Winter 2009–2010

Bachelors, Snakes, and Squiggles

The brief history of a famous literary doodle

Aaron Schuster

In 1753, the renowned English painter, printmaker, satirist, and cartoonist William Hogarth published his treatise The Analysis of Beauty, one of the major works of pre-Kantian aesthetics. In it, he presents what quickly became an influential defense of the wavy line, the “line of grace” or “line of beauty.” As Hogarth explains, this undulating figure has a naturally pleasing character, and may be found in diverse contexts. The mind delights in “the well-connected thread of a play, or novel … and ends most pleas’d, when that is most distinctly unravell’d”; it enjoys “winding walks, and serpentine 
rivers” which “lead the eye [on] a wanton kind of chace”; and, especially, it takes pleasure in the sinuous twists and curves of the human body:

Observe that part of a beautiful woman where she is perhaps the most beautiful, about the neck and breasts; the smoothness; the softness; the easy and insensible swell; the variety of the surface, which is never for the smallest space the same; the deceitful maze, through which the unsteady eye slides giddily, without knowing where to fix, or whither it is carried.

In Hogarth’s artistic work, the line of beauty first appears in his self-portrait The Painter and his Pug (1745), in which the artist is flanked on one side by his dog—whom Hogarth, a famously pugnacious fellow, claimed to have resembled—and on the other by his easel, which is decorated with an elegant S-shaped figure. The same wavy line later shows up on the frontispiece of his treatise, this time floating tranquilly in a pyramid that sits atop a plinth engraved with the word “Variety.” The latter refers to a quotation from Milton, printed on the same page: “So vary’d be, and of his tortuous train / Curl’d many a wanton wreath, in sight of Eve, / To lure her eye.” Is this the ultimate referent of the line of beauty: the sinuous curves of the devilish serpent, the twisting and twisted figure of the Fall? Enshrined in the pyramid, the seductive powers of the serpent are held at bay, the powers of Art evenly balanced. Hogarth cites in his preface the learned opinion of the sixteenth-century Italian painter and writer Gian Paolo Lomazzo:

Lamozzo [sic] … hath this remarkable passage, vol. 1 book 1. … “It is reported then that Michael Angelo upon a time gave this observation to the Painter Marcus de Sciena his scholler; that he should alwaies make a figure Pyramidall, Serpentlike, and multiplied by one two and three. In which precept (in mine opinion) the whole mysterie of the arte consisteth.” 

It is well known that Laurence Sterne was a great admirer of Hogarth. In an enthusiastic letter addressed to an intermediary, Sterne—who writes “I would give both my Ears … for no more than ten Strokes of Howgarth’s witty Chissel”—asked the English painter for an illustration to the second edition of Books 1 and 2 of Tristram Shandy. Sterne’s book first appeared in 1759, only six years after The Analysis of Beauty, and Hogarth’s influence can be felt throughout the novel. The scene Sterne wished to be illustrated is found in Book 2, Chapter 17, which intricately details Corporal Trim’s posture as he prepares to deliver a sermon:

He stood before them with his body swayed, and bent forwards just so far, as to make an angle of 85 degrees and a half upon the plane of the horizon;—which sound orators, to whom I address this, know very well to be the true persuasive angle of incidence.

This absurd pose, with the “foot of his left leg … advanced a little” and “his knee bent, but that not violently,—but so as to fall within the limits of the line of beauty,” is as much an homage to as a comic caricature of Hogarth’s doctrine. Always the irreverent trickster, Sterne was not above taking sly jabs at those he professed to admire.

Tristram Shandy is a book that truly defies categorization, out avant-garding the avant-garde and surpassing the vast bulk of later experimental literature in its sheer inventiveness. It is perhaps the unpredictable, impulsive, erratic artwork par excellence. One of Sterne’s innovations is the inclusion of drawings and figures in the body of the text (the Malevich-like black square which fills a whole page being among the most famous). In Book 9, Chapter 4, Corporal Trim speaks of marriage as a kind of prison:

Nothing, continued the corporal, can be so sad as confinement for life—or so sweet, an’ please your honour, as liberty.

Nothing, Trim—said my uncle Toby, musing—
Whilst a man is free—cried the corporal, giving a flourish with his stick thus—

And then appears the path traced by Trim’s cane, a wonderful winding doodle, which might be seen as an exemplary case of automatic drawing avant la lettre. The text continues: “A thousand of my father’s most subtle syllogisms could not have said more for celibacy.”

Apart from representing the freedom of the abstinent bachelor’s life, Sterne’s undulating squiggle has often been seen as a symbol for the roundabout flow of the novel itself, a tale that constantly interrupts itself and starts down fresh, unexpected paths, a book made up of digressions and associations. The quotation at the head of Book 7, from Pliny the Younger, furnishes the motto of the novel as a whole: “Non enim excursus hic ejus, sed opus ipsum est” (“For this is not a digression from it, but the work itself”).

Corporal Trim’s cane flourish appears again in print some seventy years later, on the frontispiece of Honoré de Balzac’s La peau de chagrin, published in 1831, and translated into English as The Wild Ass’s Skin. One of Balzac’s finest novels, it is part of the so-called Philosophical Studies of “The Human Comedy.” Balzac dramatizes his theory of human will through the rise and fall of the novel’s hero, Raphael de Valentin, who fulfills his most grandiose desires though the medium of a magic shagreen, but only at the cost of a shortened life—the skin shrinks with each granted wish, and with it Valentin’s vital force.

Balzac’s “quotation” of Sterne’s squiggle is hardly precise, nor even consistent from edition to edition (and sometimes it is simply omitted). Figure at top shows the angled squiggle as it appears in Sterne’s book. The figure second from top is from the 1838 illustrated edition of La peau de chagrin by Delloye and Lecoux, in which Corporal Trim’s flourish has been made horizontal, and the last loop unravelled. The figure third from top is from a contemporary Penguin edition of the novel, where the 1838 figure has been rotated a full 180°. The most significant variation, however, is found in the Houssiaux edition of 1855, where the squiggle (bottom) has not only been rotated 180° but also turned into a serpent, complete with extended tongue.

In Balzac’s novel, Sterne’s squiggle strikingly replaces the traditional prophetic epigraph—a literary novelty, to be sure. But what exactly is it meant to represent? In Félix Davin’s preface to the “Philosophical Studies,” usually considered authoritative since Balzac himself commissioned it, the wavy line is said to symbolize “the serpentine direction of life, the bizarre undulations of destiny.” (The metaphor of the snake cannot help but conjure the Biblical tempter, Variety, whose seductions slipped into Hogarth’s system). This interpretation was literally confirmed in the Houssiaux edition of 1855, where the squiggle was redrawn with scales and a serpent’s head. Apart from this major (one-time) modification, there are other slight variations: in Balzac’s version, the doodle is tilted toward the horizontal, and, more significantly yet almost never remarked upon, the last curlicue is undone.

This curious case of the misquoted squiggle may serve as an occasion to delineate a more profound difference. Despite a shared penchant for digression and drift, in the transmission from Hogarth to Sterne to Balzac, a decisive reversal has taken place: whereas Trim’s motion is explicitly connected with freedom and sexual abstinence (as well as a parody of Hogarth’s wavy aesthetics), for Balzac it rather connotes decadence, exhaustion, entropy, and death: the fizzling of the will. Perhaps this is why—unconsciously?—Balzac let the serpentine trace just trail off, without its final loop.

Leaving aside the question of misquotation, what else is at stake in Balzac’s use of the squiggle? From our contemporary vantage point, I believe we can detect a crucial double reference. Both Freud and Marx were admirers of Balzac, and something of their thinking resonates in Balzac’s graphical citation. Fittingly enough, The Wild Ass’s Skin was the last novel Freud read before he died, and it is not difficult to see in the twisting thread a figure of the wayward vicissitudes of the libido. (Lacan once remarked that best translation of Freud’s Trieb is dérive: the drive goes adrift). But we may also interpret the squiggle in a Marxist manner. After a spirited speech by one of Valentin’s friends critical of Louis-Philippe and the July Revolution, we read:

“Yes,” the young man replied, less astonished at the accomplishment of his wishes than surprised at the natural way events were being linked together in a logical chain. Although he found it impossible to believe in the intervention of magic, he was lost in wonderment at the changes and chances of human destiny.

Viewed from a sociological perspective—and what is Balzac if not a mixture of sentimental soap and sharp sociological description?—the winding trace appears as a cipher both fantastic and banal, a magical hieroglyph endowed with a realist purpose. It expresses, to cite Carlo Ginzburg, “the power of irrational forces upon individuals and society—a point which was at the core of the Comédie humaine as a whole.” Balzac’s genius was to have understood that the best way to capture the madness of modern society was through fantastical figures like the enchanted ass’s skin. The irrational and seemingly magic forces guiding human destiny are thus revealed to be those of the twisted world of early modern capitalism.

Aaron Schuster is a writer based in Brussels, where he recently completed his doctoral dissertation, “The Trouble With Pleasure: Philosophy and Psychoanalysis.” Apart from continuing studies of levitation, he is working on his first novel, Sexual Aberrations of the Criminal Female.

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