Your Friends and Lovers: Perfectionism’s Recounting of Romanticism

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Your Friends and Lovers: Perfectionism’s Recounting of Romanticism

Emily Sun
National Tsing Hua University

1.        Stanley Cavell’s central engagement with British Romanticism takes place in the 1983 Mrs. William Beckman Lectures at Berkeley, the first of the sets of lectures that form his 1988 book, In Quest of the Ordinary. He performs there readings of the “war-horse” poems of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and the “Intimations Ode.” And he offers his elegantly memorable summation of the work of Romanticism as “the task of bringing the world back, as to life,” which “may, in turn, present itself as the quest for a return to the ordinary, or of it, a new creation of our habitat; or as the quest, away from that, for the creation of a new inhabitation: Wordsworth and Coleridge would represent the former alternative; Blake and Shelley [. . .] the latter” (Quest 52-3). Cavell interweaves in the Beckman Lectures his reading of British Romanticism with consideration of texts by Emerson and Thoreau, Kant, Heidegger and John Wisdom, alongside references to Wittgenstein and Austin, tracing in these texts parallel and intersecting lines of skepticism and Romanticism. By juxtaposing American and British Romanticism with the linguistic turn in twentieth-century philosophy, Cavell highlights the antecedence of Romanticism, in its self-conscious concern with the status of language, for branches of linguistic philosophy, positioning himself as inheritor of both traditions, interpreter of their quests for the ordinary.

2.         For his conclusion to the Lectures, Cavell turns beyond the complex of nineteenth- and twentieth-century texts mentioned above to Shakespeare’s late romance, The Winter’s Tale, explaining that “[a]part from any more general indebtedness of the romantics to Shakespeare,” he finds the play “particularly apt in relation to the romantic themes I have emphasized of reawakening or revival” (Quest 76). Titled “Recounting Gains, Showing Losses,” the essay interprets the protagonist Leontes’ enactment of and recovery from skepticism as a process of disattunement and reattunement with shared criteria of speech that the play allegorizes not only on the level of plot, but by means of a language rich with metaphors of economy and computation. Positioning his reading at the culmination of the Lectures, Cavell seems to use implicitly the alternative logic of recovery he discerns in Shakespeare’s play to extend his critique in the previous chapter, “Texts of Recovery,” of the defects or, as it were, defaults of Romanticism in its efforts at re-animation of the world and recovery of (interest in) the ordinary.

3.         That critique, presented in broad but deft strokes, consists principally of the charge that Romanticism accepts too readily “something like animism” or what Ruskin terms the “pathetic fallacy” in its efforts at re-animation (Quest 53). [1]  This hastiness suggests a “bargain” with the “concept of knowledge and the threat of skepticism”—which Cavell situates specifically in relation to Kant’s division of the claims of knowledge of the world between the subjective and the objective, the sensible and the intelligible (Quest 53). Cavell’s prose evokes, in the articulation of this critique, a hypothetical “philosopher” who “may feel” that Romanticism “gives up the game” too quickly of the claim of reason in enacting its task of recovery (Quest 53). The proverbial “life of the world” Romanticism seeks to bring back would seem to this philosopher to be one in need of a more qualified parsing or accounting.

4.         In this essay, I would like to follow cues and unravel implications within Cavell’s admittedly broad but richly suggestive critique of Romanticism in the Beckman Lectures in relation to a major Romantic Cavell mentions but does not read closely, namely, Percy Bysshe Shelley, classified above with Blake as one who undertakes a quest away from the ordinary for “the creation of a new inhabitation.” [2]  Cavell has in mind the Shelley whose general mythopoetic, utopian orientation is most evident in texts like The Revolt of Islam and Prometheus Unbound, which bear comparison in their high, prophetic register to the Blake of The Four Zoas. The particular text that I would like to consider in relation to Cavell’s critique of Romanticism is, however, one that constitutes somewhat of an exception or counterpoint to his typical style. Julian and Maddalo, subtitled “A Conversation,” is one of the few examples of what might be called an “ordinary language Shelley”: composed in the conversational or “familiar” style, it unfolds in the recognizable, everyday setting of a Venice contemporary to the author, albeit one shadowed by such Gothic elements as the island madhouse and the sepulchral ending.

5.         The main question I take the poem to be exploring is that of friendship, most obviously, the friendship between the two title characters that forms the substance of the “conversation” the subtitle names. As Julian recalls late in the poem, the virtue of Maddalo’s “wit and subtle talk” was that it would “make me know myself” (560-61). [3]  He reiterates here the Socratic injunction and justification for conversation between friends as the optimal way of living the examined life. So who are these friends and interlocutors? The Preface, written in a different voice than the poem proper (which is narrated by Julian), introduces Count Maddalo as “a Venetian nobleman of antient family and of great fortune” and Julian as “an Englishman of good family” (119). The rest of the descriptions of the friends focuses on their respective political outlooks: Maddalo is “a person of the most consummate genius, and capable, if he would direct his energies to such an end, of becoming the redeemer of his degraded country. But it is his weakness to be proud”; while Julian is “passionately attached to those philosophical notions which assert the power of man over his own mind, and the immense improvements of which, by the extinction of certain moral superstitions, human society may be yet susceptible” (120). The friends are introduced specifically as well-born men who are potential redeemers and reformers of “human society.”

6.         Shelley adopts for the poem an urbane style befitting the idiom of the well-born. As he writes to Leigh Hunt on August 15, 1819, he chooses to employ “a certain familiar style of language to express the actual way in which people talk with each other whom education and a certain refinement of sentiment have placed above the use of vulgar idioms,” noting that he uses “the word vulgar in its most extensive sense; the vulgarity of rank and fashion is as gross in its way as that of Poverty, and its cant terms equally expressive of base conceptions, and therefore equally unfit for Poetry” (Letters, II, 108). While the familiar language that Shelley uses to write the poem in loose couplets is one specific to an educated and refined elite, it differs from the language of the few current in a milieu of rank and fashion. [4] 

7.         The narrator Julian is a foreigner visiting Maddalo in Italy, which he calls at one point “Thou Paradise of exiles!” (57). In reverse of the fall from Eden, he imagines Italy as the site of happy exile from a fallen world: while paradise may be regained for a few, the rest of the world remains unredeemed. In this paradise, Julian takes pleasure in holding such free-ranging talk with Maddalo as

The devils held within the dales of Hell
Concerning God, freewill and destiny:
Of all that earth has been or yet may be,
All that vain men imagine or believe,
Or hope can paint or suffering may atchieve. (41-5)
Just as he celebrates the unrestrictedness of their talk, Julian celebrates aspects of the landscape that convey to him a sense of boundlessness. Describing his ride on the Lido with Maddalo, Julian professes his love for
All waste
And solitary places; where we taste
The pleasure of believing what we see
Is boundless, as we wish our souls to be:
And such was this wide ocean, and this shore
More barren than its billows;—and yet more
Than all, with a remembered friend I love
To ride as then I rode [. . .] (14-21)
In Maddalo’s company, Julian is able to enjoy a solitude beyond the condition of aloneness, a solitude that would be the corollary of genuine community, and to aspire to transcend the finitude of his current condition. Friendship in “Julian and Maddalo” promises to be for its central consciousness a cure for aloneness and disappointment, a means for the aspiring self to recreate itself as well as to articulate a meliorist vision for the many. [5] 

8.         Julian’s ideal of friendship would seem to constitute a version of perfectionist friendship, a philosophical theme for which Socrates and his circle serve as cultural model and which is central to Cavell’s thinking of moral perfectionism. What Shelley portrays in “Julian and Maddalo” is, however, an episode of crisis in Julian’s vision and version of friendship that ends with disappointment and disillusion—the separation of friends, the cessation of conversation, and antagonism towards a world deemed in the final line “cold” (617). The crisis develops out of a debate between Julian and Maddalo that reaches a climax when Maddalo brings Julian to visit the figure of the Maniac. Mentioned in the Preface as the third character of the poem, the Maniac is another visitor to this “Paradise of exiles,” who had shared the meliorist hopes of Julian but who has since gone mad. Julian leaves Venice in the wake of this encounter. What accounts for his departure—and the seeming forfeit of his quest for the ordinary? What inquest of the ordinary might the poem offer by showing the forfeit of the quest for the ordinary? [6] 

9.         The disagreement between Julian and Maddalo, sketched out already in the Preface, begins in the poem proper when Maddalo checks Julian’s enchanted vision of the Venetian cityscape by pointing to him on their gondola ride home an island with a madhouse and belfry tower. Maddalo comments on this sight as “our mortality” and “the emblem and the sign/ Of what should be eternal and divine!” (120-22) They and others are no different from the madmen who respond passively and automatically to the bell’s call every sunset to vespers. To Maddalo’s attitude of nihilistic resignation, Julian responds the next morning by affirming his secularist faith in the perfectibility of mankind and the possibility of human beings’ liberation of themselves from “religions and old saws” and “chains [. . .] which our spirit bind” (162, 181). An impassioned Julian argues,

We are assured
Much may be conquered, much may be endured
Of what degrades and crushes us. We know
That we have power over ourselves to do
And suffer—what, we know not till we try;
But something nobler than to live and die—
So taught those kings of old philosophy
Who reigned, before Religion made men blind. (182-89)
In answer, Maddalo tells Julian of “one like you/ Who to this city came some months ago/ With whom I argued in this sort” (195-97). This man has now gone mad, and his “wild talk” will, according to Maddalo, show the vanity of “such aspiring theories” (201).

10.         As Maddalo’s comparison of the Maniac and Julian insists, the Maniac serves as a precursor or double of Julian in the poem. They share the same meliorist ideas and outlook. Maddalo had talked with and played host to the Maniac before he had talked with and played host to Julian, even outfitting the former’s rooms at the madhouse with “busts and books and urns for flowers, / Which had adorned his life in happier hours, / And instruments of music” (254-56). [7]  Finally, among the features that Julian and the Maniac—and perhaps also Maddalo—share is their propensity for poetry. Of the Maniac’s speech, Julian remarks, “the wild language of his grief was high, / Such as in measure were called poetry” (541-2). Maddalo pronounces, somewhat sententiously, “Most wretched men / Are cradled into poetry by wrong, / They learn in suffering what they teach in song” (544-46). The bond of affiliation among the three men is also a bond among poets: “In friendships I had been most fortunate, / Yet never saw I one,” recalls Julian of the Maniac, “whom I would call / More willingly my friend” (575-77). Potentially a friend, the Maniac forms an oblique and shadowy third to Julian and Maddalo in Julian’s imagined “Paradise of exiles.”

11.         By widespread critical consensus, the figures of Julian and Maddalo are taken to be based on Shelley and Byron. [8]  Before writing Julian and Maddalo in 1819, during a pause in writing Act II of Prometheus Unbound, Shelley had worked on and abandoned a drama about Torquato Tasso, the sixteenth-century poet of Jerusalem Delivered—and possibly the model for the Maniac. The relationship of friendship among the characters is specifically an affiliation among poets—in this case, a vanguard fraternity of the few committed to re-imagining the world for the many. Curiously, while it is compellingly suggested throughout the poem proper that the three characters are poets, the Preface-writer omits mentioning this feature altogether. Closely echoing Julian’s opinions, the Preface-writer seems to assume likewise the persona of a friend, one who may remark of Julian with loose familiarity that “in spite of his heterodox opinions, [he] is conjectured by his friends to possess some good qualities” (121). The Preface-writer may gloss over what he may feel should be tacitly supposed and self-evident about this poetic confraternity.

12.         About the Maniac’s speech, the Preface-writer uses the phrase, “unconnected exclamations of [. . .] agony” (120), for description—a formulation that resonates strikingly with Julian’s speculation, after hearing the speech, about staying on in Venice if “I had been an unconnected man” (547, my emphasis). The Maniac is unconnected, severed from ties with others, and his speech is, correspondingly, unconnected. It lacks, first of all, consistency and coherence. As Julian recalls, the Maniac spoke “sometimes as one who wrote and thought / His words might move some heart that heeded not,” “then as one / Reproaching deeds never to be undone”; “then his words came each / Unmodulated, cold, expressionless” (286-92). Second, this fragmentary speech is unconnected to any actual interlocutors: the Maniac vacillates between soliloquy and imagined addresses principally to an unnamed “Thou” but also to an unnamed “ye few.” The latter are those “by whom,” he cries, “my nature has been weighed / In friendship” and are, like him, followers of truth (344-45). His assurances to these imagined addressees are reminiscent of Julian’s earlier declarations of political meliorism to Maddalo:

Believe that I am ever still the same
In creed as in resolve [. . .] (358-59)
Nor dream that I will join the vulgar cry,
Or with my silence sanction tyranny [. . .] (362-63)
I am prepared—in truth, with no proud joy—
To do or suffer aught, as when a boy
I did devote to justice and to love [. . .] (379-81)

13.        This address to “ye few” is framed by speeches directed to “Thou, my spirit’s mate” (337), a Lady who he claims deserted him and who, Maddalo recounts, had come with the Maniac “from France, and when/ She left him and returned, he wandered then / About yon lonely isles of desart sand / Till he grew wild” (246-49). Maddalo and Julian both speculate that her abandonment was the cause of his derangement. The Maniac gives a fragmentary account of their relationship, now blaming her for her inconstancy, then expressing regret over his own culpability and alluding to a “child” who he wishes would turn out to be “more mild / For both our wretched sakes” (484-86). He evinces, furthermore, a startling horror of sexuality, referring to “[t]he deep pollution of my loathed embrace” (422) and expressing a fantasy of self-castration “so that ne’er / Our hearts had for a moment mingled there / To disunite in horror” (426-28). The Maniac speaks of coital union as the experience, paradoxically, of a horrifying disunion—the experience, one might say, of sexual difference itself, with the diverging consequences and destinies that may unfold for each partner. Unconnected from the world as lover, as father, and as friend, the Maniac feels radically alone in his abandonment.

14.         In the wake of the visit to the madhouse, Julian decides to leave Venice for London the next morning. He claims first, though, that “[i]f I had been an unconnected man / I, for this moment, should have formed some plan / Never to leave sweet Venice” (547-49), where he has enjoyed so much Maddalo’s company, which could “make me know myself” (561). He admits then to wanting relief from the impact of the Maniac’s speech, while deliberating, in the contrary direction, that perhaps, with patient study, he could “reclaim him from his dark estate” (574). By deciding to depart, however, he effectively renounces his therapeutic impulse as an “idle thought” (567), a “dream of baseless good” such as “oft come and go in solitude / And leave no trace” (578-80). He puts into question the efficacy of his “aspiring theories.” The conversation with Maddalo is suspended.

15.         In the coda, Julian recounts returning to Venice after “many years” and “many changes” (584-85). The friends are separated: Maddalo is travelling in Armenia. Julian learns that the Maniac and the Lady are both now dead from Maddalo’s daughter, a hitherto peripheral figure who now acquires the importance of being Julian’s final interlocutor. He had described her as a child as a creature of grace and promise, a “special favourite” (151) whom he holds up to her father as the sign that “we might be all / We dream of” (172-73). As a grown woman, Maddalo’s daughter remains for Julian a vestige of possibility, “a wonder of this earth / Where there is little of transcendent worth, / Like one of Shakespeare’s women” (590-92). Which one? Miranda? Perdita? Paulina? Or perhaps one more conspiratorial, like Lady Macbeth? [9]  She tells Julian about the fate of the Maniac, how his health declined, how the Lady returned and left again, summarizing tersely, “They met—they parted” (608), but withholding the account of “why they parted, how they met” (610), preferring to encrypt the story in silence, “[a]s yon mute marble where their corpses lie” (615). Upon Julian’s prodding, she tells him the story, but Julian repeats at the end her gesture of withholding. The poem ends with the lines, “I urged and questioned still, she told me how / All happened—but the cold world shall not know” (616-17).

16.         Julian’s declaration places the reader among those in the “cold world.” The adjective gives what might seem mere reticence an aspect of hostility. While the Maniac had cried of abandonment, Julian seems at the end of the poem to be vengeful in his disappointment. Where the poem had started with a celebration of the possibilities of friendship in a perfectible world, it ends with Julian’s isolation and withdrawal from the ordinary. Venice is the same, but Maddalo is gone, and the flatly monosyllabic statement, “His dog was dead” (588), succinctly conveys Julian’s sense of disenchantment with the ordinary. To adapt one of Cavell’s favorite formulations from Walden, the poem moves from morning to mourning.

17.         Let us return now to Cavell’s critique of Romanticism. As mentioned above, his principal charge is that Romanticism settles too quickly for animism in its efforts at recovering the world, bringing it back, as to life. Another way of putting it, as Cavell does at the end of his reading of “The Ancient Mariner,” is that “a message of Romanticism as such” may be that “there is [. . .] an intimacy at large, and that poetry is responsible for giving it expression” (Quest 65). In seeking an “intimacy at large,” Romanticism elides, then, conditioned forms of intimacy, notably in “The Ancient Mariner,” the form of the pair or the couple. [10]  As Cavell quotes, the Mariner purports to show that “to walk together to the kirk / And all together pray / While each to his great Father bends” (605-7) is far “sweeter than the marriage-feast” (601). Cavell asks:

Why? Even if one ceremony is sweeter than the other, it does not yet follow that they are incompatible, that we must choose between them. Why is the marriage deserted, that is, why are all and each found place for while a pair or a couple are not? Does God, among all the things he made and loves, not love, or no longer make, marriages? And shall there be no more marriages? How does the Mariner’s tale compete with marriage? (Quest 64)
In answer, Cavell proposes that the Mariner “takes his tale to compete with the prospect of a marriage, to prefer either aloneness or else society in its totality to the splitting or pairing contracted in marriage” (Quest 64). As it stands, marriage
cannot secure the new bonds which must reconstitute a legitimate public, which means overcome our drifts into privacy [. . .] To marry now is to be willing to have a further adventure of aloneness, without solitude but also without society: as if marriage is a further investment of our narcissism [. . .]. If marriage is the name of our only present alternative to the desert-sea of skepticism, then for that very reason this intimacy cannot be celebrated, or sanctified. (Quest 64-5)
Romanticism prefers, then, to quest for an “intimacy at large” or to remain “at large” in its quest for intimacy—an inclination that seems to function, in Cavell’s critique, as the very corollary of animism.

18.         Taking “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” as his representative text, Cavell reads Romanticism as veering between advocating solitude and re-imagining society in its totality as polar options for curing the individual of the aloneness discovered in skepticism. In so doing, Romanticism elides or defers marriage as structure of intimacy and, in Cavellian moral perfectionism, pre-eminent site of mutual and diurnal education for the aspiring self. But is this an elision or a deferral? Cavell’s following remark couches the preference for privacy in temporal terms, as a deferral: “I am not one who takes romanticism as the achievement of major celebrations of privacy, but rather [. . .] as the achievement of the willingness for privacy, the survival of it until, if ever, genuine publicness is recognizably established, or reestablished” (Quest 64, my emphasis). Romanticism, then, may make genuine privacy the priority for the achievement of a genuine publicness, in relation to which marriage or friendship may be merely counterfeit forms of intimacy, further adventures of aloneness and inexpressivity. This genuine publicness may be one of futurity, a publicness-to-come, or one that returns in re-establishment. If such genuine publicness is one that needs re-establishment, if the intimacy-at-large Romanticism seeks is one that needs recovery, properly speaking, rather than just discovery, then, Cavell asks, “How did it get loose, as if disinvested? And why does friendship demand it, as well as marriage? Or does it?” (Quest 65). The recovery of intimacy within the contexts of friendship and marriage, according to Cavell’s economic simile above, involves a re-investment in the ordinary conceived as a complex network of interests and interconnections.

19.         Friendship and marriage are, for Cavell, those conditioned forms of intimacy that complicate one’s participation in the life of the many, one’s membership in the all and each. Friendship is an affiliation of the few distinct from the classification of the few according to birth or rank; as a discursive category, it is a relationship conducive to the examined life, in which the individual may aspire, in relation to her interlocutors, to her unattained yet attainable self. Marriage may be viewed as a form of friendship—insofar as marriage is, in modernity, likewise dissociated from legal or religious sanction. Its difference from friendship consists in the singularization of the individual it involves and in its specifically diurnal temporality—its commitment to mutual education in everyday repetition.

20.         Julian and Maddalo explores friendship as a cure for aloneness and as a relationship essential to the hope for genuine publicness. It allegorizes friendship in the context of a poetic fraternal vanguard as the means for a transformation of society in its totality. This allegory is all the more remarkable in light of Shelley’s writing it parallel to Prometheus Unbound, a text so notably different in register and in messianic hopefulness. Prometheus Unbound dramatizes the liberation of mortals by means of the actions of a vanguard of immortals, undertaken in a day of redemption that bursts the continuum of Jupiterian time. Julian and Maddalo unfolds in three consecutive ordinary days a crisis of friendship that results, years later, in the protagonist’s disappointment in friendship’s transformative potential and his alienation from the “cold world.”

21.         What kind of inquest does the poem perform in showing Julian’s ultimate forfeit of the quest for recovery? The poem shows a crisis in friendship and, in the predicament of the Maniac, a crisis of erotic love. If the Maniac is doomed to be an unconnected man whose speech consists of “unconnected exclamations of agony,” Julian himself seems to be likewise unconnected from others besides his friend Maddalo, strangely coupled with Maddalo’s daughter at the end in quasi-conspiratorial secrecy. Using a counterfactual, he had contemplated staying on in Venice “if I had been an unconnected man.” The counterfactual here seems oddly descriptive of Julian’s effective situation throughout the poem: his “connections” are alluded to only late in the poem and appear obscure and remote (in that foggy, unhallowed place designated in shorthand as “London”). The formulation also bespeaks an underlying wish to be “unconnected” and a conception of the poetic reformer as lone and simple entity, free to be at large in the quest for genuine publicness. Julian and Maddalo attests to the seductive power and the deficit of such a fantasy of the unconditioned subject, disinvested from the conditioned intimacies that constitute one’s life in the world and the life of the world in oneself.

22.         Cavell’s critique of Romanticism in the Beckman Lectures culminates in a reading of The Winter’s Tale. In the course of his analysis of Leontes’ jealous and vengeful actions and recovery, after the passage of sixteen years, from radical skepticism, Cavell discerns a logic of recovery alternative to what he finds in Romanticism. As he remarks at the end of the essay, “The romantics saw this revenge [against life], as for example, in The Ancient Mariner, as our carrying the death of the world in us, in our constructions of it. The final scene of issuing in The Winter’s Tale shows what it may be to find in oneself the life of the world” (Quest 101). Cavell reads Leontes’ return to the ordinary as contingent upon his discovery and acceptance of a necessary multiplicity in himself—as husband and lover, as father, as friend—in a world of multiple others and ceaseless multiplication, call it a world of counting, in which to speak is necessarily to count and to recount. The implication, it seems, is that this multiplicity constitutes “the life of the world” itself. And the other implication is that Romanticism tends to elide or defer this multiplicity and the conditioned intimacies it entails.

23.         The critical events of the play occur after Leontes, King of Sicilia, becomes jealous of the relationship between his wife Hermione and his friend and brother Polixenes, King of Bohemia, and suspects them of having an affair. His suspicion reaches such a degree that he doubts not only whether he has sired the child Hermione is bearing but also whether their six year-old son Mamillius is his. In his reading, Cavell goes beyond Leontes’ manifest jealousy of Polixenes and Hermione to discern a more fundamental cause of Leontes’ skeptical doubt in his sudden disowning of Mamillius as his issue. Indeed, Cavell argues that it is Leontes’ doubt over the question of his own paternity that functions as the cause of his jealousy of Polixenes, rather than vice versa. In seeing Mamillius sitting on his mother’s lap and whispering into his ear “a winter’s tale,” Leontes begins to question, by asking whether their noses resemble one another’s, if Mamillius is indeed his son. This process of skeptical questioning leads Cavell to discuss possible ways of answering the question, “How do you know?,” on which Leontes’ question (“How do you know your son is yours”) is predicated.

24.         He brings up first two ways that constitute modes of telling how one knows. First, one may claim to know, in a classic example drawn from Austin’s essay, “Other Minds,” that there is a goldfinch in the garden by noting “some feature of the goldfinch, such as its eye markings or the color of its head”; in this case, “you begin a narrative of the object’s differences from other relevant objects” (Quest 83). Second, you may “explain how you are in a position to know, what your credentials are, or whether someone told you”; in this case, you tell of “differences in your position from other positions” (Quest 83). In both of these cases, you can tell how you know to anyone for anyone. Telling depends on criteria shared with others, and criteria provide the very conditions of shared speech.

25.         By speaking of and comparing noses, Leontes appeals to criteria to tell whether or not Mamillius is his son. In rejecting these criteria as insufficient, Leontes expresses a disappointment with criteria and the limits of human knowledge. He resorts to another route of answer to the question of how you know, which consists of “a claim to have experienced the thing [. . .] to have seen it” (Quest 84). In this case, your claim is a claim to have seen something for yourself and not just for anyone. This claim does not rest on a knowledge of differences. Yet Leontes cannot say that he knows in this way; he has not, like Hermione, “experienced the thing” and “seen it for himself.” Cavell reads this failure of knowledge as a “failure of acknowledgment, which means, whatever else it means, that the result of the failure is not an ignorance but an ignoring, not an opposable doubt but an unappeasable denial” (Quest 88).

26.         Leontes’ denial is a world-annihilating denial of his attunement with others in shared speech. This denial, for Cavell, rests on the denial of an even more fundamental way of using language to tell than using language to tell differences, one as fundamental as seeing for oneself. Cavell relies here on his work in Part One of The Claim of Reason on Wittgenstein’s idea of criteria to explain this more fundamental use of language to count. Wittgenstein uses the idea of a criterion, writes Cavell,

to describe, in a sense to explain, how language relates (to) things, how things fall under our concepts, how we individuate things and name, settle on nameables, why we call things as we do—questions of how we determine what counts as instances of our concepts, this thing as a table, that as a chair, this other as a human, that other as a god. To speak is to say what counts. (Quest 86)
Counting is a process of determining meaning and has, apart from a numerical use, this specifically criterial, non-numerical use: “it is not here tallying how much or how many, but establishing membership or belonging” (Quest, 86). To speak is to say what counts, to participate in the life of the world by establishing membership or belonging in speech. In his desire to know, Leontes refuses to use language to count and hence loses both the ability to use language to tell differences as well as to tell, as in “recount.” He loses the ability to “account for the order and size and pace of his experiences,” to reorder them in the act of recounting. [11] 

27.         Leontes loses his ability to count because, Cavell argues, he wants not to count: he wants not to own what is happening to him as his, and wants there to be no counting. Cavell pays attention to how Shakespeare situates Leontes precisely and ironically in a world of counting, one rife with the language of economy and computation—from the courtiers’ exchange in the prologue, to Polixenes’ opening speech, to the pastoral calculations of the Clown and Autolycus. Leontes does not count and cannot participate in the life of the world, repudiating telling and counting as conditions of participation, because he wants there to be no separation. Counting, like separation, implies multiplicity and differentiation.

28.        In keeping with Leontes’ vengeful actions in banishing Hermione and Perdita and accusing Polixenes, Cavell terms Leontes’ very repudiation of counting as “revenge”—and revenge against “life” itself, no less. Then, what is “life?”

29.         Life here is breeding, issuing, multiplying, dividing, replicating, separating. The fact of natality is itself a process of division. Interrogating why the play proper begins with Polixenes wanting to leave when he does, Cavell proposes: “because Hermione’s filling up and approaching term seems to him to leave no more room and time for him in Sicilia. It is this, the implication of the fact of her pregnancy, that Polixenes’ speech leaves unsaid; and it is this that Leontes in turn undertakes to deny” (Quest 94). Brothers become friends, wives mothers, husbands fathers, again and again, each splitting and multiplying. In accordance with this horror of multiplicity, Leontes wants revenge also against Time, “not because of its threat of mutability, bringing change to present happiness, but for something like the reverse reason, that its change perpetuates the nightmare of the present, its changes, its issuing, the very fact of more time” (Quest 92).

30.         The final scene of the play presents, for Cavell, its vision of recovery. The very theatricality of the scene is crucial to Leontes’ return; however convincing of the truth, the oracle had been insufficient to bring Leontes back to life. Beyond being told something (by the oracle), Leontes needs to be shown something. Theater or spectacle exceeds here the capacity of telling or narrative. In making this point, Cavell returns to the distinction he had made earlier between telling, as a mode of determining how one knows, and seeing for oneself, “experiencing the thing.”

31.         In his skeptical madness, Leontes expressed his disappointment with criteria and disattunement from speech shared with others, becoming unable to tell or count. He resorted then to want to claim to experience the thing itself, to see for himself. One might say that he wanted to be shown something while setting himself apart from the world as a world of counting. What happens in his recovery seems, paradoxically, however, a showing to him of his participation in a world of counting, a showing which he does not just see but in which he also functions as participant. Cavell notes how Paulina enlists a willing Leontes to join her as stage manager or producer of a spectacle in the final scene in which Hermione herself, moving from stasis into life, is the very issue. More than just stage manager, Leontes participates with Hermione in a process of mutual reawakening, a scene of remarriage as the enactment of mutual education. Cavell suggests that there takes place for Leontes finally a forgoing of the revenge against life and a forgiving of himself that rests on the acceptance of multiplicity in himself and in others. The “idea of theater in this theater above all means,” writes Cavell, “that each is part, only part, that no one is everything, that apart from this part that one has, there is never nothing, but always others” (Quest 89). Counting and recounting involve one’s attunement with shared criteria, but it is theater—the art that confronts us perhaps more than any other with the fact of our multiplicity—that shows us why counting and recounting necessarily structure our speech. It is in this sense that The Winter’s Tale shows in its final scene “what it may be to find in oneself the life of the world” (Quest 101).

32.         Sixteen years pass between the beginning and the ending of The Winter’s Tale. The passage of time is registered in its significance for Leontes only at the end, in his discovery of and participation in a theater of multiplicity and change. In the last lines of the play, he bids Paulina:

Lead us from hence, where we may leisurely
Each one demand, and answer to his part
Perform’d in this wide gap of time, since first
We were dissever’d. (5.3.151-55)
Insofar as the last two lines may be construed as suggesting the event of natality, the task of each one demanding and answering to his part describes not just a recovery of the last sixteen years but the very activity of life. Since first we were dissever’d, one speaks not just as one but in the roles of daughter, sister, wife, mother, friend, or queen to others who likewise answer to multiple parts. It is precisely because we are answerable to time and division that our answerability to one another takes place necessarily within contexts of speech that are finite but not fixed—in relation to a multiplicity and shifting hierarchy of parts that are likewise finite but not fixed. At the end of Part One of The Claim of Reason, Cavell speaks of philosophy as “the education of grownups” (Claim 125). In In Quest of the Ordinary, he reads Shakespeare’s late romance as an allegory of growing up that entails the acceptance of the finite and countable as conditioning the inhabitation of the ordinary.

33.         As many as sixteen years may also have passed between Julian’s two visits to Venice narrated in Julian and Maddalo. Julian grows old, with “aged eyes” and “wrinkled cheeks” (611-12), yet it remains a question whether or not he grows up, as it remains a question whether the poem envisions a growing up that is not a growing old. How much irony is there in Shelley’s portrait of the skeptical utopian poet as an older man? Are Julian and the Maniac versions of the Alastor-poet? And of the one-who-lifted-the-veil-which-those-who-live-call-Life? Shelley restages again and again inquests of the ordinary that forfeit quests for the ordinary. Cavell’s perfectionist critique of Romanticism may shed light on this predicament of repeated forfeiture by illuminating the delicate and mobile scaffolding of finite contexts and parts that constitute the ground of the ordinary. And it may thus lay claim to strains of Romanticism that aspire to the education of grownups, to the mutual creation of subjects who may declare their standing with one another as friends, lovers, and citizens of words.

Works Cited

Bainbridge, Simon. “‘Other Voices Speak’: The Poetic Conversations of Shelley and Byron.” A Companion to Romantic Poetry. Ed. Charles Mahoney. Oxford: Blackwell, 2011. 197-216. Print.

Cavell, Stanley. The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy. New York: Oxford UP, 1979. Print.

———. In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988. Print.

Critchley, Simon. Very Little . . . Almost Nothing: Death, Philosophy and Literature. London: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Davie, Donald. Purity of Diction in English Verse. London: Chatto & Windus, 1952. Print.

Eldridge, Richard, and Bernard Rhie, eds. Stanley Cavell and Literature Studies: Consequences of Skepticism. New York: Continuum, 2011. Print.

Everest, Kelvin. “Shelley’s Doubles: An Approach to Julian and Maddalo.” Rpt. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Ed. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat. New York: Norton, 2002. 675-83. Print.

Levinson, Marjorie. The Romantic Fragment Poem: A Critique of a Form. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1986. Print.

Shakespeare, William. The Winter’s Tale. Ed. John Pitcher. London: Arden, 2010. Print.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Ed. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat. New York: Norton, 2002. Print.

Walker, Eric. Marriage, Writing, and Romanticism: Wordsworth and Austen after War. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2009. Print.

Wasserman, Earl. Shelley: A Critical Reading. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1971. Print.

Wilner, Joshua. “‘Communicating with Objects’: Romanticism, Skepticism, and ‘The Specter of Animism’ in Cavell and Wordsworth.” Stanley Cavell and Literary Studies: Consequences of Skepticism. Ed. Richard Eldridge and Bernard Rhie. New York: Continuum, 2011. 244-248. Print.


[1] Joshua Wilner also deals with Cavell’s critique of Romantic animism in his essay, “‘Communicating with Objects’: Romanticism, Skepticism, and ‘The Specter of Animism’ in Cavell and Wordsworth” in Stanley Cavell and Literary Studies: Consequences of Skepticism, ed. Richard Eldridge and Bernard Rhie. Qualifying Cavell’s claims concerning a naïve animism in Wordsworth’s wish to “communicate with objects” in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wilner reads in Wordsworthian lyricism a difference between “communicating with” and “communicating about” that marks the difference between the power of language to address and the power of language to refer. Romanticism’s foregrounding of the former, according to Wilner, highlights our inevitable relationship to a language that is never simply ordinary and never quite our own. BACK

[2] In his essay for this collection, Paul Fry reads the movement away from the ordinary in Shelley as the very “moment of crisis turned to advantage from which [his] poetry arises [. . .] Our hope to inhabit another world can only derive from our uncertainty about whether or how we inhabit this one.” Fry’s subtle ear takes us to—and helps us hear—how Shelley expresses such uncertainty also in the register of a “facetious and self-effacing tone” that comes and goes, for instance, in the Puck-like lines from The Witch of Atlas that lend Fry the title of his essay, “‘A Modest Creed’: Saving Skepticism in Shelley and Cavell.” Fry’s discernment of an urbane, lighter messianic register in Shelley (and Cavell) opens up lines that I cannot pursue within the parameters of this essay. BACK

[3] Citations of Julian and Maddalo are by line number from Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, ed. Reiman and Fraistat. Citations of the Preface to Julian and Maddalo are by page number from the same edition. BACK

[4] For an important argument on how Julian and Maddalo shows Shelley’s class-based limitations as a political poet, see Kelvin Everest’s “Shelley’s Doubles: An Approach to Julian and Maddalo,” reprinted in Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, 675-83. For an opposite reading—of Julian and Maddalo as prime instance of Shelley’s “civilizing” effect upon English diction, see Donald Davie’s “Shelley’s Urbanity” in Purity of Diction in English Verse, 133-59. BACK

[5] Earl Wasserman reads the poem as, moreover, enacting a relationship of friendship with the reader: “its purpose with respect to the reader is the effect that Julian attributes to Maddalo’s companionship: not to dictate a truth or impose a conclusion but, through the unresolved dialectic of friendly controversy, to ‘make me know myself’ (561).” Shelley: A Critical Reading, 61. BACK

[6] Eric Lindstrom alerted me to the pun in Cavell’s title in his “Introduction” to this volume. Simon Critchley also remarks on it in Very Little [. . .] Almost Nothing, 139. Cavell himself comments on the ambiguity in his title thus: “It is this history of devotion to the discovery of false necessity that brought me to the ambiguity of the title I give to these lectures, In Quest of the Ordinary; to the sense that the ordinary is subject at once to autopsy and to augury, facing at once its end and its anticipation” (Quest, 9). BACK

[7] Marjorie Levinson has noticed the similarity between the Maniac’s rooms and Julian’s later expressed delight in “books [. . .] / Pictures, and casts from all those statues fair / Which were twin-born with poetry” (554-56), accoutrements associated with Maddalo’s hospitality, in The Romantic Fragment Poem: A Critique of a Form, 161. BACK

[8] See a recent reading of the poem as Shelley’s staging of a conversation between the two poets in Simon Bainbridge’s “‘Other voices speak’: The Poetic Conversations of Shelley and Byron” in A Companion to Romantic Poetry, 197-216. BACK

[9] I am grateful to Jonathan Mulrooney for this perturbingly illuminating suggestion. BACK

[10] In Marriage, Writing, and Romanticism, Eric Walker examines marriage—or, in Cavellian terms, remarriage—in Wordsworth and Austen as site and activity of mutual, diurnal recognition and the basis of modern identity. BACK

[11] In the closing section of his essay for this volume, “Cavell’s Romanticism and the Autobiographical Animal,” Eric Lindstrom offers a rich discussion of the topic of measure—as activity of enumeration and as lyrical and musical ordering—in Cavellian autobiographical practice and Wordsworthian lyrical utterance. BACK


Published @ RC

July 2014