Friday, February 22, 2013

Henry Fielding on Vanity

Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews (1742), while not nearly as entertaining as Tom Jones--an unfair bar to ask a book to clear--is nonetheless great fun, a rambling goof on hypocrisy, vanity, and desire that in its paper-thin organizational scheme is one step up from the picaresque.

It's amusing throughout--what led rocketlass to pick it off the table at Daunt Books when we were in London was a scene of fisticuffs that had her laughing out loud--but my favorite moment is this vertiginous encomium to/damnation of vanity:
O Vanity! How little is thy Force acknowledged, or thy Operations discerned? How wantonly dost thou deceive Mankind under different Disguises? Sometimes thou does wear the Face of Pity, sometimes of Generosity: nay, thou has the Assurance even to put on those glorious Ornaments which belong only to heroic Virtue. Thou Odious, deformed Monster! whom Priests have railed at, Philosophers despised, and Poets ridiculed: Is there a Wretch so abandoned as to own thee for an Acquaintance in public? yet, how few will refuse to enjoy thee in private? Nay, thou are the Pursuit of most Men through their Lives. The greatest Villainies are daily practised to please thee: nor is the meanest Thief below, or the greatest Hero above, thy notice. Thy embraces are often the sole Aim and sole Reward of the private Robbery, and the plundered province. It is, to pamper up thee, thou Harlot, that we attempt to withdraw from others what we do not want, or to withhold from them what they do. All our Passions are they Slaves. Avarice itself is often no more than thy Hand-maid, and even Lust thy Pimp. The Bully Fear, like a Coward, flies before thee, and Joy and Grief hide their Heads in thy Presence.

I know thou wilt think, that whilst I abuse thee, I court thee; and that thy Love hath inspired me to write this sarcastical Panegyrick on thee: but thou are deceived, I value thee not of a farthing; nor will it give me any Pain, if thou should'st prevail on the Reader to censure this Digression as errant Nonsense: for know to thy Confusion, that I have introduced thee for no other Purpose than to lengthen out a short Chapter; and so I return to my History.
That's right: Fielding tricked Vanity into helping him fill out a chapter . . . by appealing to Vanity's vanity. Well played, sir.

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