- Post-Personal Romanticism: Democratic Terror, Prosthetic Poetics, and the Comedy of Modern Ethical Life by Bo Earle
By now, most of us are familiar with Marx’s well-known line in The Eighteenth Brumaire about history and its actors: “Hegel observes somewhere that all the great events and characters of world history occur twice...Heforgot to add: the first time as high tragedy, the second time as low farce” (Later Political Writings, ed. Carver, 31; hereafter LPW). Old chestnut that it is, when placed in the light of Bo Earle’s Post-Personal Romanticism—a demanding and intensive reconsideration of modernity, ethics, and the poetry of our Romantic forebears that address both of those categories—Marx’s line seems newer and brighter.
First, after reading Earle’s book, we might realize that historical representations and personages do not proceed from tragedy to farce, moving, as in the case of Marx’s assessment of Louis Napoleon, from one distinct generic container into the next. Instead, farce and tragedy are a single, combined structure through which modernity represents itself: “comedy,” Earle claims provocatively, “is the form tragedy takes in modern mass society” (x). Citing the recent elections of clownish (but nevertheless dangerous) autocrats in Europe and the United States, as well as our collective reaction to recurring systemic violence—such as unlawful police shootings or the denial of catastrophic climate change—Earle argues that contemporary terror is marked by its “comic absurdit[y],” known not for its singular, arresting hold on the population, but for its ridiculous, repetitive logic (viii).
Second, Earle might say that, far from being a unique diagnosis of the shapes that history can take, Marx’s quote about tragedy and farce has lost most of its original meaning over time. In other words, it has become a cliché, a pat saying whose repetition seems to move us away from any fresh interpretation of its meaning; or, perhaps the phrase “first as tragedy, then as farce” has long since evacuated all meaning and is now used only in parody. But, in this book at least, there is nothing wrong with cliché or parody. In fact, for Earle, parody—specifically Romantic poets’ ironic re-appropriation of textual formulae, oftentimes circulated among one another—proposes a new ethics for modern life. For, insofar as the formal repetition depicted in Romantic writing suggests the deficiency of any one signifying “vessel” for self-expression, such a technique demonstrates the need for a constant expansion and remaking of the self beyond any fixed array of signification, and, thus, an openness to a world that is radically contingent. (Indeed, the first section of The Eighteenth Brumaire has another line that preempts this principle in Earle’s book: shortly after Marx discusses [End Page 419] tragedy and farce, he reports that, in the poetry of a future revolution, “the content goes beyond the phrase” [LPW, 34].) Here, absurd repetition is both the problem of and solution for modern life.
However, Earle is not just interested in the way that Romantic poets deal with the tragicomic ailments of modernity. There are, in fact, three intersecting arguments in Post-Personal Romanticism. And, while each of them is intricate on its own, they tend to commingle throughout the book, offering readers a vibrant—if profuse—critique of primary works from Wordsworth, Blake, Shelley, Byron, and Keats.
One argument is that Romantic poets enact in their verse a specific form of comedy derived from Hegel’s aesthetics. A mode of ironic distancing and repetition that leaves people open, unmastered, and accepting of contingency, Hegel’s idea of comedy leads to the ultimate liberation of the subject, beyond the bounds of mere liberal selfhood, hence the “post-personal” title of the book. It is in this vein, for example, that Earle reads Wordsworth’s “The World is Too Much With Us,” a sonnet usually known for its excessive sincerity. Here, however, the sonnet functions as a parody of a society dominated by monotonous consumerism and the demand that...