- Romantic Stone Speech and the Appeal of the Inorganic
oh if the wind were a voice I could contend with. . . but I am moving only very slowly—Alice Oswald, “Autobiography of a Stone”1
i. holding on to matter
If Alice Oswald’s poem animates stone by giving it a curiously vulnerable voice, her experiment is inverted in a well-known image from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s On Certainty, where a propositional voice turns into a markedly vulnerable kind of stone:
It might be imagined that some propositions, of the form of empirical propositions, were hardened and functioned as channels for such empirical propositions as were not hardened but fluid; and that this relation altered with time, in that fluid propositions hardened, and hard ones became fluid. . . . The mythology may change back into a state of flux, the river-bed of thoughts may shift. . . . And the bank of that river consists partly of hard rock, subject to no alteration or only to an imperceptible one, partly of sand, which now in one place now in another gets washed away, or deposited.2
In spite of the inversion between Oswald’s animation and Wittgenstein’s analogy, both tropes work to help us imagine how the “imperceptible” alterations of geology’s patient movement would affect language, if language were to undergo processes analogous to inanimate, inorganic matter. More broadly, they offer nuanced imagery that helps us think our way into how such slow movement might look, sound, or feel. In this broader sense, such figures seem congenial to a climate in literary and critical theory seeking to nurture a capacity for “long-term thoughts,” and to initiate wider recognition of various kinds of “slow violence.”3 Given the sudden commonplace in humanistic discourse of [End Page 617] the importance of a controversial, purportedly new geological epoch that, because it has too many names, shall here remain nameless, it is no surprise that the literariness of matter in general, and stones in particular, has lately grown increasingly recognizable.4 In what follows, I am primarily interested in the poetics of Romantic inorganicism itself—standing out, suddenly and clearly, against more traditional pictures of Romantic organicism. By way of conclusion, I will consider the stakes of a heightened critical attention to matter, in order to press on the intellectual moods now trying out new ways to measure the materials of culture, particularly in the cause of an environmental humanities. But I begin simply with the question begged by the quotations above: why does the poetic imagination activate geology so as to make rock itself, as Geoffrey Hartman once put it, a “motive for metaphor”?5 How did an interest in geological processes stimulate Romantic and post-Romantic writers to think differently about their own actions, in and around language; and what does it mean to cultivate the capacity to see language not just as material, but as geological, through one of matter’s patient extremes?
It will not be news that to treat cultural as physical materials has meant many things in many times and places. Writing in 1939, Ernst Cassirer argued that a positivist trend toward the “materialization of culture” had for at least a century increasingly had the effect of conceptually tranquilizing the subject, by steamrolling something he called the “spontaneity of the self.”6 He also saw this positivism as following in the wake of Romanticism, by way of a kind of inversion: for post-Romantic positivism, “the difference which appears to obtain between nature and culture is no longer to be bridged, as in Romanticism, through a spiritualization of nature, but through a materialization of culture.”7 I will return below to the inversion Cassirer performs here between the two figurative techniques he is calling “spiritualization” and “materialization.” My aim in dwelling on his succinct formulation is not to endorse, but to scrutinize more closely Romanticism’s presumed “spiritualization of nature,” in order to suggest that, whatever this may mean, for the Romantics it rarely meant trying to leave matter behind.8
In the literary domain, language is often allowed to be material in more ways and to a greater degree than in other language genres. In spite of...