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Romanticism on the Net

Number 26, May 2002

Managing Editor(s): Michael Eberle-Sinatra (directeur)

Publisher: Université de Montréal

ISSN: 1467-1255 (digital)

DOI: 10.7202/005704ar

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Reviews

Gillen D'Arcy Wood. The Shock of the Real: Romanticism and Visual Culture, 1760-1860. New York: Palgrave, 2001. ISBN 0-312-22654-3. Price: US$49.95.

William S. Davis

Colorado College


1

Wood's The Shock of the Real is an important piece of cultural history—important for those interested in the history of visual culture, as well as for those interested in the material contexts of romantic poetry. The "shock of the real" refers to the brusquely alienating effect that a rising visual culture of verisimilitude had on many at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. Some experienced this "shock" as pleasure and were willing to pay real money for ever bolder forms of visual stimulation. Others were disgusted by the cheap and vulgar sensationalism of the new forms of visual representation, which included visual effects on the stage, the exhibition of enormous paintings, engraved copies of masterpieces, gigantic panoramas, vast exhibitions of antiquities, book illustrations, and finally photography. Of prime importance in The Shock of the Real is the question of who stood on which side of the rising "struggle for dominance between the image and the word" (13). Not surprisingly, perhaps, we find the elites of the literary world—from Coleridge to Baudelaire—engaged in polemics against the rise of visual realism, a trend they view as destructive to the imaginative power of the written word. Wood's central argument is that we can best see romantic ideology, not "in opposition to the enlightenment rationalism of the eighteenth century, but as a reaction to the visual culture of modernity being born" (7).

2

Wood's conception of "the Real," as it applies to the visual forms of representation he has in mind, is not Lacan's real as that which is outside of all signification, but Barthes's definition of the real as a sign that "is assumed not to need any independent justification" (2). The "real" here refers thus not to what falls beyond the reach of language, but rather to those representations that require no interpretation, and that, if they point to anything beyond themselves at all, point only toward their own object of imitation. What is real finds here its opposition in what is ideal, and thus runs counter to romantic conceptions of poetry—as we find them in canonical self-defining texts of romantic theorists like Schlegel, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Shelley—that would promote the poet as prophet of the ideal and absolute. The visual real does not want to lead us toward divinity, or toward an obscure "power" we might imaginatively associate with a natural image like the summit of Mont Blanc. The real wants to entertain, amaze, and shock us. And it wants to achieve these powerful effects, not in the service of an "aesthetic education" or an ameliorating human ideal, but because it wants our money.

3

In this way Wood's engaging study investigates the boundaries between art and commerce, high culture and mass production, aesthetics and economics. He convincingly demonstrates that the rise of visual culture corresponds to an increasing public demand for a "new naturalism" (27). Popular media try to give the people what they want; and what they come to want at the close of the eighteenth century is something that would overwhelm them with its effect of the real. In analyzing supporting examples Woods also provides us with a fascinating history of the rise of the visual in Western Culture. Chief examples are Garrick's "multi-media" stage effects, the "printselling magnate" John Boydell, Benjamin Haydon's gigantic historical paintings, enormous panoramas of city and landscapes, Elgin's "marbles," Turner's illustrations of Walter Scott, and Félix Nadar's early photographic experiments. Reading this book is an education in an important chapter in the history of visual culture.

4

Each chapter of this book contains engaging accounts of clashes between romantic ideology and the rise of modernity as the visual real. Yet, another aspect of the book that should concern students of romantic literature is the relation between visual culture and romantic poetry and prose. Reading the first chapters of the book one begins to wonder what insights into literary texts this study of visual culture might afford, apart from the fact that poets (along with prose romantics such as Charles Lamb) were generally disgusted by the crass commercialism of attempts at the visual real. As a book of cultural analysis and history, the interpretation of literary texts is not its main concern, and the first two chapters have little to offer on the relation between poetry and visual effect. Chapter Three, however, on the panorama, specifically links the historical panorama with Wordsworth's account of London from The Prelude, and other literary readings follow. Wood argues that the "shock" effect of the panorama derives not from its reproduction of reality alone, but from its value as a technological wonder. For Wordsworth this means that the London masses who view these gigantic paintings become overwhelmed with the question of how humans could make such a thing, rather than with wonder at nature itself, and the question of what it has to tell us about ourselves and our relation to the divine: "the sublime sense of natural beauty reduced to a commercially driven, imaginatively impoverished shock of the 'real'" (111). Wood's reading of this section of The Prelude points out that "vision" for Wordsworth remains ideal and metaphorical, while seeing for its own sake threatens us with "cultural regression" (116). From the heights of complex literary expression we return to paintings on the wall of a cave.

5

The book's most interesting reading of literature against visual culture, however, involves Keats's encounter with the Elgin marbles. Elgin himself is a figure of endless fascination, and Wood tells his story in a both informative and captivating manner. He argues that Elgin represents a turn away from an idealizing classicism of Winckelmann and Schiller. With the rise of the visual we begin to see remnants of the classical past as objects of wonder in their own right, rather than as fragments of lost wholeness toward which humanity turns with nostalgic longing. This turn is reflected also in Keats's encounters with the friezes Elgin brought from Greece. The confrontation with these broken statues in their material reality shocks Keats out of the "sentimental distance so studiously preserved by Winckelmann, Diderot, and Schiller" (155). The Apollo who replaces the titan Hyperion is not the poet, as Bloom would have it, but the great collector Elgin (155). The collector reflects the new bourgeois ideal of material possession over nostalgic yearning. Elgin is the flawed god of the new order, whose broken statues remind us always of the gap between what is and what should be. This is a fascinating reading of "Hyperion" that asks us to see the poem as an encounter with the future rather than as desire for a lost past. The future itself is a museum in which we look purely for the sake of looking, and in so doing suffer the fate of "marmorealization" ourselves, "a turning to stone" (156).

6

Wood devotes a fair amount of time to Elgin himself, particularly to the question of what would drive him to bring the massive Parthenon friezes and other artifacts to England at the cost of personal financial ruin. Here I was a bit disappointed not to find a more detailed discursive, or cultural-historical argument. Wood suggests that Elgin was compensating for something in a Freudian sense, for, apart from his money, Elgin lost his wife (to divorce) and—what was no doubt far worse—his nose (probably to syphilis). These losses might certainly drive a man to all sorts of extremes, but why to collecting giant sculptures? Humans have always suffered loss and have attempted to compensate for that loss symbolically or otherwise. What was it about this particular moment in history that might make a marble collection of extreme proportion seem psychically satisfying? How might we connect Elgin's undertaking to other collectors from around 1800 as well as to the rise of the encyclopedia and the museum? These are questions I would like to see Wood pursue in more detail.

7

Whatever else it may tell us, the case of Elgin points toward the rise of the visual as the modern mode of representation, as well as toward some of our reasons for anxiety about it. The more people long to see "the real thing," the more intellectuals and artists condemn this seeing as crude and superficial at best, and as a form of appropriation or colonial subjugation at worst. Those who attempt to profit from gross visual displays are not artists, but merchants. Yet the visual cannot be denied its power. Scott's novels sell better with illustrations, no matter how much he resists this idea at first. Baudelaire's protestations that photography leaves no room for the imagination have no effect on the growth of the medium. We live in an age now in which digital reproduction and manipulation threaten the reliability of the photographic image as a guarantor of verisimilitude, but this only seems to fuel our need for images we can read as "real"—with "reality" television programs as a prime example. And like the romantics before us, we continually condemn the images we cannot live without.

8

Wood concludes his book with some interesting reflections on visual culture at the turn of a new millennium. He convincingly suggests that romantic sensibility "constitutes the template of our own popular tastes and expectations in visual culture in the new millennium" (222). We cannot open a popular magazine without reading some condemnation of the visual vis a vis the printed text that could almost have been written by Coleridge or Lamb. His book is important not only for understanding Romanticism itself, and for realizing that visual culture as we know it begins long before photography, but for understanding our own place in the history of the "visual" as the "real."


Author: William S. Davis
Title Reviewed: Gillen D'Arcy Wood. The Shock of the Real: Romanticism and Visual Culture, 1760-1860. New York: Palgrave, 2001. ISBN 0-312-22654-3. Price: US$49.95.
Journal: Romanticism on the Net, Number 26, May 2002
URI: http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/005704ar
DOI: 10.7202/005704ar

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