Romantic Egypt: Abyssal Ground of British Romanticism traces the historical, cultural and intellectual affiliations between Ancient Egypt and Romantic-period Britain and Germany, including the influences contributed by European thought, politics, and interventions such as Napoleon’s 1799 Egyptian Campaign. Until the contributions of Napoleon’s expedition to scientific knowledge of Ancient Egyptian monuments and ruins, Egypt had been largely swathed in mystical explanations of its past, its achievements, its beliefs, and its cultural importance; however, the increased knowledge about Ancient Egypt competed with the allure of a more mythically imbued antiquity in the Romantic imagination. Romantic Egypt argues that this balance between knowing and not-knowing, between deciphering and imagining a golden-age Egypt, between enlightened thought and mysticism, was essential to the development of the Romantic imaginary because, for the Romantics, western philosophy and art had their birth in the all-but-lost wisdom of Ancient Egypt.
Elizabeth Fay is professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.
Chapter One: Prior Time
Chapter Two: Geographica
Chapter Three: Ruins
Chapter Four: Spirit Magic
Chapter Five: Hieroglyphica
An exceptionally fine study of a resonant topic generally known only in sketchy fashion. Fay provides a sustained inquiry revelatory in its reconstruction of the fast-changing state of affairs, as important as it was for the prosecution of empire and the progress of philology. The author is particularly illuminating on the meaning of ancient Egypt for thinking of the period, including for the likes of Hegel and Schelling, where the stakes were high.
Elizabeth Fay reminds us how fundamental the imagining of Ancient Egypt was for the phenomenon we call Romanticism. Historical events such as the Napoleonic campaign in Egypt, the vast plundering of antiquities (most of which ended up in British hands), and the emergence of modern Egyptology took place within and contributed to a multilayered cultural imaginary in which Egypt represented both a fantasy of lost origins (of writing, science, magic, myth) and the inscription—and prefiguration—of ruin and entombment. Fay’s nuanced and daring readings weave their way through a variety of literary and philosophical texts (Plato, Schelling, Hegel, Freud, Derrida; Wordsworth, Keats, the Shelleys), allowing her to shed new light on a range of topics central to Romanticism, from the romantic fragment to the romantic sublime.