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  • Expanding Romanticism's Spatiotemporal, Disciplinary, and Conceptual Boundaries
  • Thomas Pfau (bio)

It has long been understood that the inception of literary studies at the modern university correlated with the consolidation of the liberal-secular nation state in the nineteenth century, which included the selective appropriation and repurposing of cultural and, more specifically, "literary" traditions. In time, these traditions came to be institutionalized in the form of English, French, or German departments, each with its own literary canon, curriculum, and master-narrative known as literary history and diligently updated every so often. For many reasons, I consider this model to be intrinsically flawed and particularly inapposite when it comes to the study of Romanticism.

First, the paradigm of a national literature tends to presuppose a stable concept of national identity and, based on that dubious premise, seeks to reify literature as an ostensibly settled and self-contained tradition so as to ensure political stability and reinforce socioeconomic stratification. Yet virtually all the writers routinely associated with European Romanticism opposed such an enterprise, albeit for many different reasons. Most would have concurred that, to the extent that the idea of a "nation" pivots on an array of settled (and often repressive) political, economic, and legal institutions and practices, creative and imaginative work of any variety must issue from a subaltern and dissenting position. Instead, the nation was an "imagined," as yet unrealized just, ethical and sustainable community, something envisioned in either utopian or dystopian terms and, alternatively, as a local or cosmopolitan project, but almost never in terms of an actually existing politico-administrative formation.

With the study of national literatures and their various subfields looking increasingly parochial and fossilized in the contemporary academy, a specifically humanist version of interdisciplinarity strikes me as a promising alternative. What I have in mind here is reconfiguring literary study, and as part of it the study of Romanticism, along the lines of what some time ago Dieter Henrich pioneered under the heading of Konstellationsforschung, which seeks to pry open the chronotope such as Romanticism. Rather than doggedly pursuing research and teaching [End Page 160] in hermetically sealed subfields, the objective would be to identify specific problems and genealogies (aesthetic, theological, philosophical, political, etc.) that turn out to be significantly revived, inflected, or contested during the period 1780–1830, yet whose temporal scope and significance both predates Romanticism and also extends well beyond it.

Let me sketch just two examples: a canonical work such as Lyrical Ballads can be profitably studied as a broader attempt at imagining an ethical and sustainable community on the basis of rural, pre-capitalist and seemingly autochthonous practices and affinities—sometimes with intriguing phantasmagorical overtones. When situated within a broader constellation of voices, Wordsworth's project exhibits significant formal and ideological affinities with Brentano and von Arnim's Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the otherworldly lyricism of von Eichendorff, or A. Mickiewicz's paean to rural community grounded in local memory and narrative improvisation in Pan Tadeusz. Part of this constellation, however, would also involve tracing its formative impact on twentieth-century environmental writing (Rachel Carson, Wendell Berry, Barry Lopez) and theories of community (Hannah Arendt, Michael Oakeshott, Jean-Luc Nancy).

An entirely different constellation would have us situate Shelley and the later Coleridge within the deep, albeit by no means homogenous, genealogy of Platonic and Neoplatonist writings. The wider configuration of voices called for by such a project would not only scrutinize the Platonism of other Romantics (e.g., Frans Hemsterhuis, Goethe, Hölderlin, and the pioneering figure of modern Plato studies, Schleiermacher). It would also force us to wrestle with (rather than dismiss outright) the role of metaphysics in Coleridge and Shelley as they seek to disentangle the competing strands of Christian Platonism (from Dionysius via Bonaventure and Cusa all the way to the Cambridge Neoplatonists of the seventeenth century), on the one hand, and the more freewheeling, speculative, and seemingly a-religious Platonism of Ficino, Pico, and Bacon, on the other.

To pursue such constellations, and many more can readily be envisioned, should help extract British Romantic Studies from its cramped and insular, spatiotemporal profile. Moreover, once extended forward into the twentieth century and our own moment, as should...


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