Lauren Goodlad’s paper at the latest NAVSA conference in Montreal, “The Mad Men in the Attic: Seriality and Crypto-Identity in Narratives of Capitalist Globalization,” got me thinking once more about the importance of detachment, unbelonging, and cosmopolitanism within Victorian thought. More specifically, Goodlad’s presentation inspired me to reconsider George Eliot’s novel Felix Holt, the Radical (1866).

In The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence (Chatto & Windus, 1970) Raymond Williams called Felix Holt a turning point not just in Eliot’s work, but in the history of the novel for its sustained engagement with what Williams named “the crisis of the knowable community.” In the eponymous protagonist, Williams argues, Eliot represents the tension between individual and communal identity “as a problem of relationship: of how the separated individual, with a divided consciousness of belonging and not-belonging, makes his own moral history” (84).

What I’m wondering, is whether Goodlad’s yoking of “crypto-identity” to “narratives of capitalist globalization” might further illuminate Eliot’s attempt to represent the problem of the knowable community in a rapidly modernizing Victorian Britain? Crypto-identity is well-trodden ground in Victorian studies. As Michael Ragussis explains in Figures of Conversion (Duke UP, 1995), the rhetoric of religious conversion was often alloyed to the discourse of English national identity in the nineteenth century, when anxieties over loyalty quickly coalesced around the rise of Benjamin Disraeli. Building on Ragussis’s argument, Daniel Danecke provides a useful summary of the prevailing Victorian attitude to the crypto-Jew: “a false convert who uses a Christian persona to gain access to a position of civic power while secretly harboring hidden counter-civic interests” (Victorian Studies 43.2 [2001]: 205).

This negative attitude to crypto-identity doesn’t seem particularly helpful to an analysis of Felix Holt, whose eponymous protagonist is generally understood as being if anything too civic-minded, a proselytizing radical in the tradition of Carlylean conservatism. In order to explain why I think crypto-identity might be useful here, then, I need to reach past the conventional Victorian attitude.

In this, I’m finding Yirmiyahu Yovel’s The Other Within: The Marranos, Split Identity and Emerging Modernity (Princeton UP, 2009), a study of the Jews forced to convert to Christianity in thirteenth-century Iberia, very helpful. Marranos (effectively “dirty pig Jews”), Yovel observes, were distinguished from “authentic” conversos because marranos converted in “bad faith” and continued to practice Judaism in secret. Yovel’s study of this troubled time in European history attempts to gauge the consequences of being a marrano, and he makes a bold conclusion. For Yovel, the marrano embodies the first example of the kind of split-subjectivity we now more commonly associate with the effects of modernity. Whatever one thinks of Yovel’s insistence upon this point, his claim that the material experiences of marranos transformed the way they thought about the world is on much surer ground. Yovel carries on to argue that the marrano culture mixed Christianity and Judaism in ways that undermined both and hence led to modern skepticism and secularism.

How to get from mediaeval Iberia to the Victorian George Eliot? Well, it is probably necessary to mention that The Other Within is the survey-style complement to Yovel’s earlier two-volume study of the seventeenth-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza and Other Heretics (Princeton UP: 1992), conceives of Spinoza as the first secular Jew, or, as volume one is titled “the Marrano of Reason.” More particularly, Yovel claims marrano cultural practices undergirded Spinoza’s philosophical theories of immanence (the idea that this world is all there is) and detachment.

Spinoza was famously re-discovered in the 1850s, primarily by the circle of intellectuals associated with the Westminster Review. Both the details of his biography and the secularity of his philosophy attracted the praise of Froude, Arnold, Lewes and, which is most significant to the post, George Eliot. For Eliot, fresh off of translating Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity, Spinozan immanence provided a way to pilot between the Scylla of theologically-given moral laws and the Charybdis of biologically-determined morality. Accordingly she undertook to translate Spinoza’s Ethics, a task completed in 1856 but never published in her lifetime.

Felix Holt was published a decade after she finished the Spinoza project and, given the voracity of her mind, it is perhaps understandable that no critics have made direct connections between the two. Still, I think it striking that the best study we have of Victorian detachment–Amanda Anderson’s The Powers of Distance: Cosmopolitanism and the Cultivation of Detachment (Princeton UP, 2001), a book that devotes an entire chapter to George Eliot’s attempt to “cultivate partiality,”–makes little of the influence of Spinozan thought in Victorian conceptions of community and cosmopolitanism. In Anderson’s work, Spinoza makes only a subterranean appearance and even then, it’s in support of her analysis of Matthew Arnold.

Can a renewed attention to Spinoza be applied to a reading of Felix Holt? If it can, then doubtless the point of departure must be found in Chapter V, where Felix explains the his sense of unbelonging to the Dissenting Rev. Lyon in terms of conversion:

‘But do you believe in conversion?’
‘Yea, verily.’
‘So do I. I was converted by six weeks’ debauchery’
The minister started. ‘Young man […] speak not lightly of Divine operations, and restrain unseemly words’
‘I’m not speaking lightly,’ said Felix. ‘If I had not seen that I was making a hog of myself very fast, and that pig wash, even if I could have got plenty of it, was a poor sort of thing, I should have never look life fairly in the face to see what was to be done with it.’

To recap: Eliot gives us a man separated from his community by way of conversion, a man who uses that conversion to launch a self-sacrificing and critically detached political campaign to improve the conditions of that community, and who–I’m probably stretching the point here–describes the conversion in suine imagery (“hog”; “pig-wash”).

What do you think? Do I have anything here?


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