Abstract

This article argues that in The Lifted Veil George Eliot conducts a fictional experiment to test the limits of seventeenth-century philosopher Benedict de Spinoza's metaphysics. Eliot's Gothic novella, a significant generic departure from the realist fiction that established her fame, can arguably be read as a response to Spinoza's theory of the imagination, with its nursery of illusions and fears. Despite Eliot's years of studying and translating Spinoza's two major works, and the influence his philosophy exerted over both herself and George Henry Lewes, there has been a curious tendency to overlook this fundamental intellectual relationship. In The Lifted Veil Eliot does not merely give fictional form to Spinoza's ideas; rather, she contests and reshapes his affective philosophy, setting his intensely optical, phenomenal notion of the subject's enslavement to the vividness of imagination in an incendiary allegory of mid-century Victorian visual culture. The various epistemological crises of the mid-century moment find expression in Eliot's horrifying first-person account of delimited, inescapable sensory experience. What ensues is a destabilizing of the bluntly rational terms upon which Spinoza grounded his vision of the affective imagination, through which Eliot explores her own specular phenomenology of loss in a period when the very act of seeing was radically evolving.

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