Reading the Deadly Text of Modernism: Vico's Philosophy of History and Max Beerbohm's 'Zuleika Dobson.'

By Bonaparte, Felicia | CLIO, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Reading the Deadly Text of Modernism: Vico's Philosophy of History and Max Beerbohm's 'Zuleika Dobson.'


Bonaparte, Felicia, CLIO


The impact of philosophic ideas on a literary work is not difficult to establish when the work itself refers to them or it is known, for example from letters, that the author is familiar with a particular train of thought. When Thomas Mann invokes the Phaedrus in the course of "Death in Venice," we need not wonder whether Plato enjoys a part in the story's theme. A recognizable quotation, even when it is not identified, will serve as well to prove a debt. Tito Melema's remark that "All the disputes concerning the Chief Good have left it a matter of taste" (chap. 11) so closely echoes David Hume, it is clear one of the questions George Eliot is raising in Romola (1863) concerns the nature of morality in the empiricist philosophy. But philosophic influences are not always so demonstrable. Sometimes the features of an idea seem to be visible in a work in which there are no telling allusions and whose author does not refer to that philosophic tradition. What is the status of such evidence, if it is evidence at all? All too often we tend, I believe, to dismiss uncertain cases. The demands of scholarly proof make these difficult to argue. Yet we know that much of history leaves no documents in its wake and can only be recovered by supposition and inference. To me it seems as great an error to miss a possible connection as to suppose one where none exists. And supposition has the advantage of lending a basis for further inquiry that in time may lead to proof of a more verifiable nature. It is a connection of this kind -- between Max Beerbohm, the English humorist, and the Italian philosopher of history, Giambattista Vico -- that I would like to suggest in this essay. I think we have greatly underestimated Vico's influence on English thought, especially in the nineteenth century, and to establish such a connection would reclaim one meaningful link in the history of ideas. Certainly, a Vichian reading of Beerbohm's novel Zuleika Dobson opens historical layers in it that are otherwise inaccessible, perhaps in itself an implicit indication that such a connection does exist.

Generally, Beerbohm is not taken to be a philosophical writer. Most of his readers have, indeed, been so delighted by his wit that they have rarely been impelled to look for something more serious beyond it.(1) Serious he may not be exactly. But at the very heart of his work, at the very heart of his humor, lies what I would characterize as a whimsy of ideas. Not without convictions himself, it is his instinct, nonetheless, not so much to assert positions as to question them, to dislodge them, to entertain their antitheses, and to see what can survive the assault of his caprice. Never is that caprice suspended. Neither, however, are the ideas. And in Zuleika, which he began around 1898 and completed in 1911, Beerbohm seems to me to assume a parodic relationship -- parodic in Linda Hutcheon's sense of imitation with critical distance(2) -- to the essential argument of Vico's philosophy of history in his Scienza Nuova.(3)

Vico himself is not mentioned by name in this or in any of Beerbohm's writings. But neither are any number of others whose influence on him cannot be questioned. It is a part of his playful nature to prefer an implication to an explicitly stated citation. Nevertheless, there may be reasons, quite apart from internal evidence, to suspect a Vichian presence in the thought of Beerbohm's book. For one thing, Vico was in the air at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, and had been for a hundred years. The impulse that had earlier sent Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Vico, Thomas Arnold (and very probably Matthew Arnold), as well as George Eliot and George Henry Lewes, and was very soon to send R. G. Collingwood and James Joyce (for the writing of Finnegans Wake), was not likely to have missed a man as widely read as Beerbohm, one especially so cosmopolitan (though so English in many ways), so proficient in the tongues of European literatures, and so taken with Italy that he moved there in 1910, partly in fact to finish this novel, and lived there for the rest of his life. …

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