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FETISHISM AND FREEDOM IN MATTHEW ARNOLD'S CULTURAL THEORY

  • Peter Melville Logan (a1)

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ON THE FAR SIDE OF MATTHEW ARNOLD'S familiar call for objectivism lies a world of phantoms. His phrase, “to see the object as in itself it really is,” responds to a vision of the social body as particularly in need of objectivity. And because it lacks this quality, Arnold's Victorian society is one that sees the object as in itself it really is not. This mode of perception is the other side of Arnold's writing: a world of prevailing hallucinations, where fictions are taken for fact and facts for fiction. Seeing the object as it is not takes a characteristic form in Arnold's writing. Illustrative is the stanza in “Empedocles on Etna,” when the philosopher describes what happens when a child is injured, and then compares it to the normal condition of social life: Scratch'd by a fall, with moansAs children of weak ageLend life to the dumb stonesWhereon to vent their rage,And bend their little fists, and rate the senseless ground. (1.2.272–76) Attributing “life” to a stone, or to the ground, is a particular way of seeing the object as it is not. It involves an imaginative attribution of power to the object, and this active investing then goes unrecognized by the child, who believes that the object's power exists independently, in the external world. The passage continues by resolving the simile of the injured child into a prototypical act of magically explaining the unknown: So, loath to suffer mute,We, peopling the void air,Make Gods to whom to imputeThe ills we ought to bear;With God and Fate to rail at, suffering easily. (1.2.277–81) Both the reference and figure describe the process of fetishism, in its earliest form. Initially associated with “primitive” cultures, fetishism described a society in which supernatural powers are routinely attributed to inanimate objects. Empedocles is describing his own society as fetishistic, one that not only sees the object as it is not, but worships the object that is not, making a deity out of the void.

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FETISHISM AND FREEDOM IN MATTHEW ARNOLD'S CULTURAL THEORY

  • Peter Melville Logan (a1)

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