Douglas Chambers: The Reinvention of the World

I have been stuck on this one for awhile, not knowing quite what to write.

I’m trying to avoid being a downer, but it’s hard to see the silver lining when you’re deep in the dark clouds of a pandemic. A few days ago I started to watch the Met’s Wozzeck again (having seen it in the theatre early this year), but couldn’t make it through, overwhelmed by the darkness of the story.


Peter Mattei in Wozzeck at the Met. (Photo: Paola Kudacki/Met Opera)

Last week, watching an old broadcast of Il trovatore starring Pavarotti & Zajick, I was struck by how melodrama, that medium of powerless protagonists with no agency in a world beyond their control, is a perfect reflection of the world of 2020.  No wonder melodrama was popular.


I can’t get the Miserere out of my head.

In early May when I heard that Douglas Chambers had passed away, I took the opportunity to write a reminiscence of a rare individual.  I wrote about Stonyground, his inimitable book about his family property near Walkerton Ontario.

After that I compulsively, convulsively, looked about, needing another fix, wanting to again immerse myself in his unique discourse. A sci-fi novel long ago suggested that literature & poetry & art preserve the RNA of a person after they’re gone as though we were able to feel and see as they do.  To be deep in a text is to be inside the person’s soul & sensibility: or so it might seem.

In that spirit, I looked for & found something relatively obscure that I hadn’t seen before, namely The Reinvention of the World: English Writing 1650-1750, a book that first appeared in 1996, reprinted in the new century. A review of it inspired me to search for it and miracle of miracles, while I wasn’t able to find it in any of the U of T libraries [although later I discovered I was too hasty in concluding it wasn’t to be found here. Yes there are copies available…]  I was able to find a single copy via Thriftbooks, a used paperback that had been in a college library in Schenectady NY. Its spine was so solid, its pages so unbesmirched (I can hear Douglas telling me that’s not a real word. Or is it?), as to seem brand new. Talk about lucky. And it only cost me about $10 US. It was delivered earlier in June, I started reading and –argh – I regret that I finished it. There’s a kind of magical anticipation when you’re inside the book as it unfolds, an aura that wears off when you finish.

I must re-read it.

Of course it was like new because it probably scared off any possible readers. The back cover, that should serve to invite & inspire must have daunted the Schaffer Library patrons, when they saw this:

“At the centre of this book is the issue of power and its fictions, the ability to dominate with schemes of knowledge and the resistance to that domination. In his investigation, Douglas Chambers achieves a complex interweave of what have traditionally been thought of as ‘literary’ and ‘non-literary’ texts, a distinction that in the past has served to privilege one sort of voice over another. In the process, there is a deconstruction of the familiar canon. Milton, Defoe, Swift, and Pope are fully present–but often in new guises and with emphasis on their involvement in contemporary cultural issues– along with many lessen known writers of the age “

In some respects it’s the most ambitious of all Chambers writings, promising a sweeping synthesis across multiple disciplines, as you might expect from such a portentous title, undertaking something remarkable even if it’s rare.  How does thinking change, and what cognitive spoor might we find in usage & literature for the changes in how we understand the world?  We encounter discourses & counter-discourses, framing the reasons why some books could seem inevitable or necessary at least after the fact.

Like I said: ambitious.

It’s doubly poignant when I think of Douglas’ end, not so much because he was in a seniors’ residence with COVID19 but thinking of his sophisticated grasp of reality. If we look at the number of balls a juggler could keep in the air at one time as evidence of virtuosity, with Chambers’ prose it’s more a matter of how many complex ideas he could sustain within a single paragraph, not just keeping them all airborne but making beautiful patterns. When a mind such as this passes over to the other side we lose something significant.

Full disclosure: I found the book, tantalized by a bit of Graham Parry’s 1998 critique in The Review of English Studies, found here.  It includes a passage that will resonate with those who heard him lecture:

“There is a considerable discrepancy between the contents of this book and the professed aims of the series Writing in History to which it belongs. The series professes “to give students of literature access to recent ideas about history”, but the students in question must belong to some super-seminar at the Academy of Lagado, for they are expected to be familiar with a remarkable range of topics, authors and fictional personalities. However, while The Reinvention of the World may leave undergraduates and most postgraduates bewildered, it provides a fitful stimulus to those already expert in the culture history of the period.”

reinvention_coverParry is not exaggerating.

Chambers lives up to the review, as you might surmise from the table of contents:
“1) Introduction: Methodically Digested
2) The Geographical Part of Knowledge: Mapping and Naming
3) Earth’s Distant Ends: Travelling and Classifying
4) The Garden of the World Erewhile: Husbandry, Pastoral & Georgic
5) Th’Amazed Defenceless Prize: Opening and Enclosing
6) Childhood’s Tender Shoots: Instructing and Imagining
7) Conclusion: The Discourse of Resistance
8) Postscript: What We Have Forgotten
Appendix of Original Documents


Sometimes we’re reading about Milton or Pope or Swift and how their great works capture shifts in the preoccupations of the culture. Sometimes it’s someone decidedly more obscure. The Index is especially important for me, allowing me to circle back to the mentions of the works I need to either read for the first time or to revisit. Chambers has made a kind of travel book, like a Frommers Guide to send you voyaging not in a boat or a plane to another country but in a library to another world, going back to the 1650s or the 1730s as well as many important antecedents such as Erasmus, Vergil or Longinus. In a real sense this is a book to take you back to the scene of the crime, to revisit & rethink what you read & studied long ago. Chambers feels very contemporary in his multi-disciplinary approach that seeks to properly contextualize writers not via mere allusions to other writers but by unpacking the assumptions about maps, exploration, land, property, family, children…. I found myself reading sentences and then stopping to re-read, afraid I had missed one of the subtle voices in his counterpoint.

evelynIn passing I now begin to understand the reason for his fascination with John Evelyn, leading to his great final project The Letterbooks of John Evelyn, finished by David Galbraith just a few years ago (and that one is in the U of T library).

With over thirty references to Evelyn, some across multiple pages, Chambers unpacks & deconstructs aspects of daily life in every chapter using this remarkable record. So in other words, not only are we sent back to my Milton, Pope, Swift, Marvell, Traherne or Bacon, but after looking at this book we begin to see why Evelyn’s letterbooks matter as a window on another world.

For now I’m mostly reading books or playing the music in books.  TV is the horrors of CNN or CP24, statistics to scare you & remind you not to take off your mask, and perhaps teach you to shut the damn thing off (given that it’s more or less the same thing every day).   Live performance done on the internet doesn’t really work for me right now, more of a reminder of what I’m missing than a proper substitute. I feel a bit like someone starving outside a candy store or a party full of celebration & feasting.

No.  Books are my solace right now.

This entry was posted in Books & Literature, Dance, theatre & musicals, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays, University life. Bookmark the permalink.

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