- Post-Personal Romanticism: Democratic Terror, Prosthetic Poetics, and the Comedy of Modern Ethical Life by Bo Earle
Bo Earle's Post-Personal Romanticism is a valuable contribution to the effort to reread Romanticism for its present-day ethical and political significance. As in the work of like-minded critics such as Robert Kaufman, Anahid Nersessian, and Forest Pyle, Earle's starting point is not the explicit political thought of the period. Rather, his focus is the aesthetic, conceived in the terms of a post-Hegelian philosophical tradition. The book dwells on forms of virtual appearance that, according to Earle, characterize early nineteenth-century poetry. Inspired by the language of "spectrality" (p. 5), "fantasy" (p. 11), "masquerade" (p. 146, original emphasis), and "spectacle" (p. 172) in works by William Wordsworth, William Blake, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats, his claim is that Romantic aesthetics are "post-personal" (p. xi). A kind of unreality effect—generated by the historical shocks of revolutionary terror, the crowd, and the commodity—the Romantic aesthetic points up the fantasmatic status of modern subjectivity and social existence.
Earle's book dovetails with and helpfully departs from classic treatments of the "romantic ideology" (p. 23). It does this by showing how Romantic poetry teaches us to live with, and as, the spectral selves of modernity. Romanticism thereby offers ethical resources for the present, notably by attuning us to "the queer, post-personal bonds animating the social 'masquerade'" (p. xi). New awareness of these social bonds, Earle says, might "awaken the crowd from its individuating dreams and to its own proper forms of feeling, aesthetic expression, and ethical agency" (p. xi, original emphases). In other words, by showing us how to live together post-personally, in the wreckage of "[p]ossessive individualism" (p. 25), Romanticism can help us respond to all manner of collective catastrophe—including, [End Page 203] Earle suggests, climate change and systemic racial violence.
The most compelling aspect of Earle's argument is its attention to genre. Indeed, for Earle, the spectacle of modern subjectivity and social life is best understood in terms of tragedy and comedy. Drawing on G. W. F. Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) and its account of the movement from tragic to comic art, the book contends, in its key chapter on Byron and Hegel's aesthetics, that "[m]odern tragedy cannot avoid becoming a comic pantomime of itself" (p. 89). If tragedy depends on the individual will, the genre may be rendered obsolete by a modernity that dissolves discrete selves. Earle's third chapter reads Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812–18), Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice (1821), and Don Juan (1819–24) as efforts to grapple with this loss of tragedy, with "the daunting burden that the unavailability of tragedy imposes" (pp. 101–2). In Byron, Earle demonstrates, this burden is worked through by means of parody and pastiche. When, for instance, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage repeatedly and ironically cites William Shakespeare, "tragedy is itself comically unmasked" (p. 80).
Yet, as Earle rightly observes, tragedy does not just disappear. At least since the French Revolution, he contends, tragedy has become so pervasive and so seemingly ordinary that we fail to see it as such. The Terror of 1793 and ecological disaster today are Earle's main examples. The simultaneous ubiquity and obsolescence of the tragic makes way for another genre: comedy, seen here as the genre of ethical post-personhood and of ambient violence and cruelty. Looking once more to Hegel (and to an important essay by Gillian Rose), Earle defines comedy as an art of masquerade. It represents the coherent self as a fantasy and mirrors the spectacle of modern social life. For Earle, Romanticism's post-personal aesthetics are basically comic. At the same time, he reminds us, this is a comedy inseparable from "an atmosphere or climate" of terror (p. xi). There is a productive tension in Earle's account. Is comedy an art of ethical play? Or is it an expression...