- The Poetics of Poesis: The Making of Nineteenth-Century English Fiction by Felicia Bonaparte
Nineteenth-century English novels are often taken to be continuations of the realism that dominated the fiction of the eighteenth century. In this ambitious work, however, Felicia Bonaparte demonstrates how novelists of this age looked not to realism but to mythic structures to create their stories. She argues that nineteenth-century English novelists used mythic language inspired by German Romantics in order to recreate a world they felt was in spiritual ruin due to empiricism’s effects. The word poesis, Bonaparte notes, derives from the Greek word for “making” and accurately describes “a concept…that encompassed the whole of the universe in its definition of art and understood the end of art to be the creation of a new world” (14). According to Bonaparte, it was this attempt to recreate the world that defines nineteenth-century fiction rather than an attempt to merely reflect the world, as is often assumed. Bonaparte begins by discussing ways in which many felt their world was in crisis. The intellectual ramifications of empiricism, combined with the new social realities of the Industrial Revolution, left many in the nineteenth century feeling a dearth of spirituality and imagination. She then demonstrates the enormous influence German Romantics had on nineteenth-century English writers, and how the English heeded the Germans’ exhortations to adopt heavily symbolic, mythic language in their novels.
Bonaparte asserts that for many nineteenth-century novelists, the world had been shattered in numerous ways. Part I of her book, “Chaos Is Come Again,” contains [End Page 561] three chapters: “The Crisis in Religion,” “The Crisis of Empiricism,” and “The Crisis in Reason.” The empiricism of the Enlightenment caused the crisis in religion as modern thought demanded evidence before things could be believed in. Empiricism, however, also went through a crisis in England due to its own limitations, namely that it made no provision for the noumenal, and that senses themselves are often limited or misleading (63). Even reason underwent a crisis because it could no longer lead to truth, since ultimate truth was seemingly unknowable whether by faith or by empiricism (75). Bonaparte notes that with all these crises leading to chaos, the image of rebirth, couched in mythological symbol, became prominent. Bonaparte offers Jesse Hexam from Our Mutual Friend as an example of a character inspired by religion and reborn for the modern era: “Hexam who pulls dead bodies out of the Thames and makes his livelihood by robbing them…is a modern Jesus, which is to say the ironic Jesus of a materialist age, a Jesus manqué, a Jesus fishing not for living souls but only for their dead remains” (67–68). This is certainly not a hopeful vision of rebirth, but, as Bonaparte asserts, myth embodies ideas “necessarily subject to temporal transformations. Thus, while ideas are eternal…the way in which we articulate them must alter with the changing times” (253). Thus, the figure of Jesus no longer has to be a hopeful image of salvation, but, to fit the needs of the age, can be a character who embodies the greed and degradation of nineteenth-century industrial capitalism.
Once Bonaparte has discussed the different crises that had so unnerved many in the nineteenth century, she turns her attention in part II, “Something We Must Believe In and Do,” to the general feeling of dissolution and the ways that mythic symbols allowed novelists to remake the shattered world. In part III, “The Making of a New Poetic,” Bonaparte demonstrates how English novelists found the symbolic language they desired in the works of the German Romantics. Writers such as Schlegel, Novalis, Schelling, and others inspired nineteenth-century novelists with the idea that in order to create in this age, writers had to adopt a new artistic language capable of creating not just novels or paintings, but a new way of thinking, and thus a new world. This is the heart of Bonaparte’s argument, and she begins her work by citing...