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.
In October, I found myself facing a new problem in the interpretation of music, with broader implications for the engagement and understanding of the arts generally. It has taken this long to begin to work it out. Then, I saw the contemporary indie electronica group ODESZA. The show was amazing. Yet, it yielded a profound sense of vertigo, the kind we all sense, and become been sensitized to, in romantic poetry. How do we contend with art when the aesthetic object–traditionally understood–radically recedes from view?
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
After an arduous year one of grad school I have come out alive. In anxious preparation for year two a few good friends and myself set quite the task this summer to read Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit that haunted us all year. Given the complexity and reputation of the great man himself I find our “Adventures in Hegel” will entertain readers on how we successfully managed reading his “Preface” to the book. What follows is the affective and intellectual journey myself and friends Katy and Liz have embarked upon.
In lieu of actually trying to explain Hegelian thought or even relay my precise thoughts on the preface I provide some useful tactics we employed to “mastering”, well, getting through difficult texts such as Hegel. Now at the end of year one of graduate studies I can attest the most common nerve-racking question from new grad students to be “How do I read X?” Whether long novels, poetry, images, and of course theory/philosophy everyone has that one form they consider impenetrable to decipher. My fellow book club interlocutors agreed our reading of Hegel to be extremely enlightening and cleared up many conceptual gaps. It does help we’re all good friends but we actually had a great afternoon discussing Hegel? It was fun, and not soul-crushingly dark and intimidating? But how?! Our satisfaction shows such texts are indeed very approachable with just the right attitude.
At the climax of the thunderstorm in the alps in Childe Harold III, Byron/Harold flashes some virtuosic self-aggrandizement:
Could I embody and unbosom now
That which is most within me,—could I wreak
My thoughts upon expression, and thus throw
Soul, heart, mind, passions, feelings, strong or weak,
All that I would have sought, and all I seek,
Bear, know, feel, and yet breathe—into one word,
And that one word were Lightning, I would speak;
But as it is, I live and die unheard,
With a most voiceless thought, sheathing it as a sword. (st. 97)
Byronism was always poised on the brink of self-parody, even if it waited until Don Juan to tumble gleefully over the edge. Here the verse inflates a Wordsworthian sense of psychic geography to alpine magnitude. Yet at its climax, the stanza dismisses the expressive power of its own vehicle—language. Wordsworth, predictably, was not amused by Childe Harold. He held the younger poet’s newfound reverence for nature an affectation, “assumed rather than natural,” and accused Byron of “poaching on my Manor” (3:394). The remark performs a fascinating inversion since, as Tilar Mazzeo notes, “the professional Wordsworth casts himself as the lord of the literary estate and charges the aristocratic Byron with crass appropriations that are figuratively beyond the pale” (144). Beyond the pale is right: poaching had been codified a hanging offense since the Black Act of 1723, which became both model and synecdoche for a “golden and sanguine” legal code that deemed nearly every offense against property a capital crime.
Byron tried to exculpate himself by claiming that Percy Shelley had “dosed him with Wordsworth physic even to nausea” (Medwin 237). In this spirit, let us consider Canto III’s thunderstorm episode a Wordsworth-induced fever that ends in purgation. Byron/Harold begins this “classic piece of rodomontade” (Hodgson 379) by wishing he could “embody” and “unbosom” what lies within him. Even in the prefixes, these verbs do the work of synthesizing and then negating—the former a making and reifying, the latter an unloading, a jettisoning. These nearly contradictory transformations operate on “That which is most within me,” which is then detailed in a parenthetical inventory that ends up spilling out over five lines. This messy catalogue of the interior—thoughts, feelings, desires plus their objects—might seem random and spontaneous, but it lands squarely and deftly within the meter, such that it can be gathered “into one word.”
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”
The boys of the newly formed Dead Poets’ Society are holding one of their weekly meetings (except Knox Overstreet, who’s at a party trying to talk to the girl of his dreams) when there’s a sound—the likes of which strikes terror into the hearts of teenage boys: a girl’s laughter. Charlie leads them in, offers them cigarettes, while the rest of the group stares on in silence, not sure what to say, what to think, or even whether or not they’re allowed to speak. The boys eventually try to talk, though it’s Charlie who eventually succeeds in properly “wooing” the girls by of course reciting poetry: first a poem by Elizabeth Barret Browning, and then a second one by George Gordon, Lord Byron. Continue reading In Defense of Mr. Byron
My dissertation began as an attempt to distill a current of Romantic writing that has no use for the elegiac or the morbid—a Romanticism indifferent to death. I wanted to dilate moments that seemed to stray from the program of what Frances Ferguson called Wordsworth’s epitaphic mode—a mode of remembrance that Paul de Man recast as the figural anticipation of death. My suspicion was that the coherence of Romanticism as the object of literary history relied, at least in part, on the fetishization of death. (I place this argument in a broader historical context here).
There is of course plenty of morbidity in Romantic-period writing (and eighteenth-century writing, and Restoration writing, to say nothing of Victorian writing…), but I hoped to show that death was by no means as essential or decisive for the period as literary history sometimes suggests. At core, I was imagining a Romanticism without Wordsworth—at least without the Wordsworth who was christened by Matthew Arnold the “English Orpheus.” Though the reception of Wordsworth’s engagement with death would shift from the Excursive Wordsworth of the Victorians to the Preludial Wordsworth of the twentieth century, the centrality of elegy and epitaph persisted. (Remarks on Wordsworth and elegy, and also James Bond, here.) So I was going to try to read Wordsworth out of Romantic-period writing. In the space I would clear by evicting Wordsworth, I wanted to sketch an alternative history in miniature that, I hoped, would be truer to the multifariousness of the period in its thinking—and not thinking—about death.
Midway through my dissertation’s journey, it occurs to me that it is a strange thing to build a project around an anti-topic. Such a project may find itself with no topic at all, or, even more ominously, it may find itself defined by the very topos it set out to undo. The result is so predictable that I am certain I must have desired it from the outset: Wordsworth and his epitaphic mode, in its most canonical instances, have steadily colonized my dissertation.
Brief Cuts: material that’s been cut from a dissertation chapter!
During the 18th century, the epitaph was a malleable genre that performed several functions: it appeared on actual gravestones, but was also used in satirical verses by writers such as Alexander Pope. The epitaph was so popular, and so free-form, that writers began to compose guidebooks on how to compose the perfect epitaph (these guides resemble the epistolary guidebooks that inspired Samuel Richardson’s Pamela). One such guide is Samuel Johnson’s essay on “Pope’s Epitaphs,” reprinted in his Life of Pope. A more compendious volume, capturing the free-form nature of the epitaph, is John Bowden’s guidebook on the form, The Epitaph-Writer (1791). In this text, Bowden uses didactic epitaphs as models: Continue reading Brief Cuts: Epitaph Guidebooks
Brief Cuts: material that’s been cut from a dissertation chapter!
We can see how the interplay between post-Revolutionary politics, madness, and gender coalesced in day-to-day life by examining the semiotics of Romantic-era women’s hair.
English hairstyles after the Revolution had multiple meanings: loose, unpowdered hair meant democratic reform, while wigs carried conservative, aristocratic associations, and quickly went out of vogue. A short haircut, “in sympathetic imitation of victims’ hair before they were guillotined,” signified an informed protest against the Revolution. Continue reading Brief Cuts: Romantic Hairstyles