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Feeding on Infinity: Readings in the Romantic Rhetoric of Internalization by Joshua Wilner. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. Pp. x + 154, $34.95 cloth.
Feeding on Infinity, Joshua Wilner's challenging and rewarding new book, comprises several related essays on "the problem of internalization as it finds expression in European Romantic literary tradition." Wilner argues that the discourse of "internalization," so familiar in literary studies, psychoanalysis, ideological critique, and everyday use, has most often been applied inexactly to processes and concepts that "are not well grasped, if grasped at all." In close readings of largely canonical texts by Rousseau, Wordsworth, De Quincey, Baudelaire, and others, he sets out to perform a "labor of conceptual clarification" (1-2). [End Page 197]
"Romantic tradition," Wilner notes, is both source and object of the discourse of internalization. The most influential schematic accounts of Romanticism from recent decades—including Harold Bloom's "internalization of quest romance," Paul de Man's characterization of "Romanticism as interiorization" and M. H. Abrams's argument that Romanticism reinterprets a Judeo-Christian scheme of creation, fall, and millennial redemption "as a drama of consciousness"—rely on some notion of internalization (5, 15). Such characterizations, he acknowledges, have "not wanted for critics"—but even the critics tend to view internalization as "a known quantity." Wilner, countering this tendency, maintains that "the notion itself remains obscure and thus that the problem of internalization and the problem of Romanticism may indeed, with respect to the discourse of literary history, be closely intertwined" (5).
These intertwined problems become the subject of the book's first main essay (chapter 2), which scrutinizes the ways in which literary histories of Romanticism such as Abrams's apply the discourse of internalization to Romantic tradition. Subsequent essays shift the focus to the discourse as it manifests itself in Romantic texts, looking closely at the dynamics of internalization in these texts on the dual supposition that to do so is "to return to a point at which that problem is first being taken hold of as such" and that contemporary discussions of internalization—in histories of Romanticism, but also in psychoanalytical theory and ideological critique—"tend to derive in more or less mediated fashion from the theoretical practice of writers of the Romantic period" (5).
Why did the discourse of internalization begin to develop at this particular moment? Acknowledging that "the current project is based on too narrow a sampling of material to claim other than speculative value," Wilner proceeds to offer some bold speculations:
that the development and transformation of the discursive practices in question are bound up with the history of patriarchy in the West, with the ambiguous role that male Romantic writers played in the reproduction of patriarchal cultural authority, and with the breakdown, clearly heralded by Wordsworth's "Preface to Lyrical Ballads," of the foundational generic distinction between the language of poetry and the language of prose, an organizing principle that had become closely intertwined with gender hierarchies. (6)
One's assessment of Feeding on Infinity must depend in part on how one rates "speculative value"—or, more precisely, on the degree to which one appreciates close reading of a "narrow" selection of passages as valuable in itself, if only merely suggestive of a larger cultural history.
The readings that make up the substance of the book are stimulating, nuanced, and often brilliant. The relationship of literary-historical speculation to [End Page 198] close reading here is reminiscent of de Man and Geoffrey Hartman: the speculations do not rely on numerous examples, marshaled as if to compel assent; rather, they remain surmises, suggested by the passages and underwritten by a rich and learned sense of literary history that is evoked by allusion rather than mapped out in any systematic way. Wilner's surmises seem wild at times—an impression that is heightened by his rather surprisingly unselfconscious recourse at times to a rhetoric of cultural critique that is, arguably, more reductive than de Man's and Hartman's language and that contrasts with the subtlety of his...