The Romantic Imagination in Egypt: A Review of Elizabeth Fay’s “Romantic Egypt: Abyssal Ground of British Romanticism”
Elizabeth A. Fay. Romantic Egypt: Abyssal Ground of British Romanticism. Lanham, MD: Lexington Press, 2021.   What is Egypt? At first, this question appears to have many answers that are obvious and come to mind almost immediately, and for this reason, they happen to be mundane and somewhat unexciting.  After all, isn’t Egypt just a… The post The Romantic Imagination in Egypt: A Review of Elizabeth Fay’s “Romantic Egypt: Abyssal Ground of British Romanticism” appeared first on VoegelinView.

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Elizabeth A. Fay. Romantic Egypt: Abyssal Ground of British Romanticism. Lanham, MD: Lexington Press, 2021.

 

What is Egypt? At first, this question appears to have many answers that are obvious and come to mind almost immediately, and for this reason, they happen to be mundane and somewhat unexciting.  After all, isn’t Egypt just a country in Africa, or in a broader sense, a geographical territory? Some will say, with good reason, that it is also a cultural entity, rich in history and unique architecture, with its pyramids, colossi, tombs and never-ending stream of tourists, keen to intentionally or unintentionally desecrate this cultural wealth still preserved to a degree, against all odds. It is also a modern Islamic Republic and that attracted a lot of attention during the failed revolutions of the Arab Spring. Egypt has been, and remains, part of the West’s imaginative gaze.
Yet, as Elizabeth A. Fay details in her exceptional work Romantic Egypt: Abyssal Ground of British Romanticism, Egypt is not merely these things, it is simultaneously much more and much less, something potentially beyond not just these descriptions but beyond any and all descriptions. For the Romantics, who gave us the richest and most diverse conceptualizations of Egypt, Egypt was a constant source of inspiration, identity, and longing that went far deeper than a mere fascination with the Orient. As Fay shows, Egypt was uniquely positioned to play such a role for the Romantics. It was an Eastern culture which had interacted with Greece and Rome and influenced them; it was somehow part of them, and yet, it always remained “the other.” It is almost constantly present in the Old Testament, primarily through the experiences of Moses and Joseph, and we must not forget the Greco-Egyptian fusion that was Alexandria, arguably the brightest star on Alexander the Great’s glorious firmament, and on that of his general-turned-pharaoh: Ptolemy. It was not just a fusion of cultures, but also an unique first attempt at an “Empire of Knowledge,” a metaphysical Egypt, or, as the author puts it:
The Alexandrian Dream, based on Ptolemy I’s dreams of matching Alexander the Great’s terrestrial empire with an empire of knowledge, a cosmic empire based in Egypt’s new capital, Alexandria.
Unlike China and India, which were sufficiently distant from the West culturally as well as geographically, Egypt was far away only in the sense that it’s culture seemed distant but was geographically close to the cities that birthed the Western cultural inheritance (Greece and Rome). The history of the West was often bound up with Egypt, as mentioned Greece and Rome had significant interactions with Egypt and were deeply influenced by Egypt. Whereas China and India had cultural continuity, Egypt was a complex civilization that had perished, remaining a culture of ruins, mystery and riddles, well-exemplified by the figure of the Sphinx, forever hidden in the sands of the desert which would attract the imaginative romance of prominent Europeans many centuries later. In the ruins of Egypt, then, the Romantics sought rebirth.
For the Romantics, Egypt was both a known and an unknown. It combined sophisticated knowledge with an impenetrable hieroglyphic script. It successfully combined astronomy with astrology, science with magic, sound medicine with spiritual ritualism. Yet, due to the burning of the Alexandrian Library by Caliph Omar, all of this knowledge was seemingly lost to the world (not really, but the myth persisted well into the nineteenth century and still persists today). It is here that the myth of lost secret knowledge, so beloved by the secret societies that sprang up like mushrooms at the time of the Enlightenment, was born and became a magnetic attraction to European Romantics of a hermetic disposition.
This book was quite clearly written by someone who is something of a polymath—the book considers Egypt historically, philosophically, culturally and linguistically, with competence and enviable erudition. The personalities and groups influenced by the cosmic Egypt of the imagination, which Fay scrutinizes and contrasts, are as diverse as well-known figures such as the Shelleys (both Percy and Mary), Blake, Coleridge, Schelling, Hegel, Novalis, Napoleon and various freemasons, all the way to the eccentric Victorian barrister and self-educated Orientalist William Morley, who seemed to spend most of his time learning Oriental languages and expounding theories on Egyptian hieroglyphics, than developing a legal practice of note.  This list, it must be noted, is not exhaustive and Fay considers the works of many other individuals and groups.
In considering these figures Fay shows that even if all had found their inspiration in Egypt the actual focus of their interest was almost always different which also applies to their interpretations. For example, we learn that for Hegel the ruins of Egypt represented, ultimately, a positive symbol. Within his philosophy of history, Hegel considers the unfolding of the Weltgeist through history as undergoing a constant struggle between the parochial and the universal. The realization of world spirit manifests progressively through history, and it found its final realization in the modern Prussian state.
Egypt was the first true stage of this process. The Egyptian mundus was in conflict with its cosmos.  Egypt tried to resolve this tension by its art, in particular, the pyramid, “the crystal within which spirit must begin recognizing itself.” Egypt is a land of symbolic art, a riddle that cannot know its own solution. However, what matters for Hegel is that the right riddle was posited, which was something of a breakthrough event; better attempts at answering it will be made in Classical Antiquity and beyond, and a definitive answer will only be provided at the end of history.
For Schelling, Blake and Coleridge, Egyptian symbolism was a mystical prophecy about the past and the future, an elucidation of a prior, primordial time of magic and wisdom, the time when the original unity of creation first disintegrated. Egypt was a symbol Blake used, above all in his Prelude, for its haunting force, in order to “cast the future as a vision of the past” and “cast the present in terms of Egyptian historicity, a quality of unknowable time.” For German idealists and the poets influenced by their ideas, however, while Ancient Egypt served as an expression of a prior ground, Alexandria had the function of an image of an encyclopedic conscience and heart, the place where combining universal poetry with universal science was the essence of the city.
In contrast, Percy Shelley and his wife Mary saw Egypt in a more negative light, as a warning, as an apocalyptic shadow from the past about the future. Mary was familiar with the esoteric Egyptianism of her time, where electricity was seen, in this light, as a perfect synthesis of science and magic—an achievement of alchemy which could resurrect the dead. Victor Frankenstein’s monster is a creation of the revolutionary Enlightenment as much as of the occult Zeitgeist that accompanied it. For Percy, Ozymandias is cautionary tale of sublime ruin, a fate that befalls all proud empires and their despotic rulers.  The ruins of Egypt represent lost grandeur, an apocalyptic nostalgia, which, as with the other Romantics with a similar mytho-poetic approach, is cast as a vision of the future.
One subchapter, the one on the necropolis, the city of the dead, is particularly edifying and substantive that helps the reader understand the British Romantic imagination toward Egypt most of all. In the British imagination, the necropolis was “a contained whole and a ruin at the same time-an eternal city and yet a forgotten culture.” The author is worth quoting at length regarding the reasons why the necropolis and its inhabitants were so alluring to the Romantic imagination:
As participants in life-in-death, Lower Egyptian pharaohs, nobles, and court officials were both contained by the boundaries of the necropolis and freed to converse with the gods; they were both restrained by the limits of mortal remembrance and, despite that memory trace, liberated into cosmic life.
The culmination of Fay’s book is to be found in the Victorian barrister William Morley, who suffered from a serious form of what the author calls “hieroglyphic fever.” Morley is, in a sense, the last Egyptianized Romantic who combined romantic love, a life-long obsession to be posted to the Eastern outposts of the British Empire as a Judge, and passionate fervor for all things Oriental including the languages of the Near East. Indeed, he spent far more time studying Persian at the library of the Royal Asiatic Society than at Court. It is truly lamentable that this Romantic attitude towards all things Egyptian was subsequently replaced by what is now known as Egyptology, which is anything but infused with passion; it is most certainly and decidedly un-cosmic in its approach and objectives, resulting in the bland mechanicalism we see today in Egyptian studies.
Fay is a masterful guide with plentiful supply of enlightening fire and you can be sure you will never be in the dark—pardon the pun—when exploring the abyssal depths, labyrinths and necropoli of the Egypt: be it cosmic or terrestrial that so inspired the Romantics. Romantic Egypt opens the reader’s eyes to new and compelling interpretations of some of the best poetry and philosophy produced by the Romantics. Finally, and importantly, this not some dry, academic work, despite the obvious erudition and scholarship displayed by Fay—the writing is eminently readable and exciting which enhances this book. Fay’s book is nothing short of a cultural masterpiece and should be compulsory reading for any student of the Romantic period or anyone who has a love for the cultural imagination of the West in relationship to Egypt.

The post The Romantic Imagination in Egypt: A Review of Elizabeth Fay’s “Romantic Egypt: Abyssal Ground of British Romanticism” appeared first on VoegelinView.

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