If your inbox looks anything like mine this first week of January, it’s flooded with advertisements for gym memberships, discounted vitamins, and fancy planners that “guarantee” you reach your goals. I started wondering when the idea of a New Year resolution became such a widespread cultural phenomenon. The Romantic period seemed like a likely point of origin, given the increasing emphasis on individual experience.
“New Year’s Eve,” one of Charles Lamb’s Elia essays published in the London Magazine in January 1821, does not prove my hypothesis. But it does express an interesting attitude toward the New Year.
When Carrie Fisher unexpectedly passed away in December of 2016, I was inconsolable. It was the day after Boxing Day and I was sat around the kitchen table with my extended family when I started scrolling through Twitter and began seeing tweets announcing her death. My eyes immediately began burning with tears and, as another member of my family saw the news on their phone and the group began talking about it, I excused myself to the bathroom. As soon as I shut the door I began to sob uncontrollably and remained in that state just long enough for my family to not suspect anything, wiped my tears, and rejoined them. I joined the conversation my family was having about her death and participated like any “normal” person would – acknowledging the sadness of the death of a celebrity you did not know and then moving on. What I could not tell my family in that moment was that I did know Carrie Fisher; I knew her intimately and she knew me, even though we had never met. We had spoken many times throughout my twenty-seven years of life, although not necessarily in the traditional sense. Our conversations happened through books, films, interviews, through our experiences and through our persisting bodies, all of which are intertwined with our illnesses.
When an undergraduate professor assigned Roland Barthes and told me, “The Author Is Dead,”1 I heard with elation the clarion cry of burgeoning self-importance. I was no longer a measly high school student who naively derived literature’s meaning from the author’s personal psychology. No, no, I was a college student now and could refer to The Text as Ding an sich. In fact, by interpreting it, I was basically writing the darn thing! Reborn as a liberated reader, I ultimately heeded the call to become a literary critic myself.
In this post, three of our writers–me, Jacob Leveton, and Christopher Stampone–discuss why Romanticism matters, and why it matters now, in this cultural and political moment, more than ever.
A roundtable post is structured something like a panel discussion. Each writer contributes a brief post, then we discuss each other’s ideas below.
This post is meant to generate thought and discussion, so please add your own comments and let us know why you think Romanticism matters now, more than ever.
George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is a bestseller, again, almost 70 years after its first publication in 1949. This surge in popularity is widely attributed to fear and confusion surrounding the post-truth era in which we find ourselves, with events such as Brexit and the rise of authoritarianism in the US. If this is the case, it means that people are turning to literature to help them understand and cope with what’s happening in the world around them. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a product of the twentieth century, a work of postmodernism written shortly after WWII. But in its aesthetic and its thematic concerns it is a direct descendant of the Gothic literature of the 1790s. Its debt to Romantic Gothic fiction is clear from its atmosphere of paranoia, its panopticon-like culture of surveillance and above all, the pervasive sense of terror of some vaguely defined evil. Like the Jacobin novels written around the time of the French Revolution, Nineteen Eighty-Four uses the imaginative tools that the Gothic supplies for political ends, as the only tools that can adequately express the inexpressible dread that accompanies institutionalized evil.
Romanticism matters now for the same reasons it mattered then: it asks the questions that modernity demands of us. The most important one, then as in now, concern the nature of humanity itself: what does it mean to be human? Why does humanity matter? Does humanity matter? Pondering these questions leads to another, more quotidian one. As neoliberalism continues to threaten post-secondary studies of the humanities, it behoves us to ask a similar set of questions: What does it mean to study the humanities? Why do the humanities matter? Do the humanities matter? Nineteen Eighty-Four teaches–as do its progenitors–that humanity is the only thing that matters. In the face of oppression, persecution, and evil itself, humanity is the only effective weapon. Studies have shown that reading is an effective way to increase empathy, since it allows us to imaginatively step into the life of another. This is why, I think, Romanticism matters: the humanities matter because humanity matters, now more than ever.
Indeed, the gothic aesthetic first championed by Romantic authors such Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe speaks directly to our socio-political moment. I am especially struck by the salience of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables (1851). Hawthorne’s novel depicts a present haunted by a problematic past–for Hawthorne, it was the repressive beliefs and values of Puritanism that seemed to haunt contemporary New England. As Hawthorne envisions it, the past casts a shadow over the present with a seemingly menacing gloom, darkening the present and destroying the lives of affected by it. Only by literally and figuratively leaving that past behind–that is, by abandoning the House of the Seven Gables–do the new Adam and Eve, Holgrave and Phoebe, come to escape the oppressive shadow of the past.
We know some of the Gothic shadows of our collective past that still plague us today: Racism, sexism, and bigotry–to name a few. How we collectively “escape” from those shadows is entirely up to us. The recent marches and immigrant work protests are a start, but somehow I sense we must do more if we wish to achieve real change. Are there any Gothic novels you find particularly pertinent to teach in the classroom, Jake and Caroline?
One example that I’ve found has really spoken to students is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which uses the Gothic mode brilliantly to critique imperialism.
Gothic literature also works because it relies so heavily on parody. At a time when words like “alternative facts” have real cultural cache, Gothic literature seems to provide something of an antidote–or at the very least a willingness to show mock those things that are overdrawn and absurd.
Definitely. And the Gothic blurs the line where parody begins, calling into question the boundary between what is absurd and what is–true? I’m not actually sure what the opposite of absurd is!
Romanticism remains important as a field of intellectual inquiry because its writers and events inform and speak to our current socio-political moment: Romantic-period abolitionists such as William Cowper, Hannah More, John Greenleaf Whittier, and William Wells Brown fought racism and demanded racial equality in ways that, in some respects, inform modern civil rights movements, including Black Lives Matter; the Romantic period did not see a “Million Women March,” but it did see Mary Wollstonecraft help establish the feminist movement that inspired it with her still-popular polemical treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792); British political radical John Thelwall depicted regicide and the overthrow of a tyrannical government in The Fairy of the Lake (1801), and Madonna imagined blowing up The White House in her “Million Women March” speech. Simply put, Romanticism is a palimpsest of our own time, offering us glimpses into our past and possible visions of our future.
Indeed, Thelwall’s works seem especially salient today. Before adopting a more radical politics after being inspired by the French Revolution, Thelwall offered moderate stances on issues such as slavery and imperialism. In both of his unperformed plays, Incle and Yarico (1787) and The Incas (1792), for instance, Thelwall objects to slavery based on Christian principles. In Incle and Yarico, Williams, Thewall’s primary abolitionist voice, decries slavery using Christly language: “I think it’s somewhat cruel to sell these here folks for slaves. Suppose they be a little brown or so, what of that? They’re human beings. Split my mainmast if I don’t think it bloody cruel not to do as we wish to be done by.” The Incas similarly condemns slavery by aligning Christianity and Western culture with paganism and the aboriginal culture of South America. By Thelwall’s careful juxtaposition, the religion of the sun mirrors that of the Son and, as the play reiterates, both cultures learn that divinity—in whatever form one chooses to see it—is more “inclin’d / To pardon than revenge.” Only wicked figures on both sides of the religious divide prevent the two cultures from living in harmony. Each play uses direct quotations and teachings from the Bible to illustrate why Christians should not support slavery, imperialism, or even racism. Students should encounter works like these today because they paradoxically challenge their beliefs using the moral values that inform those beliefs. J.K. Rowling used the same tactic to impugn Mike Pence for recent support of Trump’s travel ban against countries with large Muslim populations. For as abolitionist as they are, however, Thelwall’s early plays do not reach the fever pitch of revolutionary sentiment.
Thelwall grew increasingly radical following the French Revolution, and so did his works. The Fairy of the Lake, to borrow language from today’s political landscape, looks back to the time of King Arthur to imagine contemporary Great Britain as a swamp of tyrannical leadership that needs draining. Rowenna, a power-hungry tyrant, seeks to eliminate her husband Vortigern and unite herself—and her power—with the famed Arthur. Upon Vortigern’s death, however, Arthur refuses “A Crown” from Rowenna, “devoted Britain’s curse,” and exclaims, “Love, Glory, Ambition! Are they things / Of such abhor’d conjunction as to blend / With thy pollutions? –I’d abjure them, then.” Arthur later sets fire to Rowenna’s castle with her inside, killing her. The work, as Michael Scrivener notes, might have been “too ‘Jacobin’ in its celebration of the overthrow of the old authority to appeal to a conservative public.” One need not be as radical as Thelwall to appreciate the value of a text such as The Fairy of the Lake: it offers a window into the socio-political environment of Great Britain at the turn of the nineteenth century, and demonstrates the power of art as protest. Thelwall’s works lend themselves to discussions about the capacity of art to motivate people to demand and enact change, and allow students to see some of the ways that political views inform artistic works.
Of course, for every Thelwall there is a Wordsworth—a once revolutionary figure who experienced a conservative turn. Putting Thelwall into conversation with Wordsworth might enable students to see the very conversations going on in the Western world today from a different perspective. For the greatest power of literature is that it tells us who we are, and writers and thinkers of the Romantic period allow us to see where we have been and, just perhaps, where we are headed.
The idea of Romantic art as a palimpsest is fascinating, I think. The more I learn about it, the more continuities I see between then and now. In fact, I remember reading Wollstonecraft for the first time and getting angry that, although the Rights of Woman cause has seen some great victories, there is so much yet to do, and in some fundamental ways, not much has changed at all. I had similar thoughts reading Frances Burney’s Evelina, too, since she spends much of the novel escaping from men who feel entitled to her body because she doesn’t legally belong to any man. But Christopher, I wonder, what do you see as the thing that has left its mark the most, as it were, across the centuries? The idea of art as protest, or something else?
Funny that you should say the link seems so short, Caroline, because some critics such as Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre argue that we are still living in the Romantic age. They suggest that Romanticism as an aesthetic approach exists to work against capitalism, though an artist’s particular approach art in a post-industrial world often differs. Their point, I think, bleeds into the question you pose, because I do not see Romanticism–if it still exists–operating in perfect continuity against capitalism. I think, to a great extent, we have been desensitized to the dehumanizing effects of capitalism that polarized so many during the Industrial Revolution. Even anti-capitalists own Iphones.
In my view, Romanticism matters now in a way not similar from the way it has mattered before. The field of romantic studies has always occupied a vital and interdisciplinary space through which new critical methodologies become developed and deployed, often in relation to contemporary social and political pressures and conditions that give such theoretical experimentation a clear and present urgency. What’s energized me about the community of scholars co-involved in the study of romantic culture, in all its forms, has been the particular attention given to the ways in which the “theres and thens” of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain and Europe opens up to the “heres and nows” of contemporary global politics, culture, and history. Romanticism, as a domain of historical investigation and theorization, remains the always and already open field where the start to many of the questions of modernity integral to the post-2000s moment—the emergence of industrial capitalism, societies of spectacle, surveillance, imperialism, climate change, and population control—can readily be asked and begun to be answered. For me, this ties together what I find to be the most exciting theory-driven work being done in the field now, its roots in the 1980s, and what seems to me to be an exhilarating field of potential for criticism, history, and engagement now. Perhaps most specifically, with respect to politics, romanticism is vital because scholars of romanticism are in the best possible position to criticize the negative and destructive romanticisms being called up in our contemporary moment.
Ultimately, to understand romanticism’s relevancy these last months, I keep coming back to Walter Benjamin and Jacques Khalip and Forest Pyle’s collaboratively composed essay “The Present Darkness of Romanticism.” In it, they take their point of departure from a mobilization of Walter Benjamin’s kairological notion of history. Benjamin’s notion, first catalyzed provisionally in the Arcades Project, and more fully articulated in Benjamin’s 1940 Theses on the Concept of History, proposed a social-critical view of history, less closed, linear, and determined than open to excavation, difference, and transformation. In Benjamin’s view, past events retain residual “unlived” valances to be activated towards continued ends of redemption, Benjamin’s jeztzeit, or “now-time,” the “dialectical image” as that which emerges suddenly, in a “flash.” 1 It’s in this “flash” of preceding history that Khalip and Pyle point to as an index of potential “in which ‘hope’ and the ‘past’ are condensed and the usual temporalities linked to change are displaced.” 2 The critical act, in this respect, becomes one in which past potentiality can be located, and in a persistent present can be actualized.
Within this nexus I’m just as interested the critical excavation of the negative right-wing ideological flashes imbued with traces of romanticism we’ve seen with the start to the Trump era, as the positive and critical valances we’ve seen in the rise of interest in aspects of the Gothic in Orwell’s now-again bestseller 1984, as Caroline convincingly argues above. Much has been made of the lines of the Inaugural Address in the way of clear discursive parallels to 1930s fascist discourse, There was the scaremongering and insistent rhetorical tactic of saying “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” There was also the ethno-nationalist protectionism of the statement, “We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first. America first.” 3The corresponding chill felt the world over—but especially by the Atlantic community—saw a vision whereby an internationist system will be made to predominately serve US interests, or it will be abandoned. 4
But what hit me the hardest was the reference to the “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.” The nostalgia involved is a fascist one, predicated upon an attitude of revulsion toward the contemporary world and corresponding drive to establish an organic community whereby the landscape is put to full use in service of restoring the power and perceived sense of status afforded to the nation-state. Yet in deploying the gesture, the discourse does not just call out to Trump’s relatively modest political base in the Rust Belt (the votes of whom almost surely would have gone to Sanders in the general election, had he secured the Democratic nomination). Rather, the speech mobilizes a tradition in American culture that naturalizes Midwest industry, along with its consequent coercions, cruelties and precariously twinned social-environmental effects. One need only think of artists’ works like that of Charles Demuth, and in particular Demuth’s 1927 painting My Egypt to witness the visual form given to this ideology that was brought into the 2017 present.
The image is of grain elevators in Demuth’s native Lancaster, PA. The industrial-scale farm silo is here transfigured. Rust-belt Pennsylvania becomes Ancient-era Egypt. The modern industrial American landscape is reimagined in its monumentality as an always already existing prehistoric place. The Trumpian act of calling to mind such an American discourse belies and ideological an act of concealment. The idle apparatus of industry isn’t just an image of stalled national prosperity. Rather, it’s a complex image of competing economics interests, struggles, resources, and pollutions asymmetrically spewed along unequal racial and social lines. Given the long view, we must consider the legacies of factory organization of the American Midwest—repression of labor, unsafe working conditions, environmental pollution that has always has a particularly adverse affect on Black public health, and roughshod despoilment of watersheds in the Great Lakes network. An industrialized Midwest landscape running at full productive capacity is, for many people, an unmitigated disaster. With all the talk of coal mining and energy production being at the center of American energy independence and prosperity, it is important we remind ourselves of the racialized structural asymmetries involved when 68% of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal power plant, 71% of African Americans live in counties in violation of air pollution standards, leading to increased risk of death in African American communities relating to complications resulting from asthma and lung disease. That the industrial organization of American society has led to indefensible public health consequences for communities of color in particular must be addressed, but is placed under erasure within Trump’s rhetoric. 5 As a result, it may be just as well that factories remain shuttered and those formerly employed in the American manufacturing sector be offered justly earned benefits to retraining, meaningful work, and the full satisfaction of human need. Though, we’d need to be certain and committed to ensure through internationalist engagement that similar structural problems, asymmetries, and violences do not follow the migration of mass-scale production to the spaces in the Global South. 6 The study of romanticism therefore calls us to attention to understand how the there and then of the discourses we study become put to perfidious uses, to critique them, and offer an informed perspective with which to counter them.
At stake, in short, is how to contribute to the opposition.
I am particularly struck by your comment concerning “negative and destructive romanticisms”–a statement I find apropos given our fraught cultural moment. I have encountered some of these “negative romanticisms” first hand. Two years ago I taught a composition course on humankind’s relationship to the environment. We read poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and even some soft science that details our interactions with our environment, as well as our interactions with each other in that environment. Students were allowed to pursue a topic of their choice for the final research paper so long as it pertained to an environmental issue in some way. One student decided to write on fracking. The student started his own land leasing company for fracking in high school after taking an financial investments class and was, in his own words, quite successful. In his essay he argued that fracking was beneficial–a position I found unsurprising–but he did so using William Wordsworth’s poetry! Using Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” as his example, He argued that because nature cares so much for humankind, people have the right to use Nature for their benefit. I suppose we could call such claims “alternative facts,” but whatever we call them we have to recognize the “destructive romanticisms” that they engender.
It seems important, though, to acknowledge that Romanticism isn’t inherently anti-capitalist or democratic, though, and that what we on this panel understand as “destructive romanticism” is informed by our own points of view. That said, what resonates strongly with me in your post, Jacob, and in your example of the essay on fracking, Christopher, is that Romanticism forces us to face the moral problems of capitalism: what do we value most? Is there anything we value more than wealth? This question has its roots, of course, in Romanticism. Capitalism, I would argue, and its ideology, is one of Romanticism’s most important but least acknowledged legacies.
Caroline, are you saying Romanticism birthed capitalism rather than the other way around? If so, what texts do you find particularly instructive on this point?
Well, I wouldn’t say that Romanticism “birthed” capitalism. What I mean is that the way we think about ourselves as economic subjects and the economic structures that we live within are strongly informed by the way the romantics tackled the same issues. Charles Taylor makes a convincing case for this in Modern Social Imaginaries, in which he traces our modern conception of society as an economy to Adam Smith (an Enlightenment writer, of course, but one whose work strongly influenced the romantics). That said, in the context of literary studies, we see the rise of the professional author and a modern publishing industry around the turn of the nineteenth century, along with industries around tourism and spectacle, so perhaps in some ways Romanticism did engender capitalism. What I’m getting at, though, is that many of the issues we’re struggling with in our own historical moment relating to economics and ethics were top of mind for the Romantics, too.
Jacques Khalip and Forest Pyle, “Introduction: The Present Darkness of Romanticism” in Constellations of a Contemporary Romanticism, eds. Jacques Khalip and Forest Pyle, Lit Z, series eds. Sara Guyer and Brian McGrath (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016), 2; 9. ↩
Coleridge’s famous definition of the imagination in his Biographia Literaria rejects John Locke’s understanding of the mind as a tabula rasa, a blank slate upon which experience impresses, though we find the empiricist view extending back to classical thought (see Plato’s Theaetetus and Aristotle’s De Anima). Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) supposes that the mind is a “white paper void of all characters, without any ideas,” a passive slate void of agency or a priori knowledge until acted upon by the external world. Coleridge, who was an increasingly Christian Neoplatonist, abhorred Locke’s static conception of the mind and attributed the decline in English philosophy and theology to the popularity of empiricist modes of thinking.
It’s been a half century since the publication of Monopoly Capital: An Essay on the American Economic and Social Order. 1 The book was written by the American Marxist economists Paul Baran and Paul Swezy. Monopoly Capital advances a trenchant critique of advanced industrial capitalism. Still salient, the book remains important for romanticists invested both in the Marxist tradition in critical theory, and the project of tracing the eighteenth-century British origins of contemporary constellations of global capitalist political economy. In this post, I return to Monopoly Capital, trace the text’s key contours, and argue for both its importance for understanding aspects of the contemporary ecological predicament, and the need to update Baran and Swezy’s ideas according to the concept of “disaster capitalism.” 2
William Wordsworth opens “Elegiac Stanzas” (1807) by looking at George Beaumont’s Peele Castle in a Storm (1805) and admitting that he naïvely idealized nature and life prior to his brother John’s death—that “deep distress [which] hath humaniz’d [his] Soul” (36). Wordsworth states that he deceived himself about the reality of “thou rugged Pile” (1) so much that, if his “had been the Painter’s hand” as a younger man, he would have “add[ed] the gleam, / The light that never was” (14-15), and placed the castle “beside a sea that could not cease to smile” (19). Beaumont’s painting thus becomes an occasion for Wordsworth to reflect on his younger self and on his approach to art; through metaphor and ekphrasis, Wordsworth casts his former pastoral visions of a Golden Age as delusions and projects himself as a weather-beaten castle riding out the storm of his brother’s death.
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.
I was lucky enough, during one of the few trips I made into London from the West Country via rail, to catch a musical performance of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner by the Trad Academy Sea Shanty Choir at historic Wilton’s Music Hall. The show was at 7:30 pm on 15 July, a Saturday; and because the last train back to Templecombe would leave Waterloo Station at precisely 9:20, I had to find lodgings in London for that night or risk getting “locked out” and, possibly, forced to pay through the nose for a few restless hours in a room that didn’t fit into my budget (this had happened once before, but is a story for a different day). I booked a room for that night in a nearby Chamberlain’s (the pub chain) hotel about a ten minute walk from the music hall. I showed up there several hours early, ate fish and chips, requested “iced tea” as my complimentary beverage (to the utter dismay of the bartender), climbed the five flights of stairs to my room (for the lift was broken), and took a nap. After the 140-minute train ride in, and another two hour walk from the station (I refused to pay for a cab), I knew that I needed to sleep or I would be unable to savor the coming performance.
I recently took a class in post-colonialism which was subtitled “Place and Space in Contemporary Anglo-American Literatures.” The professor wanted us to think like real estate agents: that is, to always be repeating the mantra “location, location, location” as we read various contemporary texts. One of the novels we read for class was V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival, the autobiographical story of a Trinidadian writer who retires to the English countryside in Wiltshire, living in a guest cottage on the edge of a manor that has fallen into disrepair.