alter Pater wanted more from life,” writes the literary historian David Russell, an understatement that perfectly exemplifies the technique he explores in Tact: Aesthetic Liberalism and the Essay Form in Nineteenth-Century Britain (111). Russell presents Pater as one of a handful of British writers, including Charles Lamb, John Stuart Mill, and Matthew Arnold, who specialized in broaching delicate subjects and embedded a variant of liberalism in that practice. With this volume Russell shows how their "practices of tact” created “a different, aesthetic liberalism” opposed to the “dominant liberalism of the free market” (2). Pater’s wish for “more from life” dramatized the liberal emphasis on the value of "a generous expansion of experience" that was at once "a political stance and a claim about freedom” (7).
A tactful encounter, one "in which people are at once most equal and more individually alive,” poses questions about knowledge and power. To a surprising degree we’re in a state of unknowing with respect to ourselves. Others see things we don’t. To be tactful is to be careful with such information, to recognize that although knowledge might be power, circumstances sometimes require us to relinquish it. This possibility—of not using what we know—prompts Russell to wonder “whether there are things we can do with people, with any objects of our attention, other than know them. And whether coming to an answer about, or exposing the truth of, something or someone is the most useful, or the most imaginative, or the most kind thing we can do with them” (2). According to Russell, the essayists of aesthetic liberalism quietly advocated for qualities apart from getting answers: imagination, kindness, utility. They “proposed a new way of feeling one's way in society, which depended less on knowing other people, and placing them in hierarchical categories of status, and instead inventing new ways to value others and to live with them” (6-7). As that last clause hints, urbanization produced this shift. “Tact is a product of the modern city,” Russell argues, because “never before had so many different people lived in a such close proximity,” a nearness that demanded “new forms of relating to difference and a reform of established, absolutist systems of status evaluation” (13).
Because tact is the art of avoiding uncomfortable truths, a tactful person risks becoming a complicit one. Russell readily acknowledges tact’s dark side. Tact "restrains people, even without knowing it, from asking difficult questions. What is most decorously assumed is most deeply coercive; what goes tactfully unsaid is empowered: the most normative assumptions are privileged by latency, and all the more naturalized for a lack of open discussion” (3). Rather than dwell on the problems posed by tact, Russell emphasizes the social relations it enhances. He wants us to look on the bright side, to see how tact is good for us. "But what of the tact that provides the conditions for trust?”
Because tact is the art of avoiding uncomfortable truths, a tactful person risks becoming a complicit one. Russell readily acknowledges tact’s dark side. Tact "restrains people, even without knowing it, from asking difficult questions. What is most decorously assumed is most deeply coercive; what goes tactfully unsaid is empowered: the most normative assumptions are privileged by latency, and all the more naturalized for a lack of open discussion." Rather than dwell on the problems posed by tact, Russell emphasizes the social relations it enhances. He wants us to look on the bright side, to see how tact is good for us. "But what of the tact that provides the conditions for trust?" If we open ourselves to "small, tactful moments of handling" we might learn to attend to " the qualities and distributions of spaces and experiences between people, rather than focusing on identitarian knowledge about the constitution of individual subjects." (3)
Russell begins with Charles Lamb’s literary alter ego, Elia, who is paragon of tact. In Essays of Elia (1823) and Last Essays of Elia (1833), Elia gently probes shifts in social relations by expounding glancingly on such trivial topics as chimney sweepers and suppers of roast pig. In an 1821 essay, “Mrs. Battle’s Opinions on Whist,” Lamb described an exacting woman’s requirements for card players around her table in a “perfect parody of conduct book convention [which] expounds a social grammar to illustrate a binary with a superior and inferior term—serious and unserious players.” The genius of Lamb’s composition is that it is focused so relentlessly on the picayune. But, Russell points out, Lamb is not content merely to judge the petty Mrs. Battle, to “unveil the parody and explain the moral of the story.” Rather, “the essay avoids progressing to closure, opening instead a vaguer, actively neutral space. Elia admits his own incapacity for militantly taking sides, confessing instead a fondness for irrelevancy.” (18)
Engaged in what he calls a “rescue project” (42), Russell turns next to John Stuart Mill’s disavowed early essays on aesthetics. According to Russell, these neglected materials are more important to Mill’s project than we might expect and are best understood in relation the other “tactful essayists” Russell identifies (43). Because Mill’s readers have ignored the aesthetic dimension of his liberalism, they have missed Mill’s sensitivity to others and to human relationships as a central element of his thought. In particular, Russell argues that a neglected feature of Mill’s “On Liberty” is its insistence on the value of “personal expression” and “the richness of one’s own relation to the materials of one’s own life.” (46) While Mill’s asceticism certainly gets its due, Russell suggests that it is an outgrowth of a prior and less well recognized commitment to imagination, especially the sort of imagination of another’s situation that makes for tactful interaction.
Russell explores Matthew Arnold’s contribution to the discourse of tact by means of an unlikely excursion into his activities as a school inspector. It is invigorating to learn that while Arnold penned his most famous essays in the library of the elite Athenaeum Club, he also wrote in moments snatched between shifts in provincial classrooms. “I have had a hard day,” Arnold complained in a letter to his wife written toward the end of 1851. “Thirty pupil teachers to examine in an inconvenient room and nothing to eat except a biscuit, which a charitable lady gave me.” (qtd. pp. 61-62) Russell argues that Arnold’s evocation of marginal figures in his poetry -- for instance, the so-called gypsies of “Resignation” (1849) -- coupled to Arnold’s metrical experiments is evidence of a wider amplitude of understanding than we might otherwise expect from the cloistered author of Culture and Anarchy. Arnold, Russell says, saw poetry as a means of educating people into freedom “from the constriction of unthinking social habit and the abstractions of isolated principles, and towards a basis for equality in social relations” (69). Arnold ultimately shrank the implications of this position, and Russell documents his retreat into an idea of education as productive of “men of culture” who, strangely enough, thought like he did and so became the “true apostles of equality” (78).
Turning to Walter Pater, Russell claims that “Pater takes Arnold’s precepts and makes a world from them.” This world exists only in Pater’s writings, and Pater's name for it is, of course, “the Renaissance.” “Within the enchanted region of the Renaissance,” Pater tells us, “one needs not be forever on one’s guard. Here there are no fixed parties, no exclusions” (qtd. on p. 115). In this realm, which privileges “enchantment” over more aggressive or competitive modes of being, Pater “seeks shared grounds that leave nobody out” (115). Evoking this forgiving context, Pater doesn’t argue like a prosecuting attorney, nor does he persuade by eliciting shame or fear. “His curious claims seem to have nothing to prove,” Russell observes. Rather, Pater’s “critical tact attends to the small detail, the evocative gesture or impression, not as symptoms of a higher truth or hidden power, but as hints by which we may reach toward other ways of living” (112). Russell compares Pater’s tactful prose to the “early Italian sculpture” he admires. Its “lowness of relief” yields “an incompleteness, which is surely not undesigned, and which, as I think, no one regrets, and trusts to the spectator to complete the half-emergent form” (qtd on 127).
George Eliot’s essays provide a counterpoint to this careful positioning of self and other. Russell focuses on her furious criticism of “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” (1856), a blunt piece published in the Westminster Review in which Eliot criticized "lady novelists" for adopting a false attitude frequently mistaken for tact. Expressed with a “syntactically breezy violence," this attitude, which Russell compares to Sartrean “bad faith," undermined the moral seriousness that Eliot believed novelists were obliged to embrace. The “lady novelists” instead offered only the cheap consolation of happy endings for the virtuous. Worse, since these novelists wrote consciously toward this end, Eliot found the novels flawed from the start, their narrators too knowing, their perspectives too limited and altogether too sure of themselves. No matter how superficially different they might be, writers of these dull books organized them to conclude with the same dull revelation that everything would be fine in the end. “Swathed in hieratic certainty, the lady novelist evades any honest apprehension of forms of life, in all their particularities and resistances,” Russell writes, glossing Eliot. “An aesthetic failure and an ethical failure are exactly correlated. Eliot establishes a link between violence, an attitude to time, and an easy complacency in a prose style” (103-04).
Russell clearly enjoys the writers he studies, and the result is a joyful and stylish book. Although psychoanalysis -- of the object-relations sort, indebted more to Winnicott than to Freud -- provides Russell with a conceptual framework, he wields this material lightly. The child psychoanalyst Adam Phillips floats through these pages, as does the contemporary psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas who suggests that “tactful handling” creates a context for successful early development (11). A final chapter, on “Tact and Psychoanalysis,” investigates the work of psychoanalyst and writer Marion Milner, whose On Not Being Able to Paint (1950) remains a revered touchstone for blocked artists. Although she is nearly a century removed from Lamb, with whom the book begins, and writing in a different context entirely, Milner provides Russell with an occasion to enlarge his argument beyond literary criticism. Focusing on Milner’s clinical work as well as her writings, Russell suggests that the relationship between tact and human flourishing extends well beyond the narrower matters of literary history with which he is otherwise concerned.
Russell, David. Tact: Aesthetic Liberalism and the Essay Form in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.
Last modified 25 September 2018