- Unquiet Things: Secularism in the Romantic Age by Colin Jager
At many moments in his brilliant new book, Colin Jager returns to the image of the film fluttering at the fireplace grate in Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight," the "sole unquiet thing" that inspires Jager's title. But Jager never does a complete reading of the poem. He lingers over the fluttering film and doesn't get beyond it: this not a mistake but rather a condensation of the book's beautifully interwoven [End Page 160] theoretical commitments and reading strategies. Jager has written a book about the condition of religion in a secular world: religion, like the film, is a constrained but "unquiet thing." And rather than gloss a progressive narrative to modern secularism that moves beyond religious perspectives, he lingers over these unquiet things so that we can appreciate them in all of their figurative density and political potential. Coleridge's "abstruser musings" mark a point of resistance, in other words, that is wonderfully enacted in Jager's own methodology.
Jager argues that the secular is a product of Christianity itself; the process of secularization, however, is less about religion than about the power to contain and privatize it in the effort to regulate populations. This is not an unfamiliar argument, so the significance of the book is to be found in its supple ways of evoking the "static" that emerges when examining literary confrontations between religious and secular modes of thinking (p. 9). The struggle to shape the secular state—and the struggle against it—occupy Part I, beginning with a reading of Shakespeare's Henry VIII and moving forward to Walpole's Castle of Otranto and Austen's Emma (Chapters 1–3). Such texts register the pain that results from losing a world permeated by the divine: "traditional folk beliefs … the heterodox, the magical, and the festive" (p. 44). Jager's chapter on Emma shows how the novel represents the "terminus" (p. 77) for the early modern reformation, but not because the secular is a mere fait accompli. George Knightley and his estate embody the normative values that force out the "particular and contingent" (p. 93), "an array of unknown forces beyond the confines of village life" (p. 90).
Romanticism, for Jager, conveys a particularly revealing series of confrontations between secular institutions and the religious vantage points that have been left behind in the quest for modern rationality. In Part II, chapters on Coleridge, Scott, and Hogg explore the contours of the territory established in Part I, showing how the "quiet" of enforced secularism "can itself be a form of vexation" (p. 102). When he analyzes Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" (Chapter 4) in relation to Coleridge's claim to have taken his inspiration for his poem by reading Purchas his Pilgrimage, he argues that Purchas's "bookish" relation to religion (p. 119) is neither a matter of private belief (the English model) nor a matter of unified public culture (the German model): it is a more capacious and diversified textual "history of the world" (p. 121). Bookishness continues to define the secular in the next two chapters. In the discussion of Rob Roy in Chapter 5, Frederick Vernon's library functions narratively as a disruption of Frank's erotic impulses and modernizing sensibilities. And in Chapter 6, bookishness characterizes more sharply defined reading practices in Hogg's Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Robert is not merely a portrait of fanatical violence but of a fanatical—forced, a-contextual—reading practice. This contrasts with the tolerant and contextual reading practices of modern secularism: practices which are "unforced" but under the "guidance of government forces" (p. 170).
Part III explores the work of Byron and Shelley. Chapter 7 on The Giaour further enriches Jager's account of a reading practice that contends with the protocols [End Page 161] of formalism and close reading. While The Giaour invites a secular practice of close reading because of the mysteries surrounding the Giaour himself, the poem also troubles that logic...