Godwin's Suspicion of Speech Acts.(William Godwin)



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increasingly acute in the final pages of the novel, when the narrator reveals that even "Deloraine" is not his real name: the names in his story have been changed to protect the innocent, and "Deloraine" is a "veil" for a yet more "fatal name" (CN 8.286). Although he leaves his written memoir to his daughter, the only person who knows his secret, and although he believes that no one else will ever read the text, he declines to reveal his true name even in its pages. When even a private, confessional autobiography perpetuates the fiction of an assumed name and identity, which is itself erected on a theory of public reputation as the basis for moral behavior, it becomes dubious whether there is any brute fact or essential identity at the base of the entire construct.

Cloudesley, as Godwin's most extended exploration of institutional identity and its performative grounding, is no doubt a flawed work, in which the narrative perspective is more complicated and less plausible than usual, the story both repetitive and rambling. Yet the novel deals with strikingly modern topics, ranging from problems of international jurisdiction to adolescent behavior and anxieties, and even to academic politics. Cloudesley is also full of compelling ironies about the nature and foundation of identity in society. The beginning and end of' the story are narrated by the young commoner William Meadows, who, on returning to England after an adventuresome sojourn in Russia, is unexpectedly called into the presence of the neighboring nobleman, Richard Danvers, who recounts his life story and, at its center, his indelible crime of fraud. Assailed by grief and remorse after losing his own family to illness, Danvers commissions Meadows to travel to Italy in search of his dispossessed nephew, whom the servant Cloudesley has named Julian and raised as his own son. Meadows locates Julian Cloudesley, and Danvers himself arrives in Italy just in time to save him from being unjustly executed as a highwayman; before expiring, Danvers restores Julian to his rightful inheritance as an English and Irish peer.

The crime that Danvers commits involves a combination of brute and institutional facts. He needs the body of a dead infant, which Cloudesley somehow procures for him, to substitute for his infant nephew in order to promulgate the fiction that the latter was stillborn. But the more significant aspect of his transgression, as judged by the number of times he returns to it in his narrative, is the filing of false documents that attest to the death of his brother's son. When he first commits the crime, Danvers mitigates it in his own eyes by arguing that he is not depriving the infant of life, but only of legal fictions: "Their child was not dead. But he was, by my sole means, civilly dead to his property, his rank and his country" (CN 7.106). This argument is relatively easy to maintain as long as the child himself is an unborn "fiction." Later, though, Danvers finds that the boy's bodily existence itself exerts a kind of pressure on his and Cloudesley's conscience: "The contract between Cloudesley and myself by which Julian was despoiled of his all, had been sealed before the child was born, when he was a creature of the understanding only, respecting which something might be affirmed or denied. The case was altered, when he had become an object of the senses" (CN 7.175).

To William Meadows as he listens to this tale, and to the reader of the novel, successive events clarify what it means to deprive a person of his institutional identity, even if his physical being remains intact. Numerous situations in which characters are restricted in the exercise of their property or their rights because they travel into different legal jurisdictions underscore the importance of legal status within a given community. The most extreme example of existence beyond all jurisdictions, though, is provided by the company of banditti led by the robber hero St. Elmo, a man without country or law who "regarded what is called civilised society as a conspiracy against the inherent rights of man" (CN 7.217). The existence of the banditti, men from noble families who have chosen to live outside regular legal and political communities, constitutes a serious critique of social institutions, because the outlaws' alternative lifestyle actually provides greater scope for behavior motivated by pleasure, pain, affection, and even justice--the kind of behavior advocated by the political theorist Godwin. The outlaws gain the sympathy of both the reader and Julian Cloudesley, who innocently joins their band because he feels greater ties of affection with them than with anyone in the legitimate community. On the other hand, both legitimate social identity and outlawry are starkly contrasted with the brute fact of physical death by execution or disease, for each of which the novel provides spectacular examples. When Meadows traces Julian to Palermo, he arrives there just in time to witness the mass execution of half the banditti with whom Julian has been living--a scene that impresses Meadows as the most intense contrast possible between vibrant life and sudden extinction. Lord Danvers experiences the extinction of physical identity in his own family four times over, when each of his children, who have apparently inherited the same disorder, dies of an emaciating disease at about age eleven--that is, just before the onset of physical adulthood. Not surprisingly, Danvers regards the death of his children and his wife as divine retribution for figuratively murdering his brother's son before the infant could accede to his rights as an adult.

The fabricated identities of the main characters in Cloudesley are peculiarly performative identities, inasmuch as they are inseparable from the characters' behavior. Lord Danvers has placed himself in a position from which he is uniquely empowered to perpetuate that same position: "It is no trifling undertaking," he reflects, "to thrust from his place a nobleman, whose title is already authentically recorded, and who had been admitted to the possession of the estates and the income annexed to that title" (CN 7.137). By villainously--but successfully--claiming the title of Earl Danvers, he ascends to a social status that effectively puts him out of reach of the charge of being a villain. Given the prejudice of the legal system in favor of property and privilege, the greater the extent of his fraud, the less likely it is that he would ever be found guilty of fraud. Moreover, his own consciousness of the exalted rank he has assumed through his crime makes him all the more determined that he must not allow himself to be dishonored by public exposure, even if he would otherwise wish to undo his actions. Cloudesley, the other party to the contract by which Julian is disinherited, unhappily puts himself in an inverse position. By helping to make Danvers powerful and wealthy, he has minimized his own ability to break or alter the terms of their contract, as both of them realize the first time Cloudesley threatens to expose the secret. For Danvers, breaking his side of the contract would simply involve cutting off Cloudesley's allowance of 500 [pounds sterling] a year; because "a poor suitor always labours under great disadvantages," this would render it much more difficult for Cloudesley to break his side of the bargain by persuading the courts that Danvers is a usurper (CN 7.141). Julian's position is marked by an ironic performativity as well. As Cloudesley realizes in dismay when considering his options, if Julian were to regain his title, his uncle Danvers would simultaneously be exposed as a fraud and usurper, and the whole house would be exposed to scandal. The act of gaining a noble title would be inseparable from the act of casting dishonor on that title. "You would affix to the name of Herbert, and to the titles of Alton and Danvers, an everlasting disgrace," the usurper Danvers warns Cloudesley; "that disgrace would even contaminate the whole blood of the house, and rebound on your ward" (CN 7.194). The resolution to all these paradoxes comes only when Danvers' physical identity and his assumed institutional identity are extinguished together. Before his death in Italy, he makes a will restoring property and title to Julian; he is then buried, at his request, in complete oblivion: "no stone told even his name to the passer by" (CN 7.286).

"The rank I bore was a forgery; the income I spent was the property of another," Danvers ruminates, in one of many self-reproaching passages in his narrative (CN 7.115). Rank and property are doubly fictitious in his case: these institutional facts are always "legal fictions" (as Godwin's contemporary, Jeremy Bentham, explicitly maintained),(15) but here Danvers has constructed them for himself by manipulating laws and public perception. Danvers' rank, property, and identity are fictional in more senses still if we take into account that they appear within a series of interlocking narratives: Danvers' story is contained within Meadows' narrative, which is contained within Godwin's novel. As in Godwin's other texts, the multiple layers of fictionality attached to social structures cannot help but underscore the dependence of those structures on speech acts.

The dilatory structure of the narrative in Cloudesley makes the novel difficult to read at times, but also serves to confirm the principle that identity is shaped by performative utterance. New characters--including Julian's dead mother Irene, Cloudesley's friend Borromeo, and the outlaw St. Elmo--are constantly being introduced into the story, first by a simple mention of their name, then through an extensive flashback that covers their entire history up to the point where it intersects with the main narrative. Through his speech acts, the narrator (ostensibly Danvers, but also Godwin as novelist) constructs complete identities and histories for these characters. At the same time, such mini-narratives serve a pragmatic purpose for Danvers as he addresses himself to William Meadows: he offers them as a kind of proof of the identity and genealogy of Julian, as if a detailed cast of well-rounded characters will contribute to the persuasiveness of his story. These hastily called up characters serve the same purpose, one might say, as the anonymous "witnesses" called in from abroad at the end of the novel, when the British courts work through the lengthy process of establishing Julian's new institutional identity (CN 7.286). There is, then, an ongoing parallel between the imaginative process of creating identity and character in literary fiction and the institutional process of establishing identity, rifle, and property as legal fictions. Like Caleb Williams as he disseminates versions of his own history, Lord Danvers unites these activities in his person: as he confesses how he manipulated Julian's social identity and his own, he also controls the creation of their identity as characters in fiction.

The novel's title provides a final comment on the ironies involved in both these forms of fiction. As the only one of Godwin's six mature novels in which the title character is not the narrator, Cloudesley is already something of an anomaly in terms of narrative structure. Beyond this, it is never quite clear to whom the title refers. Is it named for Cloudesley the servant (who does not seem to have a first name)--Julian's assumed father, who is an important but never the central character in the story? Or does the title refer to Julian Cloudesley, who is a central character, and probably the hero insofar as the novel has one--but who merits this status precisely because he is not really a Cloudesley? Does it refer, perhaps, to the assumed and shifting quality of all names and titles, and thus to the way they "cloud" true identity? William Meadows confronts the dilemma of the name "Cloudesley" at the end of the story, when he seeks out the Neapolitan government minister who alone can save Julian from execution as a bandit. How can he request pardon for Julian, "a being without a name," when the name that ,,vas stolen from him at birth, "one of the first names in the records of his country" (CN 7.279), would instantly obtain his release, yet all the circumstantial evidence identifies him with the name "Julian Cloudesley" that is printed in the list of arrested banditti (CN 7.265-66)? "I should have been instantly asked," Meadows reflects, "`How am I to know this? Why am I to believe you? Here is the calendar of the offenders: his name is Julian Cloudesley. Is that the name of one of the first families in Britain?'" (CN 7.279). Even if, in the end, Julian's physical identity is saved by the timely conversion of his social identity from "Cloudesley" to "Danvers," the novel ironically perpetuates the act of usurpation by memorializing, not the noble, institutional title of Danvers, but the name of the fallible yet good-hearted foster father, Cloudesley.

Fiction as Testimony and Testament

The recurrent analogy between the speech acts that take place within the legal and social world of the narratives, and the speech acts that constitute the narratives, is perhaps Godwin's most intriguing contribution to the idea of the performative. In an essay that uses Searle's speech-act theory to talk about fictionality, Gerard Genette suggests that the difference between everyday, social performatives ("The meeting is in session" or "You're fired"), and the speech acts of literary fiction ("Once upon a time there was a little girl ...") may finally be quite small, since both kinds of utterances bring about "collective mental states" in their hearers or readers.(16) Novels can be considered performative utterances just as the more explicit declarative utterances of ordinary language can; conversely, the states that result from ordinary, sociopolitical performative utterances have a great deal in common with the mental constructs that we associate with literary fiction.

A similar conclusion might be drawn from the Godwinian novel, which is (from Caleb Williams onward) always presented as a first-person utterance; each novel-length "utterance" counts as a specific illocutionary act by the narrator. The pragmatic aspect of these narratives, in other words, tends to be conspicuous: the writer is not simply recording his memoirs, but performing a specific act within a specific interpersonal context in the hope of thereby positioning himself differently within his own history. Lord Danvers' story, which makes up most of Cloudesley, is specifically addressed to Meadows as a confession, as a vindication of his desire to find and help Julian, and in order to persuade Meadows to exert himself in the unusual commission with which Danvers charges him. Even a text that no one is ever expected to read, such as the confession of St. Leon, has an interpersonal or dialogic aspect, for St. Leon addresses his journal as his only friend:

Senseless paper! be thou at least my confidant! To thee I may impart what

my soul spurns the task to suppress. The human mind insatiably thirsts for

a confidant and a friend. It is no matter that these pages shall never be

surveyed by other eyes than mine. They afford at least the semblance of

communication and the unburthening of the mind; and I will press the

illusion fondly and for ever to my heart. (CN 4.137)

The act of writing is intrinsic to the events of the story: it is because St. Leon has just vowed not to reveal his secret to another human being that he writes (to) his book. In this and other novels, the experiences that Godwin's characters relate in their stories themselves form the pragmatic context for the writing of the story; the act of narrating and the narrated events are inseparable, and mutually dependent.

Most of these narratives perform the past-directed illocutionary act of confessing--an illocution in which neither the performative nor the constative dimension can be neglected. The convention of confessing, one might say, has a built-in requirement of correspondence to experienced reality; that is, it belongs to the definition of confession that what is confessed be the truth. Some of Godwin's narrators, such as Caleb Williams and Mandeville, radically undercut that convention when their narratives accentuate the subjectivity of "truth," and the lack of an objective criterion by which to measure it. But even when the truth of the confessed events is not especially called into question, confessing remains a manifestly contextualized act. It is the only act Fleetwood or Deloraine can still perform that might alter the effect of the narrated events, by placing either the narrator himself, or other participants or observers, in a different relation to those events. As Fleetwood testifies, the act of putting his history into words is itself an event in his history: "The proper topic of the narrative I am writing is the record of my errors. To write it, is the act of my penitence and humiliation" (CN 5.21). The confession is not only a pragmatic use of language, but a self-reflexive one, whereby Fleetwood interacts with his own history in the process of verbalizing it.

But when the narrator puts his life into writing, he also generates the possibility that his utterance will have unpredictable and uncontrollable perlocutionary effects. "To write." according to Derrida, "is to produce a mark that will constitute a sort of machine which is productive in turn, and which my future disappearance will not, in principle, hinder in its functioning, offering things and itself to be read and to be rewritten.(17) In the case of the Godwinian novel, the narrator typically writes as if he never expects his narrative to be read--and yet his act of writing makes the text vulnerable to as many different kinds of uptake as there are potential readers and contexts. The conclusion of Deloraine spotlights this situation, for Deloraine explicitly raises the question of the pragmatic value of the history he has just produced:

I am now arrived at the last page of my scroll.... I leave it behind me to

be disposed of by my successors as they please. I do not forbid them to

destroy it. If it never see the light, it will yet have served a temporary

purpose to myself. Catherine has a child, a boy, beautiful, lovely, and of

seraphic innocence. As long as she or her offspring see the light, these

papers must never be divulged. I have changed the names indeed; but the

story is too full of particulars, many of them well known, for it to be

possible that it should not be brought home. Yet, if Catherine and her

husband so please, let this narrative be preserved! It may surely be kept

in perfect security. And, such is the endless vicissitude of human things,

a century, or even half a century may pass, and all things connected with

my tale may be obliterated; and Deloraine, and the fatal name to which that

appellation serves as a veil, may have perished from the memories of' men;

and this story may no more be a libel, than the records of Haroun Al

Raschid, or the fortunes of Ahasuerus, Vashti and Haman. (CN 8.286)

Deloraine's last paragraph changes his testimony into a testament, whereby he bequeaths his life in written form to his heirs, to do with as they think best. The legacy highlights what is implicitly true for all of Godwin's novels: that life as an act of writing or utterance has consequences separate and different from life as it is lived. Godwin's warning in Political Justice--that language is incommensurate with time and experience--is borne out by the narrators in his fiction, whose contextualized, conventionalized, pragmatic speech acts reveal that experience is one thing, its verbal form another. But Godwin's theoretical urgings that language should remain secondary to experience give way, in his novels, to the fact that verbal structures do exert control over experience. The proliferation of promises and oaths, courtroom situations and other forms of testimony, publicly circulating texts, and confessions that reconstruct history in Godwin's fiction makes clear how thoroughly verbal utterances shape private identity as well as the public sphere--for these performative utterances, though suspect, represent the only way we have of bringing subjective feeling into play in intersubjective negotiations. In both the novels and the society they depict, it appears again and again that verbal fictions are the only form of reality accessible to our reading eye.

University of Western Ontario, Canada

(1.) In Language, Action, and Context: The Early History of Pragmatics in Europe and America, 1780-1930 (Amsterdam: Benjamins, 1996), Brigitte Nerlich and David D. Clarke demonstrate that the study of language in terms of communication and dialogic context became especially important after 1795. See also Nerlich. "Language and Action: German Approaches to Pragmatics in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries," History of Linguistics 1993, ed. Kurt R. Jankowsky (Amsterdam: Benjamins, 1995) 299-309, and "Einfuhrung in die Geschichte der Pragmatik," Zeitschrift fur Semiotik 18 (1996): 413-21. Other European scholars, including the linguists Brigitte Schlieben-Lange and Lia Formigari, the philosopher Armin Burkhardt, and the historian Jacques Guilhaumou, have explored the importance of action and context in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century philosophies of language. See Schlieben-Lange, "Die Franzosische Revolution und die Sprache," Zeitschrift fur Literaturwissenschaft und Linguistik (LiLi) 11 (1981): 90-123, and "Elemente einer pragmatischen Sprachtheorie in den Grammaires generales um 1800," Zeitschrift fur Literaturwissenschaft und Linguistik (LiLi) 19 (1988): 76-93; Formigari, Signs, Science and Politics: Philosophies of Language in Europe 17001830, trans. William Dodd (Amsterdam: Benjamins, 1993); Burkhardt, "Der Dialogbegriff bei Wilhelm yon Humboldt," Sprache und Bildung: Beitrage zum 150. Todestag Wilhelm von Humboldts, ed. Rudolf Hoberg (Darmstadt: Technische Hochschule Darmstadt, 1987) 14173; Guilhaumou, Sprache und Politik in der Franzosischen Revolution: Vom Ereignis zur Sprache des Volkes (1789 bis 1794), trans. Kathrina Menke (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1989). In North American scholarship, see Stephen K. Land's comparison of late eighteenth-century linguistic philosophy with speech-act theory in The Philosophy of Language in Britain: Major Theories from Hobbes to Thomas Reid (New York: AMS, 1986), and Steven Blakemore's studies of Edmund Burke's language within a context where utterance counts as social and political activity, especially "Revolution in Language: Burke's Representation of Linguistic Terror," Representing the French Revolution: Literature, Historiography and Art, ed. James A. W. Heffernan (Hanover: UP of New England, 1992) 3-23. These ideas are discussed at greater length in my book, The Romantic Performative: Language and Action in British and German Romanticism (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2000).

(2.) Thomas Reid, Philosophical Works, ed. William Hamilton, 2 vols. (1897; Hildesheim: Olms, 1967) 1: 245.

(3.) This is a paraphrase of one of Humboldt's key accounts of language and dialogue: "die Sprache kann auch nicht vom Einzelnen, sie kann nur gesellschaftlich, nur indem an einen gewagten Versuch ein neuer sich anknupft, zur Wirklichkeit gebracht werden. Das Wort muss also Wesenheit, die Sprache Erweiterung in einem Horenden und Erwiedernden gewinnen." Wilhelm von Humboldt, Cesammelte Schriften, ed. Albert Leitzmann, 17 vols. (1903-36; Berlin: Gruyter, 1968) 6: 26.

(4.) Balfour's essay "Promises, Promises: Social and Other Contracts in the English Jacobins (Godwin/Inchbald)," New Romanticisms: Theory and Critical Practice, ed. [)avid L. Clark and Donald C. Goellnicht (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1994) 225-50, contains, besides useful comments on promises and trials in Caleb Williams, an insightful reading of Godwin's attitude toward promises and other speech acts in Political Justice. I have approached this material from a somewhat different angle, but in ways that complement Balfour's reading.

(5.) Quotations from Political Justice are drawn from Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on Morals and Happiness, ed. F. E. L. Priestley, 3 vols. (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1946), and are identified by volume and page number.

(6.) J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, ed. J. O. Urmson and Marina Sbisa, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1975) 33.

(7.) Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (New Haven: Yale UP, 1979) 273.

(8.) Shoshana Felman, The Literary Speech Act: Don Juan with J. L. Austin, or Seduction in Two Languages, trans. Catherine Porter (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1983) 49.

(9.) For the clearest example of this argument, see Karl Schuhmann and Barry Smith, "Elements of Speech Act Theory in the Work of Thomas Reid," History of Philosophy Quarterly 7 (1990): 47-66, and also the works listed in note 1.

(10.) See Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man (Garden City NY: Doubleday, 1973) 277: "There never did, there never will, and there never can exist a parliament, or any description of men, or any generation of men, in any country, possessed of the right or the power of binding and controlling posterity to the `end of time,' or of commanding forever how the world shall be governed, or who shall govern it; and therefore, all such clauses, acts or declarations, by which the makers of them attempt to do what they have neither the right nor the power to do, nor the power to execute, are in themselves null and void."

(11.) See John R. Searle, Expression and Meaning: Studies in the Theory of Speech Acts (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979) 13-17.

(12.) Quotations from Godwin's novels are drawn from Collected Novels and Memoirs of William Godwin, ed. Mark Philp, 8 vols. (London: Pickering, 1992), and are identified by volume and page number.

(13.) For Austin's suggestion that all statements implicitly contain the phrase "l state that ..." which makes their performative aspect evident, see How to Do Things with Words 134-36.

(14.) See Searle, Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1969) 50-53.

(15.) One of the several places where Bentham elaborates on this definition of fictions is the section "Political and Quasi Political Fictitious Entities" in Fragment on Ontology; see The Works of Jeremy Bentham, ed. John Bowring, II vols. (1838-43; New York: Russell, 1962) 8: 206.

(16.) Gerard Genette, Fiction & Diction, trans. Catherine Porter (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993) 42.



(17.) Jacques Derrida, Limited Inc, trans. Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman, ed. Gerald Graft (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1990) 8.

ANGELA ESTERHAMMER is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Western Ontario. Her work on romanticism, language, and performativity includes Creating States: Studies in the Performative Language of John Milton and William Blake (U of Toronto P, 1994) and the recently published The Romantic Performative: Language and Action in British and German Romanticism (Stanford UP, 2000).

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