Lessons of Romanticism: A Critical Companion

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Moving beyond views of European Romanticism as an essentially poetic development, Lessons of Romanticism strives to strengthen a critical awareness of the genres, historical institutions, and material practices that comprised the culture of the period. This anthology—in recasting Romanticism in its broader cultural context—ranges across literary studies, art history, musicology, and political science and combines a variety of critical approaches, including gender studies, Lacanian analysis, and postcolonial studies.
With over twenty essays on such diverse topics as the aesthetic and pedagogical purposes of art exhibits in London, the materiality of late Romantic salon culture, the extracanonical status of Jane Austen and Fanny Burney, and Romantic imagery in Beethoven’s music and letters, Lessons of Romanticism reveals the practices that were at the heart of European Romantic life. Focusing on the six decades from 1780 to 1832, this collection is arranged thematically around gender and genre, literacy, marginalization, canonmaking, and nationalist ideology. As Americanists join with specialists in German culture, as Austen is explored beside Beethoven, and as discussions on newly recovered women’s writings follow fresh discoveries in long-canonized texts, these interdisciplinary essays not only reflect the broad reach of contemporary scholarship but also point to the long-neglected intertextual and intercultural dynamics in the various and changing faces of Romanticism itself.

Contributors. Steven Bruhm, Miranda J. Burgess, Joel Faflak, David S. Ferris, William Galperin, Regina Hewitt, Jill Heydt-Stevenson, H. J. Jackson, Theresa M. Kelley, Greg Kucich, C. S. Matheson, Adela Pinch, Marc Redfield, Nancy L. Rosenblum, Marlon B. Ross, Maynard Solomon, Richard G. Swartz, Nanora Sweet, Joseph Viscomi, Karen A. Weisman, Susan I. Wolfson

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Lessons of Romanticism offers new, creative, and stimulating material, both on the more localized front of the subject matter of the individual essays and more broadly on the wide, diverse, intertextual and intercultural landscape of Romantic studies generally. Every essay takes its subject in new directions.”—Stephen C. Behrendt, University of Nebraska–Lincoln

“A richly rewarding and important body of work. This wide-ranging volume brings together the sophisticated and differing voices of contemporary critics as they seek to recover the densely particularized cultural work of Romanticism.”—Jeffrey N. Cox, Texas A&M University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822320913
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 4/28/1998
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 488
  • Product dimensions: 9.00 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Thomas Pfau is Associate Professor of English at Duke University.

Robert F. Gleckner is Professor of English at Duke University.

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Read an Excerpt

Lessons of Romanticism

A Critical Companion

By Thomas Pfau, Robert F. Gleckner

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9910-0


Romanticism, Bildung, and the Literary Absolute


The notion of Romanticism has led a disputatious life ever since its uncertain beginnings in the Romantic era. In the first half of the twentieth century, as the term's use shifted slowly but irreversibly away from that of literary polemic and toward that of an academic term–away, that is, from overtly ethical and axiological battles and toward historical and hermeneutic ones–the famous debate between A. O. Lovejoy and René Wellek caused scholars to speculate whether Romanticism existed in a more than nominal fashion as a coherent entity. The subsequent institutional history awards the victory to Wellek, who claimed that it did, but the production and reproduction of Romanticism as an academic field does not in the end render Romanticism a less uncertain phenomenon. The difficulties it poses for the literary historian are well known. Romanticism is used to characterize diverse historical moments in national literatures and to privilege specific writers or movements at the expense of others; at the same time, as a style or "system of norms" (Wellek 2), it seems ensnared in recurring contradictions, with a mode that is variously utopian and despairing, naive and self-conscious, humanist (Abrams) and satanic (Praz). The larger significance of these literary and academic paradoxes revolves around their denoting, as Maurice Blanchot remarks, a Romanticism that has also stood for a "political investment," one with "extremely diverse vicissitudes, as [Romanticism] was at times claimed by the most reactionary regimes (that of Friedrich Wilhelm in 1840 and the literary theoreticians of Nazism), and at other times ... illuminated and understood as a demand for renovation" (163). If the term now primarily serves an academic institutional arrangement, it nonetheless comes burdened with enough cultural significance to pose the conundrum of our own historical identity.

For the difficulty Romanticism presents is not simply that of a contradictory entity, but rather that of a phenomenon that has to a great extent shaped our attempt to grasp it. Romanticism designates the historical emergence of a modern understanding of history, along with ideas of revolution, democracy, the nation and its literature, literature and its criticism, and the cultural and pedagogical institutions that convey and reproduce such ideas. Literary historians and critics know a particularly circular version of this predicament, which may help explain why polemics against Romanticism so visibly mark the literary-critical record: the embarrassment of indebtedness is all the more irksome when the very terms of one's polemic—an opposition, say, of romanticism to classicism—derive from the movement one wishes to castigate and escape. Not restricted to a preprofessional era, this double bind recurs persistently in contemporary academic criticism, sheltered though we now might be within a scholarly bureaucracy. The Romantics may no longer be undergoing chastisement of the sort meted out by Babbitt or Hulme, but Romanticism is still being accorded the treatment of an ideology available for debunking—a debunking that then is found to consist in the remarkably Romantic endeavor to "return poetry to a human form" (McGann 160). Yet an obscurity persists at the heart of these paradoxes. We have not gained much by claiming to be inside a Romanticism we cannot properly define, which may not, in fact, have an identity within which we could dwell. This obscurity is displayed in literary studies as a tension between literature and the Romantic aesthetic that defines literature as such. Texts that have seemed particularly Romantic—those of Shelley, for instance, or Rousseau or Schlegel—have in their long, curious history been judged at once irreducibly literary and yet unsatisfactory or flawed. More recently, academicians have had to confront Romanticism as the matrix of literary theory, whose various forms draw inspiration from the slippage between a text and its aesthetic or critical reception—from the fact, in other words, that literature seems able to mean both too much and too little to be reducible to the pleasure of an intuition, or to the stability of an intention or a well-wrought form. With Romanticism defining the terms of its own debate, we need to account for it as a phenomenon that not only calls itself into question, but also seems to slip away from its own standards and its own critical language, resulting in criticism that inhabits a constant, though usually only half-acknowledged, state of crisis.

The focus of this essay, an instance of critical crisis and its half-acknowledgment, is appropriate to the theme of this section: the status of the notion of the bildungsroman, or novel of education, in literary studies. The idea behind this genre is at once a commonplace and a minor embarrassment, and its vicissitudes replay in dramatically compressed form the paradoxes at work in the concept and history of Romanticism. Few critical terms, let alone German ones, have achieved comparable success, both within and without the academy; yet the moment one takes seriously the definitions and implications of the word "bildungsroman," it appears to lose most or all of its referential purchase. A bildungsroman ought to be a novel that represents and enacts Bildung, which means considerably more than education, as will be seen; for now, we may simply observe that students of the genre are typically obliged to grapple with the possibility that the object of their study does not exist at all. Scholars who can hardly be accused of a weakness for oversophisticated literary theory (see, e.g., May) have wondered whether even Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, given the theatricality of its plot and the passivity of its eponymous hero, can be said to belong to a class of novels it supposedly exemplifies. I have sought to elaborate elsewhere the intriguing aspects of this paradox; here this seemingly modest aporia may be summarized as a tension between what literature provides and what criticism would like to receive.

Or perhaps the tension rests in criticism, which seems unable either to abandon the idea of the bildungsroman or to muzzle its skepticism. However, as soon as we seriously inquire after the ontology of criticism, which is to say after that of the literature on which it depends, we engage a problem of some complexity, which has been brilliantly elaborated by Phillippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy in The Literary Absolute, their study of German Romanticism. Building on the work of Walter Benjamin and Maurice Blanchot, Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy analyze the philosophical structure of the idea of the literary text as a "self-conscious" text, an idea now commonplace but which emerged fully for the first time in the work of Romantic writers, as an aspect of the Romantic development or elaboration of modern aesthetics. Conceptualized with more precision, the self-conscious text unfolds into the model of a text that generates its own theory: "theory itself as literature," as Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy put it, "or, in other words, literature producing itself as it produces its own theory" (12). The literary text becomes what it is—literary—in reflecting on its own constitution and thereby inscribing within itself the infinite task of criticism, hollowing out a space for readers who, in engaging the text, repeat the production of the text as it generates its own self-understanding. This self-understanding always lies on the horizon, because each production of the text in turn calls out for a further moment of completion. Literature is thus inexhaustible; it is an infinite, reflective, fragmentary movement, Schlegel's "progressive universal poetry," which Blanchot depicts as "a veritable conversion of writing: the power for the work to be and no longer to represent" (165).

Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy rightly insist that "we ourselves are implicated in all that determines both literature as auto-critique and criticism as literature" (16): the institutions of modern literary criticism would be inconceivable in the absence of this self-knowing and self-producing literary space. On the one hand, literature is the "all," as Blanchot points out: it concerns everything, to the point of conveying Being itself in an intuitive, unmediated moment of insight. On the other hand, it is what one approaches endlessly, through specialized, technical processes of mediation. The absolute character of the text's truth calls for manuscript editions and variorum editions, biographies, memoirs, and all the minutiae of scholarship, as well as for the reiterated acts of interpretation we call criticism proper. One may thus claim in the abstract what the historical record confirms: not only is there no literature without criticism, but the history of the idea of literature is the history of the institutionalization of literary study. It must also be noted, however, that a contradiction very fruitful of discourse is at the core of this institution. Literature is both infinitely populist and irreducibly elitist in its aspirations, at once avant-gardist and archival in nature. As a consequence, a tension persists between academic and anti-academic discourse about literature (a literature that is always being "betrayed" by the scholarly reverence it elicits); between scholarship and criticism in the academy; and between poetics and hermeneutics in criticism. The critical endeavor, however, is as irreducible as it is conflicted, since it embodies the very self-consciousness of the literary text. Indeed, criticism has thoroughly displaced philology in the twentieth-century academy partly because the former's appeal to the "opacity" and "inexhaustibility" of the literary text (Warner 11, 16) results in the full integration of the literary absolute as an institutional rationale.

Larger metaphysical and political issues are at stake in the development of literature as theory than the modest scope of academic literary criticism would lead one to conclude. For in modeling the autoproduction of reflection, Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy emphasize, literature is finally an absolute not of poetry but of "poiesy or, in other words, production":

Romantic poetry sets out to penetrate the essence of poiesy, in which the literary thing produces the truth of production in itself, and thus, as will be evident in all that follows, the truth of the production of itself, of autopoiesy. And if it is true (as Hegel will soon demonstrate, entirely against romanticism) that auto-production constitutes the ultimate instance and closure of the speculative absolute, then romantic thought involves not only the absolute of literature, but literature as the absolute. (12; italics in original)

The literary absolute thus "aggravates and radicalizes the thinking of totality and the Subject" (15), and thereby becomes the privileged other of philosophy, at once the object of philosophy's desire and an excess toward which philosophy must maintain a reserve. For our purposes two consequences bear emphasizing. (1) This "Subject" remains in proximity to and possibly depends upon a linguistic model, since the thought of literature provides the Subject with its most immediate and exemplary self-image, though not necessarily with a fully reliable image: Hegel's hostility to Romanticism constitutes only one event in the well-known story of philosophy's profound ambivalence toward literature. This ambivalence, about which more remains to be said below, arguably informs even Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy's analysis of it. (2) The Subject, in its historicity, comes into being as Bildung, "the putting-into-form of form" (Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy 104). Although the complex itinerary of the concept of Bildung in German and Western European intellectual history can only be suggested here, it is instructive to recall Hans-Georg Gadamer's authoritative description of Bildung in Truth and Method, lest it be imagined that Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy are overstating their case. Since Bildung is grounded in a linguistic model—in the literary absolute as the autoproductivity of language—Gadamer unsurprisingly claims that this concept's signifier already contains in miniature a fusion of process, telos, and self-representation: "In Bildung there is Bild. The idea of 'form' lacks the mysterious ambiguity of Bild, which can mean both Nachbild ('image,' 'copy') and Vorbild ('model')" (12). And since Bildung, as the representation of its own striving, "remains in a constant state of further continued Bildung," it achieves the autoproductivity of nature: "It is not accidental that in this the word Bildung resembles the Greek physis. Like nature, Bildung has no goals outside itself." Such natural acculturation is necessarily universal in its destiny: "It is the universal nature of human Bildung to constitute itself as a universal intellectual being" (13).

Signifying both Nachbild and Vorbild, Bildung encloses the structure of mimesis itself, which, through the temporalizing prefixes nach and vor, becomes the structure of typology: Bildung mirrors and prefigures its own fulfillment in history. Bildung draws out the political project inherent in the literary absolute (as Subject) by drawing out autoproduction as education. The autoproduction of the literary or speculative absolute lies in its representing-itself-to-itself, its identifying with itself: its process or historicity consists in its ongoing identification with an identity that is its own. Bildung makes overt the aesthetic or speculative absolute's pragmatic claim to realize itself in the phenomenal world—to form and inform pedagogical and historical process. Aesthetics in this sense is aesthetic education, as Schiller's influential treatise On the Aesthetic Education of Man suggests:

Every individual man, one may say, carries in himself, by predisposition and determination [der Anlage und Bestimmung nach], a pure ideal Man, with whose unchanging oneness it is the great task of his being, in all its changes, to correspond. This pure Man [reine Mensch], who makes himself known more or less clearly in every subject [Subjekt], is represented by the State, the objective and as it were canonical form in which the diversity of subjects seeks to unite itself. (Letter 4, par. 2)


Excerpted from Lessons of Romanticism by Thomas Pfau, Robert F. Gleckner. Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction, Reading beyond Redemption: Historicism, Irony, and the Lessons of Romanticism 1
Varieties of Bildung in European Romanticism and Beyond
Romanticism, Bildung, and the Literary Absolute 41
The Inhibitions of Democracy on Romantic Political Thought: Thoreau's Democratic Individualism 55
Between Irony and Radicalism: The Other Way of a Romantic Education 76
Friendly Instruction: Coleridge and the Discipline of Sociology 89
Keats and the Aesthetics of Critical Knowledge; or, The Ideology of Studying Romanticism at the Present Time 103
Reading Habits: Scenes of Romantic Miseducation and the Challenge of Eco-Literacy 126
Postmodernism, Romanticism, and John Clare 157
Images and Institutions of Cultural Literacy in Romanticism
The Lessons of Swedenborg; or, The Origin of William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell 173
Coleridge's Lessons in Transition: The "Logic" of the "Wildest Odes" 213
Some Romantic Images in Beethoven 225
"Lorenzo's Liverpool and "Corinne's" Coppet: The Italianate Salon and Romantic Education 244
Liberty, Connection, and Tyranny: The Novels of Jane Austen and the Aesthetic Movement of the Picturesque 261
The Royal Academy and the Annual Exhibition of the Viewing Public 280
Romantic Psychoanalysis: Keats, Identity, and "(The Fall of) Hyperion" 304
"Their terrors came upon me tenfold": Literacy and Ghosts in John Clare's Autobiography 328
Gender, Sexuality, and the (Un)Romantic Canon
A Lesson in Romanticism: Gendering the Soul 349
What Happens When Jane Austen and Frances Burney Enter the Romantic Canon? 376
Domesticating Gothic: Jane Austen, Ann Radcliffe, and National Romance 392
Learning What Hurts: Romanticism, Pedagogy, Violence 413
Reforming Byron's Narcissism 429
"This Horrid Theatre of Human Sufferings": Gendering the Stages of History in Catharine Macaulay and Percy Bysshe Shelley 448
Contributors 467
Index 471
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