Easter Week 3: “Studied enchantment: the conjectural method in late Victorian scholarship”

Summary of the talk that Mimi Winick (Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey) gave on the 12th May 2014

Frazer's 'The Golden Bough'

Front cover of an edition of James George Frazer’s ‘The Golden Bough’

In this talk, I argued that British scholars Walter Pater (1839-1894) and James George Frazer (1854-1941) take familiar secularizing modes of inquiry—historical criticism and evolutionary theory—and, by using overlapping conventions of scholarship and literature, rework them into powerfully enchanting modes of writing. As much as their texts practice scholarship in order to seek knowledge, their writings also perform scholarship in such a way as to legitimize an encounter with, even an experience of, the sacred in the modern world.

Walter Pater

In his writings on art (The Renaissance, 1873), philosophy (Plato and Platonism, 1893), and Greek art and mythology (Greek Studies, 1895), Pater uses modern standards and methods to recuperate and rework earlier, flawed forms of scholarship into a new approach. He uses his unique form of scholarship to make religious experience—that endangered category in the nineteenth-century—real and accessible to a modern audience. In Greek Studies, Pater directs his audience to use imaginative feeling alongside theories of “comparative mythology” and “animism” to envision an “engaging picture” of the Ancient Greeks (GS 112). The reward for conjecturing this “engaging picture” is “a pledge to us of the place in our culture, at once legitimate and possible, of the associations, the conceptions, the imagery, of Greek religious poetry in general, of the poetry of all religions” (GS 151). In order to receive this pledge, one must have “admitted [the elements of Greek religion] as recognised and habitual inhabitants” (GS 151). The “modern mind” must make room for Greek religion through scholarly study: it is necessary to practice scholarship to experience religion.

More specifically, it is necessary to practice conjectural scholarship. In the nineteenth century, the proper approach to “prehistoric” subjects such as the Greek myths was the conjectural method. It used the imagination to infer information about phenomena that could not be observed directly due to their temporal or geographical distance, their location in psychological interiority, or their scale. Writers across disciplines embraced conjecturalism as the best way to organize accounts of worldly—and even otherworldly—phenomena. They used it to investigate “missing links” in evolutionary development, “lost” continents, and the origins of art and religion. It became the primary way to approach knowledge of man and his world.

James George Frazer

Thanks to the mass-culture success of the The Golden Bough, Sir James George Frazer’s status as the leading practitioner of the conjectural method in late-nineteenth-century Britain is challenged only by Sherlock Holmes. First published in 1890 in two volumes as “A Study in Comparative Religion,” The Golden Bough gathered accounts of religious rituals from a range of times, places, and sources—nineteenth-century missionary’s travelogues from Australia, Asia, Africa, and the Americas; Ancient Greek texts; folkloristic accounts of European peasants—organizing them to construct a theory of universal human mental development from magic to science.

In this story of mental evolution, the conjectural method is both narrative structure and artifact. As a structure, the conjectural method takes fragmentary evidence—accounts of rituals—and, reasoning from analogy, purports to explain the mentalities behind such practices; it ultimately organizes these fragments into a coherent narrative of mankind’s mental evolution. As an artifact, it is identical with the logic of so-called “savage” man whose “errors were not wilful extravagances or the ravings of insanity but simply hypotheses” (I.211-212). The Golden Bough thus uses the conjectural method as a thematic and formal source of unity, constructing an expansive conjectural network that links the earliest men with contemporary “savages” and with modern-day British scholars like Frazer himself—who are only adding the latest links to the conjectural chain first begun by those early men. I contend this story and structure of fundamental unity largely accounts for the surprising “mystical” effect of The Golden Bough recounted by some readers. (Though Frazer himself would not have subscribed to or countenanced such a response.)

Fantastic Scholarship

The Golden Bough was far from the only book published in the late nineteenth century to depict a direct connection between pre-modern enchanted mentalities and the self-consciously rational and modern worldviews of contemporary Britons. The popular genre of fantastic fiction centered on such a theme, apparent in stories of vampires, reincarnation, and other encounters between figures of a superstitious past and of a skeptical modernity. Indeed, The Golden Bough and Victorian fantastic fiction share not only this theme, but myriad literary conventions: both the book of scholarship and works such as the stories of Sheridan Le Fanu and the novels of H. Rider Haggard feature a sober, often scholarly preface to an extraordinary tale (the “frame/tale” structure), a collection of strange data from varied sources, the presentation of rival hypotheses, appeals to the reader’s judgment, and an embrace of doubt and provisionality.

Two tales with 'frames'

Though The Golden Bough participates in these shared tropes of scholarship and fantastic fiction, it tells its story with a difference. As scholarship rather than a novel, its conjectural chains do not structure a plot, but re-order the world it claims to describe. Frazer’s study transforms the world outside the text, taking the reader beyond the bounds of narrative pleasure into new understandings of history and modernity as at once secular, rational, and deeply meaningful. His story offers mysteriousness without insoluble mystery, certainty without reductive explanation, and meaningfulness alongside rationality.

Ultimately, I hope my discussion of Pater’s and Frazer’s scholarly writing showed how conjectural histories of religion depict a rationally comprehensible, spiritually saturated world in which modern man is constituted by, and can yet access (through scholarly practice) all the experiences of his species’s past—particularly religious experience. More broadly, I hope it suggests how a wider literary survey—such as the one I am working out in my dissertation—may show that, for late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writers of fiction and nonfiction alike, the conjectural method offered a way to reconcile compelling but conflicting standards of historical and spiritual truth into an experience offering both intellectual and spiritual satisfaction.



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