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Thomas Pfau. Romantic Moods: Paranoia, Trauma, and Melancholy, 1790–1840. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005. ISBN 0–8018–8197–8. Price: US$65.

  • Nicholas Halmi

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  • Nicholas Halmi
    University of Washington

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In English there are two words spelled mood. One, from Old English, means a “temporary state of mind or feelings of a person or group” (OED); the other, originating as a variant of mode (from the Latin modus), has applications in logic and grammar. The grammatical meaning is “any of the forms in the conjugation of a verb which indicate whether the action of the verb is represented as fact or in some other manner, as a possibility, command, wish, etc.” (OED). So the first is concerned with feeling, the second with representation. The special sense in which Thomas Pfau uses mood in his long, learned, and sometimes formidably difficult study relates to both homonyms.

According to the qualified Kantian argument that the author develops in his introduction and chapter 1, emotion is foundational for cognition and thus “can never become an object for individual consciousness” (10, 31). The perplexity with which such Enlightenment philosophers as Hume and Adam Smith acknowledged the essentially social condition of the ostensibly individual, private experience of feelings suggests why emotion is better understood not in terms of affective states—that is, as passion, “a conspicuous type of expression whose degree of sincerity or performativity remains . . . unverifiable” (6)—but rather in terms of aesthetically mediated form. Such mediation is what Pfau means by mood. A somewhat bizarre but perhaps usefully elucidatory analogy to moods would be tectonic plates, which are not directly visible but can be identified from their geological manifestations on the earth’s surface (faults, earthquakes, volcanoes). Unlike tectonic plates, however, moods are related to one another temporally rather than spatially. They are not subjective, Pfau stresses, but intersubjective.

To be manifested formally is to be subject to historical contingency: mood speaks in the rhetoric not of all times but of a particular time. (Otherwise the adjective in Pfau’s title could not be taken as an historical designation.) To the extent, then, that it can be elicited from a temporally and culturally delimited body of writing—and Pfau is concerned here primarily with writing, despite a suggestive paragraph on political films (82–83) and a brief examination of political cartoons of the 1790s (160–61, 176–84)—mood offers historical insight: “in its rhetorical and formal-aesthetic sedimentation, mood speaks . . . to the deep-structured situatedness of individuals within history as something never actually intelligible to them in fully coherent, timely, and definitive form” (7). In the Heideggerian language to which Pfau himself adverts (9–11, 316–17), mood reveals to us the historicity of Dasein.

The methodological implication of this conception of mood is that history must be approached through aesthetic form. In thus affirming the value of formal analysis precisely for the sake of historical understanding, Pfau has broad affinities with such critics as Forest Pyle and Marshall Brown, who have also navigated skilfully between the Scylla of an historically blind formalism and the Charybdis of a literarily tone-deaf historicism. It is the latter of these, however, from which the author dissociates himself most explicitly (22), and his critique of recent “political” readings of Keats’s poetry in particular is blunt: “However ennobling and edifying to preponderantly liberal academic practitioners and readers today, historicism is largely mired in a merely topical and occasional model of politics and . . . conceives of aesthetic and literary form in strictly instrumental terms” (340). Equally blunt is Pfau’s denunciation of the parochialism—“premised,” he maintains, “on a typically unexamined concept of nationhood and on equally dubious notions of canonical tradition and curricular order” (25)—by which Romantic studies are habitually confined in practice to British Romantic studies, a confinement that Brown too has justly deplored with reference to criticism on Gothic fiction (1–3).

In the face of a critical scene which, “its interdisciplinary pretensions notwithstanding, remains overwhelmingly anglophone and monolingual” (24), Romantic Moods undertakes to identify a distinctively Romantic experience of history through its aesthetic and discursive manifestations in a broad range of British and German texts, from Caleb Williams and reports of the London treason trials of 1794 to The Book of Urizen and “Michael” to the lyrics of Keats, Heine, and Joseph von Eichendorff. The depth of Pfau’s engagement with a large array of difficult philosophical works—by Adorno, Hegel, Heidegger, Kant, Novalis, and others—is especially impressive. And not the least of the book’s virtues is precisely its inclusion of the “late Romantic” writers Heine and Eichendorff, whose profoundly ambivalent relationships to early German Romanticism frustrate their easy assimilation into literary histories of the period. To be sure, the very density of the prose and complexity of the theoretical matrices discourage casual reading: Romantic Moods demands the same kind of sustained reading it practises.

As the book’s subtitle implies, there is no joy in Romanticism as Pfau interprets it. Instead there is a sequence of three paradigmatic moods—paranoia, trauma, and melancholy—each expressive of particular aspects of an underlying process of historical change from the time of the French Revolution to the post-Napoleonic restoration of the European monarchies. Paranoia, of which English writers of the 1790s (Burke, Godwin, Wollstonecraft, Thomas Erskine) supply the exemplary texts (chaps. 2–3), is “an extreme interpretive agitation” (80–81), a kind of rhetorical defensive strategy against “the anxious perception of history of uncontainable and malevolent forces” (77), above all those identified with the French Revolution. With its lucid analysis of the elements of “paranoid vision” (83–84), chapter 2 is to my mind one of the most compelling of the book.

Trauma, of which Wordsworth and Eichendorff are the chosen representatives (chaps. 4–5), is identified with the Napoleonic years and is characterized by an elaborately contrived resistence to the impinging consciousness of an historical situation that defies comprehension with any available discursive instruments. For Pfau, “Michael” is not, pace historicist readings, “an evasion of history” (understood as an avoidance of historical referentiality) but, on the contrary, a response “to a past so catastrophic . . . as to have precluded its conscious assimilation by the subject” (193). What is encrypted in the poem is an awakening both to “the rhetorical and epistemological limitations of the ballad genre” and to socio-economic change in England around 1800.

Melancholy (chaps. 6–7) originates “as a reflection on the inadequacy, even futility, of knowledge in a disenchanted world” (310). Here Keats and Heine are the principal exemplars, though not surprisingly Benjamin also figures prominently. Noting the tendency of Keats criticism to “commend the odes of a twenty-four-year-old wise man . . . while quietly consigning the writings of the twenty-two-year-old man-child to oblivion” (334), Pfau focusses on the poetry of the 1817 volume, discerning behind Keats’s “consciously manipulative relationship to verbal matter” (368)—that is, his showy use of “ready-made” literary devices and wilful violation of grammatical norms—a loss of confidence in the “cultural authority of the English language as expressed in its literary tradition” (370). The passive-aggressive aspect of melancholy in this sense is named, in the chapter on Heine’s equally self-conscious violations of aesthetic and moral etiquette, as ressentiment: “It is this confounding of affective dispositions previously held fundamental and inalienable for all beings . . . that Heine’s lyrics fleetingly conjure up and then dismantle” (426).

It is not possible here to do justice to the richness of Pfau’s readings—even the fifty-nine pages of endnotes, on subjects ranging from Fichte’s concept of reflection to the Aramaic word for translation (targum), testify to a rare erudition. But the author is certainly equal to the methodological challenge that his definition of mood imposes on him. Because moods are not intentional—which means that their engagement with history cannot be inferred from, say, Wordsworth’s overt or covert allusions to contemporary events—their elucidation requires a combination of patient formal analysis and extensive historical and theoretical contextualization. If there is one danger to this critical approach, it is that the reliance on post-Romantic concepts and contexts (Freud, Benjamin, Heidegger, etc.) as interpretive tools sometimes threatens to obscure the very historical distinctiveness of the mood being interpreted: the discussion, in chapter 3, of Freud’s reading of D. P. Schreber’s Memoirs strikes me as an instance. This is, however, a localized objection. For overall Romantic Moods both succeeds on its own terms and offers an important model for those seeking an alternative to the historicist methods of interpretation that have dominated Romantic studies for the last two decades.