Felicia Bonaparte - The Poetics of Poesis: The Making of Nineteenth-Century English Fiction. Reviewed by James Lello

Monday, April 17, 2017 - 00:01

Bonaparte, Felicia, The Poetics of Poesis: The Making of Nineteenth-Century English Fiction (University of Virginia Press, 2015). 336 pp. (Hdbk., $49.50; ISBN 9780813937328)

James Lello

St Catharine’s College, Cambridge

What is meant by the conspicuous proximity of the twin desiderata announced in the title of the book under review: “Poetics” and “Poesis”? How might they relate to nineteenth-century English fiction?

Bonaparte argues that to see the nineteenth-century novel as continuing the tradition of realism is erroneous: “The view that the nineteenth-century novel was and wished to be ‘realistic’ has less to do with the form of that fiction and far more with our own assumptions.” Because of the apparent crisis in religion during the nineteenth century, writers instead had to “make the world anew,” either through a practice of mythic symbolism or George Eliot’s advocacy of “the idealistic in the real.” Names, etymologies, genres: all these become ways of “embodying” ideas in narrative and developing a practice of “symbolic signification.” “Poesis,” taken etymologically here, refers to “making” in just this sense.

It soon becomes clear that this is neither an account of poetics in any technically exact sense, nor of poesis that considers how works of art might actually be made. This book is consistently motivated by a residual Platonism that views questions of craft with deep suspicion and as demarcated from thinking proper. Is irony, for instance, really just an “idea” and “not a device, not a technique, not part of style”? Did German Romanticism really insist upon “the essence of art itself regardless of the forms it takes”? Even etymology, the book’s chief mode of close analysis, is recruited into a skeptical refusal of technical composition as itself conceptually impoverished: “it is not the form or medium but the fact that it is a poem in this etymological way that makes something a work of art.”

This false choice between thinking and making also accompanies a curious commitment to instrumental reason. “Making” is more often in evidence here when ideas or imagination are conceived of as “tools” or “instruments.” If the quest for a “new and modern religion” really did involve “some epistemological tool that, unlike faith, was possible still in an age that had lost belief,” then ideas merely “persist for want of another model.” This is a strange conception of intellectual history, where people look around for shiny new philosophical systems when they had finished with their old ones: “a very large part of the Western world began to look for an alternative [to empiricism], and it found it in German idealism.” Flat pack metaphysics is especially troubling for those who might be sympathetic to the idea that We Have Never Been Modern (to invoke the title of a book by Bruno Latour), or that “newness” might itself be a deeply historical claim. The retrospective proclamation of “an age that had lost belief” is so often insisted upon that it itself resembles an article of faith.

It is perhaps unsurprising that a book with such avowed neglect of how works of art are actually put together should apparently care so little for its own sentences, sentences whose vertiginous proliferation of dependent clauses is often barely comprehensible. Moreover, whilst it is perhaps unfair to focus on the book’s numerous typographical errors (e.g., “[188895]”; Hegel’s “dialectal state of progress”), the adoption of “he” as the default pronoun for the “nineteenth-century novelist” is certainly problematic for a book in which George Eliot features so prominently. The use of the adjective “Adamite” to refer to the “concept of language, as the idea has come to be called, in which the word is taken to be the essence of the thing,” is also unclear. Surely, “Adamic” is the adjective intended since “Adamite” designates an early Christian sect chiefly notable for going naked, a person descended from the biblical Adam, or a zinc arsenate hydroxide mineral. Bonaparte is more consciously creative with her terminology when she argues that “ineffable” has no true opposite, but only by providing a hapless hapax of her own: if poets are not to be “silent” and thus let the world fall into “chaos,” they must find through symbolism “a way to eff the ineffable” since “the ineffable must be effed.”

The Poetics of Poesis would appear to be just one of those “Books that, in their very titles, claim to take the entire field of symbolic thought as their subjects.” Accordingly, it is impossible to do justice to the staggering array of writers alluded to by Bonaparte in a brief review, whether it be Letitia Landon, or John Theodore Merz, Anna Brownell Jameson, or Edwin Paxton Hood. Unfortunately, the book does not do justice to them either, typically rushing headlong through Freud, Nietzsche, Dionysus, and Thomas Mann in little over a sentence. More care is needed if words like “similarly” are not repeatedly made to collapse under their load-bearing strain.

Only when a study of the “making” of nineteenth-century fiction can account for how artworks might actually be put together, rather than just their themes, symbols, or representations, might a “poetics of poesis” be even remotely imaginable.