Maureen N. McLane, Romanticism and the Human Sciences: Poetry, Population, and the Discourse of the Species. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. ISBN: 0-521-77348-2. Price: £35.00 (US$54.95).
University of Toronto
Maureen N. McLane's Romanticism and the Human Sciences is a thought-provoking reflection on the value of Romantic literature at a time when literature has become increasingly marginalized in society. Though this situation has been visible most recently, as universities, businesses, and governmental agencies have supported the funding of the sciences and social sciences while allowing the fiscal erosion of the arts and humanities, McLane sees the beginnings of this shift in the Romantic period, which saw the emergence of the human sciences and their rapid rise to cultural authority. As M. H. Abrams noted, many years ago: "In an age increasingly science-minded, what assurance is there that poetry will even endure?".  McLane's book is about the Romantic literary response to this situation, the reconceptualization of poetry that led to its oscillation "between transcendentalizing claims and a recognition of its contradictory situation in a world whose values are derived by a utilitarian, scientistic, and economic calculus" (p. 20).
That the Romantic period produced a remarkable number of important "defences of poetry" is well known, the most notable of these being Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Shelley's Defence of Poetry, and Coleridge's Biographia Literaria. McLane shrewdly recognizes that these are not necessarily signs of the importance of poetry to the age. Instead, they suggest that writers were forced to reconsider what poetry is and does in light of the rising star of moral philosophy, which at this time encompassed the social sciences and economics. Even the strongest of the proponents of the philosophical importance of poetry, Percy Shelley, appears at times to have accepted the subordination of literature to moral philosophy. In an 1819 letter to Peacock, he declares: "I consider poetry very subordinate to moral and political science, and if I were well, certainly I would aspire to the latter, for I can conceive a great work embodying the discoveries of all ages and harmonizing the contended creeds by which mankind have been ruled" (p. 41). In contrast to the expansive claims that he would later make in his Defence, Shelley here sees poetry as the consolation of those who cannot, for various reasons, aspire to higher goals. Shelley's doubts and uncertainties about the relevance of poetry to his age can be found elsewhere too, and it is certainly possible to read the sweeping generalizations of the Defence of Poetry as being an exaggerated form of defensiveness (offence being the best defense). Furthermore, Shelley was also even forced to resort to the language of moral philosophy in order to make them. My own view is that in spite of his ongoing uncertainties, Shelley continued to see poetry as a higher form of moral argument, an activity well suited to laying the foundations of political change, but even so, he did see the latter as representing a substantial challenge to the claims traditionally made by poets. Similar points could be made about Wordsworth's attempt to write a poetry that adopts and undercuts moral philosophical methods, as I also earlier indicated in my Wordsworth and the Enlightenment. His famous literary debate with Hazlitt, dramatized in "Expostulation and Reply" and "Tables Turned," indicates the degree to which Romantic literature established an ongoing, productive, critical dialogue with moral philosophy. Coleridge's life-long effort to differentiate poetic discourse from the languages of empirical or mechanical philosophy is similarly structured by an engagement with moral philosophy, and both he and Wordsworth sought to write the epic poetic equivalents of a moral philosophical treatise. In "Dejection: An Ode," Coleridge explores the psychic costs of moral philosophy—"my sole resource, my only plan," "by abstruse research to steal / From my own nature all the natural man"—even as he uses the formal resources of the ode to gain an outlet for his pain. Since Romantic ideas about poetry and literature were not formulated in isolation, but in rivalry with the newly emerging cultural significance of the social sciences, McLane's book is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the period. She demonstrates that the new ways of understanding human beings in society—the new modes of calculating human worth, envisioning human possibility, and quantifying human lives—exerted a powerful influence on Romantic writing. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Mary and Percy Shelley, and Keats internalized problems that had been raised by moral philosophers, particularly those related to the anthropological definition of "man" and to the dynamics of population. McLane is interested in the many contradictions that opened up within poetry as it grappled with the new value system ushered in by the sciences. Indeed, the increased emphasis on "the poetic" as a special faculty, mode of perception, or form of creation comes into being at the same time as scientists were formulating their own claims to professional autonomy. McLane notes how the term "poetry" becomes increasingly idealized and grandiose, so much so that it ultimately rejects being tethered to either "verse" or "literature," at the same time as many feared that it had become outmoded.
Romanticism and the Human Sciences is in many ways McLane's own somewhat Shelleyan effort to write her own "defense of poetry." Much of the intensity of McLane's book comes from the extent to which she herself works within the contradictions she describes, leaving it unresolved whether poetry is an "obsolete practice or horizon of futurity" (p. 8). Critical of both the Romantic defense of literature and of the new sciences of man, critical of both the transcendent and humanist idealizations of Romantic aesthetics and of its quantitative, calculating, scientific alternatives, she writes a criticism that is openly contradictory, one that seeks to be open to the contradictions that shape contemporary literary criticism. She thus presents a unique kind of polemical defense of literature, one that proceeds by self-conscious questioning, yet hopes that in so doing to open a space for poetry, if only for the sake of the future. Since the Enlightenment, poetry has needed defending, for as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer noted, "the program of the Enlightenment was the disenchantment of the world".  Fictionality, illusion, magic, non-sense, metaphor, play, and romance—all these were seen as modes of enchantment that needed to be dismissed so that human beings could properly gain control over themselves and the "real" world. McLane does not adopt a defense of the illusionary, an approach that would have allied her with Hartman's influential arguments in Beyond Formalism, nor does she employ a form of negative dialectic to posit the value of the aesthetic as an alternative to the ratiocinative understanding of the present. Instead, she draws upon Percy Shelley to argue that imagination is profoundly linked to the ways in which we structure the future. "We need not bind ourselves to poetry per se but rather to the human capacity carried within it—the capacity to project, to figure to make real in language the as-yet unarticulated visions, longings, and despairs which yet propel us even in this age of the simulacrum, the hyperreal, and the supposed irrelevance of the arts" (pp. 157-58).
With one eye on the Romantic period, the other on the precarious state of the contemporary, McLane is ambivalent regarding the current dominant cultural stereotype, articulated as frequently by critics from within as from outside the humanities, that they rest upon an outmoded concept of "the human." In these accounts, a traditional, essentialized, conservative, and often male-dominated understanding of human being and of the humanities as a privileged preserve of the human, contrasts with the more radical historical, critical, and social models that have been adopted in the social sciences. In a world in which "the human" is always being constructed, where the subject is produced by the larger forces of language, class, race, and gender, the appeal to literature's greater "humanity" is without any essential foundation. Under critical scrutiny, even Shelley's support for a literature that dissolves assurances and dismantles traditional foundations to open its readers to the process of continually creating new forms of meaning can seem idealistic and obsolescent. Despite her great sympathy for the poet, McLane is still willing to entertain that "there is something pathetic, something almost already obsolete, in Shelley's declarations" (p. 146). At the same time, she is even less attracted to the arguments of either social scientists or those who have adopted a post- or anti-humanist position, finding something liberating in the dismissal of literature.
In exploring "the predicament of 'literature,' 'poetry' and the human sciences in England circa 1800" (p. 10), McLane does not address the relationship of poetry and the human sciences with the kind of thematic directness that characterizes most historical and interdisciplinary studies these days. Instead, she often proceeds tangentially, by focusing on the ways in which certain Romantic concerns reflect a poetic engagement with and internalization of problems that emerged in the social sciences: anthropology and literacy, representing the future, figurations of immortality. McLane pays relatively little attention to (and appears to have relatively little interest in) the actual texts of the human sciences. Malthus, and to a lesser extent, Godwin, are the de facto representatives of the social sciences, and most of McLane's concern is with anthropology and demography. The association of Godwin with Malthus, despite the fact that their philosophy, politics, and modes of argument were so radically different, indicates the extent to which McLane is evaluating the human sciences from the outside. They consequently appear more homogeneous, more authoritative, and less fragmented than they actually were. In the above quote, it is worth noting, for instance, that though literature, poetry, and the human sciences share the same "predicament," there are no scare quotes around the latter. In another kind of study, one that was focused on the cultural interaction of literature and moral philosophy, the division between the two would appear far more blurred and unstable than McLane suggests. Most of the Romantics also contributed to moral philosophy, though few adopted the modes of quantification that were signaled by Malthus' Essay on Population. More attention to contemporary writings in the human sciences and to the multiple viewpoints and attitudes of its practitioners would indicate that the instabilities and disagreements shaping romantic literature can just as easily be found in the social sciences. McLane's perspective and concern, however, is ultimately with poetry and its response to the rising hegemonic status of the social sciences, not with a broadly cultural understanding of their interaction.
The introductory chapter outlines the general argument that Romantic poetry by defining itself in anthropological terms as that which makes us most fully "human," claimed priority as the "discourse of our species." By reconceptualizing literature, as "the grand line of demarcation between the human and the animal kingdoms" (p. 10), as William Godwin remarked, by seeing poetry as the highest expression of human potential, Romantic writers forged a powerful link between literature and anthropology. By so doing, McLane argues that they "committed poetry to the discourse of the species, thereby making poetry answerable to the human sciences" (p. 29). The subsequent chapter considerably advances this issue by examining Wordsworth and Coleridge's engagements with moral philosophy and their differing views concerning whether rustics and savages can be said to think. In some very fine interpretations of the Lyrical Ballads, notably "We Are Seven" and a superb reading of "Ruth," McLane presents Wordsworth's poetry as a counterdiscourse to moral philosophy. In poems that replicate the structures and concerns of ethnographic encounters, Wordsworth sought to establish a less distanced, more sympathetic understanding of social relationships; nevertheless, one of the great strengths of these experiments is that they illuminate the incommensurabilities, impasses, and differences that shape human interaction. As McLane notes, "No longer objects of representation in conjectural histories. . .or political-economical treatises. . .these figures in the ballads emerge, however problematical, as subjects with voices, situations, histories. . .The work of poetry, through its insinuation into the reader's affections (if successful), offers what might be called a thicker description of potential subjectivities" (p. 69). Here, McLane's adoption of Clifford Geertz's idea of "thick description" suggests that even if literature was "answerable" to the social sciences, the obverse was and still remains the case.
The third chapter, an outstanding examination of Mary Shelley's engagement with the demography of Godwin and Malthus, reads Frankenstein as a radical critique of the anthropological foundations of the Romantic literary ideal. The failure of the monster to gain recognition as a human being, despite his acquisition of language and a literary education, calls into question the anthropological foundations of the humanities, the claim that literature humanizes the savage and monstrous body. Of indeterminate species, without the geographical and social resources that allow individuals to construct and authenticate a stable and coherent identity, the monster represents a rupture in both the humanities and the science that created him. In a suggestive engagement with Malthus, McLane explores the important and productive role that demographic and biological theories of speciation play in the novel, particularly with regard to questions of biological reproduction, species boundaries, species competition, and population anxiety.
Malthus used demographic statistics to construct a future of insurmountably narrowed possibilities, as the geometric growth of population always would continually surpass the arithmetic development of resources. In Chapter 4, McLane nicely allies Malthus' philosophy of diminishing expectations with the impact that the failure of the French Revolution had upon the efforts of reformists to imagine a better future. Since the lessons of the immediate past and the dynamics of population seemed to stand as obstacles to imagining a revolutionary alternative, a revolutionary poetry could be said to be set against "population" and "history." In an intricately developed argument, McLane demonstrates the extent to which Percy Shelley's poetry internalizes and struggles against demographic theory and its mathematical calculation of the future by developing a "poetics of futurity," which reads the past through the dark light of the future, replacing narrative with revolutionary lyric. For McLane, the power of the future lies in its unknowability. A politics that is grounded neither in the analysis of the present or the past, but in an unknowable future, surmounts the political impasse that disillusioned so many radicals in the wake of the French Revolution. "What had not yet happened could not be disputed. What had not been thought could not be critiqued. What had not been seen could not be represented. Poetry would not bind itself to scientific truths or arithmetic calculations, nor would poetry surrender itself to a historicism disguised as 'history.' What might yet be could always be, indeed must always be, imagined" (p. 146).
Since McLane seems to have contemporary historicism as much in her sights as the French Revolution, one wishes she were more explicit in her criticism. Even with regard to Shelley, one wonders whether Shelley's emphasis upon the primacy of the future in shaping a revolutionary poetry was not more dialectical inasmuch as he not only posited the future as a revolutionary alternative to the present, but saw it as the means of most fully grasping the limitations of the present and the past. When he writes that "Hope creates / From its own wreck the thing it contemplates," his utopianism allows him to engage with the present even more fully. Furthermore, as the opening act of Prometheus Unbound indicates, to understand why his contemporaries could not imagine a revolutionary future, Shelley had to grapple with the role that history had played in forming their hopes and dreams and in perverting their desires. Herein lies one of the primary differences between Shelley's "poetics of futurity," which allies him with a lengthy tradition of prophetic and utopian thought extending from Isaiah to the negative dialectics of the Frankfurt School, and that of McLane. She is at once deeply and tentatively committed to the importance of poetry as a mode of resistance to contemporary modes of ascertaining value; because the relationship between the present and the future—what, in other words, poetry ultimately does—is for her unknowable, it provides her with less ground to stand on.
In the final chapter and an epilogue, McLane extends her discussion of the poetics of futurity into a broad and original discussion of the politics of immortality during the Romantic period. Ways of thinking about birth and death and about how these boundary states can be exceeded are articulated in ways of thinking about immortality. As McLane notes, the Romantic period produced several "species of immortality," from Godwin's belief that ultimately the human body would not die (the logical embodiment of his notions of perfectibility), to Wordsworth's fusion of immortality with childhood in his "Intimations Ode," and Keats's anxious reflections on fame and the "hungry generations" that "tread" it down. As a topic intrinsically linked to poetry, immortality was politicized during the Romantic period with Malthus' attack upon Godwin and Condorcet. Thus it provides McLane with an ideal subject for further exploring the interaction of poetry with moral philosophy and the struggle that ensued over how to imagine the future. Demography reappears as the future is reconceptualized and rearticulated in terms of "dead poets" and "immortal populations," beginning and concluding with Shelley's critique of Wordsworth in "Alastor."
Hegel celebrated the destructive power of negation, in which the understanding finds its power and freedom in its capacity to perform its own Golgotha. Where there is contradiction and negation, there is some of faith, if only its negated form. In Romanticism and the Human Sciences, McLane engages in a unique defense of the poetic. The importance of this issue is embodied in the intensity of her writing; its openness and uncertainty about where that defense ultimately comes to rest can be seen in its obliquity.
M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (New York: W.W. Norton, 1958) p. 299.
Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimern, Dialectic of Enlightenment , tr. John Cumming (New York: Continuum, 1994) p. 3.
|Title Reviewed:||Maureen N. McLane, Romanticism and the Human Sciences: Poetry, Population, and the Discourse of the Species. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. ISBN: 0-521-77348-2. Price: £35.00 (US$54.95).|
|Journal:||Romanticism on the Net, Number 21, February 2001|
Copyright © Michael Eberle-Sinatra 1996-2002 — All rights reserved