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Reviews109 W. David Shaw, Victorians and Mystery: Crises of Representation. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1990. xii + 370. $36.95 US (cloth). This complex and challenging study of the effects of various kinds of mystery to be found in Victorian literature was conceived as a sequel and a complement to Shaw's immediately previous book, The Lucid Veil: Poetic Truth in the Victorian Age (1987). In that earlier work, he had, out of necessity, to forego the pleasure of extensive illustrations of the connections he wished to show between nineteenth-century theories of knowledge and Victorian aesthetics. The great many admirers of his earlier studies of Browning · s and Tennyson · s poetry will thus particularly welcome this return to the literature, for Shaw has often demonstrated that he is among the most astute and sensitive readers of both Victorian poetry and prose. This most recent study can to a large extent stand on its own, however, for the theoretical considerations and the details of intellectual history in the former study are also sketched in the latter. Moreover, the emphasis here upon formal rhetorical analysis ofthe chosen texts will reward even those with Umited patience for the intricacies of nineteenth-century theological and metaphysical speculation to which the close readings are attached. Victorians and Mystery is divided into three parts: mysteries emerging from notions of the "unconscious"; mysteries related to conceptions of "identity"; and mysteries that develop as a correlation of chosen methods or theories of knowledge, three ofwhich are identified as heroic, sceptical, and reductive. In the result Shaw's three types of mystery prove to be very different from one another, but the common interpretative thread suggested by the Foucauldian subtitle, "Crises of Representation," provides ample justification for linking both the various epistemological problems and the widely disparate texts. There is yet one further trinity in the schematic structuring of the book, as Shaw relates his "crises of faith and knowledge" to "three stages of Victorianism" (6-10): an essentialist phase based upon the shared beUef in a center of moral and spiritual authority, an agnostic phase of doubt and questioning about what in regard to truth is "sayable" and what must be left to silence, and, finaUy, an existentialist phase that endorses the moral efficacy of John Stuart MiU 's notion of the "experiments in Uving" which make Ufe meaningful. Such an adumbration, iftaken too literaUy or chronologicaUy, could easily endanger the manifest virtues of this study. But whether Shaw is exploring the mysteries arising from a writer ' s subliminal awareness, from the use of incompatible cultural codes, from conflicting conceptions of history or philosophy, or from circular forms of reasoning, he focusses sharply on the rhetorical signs and tropes in the text that alert us to the 110Victorian Review significance of the paradoxes and contradictions which so often delineate the boundaries of human knowledge, both for the Victorians and for us. In Part I Shaw investigates four mysteries of the unconscious: the mystery of the "veUed fate" (16) in Dickens's and Hardy's fiction; the mystery of the "primal word that is not, strictly speaking, utterable" (17) in works by the Brontes; the mystery of Carlyle 's heroic attempts to fUl an "agnostic void" (17); and the mystery of a "sublime God" (17) whose holiness seems to thwart the knowledge of Him that Tennyson and Hopkins so desperately seek. Among the most interesting of these discussions is the analysis of tmesis (both in phrasing and structure) in Great Expectations; one which nicely complements the thematic formulations of the "delayed discoveries" in the novel's plot first articulated by Taylor Stoehr (41) twenty-five years ago. But equally suggestive is the brief treatment of Carlyle ' s essentially deconstructive discontent with the signs and symbols of his age as he struggles to forge anew the intrinsic powers of language. Without a doubt, however, Shaw ' s best discussion in Part I is that of the metrical and grammatical analysis of poems by Tennyson and Hopkins, whereby he shows how "the logic of reserve" (97) operates through their "syntactical sunderings" (89) and other devices as a witness to the obscure Divine purpose each poet seeks to understand. In Part II...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 109-112
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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