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  • Romanticism in the Present:A Micro-Dialectic
  • Timothy Michael (bio)

There is a good argument to be made that if the literature of the past can tell us nothing about the world in which we live, then there is little point in studying it at all. We are fortunate, as Romanticists, to work in a period with so much that directly bears on our own present circumstances. Indeed, the Romantic period has as forceful a claim as any to creating the conditions of modernity—most notably, the birth of liberal democracies, the enshrinement of the rights of (some) men and women, and the importance granted to individual subjectivity. There are continuities relating to more specific issues: the abolition debate prefigures the ongoing struggle for racial justice; reformist and revolutionary ideals continue to inform struggles for economic justice; and the Romantic celebration of nature has provided the environmental justice movement with an indispensable set of terms and priorities. As Romanticists, it is our responsbility to trace these continuities—to see how our thinking about these issues has been conditioned by people who have thought in imaginative ways about them in the past.

And yet "to see the object as in itself it really is" (Arnold's unimpeachable definition of criticism) resists such a subordination of the past to the present. The function of criticism should be to recognize the gulf, the discontinuities, separating our own understanding of these issues from those writing in the period (ideally, without any reference to the present at all). Romantic literature, in this view, has relatively little to tell us—beyond the most unobjectionable platitudes—about police brutality (racist state violence is abhorrent), the distribution of wealth (extreme concentrations of wealth are bad), and climate change (again, bad). To impose our own concerns onto the literature of the past is to empty and flatten it. Criticism ought to make sense of those things which preoccupied the Romantic mind and which hardly appear on the radar of the twenty-first-century mind at all. How, for instance, are we to account for the fact that, for some of the period's greatest writers, the philosophical doctrine of the association of ideas seemed to determine the essence of our humanity? Why did the sublime seem like a useful aesthetic category? Why think an unfinished [End Page 147] poem is preferable to a finished one? To read literature critically is to read it sympathetically—to see the world, as much as possible, from a perspective not our own.

The most compelling version of the argument for a "presentist" reading of Romanticism would acknowledge that a recognition of the otherness of the past can itself tell us a great deal about the present: the point is to defamiliarize the present. That is, we do not need to make the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries look like the twenty-first—we do not need to turn them into either more enlightened or less enlightened versions of the present—in order for them to tell us something about ourselves or the world in which we live.

Timothy Michael

Timothy Michael is a Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford and the author of British Romanticism and the Critique of Political Reason (Johns Hopkins UP, 2016).



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pp. 147-148
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