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  • The Calamity Form: On Poetry and Social Life by Anahid Nersessian
  • Ian Balfour (bio)
Anahid Nersessian. The Calamity Form: On Poetry and Social Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020. Pp. 213. $82.50 cloth / $27.50 paper.

In something of a counterpart to her Utopia, Limited, Nersessian analyzes in The Calamity Form a number of central and uncanonical Romantic texts and works of art, from the likes of Cowper, Keats, and Constable, together with a striking array of post-Romantic works (Derek Jarman, Kate Bush), read with and against the large-scale historical forces of the times. The titular phrase "the calamity form" scans just as "the commodity form" does. The former is a socio-discursive correlative of the latter. The relations between text and historical formations are rarely in her hands a matter of one-to-one correspondence. History, it turns out, prompted poets to respond in figurative and disfiguring fashion, indeed in the mode of what Nersessian calls, after Geoffrey Hartman, nescience or unknowing. Something happened in the period and we don't (quite) know what it is. But the Romantics wrote about it and we do in our turn. Hartman's notion was articulated with regard to trauma, personal and historical, with the Holocaust being the extreme instance. For Nersessian, the great trauma-inducing (mega-)event was the Industrial Revolution, which she glosses as "shorthand for the total phenomenon of the transition to capitalism" (4). (I would have thought, with Ellen Wood and others, that the transition began sooner. Maybe the transition to "total capitalism" is meant?) Nersessian understands the calamity form to be both the historical formation that shapes life and social relations as well as the form assumed by paradigmatic works of art.

The book is very agreeably comparative. Though the core materials are Romantic and British, the author steps laterally to Goethe, backward to Augustine, and forward to the installation work of Helen Mirra. Nersessian reads promiscuously, in the best sense, across disciplines, traditions, and languages. It's a densely crafted book fairly brimming with ideas—there is action on every page—and it's written with brio and an almost Pynchonesque vocabulary.

Nersessian helpfully focuses things on four figures/configurations: parataxis, obscurity (yes, it's a thing as a figure), catachresis, and apostrophe. Scrutiny of these figures as they played out should get us at great and small unknowings. It seems a wise decision not to focus on the ubiquitous figure of metaphor, often thought to be somehow arch-Romantic. [End Page 107]

The first chapter, devoted substantially to Cowper's The Task, draws usefully on Adorno's great "Parataxis" essay (less well-known than the more obvious and general "Lyric and Society," mobilized for British Romanticism by William Keach, Sarah Zimmerman, and others). Nersessian attends in detail too to the object of Adorno's attention, Hölderlin, a poet whose investment in transitions, practically and theoretically, would be hard to overstate. She has fine-tuned things to say about dissociative discourse in Hölderlin's hard-to-classify lyrics, so informed by Pindar, and Cowper's "pocket-epic" The Task, whose singing of the sofa invites a consideration of how social life begins at home about as directly as any poem could. The latter poem all but cries out for a materialist analysis, of how relations among persons get cast—by the force of capital—into relations among persons and things. Nersessian is just the sort of critic to do this. I don't quite follow her at every point. I'm not sure Hölderlin's disruptive, Pindaric syntax constitutes "curveballs" thrown "to the reader," though my problem might just be with the phrasing (28). And when Adorno is said to hold up philology, apropos Heidegger's extreme readings of Hölderlin, as a "tool of white supremacy" (28), my reading of it is that Heidegger, in Adorno's view, does not even meet the minimal standards of philology. But these are minor things. One arrives at the end of the chapter to find a moving evocation of Jarman near the end of his life, AIDS-ravaged, working his garden in the shadow of a nuclear power plant...


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pp. 107-110
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