Printer-friendly versionSend by email

Romanticism and Philosophy
in an Historical Age

Thomas Pfau: Reply to Theresa Kelley's
"Romantic Interiority and Cultural Objects"

Thomas Pfau, Duke University


  1. Theorizing about Romanticism—arguably one of the more insistently (and more quizzically) reflexive periods of cultural production in a very long time—is tricky business. In reading Theresa Kelley's essay on "Romantic Interiority and Cultural Objects," I am struck to see how acutely the historical belatedness, the conceptual intricacy, and the often uncertain objectives of critical writing today resonate in the most commonly chosen form of critical practice today: the essay. We recall how Adorno (himself responding to and moving beyond Lukács's reflections on essay writing), notes a basic epistemological rupture that can be read off in the generic shift from the foundational faith of the philosophical treatise to the contingent theorizing of the essay form: "The essay . . . does not seek the eternal in the transient and distill it out; it tries to render the transient eternal. . . . It also testifies to an excess of intention over object." Having "abandon[ed] the royal road to origins," as Adorno puts it, the essay can merely "deal with objects that would be considered derivative, without itself pursuing their ultimate derivation" ("The Essay as Form," in Notes to Literature, vol. I, p. 11). What prompts me to invoke Adorno here is a striking analogy between the intellectual aspirations of the essay form—one that tends to betray, in more or less apparent ways, the irremediable epistemological abjection of its author—and the particularist structure of poetic figuration that Kelley explores in such intriguing ways in her reading of John Clare. Like the essay, that is, Clare's poetic figures (as I take Kelley to conceive of them) seek to advance their elliptic, nearly irreducible particularity as a logical alternative to the vagaries of lexical reference and grounding concepts: once again the word is to become flesh, thereby reaffirming our purchase on the world, albeit not as proposition but as name.

  2. What certain of Clare's poems aspire to (however unself-consciously)—namely, the utter commensurability between the poetic word and its respective object-sensation—is being retraced, descriptively, by the late-twentieth-century critic, albeit with that quantum of Socratic reserve, hesitation, even wariness so evocatively portrayed by the young Nietzsche in the Birth of Tragedy. The Socratic critic wants to remember the dreams of others—something akin to dreaming with one eye open—and the price of that hesitation means that we must write essays, not poems. Kelley's account of "Clare's catachretical fooling with flower names that sound at first like bird names and his tendency to multiply the local names that might be given to a specific flower or bird" intrigues. Indeed, I feel genuinely sympathetic to Kelley's view of a Romantic interiority that subsists precisely in the "local and particular" space "carve[d]" by the talismanic power of articulate form, such as the "botanical names and figures" in many of Clare's poems.

  3. That point having been made, however, other questions invariably begin to press upon us. What does it mean, here and now, for us to reconstruct this apparent convergence of psychological and material values in the radically figurative words/names of Clare's poetry? Kelley's persuasive thesis that Clare's "poetic ends . . . include the preservation of a particularity that makes figuration possible" and that, in encountering his catachretic style, the reader "must slow down and read for detail" bears within it the seeds of an epistemological crisis from which Clare's poems, but not her essay, may claim immunity. For Clare's strategy of articulating meaningful psychological values through an onomatic style implies precisely that he will forgo any larger epistemological claims. Indeed, no other poet seems more pleased with the referential limitations of poetic utterance and the sharply circumscribed bounds of his "knowledge" than Clare. Already the poetic strategy of Charlotte Turner Smith (of which a somewhat fuller discussion than the sketch offered by Kelley would have seemed desirable) presents itself again in far more generic terms than the rigorous local knowledge conceived in many of Clare's poems after 1821.

  4. Yet, to recapture my point, Kelley's critical rearticulation of Clare's project now unfolds within the altogether differently situated medium of the essay, a form intricately bound up with a whole network of critical discourse, and thus under stern intellectual and professional obligation to remain self-questioning and mindful of its inherently provisional status. To be sure, the epistemological authority of the essay appears just as sharply delimited as that of Clare's local tropes and figures. Yet as the added obligation of sustained disciplinary and methodological reflexivity makes clear, the knowledge produced by the essay is governed not merely by the intuitions of its writer, but just as much by an inherently cosmopolitan and aggregational logic that connects virtually all disciplinary and cross-disciplinary work in the humanities and social sciences today. Kelley's essay struggles with precisely this basic tension between topic and occasion, between the object and the form of knowledge. Forging a transition beween an aesthetic as emphatically particularist as Clare's and the question of that aesthetic's relevance to our own disciplinary and intellectual moment is no doubt difficult. I genuinely sympathize with Kelley's eagerness to negotiate formal and historical values and, in overcoming the gap frequently observed to separate one from the other, to grope toward "a sustained and intellectually compelling account of what Romanticism is and why we profess it."

  5. Kelley also intimates that any plausible account of Romantic interiority needs to be imagined as "allied, perhaps even formally allied, to a material reality that has long been regarded as its other;" and, she continues, "it is critical to imagine further how what is apparently other might be implicated in Romantic interiority." Here Kelley's argument succumbs to one of the basic problems of classical dialectical thought. Consciousness or "interiority" is posited (sensibly enough) as intrinsically heteronomous—its own other, so to speak. But even as the critic conceives interiority to depend on a delicate (even unconscious) nexus of object-relations, the objects in question—though understood as irreducibly particular in their own right—are immediately flattened out into an abstraction no less hazy than the generic interiority which they (allegedly) support. The common word for that abstraction, of course, is "materiality." Kelley's use of that term, and sometimes also her syntax, reveal how quickly specific objects (and their correspondingly unique experience) lapse back into a state of "equivalence" or "indifference" (the German Gleichgültigkeit appropriately signifies both): "Whether the objectified Romantic other is the British colonial project in India or, in the examples I discuss here, the miniature, microscopic preferences sustained by botanical discovery and representation between 1780 and 1830, the textual paths whereby it inflects Romantic writing may be helpful to consider as specific instances of a larger field of hypothesized relations" (italics mine); and, shortly thereafter, Kelley hints that "if it is possible to show, via the work of [Clare and Smith], how botany is part of the material and philosophical ground of Romanticism, then we may be able to extrapolate from these and allied instances models for a Romantic binding of mind and world" (italics mine). Yet to do so, I'd argue, is to reconstruct Clare's studiously local and particularist aesthetic once again as mere exemplum or synecdoche (precisely what Clare wants his poetry not to be) in which capacity it is to serve in altogether different and, evidently, far more sweeping theoretical debates.

  6. The strained commerce between the example of Clare and Kelley's larger theoretical aspiration of furnishing an account of the relation between formal and material, psychological and historical values, emerges in the (to me unpersuasive) introduction of Habermas's theory of the public sphere. In fact, Kelley's own reading of Habermas is fraught with so many qualifications and misgivings (all of which I share) as to deny his account all genuine relevance to a context as specialized and, at least from Clare's perspective, localized as the semantic potential of botanical figures and concepts. After all, Kelley herself remarks that "the Enlightenment ideals of rationality and equilibrium which inform Habermas's model of the public sphere are inherently out of sympathy with individual differences, with particularities that work against the desire embedded in that model for a single, argumentative but not divided sphere of consciousness and action." I fully agree. And even if it can be graciously said that Habermas succeeded, long ago, in drawing our attention to "the emancipatory potential of an actual historical moment" (qtd. by Kelley), both the Romantics and most scholars of Romanticism have surely always known that. Indeed, for lucid articulations of that "emancipatory potential," and especially for evidence of its intrinsically rhetorical character, we would be better advised to reread Novalis, F. Schlegel, Hegel, Coleridge, Shelley, or Edmund Burke.

  7. Still, sometimes a negative example such as Habermas's flawed account of the public sphere may produce dialectical rewards. Alternatively, though, an attempt at bridging the gap between a monolithic theorizing about the public "sphere" and an specific, radically particular Romantic idiom (such as Clare's) might begin by rereading Fichte's Science of Knowledge and its autotelic conception of a "sphere" or "interiority." Such a reading would put one on track to studying, next, Novalis's dialectical response to Fichte's Idealism in his Fichte Studien, a text that offers a very cogent account of the irreducibly partial (because tropological) status of any articulation of the material world and ones experiential relation to it. To be sure, the idiom of Jena Romanticism poses difficulties of its own, but writers like Novalis and F. Schlegel have certainly proven the possibility of writing a criticism that remains sensitive to the local particularities and idiomatic differences of Romantic writing without lapsing into an outright antithetical stance toward that period. Kelley's essay certainly rehearses for us the difficulties of adapting our larger critical purposes to the particularities of aesthetic form and to the contingencies of material experience of which such forms as Clare's nature poems are expressive. Seen in this light, her account offers serendipitous insight into the quintessentially Romantic intention of the essay form: to allow us to witness—in the inherently textual sphere of critical practice—a persistent dialectic between the expansive agendas of our critical present and the rhetorical and material self-containment of our inherited aesthetic objects.

About this Page

Author

Published @ RC

August 1999