Pedagogy of the Depressed: Romanticism and the Long Revolution

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This essay discusses how a course about 'literature and revolution' invites students to make use of depression as an affective explanation for the history of optimism, disappointment, reluctant transformation, and fear of the future. Students assess their relationship to the ongoing past in which modernity, mobility, self-making, and optimism were first offered as political goals for entire societies, and consider how a 'long revolution' shapes their relationship to the disappointing present, in the literature classroom as a locus, instrument, and effect of radical social transformation.

Pedagogy of the Depressed: Romanticism and the Long Revolution

Olivera Jokić‡
John Jay College, City University of New York

“Our young people are very fortunate, they will see great things.” — Voltaire to François Claude Chauvelin, 2 April 1764, Letter 10968 (231)

“. . . optimism might not feel optimistic. Because optimism is ambitious, at any moment it might feel like anything, including nothing . . .” — Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (2)

1.        This essay discusses how a course on nineteenth-century literature can become a course on persistent preoccupations with available forms of political thought and action. This outcome I would like to count as a kind of success, and this success, in a course I have taught, has been inextricable from a certain set of “pathologies” that developed in the process of reading the course material with the students. In a course about “revolution,” I teach students how to use a history of imagination and writing about the conditions and possibility of significant social change to curb their own political optimism. To become so depressed in this course is good for them, I insist, because this is how nineteenth-century reading material becomes relevant to the present.

2.        The kind of depression I refer to is that which Eve Sedgwick identified as integral for pedagogical and generational transmission, and different from the “common sense” understanding of depression. It is not a dis-ease imposed from the outside on a sufferer aspiring to escape this state so as to differentiate it from the ostensibly normal condition of thought and spirit. [1]  Sedgwick offers “the depressive personality in the educator” and “the depressive position,” elaborations by Silvan Tomkins and Melanie Klein respectively, as accounts of depression more illuminating of the teaching situation because they suggest how the pedagogical relationship is one of precarious growth and pervasive ambivalence about the distribution of the power to know. For Tomkins, Sedgwick points out, “the depressive personality in the educator” accounts for a person in whom “the depressive personality or script” is “a durable feature” of their way of being, “a constitutive feature of their best aptitudes as well as disabilities,” regardless of their experience of depression. In a description that could alarm many an impassioned educator with its peculiar familiarity, Tomkins’s “depressive, like his parent before him, is not altogether a comfortable person to be around.” Still, the discomforts he (or she) creates are instrumental in the forming of the depressive pair. An other is (or multiple others are) “seduced” into a pair by the depressive’s genuine care and interest, only to be found lacking and compelled to “seek restitution, to atone, and to please the other” (Tomkins 225). This is how depressives make other depressives, both students and teachers.

3.        While Tomkins’s is an account of a “particular kind of individual who emerges from the contingency of a particular history,” Klein’s “depressive position” is a universally available developmental phase, a “uniquely spacious rubric,” which “encompasses not only preconditions of severe depression, but also resources for surviving, repairing, and moving far beyond that depression.” It is a labile position of dependence on objects whose solidity one has had to establish for oneself, which could become one’s undoing. Yet the depressive position is an “anxiety-mitigating achievement” (an improvement over the paranoid/schizoid position), marked by the “foundational, authentically difficult understanding that good and bad tend to be inseparable at every level.”

4.        Both of these are accounts of the work of depression—or, rather, the work on depression—and they seem apt to me as descriptions of the work in a course that encourages students to consider the character of their position as revolutionary subjects. From the perspective of the institution, this course is one of the required “historical perspectives” on literature, of which each English major has to take four. They must all know that there is a relationship between literature and historical change.  [2]  I advertise the course as a semester-long investigation of nineteenth-century texts’ relationship to a period that seems to have been marked by relentless political and social upheaval. The course is organized around texts published between the French (1789) and the Russian (1917) revolutions.  [3]  It is a course on “Literature and Revolution” in the “long” nineteenth century: the unrest seems to spill over the ends of a century, over the borders of European nation states, and over the ends of continents. The interest in revolution, I propose, has to be an interest in the narratives and expectations that made radical change seem, for over a hundred years, necessary and worthwhile to some, terrifying and impossible to others, and certainly never finished. What made the change worthwhile? Wrecking the known world was one thing, but doing it in the name of a better new one nobody had ever seen had to be something quite different. Was the “world” different from “society?” Who was “society” anyway? Who were the “radicals” and how radical were they? Was all that revolution a success? Are we living in it now?

5.        As a historical event or notion, “revolution” figured very vaguely in the students’ imaginations, a fairly sparse catalogue of revolutionary facts and figures. (The vibrancy of their historical imagination of the long nineteenth century in Europe may remain unchanged in the aftermath of the course.) Most of them claimed at the beginning of the course that they had heard of the French Revolution before signing up, and guessed wildly about when it started and how it ended. Only a few had heard of the Russian revolution: the closer the country of their parents’ origin to the former Soviet Union, the more likely they were to know that this revolution happened at all, and (rarely) to point accurately to the century in which it began. Virtually no one in the class had ever heard of the revolutions of 1848, although all of them had heard of the specter of Karl Marx, and most knew of the existence of the “Communist Manifesto.” Very few had thought of Marx as the kind of menace whose motor, especially in depictions of communism in the United States, was his writing. [4] They had all heard of Romanticism, but had no idea what it may have to do with radical political change.

6.        The relevance of the course overall seemed to many students fairly unclear since there was no confusion about the position we could take on revolution: we were neither in it nor about it. The revolution was not for us, not something we would learn to admire, being free to be or do (or study) anything, in the country self-defined by a break from the tradition of government by fiat and repression. Political stability and gradual reform were clearly preferable—that was what we were there for. And where we were matters a great deal: I teach at the City University of New York, a state-funded system established to serve new immigrants, the aspiring optimists among New York City’s servants, and other varieties of the working poor. The undergraduate college where I teach is a federally registered “Hispanic-serving institution” which anticipates in the shape of its remedial curriculum and its attention to English for Academic Purposes that the majority of its students will be fluent (although not necessarily academically proficient) in at least one language that is not the language of college instruction. [5] 

7.        This college-level literature classroom is a kind of fulfillment of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century revolutionary visions of universal access to democratic public institutions, to all avenues of social mobility, and to the transformative effects of art. It is these young people, not just Voltaire’s, who would see great things.These English majors are hardly cynical about narratives of liberation and progress, or about the promises of individualism and self-determination as the ends of education. They know and live what Lauren Berlant has called the “centrality of optimistic fantasy to reproducing and surviving in zones of compromised ordinariness.” (35) To find out that reading and writing may be their means of personal and professional advancement is for many students a minor revolutionary turn. Often they are academic refugees from fields that promised greater or more tangible rewards (financial security, social mobility), but also failed students intellectually and emotionally. Their first experience of textual interpretation is impossible to ignore precisely because it provides an opportunity to admit into the university classroom their doubts about what such a classroom can or should do. [6] 

8.        A course on “literature and revolution” promises to examine the logic and the significance of narratives that bring students to literature in the university classroom as two spaces through which to project one’s desires. It makes use of the students’ concern that the class may want to put in question the viability of their chosen method of progress, liberation, and self-determination, and the awkwardness of their self-congratulation. Depression is at the center of this pedagogical situation, in which interpretation of texts concerned with radical social change is a way of producing fraught histories of the students’ own interpretive positions, of their ambivalent commitments to the narrative visions of futurity, and to the languages in which they reach the present.

9.        The rhetoric of revolution permeated the course atmosphere, as official media tried to assess the clearly dramatic events of the “Arab Spring,” a season of change that had by then spanned over three years, and social media supplied the extraordinary detail of the extraordinary events at unprecedented speed. The surfeit of data was expected to help standardize the magnitude of political transformations that qualified as “real” revolution. By the time our course began, the unrest had spread from Egypt across several countries in the Middle East and North Africa, and the cultivation of optimism regarding the direction and magnitude of the change gave way to pronouncements of disaster and incompetent management of progress. Initial appraisals had wondered if “revolutionary” transformation could happen over the course of one day (January 25, 2010 in Cairo), in a year, [7]  or whether it may have taken as many as eighteen days. [8]  By 2013, the New York Times was declaring that making revolution was no swift or clean business. Although it was still easy to understand why the status quo was untenable, it was clear that what was once “optimistically known as the Arab Spring,” had become a drawn-out, chaotic mess. In face of the damage done in the three years since the Egyptian revolt, it was clear that the “Spring” never stood for a viable “replacement model” for the broken societies; now these societies “find peace is harder than revolution.” [9]  (Hubbard and Gladstone 2013)

10.        The distance between what these revolutionaries knew they no longer wanted and the shape of what they desired was a useful reminder that “societies” can be difficult quantities to grasp and dangerous to tinker with. Even with all the information available, contemporary revolutions (if that is what they are) snag precisely because the political desires of one society could take on many, contrary, and even murderous shapes. [10]  In our course about a history of definitions and descriptions of depressing presents and bright futures, a series of readings in the nineteenth century could become a sustained discussion about how (or whether) a “replacement model” justifies the beginning or the reiteration of a “revolution,” about what one can make of others’ attempts to risk life and limb, and how revolution can become a contagious social practice—a way of thinking others’ thoughts and doing their deeds in the name of the bright future of a “society.” The students’ work is to orient themselves in that history by recognizing the contingencies of narratives they tell themselves about themselves—assuming there is a self—and their relationship to others. How does one become responsible for one’s own well-being, and relate to that of others, if, as Marx was to put in a moment of predictable disappointment at the sight of revolutionary momentum turning into a joke, no one can select the circumstances in which to make their own history?

11.        The course suggests that these are questions of interpretation explicitly politicized by what we now read as literature of Romanticism. By “Romanticism” we imagine not just the canonical male poets, but the many writers for whom the turn of the nineteenth century was a period of enormous exhilaration and disappointment, what they recognized as a whole new order of experience, for which they proposed a new kind of relationship to representation—to writing and reading. Students react perhaps most dramatically at the epistolary narratives of Helen Maria Williams, the author of “letters to friends” in England from the eye of the revolutionary storm in France, with surprise and amazement at what to them seems like an unlikely life-narrative for a late eighteenth-century woman. Tracing her “career” from the early exhilaration about acting on the futuristic principles of universal equality, to the onset of paranoid social imagination justifying mass murder, students find Williams disorienting. We know these are not real personal letters, but still, how appealing! How did she know so early that this was the future? Why is it news to us that a woman acted thus on her vision? How does our hindsight compare to her knowing at the time that an epoch was being made?

12.        Romanticism, in this course on revolution, addresses the significance of textual interpretation for understanding the constantly shifting grounds of pleasure, knowledge, and action. It is a conceptual tool for thinking about how a “literary” text from the turn of the nineteenth century may want to be read as a kind of historical document, but also as a document of recognition, of comprehension from the readers’ remove, from the present in which it is expected to do its work. Under the changing circumstances for the work of representation, what does “Romanticism” offer readers to be curious, if not excited, about? Of Wordsworth’s “The Thorn,” one student writes,

The first point that the writer wants us to understand, is that the place where this thorn is located is hard to reach/find. It says “high on a mountain’s highest ridge, where oft the stormy winter gale cuts like a scythe.” From this we gather that we would have to climb a mountain and risk the heavy stormy winds to get to this place, but we have no idea why we would want to reach this place. The constant descriptions of this place without giving us a reason as to why we would want to know this is a good way to keep the reader engaged. It pulls you in. (unpublished essay)
To let oneself be led to a strange place can be pedagogically depressing, in that the teacher may be inviting the students to perform self-annihilating tasks. What is a “good” student to read into Burke’s response to the French Revolution immediately after reading Williams? Are students to learn how to take on his knowing position on what is good for all the decent people? Can a “good” student find unacceptable the arguments of an assigned canonical writer who now seems prescient about how badly prepared everybody was for radical change? The little patience and plenty of discomfort students have upon reading Wordsworth’s “Michael” has to do not just with the poetic form the suffering takes (Too long! Set too far off in the country!), but also with the conditions in which the tragedy in the poem appears to them neither too complex nor particularly moving. They are bored with the narrative about a young man chewed up by the great wide world, his tragedy clearly not theirs. Indeed, they are lost on the newness of the then-greatness of the world, in which change is already inevitable and occasionally eats its own children. They are out to get chewed up better, the post-revolutionary beneficiaries of transparency. That the poet should try to bring up the case is not interesting, not now, and this is not what the poet’s work is.

13.        But what is a poet’s work? In response to the discussion of the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, one student wanted the class to watch videos of performances by spoken word artists whose work, the class agreed, could be understood as a kind of legacy of the work begun by Wordsworth and Coleridge, an afterlife of Romanticism. Most of these are videos recorded at regular gatherings in the Bronx, the place, as Marshall Berman pointed out, where much that is solid has been known to melt into air. They draw a crowd of New Yorkers in their late teens and early twenties, mostly people of color for whom these are social and political events. The events’ political momentum derives from the attention they give to language and poetic form—to the speakers’ and listeners’ appreciation of rhythm and delivery—as living forces that intervene in the common ways of thinking about the relationship between “individuals” and “society.” The artists—individuals—speak on behalf of other individuals, the young people in the audience, physical and virtual, and any imagined occupying comparable subjective positions and recognizing their personal narratives in the ones performed on stage. [11]  The student clearly imagined that our classroom was a relevant extension of the space of performance concerned with the ways in which students relate to or constitute “society.”

14.        The relevance of these events to our class has to do with their manifestly Romantic (and romantic) commitment to giving living form to the political and poetic premises of the performed texts. The draw of the events for those who attend is the possibility that this use of language is a relevant kind of engagement with the emergency facing all who aspire to change their individual circumstances against the emergent knowledge that structural pressure makes any meaningful change implausible and impossible. The most moving to all in class was a piece called “Strive!”—an injunction to persist in believing in the promises the great society makes to its young and unconnected who find themselves facing ubiquitous obstacles to self-realization. Being at the event, performing and appreciating the performance (in the physical or virtual space), serves to galvanize the resolve of everyone present (voiced by the speakers on behalf of the audience) not to succumb to evident and pervasive pessimism. Alternatively, or additionally, the point is to perform an affirmation of one’s awareness that there is a place from which to assess one’s position, that the work of improvement is underway, that those sharing the space are not losing their sight of it. Going back to the events is a form of productive action—a signal that someone is taking stock of everyone’s commitments to the future, rather than cultivating a singular fantasy about the promises tendered.

15.        Brought into the college classroom, these events are no longer obscure or “subcultural” in the same way. They are contemporary echoes that make room for reading students’ experience of frustration with responses to their impossible demands. A sustained reading of long-nineteenth-century texts about revolution becomes a discussion about the relationship of the students’ present to the history of disappointments and failures of partially shared visions of liberation and justice. It is a huge disappointment and relief to a constituency of mostly first-generation college students, children of the working poor and first-generation immigrants to think that the philosophical, ideological, and political questions of “speculative philosophers,” poets, and reactionaries of the Romantic period look for answers in our own day, and that we may be asking them. The old texts may suggest that history cannot and should not repeat itself, but they also make it possible to think that these are—that the course is set in—revolutionary times.

16.        So we practice making impossible demands. The course creates a cycle of hope about the prospect of acting freely, on the ideals that make the teaching situation possible. We speak as if we knew what place the classroom took in the larger political process; we say the processes of change are unstoppable and indispensable. We also say our goals are so ambitious that none of us can ever hope to see them realized: the work is unfinished but also unfinishable. Students begin to see themselves as beneficiaries and dupes of the pedagogical relationship, offered the inexorable pleasures of learning about the capacity of their position by a teacher whose work it is to point to the limitations and disappointments of their potential. They loved reading P. B. Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry: did not mind the length, or the style, and certainly were deeply moved by its conviction about the significance to “the world” of language as an art form. When I asked whether they would qualify it as a manifesto or a blueprint for action, a “good” student said, “I knew you would say that!”

17.        This is a class about the bind in which we have to believe in action because we have no choice but to act, although we know not exactly how or what for. In the older languages of change, the class learns to hear in the call for revolution not just promises of progress, but also promises of displacement, malaise, anxiety, and uncertainty. Participation in such cycles of reading of one another, and the reading of texts, makes room for the possibility that we are in the middle of the process that Raymond Williams was right to call, in the first reading on our schedule, a “long revolution,” [12]  a complex condition of which repetitive “failure” is a constitutive element. Our narratives of failure are not tales of singular and private blockage in a depressive state from which students need to be extricated; in fact, the teacher could never be saved from it herself, let alone save anyone else. It is rather a class on the possibility that exhilaration or failure may not be anyone’s own, but rather a function of what Lauren Berlant has called the “cruel optimism” of (especially contemporary) political imagination, ruled by the “relation of attachment to compromised conditions of possibility” (21). That the possibilities are compromised is depressing news, and students shift around the point at which they think they heard it. The class about revolution lets them say that this was not the first time they found themselves in that strange place. Students who have spoken to me outside of class and come to office hours put their questions about the work in a telling form. They tend to ask me, “What do you do with yourself now?” The question is of course about what they should do with themselves now, and the best I know how to say is that this is all we ever do: know of the depressing future and still demand to see great things.

Works Cited

Anonymous Student. Response paper submitted on Blackboard. October 2, 2013.

Baker, Keith Michael. “Revolution 1.0.” Journal of Modern European History, vol. 11, no. 2, 2013, pp. 187–219.

Berlant, Lauren. “Cruel Optimism.” Differences, vol. 17, no. 5, 2006, pp. 20–36.

---. Cruel Optimism. Duke UP, 2011.

Berman, Marshall. All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. Verso, 2010.

Besterman Theodore, general editor, Voltaire’s Correspondence. vol. 54, Institut et Musée Voltaire, 1960.

Farrell, Stephen, et al. “18 Days at the Center of Egypt’s Revolution.” The New York Times Interactive 12 Feb. 2011,

Hubbard, Ben and Rick Gladstone. “Arab Spring Countries Find Peace Is Harder Than Revolution.” The New York Times, 13 Aug. 2013,

Marx, Karl. “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” Marx: Later Political Writings, Cambridge UP, 1996, pp. 31–127.

Mason, Paul. “From Arab Spring to global revolution.”The Guardian, 5 Feb. 2013,

NPR Staff. “The Arab Spring: A Year Of Revolution.” NPR, 17 Dec. 2011,

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Teaching/Depression,” The Scholar and Feminist Online, vol. 4, no. 2, 2006.

Tomkins, Silvan S. Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader. Edited by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank, Duke UP, 1995.

Williams, Raymond. Culture and Society. Columbia UP, 1958.

—. The Long Revolution. Chatto & Windus, 1961.


[1] Sedgwick’s rendition of the common sense understanding of depression: a “chronic natural gloominess,” or “exogenous malady, from who knows where, that is liable to descend on its unsuspecting host until heroically routed by medicine and positive mental hygiene.” BACK

[2] Requirement checklist for English majors at John Jay College CUNY is at BACK

[3] The cutoff revolutions could have been different, but I decided to stay with 1789 as the opening date that figures prominently in many historical accounts of European modernity. In an article that will be required reading in the next iteration of the course, Michael Keith Baker uses newly digitized and searchable repositories of early modern texts to trace the transformations in the meaning and uses of the word “revolution.” The article is a model deployment of new methodology: technologically savvy, conservative about machine intelligence, and sophisticated in defining search terms. Its analysis of the newly legible resources sustains Baker’s larger claim that revolution is a “historically constituted category of historical understanding.” This is a claim not just about linguistic trends and statistics, but also about how words have been trusted to reflect and effect a change in the world. Baker argues that the meaning of the word shifted around the political change initiated in France in 1789, a “revolution revolutionized” (189). The word referred no longer to the completed events (albeit dramatic and transformative) but to an “ongoing political act” (190), an “expression of the dynamic transformational process advancing the progress of humankind, not endless meaningless variations on the same thing” (206). It was thus also a “script for future political or social action” (199), a socialized and normalized requirement for an optimistic political imagination for anyone committed to “progress” and “society,” whose shared future is shaped by a good grasp and management of the present. BACK

[4] When I rehearsed in front of the class a brief narrative about the Bolshevik Revolution’s aspiration to create and preserve unprecedented change, change which redrew maps of Europe and assigned decades of political work of Cold War de-identification from the revolutionary ideals in the United States, we all sat in awkward silence for a minute or so. BACK

[5] For many, English language proficiency is a form of deference to the language of higher education as an engine of social mobility; used competently in the register of professional communication, “good English” constitutes a promise of economic prosperity and personal advancement. The full name of the college is “John Jay College of Criminal Justice,” an educational profile that now serves as a marketable brand of specialty professional education and steady tuition income, but also an impediment to John Jay’s transformation into a “college of liberal arts” serving more traditional students, better prepared academically and capable of paying more for their tuition. BACK

[6] Under the latest transformation of the general education curriculum, adopted against loud protests from the faculty, students now choose from topical “buckets” (e.g., Individual and Society, or Learning from the Past), in which any number of disciplines can compete for students’ attention, to the point of mutual exclusion of history and literature, or literature and fine art. As a result, it is possible to graduate from college without ever taking a literature or a history class. BACK

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[9] By way of comparison of the new situation on the ground to the pre-revolutionary condition, the Times article offers that “the region’s old status quo, dominated by imperious rulers who fixed elections, ruled by fiat and quashed dissent, has been fundamentally damaged, if not overthrown.” In 2015, the civil wars in Syria and Iraq, and the resulting refugee crisis affecting every continent, seem to be the fruit of that “revolution.” BACK

[10] Paul Mason of the Guardian, assessing what made for twenty-first century revolution, ventured that “something real and important was unleashed in 2011” that had not “gone away,” despite the clear dents in public optimism about the events’ trajectory, the supremely destructive civil war in Syria their dystopian apex. “Confident enough” to call the events a revolution in 2013, Mason pointed to “a change in consciousness, the intuition that something big is possible; that a great change in the world's priorities is within people's grasp.” BACK

[11] The videos we viewed in class were a short film set to Joshua Bennett’s “Balaenoptera” (, and performances of Miles Hodges and Carvens Lissaint’s “Strive” (, Alysia Harris’s “Paris in the Rain” (, and Miles Hodges’s “What is a Man?” ( BACK

[12] Williams comments that the title of his text is taken from a sentence in his earlier book, Culture and Society, 1780–1950, but in the Introduction to The Long Revolution explains specifically that it “seems” to him that “we are living through a long revolution, which our best descriptions only in part interpret. It is a genuine revolution, transforming men and institutions; continually extended and deepened by the actions of millions, continually and variously opposed by explicit reaction and by the pressure of habitual forms and ideas” (10). BACK