Daniel Bristow discusses a seminal new book on Clarissa and theories of Tragedy from Lacan and Benjamin to Nietzsche and Hölderlin. 

J. A. Smith, Samuel Richardson and the Theory of Tragedy: Clarissa’s Caesuras (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016) 192pp.

AND now, Belford, I can go no further. The affair is over. Clarissa lives. And I am

                                                                                                Your humble servant,


Famously, infamously, in a long and winding epistolary novel (the longest novel written in the English language: Clarissa, or The History of a Young Lady by Samuel Richardson, published in seven volumes between 1747 and 1748), full of letters that go on and on for pages and pages – anticipating, planning, conniving, conjuring, and conjuring away always-delayed or -deferred action (which is put off, prevaricated around, circumstantially thwarted, or thwarted by ruse) – the above few words make up the entirety of the letter that communicates to a co-conspirator that the greatest ignominy of all has finally been carried out by the rake and libertine Robert Lovelace, against a young lady of the utmost virtue, Clarissa Harlowe. This caesural moment cuts right through the text – due to the act itself escaping its temporal and typically grandiloquently descriptive fabric (a fabric which weaves together the narrative’s reality principle) – into a state of trauma and consequence.

9780719097935Indeed, as J. A. Smith – author of the definitive Samuel Richardson and the Theory of Tragedy: Clarissa’s Caesuras – puts it, in relation to this, the 257th letter of the book: ‘Lovelace’s confusing words give a material acknowledgement of the most famous caesura in the text itself. For this is also the point in the novel where the punctual reportage of every minor event by dated letters suddenly breaks down, and the rape itself goes unreported’ (p.17).

In Smith’s work, the centrality of the rupture of the rape of Clarissa is explored through an exemplary engagement with theories of tragedy; and the caesural position it occupies is contextualised on a number of levels: materially, in terms of the facticity of the big book itself, as well as of the fictional accounts given of its letter-writing – and the logistics thereof – that takes place within it; familially, between the rocks and hard places of Clarissa’s coercive family and their emotionally- and jealously-charged layings-down of the Law; amiably, between Clarissa and her best friend and confidant Anna Howe, as well as between Lovelace and his friends and cohorts (the narratological flavours of which are analysed spectacularly against the spectrum of sexuation, and its socio-historical, discursive underpinnings); as well as temporally, structurally, and psychologically/psychoanalytically (instances of which will form predominant focus herein). The main tragedian theoreticians that Smith flanks are the Friedrichs Nietzsche and Hölderlin, Walter Benjamin, and Jacques Lacan, whilst he tempers their reflections with his ever-acute feminism, and of course much specialist knowledge of the novel and the writer, and their combined literary criticism down the centuries.

Richardson’s didactic approach to story-writing – in an age of conduct books and chapbooks of maxims (into the latter of which he would decant moral moments of his three major opi[2]) – is dealt deftly with by Smith, through which analysis he shows that the sentiments Richardson sought to excerpt were always extending beyond the collatable or the redactable within his texts. Smith’s careful erudition navigates us through both Richardson’s own acknowledgement of this and his necessitated negotiation therewith, whilst flagging up the dialectical inconquerability that the very ontology of text itself – its always-excessive material and semantic properties and possibilities – brings to the bargaining table. What is thus at work throughout Smith’s text, in its theory of breakdown, and of tragic disintegration, is a scrutinous investigation of particularisation, partiality, and of what it is to make something into – and to become – an object. In quite a marvel of psychoanalytic excavation, Smith highlights the objectifications occurring on micro- and macrocosmic textual levels – and their consequences – in relation to Clarissa’s ‘mad papers’ (a scrambled collection of quotations and fragments of letters that she scribbled down after experiencing the trauma, and which were left unsent, which is to say nothing of the destination at which they arrived):

Lovelace has lost his capacity to write precisely in so far as he perceives that he has damaged the good object, Clarissa, beyond reparation. Lovelace’s discussions of the mad papers, and the mad papers themselves, actually tend towards the very imagery and terminology [Melanie] Klein adopts when discussing the paranoid-schizoid position, which she describes as the fantasy that the disintegrated object destroyed by the subject’s aggression has returned as ‘a multitude of persecutors, since each piece is growing again into a persecutor’’ (p.110).

Pieces – returning and growing beyond themselves – highlight the tears, cuts, and caesuras, that constitute not only Richardson’s book itself, but the characters’ lives as they are experienced within it. It is this, Smith argues, that makes Richardson’s book, and its tale – and even its telling – truly tragic in themselves. Thus, ‘whatever Richardson’s own famous battles over interpretation with his more roguish readers, the text itself is far less interested in our reasonably making the right choice between various competing ideas than in insisting on the materiality of the gap between them: marking the traumatic space where ‘the speeding alternation of ideas’ becomes suspended and naked ‘pure word’ of ‘the idea itself’ is allowed to stand’ (pp.17-18). This naked, undeceiving ‘pure word’ of Hölderlin’s that Smith is referring to hints at something of that ‘dignity’ of the primordial object – ‘the Thing’ – that Lacan (of whom Smith proves himself a wonderful exegete) talked of. When all else fades, or is punctuated by rupture or caesura, something rears objectally, although unencounterably…

Referentiality, the stand-in – and their separation, the gap between them – have thus become the subject matter that Smith has so brilliantly brought out of every moment – and out from between every moment – in Richardson and in Clarissa. In the very makeup and breakup of Clarissa, Smith realises and emphasises that what cannot be said is not simply passed over in silence, but that the very silence of what cannot be said is said itself; often, that is, in some approximate way, as in the endless written allusive and significative attempts at reification all the way through the tome that is Clarissa. As Smith explains in relation to the speech of psychoanalytic patients (‘analysands’) that Lacan describes, here too ‘the mere fact that […] anomalous imported passages have appeared in the [text’s] discourse at all is a signal that things have come too close to the bone, that something of the order of the death drive is under way, and that this is obliquely significant in itself’ (p.82). When something is too close to the bone, the flesh of words signifies in an especial way: it signifies the constitutivity of the caesura itself. Tragically – for Clarissa, and in Clarissa – what cuts to the bone cuts from it too; and, in this double-bind, the gap not only ties the tragic figure to the very tragedy or trauma itself, but also and at the same time forever sunders them from it. The caesura is a cruel constitutivity.

‘Iinscribed as the very condition of its form’, the caesura is excavated and interrogated by Smith throughout this timely and important work as the constitutive structuring principle of ‘this novel of the non-relationship’, and this through his thorough and tightknit treatment of the themes that are laid out clearly in the book’s title (p.160). Few explanations of the infamously succinct but provocative statement, ‘there is no sexual relationship’, made by Lacan (the application of which to the case of Clarissa brings it to its most stinging realisation), will leave a reader all that much clearer on its meaning, or potential meaning, but Smith, by the end of his exploration, has Richardson’s book, written over two hundred years prior to its enunciation, enunciating precisely this mantra, even textually practicing it. Or, rather, Smith’s work is the discovery – even if in the sense of invention (as Lacan described Freud’s discovery of the unconscious) – that Clarissa precisely has always enunciated, and practiced, it.

Daniel Bristow is a scholar of psychoanalysis from the UK. Among other things he is the author of Joyce and LacanReading, Writing, and Psychoanalysis (Routledge, 2016) and the series editor of the Everyday Analysis book series.

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[1] Samuel Richardson, Clarissa, or The History of a Young Lady, ed. Angus Ross (London: Penguin Classics, 2004) p.883, L257.

[2] See, for example, Samuel Richardson, A Collection of Moral and Instructive Sentiments, Maxims, Cautions and Reflexions, Contained in the Histories of Pamela, Clarissa and Sir Charles Grandison (London: S. Richardson, 1755). His three major novels were Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740), Clarissa, and The History of Sir Charles Grandison (1753).

2 thoughts on “Samuel Richardson and the Theory of Tragedy

  1. ????? “opi” ????
    the plural of opus is either OPERA or sticking with English OPUSES, it is not under any circumstances “opi” — a nonsense non-word whose appearance here reflects badly on whoever allegedly edits texts, I’ve worked as an editor (in UK and Europe) since the 1970s and have never seen that silly howler before. Complete works is OPERA OMNIA, literally “all works”. There are Latin words which end -us whose plurals are not -i, some are pronounced differently but spelled the same, others like opus have extended forms and the genitive is commonly given to indicate the declension opus/ operis. If the declension had been such that an ending like -i applied, there would still have been no -i. The gender is neutral, so -a applies,


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