Empirical Wonder: Historicizing the Fantastic, 1660-1760

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Peter Lang, 2010 - Literary Criticism - 238 pages
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"Empirical Wonder" focuses on the emergence of the fantastic in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British culture. To do so, it preliminarily formulates an inclusive theory of the fantastic centering on nineteenth- and twentieth-century genres. The origins of such genres, this study argues, reside in the epistemological shift that attended the rise of empiricism, and their formal and historical identity becomes fully visible against the backdrop of pre-modern culture. While in pre-modern world-views no clear-cut distinction between the natural and the super- or the non-natural existed, the new epistemology entailed the emergence of boundaries between the empirical and the non-empirical, which determined, on the level of literary production, the opposition between the realistic and the non-realistic. Along with these boundaries, however, emerged the need to overcome them. In the seventeenth century, the religious supernatural and the existence of monsters were increasingly being questioned by modern science, and a variety of attempts were made to enact a mediation between what was perceived as unmistakably real and the problematic phenomena that were threatened by the empirical outlook: apparition narratives were used, for instance, to persuade skeptics of the presence of otherworldly beings, and travelogues often presented monsters as if they were empirical entities. Most of these attempts became soon incompatible with scientific culture, more and more normative, so the task of mediation was assumed by literature. Apparition narratives, originally conceived as factual texts, were progressively aestheticized; analogously, imaginary voyages grew different from fictionalized travelogues -- the success of Gulliver's Travels resetting the genre's main conventions and establishing a distinctly fictional model. Both apparition narratives and imaginary voyages emerged as self-consciously literary, that is, aesthetic, genres, bridging the gap between the empirical and the non-empirical. The origins of the fantastic ended when its mediatory task gave way to other concerns. Although on a residual level the mediation between the empirical and the non-empirical persisted, the fantastic's main preoccupations changed: in imaginary voyages its distinctive devices were used to dramatize or validate colonial practices, and Gothic fiction disconnected itself from the moral framework typical of apparition narratives.

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List of Illustrations
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Experimenting with the Supernatural

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About the author (2010)

The Author: Riccardo Capoferro is Research Fellow at Rome University 'La Sapienza'. His published work includes books and articles on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British culture.

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