- Romantic Prophecy and the Resistance to Historicism by Christopher Bundock
Christopher Bundock's Romantic Prophecy and the Resistance to Historicism offers ambitiously close readings of Immanuel Kant, J. G. Herder, William Wordsworth, Percy Shelley, William Blake, Søren Kierkagaard, and Mary Shelley. Each reading puts "prophecy's historical tendency to fail" at the center of Romantic philosophies and fictions of history, locating the radical revisionary power of Romantic prophecy with its unresolvable negativity (p. 224).
Prophecy's remarkably routinized failures, continual revisions, and inaccurate predictions are the repressed conditions of secular historiography, which, Bundock argues, was not able to offer the "historical totality" that religious, apocalyptic historiography previously had (p. 31). Prophecy thus became history's dangerous supplement. But Bundock separates himself from previous deconstructive and rhetorical critiques of historicism, arguing that it is phenomenological experience, or "feeling and affect," that both enables and threatens the new mode of history. Affective mediation underlies Bundock's impressive attempt to broker an agreement between Romantic historical conditions and contemporary rhetorical readings of prophecy by grounding both in a phenomenology or "experience" of the unknown (p. 13, emphasis original). In this framing, prophecy is another name for the anxieties of "a new sensitivity to time" that only proliferate in historical narratives (p. 13). This sensitivity is catalyzed most overtly by the French Revolution, but also by innovations in media, debates about secularization in high criticism, and, to a lesser extent, transformations in labor. As an anxiety about history, affect is fundamentally negative [End Page 171] in this book, which may surprise readers more accustomed to affirmative accounts of it. Indeed, Bundock treats feeling, much like Forest Pyle's account of the imagination, as a divisive and disjunctive power rather than a unifying or healing one.
The two chapters dedicated to Kant outline the central terms of Romantic Prophecy, which frequently reappear. Bundock's reading of Kant's 1766 "Dreams of a Spirit-Seer Elucidated by Dreams of Metaphysics" locates prophecy as an early version of the transcendental critique. He shows that prophecy was the originary limit case through which philosophy, as knowledge about this world, was made separate from knowledge about another world. But such divisions immediately begin collapsing, and Kant's exclusion of the prophetic from philosophy later returns in Critique of Pure Reason through what Bundock calls his prejudice towards progress. When Kant grounds knowledge on the necessary indeterminacy of reason and judgment as the condition upon which progress depends, prophecy contaminates reason with the hope of human progress. Prophecy is integral to history because, like Kant's epistemology, it marks the limits of rational understanding that can never be maintained if Kant is, and we are, to have anything to say about the future.
From here Romantic Prophecy shows that it is from within history that prophecy has its critical and disruptive power, a power that Bundock compares to Maurice Blanchot's "worklessness" and Georges Bataille's "unemployable negativity" (pp. 181, 179). Read through this immanent negativity, Romantic negotiations with history gain a radical and irreducible uncertainty. Herder's self-reflective Bildung offers a contingently situated history developed through "culture, physiology, and geography" (p. 43). Wordsworth's Prelude and pseudo-prefatory "Home at Grasmere" resist the "socially and politically disruptive … prophecy," converting it into trauma that the poet suffers uniquely (p. 101). Percy Shelley's Hellas exerts "the pressures of a new experience of time" that render even Prometheus Unbound "another failed prophecy" (p. 140). But it is Mary Shelley's Valperga and The Last Man and William Blake's Milton and Jerusalem that most demonstrate the unsettling effects of the fully exploited negative capability of prophecy, through which impossible histories promise an unknown future.
It is on the terms of Romantic prophecy that the book finds its deepest insights and lacunae. Bundock convincingly shows prophetic negativity to be Western history's condition of possibility. Indeed, the power of Romantic Prophecy hinges on this irreducible relation. But it is worth considering how prophetic our own readings of Romanticism can...