- Romanticism after Auschwitz
The study of Romanticism for the last twenty years has become increasingly associated with historical inquiry; much of the best work in the field has tended—in line with that temperament—to investigate new texts in order to unsettle conventional notions of the Romantic “canon” or to expand the contextual range under which familiar texts have been studied. This trend could of course be observed in other subdisciplines of literary studies, but the dramatic consequences of it are particularly visible in the study of Romantic texts. In the work of deconstructive critics, Romantic poetry occupied a crucial position because its commitment to the figurative power of language demonstrated not merely an important moment in the history of poetry, not merely an important moment in the history of literature, but a truth about language itself. The turn against deconstructive modes of reading in the 1980s reversed this priority of Romanticism in two ways. First, by embedding Romanticism in its contexts, historicism refused to grant it, as a “period,” any special authority in relation to other periods of years. Second, historicists tended to implicate Romanticism, insofar as it was historical, in a level of escapism, idealism, and denial that the historicist critic attempted to overcome in and through her work of criticism. To put it another way, once literary criticism measured its success according to its awareness of real conditions—its ability to get histories right—Romanticism (particularly Romantic poetry) could be an object of criticism by functioning as criticism’s other.
This background is crucial for appreciating Sara Guyer’s Romanticism after Auschwitz. Her book does not involve any head-on response to historicism, but her implicit rejoinder to the dominant strain in critical work of the past twenty years seems to be that Romanticism is far more engaged in the conditions of human existence than historicists have been willing to admit. Furthermore, that engagement is dependent precisely on those figurative powers of language that often seem (to historicists) to implicate it blindness and neglect. Whereas Alan Liu and others accused Wordsworth of inhumanity, Guyer says very much the opposite. Romanticism prefigures the ethical concerns of post-Holocaust writings on the trauma of concentration [End Page 421] camps; this is because Romanticism is bound up with the importance and difficulty (even the impossibility) of witnessing and providing testimony to one’s witnessing. It is in Romanticism’s overt exploration of figuration—of giving a face to experience—that witnessing is exposed in its radical indeterminacy: its unstable position between life and death, being and non-being. Like writing on the Holocaust, moreover, the Romantic problematizing of witnessing is not a political problem to be overcome; it instead points to an ethical position in which the human is defined ontologically, through this indeterminacy, as a survivor: the human lives on despite attempts at extermination.
Taking her cue in chapter 1 from Primo Levi’s poem “The Survivor,” with its quotation from Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Guyer subtly shows how Levi’s poem—a meditation on the haunting sense of guilt felt by a survivor of Auschwitz—trades on a Romantic insight into the connection between poetry and survival. More specifically, she sees Levi looking back to Coleridge’s lyric, which gives a voice to the dead through the rhetorical figure of prosopopoeia or personification, even as it puts the dead to rest. Guyer thus sees Coleridge’s poem as a prototype for the Holocaust survivor’s own predicament: the survivor both gives life to those who cannot speak, at the same time that the voices claimed to be represented might be silenced by the poet (9). Survival is defined precisely through this indeterminacy.
As Guyer’s second chapter shows, a primary inspiration for this argument comes from the work of Paul de Man; in his well-known argument in his essay “Autobiography as Defacement,” de Man argues that prosopopoeia “deprives and disfigures to the precise extent that it restores” (49; Guyer’s emphasis). Guyer goes on to elaborate on de Man’s account with reference to what she sees as...