- Universal Aspirations: Social Theory and American Literary Culture
In Middlemarch (1871), George Eliot portrays nineteenth-century intellectuals as victims of the totalizing ambitions of their vocations. Causabon, a theologian, strives to codify the “Key to All Mythologies” and Lydgate, a doctor and medical researcher, seeks the “primitive tissue” from which bodily organs develop. In the desacralized world of the novel, God is displaced by vain specialists whose scientific fantasies of recuperated wholeness and biological unity drive them to premature deaths. Conversely, Eliot’s sole personification of cosmopolitan acceptance is the slight Will Ladislaw. A dilettante whose touristic perspective enables him to enjoy the amalgamation of cultures in Rome, Ladislaw becomes an oddly idealized figure in the text, one that critics of Eliot’s realism continue to distrust. Ladislaw supposedly rescues Dorothea [End Page 1012] Brooke from both Causabon’s archaic sensibility and the miscellaneousness of Rome that cause her breakdown. But in spite of his receptivity to her dreams of reshaping subjectivity and society, he remains an uncertain figure for a redemptive global subjectivity.
Although neither Susan Mizruchi’s The Science of Sacrifice nor Thomas Peyser’s Utopia & Cosmopolis refers directly to Middlemarch, these studies recuperate the scholarly ambitions and uncertain responses to modernization and globalization suggested by Eliot. Taken together, they demonstrate how forcefully social theorists at the turn of the twentieth century reshaped the cultural imaginary and how their search for universal answers to the questions generated by collective experience still resonates today. A much better scholar than Causabon, Mizruchi masterfully synthesizes the work of theologians, social scientists, and literary intellectuals who sought transhistorical answers to their own crises of social transition. In addition, while placing American utopianism and literary realism into a global context, Peyser offers an elegant survey of the various renovating visions of society available at the turn of the twentieth century.
The late nineteenth century emerges as an intellectual hothouse in Mizruchi’s account of its socioscientific culture, a culture profoundly interdisciplinary, profoundly scarred by racism and cultural imperialism, but vigorously thoughtful and thought-provoking. The Science of Sacrifice gives its readers an unparalleled introduction to abstruse materials, immersing them in the treasures of the arcane. While discussing Arthur Stanley’s obscure bibliogeographical tome Sinai and Palestine (1865), for instance, Mizruchi quotes Stanley’s imaginative recuperation of the nose of the Egyptian Sphinx. The Sphinx is fictively reanimated as a sacrificial voluptuary, its “gigantic nostrils” having been burned out like a cocaine addict’s from “gorging on the smoke” of sacrificial offerings. The aim of The Science of Sacrifice itself is to recover, and re-evaluate in relation to canonical literary texts, sacrificial narratives like this one. The book’s argument, like Causabon’s “Key,” is that “sacrifice is not only necessary to modern Western society, it is basic; it makes society what it is.”
Mizruchi aspires to demonstrate a near total knowledge of her interdisciplinary subject. Chapter 1 lays out the vast dimensions of her transatlantic archive. It also defines the rhetoric, thematics, and aesthetics of sacrifice through comparative analysis of the works of [End Page 1013] social theorists and literary realists. The rhetoric of sacrifice is shown to be central to justifying inequalities, managing heterogeneity, and maintaining social control in turn-of-the-century America. Immigrants, women, racial minorities, and the working classes are depicted as the favored sacrificial victims of our culture. The logic of compensation undergirding capitalism is exposed as sacrificial, and stories of the fall, replete with sacrificial longings, are replayed in the era’s literature. Sacrifice for Mizruchi is what the economy is for Marx, the unconscious for Freud, and power (virtually) for Foucault. It is foundational to her understanding of modern society.
Herman Melville, Henry James, and W. E. B. Du Bois are the canonical authors whose sacrificial insights make them the heart of this study. The “sacrificial designs” of Melville’s Billy Budd (1891), his theological interests, and his work as a customs house inspector...