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.” 3 The 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.
- Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/benjamin/1940/history.htm (accessed March 30, 2017) and The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 467-8. ↩
- 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. ↩
- “Donald Trump’s Inaugural Speech, Annotated,” New York Times, January 20, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/01/20/us/politics/donald-trump-inauguration-speech-transcript.html (accessed March 30, 2017). ↩
- Serge Halimi, “Trump says ‘America First,’” trans. Charles Goulden, Le Monde Diplomatique, no. 1702, February 2017. ↩
- Amy Goodman’s interview with Jacqueline Patterson, director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program, Democracy Now!, March 29, 2017, https://www.democracynow.org/2017/3/29/trump_dismantles_us_climate_rules_virtually (accessed March 30, 2017). ↩
- John Bellamy Foster, “Trump and Climate Catastrophe,” Monthly Review, vol. 68, no. 9, February 2017, 4. ↩