- Romanticism and Philosophy: Thinking With Literature ed. by Sophie Laniel-Musitelli, Thomas Constantinesco
Some of the most important questions present to literary studies concern the nature of literary studies itself. What is it for and how is it to proceed? One way to start asking such questions is to consider the distinctness of literary studies from its closest disciplines: history [End Page 187] and philosophy. Final distinctions are ill-advised here, but that shouldn’t discourage the effort of discrimination. Much of the work currently carried out by English Literature academics moves between literature and history. This ‘new’ historicism is in many cases a version of ‘old’ historicism: it presents to us the illusion—such a convincing one it seems bedrock-true—that a literary text’s contemporary contexts are sufficient for its interpretation or at least offer a privileged resource in this regard. Much of our best scholarship inhabits this assumption and is no worse for it. Real New Historicism, now old, raises questions about genre and the arbitrariness of the disciplines themselves: literature is placed historically yet the historical document is approached as if it were a ‘literary’ text. Such an approach remains philosophically nimble, but may not be the better for it.
This volume, from a British/U.S. perspective, will seem a touch unusual in its frequent disregard of what we might call the original conditions of production. Repeatedly we find illuminating contexts for Romantic thought that aren’t ‘Romantic period’, but which understand Romanticism as a legacy of ideas that runs through Kant to Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Emerson, Stanley Cavell and elsewhere. Some essays may be found a little abstract in their grounding, especially where older theories of the ‘Romantic’ are presented unchallenged. Others blend a researched awareness of the period’s historical realities with later, highly complex modes of thought. This mixture of approaches confronts us with important questions about the nature of what we call ‘Romanticism’. How does it inhabit history? In what forms do its values and problems remain present to us?
The volume is divided into four parts. After a thoughtful editorial Introduction about the crossovers between literature and philosophy, Part I (‘Romantic Confrontations’) contains four essays that consider the range and extent of Romantic philosophy and has a strong continental dimension. Part II (‘The Poetics of Thought’) consists of three essays that focus on individual poets: Shelley, Wordsworth and John Clare. Part III (‘Romantic Selves’) addresses the quintessentially Romantic problem of identity, ranging, in its four essays, from Locke to Kierkegaard, with much considered between. The final section, ‘Transatlantic Romanticism’, focuses on the developments of Romantic thought in the United States, with particular reference to Emerson and Poe.
The first essay of the volume, by Christoph Bode, brings an impressive knowledge of European philosophy to bear on a particular moment of Romantic legacy, the publication, in 1978, of Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe’s and Jean-Luc Nancy’s L’absolu littéraire. With one eye on the problems—and possibilities—of translation, Bode interrogates Romanticism’s aesthetic turn as a response to fundamental problems in Kant. The tradition of Romantic thought, as presented here, often surprises us with its suppleness, as we see again with Eric Dayre’s learned essay, that looks back, from Coleridge and Godwin, to Aristotle.
Some of the volume’s best essays focus on individual works, including contributions from Mark Sandy and Simon Jarvis. Sandy brings Derridean ideas of spectrality to Wordsworth’s Salisbury Plain poems with illuminating results. Skilled close reading, with its tendency to produce questions, does not always fit with abstract philosophy, the traditional aim of which is to produce answers. Sandy’s subtle account of the traveller’s ‘debilitated subjectivity’ strikes a good balance in refusing to allow philosophical frames to straitjacket—only inform—the often ludic thinking of poetry. Jarvis shows us how readings can haunt their poems, the notable instance here being Paul De Man’s disenchanting exegesis of Shelley’s Triumph of Life. But later readings, we are also...