expansive patterns. It offers a new understanding of literary form, comparative historicism, and historical periodization as it re-conceives the relationship between science and literature; it produces new interpretations of distinct genres of writing—science writing, the historical novel, the elegy, to name a few; and it easily moves between disciplinary fields—evolutionary theory, political theory, literary theory, logic, historiography.  Throughout, Griffiths argues that ways of writing (analogy, comparative historicism) produce ways of knowing (scientific knowledge, literary form).

As the title suggests, analogy is a central concern in the project.  In Griffiths’s hands, analogy is both a literary form and a dynamic mode of relation.  He distinguishes between “formal analogies”—the more familiar understanding of analogy that applies a pattern to a new context—and what he calls “harmonic analogies”—“analogies that work from the bottom up, exploring a pattern between two different sets of relationships, to see what common features of the pattern picks out” (18).  Harmonic analogies do not confirm what is already known; they lead to new knowledge, relations, patterns, and interactions.

The Age of Analogy spends more time thinking about these harmonic analogies precisely because they can articulate both similarity and difference as they imagine new modes of relation. But like musical harmony which “lasts only as long as each instrument sustains it,” harmonic analogies might not be sustained long enough to be formalized (36). In other words, they may forge a relationship that never becomes a pattern of comparison. In his second chapter on Walter Scott’s historical novels, Griffiths offers translation as an example of harmonic analogy as he argues “This more harmonic relation between languages—the sense that they are parallel and equivalent—is conceived as an ‘analogy’ by both philologists and translators” (113). Seeing the act of translation as harmonic allows Griffiths to argue that Scott’s narratives of nation formation actively engage with the past through ongoing interactions between standard English and local idiom.  Although Fergus Mac-Ivor is sentenced to death in Waverley, the social and historical system that he represents is not consigned to the past tense in Griffith’s reading. Comparative historicism ensures that it remains an active site of engagement and translation.

As I read the book, however, I wondered about the prevalent formal analogies in the period that preemptively thwart harmonic relations.  For instance, J. S. Mill’s “The Subjection of Women” which, like many other protofeminist and feminist texts of the period, depends upon a sustained analogy between women (meaning English women) and slaves.  Opening by suggesting that arguments that women must marry are like arguments by slaveholders that Black people must be compelled to work through slavery, the essay eventually declares that “the wife’s position under the common law of England is worse than that of slaves in the laws of many countries.”[1] Such an analogy articulates a relationship of similarity and difference that makes comparative historicism impossible as it actively obscures historical realities and relations. These formal analogies persist in our contemporary moment, as we often use analogies to move on and move past what is not yet past through facile statements like “Gay is the new Black.”[2] This slogan implies that because we have ‘solved’ anti-Black racism, it is time to turn our attention to gay rights.  Can harmonic analogies unsettle such rigid rejections of comparative historicism?  Can comparative historicism extend to questions of race and gender?

Griffiths gestures towards such questions through his engagement with Edward Said’s contrapuntal reading in his fourth chapter on George Eliot, where he suggests that harmonic analogies, like contrapuntal reading, produce comparisons and collective patterns that acknowledge difference without co-opting it. Thinking about harmonic analogies through and with contrapuntal reading is useful and suggestive. And yet, it made me curious about whether harmonic analogies emerge as an act of writing or through a particular method of reading.  Given their uncertain, unstable potential, can we recognize such analogies when we see them? Or do we only see them when guided by Griffiths’s carefully nuanced, impressively erudite reading practice?

The fact that the book raises such questions even as it so clearly makes it argument demonstrates that Griffiths’s emphasis on interaction and engagement inspires active reading.  Indeed, even as I wonder about the prevalence of formal analogies in the nineteenth-century and our own contemporary moment, I also find myself seeking new harmonies.

[1] John Stuart Mill, “The Subjection of Women” On Liberty and The Subjection of Women Ed. Alan Ryan (London: Penguin Classics, 2006), 165.

[2] Valerie Rohy reads this particular analogy as recapitulating nineteenth-century analogies between race and sexuality in Anachronism and Its Others: Sexuality, Race, Temporality (Albany: State University of New York, 2009), 67-70.



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