Nancy Yousef - Romantic Intimacy. Review by Aaron Ottinger.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015 - 04:59

Nancy Yousef, Romantic Intimacy (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013). 192 pp. (Hdbk. or digital, $55.00; cloth ISBN: 9780804786096, digital ISBN: 9780804788274).

Aaron Ottinger
University of Washington

In 2010, the Museum of Modern Art in New York hosted Marina Abramović’s performance, The Artist is Present. For seventy-five days, Abramović sat in a chair while a succeeding rotation of museumgoers sat parallel to the artist and gazed into her face. Some patrons stared at Abramović for hours at a time; meanwhile, no words were exchanged. How can we characterize this strange encounter between artist and audience?

Nancy Yousef classifies the above relational experience as a modern version of Romantic Intimacy, after the title of her second book. In this important study of affect, Yousef demonstrates how our present-day understanding of intimacy in artworks and especially in psychoanalytic practice follows from Romantic-era writers like William Wordsworth, Jane Austen, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Romantic intimacy, defined paradoxically as what is “most private [and] most shared” (119), modified the sentimentalist approach to “sympathy” as put forward by a cast of Enlightenment philosophers, from the Earl of Shaftesbury to Kant. The chief difference is that the Romantics explored unstable relationships in which one person might sympathize with another person who fails to reciprocate that feeling. In short, Yousef explores sympathy without identity.

Such non-reciprocal relationships, often associated with feelings of disappointment, embarrassment, and frustration (but also with respect and gratitude), ultimately come to bear on issues of epistemology. In a more dynamic relationship with knowledge, feelings of intimacy assume what Yousef calls a “para-cognitive” role, following from previously held assumptions but also breaking down reasoned expectations (16-17). In this respect, feeling and knowing are intertwined.

Yousef begins chapter one with Shaftesbury, who claims that everything around us can be doubted—“including, especially, other persons”—and that our innermost feelings offer the only certainty upon which moral virtues can be based (46). Consequently, Shaftesbury introduces the eighteenth century to a sympathetic feeling without a correspondent object, and by extension, to the impossibility of knowing with certainty that a community can hold a feeling in common.

In chapter two Yousef shows how Rousseau reverses Shaftesbury’s affective prioritization: according to Rousseau, knowledge is the “precondition of love” for others (66). But Rousseau can only ensure this love through the constant disclosure of peoples’ thoughts and feelings by way of public appearance. Thus “Rousseauvian transparency” produces such a likeness among people that identity becomes a superfluous, “mediated form of knowledge” (64). 

Turning then to Wordsworth’s approach to sympathy, the Romantic case studies that follow take on more explicitly epistemological as well as ethical dimensions, creating a more truly dynamic rather than dialectic relationship between each domain. In contradistinction to Hume, who saw proximity as an integral triggering mechanism for sympathizing with others, proximity to those who suffer tends to frustrate the attempts of Wordsworth’s speakers to realize an affective identity with the other. But such failed encounters are still significant; Yousef claims that, “The feeling of being close to another falls short of the achievement of love and knowledge without thereby negating the impact of the event” (88). Where a reconciling identity between parties is frustrated, especially here, Yousef finds value.

In her chapter on Pride and Prejudice, Yousef explores the relationship between gratitude and respect, two sympathetic feelings bound by Elizabeth Bennet’s softened pride, or a “degrading, self-abasing mood” (111). At stake here is an economy of the gift (Mr. Darcy’s love and wealth). But to receive a gift in an Austen novel, one must surrender “the anxious urge to reciprocate” (115), a surrender Elizabeth arrives at not through “willed impartiality or reasoned overcoming of prejudice,” but through an “irresistible flow of feelings” (109).

Yousef makes in the final chapter a culminating and astonishing claim that “intimacy is the condition for the possibility of being alone” (122). She grounds this claim in psychoanalytic studies which demonstrate that a reliably present mother is required for an infant to enter its solitary and silent state just prior to falling asleep. Yousef sees a similar breech between solitary and social spheres when the tables are turned in Coleridge’s meditation on “Frost at Midnight.” Rather than a lyric moment severed from personal ties, the poet experiences temporal leaps and “this silence”—in contrast to “more familiar, less intense experiences of silence”—only on account of his nearby sleeping infant (123).

Yousef’s investigation of asymmetrical relations between people places this study at the forefront of historical approaches to affect. But, and despite an otherwise impressive level of scholarship, I wish Yousef had responded to more recent theorists investigating asymmetrical or non-correlationist approaches to humans and how we know what we know (I am thinking especially of Quentin Meillassoux and the movement often referred to in his wake as “speculative realism”). Moreover, I wonder how human and non-human encounters would factor into Yousef’s study. Such additions might help us better understand our present position in the anthropocene, a world that is uncannily human yet unsympathetic. Nevertheless, Yousef’s inquiry will provide readers with a fresh and indispensible outline of an alternative form of sympathy that matured during the Romantic period.