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Romantic Frictions

"The Ruin of Things"

Jacques Khalip
Brown University


The disaster is the gift; it gives disaster: as if it took no account of being or not-being. It is not advent (which is proper to what comes to pass): it does not happen. And thus I cannot ever happen upon this thought, except without knowing, without appropriating any knowledge. Or again, is it the advent of what does not happen, of what would come without arriving, outside being, and as though by drifting away? The posthumous disaster?

Maurice Blanchot (5)

Junkspace features the tyranny of the oblivious: sometimes an entire Junkspace comes unstuck through the nonconformity of one of its members; a single citizen of an another culture—a refugee, a mother—can destabilize an entire Junkspace, hold it to a rustic’s ransom, leaving an invisible swath of obstruction in his/her wake, a deregulation eventually communicated to its furthest extremities...

Rem Koolhaas (180)

1.        At first glance, my remarks in this essay improvise on Adorno and Horkheimer’s pronouncement at the beginning of Dialectic of the Enlightenment that “Enlightenment, in the widest sense of progressive thought, has always aimed at liberating men from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant” (3). Their narrative of the perilous debris of secularized knowledge—the “disenchantment of the world”—negatively offers up the glimmer of waste for critical speculation. Indeed, the Dialectic’s critique of progressivism shores up remnants of various projects that lie in the wake of thought’s destruction and division, leaving readers in the headlights of the very forms of political, social, and cultural subjugation they were meant to overcome: “the Enlightenment has extinguished any trace of its own self-consciousness. The only kind of thinking that is sufficiently hard to shatter myths is ultimately self-destructive” (4).


2.         In what follows, however, I do not propose a therapeutic Romantic response to the Dialectic’s claims; rather, I invert Adorno and Horkheimer in order to explore how the aesthetic, cognitive, and ethical vocabularies of ruination and disaster (what Adorno will himself refer to as “damaged life”) provide ways for dwelling with the non-normative and transformative effects unleashed by disaster—that is to say, how palpable strains of apocalypticism in certain Romantic texts are denatured or flattened out to the point where “disaster triumphant” isn’t merely synonymous wth the denigration of thought, but rather suggests new conditions of intelligibility and complex forms of non-triumphal, wasted life. “I see around me here/Things which you cannot see: we die, my Friend,/Nor we alone, but that which each man loved/And prized in his peculiar nook of earth/Dies with him, or is changed.” (Ruined 67-71).  [1]  In The Ruined Cottage, Armytage hews an imaginary path through disaster: he perceives the intangible things of his littered environment as figures of reasoning that do not cease to generate unnatural visualizations and understandings. Here, ruins are less triumphalist memorials than wasted terrains that deviate from the normative circulations of sentimental value which the poem has traditionally been thought to sustain at a premium. In an article to which I will return, the architectural theorist Rem Koolhaas has imagined such scorched scenes as “Junkspace”—aesthetically residual stuff, the “apotheosis, or meltdown” of modernization’s enlightened programs of construction: “If space-junk is the human debris that litters the universe, Junk-Space is the residue mankind leaves on the planet” (175). This postmodern proliferation of immanent spaces, which Koolhaas diagnoses as one of the designs of late capitalism, homogenizes and conglomerates things that are readily discarded or treated as underway to being remaindered: “Continuity is the essence of Junkspace; it exploits any invention that enables expansion, deploys the infrastructure of seamlessness: escalator, air-conditioning, sprinkler, fire shutter, hot-air curtain. . .” (175). Risking anachronism, this architectural “stuff” leaks out of The Ruined Cottage’s own continuities of accumulation and regress, progress and memorialization, which are treated as leftover and exposed to exploitation. The poem begs its ruins to be read differently as junk, as “oblivious” spaces of conditioned freedom and “collision” where to look upon disaster is to see and meditate on the deviant mutability of persons and things. Part of the value of identifying such inhumanism and understanding why it countermands the nostalgia, melancholy, and frustration ordinarily associated with modernity’s angst depends on how we perceive the disaster that the poem proposes; after all, these things are not simply ghostly revenants but half-material entities on their way to death. Like Margaret, like the broken objects around the cottage, and finally, like Armytage and the narrator, all things break down in the poem and are rehydrated by its muted lines of sympathy. And yet, if Romanticism has often been read as synonymous with discourses of humanism, personhood, and community, how should we read Wordsworth’s insistence that we must attend to the waste, to things in their various states of destruction? And what would it mean to think of persons as things themselves? The trancelike inhumanism of the spear-grass vision that concludes the poem evokes a disastrous reticence that suffuses Wordsworth’s thought, and in this essay, I want to work toward a ruined cottage as the place where Wordsworth explores the hospitality of dwelling in the rubble of disaster—in other words, disaster not as the pessimistic obliteration of enlightenment promise, but rather as a bleak and elegant reimagination of sociality without a future.

Harassed Unrest

3.        In “Building Dwelling Thinking,” Heidegger states that: ‘“Mortals dwell in that they receive the sky as sky. They leave to the sun and the moon their journey, to the stars their courses, to the seasons their blessing and their inclemency; they do not turn night into day nor day into a harassed unrest” (150). What is harassed unrest? Is it a state lacking in peace, an imposed disruption of everyday life, or the place of disaster? When Wordsworth exclaims in Home at Grasmere that “yon ethereal vault/And this deep Vale” will give us the sense of finding ourselves as “The Inmates not unworthy of their home/The Dwellers of their Dwelling” (Poems 642-648), is he referring to a way of dwelling in unharassed rest? (We might also recall, for example, Wordsworth’s wish in “Tintern Abbey” that Dorothy’s mind “shall be a mansion for all lovely forms,/Thy memory be as a dwelling-place/For all sweet sounds and harmonies”[Poems 140-142]). For the author of Home at Grasmere, how to live or, more importantly, how to dwell essentially conveys the insight of pastoral otium: that “being” is about how one occupies or remains, stops or tarries as a figure in a space that neither precedes nor emerges out of one’s control. “Dwelling” sounds like a parrying move of sorts against the “multitude of causes unknown” blunting everyday life—England’s military-industrial proliferation, war, famine, poverty, amongst other elemental matters of late eighteenth-century European life (Wordsworth, Literary 21). In Home at Grasmere, Wordsworthian dwelling emerges as a defensive habitat—the ruling figure of contained, domesticated housing or sheltering where to live is to coincide (to prove “not unworthy”) with place and purpose. Finding a home marks a singular attempt on the poet’s part to avoid disasters that would demolish dwelling entirely.

4.        Heidegger etymologically traces dwelling to mean “to stay in a place…to be at peace, to be brought to peace, to remain at peace…preserved from harm and danger, preserved from something, safeguarded. To free really means to spare” (149), and his gloss captures the wistful ambivalence within Wordsworth’s thought which shuttles between containment and anxious openness at all costs: to dwell means to reprieve the imagination from the very stimulations that seek to exploit it—to grant or relinquish a spot to its state of rest, ostensibly without any design of its own. Dwelling, then, is less about home than it is (as Heidegger states) about a thinking and building, a securing of ontological place by allowing it to remain unoccupied or unused.

In such strength
Of usurpation, in such visitings
Of awful promise, when the light of sense
Goes out in flashes that have shown to us
The invisible world, doth greatness make abode,
There harbours whether we be young or old.
Our destiny, our nature, and our home
Is with infinitude, and only there;
With hope it is, hope that can never die,
Effort and expectation, and desire,
And something evermore about to be.
(Prelude 6.532-542)  [2] 

5.        In this passage from The Prelude, the imagination does indeed “make abode” as it exchanges its power over and against reason, but it is less concerned with housing authorial power than with deflecting an infinitude which lies “only there” in the most minimal sense of being a space out of reach, rather than an inaccessibility that gestures to a transcendental beyond. The ambiguities in Heidegger’s thoughts, like Wordsworth’s, turn on the question of how and why dwelling must be “brought to peace”: that is to say, is peace an original condition of place—the placing of place—that must be reestablished through a violence that is inextricable from its accomplishment? Or is it a horizon-event left to be discovered through “building” which spares and preserves a spot of rest? Insofar as “securing” is also a “building” for Heidegger, dwelling is a motile gathering of place, a recycling act in view of what he calls the fourfold (earth, sky, gods, mortals). All four of these reciprocally coalesce in dwelling, and nothing is misplaced. “Dwelling preserves the fourfold by bringing the presencing of the fourfold into things. But things themselves secure the fourfold only when they themselves as things are let be in their presencing” (151). Fretful dwelling is thus undwelling—it means a crisis with presencing the fourfold, with its arrangement—an incapacity to let things be. For Heidegger, the “real plight of dwelling lies in this, that mortals search anew for the nature of dwelling, that they must ever learn to dwell. What if man’s homelessness consisted in this, that man still does not even think of the real plight of dwelling as the plight?” (161) Heidegger’s post-war reflections on dwelling and world-homelessness might be thought of as reparative attempts at living: they generate or build forms of life that might dwell without coercion and harassment, not by changing what the world is, but by experiencing its openness as a condition of thinking about it otherwise. The difference for Wordsworth, however, in a poem like The Ruined Cottage and not Home at Grasmere, is that in the former text he specifically dwells in the disastering of the fourfold. Wordsworth thinks about how dwelling in the ruins of unrest brings changes in sociality that are rendered unreal in a landscape dominated by scarcity.

6.        How to dwell then in disaster? The absence of a precise definition (whether scientific, medical, social, aesthetic) imposes limits and demands a recalibration of its meanings. According to the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disaster (CRED), disaster “is a situation or event which overwhelms local capacity, necessitating a request to a national or international level for external assistance.” The OED’s definition—“Anything that befalls of ruinous or distressing nature; a sudden or great misfortune, mishap, or misadventure; a calamity”—reflects the World Health Organization’s emphasis on “extraordinary response from outside.” Disaster thus differs from other variants like crisis, emergency, or catastrophe by virtue of a system of scale and disproportionate intensity: the DEEP Center, for example, emphasizes an “imbalance between the demands of the disaster event and the capacities of the affected community to respond.” Disaster is a relational description of an excess of potentiality and the vulnerabilities produced by and within an environment rendered non-holistic. It forces bodies and objects to collide; rather than evoke a verticalizing sense of obligation and suspension by that which is “evermore about to be,” it intimates that any marked awareness of an alteration of events is at base perspectival—a change in position that outdoes the capacity to properly define and respond to it. As Marie-Hélène Huet reminds us of the etymology of the word, désastre (from the stars) or disastro also signals a particular displacement or dislocation vis-à-vis the sky—a betrayal or disownment by the cosmos: “However, the word ‘disaster’ has not always designated a catastrophic event. Initially it was not a noun by a past participle. In other words, there was no disaster per se, ony the experience of disaster—one was ‘disastered’…In disaster, the very space humans occupy in relation to the stars is destabilized; they are uprooted from their place in the cosmos and cast adrift” (18, 19). As a spatial coincidence of hazard with vulnerability, disaster provokes reflections on the possibilities of living under and through conditions undesirable—a reshifting of the hierarchization of knowledge in view of a change in placement. It is, in other words, a radical change in perspectives on dwelling. Trauma theory, for example, treats disaster as a kind of specialized knowledge of the modern habitus—something that is understood by its unknownness, or the mind’s hospitality to formations it cannot anticipate in advance.  [3]  And new historicist criticism of a certain traumatic variety has taught us to uncover these disasters, whether real or imagined, as in some way doubly dismal and displaced: they are hidden by forms of literary obscuration that blunt the “historical” underscorings of place. What these approaches share, however, is an attentiveness to the uncovering of referentiality as a material revelation of the states of life, and they equally treat disaster’s critical magnitude as the payoff for an enrichment of knowing in the face of loss: in other words, what resonates in some of these accounts is the recovery of unwanted knowledge as generative and non-privative. If we accept this, we might risk precluding narratives of non-development that disaster evokes in non-differential terms. For Maurice Blanchot, for example, disaster brings forms of perceptual awareness that cannot be easily shared or drawn into acceptable use because they shortcircuit desires to dwell with oneself:

The question concerning the disaster is a part of the disaster: it is not an interrogation, but a prayer, an entreaty, a call for help. The disaster appeals to the disaster that the idea of salvation, of redemption might not yet be affirmed, and might, drifting debris, sustain fear. The disaster: inopportune. (13)
The question of the disaster is implicitly about dwelling—as a non-reciprocal appeal, it reflects on how to live with unrest while refusing to consent to outside response. For Blanchot, the ability to think is synonymous with a capacity to not exclude difficulty—to forestall the expectation of what is “evermore about to be,” or what is cognitively expected of the unknown when it is construed as inevitable. On the one hand, disaster appears to read like a structure of desire (like love, risk, mourning), but even more for Blanchot, the disaster figures for the non-affirmation of hope, a plea that can never be attested to nor secured. It is a state of displacement, of non-affective dwelling that fails to imitate a relational stance toward salvation or redemption because neither can be properly anticipated. To believe in them is to erroneously seize upon each as structures of promised opportunity.
The disaster ruins everything, all the while leaving everything intact. It does not touch anyone in particular; ‘I’ am not threatened by it, but spared, left aside. It is in this way that I am threatened; it is in this way that the disaster threatens in me that which is exterior to me—an other than I who passively become other. There is no reaching the disaster…To think the disaster (if this is possible, and it is not possible inasmuch as we suspect that the disaster is thought) is to have no longer any future in which to think it. (1)
A number of thoughts emerge in this tightly-knit fragment: how does disaster “ruin everything” while changing nothing at the same time? And how can one speak of the disaster if it touches no one “in particular”? Blanchot’s fragmentary descriptions undo the privileging aspects of reference: to consider disaster as both preserving and destroying (to echo Shelley’s west wind) is to denature any demonstrative sense of its meaning. It intimates that progressive transformation is evanescent or slight or, moreover, that disaster is an inertia, something passively imponderable. Disaster is posthumous: it “neither is, nor is it not”  [4]  an event over which a present judgment can be rendered because the temporality of its occurrence is always belated. Since one cannot know “what comes to pass,” disaster attenuates revelation to the point of translating knowledge of an experience into knowledge of the afterlife of that experience. The difference between stasis and change, human and non-human, is thus neutralized by an ethics of reading that erases the experience of thinking of such difference as something felt to be discovered within the self, something made recognizable by the temporalization of a narrative that distributes events and their perception as seemingly successive and accountable. To be left untouched or to dwell as untouched means to go without registering the slightest kind of acknowledgment, the unaffective or non-traumatic impression that occurs by virtue of the fact that there is no one there to be touched by it in the first place. A “bond/Of brotherhood is broken” when a “human hand” does not touch the stillness it had earlier sought to disturb. The British geographer Nigel Clark has argued that the very desire to define disaster as “an event that makes a difference” is to reduce it to historical or social determinants, and thus do conceptual damage to the virtual materializations it unleashes: “Is it really ‘difference’ if we conceive of the disaster as a making manifest of vulnerabilities that could and should have been visible prior to the event; if the disaster serves primarily to reveal, re-inscribe and retrench pre-existing hierarchies and structures? And for whom is it a disaster, if in the very event of disrupting and unravelling a spatial or geographic order, it turns out to authorise the discourse that speaks of disruption and unravelling of spatial and geographic orders?” (1132-1133.) Difference can mark too easily an emerging pattern of articulation, of revelation and necessary sequence—it compels a relentless sameness, a rewinding of time to maintain repetition and inertia. By contrast, disaster is an unwilled, unseeable, and indifferent eventfulness, a “dwelling-with” so deeply ruined that its non-apparency marks a resistance to its claims. Although Blanchot’s cryptic descriptions mystify the term to the point of rendering it uninterpretable, it is important to recall how the question of disaster is always an entreaty to speak well of it. “Everything is the disaster” is an injunction to dwell with and not look away from oneself, and others, in ruin.

7.        When Wordsworth speaks of the “fretful dwellings of mankind” at the beginning of the Two-Part Prelude, he does so by way of what Timothy Morton has called an “ambient poetics”: a surrounding, reverberating environment of co-existence, rather than a marker or mere spot of time (Morton 22). Both the 1805 and 1850 Prelude repeat this passage with a teleological inflection that marks out the eventual home of Wordsworth’s poetic ambition. But instead of further amplifying these gladdening descriptions, I want to suggest a counter-Wordsworthian reading that turns especially on the withdrawal of personal will in favor of passive acceptance and receipt of unassumed itineraries:

I might advert
To numerous accidents in flood or field,
Quarry or moor, or ’mid the winter snows,
Distresses and disasters, tragic facts
Of rural history, that impressed my mind
With images to which in following years
Far other feelings were attached—with forms
That yet exist with independent life,
And, like their archetypes, know no decay.
(Two-Part Prelude 1. 279-287)
In this passage, which was not reproduced in the subsequent 1805 and 1850 versions of The Prelude, Wordsworth speaks of “distresses and disasters” as causal breaks, events that are neither anticipated by nor fulfill the experiences that precede them. Wordsworth’s disaster is closer to Deleuze’s theory of the event, for whom the event is not anything in particular but rather a virtualization of material possibilities that are always occurring: “The event is not the state of affairs. It is actualized in a state of affairs, in a body, in a lived, but it has a shadowy and secret part that is continually subtracted from or added to its actualization: in contrast with the state of affairs, it neither begins nor ends but has gained or kept the infinite movement to which it gives consistency” (What is Philosophy 156). The Deleuzian event is a disastrous irruption that is not to be confused with the actual occurrence precipitated by the event itself. It is always belatedly captured by the literary which doesn’t represent it but rather expresses it, not symptomatically but almost metabolically “counter-effectuating” the event (159). In this sense, Wordsworth’s distresses and disasters effect a non-pathological counter-effectuation: they permit a moment of freedom, an allusion to a virtuality of experience that won’t reduce the meaning of the disaster to the facticity of life. The “images to which in following years/Far other feelings were attached” certainly conjure a Humean reading of the image as a mechanism between sense and mind to which feeling incrementally attaches and in turn embellishes thought. But what Wordsworth also seems to suggest is that the images of “Distresses and disasters, tragic facts/Of rural history” which merge into “independent life” subsequently outlive, metaphorically, the real casualties out of which they come, not as naturalized copies or eidolons that rival reality, but which exist apart as simulacra requiring a violent dissemination in order to be reborn again. Rather than see such images as redemptive breakaways from disaster, Wordsworth points here to the mind not working to therapeutically overcome disaster (recuperating itself outside of these disasters and metastisizing out of it); rather, it is passively fascinated by the images’ endurance, “like archetypes,” in spite of the mind’s own individuation. If the disaster does signal a difference in the speaker, it is one which emerges with insignificant detail: “that what we feel of sorrow and despair/From ruin and from change, and all the grief/The passing shews of being leave behind,/Appeared an ideal dream that could not live/Where meditation was” (520-524); But at the same time, disaster also brings to awareness a life that somehow dwells under conditions that leave it to compose or decompose itself anew. If dwelling, for Heidegger, is an overcoming of “harassed unrest” that opens one up to and gathers the fourfold, Wordsworth’s “disasters” point to a kind of life whose unrest is unharassed, non-coercive, and non-apocalyptic. It scatters the fourfold.


8.        What if we were to conceive of the disasters of the past as pulverizing our standard forms of attachment? Because disasters are silently happening all around us, what would it mean to insist that our response should not be one of sudden regrouping, but of welcoming the unwanted changes that a form of disastrous hospitality commits on our moral exchanges, undoing our models of personhood, and transforming us into debris, waste, and ruin? Derrida writes after Kant that hospitality is a right or duty rather than an affective form of philanthropy because it is an obligation that challenges the seeming “naturalness” of our sentimental attachments: “it already broaches an important question, that of the anthropological dimension of hospitality or the right to hospitality: what can be said of, indeed can one speak of, hospitality toward the non-human, the divine, for example, or the animal or vegetable; does one owe hospitality, and is that the right word when it is a question of welcoming-–or being made welcome by-–the other or the stranger as god, animal or plant?” (4) Hospitality in fact concerns the question of unrestful dwelling because it won’t let the sky or the earth simply be—it marks the torquing between identities, the queering of our relation to the non-human, of the person to the vegetable. As inmates of dwellings, we should begin to read Wordsworth’s poetry as reflecting on the forms of dwelling afforded in the face of conditions that are, to say the least, intolerable and inhospitable.

9.         When Armytage points to the scene of disaster at the beginning of The Ruined Cottage, he gestures to the “cheerless spot” where the fourfold is at once gathered and disseminated, where disaster is kept open as a question over the ruins of a poem that has often been read as an act of reparative memorialization.  [5]  In keeping with Clark’s definition, I want to suggest that the ruins Wordsworth attends to closely resemble an “event of disrupting and unravelling,” and are linked to his antirepresentational preoccupation with disaster’s ruination of the gains of pastoral elegy. The Ruined Cottage thus doesn’t simply rehumanize our relationship with things in the world; instead, it marks an unworking or désoeuvrement of things, and troubles the kinds of economies that shuttle persons and things between durability and transience, gain and loss, wealth and waste. The elegy, in other words, does not give, and similarly does not owe (after Derrida): it disasters the payments ordinarily recouped by acts of mourning that assure normative dwelling “evermore.”  [6]  On the one hand, of course, The Ruined Cottage does seek to sublimate grief into what Joel Faflak calls a “desire for moral management” (“Was it”), creating pathetic fallacies which substantialize and organize emotions already resistant to duration (“The Poets in their elegies and songs/Lamenting the departed call the groves,/They call upon the hills and streams to mourn,/And senseless rocks, nor idly; for they speak/In these their invocations with a voice/Obedient to the strong creative power/Of human passions” [73-79]). But there are always “Sympathies…//More tranquil” (79-80) in the sense of being non-reciprocal, that do not instrumentalize streams and rocks in order to make them weep: while the poem’s opening rehearsal of the history of elegiac address seeks to re-cite (and re-assert) its precedence over a world of things, it also exhumes the “senselessness” of a triadic encounter laid waste in a leftover world. As Paul J. Alpers has noted, the intertextual echoes of Vergilian eclogue in the poem work less to develop a dark antipastoralism than to script a new mode of pastoral poetry that literally digs up the “bare Common” of its initial setting, and reconfigures it in new encounters and experiences where “the question of whether and how the earth is a fit habitation for human beings” (267) persists throughout the Romantic junkspace, where disaster makes the difference between change and death imperceptible. Indeed, as we are soon brought to a “ruined house, four naked walls/That stared upon each other,” the poem implies that any kind of ethical response to this spot will be measured in terms of how well we look upon (rather than away from) the ruins—a different kind of pedagogical approach, moreover, that risks changing everything and nothing, eliding being with non-being.

10.         The Ruined Cottage in fact begins with a scene of lugubrious oversaturation in the world, a wasting away of time that defines the narrator’s own way of being which, from the outset, is beset by “no rest” (23). This unrest of dwelling is characterized by intellectual distraction and barely recorded somatic movements: “careless limbs beside the root/Of some huge oak whose aged branches make/A twilight of their own” (11-13), or just after, the speaker toiling “With languid feet which by the slipp’ry ground/Were baffled still” (20). Unlively feet here are baffled into stillness and continue, as Wordsworth suggests, to be baffled by a groundlessness the poem asks us to accept as its state of unrest—the unraveling of our own being into a baffled stillness of matter. Armytage, as numerous critics have noted, is signaled as ruined or thing-like himself: “his hat/Bedewed with water-drops, as if the brim/Had newly scooped a running stream. He rose/And pointing to a sunflower, bade me climb/The [ ] wall where that same gaudy flower/Looked upon the road” (49-54). The MS. B version of the poem seems to overhaul this reification by inserting the as-yet unnamed pedlar’s self-narrative early on in the poem as an exemplary biography: as a “chosen son” (MS. B 76), the pedlar is described as entirely of a piece with the natural landscape, giving “moral life” to “every natural form, rock, fruit, and flower,/Even the loose stones that cover the highway” (80-82). The pedlar is individualized in the very act of his own self-discerning capacities to overcome the psychoanalytic frustration of Margaret’s abjection through philosophical narrative and moral therapy, or what Faflak elsewhere describes as the “conflict between a desire for a system that will discipline the aberrant empirical phenomena of psychic life and his fascination with those phenomena” (“Analysis”):

Some called it madness—such it might have been,
But that he had an eye which evermore
Looked deep into the shades of difference
As they lie hid in all exterior forms,
Which from a stone, a tree, a withered leave,
To the broad ocean and the azure heavens
Spangled with kindred multitudes of stars,
Could find no surface where its power might sleep,
Which spake perpetual logic to his soul,
And by an unrelenting agency
Did bind his feelings even as in a chain.
(MS.B., 93-103).
Aesthetic contemplation here mingles with a relentless moral uncovering of difference: the eye’s vigilance over the environment repetitively binds or “chains” it to assent to things that do not rest. These surfaces differentiate themselves as phenomena that coherently assemble the world’s facticity. But the pedlar’s look is not quite so self-absorbed and self-discerning: the biographical insert in MS.B literally “frame[s]” (104) Armytage so as to suggest that even in solitude, he is never detached from the “perpetual logic” that enchains him to all things. Indeed, the perpetuity of his thought serializes him into a landscape where he is dispersed into the scenic abstractions of “surface” and “shades.” Ocular power is scattered through a kind of ever-metamorphosing formalism. When Armytage exclaims in the MS.D version of the poem that at the “hour of deepest noon…/This hour when all things which are not at rest/Are chearful…Why should a tear be in an old man’s eye?” (187-192), his apparently stalled response over “feeding on disquiet” divests thought from thinker and contagiously passes it onto the poet who, on looking on the pedlar’s face, feels “that simple tale/[Pass] from my mind like a forgotten sound,” (203-204). The moment of forgetfulness is less one of sympathetic resemblance than a strange example of sfumato, or a literal inhumanizing of the face to the point where what is perceived is several disfigurations away from the object or person beheld. “[L]ooking round/Upon that tranquil ruin” (217-218), the poem reverses the compulsion to gaze upon things as if they were subject to coerced judgment. A different kind of unanticipated perception develops, a low-grade suspended attentiveness or distracted “looking away” that recalls what Rei Terada has studied as phenomenophilia—a love for “emigrating” or fleeting things. Such a love runs counter to the usual normativity of appearances foisted upon us by the social world (Looking).

11.        Alan Bewell has noted that “Wordsworth’s ‘ruined cottage’…should be read not only in terms of the discourse of the picturesque, but also as part of that ‘alien’ landscape of death that first emerged in his poetry with Salisbury Plain,” and the poem moves further into an astonishingly bleak poetic vision that reduces the picturesque almost to the level of still life (124-5). As Harold Bloom wrote years ago (37-52), Wordsworth’s cinematic Romanticism consists of a preternatural zooming in on the world: the poem unfurls a series of time-lapse vignettes that contrast the barest inklings of movement with interminable motionlessness, effecting a degradation of the narrative’s kinetic pull to the point where the hypersensations afforded by the elegy are shown to be utterly external to the form itself. In other words, the poem demonstrates how perception is negotiated through a poetic materiality that in turn abstracts sensation and leaves behind virtual, corroded images of things “at peace,” or things that “presence” the world and dwell insofar as they cannot be normatively reinhabited:

…When I stooped to drink,
A spider’s web hung to the water’s edge,
And on the wet and slimy foot-stone lay
The useless fragment of a wooden bowl;
It moved my very heart… (88-92)
…[Margaret] is dead,
The worm is on her cheek, and this poor hut,
Strippd of its outward garb of houshold flowers,
Of rose and sweet-briar, offers to the wind
A cold bare wall whose earthy top is tricked
With weeds and the rank spear-grass. She is dead,
And nettles rot and adders sun themselves
Where we have sate together while she nurs’d
Her infant at her breast. (108-111)
As the speaker “stoops,” the spider web also hangs, while the bowl lies on the “foot-stone” in the same way as the worm is “on” Margaret’s cheek. In these instances, one gesture appears to set off the energy of another in a Rube Goldberg-like process. Material figure hits against material figure with the slimmest sense of tangible action, and the effects of this lyric movement are in turn abstracted into the arc of disuse that degrades the image into a rubble of representation. What kind of durability does Wordsworth lend a character like Margaret, who is at once utterly obsolete, subject to decay, while also movingly thing-like? As Adam Potkay has noted, Romantic writers frequently point to the “thing” as a term that is not always reducible to sociological and materialist readings: neither commodity, fetish, nor concrete object, the “things we cannot see” disturb the gap between person and thing, self and other, and offer a challenging ecological ethics.  [7]  Such things, in their utter disposability, are images of what remains uncontaminated by time and hence resistant to any restorative, differential desire. The lingering waste of the poem doesn’t ripen, but rather remains unyielding to any future prospects—it is literally the “no future,” the superfluity of stuff that glimmers in a history of disaster that divests the poem of any redeemable conditions.  [8] 

12.        In this way, the elegy, while lamenting the substitution of non-human for human life, is a form that is as powerfully retro as it is retrospective, memorializing and reanimating the poem’s Wordsworthian kitsch in order to bring to light what Benjamin calls the “revolutionary energies that appear in the ‘outmoded’ ” (210). Elegy’s sweep here detotalizes the scene of recovery: rather than rescue memory and figure, elegiac deviance plows and erodes sentimentalism to the point of producing veritable kitsch or detritus. Put another way, the poem returns objects from misuse by “gathering” them up as things subject to no one at all:

Her cottage in its outward look appeared
As chearful as before; in any shew
Of neatness little changed, but that I thought
The honeysuckle crowded round the door
And from the wall hung down in heavier wreathes,
And knots of worthless stone-crop started out
Along the window’s edge, and grew like weeds
Against the lower panes. I turnd aside
And stroll’d into her garden.—It was chang’d:
The unprofitable bindweed spread his bells
From side to side and with unwieldy wreaths
Had dragg’d the rose from its sustaining wall
And bent it down to earth; the border tufts—
Daisy and thrift and lowly camomile
And thyme—had straggled out into the paths
Which they were used to deck. Ere this an hour
Was wasted. (305-321)
This disastrous overturning of the dwelling-with of objects, persons, and spaces in Wordsworth’s poem predictably recalls a fallen Eden, but it is more to the point that Armytage’s words turn the materiality of the environment into a text of disastrous interconnectivity. The rose suffocates under the violent pressures of the bindweed; combined, the two effect a junkimage, a residual poetic perception. Rose and bindweed serve as topological points of mediation which “gather” just as well as they disaster the various intimacies the passage seeks to render adjacent. Much like the passage where the narrator stoops to drink the water, here agency is several times relocated from honeysuckle to stone-crop, weed, bindweed, rose, chamomile, thyme—none of which are isolated things unto themselves, but “objects” that only mean insofar as they are brought into a web of proximation by the pedlar’s visualized narration. In just this way, pastoral ruination veers away from psychologizing lament, and produces a different kind of figural traffic.

13.         As Armytage, the poem’s bewildered documentarian, casts his eye on the Grey Gardens-like world of Margaret’s desuetude, he creates and transforms the cottage’s past and present. The infinitesimal alternation between stoppage and motion unleashed by the scene of disaster is of a piece with the unworking of images which moulder in their own inoperative pathetic fallacies, and the strangely atemporal, stop-motion description of things that do not move, much like the “insidious half-life” of Koolhaas’s Junkspace: “Aging in Junkspace is nonexistent or catastrophic; sometimes an entire Junkspace—a department store, a nightclub, a bachelor pad—turns into a slum overnight without warning: wattage diminishes imperceptibly, letters drop out of signs, air-conditioning units start dripping, cracks appear as if from otherwise unregistered earthquakes; sections rot, are no longer viable, but remain joined to the flesh of the main body via gangrenous passages” (180). The “catastrophic” upsets of junkspace plot time to be at once stopped and contracted to the point where change is instantaneous with presence. Junkspace thus spatializes the destructivity of endless movement and the excessive remains it jettisons: while space changes, junk accumulates but is relocated to different foci or lines of sight that turn habitation into an ethics of reading, or reading as a dwelling in states of disrepair between being and non-being where things cannot be appropriated.

14.         Raimonda Modiano has identified this de-instrumentalization of things as a feature of eighteenth-century picturesque, where human figures, like their non-human opposites, are ambiguously caught between prospect and property, and in turn are frequently depicted as found objects: “It is an object which has no known owner or if the owner is known, he or she is either unlocatable or out of reach. Because this object is not given by someone, a relationship with it incurs no obligation and fosters no dependency, as in gift exchange. On the contrary, this object guarantees the discoverer’s independence for it asks nothing and invites no attachments” (212-213).  [9]  Thus the picturesque economizes a non-reciprocal form of gift-giving that assumes the found object as the ungiven gift. The strangeness of The Ruined Cottage lies precisely in this emphasis on the foundness of things as if there were no prior authorship nor ownership: things are seemingly returned as unrepaired and not to be used, or as gifts never put into circulations of exchange or obligation. While their affective kitschiness nostalgically recalls the commodified literary history out of which they have emerged—as Karen Swann has taught us, they are almost certainly Gothic ephemera  [10]  —the elegy just as convincingly organizes the broken bowl, Margaret, her child, the spear-grass, and the cottage itself as things found in a limbic state between being for another and being for themselves. Like Van Gogh’s peasant shoes, what we see are the traces of inhuman objects rid of their wearers or dwellers, poetic fallacies that occur without the error of human intention. These things are specifically irreparable in Giorgio Agamben’s sense of the word: they “are consigned without remedy to their being-thus, that they are precisely and only their thus…[for these things] there is literally no shelter possible, that in their being-thus they are absolutely exposed, absolutely abandoned” (39). For Agamben, this irreparability is a quality of what he calls its “being that is always already given in modality, that is its modalities. It is not thus, but rather it is its thus” (92). The “being-thus” of the irreparable imagines being not in terms of essence, state, or condition, but in an “abandoned” excessiveness, a mode of “ecstatic dwelling,” as Kate Rigby calls it (“Ecstatic”). Like disaster, Agamben’s sense of the “irreparable” throws into high relief a form of sociality that is borne out of a decommodified and desacralized world—in other words, inoperative communities freed from universal judgment (“if the sensible world was ordered to fit the dignity and the habtation of imperfect humans, then what sense can that world have when those humans arrive at their supernatural destination?” [39]). Persons and things will “thus” not be expropriated; they are the stuff of an ontological desuetude that is intensely careless and negatively “capable of not not-being” (40).

15.         It is customary to note how the poem’s narration of Margaret’s wartime destruction is tempered by both the speaker and by Armytage, but what is less remarked on is how the moral helplessness of tending for her—of letting the disaster literally shift things before our eyes—is less a form of resignation than a thingifying counter-effect of Armytage’s trances: to cede to the “passing shews of being” is to be desubjectified, to enter the space from “ruin and from change” where the elegy’s pathic distractions express the degree to which the speakers themselves have become utterly irreparable: “ ‘I turned away/And walked along my road in happiness’ ” (524-525), says Armytage, his joy as impotent as the grief that “traced” (502) the “secret spirit of humanity” surviving “’mid the calm oblivious tendencies/Of nature, ‘mid her plants, her weeds, and flowers” (503-505). While criticism has often focused on this image of “humanity” as an ideological purification of the humanness of Margaret, what often goes unsaid is how the poet’s blessing of Margaret’s thingification in fact marks the point where the rubble is asserted as having a spooky perspective all by itself: as an object of care and not appropriation, the rubble is hospitably turned away from because in this refusal of identification, a refusal of the viral nature of sympathetic co-existence, a different kind of non-recognitional “ministering” is formed. Such distractions signify a life that is neither subjective nor objective, between being and non-being; it is a life that is rendered superfluous, or irreducible to its biopoliticized specificity—a dwelling in a disastrous or ruined mode that hears a gothic ecology of warbling linnets, singing thrushes “and other melodies” (533) that are as mechanized as the friendship between pedlar and poet. The elegy’s final musicality, moreover, recalls the thick silence of Keats’s “To Autumn,” but even more, the emphasis on the “evening resting-place” literally evens out the dwelling of poet and Armytage to the point where by now, we watch them mutate to the point of failing, as figures, to bear witness anymore to the human. Armytage falls into just this inhumanizing trance when he speaks of how “so familiarly/Do I perceive her manner and her look/And presence, and so deeply do I feel/Her goodness, that not seldom in my walks/A momentary trance comes over me/And to myself I seem to muse on one/By sorrow laid asleep or borne away,/A human being destined to awake/To human life, or something very near/To human life, when he shall come again/For whom she suffered” (365-375). The Christianizing redemption of these last lines notwithstanding, Armytage’s trance also compels him (and us) to attend to the way in which Margaret’s life becomes superfluous in the sense of becoming disposable, not knowing whether she sleeps or is borne away, or to which “life,” human or not, she is to awake. The interpassivity of her actions—suffering for Christ—suggests that her own waiting is less expectation than a process of strange erosion compelled by the elegy itself, one undertaken not in order simply to better translate Margaret into the ground or virtualize her into the “secret spirit of humanity” amid plants, weeds, and flowers, but rather to have us attend to her indistinction, to a life that is not quite human—a “passing shew” that has yet to awaken into a human life because she never experienced humanity in the world at all.

16.         Affixed to this site, Armytage compulsively “clings” to Margaret’s ghostly materiality as if she were a machine that spun him out into existence. In this “tale of silent suffering, hardly clothed/In bodily form, and to the grosser sense/But ill adapted, scaracely palpable/To him who does not think” (233-236), narrative propulsion does seem to become, as Davd Simpson has powerfully argued, a spectralized commodity itself that produces virtual figures and environments hovering between tangibility and phantom-like invisibility—states of “bare life” that testify to the buying and selling of mortality (Wordsworth). But at the same time, Margaret’s thingification occurs while she “wastes [her] time” (352), thus congealing her in debris and preventing any investment in what Alan Liu has called the poem’s “capitalization upon inhumanity” (325). Indeed, it isn’t clear if the commodification of labor has even begun: Margaret’s “pac[ing] through many a day/Of the warm summer, from a belt of flax/That girt her waist spinning the long-drawn thread” (459-462), which foreshadows her eventual demise into a spirit of humanity, seems like a mode of profligate dalliance. Deleuze would call this aspect of Wordsworth’s poem its éspace quelconque, or “whatever space”—a space denuded of human participation, that endures not simply as the remnant of human life, but of life itself in its state of desertion (Cinema). After all, garbage is precisely that which is prohibited, that which we ought not look at.  [11]  And because we do look at it here, Wordsworth points to the poem’s mise–en–scène, to the unrestful dwelling in rubbish that is brought into the poem’s foreground as the environment that sticks around and cannot be redeveloped. Although biblical images like the broken bowl imply a certain predestined fulfillment of catastrophic prophecy, Wordsworth’s writing concentrates on such images as rubbishy, irreparable ready-unmades that block any kind of recuperating interpretation—what Alphonso Lingis, in another context, calls “the empty endurance of the void” (21). What Wordsworth points to, in my view, is uncomfortably compelling: a reading of disaster in terms of a grief without grief, a hope without hope, and a style of extraindividual, catastrophic aestheticization that dwells beyond elegy. If The Ruined Cottage evokes a singular inhumanism in its lines of sympathetic attachment, it just as well concentrates on the less palatable moments of unrest where the vulnerability of persons catalyzes a kind of disastrous thought—one which turns women into things and men into ruins. Persons are readily thingified, and the desire to treat persons as things becomes a necessary component of Romantic modernity—to recirculate persons in an aesthetic economy that cannot bear to possess or dwell with anything, that treats persons as res nullius, and would have us literally waste life.

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[1] All references to the poem are to this edition and to the MS.D version, unless otherwise noted. BACK

[2] I refer to the 1805 poem. In the 1850 version, “nature” is replaced with “being’s heart.” BACK

[3] See Terada’s “Living” for a non-traumatic exploration of discovering possibility in ruination. BACK

[4] This is Ann Smock’s gloss in her introduction to The Writing of the Disaster (x). BACK

[5] See Schor and Fosso. BACK

[6] My thinking here is indebted to Freedgood’s manuscript, “That People Might Be Like Things and Live.” BACK

[7] See Potkay. BACK

[8] I allude here to Edelman. BACK

[9] Also see Mitchell and Collins. BACK

[10] See Swann. BACK

[11] See Yaeger: “the binary trash/culture has become more ethically charged and aesthetically interesting than the binary nature/culture. In a world where nature is dominated, polluted, pocketed, eco-touristed, warming, melting, bleaching, dissipating, and fleeing toward the poles—detritus is both its curse and its alternative. Trash is the becoming natural of culture, what culture, eating nature, tries to cast away. In the midst of simulacra, it is also a substance in which we can encounter decay and mortality” (339). BACK

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Published @ RC

September 2011