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  • Constellations of a Contemporary Romanticism ed. by Jacques Khalip and Forest Pyle
  • Esther Leslie
Constellations of a Contemporary Romanticism. Edited by Jacques Khalip and Forest Pyle. New York: Fordham University Press, 2016. Pp. 344. Cloth, $110.00; Paper, $35.00.

The volume reopens a question posed by Cynthia Chase twenty-five years ago: in what way is Romanticism our contemporary? Informed by Walter Benjamin's historiography, this volume seeks the past's "redemption value," its uncashedin possibilities, or what might yet be found down the back of the sofa of time. Its introduction cites John Ashbery's "Wet Casements" to phrase the question thus: can the once heard name jotted down and slipped into a crumbling wallet still be retrieved, and to what end? (p. 9). The question of Romanticism is now asked again: is Romanticism dead and buried, as closed a topic as the stony tombs, surrounded by bare trees in a gloomy graveyard in a painting by Caspar David Friedrich? Or, rather, in what ways is Romanticism our contemporary, as animate a presence in our social life as a Frankenstein monster on the loose?

The book's specific and theoretically framed question is how a body of work known as Romantic—be it English, German, Spanish, or Scottish—constellates with our contemporary moment. The answer necessitates exploration, firstly, of what it means "to constellate," a phrase taken from Benjamin's conceptual set. To constellate is to indicate how an object or a thing or a phenomenon exceeds the conceptual label that might be stuck on it, remaining particular, specific and not consumed by universality. To answer this question, it is also necessary to explore what it means to be contemporary. Again, the notion is posed from a theoretically freighted perspective. "Contemporary" is parsed through Giorgio Agamben's sense of contemporaneity as dislocation, anachronism, disjunction, "a neutralization of the lights that come from the epoch" (p. 3), which, as with the concept of the constellation, fractures times into moments of pull, relays, relations, actual and possible. This is a version of Romantic irony, a distance between self and world, or a gap between both, which yearning seeks to cross. As Agamben puts it: to be a contemporary is to develop "a singular relationship with one's own time, which adheres to it, and at the same time, keeps a distance from it" (p. 3).

The present-day constellations that Romanticism—or Romanticisms—forms or form are multiple. This volume generally sees only negatively in this constellation, a lack of relation, a darkness cast backwards into an epoch long gone, in order to extinguish the lights of conventional interpretation. The contemporary is the person who exists in darkness, is transfixed by the darkness of his or her own time, insists Agamben. Perhaps this turn to the dark, to the Keatsian cry, "I cannot see what the flowers are at my feet," in his "embalmed [End Page 180] darkness" moves the volume a little closer to the recent manifestation of "Dark Romanticism." The volume acknowledges this current only minimally, in a few marginal references to Timothy Morton, its main representative.

It is pertinent that Benjamin is a vector of the theoretical frame of this volume, because his Ph.D. thesis focused on Romantic art criticism, and German Romanticism's notion of time suffuses his work: fragmentary, non-linear, the return of ancient myth into the present, the coiling up of possible futures in the now, the invasion of Einsteinian "space time" (Zeitraum) by the "dream of time" (Zeittraum), conceiving history from its margins, rejectamenta, and outsides. The volume's editors seek out, after Benjamin, "strange adjacencies, arrays and possible connections" (p 2). Such convergences manifest in extremely diverse ways, such as Shelley and the Hollywood musical, both outcomes of a ceaseless choreography (Joel Faflak); Jane Austen and coming-of-age cinema as efforts to render free indirect discourse (Ian Balfour); Walter Scott and the theme-parking of Colonial Williamsburg (Mike Goode); terrorism, art, and the Sublime (Sara Guyer); discourses of life and questions of futurity (Lee Edelman); population and aesthetics (Robert Mitchell); the painter Cy Twombly, Jr., and the mutability of the Frankfurt School (Mary...


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