Chance Enlightenments, Choice Superstitions: Walpole’s Historic Doubts and Enlightenment Historicism

This paper focuses on the counter-enlightenment historicism of Horace Walpole, arguing that skepticism about the religiosity of enlightenment skepticism itself is what leads Walpole to downplay incredulity about the empirical world and foreground instead the manner in which that world is ideologically repackaged in narrative. Walpole’s works routinely adopt the core tenet of the enlightenment—skepticism about the rites, relics, and received opinions once endowed with sacred meaning—while nonetheless applying that same skepticism to the tales of erudition and exploration with which the proponents of the enlightenment disseminate their claims to reason. In thus taking to task the myriad phantasms about the past, including the reputed pastness of that past (fantasies which usher in the deep, undaunted conviction in modernity, in print if not in reality), Walpole helps deflate and destabilize the miraculous “once upon a time” storyline of the enlightenment project itself.