Curran, "Of Gene Pools Genetic Mapping, Recessive Chromosomes, and Freaks of Nature"

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Romantic Hybridity, NASSR 96 Plenary Panel

Of Gene Pools, Genetic Mapping,
Recessive Chromosomes, and Freaks of Nature

Stuart Curran, University of Pennsylvania



I left the first NASSR conference three years ago in a state of rare exhilaration. And why not? I had my (now indispenable) plastic coffee-cup, a morning companion ever since, as the mundane memento of a revolutionary event, and the giddy sense that the future had finally arrived. The remarkable thing about the conference was that this "future" just happened: it was simply reconstituted in a collective act of intellectual expansion as this community of scholars responded to the uncommon circumstance of a three-day conference devoted to the field. Although "ideology" was in the title--"Romanticism and the Ideology of Genres"--it was all but absent from the sessions. They, in the fashion that has ordered the subsequent conferences and is virtually enshrined in this fourth, construed Romanticism as a designation inviting all of us to embark on a kind of liberated, liberating time-travel. In that conference, with three papers devoted to Joanna Baillie against one on Coleridge (thank you, Anthony Harding for keeping some balance), the landscape over which we soared was decidedly new. And new it happily remains.

So much so, that I cannot myself imagine reverting to the old. Indeed, with truly innovative anthologies and editions appearing on all sides to allow explorations once forestalled by the constraints of publishers' lists, and, moreover, with a profusion of sites for electronic texts and exchange that are growing with edenic abandon, I think we can hardly keep up with the new, let alone mourn for the comfortable old days when it was possible to fit the six canonical poets into the semester like so many sardines. Although I suspect that the second conference, on pedagogy, managed to resolve none of the problems of too many fish for the tin, however it may be retrofitted, nothing in this year's conference gives one much sense that the numbers of discovered literary and cultural voices or the energy with which they and we converse will diminish at any point soon.

But with all time-travel, as the universe of television shows and movies in which it occurs conventionally agree, it is important to arrive in the right place and at the right time. Some attention to coordinates is necessary if only to be sure we will dress according to current fashion, speak the local language using the right idioms, and not get ourselves arrested or deported or (goodbye to tenure and all that) executed for spying. So, as happy as I am to have the equivalent of a European Union passport where I can cross all borders without incident or delay, I want to pay some attention to the condition of the roads.

First, though, let's take to the high seas. Of course, from 1793 to 1815 that was not easy, since Britain maintained a highly effective blockade of the continent. That kept foreign contamination of British culture, which in respect to Europe was then as it now is distinctly isolationist, to a minimum--and in any arching perspective across centuries this minimum is truly remarkable. We all know how difficult it is to trace the influence of Kant in British thinking during this age, but what about Goethe, whose autobiography, Dichtung und Wahrheit, was ridiculed by Francis Palgrave in the Edinburgh Review of 1816? And, indeed, what kind of influence can we expect from what Palgrave called "the mingled rant and sickliness of German literature" (ER, 26 [1816], 308), if it was construed in such terms decades after its efflorescence? Yet if the blockade heavily taxed continental literature in jingoistic British customs, the reverse was also true. However much Britain ruled the waves, within a European context its cultural imperialism was distinctly limited. If, for instance, modern Romanticists look to Wordsworth as the most characteristic of early British Romantic poets and ask at what point he began to have an impact beyond the cultural barricade of a blockade that quickly transformed itself from a physical to a psychological condition, we find ourselves with Sainte-Beuve's promotion of him in the early 1830s almost two decades after Wordsworth had ceased to extend his influence in his homeland. These are but two of many such examples that starkly enforce the lasting effect of the blockade for both England and the continent.

Paradoxically, it is within that context that I would like to stress the importance of a comparative structure to the new Romanticism we are collectively creating. The program for this conference dutifully gives the French one session and the Germans another, their constituent titles suggesting an extension of this cultural containment within their two disparate literatures. In this case, with a few notable exceptions like those provided by Marilyn Butler, Ina Ferris, and Nigel Leask, "romantic crossings" simply are not occuring, and this has been true with the earlier NASSR conferences as well. (Although, I note that my examples, a Canadian and two British scholars, richly testify to how international an intellectual symposium NASSR has itself become.) Yet, however travel may have been frustrated by nationalistic priorities or contingent on momentary cessations of conflict or regroupings of European alliances during the nearly quarter-century of war that dominates the culture of Romanticism, crossings as international events certainly did occur, and they can be important. Germaine de Staël's trip to England to oversee John Murray's publication of her Germany in 1813 brought a major spokesperson for contemporary German culture and literature to the attention of the intellectual and social elite of London. Whatever Palgrave's supercilious condecension, he would not have been reviewing Dichtung und Wahrheit had Madame de Staël remained in central Europe. Three years later, in decidedly different circumstances, the self-exiled Ugo Foscolo arrived in London at the advance of what would become a wave of refugees from Austrian-dominated northern Italy. Although Foscolo was, sadly, a fish out of water in the English period that ended his life, it should be understood that he was also the first modern historian of Italian letters to become a cultural avatar in Britain, and his influence was major and without parallel. Then, too, at the very point that Foscolo left Italy, Germaine de Staël was intervening across the Alps with something of the imperialist impact of Hannibal, setting off the debates by which Italian Romanticism attempted to define a cultural integrity. The high road of Romanticism, it might be said, ran by her chateau on the outskirts of Geneva, which is surely why Byron set off for that locale when he chose Europe over England in 1816. The Baroness de Staël and Lord Byron had the uncanny ability, as well as the requisite titles, to constitute themselves as pan-European cultural aristocrats whose crossings, wherever they occured, were of the nature of international incidents.

Given the Anglocentric reality of this conference, however, I will revert here to the ferment that prospered in the British Isles behind the blockade. The cultural introversion of Britain during the Napoleonic Wars is an essential--maybe the single most essential--component of the spirit of the age, allowing the reclamation and reassimilation of a vast quantity of earlier literary and cultural models and a definition of the nation, mythicized as it may have been, from which no one escaped. Blake's Albion, created shire by shire in the epic cataloging of Milton and Jerusalem, is thus, oddly enough, an inherent self-reflection of the British people.

Yet, if we wish so to concentrate on the British experience, it is important not to homogenize it--or, in the guiding metaphorical terms for this plenary panel, not to forget the genetic constitution of the parents from which an often non-reproducible hybrid was thrust upon the world. In 1814 Walter Scott could subtitle the first of what became known as the Waverley novels--or, 'Tis Sixty Years Since--intruding upon a genre that became thereafter identified with him, the historical novel, a sense of sites of fracture as prime loci of interest. Closed-off Britain was highly conscious of its ethnic divisions: if Scott could turn the attention of virtually every reader to the liminality of the relations between Scotland and England, it was because these run so deeply in the super-national character of the British. And if the Border separating Scotland and England could assume so mythic a character, what would it have been to cross from Holyhead on New Year's Eve of 1800, bound for the capital of a sovereign country that in the morning would no longer have a separate existence but would be thereafter sustained as a despised dependency of the British Crown? There was one session in the conference specifically devoted to this "crossing," but in the cultural revisionism we are observing, the problem of Ireland--a present absence, a reified political nostalgia--is an essential component of the ethos we discover everywhere within the second generation of British Romanticism: it is worthy of all the pyrotechnics of postmodern French cultural semiotics. Something, too, could be made out of Wales; surely, the Welsh have always thought so. And if you look to the publishing industry of Bristol and of those in its vicinity, where the name Edward I acts like a line in the sand, my suspicion is that you will find that Wales was much on the collective mind of those like Joseph Cottle or Robert Southey who had their cultural roots in the West.

The crossing represented by colonial and imperial outreach has become a decided growth industry of Romantic scholarship, and it was exceedingly well represented within this conference. But it does seem to me that here also is a major arena for comparative study that is just beginning to be defined. For, though the British had the jump on the European powers, displacing the French during the Napoleonic Wars from wherever British naval power could exert its domination, the exclusion was by no means universal. Nor should we construe power as solely economic in its exercise. What may be the most salient aspect of a comparative reading of competitive European empire-building would be a recognition that colonization and imperialism can be quite different phenomena. German Romanticism has a deep investment in the India that Britain colonized and exploited: Friedrich Schlegel as a Professor of Sanskrit in the University of Paris is a "hybrid" of such protean dimensions that I do not know how adequately to grasp its signification. Later on, the revolutionary cry, "that Greece may yet be free," transmogrified into the bureaucratic aspiration "that Greece may yet be German," as Otto, Duke of Bavaria, became King of the Hellenes. (The manner in which he was reconstructed semiotically is represented in a fascinating series of panels in the Neue Pinakothek in Munich detailing his progress into his new domninions.) German scholars seem never to have succeeded in teaching those Hellenes to speak proper Greek, but for all the classical nostalgia that seemingly motivated them, by the early 1830s there was suddenly a fifth imperial power of Europe with interests in the Near East.

The "hybridities" that are most in evidence at this conference, however, have not been international or geographical in their dynamic, so much as psychological (though, of course, I have been talking for the most part in psychological terms already). And here, I think, we need a little less liberation if, across what are now the intervening centuries, we are going to interact successfully with the objects of our scholarly scrutiny. No Sex, Please; We're British played the provinces for a long time (I would say that the previews probably date from the early 1770s) before it showed up for its interminable run in the West End. In Britain at least, there is little sex, seldom an actual body, and virtually no romance in Romanticism. This leaves our contemporary concern with gender-shadings with not much to work from. If reading between the lines requires lines, after all, embodying figments of the imagination depends on something more than wraiths.

The Romantic period in Britain has the distinction of hosting the first trial on a charge of lesbianism in British history. Moreover, Louis Crompton, with a refined historical nicety, observes, "It may . . . be plausibly argued that homophobia had reached its zenith in the British Isles in 1810" (Byron and Greek Love, 158). He is referring to the events of September 27th of that year when London was virtually shut down by a mob of nearly 50,000 assembled to torment the six men of the "Vere Street Coterie," placed in the pillory for "attempted sodomy" (solicitation). Two of their group were executed; the six subjected to stoning in the pillory probably wished they had been. This fanatical public prosecution of sexual transgressiveness, one might think, is of a piece with the contemporary persecution of the Luddites, but there is nothing in the political sphere equivalent to the atavistic ritual that here took place on the streets of London sanctioned by its the entire governing establishment. Nor was it a singular circumstance. Twelve years later the Bishop of Clogher was apprehended in compromising circumstances, and the public furor was whipped to such a level that it led the Foreign Minister and Leader of the Tory bench in the House of Commons, Viscount Castlereagh, who was the subject of ongoing blackmail, to commit suicide. Sexual transgression, whether in a woman's heterosexual liaison out of marriage or as male homosexuality, resulted in lives that were effectively destroyed. Even cross-dressing, it should be remembered, was subject to criminal sanction.

There are very real literary repercussions here, though it is exceedingly difficult to feel one's way around them. What underlies Coleridge's referring innocently to "The Dark Ladie" and "Christabel" near the beginning of Chapter XIV of the Biographia Literaria, and then coming down at the end of the third paragraph thereafter with this sentence: "Blest indeed is that state of society, in which the immediate purpose would be baffled by the perversion of the proper ultimate end; in which no charm of diction or imagery could exempt the Bathyllus even of an Anacreon, or the Alexis of Virgil [Eclogue 2], from disgust and aversion" (BL, II, 12)? Perhaps this is simply how we should read Coleridge's view of his character Geraldine; perhaps, on the contrary, this is a kind of cover, an oblique response to those who might ask how Coleridge dared to breech the code of decorum that excluded creatures like Geraldine from the realms of literature. Perhaps, Coleridge was simply expressing the inveterate homophobia of his culture.

Yet, on this scale, it is important to distinguish between crossings that are apparent and those that look apparent but are real. As always in this regard, Byron is the test case. When Constance de Beverley, the nun who has renounced her vows for love of Marmion, dresses in male clothes to accompany Marmion on his desperate career, it is of a piece with the transgressiveness that touches every aspect of his life, as well as with her own inherent self-destructiveness. Scott shrewdly plays the conventional moral distaste of his readers against the conventions of romance with a result that is hard-minded and rooted in an understood British prejudice. Constance is imprisoned alive in the convent of Lindisfarne, as much for a kind of moral transvestism as for scheming to defraud Clara de Clare of her fortune. When Byron borrows this situation in Lara, however, the dynamics are much different. Scott's prior example authorizes Byron to adopt a transvestite relationship that will be immediately apparent, but then also perhaps to ironize it, subverting the conventionality on which Scott had relied for the reader's response. In our retrospect, it is virtually impossible not to read the relationship between Lara and his disguised page, Kaled, as homoerotic, particularly given the outcast character and undertone of essential difference with which the poem's hero is enveloped. Why, one might ask, would Byron in 1814 have played so strange and even dangerous a game? One might as well ask why he destroyed his perfectly acceptable marriage the next year. Perhaps one might want to interrogate Oscar Wilde on the same range of questions as well.

Still, there is more than flirting with disaster, or than being open about a transgression that cannot reveal itself as such, in Byron's understanding of the dynamics of crossing. Perhaps because his entire existence was involved in crossing borders--geographical, class, sexual, and several others--finding a means truly to embody the transgressive is an essential artistic, as it is personal, pursuit. As with the case of his appropriation of Scott, his intertextual relationships testify again and again to a cultural subversion that in local circumstances may be subtle, but in the aggregate is major because so deeply imbued in his personality. I end with the simple recital of a crossing whose psychological dimensions take one's breath away: Byron's own reaction to his reading "Christabel" to the Shelley party and Polidori in the Villa Diodati during the haunted Geneva summer of 1816. The result was his "Vampire" fragment, in which Geraldine and Christabel are reworked into a shard of uncanny desire between two men that is interrupted by doomed fatality. What does it mean, I wonder, that this fragment appears as an appendix to the all-male universe (and struggle ) of Mazeppa ?

I emphasize the categorical imperatives of sexual crossing during the Romantic age to remind us that we must be as sensitive to the local psychological economy as to the material conditions to which we have been learning more and more to adjust. All one need do is cross the channel and the entire complex is different. When France dropped sodomy from the list of criminal offenses in the recreation of the penal code in 1791, the idea of the transgressive and what crossing involved was radically altered. But since I cannot continue without having to face the all-too fantastic bodies of the Marquis de Sade's imagination, I will leave this dimension to be fleshed out by someone else, or as perhaps as a sheer metaphor for a specific cultural condition: which is to say, something that must be carried from one place to another, must cross borders that are real, that amount to something, borders where the language changes and difference abides.

Published @ RC

November 1996

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