- Last Things: Disastrous Form from Kant to Hujar by Jacques Khalip
Last Things begins with an anticipated, heart-stopping moment in which "the whole of nature will be rigid and as it were petrified: the last thought, the last feeling in the thinking subject will then stop and remain forever the same without any change" (qtd. in Khalip, p. 1). This image of universal heat death, which Jacques Khalip unearths from Immanuel Kant's late, weird essay "The End of All Things" (1794), becomes a limit case of a "lastness" that the book finds in more muted, ordinary settings. Khalip's approach is therefore strategically oblique: "Without fear, foreshadowing, or catastrophe," Last Things "explores lastness as the unthinkable but unavoidable limit of our lives and worlds … [and] reads the fate of romanticism (and romantic studies) within the key of the last" (p. 6). The book makes one of the strongest cases for Romanticism's relevance even as it stresses its irrelevance: "Writing this book in the time of the ruin of the humanities" and the annexation of Romanticism to the nineteenth or long eighteenth centuries, Khalip urges "that we read romanticism otherwise" (p. 9), embracing its untimeliness and even its "wasting away or full-blown extinction" (p. 11). "Perversely," Khalip suggests, "romanticism's force derives from its has-beenness, its remainder-like status as a perishable thing that a bureaucratized culture cannot accommodate" (p. 12). Romanticism here might helpfully stand in for many of Khalip's more particularized, and always persuasive, readings of Romantic works.
Rather than advancing a finished argument, Last Things gives us ways of reading—of seeing, and of carelessly refusing to see—Romantic texts that we have long taken for granted: William Wordsworth's lyrics and The Prelude (1805), Percy Bysshe Shelley's The Triumph of Life (1824), or John Keats's letters, but also under-read works like William Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793). Khalip has exquisite, idiosyncratic taste, and the book is threaded with careful engagements with contemporary aesthetic and queer theory, Romantic criticism, philosophy, film, visual art, and environmental studies. Given the book's simultaneous range and compression, a reader must move back and forth between Khalip's quick, subtle readings of Romantic literature and his takes on thought and culture far more broadly conceived. What emerges is an intuitive feel for Khalip's core concepts, such as last things, disastrous form, or unfinished world.
But last things are not concepts, or even really entities, but problematic or impossible views or thoughts: "Last things are singularities, hovering in the complex relationship between appearance and disappearance, life and nonlife, world and nonworld, materiality and immateriality. They are not residually melancholic or traumatic. … They are unobtrusive, almost nothing" (p. 13). Khalip here "attend[s] to various small or minor lasts as figures that are everywhere and nowhere, as if torn from their larger and more fulfilling apparatuses and contexts" (p. 13). Take, for example, the phrase "now no more" which [End Page 209] Khalip peels from the celebrated passage in Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" (1798) about "Abundant recompence": "That time is past, / And all its aching joys are now no more" (qtd. in Khalip, p. 1). The words now no more "dangle and drag, refusing to be amplified into any style of thought that would want to assimilate the now no more into a coherent relation" (p. 8); they "float in short supply as unbidden, unclaimed, and unthought things or unthought thoughts" (p. 3). They effortlessly unwork the poem's compensatory project.
Khalip is good at selectively shearing phrases from their wider contexts—other monosyllabic lines such as David Hume's "life has gone" (qtd. in Khalip, p. 11) or Shelley's "as if that look must be the last" (qtd. in Khalip, p. 74), the overlooked antepenultimate line of Triumph of Life. Last Things allows such incomplete thoughts or sentences quietly to detach and drift away from their works and settle beside snippets from other writings and pieces of visual art. One striking juxtaposition...