All posts by Catherine Engh

How much history?

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At CUNY, a New York state public university where I teach an introductory course in literature and writing, undergraduates like thinking about power. Their material disadvantages make social critique come naturally. Knowing this and wanting to get them hooked, I present Romantic literature as an early expression of dissatisfaction with social processes and conventions, a perspective to be developed later by Marx. This semester, I threw Jane Austen into the mix, and oriented reading and discussions of Persuasion around questions of social class. We spent a lot of time discussing the historical attributes of Austen’s class system that seem strange to modern sensibilities: the phenomenon of rank, the marriage between cash and land, the ambiguous category of the “gentleman” and the expanding mercantile economy.

Continue reading How much history?

Rousseau’s Women

bust of Rousseau
bust of Rousseau

Rousseau’s writings are often regarded as contradictory. In his life, he was attacked as a hypocrite who wrote of the duties and obligations of the citizen but who himself lived in exile from society. The structuralist critic Tzvetan Todorov has been more generous to Rousseau, arguing that he self-consciously inhabits different perspectives in order to capture a contradiction “in the human condition” (19). I would qualify this statement with the assertion that Rousseau captures an extraordinarily Romantic dilemma. He is attracted to the freedoms of solitary life even as he affirms an obligation to commit oneself completely to the interests of a community, or a politics. In this blog post, I’ll say a little about Rousseau’s contradictory (and socially conservative) views of women and how I think they correspond to the divide in Rousseau’s thinking between “natural” freedom and moral commitment, private interest and public good.

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‘Spectacular Suffering’: A Reading Recommendation

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Professor Ramesh Mallipeddi’s course, ‘slavery and eighteenth-century literature,’ which I took a year ago, was an opportunity to consider questions central to slavery studies: What is the role of the critic in relation to the archive of slavery, where there are very few accounts of slave experience written by slaves themselves? Did the affective politics of sympathy actually ameliorate the suffering of slaves or did sentimental rhetoric simply validate the metropolitan observer? What was obscured and what was accomplished in abolitionist efforts to intervene in the slave trade and to reform plantation discipline? What role did slaves themselves play in articulating their losses and mobilizing against the institutions of racial slavery? Professor Mallipeddi tackles these questions among others in his book Spectacular Suffering: Witnessing Slavery in the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic, which has just come out. Continue reading ‘Spectacular Suffering’: A Reading Recommendation

Spinoza with Wordsworth: substance and “the life of things”

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Like many readers of this blog, I’ve been spending a lot of time with Wordsworth lately. As all who’ve read the “The Prelude” know, “nature” is really important to the developmental trajectory that Wordsworth traces in recursive manner throughout the various versions of the poem. It’s hard to say, however, what exactly Wordsworth’s concept of nature is. The relation between the speaker’s mind and “nature” is configured in different ways, and “nature” is continually being lost, subordinated to the poet’s creative impulse, and recovered. Continue reading Spinoza with Wordsworth: substance and “the life of things”

Affect Theory Reading Log

This winter, I’ve been working to familiarize myself with the affective turn in Romantic studies. But the reading experience has been generally defamiliarizing; ideas about affects, emotions, feelings and passions are consistent, it seems, only in their inconsistency. In their introduction to Romanticism and the Emotions, Faflak and Sha usefully suggest that the difficulties that Romantic scholars encounter trying to theorize affect stem from the nature of the project, which is “to categorize what by definition at once sustains and eludes both thought and language.” The common ground that unites those that I’ve read on the topic is not so much a shared theory as a a shared belief that we can learn something about our contemporary interest in affect as a scientific object (neuroscience) and as a subject for the humanities by looking back to emotion’s (uneven and multilayered) emergence as a category of experience in the Enlightenment and Romantic periods.

In the place of a single book review, I’ll provide here a brief and by no means comprehensive survey of a few books on the topic that I’ve been spending some time with lately. The readings here ask unresolvable, but pressing, questions about the relation between feeling and knowing, bodies and texts, affect and agency, aesthetics and socio-political forces. The list is completely idiosyncratic: Thomas Pfau’s Romantic Moods is influential, but I haven’t read it and Romanticism and the Emotions from Cambridge UP is fresh and excellent but, as a collection of essays, is too daunting to summarize. I’d love to know what other people are reading on the topic—please feel free to add your recs in the comments section!

  1. Pinch, Adela. Strange Fits of Passion: Epistemologies of Emotion, Hume to Austen. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1997.

Pinch

Strange Fits of Passion asks what writings by Hume, William Wordsworth, Charlotte Smith, Ann Radcliffe and Jane Austen can teach us about the relationship between knowing and feeling. Recurring questions include: Where do emotions come from and how do they travel? Can we judge whether feelings are fit to their occasions? Are feelings our own (personal) or are they transpersonal (conventional)? The last question is the most central to the study; Pinch everywhere challenges the notion that emotions come from some irreducible core of the self. She does this by emphasizing the “vagrancy,” (10) or trans-individual status of emotions in Romantic literature. What interests me most about Pinch’s book is her idea that that language, and especially imaginative language and utterance, plays a key role in bridging the gap between affect (materiality, physiology) and emotion (psychology). In poems by Wordsworth and Smith, poetic figures are simultaneously produced by passion and productive of emotions that circulate as conventions.

Reading Hume, who did not theorize language, Pinch seeks to recover the role that representation plays in shaping sympathy. In Hume, “force” designates the mysterious motion of the mind that translates ideas into impressions (and vise-versa) and is thus crucial to “sympathy.” “Force” is an unsatisfying concept in Hume if only because it fails to explain how and why some ideas impress us more forcibly than others. Contrasting Hume’s representation of imaginary men of misfortune with his famous representation of his own despair at the end of Book I of the Treatise, Pinch suggests that sympathy may be most forceful where we attribute imaginary feelings onto indifferent objects. Readers have long found it difficult to sympathize with Hume’s melancholic outpourings and this may be because he represents them as his own, rather than as ours to imagine.

In attending to the conventional and virtual aspects of feeling, Pinch sidelines the common charge against the Romantics (especially central to eco-critical conversations) of egoism and anthropocentrism. Pinch’s open displacement of this issue sets her apart from the other books listed here, which are more explicitly concerned with the ethical and political stakes of formulations of ‘sympathy’ that emerged in the Enlightenment and Romantic periods. Strange Fits of Passion positively stands out, however, in its analysis of the ways that gender differences get entangled in writers’ rendering of emotion. I especially enjoyed reading Pinch’s on Wordsworth’s “Goody Blake and Harry Gill.” For Pinch, the poem identifies the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” with an old woman’s passionate utterance. More surprisingly, it likens Harry’s violence towards Goody to the male poet’s desire to empathize with an experience of feminine suffering that will authenticate his verse. There’s a great anecdote here in which Joseph Cottle reads the Lyrical Ballads aloud to Hannah Moore. On the second reading of “Goody Blake,” Hannah Moore lifts up her hands, “in smiling horror” on hearing the curse “O, may he never more be warm!” Pinch writes, “Moore perhaps recognizes through her own playacting the power of a woman’s curse to engender poetic pleasure” (97).

  1. Yousef, Nancy. Romantic Intimacy. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2013.

YousefRomantic Intimacy asks how the epistemic problem of other minds informs accounts of intimacy in writings that range from eighteenth century moral philosophy to contemporary recommendations for psychoanalytic practice. Yousef moves lucidly between moral philosophy, poetry, novels and contemporary theory as she carefully draws out the ethical implications of relational experience in Romantic texts. A central thesis is that writers like Wordsworth, Austen and Coleridge are skeptical of sentimental philosophy’s confident appeals to the authority of shared feelings yet untethered to notions of (re)cognition (in Kant and Levinas) that emphasize equality and reciprocity between persons. Yousef’s book encourages us to see in Romantic literature diverse accounts of relational experience that expand beyond the paradigms of Humean sympathy and Kantian respect.

Yousef shares with Adela Pinch an unprepossessing interest in the formal and aesthetic qualities of the texts she explores. But where Pinch tends to reify a dichotomy between private and shared emotion, Yousef is drawn to poems like “Frost at Midnight” that challenge that divide. In Coleridge’s poem, little Hartley’s breath—his passive and unimposing presence—provides the relational background that sustains Coleridge’s intimate lyrical outpouring of memories, fantasies and hopes. Yousef provides startling analogies between the “generative silence” Coleridge’s infant son provides in “Frost at Midnight” and contemporary experiments with silence in psychoanalytic practice and performance art.

An interest in affective asymmetries coheres the excellent chapters in Romantic Intimacy on Wordsworth, Austen and Coleridge. If “Frost at Midnight” configures a relational situation where one person is completely silent so that another can speak, Pride and Prejudice represents the erotic possibilities of a relation where one person is endowed with gift giving power so that another can learn to receive. Yousef points out that Elizabeth Bennet’s engagement with Darcy is read at turns as a capitulation to power and as an aspirational (Kantian) assertion of equality between rational beings. Attention to the role of gratitude in Elizabeth’s bilding offers a way out of this impasse. For Yousef, Elizabeth’s entanglement with Darcy demonstrates the transformative force of a self-abasing moral feeling that constitutes the subject “as an implication of appreciation for an other” (112). Pride and Prejudice thus represents the subject as the effect of gratitude, rather than the other way around.

3. Anonymous Life: Romanticism and Dispossession. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2008.

Khalip

Anonymity and Dispossession theorizes Romantic subjectivity in the wake of the Enlightenment call for transparency and self-revelation. Jacques Khalip argues that second-generation romantics (Keats, Hazlitt, Shelley, Austen) saw Enlightenment models of personhood as deeply inauthentic and sought to re-conceive  of the self as anonymous. To think about subjectivity as anonymous is to value experiences of trauma and privation over experiences of self-possession and confessional  plentitude. As critical praxis, understanding subjectivity as dispossessed, or as being-without, involves attending to the virtuality of figuration (de Man and Derrida are important theoretical influences in the book) and to literary representations of anachronisms that evoke “an existence whose untapped power” is “always temporally unfinished and suspended, not knowing what it is, and what it will be” (7). Khalip wants us to see that Romantics thought of identity as “always an unmade and undone “thing”” (14) and, in so doing, shattered the relational channels of sympathetic exchange and mutual recognition. (see Yousef!)

Anonymity and Dispossession intersects with the concerns addressed in Pinch’s and Yousef’s book and Romantic affect theory more broadly in its treatment of “sympathy.” Khalip carefully draws out sympathy’s political dimensions, or its entanglement with the logic of financial speculation and accumulation. Khalip points out that the category of property underwrites formulations of sympathetic selfhood in Hume, Burke and Smith. All three of these philosophers acknowledge the virtual and potentially destabilizing aspects of sympathy (see Pinch!) only to keep the self as imaginary possession intact. Shelley then amplifies the destabilizing features of sympathy  present in Hume, Burke and Smith in order to re-conceive of sympathy as a “dissimulating” process that tears apart the “apparently fluid causality of consciousness” (117) and thus allows for a challenging ethical experience: “Sympathy…is an obligation to otherness that cannot be properly defined, but to which the subject remains critically open” (132). This is sympathy in the wake of any illusions about the linkage between affect and cognition, impressions and ideas, meanings and texts. It is a sympathy that refuses to understand the relationship between the self and the other in terms of mimesis.

Chapter four asks what the book’s broad themes of a skeptical and uncertain selfhood look like in the hands of women writers. The unifying mood is not of sympathy but of melancholy. Khalip argues that for Wollstonecraft, Shelley and Austen, melancholy entails a withdrawal from the public sphere that is sometimes strategic, sometimes compulsory. One surprising suggestion is that by refusing the demands of self-presentation, female writers display a “powerfully anonymous mobility in the world.” Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark and Austen’s Persuasion are well chosen and illustrative of the point. If the delicate being taught only to please of the Vindication is cognitively and emotionally stunted by a discourse of femininity that “spuriously regulate[s] the visibility of the female self,” then the Wollstonecraft fashioned in the letters is more like Austen’s melancholy heroine who cultivates a skepticism that “disarticulates personal fulfillment from self-presentation and self-assertion” (135). Khalip’s book leaves us with challenging questions about agency—if we can’t define ourselves, then how do we know how to act in the world? Romanticism and Dispossession encourages us stop thinking of ourselves as willful actors and to take up an obligation to perpetually reorient ourselves in relation to a fundamentally unknowable world.

Solitary Moods in Andrew Davies’ Jane Austen Adaptations

sands06-sense-and-sensibility-3605275-1680-1050Over winter break, I’ve had the opportunity to fuel my Jane Austen obsession with Andrew Davies’ BBC adaptations of Sense and Sensibility (2008) and Pride and Prejudice (1995). I enjoyed them both! In my enthusiasm, I’ll follow up Caroline’s wonderful post on Alan Rickman’s Colonel Brandon and Cailey’s fascinating review of Feeding France with a few comments on the very different ways that Davies’ two miniseries represent the kind of solitary states that turn up all the time in Austen’s novels. I mean those moments in the narrative when a character’s (often the heroine’s) “privacy” is inflected with—or we might say invaded by—irrepressible thoughts and feelings for others. DVD_PrideandPrejustice_BBC_specialedition1The tendency to doubt, judge, “(re)read” and generally speculate about other minds is one of the things that makes an Austen heroine the herione–this capacity distinguishes Elinor Dashwood from Anne Steele, Elizabeth from Mary Bennett. (There are shades of thinking and feeling for others, of course. Lucy Steele, for instance, is good at anticipating other people’s behavior but her cunning doesn’t enable her to transcend her immediate interests.) Frequently, a heroine’s thoughts and feelings about other characters come into relief when she is alone—i.e. temporarily free from the claims, misconstructions and physical proximity of others.

After reading Darcy’s letter exposing the ‘truth’ about Wickham, Elizabeth Bennet famously cries, “Till this moment I never knew myself.” The expression passes in just the kind of reflective solitude that I want to suggest is the special privilege of the Austenian heroine. We might equate Elizabeth’s urgent solitary exclamation with the sort of emotional content that Shakespeare’s soliloquies represent. Think, for instance, of Richard III’s despairing exclamation upon waking from a nightmare that, “There is no creature loves me; / And if I die, no soul shall pity me: / Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself / Find in myself no pity to myself?” For Richard as for Elizabeth, self-knowledge comes with a fresh and difficult (humiliating, haunting) perception of one’s relation to another (or others) . In general though, dialogic forms like drama and film evoke solitary movements of thought and feeling far less frequently than realist novels. For Frances Ferguson, “the limitation of theater is that it consists of almost nothing but direct quotation, so that drama must continually create an unfolding plot that motivates individual characters to present their views, to have thoughts that rise to the level of the expressible” (167). Theatre can’t, in other words, capture unvoiced thoughts and feelings like free indirect style.

David Garrick as Richard III, William Hogarth (1745)
David Garrick as Richard III, William Hogarth (1745)

Though their film consists of almost nothing but direct dialogue, screenwriter Andrew Davies and director Simon Langton manage to evoke the intense feelings of shame, regret and longing that accompany Elizabeth’s recognition that she has misjudged Darcy’s character. Nancy Yousef has observed that Elizabeth’s attachment to Darcy grows with self-abasing feelings of gratitude that are “largely described and situated in solitary meditations” (107). The BBC adaptation stays faithful to the spirit of Austen’s novel by showing us that Elizabeth’s romance with Darcy develops as much in private spaces of reflection as in face-to-face encounters. The filmmaker’s attempts to show that Elizabeth is a reflective character are respectable  (she is frequently shot sitting in front of the mirror) but, in one instance, the visual representation of Elizabeth’s preoccupation with Darcy is semi-ludicrous. In the carriage ride from Rosings to Merryton, Elizabeth gazes pensively out of the window and, all of a sudden, a ghostly apparition of Darcy appears reflected before her. He rehashes a line from the proposal scene: “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” Although Elizabeth’s feelings of regret and self-loathing are conveyed in the bodily shudder with which she responds to and vanquishes Darcy’s specter, the whole bit has me thinking less about Elizabeth’s affective state (the scene leaves little to the imagination) and more about how unnatural it feels to know exactly what a character on screen is feeling. Movies may just be better off leaving us to wonder about the content of characters’ minds.

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   By not giving us full access to Elinor Dashwood’s thoughts, a montage towards the end of the BBC adaptation of Sense and Sensibility imagines new possibilities for Austen’s heroine. The montage is about as effective as any scene in Antonioni at generating ambiguity about a silent figure. Multiple shots dwell on Elinor after she has returned to Barton and learned (been misinformed) that Edward Ferrars has married. In this moment in the novel, psycho-narration follows Elinor’s thoughts as she conjures a vision of Edward settled in marriage and discovers that, “happy or unhappy,—nothing pleased her; she turned away her head from every sketch of him.” In the film, however, Elinor’s mood of frustrated desire saturates a series of strangely beautiful shots that picture her going through the solitary motions of everyday life. We watch her paint a landscape, hang a picture, buy a fish, gaze out the window and, finally, out at the sea. Though Antonioni would probably leave off the sad tune that acknowledges Elinor’s disappointment all too obviously, her contemplative activities suggest visually the kind of aimlessness that he became famous for representing on screen. Watching Elinor, we entertain the idea that she may be sad, bored, distracted or lonely but we are not certain that her feelings correspond to thoughts of Edward.

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     In the final shot, Elinor appears on a bench before the sea, with her back to the viewer. In an essay on Austen and Cavell, Eric Walker argues that this image represents Elinor’s self-sufficiency—“like Elinor herself in the image, Elinor’s desire, autocentric and allocentric, faces elsewhere, elusively”—and simultaneously anticipates her upcoming marriage—“the bench marks the grounded and settled spot where the marriage empire summons identity to take seated place, with room for one other.” Insofar as the shot suggests thoughts of an absent other, it evokes the typically intersubjective quality of solitude in Austen. But where the novel Sense and Sensibility gives us an incontestable description of the unpleasant thoughts about Edward that are running through Elinor’s head in this moment, the film, which can only suggest thoughts and emotions, leaves open the possibility that Elinor’s thoughts may tend, elusively and abstractly, towards a horizon that is hers alone to imagine.

Works Cited

Ferguson, Frances. “Jane Austen, Emma, and the Impact of Form.” MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 61, no. 1 (2000): 157–80.

Walker, Eric C. “Walker, Austen and Cavell,” July 1, 2014. http://www.rc.umd.edu/praxis/cavell/praxis.cavell.2014.walker.html.

Yousef, Nancy. Romantic Intimacy. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2013.

Ancient Pedigrees, Old Trees and Numinous Rocks

Theodore Rousseau, The Great Oaks of Old Bas Breau
Theodore Rousseau, The Great Oaks of Old Bas Breau

In Edmund Burke’s attack on the “metaphysic rights” (152) of men that inspired the French Revolution, he urged Britons to look to their “breasts” rather than their “inventions” for the source of liberty. Burke deployed the language of sensibility to naturalize a political system organized around the idea of heredity. The argument goes that inheritance binds English citizens to their constitution with the instinctive force of a bond of kinship. But Burke has to admit that the awe-inspiring aspects of the state –its “pedigree and illustrating ancestors” (121)—are just so many “pleasing illusions” that make “power gentle, and obedience liberal” (171). Psychologically, however, Britons need these institutions because they have so thoroughly internalized the principles that they represent that those principles have become second nature. What keeps property and political representation in the hands of the few is what ties Britons to a shared past and future. Burke’s logic would be like Foucault’s if Foucault had wanted to celebrate the panopticon. Continue reading Ancient Pedigrees, Old Trees and Numinous Rocks

Thomas Gainsborough, Jane Austen and Fashionable Society

The Blue Boy, 1770
The Blue Boy, 1770

Thomas Gainsborough is best known as the painter of rustic, sentimentalized scenes like The Harvest Wagon and of ultra-stylized portraits like The Blue Boy, which has achieved iconic status. A year after Gainsborough’s death, Sir Joshua Reynolds chose to celebrate Gainsborough’s “portrait-like representation of nature” and noted that Gainsborough’s excellence was “selected by himself from the great school of nature” (qtd. In Bermingham, 58). Since then, the critical consensus hasn’t much changed; it’s Gainsborough’s innovations in landscape painting that make him the proto-Romantic artist who paved the way for JMW Turner. One could look at Gainsborough’s Cottage Door with Cowper’s “The Task” or Wordsworth’s “An Evening Walk” to get a sense of the perspectives, affects and fantasies that shaped the early Romantic pastoral. This being said, I’m interested in aligning Gainsborough with the writings of the Romantic period along a different axis: it may be productive to read his portraits alongside Austen’s domestic realism. The thinking here is part of a larger project on the two artists that I’m trying to make-work. For now, what compels me about the Gainsborough-Austen connection is not their shared preference for the countryside but their ambivalent representations of fashionable people and places, often associated with the urban. Continue reading Thomas Gainsborough, Jane Austen and Fashionable Society

Teaching Close Reading: Nietzsche, Metaphor and Romantic Poetry

This fall, I’ve been assigned to instruct a class called ‘Introduction to Writing about Literature.’ While the course is designed to transmit a specialized skill-set (textual analysis), it’s not organized around a historical period, event, or philosophical discourse. As an instructor, I’m required to jump around—across periods, genres and continents—in an effort to give students the most comprehensive possible familiarity with literature in English. The only thing that holds the course together is a persistent focus on form and figuration. This is both liberating—it’s great to get close to some of my favorite texts in the classroom–and a little terrifying—unmoored from thematic, historical and philosophical contexts, I’ve found myself wondering if I know anything about how literary language works. In this post, I’ll outline some of the theoretical and pedagogical dilemmas I’ve bumped up against teaching close reading and then explain how I’ve decided to talk about metaphor and figuration in my requirement-level lit course. Though the post turns on my own experiences, I’m hoping that the problems and solutions that I address here may be relevant to readers working out their own ideas about how to teach and test close reading skills.

Continue reading Teaching Close Reading: Nietzsche, Metaphor and Romantic Poetry

John Clare, Biopoetics, and the Romantic Lyric

When I read the blurb for Sara Guyer’s book Reading with John Clare: Biopoetics, Sovereignty, Romanticism in the NASSR bulletin this past July, I felt both fascinated and puzzled. What could Romantic lyric poetry possibly have to do with biopower and its institutional controls? What constitutes a “biopoetics”? A few months have passed and I’ve finally found the time to ask these questions of the book itself, which I’ve found to be a challenging, but ultimately rewarding, read. In this post, I’ll share some insights I’ve gleaned from Reading with John Clare–insights about Clare’s poetry but also about Romantic aesthetics and its legacies more generally.

reading with John Clare

    Continue reading John Clare, Biopoetics, and the Romantic Lyric