Hero Worship, Discipleship, and the Romantic Imagination: On Spivak’s Aesthetic Education

“And so I go, asking the students to enter the 200-year-old idiomaticity of their national language in order to learn the change of mind that is involved in really making the canon change. I follow the conviction that I have always had, that we must displace our masters, rather than pretend to ignore them.” So writes Gayatri Spivak at the conclusion of a chapter entitled “The Double Bind Starts to Kick In” in her recent tome An Aesthetic Education in the Age of Globalization. Is Spivak too, I ask, such a master that we must displace if we are to abide by her own conviction? This is a question I want to pursue as I consider her treatment of British romanticism in this mammoth work. As we see from her discussion of Arnold, which precedes this quotation, Spivak teaches the canon to expose its flaws, but also, more importantly, to suggest how we all simultaneously emerge out of, and participate in, that very Arnoldian tradition:

We are where Arnold is: we want to be the custodians of culture; we want to expand the canon. We know unless this multicultural material, this feminist material, is introduced into the canon, culture will not be perfect. Thus our usual radical project is not all that different. Therefore we should learn from this. We must at least try not to get involved, like Arnold, in the repeated construction of the colonial subjection, the construction of, or the expanding, and changing the composition of the upper classes in Britain. Rather than do that, learn from the difference between the figuring of the impossible imagination in Shelley, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, and then institutional experiment, the production of the colonial subject, in this case, the postcolonial subject, the benevolent and trivial humanist subject in the super-power. For us the multicultural feminist countercanon is Arnold’s “sweetness and light.” Tell me next time how it is that you can lay your past to rest so that your project, your institutional project can look a little different.

This is the “double-bind” at the heart of this book, something familiar to all readers of Spivak and Derrida: how might we recognize and break with old habits or destroy the norms that constitute our self as that breaking also confirms their authority? In the example above, to what extent is our “countercanon” simply a variation of Arnold’s culture, albeit in a more egalitarian, progressive, or up to our contemporary, dare I say politically correct, standards? Reading Arnold, for Spivak, makes us aware of this irony. But does reading him or the “impossible imagination in Shelley, Wordsworth, and Coleridge” enable anything else?

Spivak’s book is important. Throughout it she encounters this “double-bind” in various forums as she attempts to engage an other from a position that is complicit in that othering. In the chapter mentioned above, divided into two sections, we see Spivak’s “ethical dilemma” of “elite, upwardly mobile, generally academic women of the new diasporas join hands with similar women in the so-called developing world to celebrate a new global public or private “culture” often in the name of the underclass or the rural poor as ‘other.’” I am reminded of Marlon Brando’s Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, recounting his failed idealism as a particular people (Vietnamese?) hacked off the arms of the children that Brando and company inoculated for polio. This dilemma is a problem, a serious one that we must all recognize as we teach literature. But it should not mean, as I will argue, that we sacrifice the subject to our nobler goals.

Although I am not accusing her of this, to a certain extent Spivak makes this sacrifice in her book’s treatment of British Romanticism. Her ostensible goal is as follows: “I would like to propose that the training of the imagination that can teach the subject to play – an aesthetic education – can also teach it to discover (theoretically or practically) the premises of the habit that obliges us to transcendentalize religion and nation.” Such training forces us to “learn to do violence to the epistemo-epistemological difference” that simultaneously breaks the grip of Enlightenment modernity as we recognize the shaping force that that phenomenon still plays in our lives. “The aesthetic,” she writes, “might enlighten to crisis. One can hope that an education through the aesthetic can protect the rational choice of the political by understanding it as produced by the philosophers’ methodological need for maxims rather than the unquestioned conviction of the supremacy of reason. Hope. Wish. No guarantees.” I can sign on to this. I can sign on, moreover, to her other claim that “we want to rewrite it [the unbreakable grasp of the enlightenment] to suit us, from the toughest definition of politics to the most mysterious confines of literary theory.” If the “violence” and revision of our idiosyncratic relationship to the enlightenment ideal of freedom, justice, reason, and liberty, is at the heart of Spivak’s aesthetic education, one would think that beyond Schiller and the tradition of German Romantic Idealism, the literary output of the Romantic-Modern Tradition more generally would also encompass her “obsession.” Not to mention, I might add, the later thinkers of that tradition – Nietzsche for example who attempts to lay waste to the Enlightenment’s more corrosive elements.

Since the Schillerian allusion dominates her title, it is only appropriate that he, and Kant, also dominate the theoretical focus of the introduction. Nonetheless:

I said to begin with that in the earlier stages [of the task set out for the aesthetic] we could find in British Romanticism our models. But as long as we take the literary as substantive source of good thinking alone, we will fail in the task of aesthetic education we are proposing: at all cost to enter another’s text. Otherwise, we will notice that William Wordsworth’s project is deeply class-marked, and that he does not judge habit. He is clear about being superior to others in being a poet, unusually gifted with a too-strong imagination, capable of organizing other people’s habits. I will quote at length to show his lack of interest in working with the subaltern, although he certainly acknowledges the power of their “real” language.

Spivak proceeds to quote four paragraphs from the preface to Lyrical Ballads. The famous ones, of course, where Wordsworth claims that the poet is “a man speaking to men.” These quotations, which take up slightly more than a full page of small text, precede the following paragraph concluding her discussion of the “British” romantic imagination in this introduction:

Thus they may be a ‘man speaking to men.’ For him, however, Marx’s third thesis on Feuerbach would have held no appeal: that since the knowledge gap between teacher and taught cannot be circumvented, not to let this develop into a power gap is a constant task that will keep society always in the state of upheaval that is necessary for liberation … The deeply individualistic theory of the Romantic creative imagination in Wordsworth must remain anti-systemic. By contrast, Gramsci…

I underlined these two block quotes in red pen, upon my first reading, then in black, the second time. Exclamation points fill the margins as I try to transcribe my versions of every other theorist of the “Romantic creative imagination” – from Coleridge through Stevens and beyond. Are we to take Wordsworth as the ur-Romantic, representative of that vast and variegated literary genre that would also include Whitman and Crane in one context and Yeats in another? What about Blake! I’ve been reading the Yeats lately and consider “Leda and the Swan” to be, among other things, a critique of the Wordsworthian ego. If we take Zeus to be the daemon personified, the energy that enables the conditions for poetic fecundity, is it truly desirable? Assuming we associate Yeats with Leda, in my reductively schematic reading, can this account for the ambiguous agency throughout the poem? Does this explain that unanswerable question that famously concludes the poem? When placed in the context of the too often quoted fifth section of Per Amica Silentia Lunae, we know that, in part, “Leda” represents poetic doubt. Do we really want to “endur[e] all imaginable pangs” to create the “greatest imaginable beauty” which, moreover, might turn out to be a “false beauty?”

Caricaturing the romantic imagination as “the deeply individualistic theory of the Romantic creative imagination in Wordsworth” gets us to Keats, no further. Using it, however, to dismiss “the literary as substantive source of good thinking” is… well Forest Pyle provides the words that I lack in his recent article included in a PMLA forum on Spivak’s book. His more rigorous summary culminates with remarks on her use of Wordsworth: “Spivak stops and lingers at these old Wordsworth passages, quoting them at length – they are the longest stretch of quotation in the volume – without subjecting them to a reading. I understand this to be another version of her school teacher’s take: presenting this Wordsworth as a resource, as a reading assignment of sorts for those who would learn from her.” Pyle’s essay, more of a “compressed itinerary,” makes few if any value judgments on Spivak’s project. I sense, at once, the admiration of a former student in his writing, but also the tacit criticism in the italicized words just quoted. Here is his conclusion:

If Spivak’s itinerancy has taken her thinking to a subalternity that beckons outside the covers of this book, it also takes her back to the Romanticism that constituted her setting out. In this aesthetic education of a diversified provenance, Romanticism belongs not only to a past it shares with European colonialism but also to a present – our own era of globalization – for which it returns as a depository of a hope. This hope, in its intractable embrace with doubt, is one of the gifts that Spivak’s double-bind bestows on our own itinerant route to some future anterior.

To be fair, Spivak does, in fact, teach Wordsworth, Shelley, and Coleridge in her literary theory class, before moving to Arnold and Pater – “I love Pater,” she writes, to which I would add “who doesn’t!” – and an array of contemporary thinkers from Derrida and Hortense Spillers to Woolf, Du Bois, and Jacqueline Rose. A course no sane students would skip. But where does he detect the hope? Despite my admiration for her work in sum, I felt that An Aesthetic Education in the Age of Globalization not only dismissed the Romantic-Modern Tradition, but did so somewhat offhandedly, without any satisfying explanation. Why must Wordsworth become our whipping boy? Even if we add Shelley and Coleridge, can we really homogenize Blake and latter 19th century revisionists, not just Yeats but the transformation of Schiller’s trajectory in Kierkegaard or the irony of a Wilde or Lawrence?

To lay my cards on the table, I believe in that tradition, though of course must acknowledge its complicity in European colonialism among other atrocities. After recently attending a talk on William Vollmann’s Kissing the Mask a student in the audience questioned the book’s idealization (and objectification) of feminine beauty. The speaker responded: “What’s wrong with idealization?” Joining in I said, “well to a certain extent idealization of something like Bildung led to Auschwitz.” “Sure,” was the response, “but idealization also brought about Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and the great society.”

This leaves me fixated on Spivak’s refrain: “I follow the conviction that I have always had, that we must displace our masters, rather than pretend to ignore them.” From where does this conviction emerge? One can begin to speculate – the ghost of Paul de Man and the recent biographical revelations? – but that would simply be gossip. In particular scenarios, in particular times, in particular instances, we must displace our masters, yes. But if this is our modus operandi then the intellectual activity surrounding literature becomes nothing but generational conflict as we slay each other for professional prestige.

As I read my own writing and think about my own intellectual makeup I realize that I am a composite of my advisors and past teachers. This has troubled me and made me believe that I need to set myself apart, carve out my niche via difference. When I queried a fellow student at a different university, whose father happens to be a well-established scholar, about this dilemma of discipleship he responded, with the same optimism of the Vollmann speaker, “what is wrong with being a disciple?” This is something in which I can believe. Monumentalization can lead us to error, but we need our heroes, our sources of inspiration, our beliefs, as we take care not to allow these ideals to become idolatrous. David Bromwich, someone whose criticism I’ve come to greatly admire, puts it best in his recent work The Moral Imagination:

“History,” observers Whitman in Democratic Vistas, “is long, long, long. Shift and turn the combinations as we may, the problem of the future of America is in certain respects as dark as it is vast.” This feels equally true if we read it today as a sentence about ourselves. And not to be tricked by any afterglow, we must not let the optimism of Lincoln and Whitman make us forget the despair that shadowed all their utterances, a despair that was the ground note of the time in which they lived. But as heroes go, persons distinctive in an age and yet beyond it, their peculiar quality is to give encouragement. There is a prejudice, still common among educated people, against the very idea of personal heroes, but it seems to me fundamentally mistaken. The unmasking of great men and women, true as a tactic, is false as a discipline. By proving you [are] contingently superior to the most admirable examples from the past, it deprives you of a weapon of criticism and a wellspring of hope. It fosters not love of perfection but moral snobbery and self-satisfaction, and only adds to the growing excess and arrogance of realism [idiosyncratically defined via Whitman]. Can we express the morality of a true democracy better than Whitman and Lincoln did?

This is not to suggest that Spivak characterizes the animus of Bromwich’s critique. In fact, she does not use Arnold as fodder for unmasking, but uses him to instruct us on our own complicity in his culture of perfection. She uses Arnold, in other words, to prove that we are not superior to him. But when it comes to Shelley, for example, is he unusable but inescapable like Wordsworth? I wonder whether her use of the preface to Lyrical Ballads, the Biographia Literaria, or Shelley’s Defense follows or proceeds readings of their poems. Is the weakness or limitation in their theory of the romantic imagination or in their practice of it? Does she include its latter day manifestations such as Yeats or at least, in her teaching of Pater, point to the countless variations that might prove more profitable? Spivak seems to go to great lengths to show the worth of Shelley, but then, “when turned off by [his] ecstatic tone, a student is asked to describe something s/he really enjoyed recently. I mimic the student’s ecstatic tone as exactly as I can (no diss-ing) and then read the offending Shelley passage. And so on. A trick to train them into a mental habit of othering rather than merely provide them with tools to describe.” What is wrong with an ecstatic tone? We are never told. And if a student possesses one, in admiration of Shelley, and it leads to offense, can we avoid Spivak’s “and so on” choosing instead to turn to Shelley’s Prometheus?

If anything in this response offends, it was not intended.  It is my own ecstatic tone that emerges when encountering a sublime work that gives me so much pleasure (for belief in its aims) but so much pain (for problematizing writers I love). Prometheus teaches us not to seek vengeance against Jupiter, whether he is de Man, Spivak, or the academic clergy of the present. To that end, I respond to any future phantasm:  “Were these my words, O Parent?”

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