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Jeremy Bentham and the Pleasures of Fiction

Jeremy Bentham et le plaisir de la fiction
Carrie Shanafelt

Résumés

Des philosophes du dix-neuvième siècle (parmi lesquels J.S. Mill, Karl Marx et Friedrich Nietzsche) critiquaient Jeremy Bentham pour sa soi-disant insensibilité aux arts, particulièrement à la littérature. Cet essai analyse les commentaires dans les manuscrits de Bentham sur des romanciers – commentaires négatifs (pour Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett et C.M. Wieland) autant que positifs (pour Laurence Sterne, Charlotte Smith, Frances Burney et William Beckford) – afin d démontrer le plaisir que la fiction lui procurait dans le contexte de sa défense des minorités sexuelles et de genre, des personnes en situation de handicap, des personnes colonisées et réduites en esclavage, des enfants et des animaux. En se servant d’un grand éventail d’écrits de Bentham, l’auteure concentre son analyse sur un manuscrit assez percutante qui propose « un nouveau et meilleur type de théâtre », dans lequel Bentham examine son désir de s’immerger dans une expérience théâtrale interactive à partir d’un de ses romans favoris.

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1. Introduction

  • 1 In the 1823 preface to An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, he writes, ‘Dry (...)
  • 2 As Frances Ferguson notes, following Mill’s criticism of Bentham, ‘Subsequent readers felt no need (...)
  • 3 Bentham, Jeremy, Of Sexual Irregularities, and Other Writings on Sexual Morality, ed. Philip Schofi (...)
  • 4 Malcolm Quinn demonstrates that Bentham’s insistence on the toleration of aesthetic variety, as opp (...)

1Of all the attacks leveled at the philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, none cut so deeply as the accusation that he had no sense of literary aesthetics. He lamented his own apparent rhetorical failures, and was keenly aware that readers found him ‘Dry and tedious’ at best, or hostile and offensive at worst.1 His allies and critics alike, from Sir John Bowring and John Stuart Mill to Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche, assumed that, because Bentham warned that aesthetic hierarchies were used as a proxy for discriminatory legal and social oppression, he must have had no personal sensibility regarding artistry at all, especially in response to literature.2 However, the 2014 publication of three of Bentham’s manuscript essays on sexual nonconformity has resulted in a wave of scholarship reconsidering Bentham’s aesthetics that recentralizes the individual experience of pleasure as the cornerstone of utilitarianism.3 In the context of his defenses of sexual variety, Bentham’s scattered writing on literary aesthetics appear in a new light. In the sense that Bentham does demonstrate aesthetic preferences of his own in his commentary on literature, he clearly preferred novels that invite the reader to imagine interacting freely with the world of the text, instead of those that instruct readers in self-denial or submission to authority. Unlike his contemporaries, for whom literary taste was largely a matter of consensus about formal and moral properties of a work, or achievement of a particular aesthetic effect such as realism or the sublime, Bentham seems to have read literature in pursuit of immersive, emotionally compelling aesthetic experiences that celebrate liberation from oppression.4 Through analysis of his manuscripts commenting on and imitating popular prose fiction, I argue that, far from being indifferent to literature, Bentham was deeply moved by pleasure and displeasure while reading, and his laudatory notes on Laurence Sterne, William Beckford, Frances Burney, and Charlotte Smith are evidence of his idiosyncratic but aesthetically discriminating literary sensibility.

  • 5 Bentham, Jeremy, MSS, University College London, xiv. 14 (17 November 1794).

2In one peculiar manuscript from 1794, which begins with analysis of the comparative qualities of ‘moral compositions,’ including historical and biographical narratives, romances, novels, and epic poetry, Bentham gives clear preference to novels above all other forms, but complains that it is too difficult to present an entire novel in the accessible form of a play, with all of the characters and settings that would be required.5 In this manuscript, he goes on to imagine a form of theater that would violate the theatrical unities, and present every character, every setting, and every scene from a favorite novel on the stage, while the audience would take breaks for food, rest, and dancing. In conceiving of this new form of drama, Bentham suggests that the authors whose novels would be best adapted in this way would be Frances Burney and Charlotte Smith, identifying Smith’s four-volume feminist Gothic novel Emmeline, The Orphan of the Castle (1788) as an ideal candidate for an elaborate stage production. In singling out Burney and Smith, whose novels consistently dramatize the struggles faced by young women with modest resources who pursue their own will against patriarchal authority and social norms, Bentham delights in the possibilities of an immersive theatrical experience set in a world in which women’s happiness has real aesthetic and moral value.

3In this essay, I consider the manuscript in which Bentham suggests Emmeline as a candidate for ‘a new and improved Drama’ in the context of his other moral and aesthetic commentary on fiction. While many eighteenth-century literary critics expressed dissatisfaction with Gothic novels because they do not adhere to empiricist realism, Bentham responded intensely to the wide range of emotional possibilities represented in Gothic fiction, rather than to the narrower experiences offered by so-called realistic novels of Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, and Tobias Smollett. Although Bentham did not publish literary criticism on specific works of literature, his manuscript comments on novels suggest that his appreciation for fiction was inhibited by his distaste for patriarchal, religious, and philosophical injunctions against pleasure for women, sexual nonconformists, and laborers, which were all too frequent in supposedly realistic fiction. Bentham is rare among participants in eighteenth-century British philosophical discourse in that his literary aesthetics seem to have been genuinely informed by his egalitarian reformist commitments; indeed, it may be that his politics were likewise informed by his aesthetic encounters with radical Gothic and experimental narratives.

2. Nineteenth-Century Critics

  • 6 See Quinn, ‘Jeremy Bentham on Liberty of Taste,’ esp. 616-617; Ferguson, ‘Not Kant, but Bentham,’ p (...)

4It is strange that a philosopher whose only guiding principle was maximizing general liberty and enjoyment was so consistently described as insensible to aesthetic pleasure, merely because he criticized the way that normative aesthetic hierarchies were used as a justification for discrimination against disenfranchised groups. Encountering Bentham through his critics leads readers of Mill, Marx, and Nietzsche to imagine him as soullessly small-minded, ruthlessly pragmatist, and cruelly indifferent to beauty, especially in the printed word. Nineteenth-century critics of Bentham assumed that his political commitments prevented him from having any aesthetic sensibility at all; driven by radical reformist ends, he was, they suggest, only interested in the lowest kinds of bodily satisfaction and childish pastimes, and would deem all art to be equally without utility. John Stuart Mill’s objection to Bentham’s dismissal of aesthetic hierarchies has been analyzed in recent scholarship, but Mill is not alone in the conclusion he draws regarding Bentham’s supposed aesthetic insensibility.6 For Marx and Nietzsche, Bentham’s failure either to express a sympathetic engagement with art or to produce works of literary beauty was symptomatic of his supposedly inhumane nature.

5 It is true that Bentham apparently thought little and wrote less about poetry, a prejudice that damned him with many of his contemporaries. In an oft-derided passage from The Rationale of Reward, one of the very few in which Bentham engages with poetry, having declared a preference for the simple game of push-pin over poetry, he writes:

  • 7 Bentham, Jeremy, The Rationale of Reward (London, John and H.L. Hunt, 1825), p. 206.

The game of push-pin is always innocent: it were well could the same be always asserted of poetry. Indeed, between poetry and truth there is a natural opposition: false morals, fictitious nature: the poet always stands in need of something false. When he pretends to lay his foundations in truth, the ornaments of his superstructure are fictions; his business consists in stimulating our passions and exciting our prejudices. Truth, exactitude of every kind, is fatal to poetry. The poet must see everything through coloured media, and strive to make every one else do the same.7

6For Bentham, poetry constitutes an extreme form of normative aesthetics; the reader is coerced into inhabiting the perspective of the poet, seeing what he claims to see, feeling what he claims to feel, and assenting to the moral and epistemic worldview engendered by the poem. Bentham’s response to poetry is perhaps all the more surprising when contrasted with his intense enjoyment of certain novels discussed below, which, unlike poetry, allow readers to immerse themselves in a fictional diegesis without abandoning their own aesthetic or moral judgment.

  • 8 Mill, John Stuart, Dissertations and Discussions: Political, Philosophical, and Historical vol. I ( (...)

7For Mill, this passage represents a critical flaw in Bentham’s utilitarianism. Mill asserts in his essay on Bentham in Dissertations and Discussions that objective moral and aesthetic hierarchies must exist among possible pleasures; Bentham’s failure to acknowledge the aesthetic superiority of poetry to push-pin resulted in the absurdity of failing to acknowledge poetry’s moral superiority. Mill writes, ‘Every human action has three aspects: its moral aspect, or that of its right and wrong; its aesthetic aspect, or that of its beauty; its sympathetic aspect, or that of its loveableness.8 For Bentham, there is no objective quality of an object or action; the aesthetic value of a work or an experience is only the relative pleasure or pain it creates for each person. In his comparison between push-pin and poetry, Bentham’s argument is not that poetry cannot or does not create pleasure, but that it instrumentalizes aesthetic pleasure in order to inculcate a conformist and often prejudicial worldview. Unlike so many of his contemporaries who believed in the power of poetry to liberate the reader from normative morality, Bentham instead saw a much more insidious function; poetry has the potential to humiliate the reader into conformity with the poet, rather than empowering their own sense of what is enjoyable or good.

  • 9 Marx, Karl, Capital vol. I, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York, Penguin, 1976), p. 758.
  • 10 Marx, Capital, p. 759 n.

8In deriding Bentham’s critique of aesthetic hierarchies, Karl Marx called him ‘the arch-philistine, Jeremy Bentham, that soberly pedantic and heavy-footed oracle of the ‘common sense’ of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie,’ and explains in a lengthy footnote that he believed Bentham had basically plagiarized Helvétius and other French materialists, without their wit and style.9 Marx expands on his criticism of Bentham: ‘With the dryest naïveté he assumes that the modern petty bourgeois, especially the English petty bourgeois, is the normal man. Whatever is useful to this peculiar kind of normal man, and to his world, is useful in and for itself. He applies this yardstick to the past, the present, and the future.’10 Marx’s reading of Bentham as dismissive of human difference must be the result of extremely limited engagement with his work, which may have been an effect of Mill’s damning criticism of Bentham’s aesthetics. To Marx, Bentham was an icon of aesthetic insensibility, unmoved by genius and in thrall to whatever is ‘common’; on the contrary, as the sexual nonconformity papers show so clearly, Bentham’s rejection of aesthetic hierarchies was informed by his intense sympathy for those who sought uncommon and even forbidden pleasures.

9Like Marx, Nietzsche also holds Bentham accountable for the ‘soporific’ and ‘boring’ philosophy of British utilitarians, whom he accused of presenting no real ideas, old or new, and repeats Marx’s accusation that Bentham had merely paraphrased Helvétius. In Nietzsche’s assessment, Bentham is only the author and progenitor of unreadably dull prose, and was insensitive to the possibility that moral philosophy could excite, frighten, or arouse:

I see nobody in Europe who has (let alone, promotes) any awareness that thinking about morality could become dangerous, captious, seductive—that there might be any calamity involved.

  • 11 Nietzsche, Friedrich, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, trans. Walter Ka (...)

Consider, for example, the indefatigable, inevitable British utilitarians, how they walk clumsily and honorably in Bentham’s footsteps . . . Not a new idea, no trace of a subtler version or twist of an old idea, not even a real history of what had been thought before: altogether an impossible literature, unless one knows how to flavor it with some malice.11

  • 12 Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, pp. 157.

10Depicting Bentham and his followers as cowardly, dull, morally conservative, nationalistic, and fundamentally Puritanical, Nietzsche dismisses them as ‘ponderous herd animals,’ whose interest in ‘“the general welfare” is no ideal, no goal, no remotely intelligible concept, but only an emetic.’12 Devoid of intellectual novelty, bravery, or beauty, the Benthamite utilitarians were, to Nietzsche, incapable of producing any response but disgust.

  • 13 Bentham MSS, UCL, lxxiv. 3-4 (c. 1774).

11Of course, Bentham knew precisely how dangerous it was to promote an alternative understanding of morality, or a truly inclusive analysis of aesthetic variety that threatened a crumbling British social order perpetuated via proxies for discrimination against women and other uneducated groups, as well as those whose pleasures ran counter to elite taste. As he wrote in an early manuscript in which he began to explore the potential ramifications of sexual toleration on moral philosophy, ‘[A]s often have I readied to turn aside from a road so full of precipices I have trembled at the thoughts of the indignation that must be raised against the apologist of a crime that has been looked upon by many and those excellent men as the blackest under Heaven. But the dye is now cast, I having thus far pressed with undeviating fidelity the principles of general utility I at first adopted. . . . It shall not be said I at last abandon them from considerations of personal danger.’13 We know that the rhetorical differences between Bentham’s public and personal writing during the first half of his career are especially stark; in advocating for sweeping legal reforms in Great Britain, France, and Spain, Bentham indeed invoked nationalistic ideas of ‘general welfare’ as a means of encouraging greater liberty for disenfranchised groups. However, it would be challenging to find anyone more daring and passionate in the cause of radical individual liberty, especially on the topic of aesthetic variety.

  • 14 Bentham, Jeremy, A Comment on the Commentaries and A Fragment on Government, ed. J. H. Burns and H. (...)
  • 15 Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, p. 283 note b.
  • 16 Bentham’s aggressive strategies for eradicating pauperism have often been read as evidence of the t (...)

12Perhaps no other philosopher of Bentham’s era (or even ours) had such an inclusive understanding of whose interests constitute the aggregate happiness of the community. Far from making an ideal of the ‘normal man,’ Bentham is consistently reminding his reader that politically enfranchised adult men are only a small fraction of the communities they share with incarcerated, colonized, and enslaved persons, women, sexual nonconformists, people with disabilities, laborers, children, pets, and livestock animals, each of whom may have radically different perceptions of the same experiences. Writing of the inaccurate representation of the Athenian Commonwealth as a democracy in A Fragment on Government (1776), Bentham writes, ‘But, to an unprejudiced eye, the condition of a state is the condition of all the individuals, without distinction, that compose it,’ arguing that women, children, and enslaved people would necessarily have political representation in a truly democratic state, and suffer whenever their particular interests are not represented.14 Likewise, in an oft-cited footnote in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), Bentham interrogates the boundaries of so-called rights that do not extend to enslaved Africans, wondering why, indeed, the right to protection from violence would not also extend to any ‘sensitive being,’ including animals, regardless of bodily appearance, rationality, speech, or other proxies for discrimination: ‘the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?’15 In every instance in which he considers the definition of personhood, as a political, legal, sensible, aesthetic, or moral category, Bentham rejects every attempt to reduce it to the enfranchised, able-bodied, heterosexual, European adult male human.16

  • 17 De Champs, Emmanuelle, ‘Literature, Morals, and Utility: Bentham, Dumont, and De Staël,’ Bentham an (...)

13Bentham was stunningly expansive in his attempts to imagine the truly bewildering variety of possible aesthetic experiences. Unlike many of his critics, Bentham was careful not to apply his own aesthetic sense to others’ experiences; what seems to be aesthetic insensibility in his philosophy is more likely the rhetorical manifestation of his epistemic humility about the tastes and experiences of others. As Emmanuelle de Champs demonstrates, Bentham understood that literature and other arts could serve as sources of pleasure, and the state could take a limited role in facilitating the distribution of the arts: ‘While allowing the legislator to acknowledge the role of the fine arts in procuring pleasure, Bentham also set strict limits to his intervention.’17 As a pleasure to an individual person or a social experience of enjoyment, art was obviously of great utility; however, Bentham feared that any form of art used by the state for social reward or instruction would devolve into religious or political propaganda, using art as a new means of promoting asceticism and self-denial to disenfranchised persons for the enrichment and empowerment of elites.

14Mill, Marx, and Nietzsche, to varying degrees, seem to have found Bentham’s writing devoid of beauty, feeling, or even a sustained rhetorical performance, assuming that he was categorically insensible to aesthetic excellence, especially in literature. From his manuscripts, however, it is clear that Bentham not only read widely, especially in narrative prose, but even wrote passages of literary criticism and aesthetic theory, as well as a few brief, stunning creative imitations. Though he consistently lamented the stultifying dullness of his own philosophical prose, Bentham’s literary engagements reveal a keen individual aesthetic sensitivity, especially to narrative literature that does not trade in dogmatic moralism or hegemonic platitudes. Rather, Bentham’s enthusiasm for particular authors and works reveals itself as a desire to be fully immersed in a diegetic world beyond the confines of either a normative or an individualistic sense of reality.

3. Politicized Aesthetics

  • 18 Bentham MSS, University College London, xiv. 8 (1800).

15 Recent studies of Bentham’s aesthetics, largely drawing from his papers on sexual nonconformity, suggest that his conception of aesthetic experience was far more inclusive than that of most of his philosophical and critical contemporaries. Not limiting his understanding of taste to representational art, Bentham considers a vast array of experiences as objects for aesthetic response, in that they create different pleasures and pains for different bodies. He found that food, drink, heat, texture, scent, and sound were as potentially various in their effects on a person as sexual intercourse, a painting, a play, or a poem. As he noted in a manuscript from 1800, ‘No one man in short has any accurate and minute measure of the intensity of the sensations of any other: much less is there any such thing as an instrument that is to all persons of man a common measure for the intensity of the sensations of all.’18 Whether the difference in intensity and enjoyment of the senses is the result of physiological or experiential difference cannot matter; the pleasures and pains experienced by different bodies are not changeable by an act of will, and are therefore not matters for judgment and debate. If even physical sensations produce vastly different responses, and we struggle to communicate pain to those who do not feel it, how much more various must be the judgments that one makes in response to more abstract pleasures and pains, and the motivations they create? Bentham shows that, in morality, religion, sexuality, friendship, and art, people’s behaviors and reactions demonstrate a variety of positive and negative responses that are dependent on some combination of prior experience and personal sensitivity.

  • 19 De Champs, ‘Literature, Morals, and Utility,’ p. 95.

16In the matter of literary and other arts, Bentham found it crucial to allow for a wide range of aesthetic tastes; as de Champs shows, he felt that if music, poetry, novels, plays, visual arts, gardens, or games provide a person with pleasure, then that pleasure has social utility. However, he was concerned that governments might impose discriminatory restrictions on the arts that do not reflect the interests of the ruling class. De Champs writes, ‘The role of the government was, therefore, not directly to provide pleasure to individuals, but to support contributions that had a beneficial impact on the public in general, and not those that procured pleasure to one patron or amateur, or to only one class of people.’19 Bentham argues that, instead of disseminating particular artworks to instill desirable social behavior or moral sentiment, the government should prioritize maximal liberty for the people to choose their own aesthetic pleasures, whether they are strictly defined as ‘art’ or not.

  • 20 Julius, ‘More Bentham, Less Mill,’ p. 187.

17Some of the literature that Bentham found distasteful was any celebration of powerful people committing violence, whether martial or interpersonal. Anthony Julius notes that, in the case of The Iliad, Bentham feared that reading it would inflame the reader with its panegyric accounts of violent warfare.20 In his manuscript titled ‘Sextus,’ he devotes a considerable section to listing literary works that incite and celebrate mockery and hatred of sexual nonconformists, and even derive fun from episodes in which a feminine or sexually solicitous man is beaten by the protagonist. He was especially troubled by Tobias Smollett’s Roderick Random (1748) and Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742) for the same reason; they incited violence and hatred toward sexual and gender nonconformists, but as if in the form of an amusing joke. He writes,

  • 21 Bentham, Of Sexual Irregularities, p. 85.

Not inconsiderable is the number of Novels and other works having amusement for their object, in which the danger of loss by the introduction of a topic which no person charged with the care of the youth of either sex would naturally expose to the view of a pupil, much less feel disposed to satisfy the curiosity which the darkness of the allusion can not fail to excite, has not been sufficient to let slip the occasion of giving vent and increase to the popular antipathy of which these propensities [i.e. sexual irregularities] are the object.21

18The peculiar moral dissonance created by mockery of a supposedly evil sin struck Bentham as evidence that sexual nonconformists were objects of wanton cruelty rather than righteous justice. And in the case of C. M. Wieland’s Agathon (1766-67), he finds it especially absurd that although the novel is set in ancient Greece, the protagonist is anachronistically horrified by the suggestion of same-sex intercourse.

19Bentham also generally disliked literature that sought to inculcate virtue—a near synonym for asceticism and submission to power in eighteenth-century British discourse. He had difficulty understanding what could be so appealing to his contemporaries about supposedly great novels like Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison (1753). In the most sustained writing about any single work of fiction that I have found in his manuscripts, Bentham analyzes Richardson’s supposedly virtuous protagonist at some length, showing that, unlike a truly good person who lives up to his own ethical convictions, Grandison invokes the authority of religion in order to prevent himself from pursuing his true inclinations.

  • 22 Bentham MSS, UCL, lxx. 37 (1776).

What is the reasoning that secretly passes in men’s minds upon the observance of such a character? Either he is not sincere, in which case he is a knave, and uses this as a cloke [puts on this character] to cover his designs from the weak whose understandings have been perverted & broken by the terrors of this Sanction: he is sincere and is [himself] one of those weak persons.22

20In Bentham’s reading of Sir Charles Grandison, a good person would not need to name his religious affiliation aloud to make good decisions, and someone who did so would almost certainly be attempting to obscure his evil motives in front of others. Bentham goes on to imagine how a character like this would be received by the audience of a play; savvy theatergoers may not even be literate, but they would instantly recognize and detest Grandison’s disingenuity and self-righteousness.

21By the time Bentham began his analysis of morality and aesthetic theory, British poetry and much of narrative prose had largely abandoned nakedly didactic language, as seen in the preface of Richardson’s first work of fiction, Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740). Richardson opened that novel of sexual deferral with a conditionally framed litany of moral and aesthetic purposes, each suggesting that if these moral purposes are ‘worthy recommendations’ of the text, they will have been accomplished in it.

If to divert and entertain, and at the same time to instruct and improve the minds of the youth of both sexes:

If to inculcate religion and morality in so easy and agreeable a manner, as shall render them equally delightful and profitable:

If to set forth in the most exemplary lights, the parental, the filial, and the social duties:

  • 23 Richardson, Samuel, Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (New York: Penguin, 1985), p. 31.

If to paint vice in its proper colours, to make it deservedly odious; and to set virtue in its own amiable light, to make it look lovely:23

22These stated goals, though satirized by many of Richardson’s contemporaries, nevertheless became a kind of aesthetic compass used by eighteenth-century British novelists to guide their way, and by critics to judge the social value of realistic fiction. As a reinterpretation of Horace’s injunction to ‘delight and instruct,’ Richardson instrumentalizes the methods of Horatian aesthetics while taking for granted that the primary goal of ‘religion and morality’ is sexual asceticism. By the later eighteenth century, even the didactic sentimental novel no longer exclusively taught sexual chastity as the highest form of virtue, and the popularity of the Gothic genre had begun to contest the aesthetic supremacy of realistic fiction.

  • 24 See Shanafelt, Uncommon Sense, 129-155.

23 In the last chapter of my book on Bentham’s manuscripts on sexual nonconformity, I discuss the aspects of his engagements with literature as they describe something like queer aesthetics—pleasure in the uncommon, strange, visionary, challenging, and liberating power of the imagination.24 Bentham’s aesthetic sensibility was never divorced from his philosophical commitment to liberty and pleasure, and he frequently found himself at odds with authors who promoted a normative, patriarchal, elitist, or ascetic worldview at the expense of dignity and self-determination for women, laborers, and sexual minorities. Bentham often complains that authors who attempt to inculcate a particular moral worldview, rather than presenting a fictional world and allowing the reader to make their own judgments, nearly always seem to serve the interests of the powerful at the expense of the powerless.

4. Favorite Novels

24 Although Bentham seems to have been unimpressed by male-authored realistic fiction of the mid-eighteenth century, a few of his manuscripts suggest that he had a much more positive reading experience of literature that challenged the limitations of empiricist realism. In the context of the nineteenth-century critique of Bentham’s supposed insensibility to imaginative literature, it may be surprising that the authors Bentham imagines creative collaborations with are four of the most outrageously inventive novelists of the era: Laurence Sterne, Charlotte Smith, Frances Burney, and William Beckford.

  • 25 Bentham, Of Sexual Irregularities, 122.

25In the case of Beckford, the context is clear; in the notes Bentham created in 1817 to prepare for the work that would become Not Paul, but Jesus, he writes of his desperate wish for ‘a sort of partner, in whose honor, in point of secrecy and all other points, he could confide, and by whose sympathy he might be cheered and supported: a co-operator, in whose literary talents whatever deficiency there may be in his own might find a supply . . . For all this, the author’s eye has turned itself to the author of the History of the Caliph Vathec.’25 Bentham is consistently aware of his own limitations as a writer, as he knew that readers found his prose unbearably dull and his arguments abstruse and stultifying. The History of the Caliph Vathek (1786), which had been translated from French into English and published anonymously without the author’s consent, chronicles the efforts of the titular Islamic apostate to acquire supernatural knowledge, pleasures, and power. Bentham writes no more about why he would choose Beckford as a collaborator, but surely his reputation as a sexual nonconformist, having spent ten years in exile after being exposed in an affair with William Courtenay, and his talent as an entertaining prose stylist, made him ideal for the project of Not Paul, but Jesus as Bentham originally conceived it.

  • 26 Bentham MSS, UCL, lxxiv. 17.1 (c. 1774). For a longer transcription and analysis of this manuscript (...)
  • 27 Bentham MSS, UCL, lxxiv. 17.3 (c. 1774).

26As for Sterne, the creative collaboration is one that necessarily remained in Bentham’s own mind, as the author of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67) and A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768) had died only a month after the latter was published. In an undated, bizarre manuscript titled ‘Castrations to . . . by the Demon of Socrates,’ Bentham writes out an elaborate vision of being visited by the same angel who visited Muhomet, and who performed a violent operation on him to tear out his intellectual flaws. According to the manuscript, when he awoke, he found in his manuscript that ‘the writing vanished in a multitude of places’ and he was unable to remember what had been there.26 It is unclear what Bentham’s purpose was in writing this fantasy, but near the end, he claims it is a warning to friends to be wary of ‘sharks’ who might attempt to publish imitations of his work: ‘Should then any trash of that sort be at any time disgorged from the press, and my friends or my enemies should be for asking, as is natural, is this yours? the answer is already given.’27 Rather than an analysis or panegyric of Sterne, Bentham instead writes a rather shocking imitation of Sterne’s lyrical flights of sentimental fancy, imbued with Sterne’s sense of paranoia about publication, satirically exaggerated self-regard, and desire for cosmic justice. Folding Quranic tradition into Sterne’s Christian imagery, Bentham recruits the ‘cruel Angel’ as an imaginary editor whose unforgiving censorship of everything incorrect in his work is to blame for the sad state of his manuscripts, as well as for the infallibility of his arguments. Bentham was painfully self-conscious about his writing process and drafts, in which words and lines are frequently crossed out, scribbled over, or doubled or tripled by variant words and phrases as he struggled to find the most precise language for expressing his purpose.

  • 28 Sterne, Laurence, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (Oxford: Oxford University Pr (...)

27Early in Bentham’s fantasy, the angel declares that it was he, and not the ‘recording Angel’ who erased the account of Uncle Toby’s oath by dropping a tear on it. In Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, the narrator’s beloved Uncle Toby swears ‘by G—’ only once, in a state of pity so pure of heart that the angel who records human sin let a tear fall, and ‘blotted it out forever.’28 Bentham’s manuscript is a sharp Shandean imitation, which was a fashionable style in the decade following the publication of Tristram Shandy. Sterne’s surprisingly popular experimental fiction collapses and expands time, doubles back on itself, stubbornly refuses to advance plotted time, and regularly shoots the reader to the moon and stars for a visit to the sublime in the midst of quotidian interpersonal comedy. His characters experience physical, sexual, emotional, and intellectual pleasures and pains in quick succession and in idiosyncratic combinations, and his narrator spends considerable time sympathizing with the pleasures and pains of an overburdened ass. Unlike his contemporaries’ novels, in which a chapter typically constitutes a day, a scene, or another regular interval of time, Sterne’s chapters might take a dozen pages to annotate a single word in a conversation, or leap decades out of the narrative for no apparent reason. Bentham may have been especially attracted to Sterne’s fiction because of the frequent invocations of liberty, including for colonized and enslaved persons, religious dissenters, women, animals, children, sexual nonconformists, and disabled characters.

  • 29 Bentham MSS, UCL xiv. 14 (17 November 1794).

28Bentham’s highest praise for imaginative fiction appears in another strange manuscript, dated November 17, 1794, and titled ‘Education – Moral Compositions – New Drama.’ He seems to have been working toward a theory of how realistic and nonrealistic narratives can inculcate applicable moral lessons, ‘Of a nature to exercise an influence over moral conduct,’ separating them into the categories of Lives, Characters, and Histories for nonfiction, and Novels, Romances, and Epic Poems for fictional narratives.29 In weighing the potential efficacy of using literature to guide the morality of readers, Bentham seems at first to violate his own suspicion of literature that might coerce the reader into adopting a normative moral worldview.

  • 30 Bentham MSS, UCL xiv. 14 (17 November 1794).

29At this point in the manuscript, Bentham takes an interesting turn, and begins to consider why novels are so much more pleasurable than live drama: ‘Disadvantage of the Drama that in terms of beauty + other ingredients of personal appearance you are confined to such Actors as the stage [times] happen to present – Whereas in the Novel in the idea of the hero heroine and other favourite characters are taken from the most accomplished of your acquaintance and not from using one only, but from all together, upholding in a cloister the affections + accomplishments of all.’30 In this comparison, Bentham reveals something quite unusual (at least, in eighteenth-century aesthetic discourse) about the way in which he experiences fiction, mentally casting his own friends and acquaintances in the roles of the characters, and using the form of the novel to imagine sharing affection and admiration for all these loved ones together in the same fictional space.

  • 31 Bentham MSS, UCL xiv. 14 (17 November 1794).

30This pleasant reflection leads him to address another disadvantage of drama, which is that it is so often limited by ‘prejudices with respect to what are called the unities,’ referring to the supposedly classical unities developed in continental Renaissance drama that limit a single theatrical work to one action, time, and place (or as few as possible). Although the unities were less strictly observed in British drama, Bentham’s innovation is to recommend the opposite strategy, and create a new form of maximalist drama that would comprise many acts, settings, and characters, ‘taken from a novel and exhibiting the whole contents of the Novel without regard to the unities.’ There would need to be periods between acts for rest, music, and dancing, ‘to favour the illusion in respect of time,’ that is, to heighten the verisimilitude of the immersive experience, and the drama might even necessitate ‘the transportation of the spectator from place to place.’ This new kind of drama would be under no aesthetic limitations, only practical ones: ‘Number of persons as well as of Acts and scene as unhindered as in the Novel. Limited only by the number of the actors capable of filling the parts.’31

  • 32 Bentham MSS, UCL xiv. 14 (17 November 1794).

31Bentham completes this manuscript by recommending the ‘Drama to be taken from one of Miss Burney’s or Mrs. Smith’s novels – for instance Emmeline. It might occupy the whole time of the present play and entertainment with Music and Dancing in increased quantity between the Acts.’32 Revealing the names of the authors he is imagining whose works would deserve such a lavish theatrical adaptation, full of ‘favourite characters’ who remind him of the ‘affections + accomplishments’ of his loved ones, Bentham names Frances Burney and Charlotte Smith, two authors whose long, complicated, Gothic novels depict thoughtful young women figuring out how to pursue their own ethical and emotional independence in a patriarchal, rigidly classist society in which a woman’s personal liberty extends only as far as her financial means.

  • 33 Marshall, Nowell, Romanticism, Gender, and Violence: Blake to George Sodini (Lewisburg, Bucknell Un (...)

32In this manuscript, Bentham’s discussion of ‘moral compositions’ slips into an analysis of the pleasures of reading in a way that evades any discussion of empiricist realism as an important aesthetic or moral value; the novelists whose work Bentham envisions as worthy of elaborate immersive theatrical productions are not ones written to ‘inculcate religion and morality,’ as in Richardson’s Pamela, by offering instruction about how to regulate feelings in a supposedly typical social relationship. Rather, the novels of Burney and Smith place young women at the center of emotionally intense dramatic conflicts in which, despite misleading and manipulative social relations, the heroine must learn to trust her own instincts and assert her own understanding of what is true, pleasurable, and good, despite potentially ruinous consequences. As Nowell Marshall argues, the lesson of Gothic fiction is often that one must challenge heteropatriarchal injunctions to submission, chastity, and reproduction. In response to Burney’s Camilla, in which the protagonists experience profound resentment, rage, and suicidal despair, Marshall writes, ‘Although Edgar and Camilla overcome their melancholia by undergoing the process of masochistic expiation, the novel suggests the devastating physical and emotional effects of overinvestment in gender normativity and romantic coupling.’33 Having endured extreme emotional and personal hardships in their attempts to satisfy the rigidly policed gender norms of those around them, Edgar and Camilla are finally only able to marry once they abandon patriarchal authority and seek their own satisfaction with one another.

  • 34 Chiu, Frances, ‘From Nobodaddies to Noble Daddies: Writing Political and Paternal Authority in Engl (...)

33 Likewise, Charlotte Smith’s Emmeline violates the norms of empiricist realism in order to offer readers an alternative to the obedience and self-denial expected of young women in a patriarchy. In her article ‘From Nobodaddies to Noble Daddies,’ Frances Chiu makes a strong case that the Gothic trope of patriarchal evil, especially in the novels of Charlotte Smith, was a Jacobin political statement against tyrannical state authority. After tracing the development of the metaphor of the father for a ruler throughout Enlightenment philosophy, Chiu shows that novels such as Smith’s Emmeline used the figure of the unreasonable, controlling father to teach readers to resist government authority. However, the necessary resistance to patriarchal authority is also literal; Chiu identifies Jeremy Bentham as one of the most vehement advocates of young women’s self-determination during this wave of Gothic fiction about tyrannical fathers, whose otherworldly omnipotence suggests ‘an immediate sense of generational alienation’ due to new cultural and political values taking over from those of the ancien régime.34 Chiu suggests that Gothic authors of this period may have been influenced by the political radicalism of Bentham and other reformists of this period. It is also clear from Bentham’s manuscript on ‘moral compositions’ that Bentham was, in turn, deeply impressed by feminist Gothic fiction, especially works by Burney and Smith.

5. Conclusion

  • 35 There is perhaps no more extreme example of this than the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in which a wid (...)
  • 36 Sleep No More was first produced by Punchdrunk in New York City in 2011, and in Shanghai in 2016, a (...)

34In each of these three manuscripts praising contemporary and recent novelists, Bentham’s primary purpose is not to expound on the qualities or excellence of good novels, but to imagine some creative collaboration with their authors. Despite his criticisms of so much beloved literature, his expressions of pleasure in these particular works of fiction are stunningly immersive. It is difficult to resist the thought that the aesthetic goals of Bentham’s ‘new and improved Drama’ have in some sense been achieved by serial television and cinema, in which vast casts of characters, musical scores, and unlimited ‘acts’ provide something of the maximalist aesthetic experience of literary adaptation that he longs for.35 The live audience component may be best replicated by immersive theatrical productions like Sleep No More or Infinite Jest, in which audiences move among sites where actors present scenes from a beloved work of literature, providing a new format in which to interact with ‘favourite characters,’ limited only by the available cast.36 Likewise, the appearance of theme parks devoted to fictional works, such as The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (in Orlando, Hollywood, Beijing, and Osaka) or the Studio Ghibli Theme Park (opening in Aichi Prefecture, Japan, in 2022), provides fans with the opportunity to interact with and pretend to be characters in their favorite stories and media.

35It is notable that the works that seem to inspire such immersive adaptations today are, like Bentham’s favorites, works with non-empiricist imaginative diegeses, in which magical powers or alternate histories reshape the possibilities of the future, though most of these examples are significantly more politically conservative than Bentham’s preferred texts. Although Bentham’s aesthetic impulses seem to have been rare in his own time, they would seem to be much more at home in ours, when the desire to visit and inhabit a non-empiricist fictional diegesis is emerging as a fairly typical response to enjoyment of narrative art. Similarly, while aesthetic excellence in British eighteenth-century philosophy was typically defined by consensus regarding the desirable properties of excellent poetry or prose, Bentham’s insistence on the purely subjective experience of literary and other pleasures anticipates the twenty-first-century aesthetic dictum popularized by the comic artist Adam Ellis: ‘Let people enjoy things.’37

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Bibliographie

Arneil, Barbara, ‘Jeremy Bentham: Pauperism, Colonialism, and Imperialism,’ American Political Science Review, 115:4 (2021), pp. 1147-1158

Bentham, Jeremy, A Comment on the Commentaries and A Fragment on Government, ed. J. H. Burns and H. L. A. Hart (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1977)

Bentham, Jeremy, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, ed. J. H. Burns and H. L. A. Hart (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1970)

Bentham, Jeremy, Of Sexual Irregularities, and Other Writings on Sexual Morality, ed. Philip Schofield, Catherine Pease-Watkin, and Michael Quinn (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2014)

Bentham, Jeremy, The Rationale of Reward (London, John and H.L. Hunt, 1825)

De Champs, Emmanuelle, ‘Literature, Morals, and Utility: Bentham, Dumont, and De Staël,’ Bentham and the Arts, ed. Anthony Julius, Malcolm Quinn, and Philip Schofield (London, UCL Press, 2020), pp. 91-114

Chiu, Frances, ‘From Nobodaddies to Noble Daddies: Writing Political and Paternal Authority in English Fiction of the 1780s and 1790s,’ Eighteenth-Century Life, 26:2 (2002), pp. 1-22

Ferguson, Frances, ‘Not Kant, but Bentham: On Taste,’ Critical Inquiry, 45 (2019), pp. 577-600

Julius, Anthony, ‘More Bentham, Less Mill,’ Bentham and the Arts, ed. Anthony Julius, Malcolm Quinn, and Philip Schofield (London, UCL Press, 2020), pp 160-197

Marshall, Nowell, Romanticism, Gender, and Violence: Blake to George Sodini (Lewisburg, Bucknell University Press, 2013)

Marx, Karl, Capital vol. I, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York, Penguin, 1976)

Mill, John Stuart, Dissertations and Discussions: Political, Philosophical, and Historical vol. I (London, John W. Parker and Son, 1867, reprinted New York, Cosimo, 2008)

Nietzsche, Friedrich, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York, Vintage Books, 1966)

Quinn, Malcolm, ‘Jeremy Bentham on Liberty of Taste,’ History of European Ideas, 43:6 (2017), pp. 614-627

Richardson, Samuel, Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (New York: Penguin, 1985)

Rosen, David and Aaron Santesso, The Watchman in Pieces: Surveillance, Literature, and Liberal Personhood (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2013)

Shanafelt, Carrie, Uncommon Sense: Jeremy Bentham, Queer Aesthetics, and the Politics of Taste (Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press, 2022)

Sterne, Laurence, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)

Waldschmidt, Stefan ‘Bentham, Pater, and the Aesthetics of Utilitarian Sex,’ Nineteenth-Century Contexts, 38:5 (2016), pp. 365-375

Wrobel, Claire, ‘At the Crossroads of Law and Literature; On the Role of Fiction in Jeremy Bentham’s Penal Theory,’ Law & Literature, 32:3 (2020), pp. 415-435

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Notes

1 In the 1823 preface to An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, he writes, ‘Dry and tedious as a great part of the discussions it contains must unavoidably be found by the bulk of readers, he knows not how to regret the having written them, nor even the having made them public.’ Bentham, Jeremy, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, ed. J. H. Burns and H. L. A. Hart (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1970), p. 4.

2 As Frances Ferguson notes, following Mill’s criticism of Bentham, ‘Subsequent readers felt no need to look to Bentham for illumination on anything like aesthetic pleasure because Mill had painted Bentham as a philistine,’ Ferguson, Frances, ‘Not Kant, but Bentham: On Taste,’ Critical Inquiry, 45 (2019), p. 577. David Rosen and Aaron Santesso have explored the influence of realistic fiction on Bentham’s deeply literary sense of interiority. Rosen, David and Aaron Santesso, The Watchman in Pieces: Surveillance, Literature, and Liberal Personhood (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2013). Claire Wrobel specifically addresses the clearly mutual influences of Gothic fiction and Bentham’s penal theory. Wrobel, Claire, ‘At the Crossroads of Law and Literature; On the Role of Fiction in Jeremy Bentham’s Penal Theory,’ Law & Literature, 32:3 (2020), pp. 415-435.

3 Bentham, Jeremy, Of Sexual Irregularities, and Other Writings on Sexual Morality, ed. Philip Schofield, Catherine Pease-Watkin, and Michael Quinn (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2014). See for example Waldschmidt, Stefan ‘Bentham, Pater, and the Aesthetics of Utilitarian Sex,’ Nineteenth-Century Contexts, 38:5 (2016), pp. 365-375.

4 Malcolm Quinn demonstrates that Bentham’s insistence on the toleration of aesthetic variety, as opposed to the normative aesthetics of David Hume, is foundational to his defense of individual liberty. Quinn writes, ‘The light that Bentham’s views on liberty of taste and sexuality shed on Hume’s distinction between delicacy of taste and passion, shows precisely how a Humean practice of taste stood in the way of Bentham’s wish to make it socially legitimate to seek pleasure and avoid pain.’ Quinn, Malcolm, ‘Jeremy Bentham on Liberty of Taste,’ History of European Ideas, 43:6 (2017), p. 616.

5 Bentham, Jeremy, MSS, University College London, xiv. 14 (17 November 1794).

6 See Quinn, ‘Jeremy Bentham on Liberty of Taste,’ esp. 616-617; Ferguson, ‘Not Kant, but Bentham,’ p. 578; Julius, Anthony, ‘More Bentham, Less Mill,’ Bentham and the Arts, ed. Anthony Julius, Malcolm Quinn, and Philip Schofield (London, UCL Press, 2020), pp 160-197; Shanafelt, Carrie, Uncommon Sense: Jeremy Bentham, Queer Aesthetics, and the Politics of Taste (Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press, 2022), pp. 71, 150.

7 Bentham, Jeremy, The Rationale of Reward (London, John and H.L. Hunt, 1825), p. 206.

8 Mill, John Stuart, Dissertations and Discussions: Political, Philosophical, and Historical vol. I (London, John W. Parker and Son, 1867, reprinted New York, Cosimo, 2008), p. 387.

9 Marx, Karl, Capital vol. I, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York, Penguin, 1976), p. 758.

10 Marx, Capital, p. 759 n.

11 Nietzsche, Friedrich, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York, Vintage Books, 1966), pp. 156-157.

12 Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, pp. 157.

13 Bentham MSS, UCL, lxxiv. 3-4 (c. 1774).

14 Bentham, Jeremy, A Comment on the Commentaries and A Fragment on Government, ed. J. H. Burns and H. L. A. Hart (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1977), p. 459 note k.

15 Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, p. 283 note b.

16 Bentham’s aggressive strategies for eradicating pauperism have often been read as evidence of the total failure of his liberationism. In her analysis of this aspect of Bentham’s work, Barbara Arneil proposes ‘a theoretical distinction between a colonial, internal, and productive form of power that seeks to transform or improve people and land from within, which Bentham champions, and an imperial, external, and repressive form of power that dominates or rules over people from above and afar, which he rejects.’ Arneil, Barbara, ‘Jeremy Bentham: Pauperism, Colonialism, and Imperialism,’ American Political Science Review, 115:4 (2021), p. 1147.

17 De Champs, Emmanuelle, ‘Literature, Morals, and Utility: Bentham, Dumont, and De Staël,’ Bentham and the Arts, ed. Anthony Julius, Malcolm Quinn, and Philip Schofield (London, UCL Press, 2020), p. 95.

18 Bentham MSS, University College London, xiv. 8 (1800).

19 De Champs, ‘Literature, Morals, and Utility,’ p. 95.

20 Julius, ‘More Bentham, Less Mill,’ p. 187.

21 Bentham, Of Sexual Irregularities, p. 85.

22 Bentham MSS, UCL, lxx. 37 (1776).

23 Richardson, Samuel, Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (New York: Penguin, 1985), p. 31.

24 See Shanafelt, Uncommon Sense, 129-155.

25 Bentham, Of Sexual Irregularities, 122.

26 Bentham MSS, UCL, lxxiv. 17.1 (c. 1774). For a longer transcription and analysis of this manuscript, see Shanafelt, Uncommon Sense, pp. 145-148.

27 Bentham MSS, UCL, lxxiv. 17.3 (c. 1774).

28 Sterne, Laurence, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 341.

29 Bentham MSS, UCL xiv. 14 (17 November 1794).

30 Bentham MSS, UCL xiv. 14 (17 November 1794).

31 Bentham MSS, UCL xiv. 14 (17 November 1794).

32 Bentham MSS, UCL xiv. 14 (17 November 1794).

33 Marshall, Nowell, Romanticism, Gender, and Violence: Blake to George Sodini (Lewisburg, Bucknell University Press, 2013), p. 57.

34 Chiu, Frances, ‘From Nobodaddies to Noble Daddies: Writing Political and Paternal Authority in English Fiction of the 1780s and 1790s,’ Eighteenth-Century Life, 26:2 (2002), p. 13.

35 There is perhaps no more extreme example of this than the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in which a wide range of preexisting comic book heroes and villains have been consistently portrayed as sharing the same diegesis since 2007, across twenty-four films and four television series (over 73 hours of content in total so far), with fourteen more feature films and eight more television productions to be released over the next two years.

36 Sleep No More was first produced by Punchdrunk in New York City in 2011, and in Shanghai in 2016, and is loosely based on William Shakespeare’s 1606 play The Tragedy of Macbeth. Both productions are still open, and many audience members return again and again, seeking alternate experiences and information about the characters. Infinite Jest was produced as a 24-hour play by Hebbel am Ufer across various public sites in Berlin in 2012, and was based on the 1996 novel by David Foster Wallace.

37 Adam Ellis, The Book of Adam, Twitter, 3 Feb. 2016, https://twitter.com/adamtotscomix/status/695021827215728640/photo/1

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Carrie Shanafelt, « Jeremy Bentham and the Pleasures of Fiction », Revue d’études benthamiennes [En ligne], 20 | 2021, mis en ligne le 18 décembre 2021, consulté le 24 mai 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/etudes-benthamiennes/9295 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/etudes-benthamiennes.9295

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Carrie Shanafelt

Fairleigh Dickinson University

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