Haunted Museum is a wide-ranging study of two intertwined phenomena extending from the Romantic period to the Modernist: the fascination with art and the fascination with the European South, particularly with Italy. Together, these fascinations constitute what Siegel describes as an “art-romance tradition” characterized by the “gesture back,” or an often ostentatious citationality through which representative works indicate their “own inability to arrive at an origin” for which they are “nevertheless never able to stop reaching” (xiv). Haunted Museum both particularizes and broadens the focus of Siegel’s first book, Desire and Excess: The Nineteenth-Century Culture of Art (2000), by taking into account the international circulation of people and texts that formed an important part of nineteenth-century aestheticism. While Desire and Excess centered primarily on British aestheticism, the present work also includes American, German and French writers. In Haunted Museum, we find a book as cosmopolitan as its subjects.
Siegel’s interest in Italy places his work in line with other recent books on that country’s place in the Anglo-American imagination, including Maura O’Connor’s The Romance of Italy and the English Political Imagination (1998), Matthew Reynolds’s The Realms of Verse 1830-1870: English Poetry in a Time of Nation-Building (2001), and Alison Chapman and Jane Stabler’s edited collection Unfolding the South: Nineteenth-Century British Women Writers and Artists in Italy (2003). In contrast to these largely historicist studies, Siegel draws nimbly on psychoanalysis to illuminate the pervasive and contradictory nature of desire in writings on Italy, travel, and aesthetics. Although the book tends to ignore the important role that the Risorgimento and Italian unification held for British writers, Siegel more than makes up for this absence with the subtlety and inventiveness of his interpretations. Likewise, his insistence on the special literariness of the texts he examines is a salutary corrective to a tendency in some Victorianist criticism to collapse all genres and forms and treat them as if they mediated history in identical ways.
Haunted Museum crosses period boundaries just as easily as it crosses national ones; the book focuses on the nineteenth century, but also describes its eighteenth-century pre-history and twentieth-century aftermath. The tradition that Siegel traces begins with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister and achieves its full development in works such as Germaine de Staël’s Corinne, Lord Byron’s Childe Harold, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, before splintering off into later texts by Henry James, Sigmund Freud, Marcel Proust, and Thomas Mann. In its classic form, Siegel says, this “immensely popular tradition told the story of an artist, generally half English, half foreign (that is, Italian), shaped by the visual arts as well as poetry, yet doomed to emotional misery” (xiii). The national hybridity of this artist-genius, as well as the strange mixture of genuine hope and foreordained failure that characterizes him or her, are just two of the tensions that mark the art-romance tradition. In these texts, to travel to Italy is to return to origins in hopes of gaining access to an unmediated reality, but it is also to realize that such a return is always shaped by previous texts. It is an attempt “to make actual or tangible an object of desire” as well as to provoke and prolong that desire in the form of fantasy. Thinking about desire in spatial and temporal terms reveals that these texts describe “a voyage at once toward something precious and new and toward something dangerous and old—a voyage in which the route is only valuable insofar as it is felt to offer the prospect of novelty, but is only recognizable because it is to an important degree already known” (4). In many of these texts the desire for death or the return to the mother’s womb is found to lie just beyond the desire for arousal and change.
The paradox of renewal and death and the ambivalence of desire out of which it springs are intimately related, then, to the feminine and the maternal. In the first chapter, Siegel argues that the most important character in Wilhelm Meister is not the novel’s eponymous hero but the always more memorable Mignon whose Italian ancestry and uncanny androgyny trouble Wilhelm’s narrative of development. In the second chapter, Siegel follows the tradition into its full flowering in the nineteenth century, and finds that Wilhelm Meister’s repression of the maternal is characteristic of Byron’s Childe Harold as well. Harold famously does not say goodbye to his mother before leaving, only to find her writ large in the national symbolism of Italy. In the poem, Italy is the still-inspiring but doomed figure of tragic beauty, the mourning mother, “Niobe of nations,” who has given birth to European culture only to find herself exhausted by the experience. However, it is not until forty years later, in Aurora Leigh, that the importance of the mother to the art romance is fully acknowledged. Aurora’s mother may die in giving birth to her, but she is a powerful force in Aurora’s aesthetic development. The bulk of Aurora’s development takes place in her father’s house with her father’s books, but Siegel argues that what she principally learns from her father is desire for her mother.
Siegel’s three chapters on James quite literally make up the center of the book. Although Siegel reads James’s fictions as intimately engaged with the art-romance tradition, he does not position James as merely a belated Romantic. Instead, the desire for art and for Italy continues to motivate his plots at the same time that he drastically revises the art-romance tradition in its classic form. The typical figure in Siegel’s reading of James’s novels is the American overwhelmed by the age and abundance of culture in the European museum, or what Siegel calls the “shock of vivacious desire encountering overpowering knowledge” (115). Many times, characters who have “come abroad to aspire and suffer” or “to cultivate the feelings he has learned to anticipate from the encounter with culture” (94) find that Rome is both enthralling and paralyzing. The eternal city is the fulfillment of their artistic and connoisseurial desires, but its cultural profusion also threatens them with the twin possibilities of never needing to create anything new or never being able to see and make sense of it all. Ultimately, Siegel finds that “The museum is no place of rest or safety. Ghosts inevitably linger in the hallways of an institution characterized by the dangerous mingling of the past and desire” (170). But instead of being “doomed to romance” in writing about Italy, James finds the ironic exploration of fantasy enabling.
In the final section of Haunted Museum, Siegel turns toward the modernist inheritors of the art-romance tradition: Freud, Forster, Proust, and Mann. Although the classical world lost some of its centrality in the European imagination, it retained a powerful hold, and modernism’s psychological turn inward also intensified the art romance’s characteristic fascination with desire, fantasy, and inverisimilitude. This concern with artificiality, Siegel writes, makes it unsurprising that the genre should “eventually manifest itself, as it does in Forster, in comedy” (197). Forster’s first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), questions the genre’s investment in the pleasures of longing and disappointment by juxtaposing Philip’s aestheticism with the more concrete passions of the novel’s women, Lilia and Caroline. Proust, of course, has volumes to say about the nature of unfulfilled desire, memory, and travel, but Siegel is most interested in the role of Marcel’s mother. Finally, in Mann’s Death in Venice (1912), irony does not challenge the authority of the art romance but only augments its pleasures. What makes the novella noteworthy is not the originality of the experience it depicts but its self-conscious repetitions and clichés. Aschenbach recognizes his position as only one in a series of tourists, as well as the overdetermined nature of his desire, but neither realization lessens the hold of the tradition upon him. Its repetitive artificiality is, in fact, a great part of its appeal.
Whenever one attempts to mark out a “tradition,” one risks calcifying what one hoped to bring to life. It is easy, in describing the grounds for continuity, to collapse the differences among complex works of literature. Haunted Museum thankfully steers clear of this pitfall. Instead of offering mere variations of a single argument, Siegel elucidates a developing tradition; individual writers not only exemplify characteristic motifs but also revise and respond to them. What emerges is both an illuminating synthesis and a collection of inter-related and microscopically discriminating interpretations. Indeed, the greatest strength of the book is its shift between these registers. Siegel’s work should be of interest to scholars making connections across divisions of period, nation, and genre, as well as across the fields of psychoanalysis, gender studies, and aesthetics.
Carl Lehnen is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is currently working on a project that examines race, sexuality, and cosmopolitanism in Victorian narratives about the Mediterranean.