Don't Look Back

Stephen Osborne

Franco Moretti describes himself as a “literary historian,” and his aim in The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature, he writes, is to study “the ‘fit’ between cultural forms and the new class of the bourgeoisie,” more fuzzily known today as the middle class or the middle classes: “how a word like ‘comfort’ outlines the contours of legitimate bourgeois consumption, for instance; or how the tempo of story-telling adjusts itself to the new regularity of existence.” In an entertaining excursus on the emerging culture of “usefulness,” he parses typical sentences in Robinson Crusoe to reveal literary parallels. Main clauses stating an action—“I went,” “I found,” “I came,” “I set up”—are followed by consequences that lead to more action: “to cut down,” “to carry,” “to place,” “to supply”; everything and everyone becomes in some way useful in a chain of usefulness pointing to the future, just as the entrepreneur points to future reward: “having mastered this difficulty, I bestirred myself to see, if possible, how to supply… ” Sentences consisting of the past tense followed by the infinitive—“I did this in order to do something else”—are sentences that carry one forward with no looking back: “for in a culture of the useful, the future is always close to hand, little more than a continuation of the present: ‘the next day’; ‘the next season’.” Such sentences, with their consequentialist drive, provide the energy and the charm for which Robinson Crusoe is still read today: they are the grammatical equivalent of the capitalist spirit, which turns things and people into instruments directed toward outcomes. Moretti goes much further, of course; his subjects range across the works of Defoe, Austen, Balzac, Machado and Ibsen. This is a wonderful book. A chapter called “Victorian Adjectives” is especially recommended. Several illustrations germane to the text are reproduced execrably: the publisher, Verso, should be ashamed.

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Stephen Osborne

Stephen Osborne is a co-founder and contributing publisher of Geist. He is the award-winning writer of Ice & Fire: Dispatches from the New World and dozens of shorter works, many of which can be read at


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