Hypotheses from English 649A, February 3, 1999:

19th-Century Medievalism

I thought it would be useful to step back and set out some of the concepts that were explored during our marathon three-hour class:

Hypothesis 1. This is actually a double hypothesis with each part contradicting the other; it arose in conversation with Laurissa Bemis. Part I: Medievalism serves the function in the nineteenth century of reassuring the populace: "look how far we've progressed; aren't we civilized by comparison." Part II: Medievalism, in its nostalgic look back to a lost time of harmony, stability, masculinity, faith and happiness, functions as a retarding effect on empire. In this way, medievalism is a disruptive force within nineteenth-century Britain. (Note that Mark Girouard's thesis in The Return to Camelot tends to correspond to the first part, whereas Martin Wiener's thesis in English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit corresponds to the latter part. Both Michael Gamer in "Scott, Antiquarianism, and Gothic" and Marlon Ross in "Scott's Chivalric Pose" make the former argument in relation to Scott's metrical romances, as we discussed. Is there an argument to be made for a more discruptive Scott?) One could put this another way: does the description of the present via the allegorical detour of the past lead to negative/disruptive or harmonizing/utopic effects? Which hypothesis is correct? If both are correct, how can medievalism serve such contending purposes?

Hypothesis 2. This hypothesis arose in coversation with Ann Astell and Ernest Rufleth. Does medievalism work in some ways like proto-postmodern pastiche? This discussion is linked to Ann Astell's SEMATA posting about the tendency of much nineteenth-century medieval material to tip into parody or simply self-conscious stylization. In this way, much gothic material could be said to escape uncanny effects because of the encroachment of humor. (Freud makes a similar argument about the fairy tale and other generic forms that do not take supernatural effects "seriously"). The tendency of the medievalist phenomenon to "ism," to stylization might support such a hypothesis. Note that one of the terms that, in Culture and Society, Raymond Williams associates with the nineteenth-century is the "ism," including, as he states in the introduction, "medievalism" (xvii).

hypothesis 3. This hypothesis came in response to Michelle Peterson's presentation on Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. Might we say, along the lines of Derrida in his "Law of Genre," that the novel in particular always needs to step outside of itself to mark itself as the genre it claims to be? That is, because the gothic, the domestic novel, the sensation novel, etc. are in the process of establishing themselves as generic forms, they feel all the more the need to identify themselves through embedded readers, embedded tales, and other acts of re-marking, hence the necessity of Austen's anti-gothic stance in Northanger Abbey or, for that matter, Ann Radcliffe's own "explained supernatural" in the Mysteries of Udolpho. According to Derrida, every text must step outside itself, so to speak, in order performatively to mark itself as belonging to a code and "this mark of belonging or inclusion does not properly pertain to any genre or class" (Derrida, "Law of Genre" 65).


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