Jonah Siegel. Haunted Museum: Longing, Travel, and the Art-Romance Tradition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2005. ISBN: 9780691120874. Price: US$26.95.[Record]

  • Carl Lehnen

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  • Carl Lehnen
    University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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. 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 …