Introduction: Occasion and Expression

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The sense of an occasion is inseparable from the productivity that characterizes Romantic prose. Carl Schmitt's account of the "subjective occasionalism" of Romanticism offers us an analytical point of departure. But I argue that Romantic prose tries to deepen, extend, or formalize this sense of occasion. It tries to express, and sometimes embeds within itself, the social conditions of acts of utterance.

Introduction: Occasion and Expression

Yoon Sun Lee
Wellesley College

1.        Reading Carl Schmitt feels similar to reading Burke: they both seem so wrong, and yet surprisingly right in some ways. Political Romanticism is the text that I think is worth returning to for a closer look. Schmitt is better known these days as a theorist of sovereignty, but this early work, published in Berlin the year following Lukaćs’s Theory of the Novel (1918), offers a remarkable analysis of Romanticism as a movement. Analysis may be too neutral a term: it is more of an indictment. But the overall effect is bracing. Particularly at a moment when Romanticism seems in danger of simply being forgotten or absorbed into the greater nineteenth century, there is something invigorating in seeing it attacked with so much energy. Schmitt’s account has a new relevance today in light of our interest in affective experience. It also reveals the roots in Romanticism of what Judith Shklar called “the liberalism of fear,” which rests on the conviction that emotions are in no way “inferior to ideas and especially to political causes” (32). (Indeed, Romanticism could be said to name the intersection of affect and liberalism, a deeply compromised location in Schmitt’s eyes.) But what I wish to examine here is the way that Schmitt’s concept of political romanticism illuminates a peculiar feature of Romantic prose: its constitutive awareness of its own occasion.

2.        My challenge here is to find a way of discussing Romantic prose without reducing it to any single genre and without collapsing it into medium. While the concept of prose certainly predates media studies, I would like to think that it still cannot be simply absorbed into the idea of mediation or mediality. I also want to address questions of belief and aesthetics in a way that is different from those who have linked Humean skepticism to the rise of fictionality in this period. [1]  For these reasons, I will trace a rather eclectic itinerary that begins with Schmitt, turns to Wordsworth, and then to Jacques Rancière’s recent account of the “passage from belles lettres to literature” (34) that seems to pick up speed toward the end of the eighteenth century. These accounts offer a usefully capacious scale, as well as a way to address the situated quality of prose in the world and its varied relations to experience at this historical juncture.

3.        I will start by summarizing Schmitt’s account of “the structure of romantic spirit.” It doesn’t take long, since in a way Schmitt’s work is a miracle of reductiveness. It aims to cut Romanticism down to size. With visible impatience, Schmitt condemns the failure of the German Romantics to decide, to act, or even to acknowledge the necessity of action and decision. We can discern in his response to Novalis, the Schlegels, and Adam Müller in particular, the outlines of Schmitt’s belief in sovereignty and his later concept of the political as based on the distinction between enemy and friend. Burke and De Maistre earn his respect, since they were men of action. Other Romantics, however, do nothing but emit “a lyrical and discursive tremolo of ideas that sprang from the decision and the responsibility of others” (159). One of the central features of Romanticism, in Schmitt’s eyes, is its primary commitment to productivity of a particular sort. It is a pure idea or practice of productivity as a state of being, an end in itself rather than a means. This is what Schmitt seems to mean by “aesthetic productivity.” Romantics do not produce actual works of art or representations (or real theories or objects), but only pure affect or mood: “intensity of subjective impression is all that matters” (97). Aesthetic productivity can be thought of as the continual production of experience through the negation of the external world. “The unbroken subjectivism of early Romanticism saw an achievement even in the impressionistic experience. Affect as a psychic fact was intrinsically interesting” (97). Changes in the intensity of affective states were “both the terminus a quo and the terminus ad quem” of Romantic productivity (97).

4.        Aesthetic productivity is conceivable because of a particular attitude toward the world for which Schmitt invents the name “subjective occasionalism.” He draws a parallel with the occasionalism elaborated by Malebranche and other early modern philosophers who viewed God as the single true cause; events and actions, including the coordination of mind and body, were simply occasions of a higher power being exercised. What happens in Fichte and other German Romantics, according to Schmitt, is that the subjective ego assumes that higher position and power. Romantic occasionalism recognizes nothing higher than the subject’s arbitrary whims, though these latter might be disguised as the workings of a superindividual power such as history. Schmitt argues that Romantic writers refuse to acknowledge any basis for events, “where basis . . . signifies both causal explanation and normative justification or legitimation” (81). Their cardinal sin in Schmitt’s eyes is the rejection of norms, of causality, and even of any fixed context that could provide the ground of either explanation or justification. Occasion replaces causality: “if anything provides a complete definition of Romanticism, it is the lack of any relationship to a causa.” Romanticism rejects the possibility of a “calculable and adequate relationship of cause and effect . . . an absolutely inadequate relationship obtains between occasio and effect” (82–83, original emphasis). [2] 

5.        Several further characteristics of Romanticism arise from its occasionalism. As anything concrete is merely an occasion, “everything can be substituted for everything else” (158). What ought to be fixed categories or consistent relations disappear. “The Romantic subject can regard distinctly heterogeneous and antithetical processes and configurations as the beginning of the Romantic novel” (123). Schmitt frequently alludes to this latter phrase from Novalis’s sixty-sixth fragment (“Anfang eines unendlichen Romans”) with inexhaustible contempt. Finally, Schmitt suggests that Romantic occasionalism brings about a radical shift of scale, though he does not use that term himself. Instead of norms, concepts, and decisions—acts measurable on a political scale—Romantics deal in “associations, colors, [and] sounds that are combined in an admixture,” qualities and phenomena that might appear microscopically small, even infra-subjective (107). Schmitt sees this tendency as an example not of humility but of grandiosity. Turning his back on reality, the Romantic subject could claim to discern in any fragment a “totality . . . a construct that unfolds without any interest in empirical reality” (73).

6.        What Schmitt describes may help us better understand the structure of Romantic prose. This may seem an entirely counter-intuitive argument, given Hegel’s well-circulated phrase, “the prose of the world.” There, prose is not just a metaphor, but a historical condition characterized by the recalcitrant objectivity that refuses to combine with the life of the spirit. This is the very objectivity that Schmitt finds so completely lacking in Romantic writers. But I’d like to set against Hegel’s phrase a different, perhaps equally influential work that offers a different view of prose. Wordsworth’s 1800 Preface to the Lyrical Ballads reads almost like a formalist’s carefully considered response to Schmitt’s criticism of Romanticism. As we all know, Wordsworth argues on behalf of “the affinity betwixt metrical and prose composition” (156). The best moments of poems make use of “strictly the language of prose” (154). But if the distinction between poetry and prose becomes blurry, the real target of criticism emerges in the form of what Schmitt calls subjective occasionalism, with equal emphasis placed on subjectivity and occasionalism. The scourge of poetic diction arises from an exaltation of the ego, from “a notion of the peculiarity and exaltation of the Poet’s character,” fed by readerly “self-love” (188). Poets and writers of all genres are tempted to “indulge in arbitrary and capricious habits of expression, in order to furnish food for fickle tastes and fickle appetites” (144). Poetic diction is particularly a threat, Wordsworth writes, because it is “arbitrary, and subject to infinite caprices upon which no calculation whatever can be made” (171, my emphasis). Here is Schmitt, again: “occasio . . . negates the concept of causa, in other words, the force of a calculable causality, and thus also every binding norm” (16–17).

7.        What Wordsworth proposes as a remedy is exactly what Schmitt finds missing in Romanticism: what the latter calls “nomological regularity” (57). Wordsworth’s laws are of course twofold. Meter itself “obeys certain laws, to which the Poet and Reader both willingly submit because they are certain” (170). But there are the laws of second nature, too, which create a reliable regularity. Wordsworth prescribes to the poet “repeated experience and regular feelings,” to be followed by “repetition” of acts of reflection, until “such habits of mind will be produced, that, by obeying blindly and mechanically the impulses of those habits, we shall describe objects, and utter sentiments, of such a nature, and in such connection with each other, that the understanding of the Reader must necessarily be in some degree enlightened, and his affections strengthened . . .” (146). Necessity, as opposed to chance or occasion, pervades this process, shaping every connection along the entire relay. Meter or regular rhythm supplies, in the realm of form but also in that of psychology, the “purposive or normative nexus” (17) whose absence in Romanticism Schmitt deplores. [3]  In his later preface of 1815, Wordsworth develops the contrast of lawfulness and occasionalism through the imagination/fancy antithesis: the imagination’s “processes of creation or of composition [are] governed by certain fixed laws,” unlike those of fancy, which are “as capricious as the accidents of things” (31, 36). The distinction between fixed laws and accident or caprice, then, is fundamental to the organization of Romantic aesthetic experience.

8.        Prose by definition lacks an internal or formal principle of regularity, though at least it has the negative advantage of being free of the “transitory and accidental ornaments” that disfigure bad poetry. But Romantic prose has a complex relation to occasionalism. It does not consider there to be, in Schmitt’s words, “an absolutely inadequate relationship between occasio and effect.” In fact, I would like to suggest the opposite: that Romantic prose does acknowledge a purposive nexus, that it creates that nexus out of its own occasion and is constituted by it. Wordsworth’s own prefaces offer an example: the 1800 preface to the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads is followed two years later by an appendix, both of which are then supplemented by the 1815 essay, which Wordsworth then connected back to the 1800 preface starting in 1836-37. [4]  It is not so much the productivity as the purposiveness that is striking, as well as Wordsworth’s apparent inability to fully accomplish what it is he wants to do through his critical prose. His writing does not show, in Rancière’s words, “mind [that] has become conscious of its own domain and has taken possession of a language that has become a neutral instrument for the expression of thought” (82). [5]  What we see, rather, is the repeated attempt to express thought as a way both to acknowledge and to overcome an occasion—in Wordsworth’s case, that of public judgment.

9.        What does Romantic prose try to do and how? Does it imitate something or does it express something? Is it transitive or intransitive, to borrow Rancière’s metaphor? I want to consider Romantic prose, with a final allusion to Wordsworth, as a non-spontaneous, purposive expression first and foremost, rather than simply as a representation. The meanings of these last two terms I adopt from Rancière’s account of the cultural shift that produced a modern understanding of literature. Very briefly, a “representative poetics” concerns itself with arranging and imitating, in certain prescribed ways, the actions of humans; fiction-making is accepted and judged as a social activity among others, carried out in a certain milieu. With the Romantic “absolutization of art” (35), this mimetic or representational regime breaks apart. A quality that Rancière calls “poeticity,” following Schlegel, is discovered in anything that seems to speak, inadequately and incompletely, of the existence of a hidden power or spirit within it. The new “regime of expressivity” (60) presupposes a concept of language as material incarnation, as more expressive of its source than anything it might indicate about a shared, external world of praxis that it might be showing us. This focus on the phenomenon of expression as such comes to dominate over the earlier notion of words as “instruments of a discourse of persuasion or seduction” (55). Plots made by and about human subjects also become less compelling than the apparently limitless capacity of language as style, as writing, to go anywhere at all.

10.         The primary interest of Romantic prose, I want to suggest, does not lie in creating either a vivid or a decorous representation of people acting. It does not or cannot offer a “determinate set of ideas about . . . what causes make [subjects] act and what effects those causes produce” (Rancière 116). I will venture to say that this holds true even for the novels of the period, as well as for the not-quite-novels, the more-than-novels, and the not-at-all-novels that the essays in this volume consider. Rather, Romantic prose of all genres seems to push dialectically at the boundaries of inarticulateness. Sometimes the inarticulateness seems to function as a rhetorical device, a sign of affect, and a response to the times, as in Burke. The drama of expression seems to overwhelm the mimetic function, as language attempts to incarnate spirit—whether the spirit(s) of the folk, as in Hogg, or that of the literary absolute, in Lamb’s essays.

11.        Yet in those writers and the others considered in this volume, this elevation of expressivity does not seem to entail the subjective occasionalism that Schmitt finds in Romanticism, the sense that everything is in the end merely an occasion for the production of private affect. What seems to still operate in Romantic prose is a sense of performative utterance, of speech as a social action that is performed in a certain setting—even if it brings about ineffable private effects. What prompts utterance as well as blocks it, what legitimates it, in short, its own historical and social conditions are taken into and reflected in the utterance itself. Romantic prose seems to strive to make its own occasionalism appear less of a tenuous thing. The occasion is felt and acknowledged as the ground of evaluating the speech-act. The transitive or effective power of expression is emphasized. Speech acts are felt to embody, in Cavell’s striking paraphrase of Emerson, “the promise that the private and the social will be achieved together” (114). I have referred to speech and to speech acts because the idea of the spoken seems to be surprisingly inseparable from the prose of this period. As several of the essays here show in relation to Hogg’s tales, Lamb’s essays, and in the discursive techniques of Austen’s novels, prose engages the occasion of utterance. At the same time, it is not the case that they simply show people speaking. Affects and sensations are generated at levels that disrupt the usual scale of action and utterance. Caught between the representative and the expressive, Romantic prose persuades, seduces, embodies, entangles, as it tries to deepen and strengthen the many-sided connections between its occasion and its effect.

12.        The first two essays in this volume take up the sui generis writings of James Hogg. Matthew Wickman opens the discussion with a rich consideration of the place of the spirit—and of spirits—in two of Hogg’s works. Both of these place at their center a competition carried on through speech: ballads in The Queen’s Wake, tales in The Three Perils of Man. Wickman shows how Hogg refutes the historicizing framework of the modern novel that cordons off literature “as a reservoir of epistemic, ontological, and historical difference.” Instead, Hogg summons occasion and chance within his story to find spirit, and spirits, everywhere. The diegetic mechanism of plot weaves disparate phenomena into a single, unified field. Focusing on Hogg’s “The Mysterious Bride,” Anthony Jarrells offers a suggestive examination of the complicity of ballad and tale as genres. The often-overlooked genre of the tale emerges as a supremely Romantic one in Hogg’s handling. It is built not only on conscious remediation, but also on the negation of the social “fact” represented by traditional balladry. Jarrells argues that tales occupy “a genuine middle position . . . between orality and literacy.” They manage to balance two very different ideas of art: the spoken representation of actions and their effects, and the mute display through language of a vanishing culture.

13.        The next two essays present striking defamiliarizations of the genre of the novel and what we might call its ethical instrumentality. Instead of providing the straightforward representation of a plot or action by means of a diegetic apparatus, Sydney Owenson and Jane Austen are both shown to explore, in Rancière’s words, “the power of unbound perceptions and affections, of individuations in which individuals are lost” (118). Miranda Burgess brilliantly situates Owenson in the context of Thomas Reid’s common-sense philosophy, uncovering the novelist’s interest in questions of causality and experience. Burgess draws our attention to the radically and purposefully formless empiricism of Owenson’s prose. Owenson’s descriptions, she argues, “dwell constantly in sensation” without attaching these experiences to fixed forms or identities. But what’s significant about this maneuver are the ethical, even normative implications it carries. Stuart Burrows offers a subtle reading of the complexity of utterance within Austen’s diegetic world. Burrows finds in Austen’s novels a curiously distributed type of expression in which “almost every character speaks for, through, or on behalf of another.” Private thoughts are often recognized only when uttered by another. Persuasion, with its “remarkable lack of interest in specifying who is speaking and when,” imagines an intensely personal, private speech that is deliberately detached from any particular subjectivity. Rather, utterances become almost free-floating events that re-envision the relation of private to social experience.

14.        De Quincey and Lamb are writers to whom Schmitt’s characterization of Romanticism could perhaps best be applied: they both openly avow aesthetic productivity and occasionalism. Timothy Milnes and Andrew Warren, however, show how deeply these essayists depend on situating their own utterances as exemplary social actions. The familiar essay in Lamb’s hands builds on the Humean practice of creating “a shared community of opinion and belief” as the basis of experience. However, as Milnes lucidly argues, Lamb foregrounds his own subjective occasionalism and even allows it to open up the possibility that aesthetic productivity could become a reliable, recognizable occasion for sympathy, albeit imperfect. De Quincey, though speaking in a different register of “impassioned prose,” also relies on perlocutionary effects, as Warren shows in the exuberant essay that closes this collection. Most strikingly, De Quincey elaborates and puts into practice a theory of expression that places contingent features of the occasion at the heart of any attempt to capture experience. Language is material entanglement, but that very entanglement forces us to try to decipher the lasting, the binding, perhaps even the calculable within it. Romantic prose, then, fixes its occasions into form.

Works Cited

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

Christensen, Jerome. Romanticism at the End of History. Johns Hopkins UP, 2000.

Duncan, Ian. Scott’s Shadow: The Novel in Romantic Edinburgh. Princeton UP, 2007.

Gallagher, Catherine. “The Rise of Fictionality.” The Novel, Volume 1: History, Geography, and Culture, edited by Franco Moretti, Princeton UP, 2006, pp. 336–63.

Rancière, Jacques. Mute Speech. Translated by James Swenson, Columbia UP, 2011.

Schmitt, Carl. Political Romanticism. Translated by Guy Oakes, MIT P, 1986.

Shklar, Judith. “The Liberalism of Fear.” Liberalism and the Moral Life, edited by Nancy Rosenblum, Harvard UP, 1989, 21–38.

Wordsworth, William. The Prose Works of William Wordsworth. Edited by W.J.B. Owen and Jane Worthington Smyser, Clarendon P, 1974. 2 vols.


[1] See, for example, Duncan’s powerful argument, in particular pp. 116–44, as well as Gallagher’s account of fictionality, to both of which I am indebted. BACK

[2] For a subtle reading of Scott’s first novel, Waverley, in relation to Schmitt’s argument, see Jerome Christensen, 161 ff. BACK

[3] Wordsworth describes the effect of iambic pentameter as “small, but continual and regular impulses of pleasurable surprise from the metrical arrangement” (459). BACK

[4] See Owen and Smyser, vol. 1, 130–31. BACK

[5] Rancière thus paraphrases Hegel’s account of the supersession of poetry. BACK


Published @ RC

February 2017