Response: Mere Antiquarianism

Response: Mere Antiquarianism

Jonah Siegel
Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey

1.        At the home of a friend, some years back, while turning over the pages of a volume I was happy to see on his shelves, I came across an all-too-typical characterization of the term motivating this special issue: "The passionate reach of cultural institutions evidenced in these moments suggests that what is at stake in the arrangement of the past," the text declared in a passage I found marked by a reader, presumably my host, "is not mere antiquarianism, the turning over and charting of mute rubble." The fact that the historian I was visiting was an expert on seventeenth-century antiquarian circles made my eye pause over the marked lines in a text I myself had written with the special panic one has come to associate with the sense that it is too late for second thoughts, that faults in print can never be fully retracted (Siegel, Desire 3). Certainly I had been right to note that the passionate relationships to antiquity manifested in the writings of Hazlitt, Keats, and other authors and artists were distinct from those typically expressed in the texts of antiquarians. Still, I found myself wondering in the home of my friend, the author of a study of the great Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Pereisc (1580-1635) and his broad international network of correspondents, as I have again at various times since, why I had felt compelled to use that particular formulation. "Mere antiquarianism"—the epithet has the flavor of an unexamined slander, the pushy demand that unknown interlocutors share in one's unexamined prejudice against something we would agree to call antiquarianism, a practice that, according to my younger self, involved nothing more complicated than the abject manipulation of unresponsive and uncommunicative debris. (And then, turning over and charting rubble that does not speak to one, is a characterization that hesitates unsteadily between being simply an uncharitable description and an allegory of impotent effort or unrequited passion, as though antiquarians were so many superannuated lovers courting a stony beloved utterly indifferent to their attentions.)

2.         I cite a formulation I have found ever-more embarrassing with the passing of time because—as Noah Heringman and Crystal B. Lake helpfully lay out in their Introduction to this special issue—its terms are evidently symptomatic of more than my own youthful carelessness. Their account makes a thought-provoking stop at Nietzsche, who may have been my own forgotten influence (along with Walter Pater), but we can also look far more locally for the sources of the prejudice to which I gave voice. Indeed, with its cruel use of parentheses and italics the dictionary definition of "antiquary" quickly demonstrates the long-standing nature of the problem: "A student (usually a professed student), or collector, of antiquities." To the stigma of autodidacticism is added the fraud of self-accreditation (not a professor, but a self-professed student). And then the tension between collecting and studying is written into the definition because "student" and "collector" are not symmetrical terms. To study because one has collected things might simply be to apply a thin veneer of reason to disguise the uneven surface marked out by one's passion. To collect because one wants to study, on the other hand, approaches what we call the scientific method. The citations in the Oxford English Dictionary are historically revealing: both of the occurrences of the term from before the eighteenth century are positive, while the ones from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are characterized by patronizing irony:

1587   A. Fleming et al. Holinshed's Chron. (new ed.) III. Contin. 1272/1   It hath beene some question amongst the best antiquaries of our age, that, [etc.]
1602   W. Warner Epitome Hist. Eng. in Albions Eng. (rev. ed.) 351   Our learned and studious Antiquarie Master Camden.
1786   H. Walpole Vertue's Anecd. Painting (ed. 4) I. iv. 134   We antiquaries, who hold every thing worth preserving, merely because it has been preserved.
1836   H. Smith Tin Trumpet I. 37   Antiquary—Too often a collector of valuables that are worth nothing, and a recollector of all that Time has been glad to forget.
It is a precipitous decline from "best" and "learned" and "studious," to those easy if amusing paradoxes that suggest not learning but obsession. The circular reasoning involved in preserving what has been preserved, the confusion of value with its opposite, the clinging on to what time itself is happy to cast into oblivion: these are characterizations appropriate for neurotics, not for the learned and studious—or perhaps they are the neuroses of the learned and studious.

3.        "Antiquarianism" describes no downward trajectory of the sort "Antiquary" does, but that's because it begins its career late, and therefore at a pretty low point for reflection on the topic. From the late eighteenth century, when the termed gained currency, definitions do little in the way of identifying a serious human endeavor: "The profession or pursuits of the antiquarian; taste for, or devotion to, antiquities." Taste is, of course, the thing about which we cannot argue, and so it is immediately outside the pale of rational discourse; devotion, bears more than a suggestion of personal passion or even of an idiosyncratic idolatry. And, evidently, this is a use of profession far from the modern one. Then come the citations:

a1779   Bp. W. Warburton Lett. No. 221 (T.)   I used to despise him for his antiquarianism.
1803   W. Taylor in Ann. Rev. 1 439   He views the earth, neither through the telescope of antiquarianism, nor the microscope of topography.
1849   E. A. Freeman Hist. Archit. 4   The first phase of ecclesiology was simple antiquarianism.
A despicable practice that distances itself from the earth while pretending to try to view it more closely, a simple phase that must be left behind: instances such as these clearly demonstrate the long pedigree of the bias I evidenced so unreflectively in my own writing. Still, in the strands of evidence the OED offers we find one bright thread in the words of Samuel Johnson, who understood the passions of thought better than most:
1778   Johnson Let. 23 Apr. in J. Boswell Life Johnson (1791) II. 219   A mere antiquarian is a rugged being.
There is no space here to lay out the affection and irritation driving a statement, which has at its source a fairly well known contretemps described in Boswell's Life, involving Thomas Percy, of the Reliques of Ancient Poetry (1765), and Thomas Pennant, author of A Tour of Scotland in 1769 (1771; see also Campbell, this volume). I cite the passage only as a beautiful balancing of the minimizing mere with something more forceful, with a recognition of the ways in which "antiquarian" might describe an identity, not a mere practice, one in which we ought not to be surprised to find more uneven formations than those generally associated with the life of the mind.

4.         It bears saying that it is not uncommon for us to despise that upon which we rely the most, and that the Oxford English Dictionary is itself a text always pushing away from its own antiquarian roots without being fully free of them—or at least not until fairly recently, when technology may well have automated and made dispassionate the process of rooting through vast amounts of material about which most people don't care. Still, what our dictionary reminds us, above all, is that when we say "Romantic Antiquarianism" we are not simply identifying a certain period in the long history of the field (profession, pursuit, or taste) of antiquarianism, so much as a crisis point in its development, one with important conceptual and emotional components.

5.        The essays collected in this special issue suggest not only that, as Dr. Johnson proposed, "[a] mere antiquarian is a rugged being," certainly able to survive my thoughtless characterization, but also that in the mere nature of the category resides something of its power. Standing on the other side of analysis, antiquarianism always has a quality of passion-driven study, and therefore of embarrassment. It is the thing itself, absent the reason that comes to justify it. In that sense it may be seen as the id of history, the passionate element that must be controlled and limited if the field is to make its way in the world.  [1]  And yet, antiquarianism identifies the orientation that not only makes the objects of history matter at an affective level, but that also recognizes the force of the processes involved in coming to know that history. It is for this reason, or set of reasons, that this area of study is so fruitfully linked to the history of media or mediation in all of the articles in this issue. Indeed, several of the pieces testify to the embarrassment that is caused for a concept-driven field (or one that wishes to be conceptual), by too long a stop at the point of mediation. Whether the antiquarian surrounds himself with fakes or authentic objects, or—worse—with an undifferentiated combination of both, we wish he would want not to do so. We wish the antiquarian were gathering material in order to identify its status and make a claim about it, in order, in short, to answer the kinds of clear conceptual questions we like to believe motivate our own studies. It is embarrassing to think that heterogeneous and poorly-provenanced material is being assembled not in order to make an argument, but to create a home or even a self. Rosemary Hill's "The Antiquary at Home" is evocative in its treatment of two kinds of antiquarian self-fashioning, on the one hand the personal reinvention through interior decoration entailed in the antiquarian spaces created by Walter Scott and the French artist E. H. Langlois, and on the bold self-creation of the Sobieski Stuarts, about whose life-long performance the word "fraud" seems at once so reasonable and so impoverished. The home of Langlois (himself evidently a relic of an earlier era), which became Rouen's museum of antiquities even as he lived there with his family, and Abbotsford, the farmhouse that became a personal fantasy space that then contributed to the story Scott told of himself: the combination of vulnerability and performance involved in the creation and dissemination of these spaces does not find an easy resolution in the modern imagination. But then, as Hill indicates, Scott himself never fully resolved the public role of the space he built for himself, his own writing suggesting ambivalence and even embarrassment about publicizing Abbotsford.

6.        To recognize that an individual might organize his or her existence around things that are by our lights incoherent or inauthentic opens up questions that are always present in contemporary responses to Romantic antiquarianism: namely, what does it mean to call something coherent or authentic? Needless to say, the topics are of particular interest because modern accounts of the values of authenticity and coherence are directly traceable to Romantic forebears. The analyses of Campbell and Sachs are particularly interesting because of the ways their authors acknowledge their own uncertainty as to how best to respond to the heterogeneous or hybrid genres in which antiquarian material is typically relayed to the public. When Sachs describes "[t]he frustrations of a literary scholar trained to make certain kinds of arguments in response to certain genres of texts yet when confronted with a work that doesn't in any way conform to these generic models," he is addressing a feeling evident in many of the essays in this volume, as critics attempt to understand forms of knowledge distribution that we now know were fated to fail both as models and as modes of instruction because of the combined boldness and ignorance of their creators (Sachs 9). It makes the interpretative value of the frustration or shock all the richer when it is recognized as a phenomenon caused by the encounter of modern expectations with material not made to meet those expectations. In that sense the productive shock depends on the very drives that shape antiquarianism itself, on our own desire to find meaning in what might otherwise be so much indistinguishable debris from the past.

7.         Wood's Ruins of Palmyra (1753), the epochal volume addressed in Sachs's article, was an international success: it offered images that were adapted in verse, in the visual arts, and in architecture for decades to come, in England and abroad; its influence on Volney's Ruines (1791) and on its illustrations is quite open. The fact that the work was a blend of historical and literary speculation, travel memoir, and illustration evidently presented no problems of style, form, or decorum in its day. In a related vein, one suspects the miscellaneous quality of Bon Ton, the periodical in which Timothy Campbell finds traces of Pennant's description of the guillotine, was the least of the challenges that racy rag presented to its original readers. When Campbell writes of Bon Ton's "dizzying mix of aesthetics, politics, sovereignty, sex, and costume," perhaps the most interesting question to ask is why and in what sense we find dizzying something that in its own day was close to conventional (Campbell 16). Campbell's account of the circulation of Pennant's description of the sources of the guillotine in Scottish culture compellingly demonstrates that authors and readers in earlier periods were notably more comfortable working with fragments than later critics have proved to be.

8.         What belongs in a newspaper or a magazine, we might ask, or on a website or a news channel? That the eighteenth-century found a new term for a published miscellany in "Magazine," a word originally meaning a space devoted to storage, should serve to remind us just how much we tend to impose conceptual coherence on publications that are, in fact, always heterogeneous. Antiquarianism is about filling in a space between what you have discovered and what you know or believe to be the case. We are comfortable with some ways of filling those gaps, but less so with others. As I have begun to suggest, all of the essays in this issue are thoughtfully responsive to the challenge for the modern scholar of antiquarian form, and as such they open the door for us to think about the analytical force of our own discomforts. To this day a visitor to the Sir John Soane Museum in London finds a blend of what we might call authentic material (an Egyptian sarcophagus, and so on) and what we would be prone to call fakes (say casts of the Apollo Belvedere and other statues). The fact that Blake probably never saw the Portland Vase he illustrated for Darwin's Botanic Garden passed without comment in his own day, but it provokes discussion today. In that sense, the modern commitment to what we believe to be the unique evidentiary force of authentic monuments is far more complete than it ever was in the Romantic era. As Sam Smiles's piece thoughtfully demonstrates, it is worth dwelling on the nuanced nature of the making and reception of reproduction in the period. Smiles notes that "The antiquarian image . . . is best understood as a crystallization of cognitive assumptions about the object" (Smiles 13). Using distinctions drawn from the semiotics of Peirce, he suggests that even the most indexical mode of meaning-making in the illustration of antiquarian material always trends towards the symbolic: "I propose that antiquarian illustration can be classified for the most part as predominantly iconic but is often, despite the illustrator's best efforts, tilted towards the symbolic" (Smiles 8). I take this claim to imply that even the most apparently straightforward illustration, or the most concretely conceived reproductions (say a cast of a fragment of the Bayeux tapestry), offered in its day far more than information.

9.         Lovers, children, and the founders of churches cling with special passion to simulacra and to objects made sacred by association. To encounter these materials from a standpoint outside the emotional universe in which they are prized is to become witness to something profound, atavistic, and frequently embarrassing. The passion of the connoisseur shares qualities with these kinds of affections, but adds a further confusion for the outside viewer. While relics or memorials will tend to be validated by their exclusive or limited nature, antiquarianism is characterized not by its commitment to the single and precious, but to the accumulation of multiple instances. One provisional description of Romantic antiquarianism might be that it is the sensibility of the cabinet of curiosities just at the rise of the age of museums. Hill's claim, in "Antiquary at Home," that "[p]ublic museums, university departments, and government bodies were taking over the territory that had been opened up by the antiquarianism of the previous two generations" is a little premature. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, the public museums and university departments that could take over these territories were not yet in existence, though the sensibilities that would make them possible certainly were coming into being.  [2]  From the late eighteenth century forward, culture finds itself subjected to the pressure of ever increasing quantities of antiquities, and the problems they presented were not simply numerical but conceptual: the wide range of sources of antiquities was not liable to systematic organization. While the amount of material with which culture currently deals has evidently not lessened, what we have lost is the sense that any system might subsume all of the material that comes to hand. But, of course, not feeling one has a problem is not the same as not having a problem, and neither can be confused with having actually solved a problem. As these essays show, the interest of Romantic antiquarianism resides in its unresolved nature, the way in which projects in this era stand between an emerging scientific consensus and a number of more provisional strategies for arranging and diffusing knowledge that depend on or provoke an affective charge often denied or submerged in later approaches.

10.         Aside from the modern embarrassment about a passion for the past insufficiently matured into conceptualization, another intriguing contradiction for the modern student is the play between classical and local sources of interest. Jonathan Sachs puts Wood's speculations on Homer of 1775 (An Essay on the Original Genius and Writings of Homer, published in 1775, but circulated privately in 1767 and 1769) in relation to his earlier and, in many ways, more culturally resonant work on Palmyra of 1753. Sachs begins from the deceptively simple and openly retrospective question that might be crudely summarized as, Why Palmyra, given that it does not matter to us? But, as his essay demonstrates, the source of the mystery is the poverty of our own historical interests and (therefore) of our accounts of the passions and interests of earlier periods. When we see eighteenth-century antiquarians poring over provincial Roman work (of the sort to be found in Palmyra) for signs of classical achievement, or studying copies of vases, or even etchings of vases made from simulacra of vases, we may be tempted to identify a failure to care about the original. But to look at the matter from this point of view is to allow our own vision to be obscured by the haze of an aura which later eras (including our own) have projected around those parts of the past they have valued most. The modern relationship to the copy emerged after a slow and uneven process of intellectual refinement that took much of the nineteenth century to bring about. And so, when Erasmus Darwin needed an illustration of the Portland Vase for his Botanical Garden, Blake produced a copy not from the original, but probably from a copy made by Wedgewood, and likely with some reference to some earlier engravings. Brylowe reviews the complex transmission of the Portland Vase, an excellent demonstration of the extent to which not seeing the thing in itself is in fact characteristic of the period's relationship to art. In the process she also illustrates the sophisticated ways in which classical antiquities could be made to support nationalist aspirations. After all, it is Wedgewoods's achievement in pottery that provides the occasion for the treatment of the Vase in Darwin's poem.

11.        Sachs astutely identifies the suggestion in Wood "that one needs to visit the remains of classical civilization if one is ever to understand the writings they produced" (Sachs 18) as putting into question a long tradition (still in a way current) of understanding the Classics as universal texts—infinitely amenable to comprehension no matter the circumstances. While this observation is entirely true from a modern point of view, it is far less clear how much this contradiction could have been recognized as such in its own day. Gibbon described Wood and Dawkins as having transported the ruins of Palmyra and Balbec to England, which seems so absurd a notion to us that it might makes us reflect on the history of mediation itself. What makes something feel accessible by culture? The step taken by one individual onto lunar soil may conceivably be described as a "giant leap for mankind." And yet, to this day only around a dozen people have actually disturbed the dusty surface of the moon. The emergence of photographs of the earth seen in its entirety, a small side-benefit of the space program, was an epochal event in its own way, one celebrated by the placement of one of those photographs on the cover of The Whole Earth Catalogue, an attempt to suggest that the whole world was available to be known, and even that a sense of the whole was a vital political development. Google Earth, on the other hand, which appears to make every corner of our planet available in detail, for that very reason risks making the world feel utterly inconceivable as a whole. There is, in short, a power in partial knowledge.

12.        Many of the essays capture the ways in which visual representations, even those apparently intended to capture monuments with accuracy, come to be valorized by the romance they manage to project. Myrone is particularly interesting on the double challenge of antiquarianism not just before its concerns were taken over by more scientific fields, but when it could still imagine itself as having a role in the popular imagination. Writing on the overlap in prejudices about topography and about antiquarians, he captures nicely the ways in which John Britton saw his own scholarly researches to have been motivated by an original fascination with the mystery of the location suggested by some of the more speculative explanations on the topic, writing of Avebury that "[t]he mystic halo which enveloped it, tended rather to awaken than repress research" (Myrone 9).

13.        Among the particular strengths on which Romantic antiquarians could build was the long tradition of antiquarianism itself. In that sense, antiquarianism was not born from the French Revolution, though it was fated to be utterly changed by a number of developments we associate with that world-historical phenomenon. The intellectual and institutional relationship between the violence of the Revolution and the emergence of Gothic taste is well established. [3]  The figure of Eustache-Hyacinthe Langlois, the artist living in the ruined building that became a museum discussed by Hill, himself a kind of relic of the Ancien Régime, is just one colorful instance of the ways in which historical trauma made it possible to see fragments as at once belonging to a lost past and as intimately connected to one's own culture. To witness the creation of significant ruins, to participate in the cultural dislocations entailed in the revolution and its aftermath—these were both lived experiences shaping the nostalgia typical of the post-revolutionary historical sensibility. (Bann 19-22). And then, the emergence of a mass audience for material that had been the preoccupation of a widespread but relatively small group often devoted to fairly obscure researches was bound to affect the mediation and reception of a field. This is a topic laid out with sophistication and nuance in all of the pieces in this collection, but which Ina Ferris addresses most directly in her account of the ways in which Romantic antiquarians "increasingly turned into public authors" (Ferris 2). Topographers, sublime painters, wood engravers, popular compilers: these offered so many formal modalities for representing the knowledge of antiquarian material to a broader public. And, while the drives to reach out are directly connected to the emergence of more specialized fields such as a more technical history, or archeology, the developments have neither congruent aims nor analogous outcomes. We may remember here the great failure of antiquarianism in British letters, that of Edward Casaubon and his fruitless search for the key to all mythologies, described in the most important attempt to capture in a novel the period just before the coming of the first Reform Bill and the trend towards a vastly enfranchised public which it inaugurated. And Middlemarch is more than satiric in its treatment of the challenge of antiquity, of course, featuring—in its representation of Dorothea in Rome—one of the most poignant representations of the crisis liable to be provoked by the unmediated encounter with the past.

14.        At its heart, the antiquarian project is based on the unbridgeable gap we know to divide the past from the present. We may trace the embarrassment antiquarianism sometimes provokes not only to the inevitable failures of all attempts to understand intimately a lost era, but more compellingly to the insight these failures give us into the drives that motivate such attempts in the first place. If the modern tendency has been to fill in the space between a lost past and an uncertain present with what is often thought of as disinterested scientific research, this does not mean we have moved beyond the fundamental challenges motivating earlier attempts to overcome the gap. As these papers illustrate so splendidly, Romantic antiquarianism—because of its position at the point of transition between the speculative regimen of an earlier era and the emergence of the period of licensed scientific research and accreditation we still inhabit—provides a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the passions underlying all desires to know, and on the gains and losses entailed in the emergence of a dispassionate new scholarship.

Works Cited

"antiquary, adj. and n." OED Online. Web. 23 May 2014.

"antiˈquarianism, n." OED Online. Web. 23 May 2014.

Bann, Stephen. The Clothing of Clio: A Study of the Representation of History in Nineteenth-Century Britain and France. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984. Print.

Louis, François, and Peter Miller. Antiquarianism and Intellectual Life in Europe and China, 1500-1800. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2012. Print.

Miller, Peter. Momigliano and Antiquarianism: Foundations of the Modern Cultural Sciences. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2007. Print.

Momigliano, Analdo. "Ancient History and the Antiquarian." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 13 (1950): 285-315. Print.

Siegel, Jonah. Desire and Excess: The Nineteenth-Century Culture of Art. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000. Print.

Siegel, Jonah. Emergence of the Modern Museum. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.


[1] For a seminal account of the relationship between history and antiquarianism see Analdo Momigliano's "Ancient History and the Antiquarian." Pioneering recent work on the long history of antiquarianism and its cultural implications includes Peter Miller's Momigliano and Antiquarianism: Foundations of the Modern Cultural Sciences and François Louis's and Peter Miller's Antiquarianism and Intellectual Life in Europe and China, 1500-1800. BACK

[2] The development of the nation's premier museum of antiquities is worth citing to illustrate the slow development of institutions. Though the British Museum was founded in 1753, its collection of antiquities was modest, and access was difficult for most of the eighteenth century. The Department of Antiquities expanded rapidly in the nineteenth century, after its foundation in 1807, and went through various administrative vicissitudes. In 1860, it was divided into three new departments: Greek and Roman Antiquities, Coins and Medals, and Oriental Antiquities. The Department of British and Medieval Antiquities and Ethnography was only established 1866. (The Musée National du Moyen Age [or Musée Cluny] had been founded in Paris in 1843.) On the development of the museum in the period, see my Emergence of the Modern Museum. University Departments were even slower to emerge in the fields that took over from antiquarianism. BACK

[3] A useful source on the topic and its broader context is Stephen Bann's The Clothing of Clio: A Study of the Representation of History in Nineteenth-Century Britain and France. BACK


Published @ RC

June 2014