Kelley, "Two Romantic Hybrids"

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Romantic Hybridity, NASSR 96 Plenary Panel

Two Romantic Hybrids

Theresa M. Kelley, University of Texas at Austin




These remarks are a longer version of the argument I presented during the plenary panel on Romantic Hybridities. Because this paper presents work in progress as well as work in press, citations of its argument should so acknowledge.

I begin these remarks with a description of two quite different projects, one just completed, the other just begun. The first project situates Romantic allegory in the historical and cultural arena of modernityfrom the late Renaissance to the present. The second investigates Romantic botanicals and botanical theory . I imagine this second project as one point of entry into a cultural terrain whose theory and practices obliquely register or illustrate literary texts and metatextual concerns also at issue in versions of Romanticism that have been characterized as "canonical" and "uncanonical." I ask, in other words, how Romantic botany might be said to comment on the figural or aesthetic as well as material features of its culture. I yoke this project to the rather different aims and historical arena of my recent work on allegory to specify how their divergent grounds and methods might both be said to "belong" to Romanticism. In making this profession, I assume that Romanticism is a complexly articulated cultural domain whose investigation requires the same degree of post-structuralist self-consciousness that now marks theories of field investigation in cultural anthropology. My contention is that both Romantic allegory and Romantic botany provide intriguing because quite different occasions for what W. J. T. Mitchell has called "literary theorizing as an activity scarred by history."

The theorizing I have in mind looks for ways that Romanticisms texts and cultural plots do not fit well into by now well exposed ideological programs and oppositions. I therefore ask what apparently hybrid forms or geneologies might teach readers and cultural critics about Romanticism as a field of texts and cultural practices whose not so scanty ground and periphery have been of late so often dug up and resurveyed. My approach to this scene of aesthetic and cultural instruction finds partial justification in one nineteenth-century German botanists discovery that a hybrid plant form is "as distinctive and stable as that of its progenitors." Read as a figure for my present inquiry, this discovery suggests that it may be possible to think of Romantic hybrids as resistant cultural and aesthetic mediums that survive when and where pure products might go crazy, as James Clifford has argued by way of William Carlos Williams. This is geneticism , but at its most disruptive insofar as it looks for hybrids whose resistance to pure strains may be instructive about what Romanticism is and what it means to profess it at the end of the twentieth century. My argument thus takes note of how the material and philosophical culture of Romanticism produces or warrants figures whose collective aesthetic momentum resists, even if only by glimpses or fitfully, the tendency to map Romanticism as a unified, ideologically coherent field. We might instead adapt what Barbara Stafford has said about how metaphor works during moments of cultural change. Echoing Hans Blumenbergs comparison of metaphors to "fossil clues" whose "broken tracks" suggest the existence of an "intellectual curiosity," she calls them "hybrids" whose very resistance to recognized forms is a sign that they are catalysts for an as yet under-recognized cultural development. "Heterogeneous, problematic, and even destructive," such figures wreak continued havoc in the narrative plots of science and literary history. In a gesture that admittedly seeks to beat the "long eighteenth century" at its own critical game, I contend that the resistance Stafford examines in late eighteenth-century culture is still more insistent in Romanticism cultural and aesthetic space where unresolved contradictions within modernity bubble to the surface.

My first topic--Romantic allegory as a hybrid formlooks at first self-evident. For precisely because allegory is by definition aligned with transcendent ideas as the absent ground for its "other speech," its philosophical hybridity has never been in doubt. Nor is its place in Romantic criticism news nearly three decades after the publication of Paul de Mans first seminal essay on this topic. I argue here for a differently poised account of allegorys hybridism that investigates the resistance built into its avowed opposition to the realand to realism as the style of the real. In brief, this description resituates Romantic allegory as one outcome of the collision between empiricism and abstraction that persists throughout modernity and into the present. This claim imagines, if not Romanticism writ large, Romanticism written against a long historical, cultural backdropthe kind of explanatory narrative that is not at present well thought of. I make it nonetheless to argue for its conceptual, philosophical, and historical interest as one of Romanticisms many nodes of contradiction. Here the operative contradiction pits modernitys ill-digested pursuit of the grounds of realism against its critique of abstraction. If Romanticism is not the first epoch or cultural moment to have recognized this contradiction, part of what makes Romanticism so interesting is the way it bumps up against, then worries over, problems that have been brewing on many levels throughout modernity. In modernity, allegory reinvents itself not by blind opposition to realism and empiricism, as its critics have argued, but by appropriating the language and figures of realism and empiricism for its own figurative ends. This is not to say either that allegory is always the best of all possible modes, as some post-structuralist theorists have suggested, or that it retains nothing of its traditional features or character. What interests me nonetheless is the fact that allegory survives after the Renaissance, against pressures that ought to have done it in, by making border raids on the very categories that have been presented as its contraries: realism mimesis, empiricism, and history. The claim that allegory should be set apart from history and realism has for too long marked the degree to which all three terms are implicated in questions about knowing and representability that permeate modern culture. In opposition, as it were, ever since the Renaissance, allegory maintains a shadow ministry by encroaching on and mimicking those in power, thereby insuring, paradoxically, its status as a resident alien in modern culture.

Although the cultural shifts that accompany allegorys passage into modernity occur throughout the West, they are especially marked in English culture after the mid seventeenth century, when theories of knowledge and languagefrom simple to complexare used to justify Restoration arguments in favor of a plain rhetorical style that rejects extravagant figures like allegory. Behind this philosophical occasion I believe there is anotherthe partisan use of allegory before, during, and after the English Civil War to villify assorted oppositions. Thereafter, the Neoclassical objection to allegorical agents in the epic and the Romantic polemic against allegory register differently poised interpretations of its figural power. Arrayed in opposition to the cult of the particular, the historical and the phenomenally real, allegory becomes the abjected "other" to be cast out in the name of modernity. At the high end of nineteenth-century French realism, Courbets subtitle for The Painters Studio, "A Real Allegory," limits allegory to the picture space created by this painter and his aesthetic objects.

In modernity, allegory looks still more alien and monstrous because the lack of a stable referent for its "other speech" invites exaggeration of its extremes. At one extreme are its material agentswhether texts or images or real referents or all of theseon which allegory depends to convey what lies at its other extremethe provisional, transcendent, idea to which those agents putatively refer. For de Man, irony and deferral are figural markers for the distance between these extremes, as to some extent they had been for Quintilian and the rhetorical tradition that reiterated his characterization of allegory as a figure of irony. In modernity, allegorys relation to rhetoric shifts ground. As its rhetorical surfaceboth figures and visual imagesbecomes the effective agent of allegorical meaning; and as its abstractions seem to become more material, allegory becomes more strategically linked to pathos, the rhetorical figure that justifies extreme human feelings and figures. The role of pathos in modern allegory is one warrant for risking the violenceimagined or politically effectivethat recent theorists have accurately listed among modern allegorys strong suits. For without pathos, allegory might constantly reproduce the mechanized allegory that Neoclassical critics hoped for (a mechanical allegory is at least safely dead), but which Romantics despised. In the work of Benjamin and de Man, an unrelenting critical desire for a lost or alien referent invokes pathos for what allegorical figures do not or cannot contain. If we still read allegory, we do so because of this unexpected convergence between particularity, strong feeling and abstract idea. Modern allegory thus offers one way to reimagine the ancient debate between Plato and Aristotle about particulars and abstractions. Whereas Plato asserts the priority of universal ideas or abstractions over particulars, Aristotle argues that particulars direct our understanding of abstract principles. Martha Nussbaum finds confirmation of Aristotles position in Platos teacher Socrates, whose unreformed desire for Alcibiades shows how a particular person animates eros, whereas the argument that all love objects are equally valuable does not. Or, as she says of Sophocless Antigone , "it was one thing to ask Creon to describe his views about the family; it was another to confront him with the death of a son." In modernity, the force of allegory similarly depends on its capacity to animate and thereby particularize its figures, even when it careens toward the spiritual, the other-worldly, and away from representations that seem so real you could touch them.

Readers who are wary of involving Romanticism in a grand narrative about the rise of modernity will recognize the extent too which my argument is such a narrative. Some will also recall Fredric Jamesons charge that such master narratives are allegorical insofar as they manifest a "political unconscious" with a strong desire for hegemonic control. There are nonetheless good reasons for risking just such an argument. One is suggested by modern allegorys untidy relation to its traditions. Precisely because allegory now violates what Jacques Derrida calls "the law of genre," it embodies the "impurity," anomaly or monstrosity" that disturbs efforts to classify works as "pure" vs "mixed" instances of a given genre. Throughout its long history, allegory has been guilty as charged: it has been (and still is) a rhetorical figure, a carefully patterned narrative or dramatic form, and a method of interpretation. Adena Rosmarin s suggestion that the real power of genre may be its resistance to strict notions of genre is particularly apposite for modern allegory, whose odd hybridism Romantic figures uncomfortably bring to life. From this perspective, allegory is an historically contingent genre whose survival in modernity retrospectively conveys the cultural and literary interest of its earlier forms and historical moments. With each "return call" on its past, modern allegory makes one of many "uncertain and incremental return[s] to a starting point" that Marian Hobson uses to characterize the post-structuralist understanding of history.

Romantic texts and images provide some of the most instructive of allegorys modern "return calls" on its long tradition. Leigh Hunt uneasily registers a widespread ambivalence about allegory in early Romantic literary culture when he rather apologetically characterizes Spensers Faerie Queene as "one part allegory, and nine parts beauty and enjoyment; sometimes an excess of flesh and blood." Hazlitt more directly confronts contemporary readers who are nervous about Spensers allegory by mocking them: "They look at it [the Faerie Queene] as a child looks at a painted dragon, and think it will strangle them in its shining folds. This is very idle. If they do not meddle with the allegory, the allegory will not meddle with them." ). Like Richard Blackmores seventeenth -century rant about Spenser and Ariosto "lost in the wood" of their own allegories, Hazlitts quip entertains a slight, but unmistakeably allegorical tale. A dragon named Allegory (or Errour) is on the loose, but if readers dont meddle, she wont bite. As this fable and Hunts nervous formula uncannily suggest, Romantic allegorical shapes make an issue of their proximity to human identities and particulars, even as their quirky differences from both can hardly escape notice. The "excess of flesh and blood" in Spenserian allegory returns in Romantic figures that gain their characteristic energy and pathos by tacking between abstract ideas and lived particulars. Consider, for example, a late canvas by J. M. W. Turner in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. First exhibited in 1840, The Slave Ship, or Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and DyingTyphoon coming on, shows how realistic details and a well-documented practice among slave traders support an allegorical reading. To lighten the load or to be eligible for insurance money that wouldnt be paid in port for slaves were ill or diseased, slave captains would throw weakened slaves overboard. The verses Turner appended to the painting for its first exhibition declare:

Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay; Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds Declare the Typhoon's coming. Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard The dead and dying ne'er heed their chains Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope! Where is thy market now?
Although the 1840 exhibition of this painting and explanatory verse coincided with royal proclamations against the slave trade--proclamations that were prompted by increasing pressure from the abolitionists the previous year--the figurative energies of Turners canvas and text push the scene away from the documentary and toward the emblematic. Beginning with "hands," a synecdoche for sailors, Turners verse insists on figured abstractions and personification: the "angry" sun, "fierce-edged" cloud; apostrophized "Hope"; and "the dead and dying," a nominalization that turns people into categories. In this crowd of images, "Typhoon" looks like an angry god of wind and sea. In the foreground of the canvas itself, iron chains float above the water ; in some cases, these chains are the only sign of the drowned and drowning slaves that have been thrown overboard. In realistic terms, this detail makes no sense, for chains would surely sink faster than the arms and legs to which they are attached. This visual detail instead advertises its synecdochic function. By holding human body parts aloft in grotesque display, the chains reduce the dying slaves, also "hands," to their working appendages. Other details convey similar figurative dismemberments. The unseen slavers of Turners title are known only by their actions: such violently displaced images figure what they do to others and what the painter does to them. This metafigural logic suggests too that the murderous turbulence of the water as the typhoon moves is itself a figure for the human rapaciousness left on board ship. With emphatically painted mouths --larger even than the mouths of greedy carpthe fish are similarly hyperbolic. Collectively these metonymic refigurations of a real event revivify the abstracting, fragmented energy of the Renaissance allegorical emblem. Precisely because this canvas flaunts rules of perspective and realistic scale Turner first learned as a topographical painter and later taught as the Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy, it dramatizes the patent factitiousness modern allegory shares with its Renaissance counterparts.

In literary Romanticism, allegory becomes a lightning rod for modernitys unresolved effort to calibrate the relative epistemological values of abstraction and particularity. Hegel plots a solution to this problem in his lectures on aesthetics as he articulates the character of Romantic subjectivity as that moment in culture and the mind when neither is subservient to "sensuous shape," the version of material or particular form that Hegel is especially wary of in Indian art. In poems by Percy Shelley and Keats, the conflict between idea or spirit on the one hand, and sensuous shape on the other is dramatized by poetic figures that are by turns grotesque, monstrous and rigidly abstract. They are frequently identified, either distantly or at close range, with eroticism and female figures. The "backward mutters of dissevering power" that are necessary to free the Lady in Miltons Comus from enchantment suggest the poetic logic at work in those Romantic allegorical figures that extend in one direction toward stony abstraction and, in the other, toward particular beings and cultural moments. Stretched taught in this poetic device, some female figures break under the pressure and thereby convey the absolute limit of this Romantic experiment with allegorical figures.

Consider for example Keats's invention of female rhetorical figures to mark the risks of turning real things into figures., among them "la belle dame sans merci," Lamia, and the figure of Circe in Endymion, who turns men to beasts and one man into an elephant who is so tormented by his heavy, monstrous bulk that he pleas "in human accent" to be released from "this heavy prison" "this gross, detestable, filthy flesh" (3:541-52, Keats 178). Keatss elephant -man (the only such transformation in versions of the Circe myth) is a trenchant emblem of the movement of personified figures away from human identity and toward the fixed, trapped abstractions at one extreme of allegory. For Circes terrible spell guarantees this victim a paradoxical and burdensome materiality that freezes figures and sets them apart. In "La Belle Dame sans Merci" and Lamia, Keats figures this extreme is more specifically erotic terms, but with an unsteady edge of sympathy for enchantresses. The Keatsian figure of women abused and in pain becomes thereby an occasion for mapping the figurative relation between pathos and abstraction. The pathos Keats accords poets and male protagonists similarly seized up makes a productive settlement with the ways grotesque transformations and artificed figures mark the intersection between sensuous reality and abstraction in allegorical figures. As these concerns unravel and ravel in other Romantic texts, they create distinctly un-Hegelian alignments between sensuous, particular shapes and abstract ideas. As they are not for Hegel, such alignments are caught up, like the figure of Beatrice in Shelleys Cenci, in a culture and time whose pressures cannot be evaded or foreclosed.

I want to make a rather different case for botany as an aesthetic and cultural sign of Romanticism In part, this case has already been made by other scholars, among them Alan Bewell, Janet Browne, Judith Pascoe, Barbara Stafford and, indeed, all the contributors to Visions of Empire. As essays in this volume make clear, those visions were in large measure botanical and mercantile, inasmuch as plants and seeds criss-crossed the globe from the late 1780s on, mostly for the greater honor and economic independence of Britain and its colonies. Against this cultural history, a modern Kew Gardens pamphlet which advertises its existence as a source for the globe is at once quite true about the role of this vast botanic garden in current efforts to address global problems of food supply and disease, but at best noncommital about its quite different function in Romantic colonial and economic culture. My particular, material focus is the growth industry of English botanical books and illustration between about 1780 and 1830both published and in manuscript. The attractions of this admittedly vast material and Romantic body are several, among them the emphasis on the particular, the miniature; and the microscopic that Romantic botany encouraged. Under scrutiny, moreover, this apparently minor Romantic mode and miniaturizing aesthetic resituates our long-standing critical preference for the Romanticism of sublime, monumental forms and figures. Looking in one direction in Romantic botanical literature, we see the "elephant" folio illustrations of Robert Thorntons Temple of Flora, which, like other botanical works of the 1790s, made much of the exotic flora that are among Linnaeuss best known instances of what Erasmus Darwin calls "the loves of the plants." Looking in another, we see a rather different emphasis on the microscopic and morphological character of plants. In English botanical circles during the Romantic era, this interest in the inside of plants and their structure runs counter to the English reluctance to give up not so much Linnaean nomenclaturealthough some, like John Clare, did so urge--but the rather single-minded sexual or reproductive focus of Linnaean classification. Throughout the Romantic era, English botanical illustration -- most of it hand-colored until the commercial use of aquatint beginsproliferates. Indeed, Thorntons Temple of Flora is an illustrative catalogue of the engraving techniques that were developed in the Romantic era. The number of women engravers, authors and publishers -- as well as mostly anonymous colorists--suggests that the Reverend Richard Polwheles 1798 poem The Unsexd Females was far too late to do any "good," inasmuch as women had been botanizing, mostly on the Linnaean system, for years. If subsequent publications by women tend to tiptoe around the delicate matter of plant reproduction, this looks more like a publishing strategy than evidence of a moral lesson taken to heart. As a career open to talent that very nearly left a door open to women as well, Romantic botany also looks like a tiny window that, once opened, reveals a vast network of Romantic inquiries.

I am fascinated by the unexpected capaciousness of this prospect. In almost any direction, botany is implicated in Romantic culturewhether high or low, canonical or un. The literary interest of what we see across this capacious prospect is a figurative and conceptual depth of field that includes specifically literary works and a good deal else. My interest, for example, in the way botanical illustration ranges widely during the Romantic era between gigantic and miniature formats with heavy doses of the monstrous on both sidesis the telescoping disposition suggested by these extremes. As I interpret this disposition, it conveys the spirit of Romantic cultureor that part of its spirit that keeps me coming back for morea conceptual restlessness and a willingness to range widelytraits that may accurately describe a number of presently uncanonical as well as canonical Romantic works of literature as well as English voyages of discovery and imperialism during this era. In making this link, I also wish to argue against the tendency (and tendentiousness) of criticism that praises or blames Romantic writers for espousing or not espousing one or more ideologies.

For a moment, though, I want to entertain the broader contemporary suspicion of Romanticism in which this ideological critique has participated because I believe our own centurys impatience with the Romantic poetics of solitude and subjectivity may well be instructive about the perils of our Romantic profession. Thus if the ideological critique of Romanticism in the name of William Wordsworth has distorted the very textual evidence it purported to discuss, it echoes a persistent modern wariness of that merits scrutiny. Here two brief expressions of this wariness from two critics one a novelist, the other a poetmust suffice. As others have done, Toni Morrison opposes "verisimilitude" to Romanticism, which she aligns with inescapable--and therefore culpableromance, with "origins" saved only by the imaginative uses to which they have since been put. Although the Romanticism at issue here is American and what it escapes is the presence of African American culture in a literary tradition that only seems to be white and mostly male, the terms of this critique of Romantic vision would surely include its English practitioners. It may be easier to understand some Romantic visions as more material than others, or more concerned with material, real outcomes than others, if we look attentively at the material and symbolic culture that in intricate ways helped sponsor those visions. In a critique that cuts closer to the bone of Romantic poetics, Mary Kinzie takes aim at the poetic limitations wrought by "the rhapsodic fallacy," whose sensibility prefers its own subjectivity to what lies outside the space of self and mind. At its worst, she concludes, this sensibility nourishes "aimlessness," "provisionality," "nonsense," or the "hypnagogic flattening of experience, language, and particularity" exhibited by an 1981 poem whose maker has, Kinzie implies, learned the lessons of Romantic subjectivity far too well. To the poetic forms of cure this capable poet and critic offers we might add "return calls" on our Romantic past that more capaciously imagines its internal resistances "material as well as intellectual" to the uninflected poetics of self-absorption that is for many today the unwelcome burden of our Romantic past.

Toward this end, I suggest that the hybrid tendencies of Romantic allegory and Romantic botany might assist a more inflected, less tightly packaged definition of Romanticism (and our cultural relation to it) as a field of different forces, tendencies, and interests. That parenthetical allusion to our cultural present admits the current, or "post-Romantic" trajectory of this inquiry, which seeks to find something else, something helpful in Romanticism, to put beside and against its transcendent sublimity of feeling and subjectivity. In doing so, we may also discover how Romanticisms literary figures, together with its material culture, might offer critical support for thinking about why this literary and cultural moment still interests us.


Published @ RC

November 1996