An interview with Felicia Bonaparte
Felicia Bonaparte has PhDs in both Classics and English, and is fluent in Greek, Latin, English, French, Romanian, Russian, German, Yiddish, and Polish. The Coffin Factory asked her a few questions about literature through the ages.
The Coffin Factory: Have you had a chance to read Alex Ross’ article on Dorian Gray that was recently in The New Yorker?
Felicia Bonaparte: Dorian Gray happens to be a work I’ve written about and I can tell you that it’s a very complex and brilliant work, with a thousand important layers and aspects, none of which, unfortunately, Alex Ross has even suspected, let alone dealt with. He’s latched onto an ism, queer theory, and assumed that the novel had to be about a gay love affair. What else could it be about, but Oscar Wilde being gay?
Well, it might be about any one of the thousands of philosophical, aesthetic, social, political, economic, or historical subjects on which Wilde writes, subjects about which he knew pretty much everything to be known and about which he wrote brilliantly in many essays and letters, and in which he had a profound and abiding interest his entire life. The idea that one would reduce Wilde in this way to his sexual preference would—and I’m sure is—making him turn over in his grave.
I think this is a problem that arises when someone reads a work in the wrong conceptual language. Everyone would recognize the error of someone reading a German novel who did not know German and looked the words up in an English dictionary, but we think nothing of reading a work that rests on a conceptual universe other than our own and interpreting it through our own assumptions. One of the important ends of education, of course, is to learn other conceptual languages, but education today is pretty wild and woolly and we do have those isms that just sidestep that problem (creating even bigger ones, however). I do think it’s possible to write for a more general public by providing the knowledge needed for the conceptual language of whatever we’re discussing as we go along, but it’s a tricky business and few venues do. The New Yorker never did, which is why I’ve always disliked it, and it’s now one of the worst places for serious thinking.
The Coffin Factory: Since you are a specialist of Victorian literature, the era when the novel reached its apex, can you talk about the relationship between the institution of marriage and the novel as an art form? We’ve been thinking about this relationship due to the publication of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot.
Felicia Bonaparte: As it happens, I have quite a lot on the way in which marriage is dealt with in art and in fiction in particular, especially nineteenth-century fiction, in my new book coming out in the spring: The Poetics of Poesis: The Making of the Symbolic Language of Nineteenth-Century English Fiction. As my title would suggest, one of the things I spend a lot of time on—it’s a very, very thick book—is the effort to get rid of the notion that realism is simply a way of looking at the world that is true to life. What exactly is true to life is itself a knotty question, since it requires us to inquire into our epistemological grounds as to what we hold there is or isn’t in reality.
As David Hume himself would say, all we have are impressions of sense, a chaos of pixels we might call it, and before we can call it reality, we need to make a picture of it. What we add to make that picture is far, far more than the pixels themselves, so, as Leslie Stephen (a wonderful thinker, historian, critic, wit, not to mention mountain-climber and father of Virginia Woolf) once said, our very concept of reality is, in Humean terms, a “fiction.” He meant the word etymologically, from the Latin, “something made,” not a thing we find in the world but a construct of the mind. Realism is, in this sense, kind of a double construct, since it is grounded on that reality which is a construct of those pixels.
The nineteenth century artists, including some of those novelists Eugenides writes about, were acutely aware of this fact about reality and therefore about realism. They had no real interest in realism, in the sense in which they defined it, as an offshoot of empiricism. They did want to depict reality, but they also had another purpose, which was to remake the world. The world, the conceptual world, they felt, had come apart in the centuries before them, shattered by a series of crises in religion and philosophy, come apart to such an extent that there were no foundations left on which thought could build ideas that could produce some sort of order in the mind and in the world.
This was the mission of the German Romantics, and, in particular, of Friedrich Schlegel, whose ideas shaped the age from the time he founded his journal, The Athenaeum, in 1798, through (although obviously with exceptions of a number who disagreed) the early decades of the twentieth century. Shelley’s Defense of Poetry sets forth a good many of his ideas, and it is clear that by poetry—a word he often writes in Greek so as to suggest the meaning not of our word but of “making,” which is its root—he means not only what is written, but also what is done in the actual world of reality.
The natural language in which the nineteenth century speaks of doing this and that, as well as writing this and that, is a language that thinks symbolically: what we make and what we say is conceived as the embodiment of an idea, of that construction made by the mind which provides the means of making moral order of the universe, whether in fiction or in fact. And a symbolic text, says Bulwer (perhaps the most typical man of his time, writing an enormous amount, from fiction to essays to history books, and serving, as well, as a member of Parliament—proving in his own existence that doing and writing were for this era indistinguishable activities, both designed to remake the world), is a text with a “double plot”: it describes the reality we observe and put together as a picture in our minds, but it also suggests what would be the ideal of that reality. This is to say that life and art must address both what is and what should be.
And this is the context in which marriage is conceived in nineteenth century fictional narratives, and so needs to be understood.
There are two paradigms Victorian authors turn to: one is the medieval romance, in whose allegorical structure marriage stands for the way of the soul. Middlemarch gives us two women between whom the three central men must choose. One is worldly, a materialist, unable to imagine anything beyond the possessions she can acquire. Marriage to her is a way that enables her to advance in material goods and in worldly social station. This is what her first name suggests: she is Rosamond, “the rose of the world.” Her surname is Vincy, from Latin for “conquer,” and she does manage to conquer Lydgate to the point that he is no longer able to do the great work he had planned. The other woman is Dorothea, “the gift of God,” a woman whose mind is a little too much on the ideal and transcendent world (at the end she says to Ladislaw that she will learn what everything costs, learn how to function in the world), but a woman with ideals, who, as her last name, Brooke, clearly suggests, is a brook looking for a channel through which to flow into the stream of progress.
These are the choices before us all and choosing the right one will make the world as the wrong one will destroy us. The realities of the marriages are built on the cast of mind of these characters: Lydgate (he is by the way a footnote to the third book—which is why she gives him Tertius as his first name—of John Lydgate’s Fall of Princes where the man of science is said to have too materialistic a mind) chooses the rose of the world. Ladislaw, the Shelleyan idealist, naturally chooses the gift of God.
The other paradigm is the mythic hierogamy, Greek for “sacred marriage.” The first of such events in myth explains the logic of it. It is the marriage of Ouranos, the god of the sky, and Gaia (or Ge), the goddess of the earth. Their consummation is figured in rain. Through it the earth is fertilized, bringing forth all that grows on earth. There is another mythic narrative of this hierogamous relationship, the marriage of Persephone, the symbol of the growth of spring, and her consort, the god Hades, whom we know as the god of the Underworld in the sense of the dead but who is actually a fertility god, the god of all things we put in the earth, the dead being one, but far more importantly are the seeds that produce the growth of spring. Tess of the d’Urbervilles is constructed, very closely built, in fact, on an ancient work called The Homeric Hymn to Demeter (Demeter being Persephone’s mother), which tells the story of this marriage. This union becomes the symbol for Hardy of what marriage ought to be, and the relationships of the novel are not simply mistaken marriages, but the ways in which modern thought misleads us in how we think of our lives and makes us do things that lead to sorrow, this being, of course, the name of the child Tess has with Alec.
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Max Ferguson was born in New York City in 1959. His work has been exhibited in Germany, Holland, Israel, France, and many American cities.
Felicia Bonaparte is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at the CUNY Graduate Center and The City College of New York. She is the author of numerous publications, including Will and Destiny: Morality and Tragedy in George Eliot’s Novels, and The Poetics of Poesis: The Making of the Symbolic Language of Nineteenth-Century English Fiction, which will be published in the spring of 2012.