Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

George Eliot and the Fetish of Realism

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

George Eliot and the Fetish of Realism

Article excerpt

On 29 May 1856, while at Ilfracombe with George Lewes, Marian Evans watched the local celebration of the end of the Crimean War. (1) In her account of the incident, she describes a parade, an outdoor tea, and other examples of local eccentricities, and then refers to the event as a "bit of primitive provincial life" (Letters 2: 248). (2) This association of primitivity with provincialism is deliberate. She and George H. Lewes were in the middle of a naturalist expedition to collect specimens of mollusks and anemones, a biological form of "primitive" life, and her observations of the Ilfracombe natives conflate zoological and social life: she describes the village houses as "barnacles clustered on the side of a great rock" and comments on "the strong family likeness between ourselves and all other building, burrowing house-appropriating and shell-secreting animals" (242). But the primitivity of provincial life was much on Evans's mind at that particular moment for non-zoological reasons as well. She encountered the village celebration as she was writing her article on W. H. Riehl's ethnographic study of provincial life. She had started reading Die burgerliche Gesellschaft and Land und Leute only four weeks earlier. On 13 May 1856 her journal notes gloomily: "Began my article on Riehl this morning with rather despairing prospects" (Harris and Johnston 60). She finished it on 5 June 1856, less than a week after the village celebration. So her comment on provincial primitivity reflects an immersion in the ethnographic subject matter she describes in her article, "The Natural History of German Life," of which she had a living example before her in Ilfracombe life.

But what does "primitive" mean? In his New Science (1744), Giambattista Vico described the times of the earliest cultures as a period when people imbued the inanimate world around them with life, and thus lived in a universe of "animate substance" (147). Other writers followed this lead, but it was Auguste Comte who cemented this association between primitives and perspective. Comte established this association in Cours de philosophie positive, published 1830-1842, in which he defines his narrative of universal social development. He calls the earliest stage "Primitive Fetishism" because of its superstitious tendency to invest objects with spirits. As he tells the story, the first chapter "could begin no otherwise than by a complete and usually very durable state of pure Fetichism, which allowed free exercise to that tendency of our nature by which Man conceives of all external bodies as animated by a life analogous to his own" (3: 7). (3) In the nineteenth century, primitivism was virtually synonymous with fetishism. (4)

As Evans's comment on Ilfracombe shows, the sign of primitivism was also capable of being imported back into civilized life, in a form of reverse colonization. Children, the uneducated--any group seen as early in the developmental narrative--could be tagged "primitive" through their representation as fetishistic. This transposition of ethnological themes onto contemporary life is a form of domestic primitivism: the use of ethnographic narratives of social origins to explain elements of modern life. Because of the structure of fetishism--it was thought of as a failure of objective or rational perception--it was useful in the domestic context as a mode of social critique. In her novels, George Eliot uses domestic primitivism to represent Victorian life as a reversion to an earlier stage of social development, most familiarly in her portrayal of the Dodsons in The Mill on the Floss. (5) The practice continued throughout her writing career. More than a decade after the Ilfracombe expedition, George Eliot wrote on 22 March 1868 to Sara Hennell, "I am reading about savages and semi-savages" (Letters 4: 424). Her notes at the time demonstrate an immersion in the study of primitive culture: she transcribed quotes from John Lubbock's Pre-Historic Times (1865), which she read in 1868, and from Edward B. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.