Peter Melville’s project is indebted to “the Derridian commentary” on hospitality that is part of the turn in Jacques Derrida’s later work toward ethics. As such, there is a certain familiarity in the theoretical moves Derrida (and Melville) make concerning hospitality—just as we can only forgive the unforgivable, so too is hospitality only possible on the condition of its impossibility. In other words, despite our most hospitable efforts, the stranger will always in some way remain strange and resist our attempts at accommodation. Nevertheless, reading this resistance is itself productive as Melville demonstrates in his analysis of a variety of Romantic texts that seem haunted by the very strangers they fail to accommodate. Melville argues that the hospitable encounter grounds Romantic subjectivity because it engenders a recognition of an unavoidable alterity within subjectivity, which compels the subject to assert self-sovereignty by responding to and thus becoming responsible for the exceptional strangeness of the other. These are provocative issues, and call to mind the debates surrounding Carl Schmitt’s arguments about sovereignty and the state of exception as well as Giorgio Agamben’s commentary on homo sacer, but unfortunately these connections aren’t mentioned in the book. In fact, although other thinkers and critics are occasionally referred to, particularly Kristeva, Lyotard, and Levinas, it is Derrida whose presence in the book is almost perpetual. Rarely do more than a few pages go by before his authority is invoked.
Despite this fixation on Derrida, the book’s application of the logic of hospitality to Romantic texts is fruitful. A basic model of Romantic hospitality is as follows: when a stranger is welcomed into a Romantic text he or she functions as a split reference, referring both to an “outside" that disrupts the text’s claims to closure and totality and to an internal self-dividedness with the text’s host. As such, this startling stranger always refers to more than can be accommodated by the text in which he or she is housed and the stranger thus becomes a figure within the text that compels readers (and writers) to respond to and thus become responsible for an excess the text cannot contain. The logic and implications of Romantic hospitality become clearer in the book's four main chapters, which focus upon a series of narratives in Rousseau, Kant, Coleridge, and Mary Shelley that contain scenes of “reading the foreign” (7) or hospitable encounter.
The first two chapters on Rousseau and Kant, who are included as philosophical precursors to Romanticism, demonstrate the difficulty in thinking through the reception of alterity. The chapter on Rousseau explores his fascination with the “protocols and manners of hospitality” (24) in his late writings, beginning with a reading of his prose poem Le Levite d'Ephraim and continuing with Emile; or, On Education (1762) and the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755). The reading of Emile is particularly engaging and focuses upon the moment during Emile’s search for his beloved Sophie when he suddenly realizes that the woman he has been seeking is in fact already sitting before him as part of a family that has extended their hospitality to him on his journey. As Melville points out, Emile's encounter with Sophie is similar to Wordsworth’s missed encounter during the crossing of Simplon Pass. In this startling moment of recognition, Emile sees two faces—the face he projected and the face he failed to see. And this second face, Sophie’s real face, "is unfathomable, and yet it demands to be read. It compels him to 'search' its contours—every crinkle, every twitch that configures the face anew" (39).
Kant is similarly troubled by the foreign and the strange, and the second chapter focuses upon three scenes involving “troubling guests” (61), two from Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (1798) and the third from Perpetual Peace: A Philosophic Sketch (1795). The lesson of these three scenes seems to be that the perspective from which we look upon ourselves and upon others is necessarily complex but that such heterogeneity is conducive to the health of both the subject and the nation. Melville argues that this is why Kant disavows the figure of the “solitary eater” in the Anthropology, "a figure whose refusal to offer hospitality when it eats is both irresponsible and unhealthy" (19). This behavior is unhealthy because by being devoid of company, “the solitary eater abandons himself to self-consumption, losing his vivacity as his pathologically self-reflective gaze becomes ever more fixed on his failing health" (65). To avoid this fate, consumption should be mediated through sociability and conversation, so that self-regard is nourished by the perspectives of others. The figure of the “Asiatic Turk,” also found in the Anthropology, suggests how national identity is similarly nourished and even constituted by commerce with foreign perspectives. The figure of the Turk appears when Kant asks his audience to imagine how “Christian Europe” looks through the eyes of an “Asiatic Turk.” The perspective is inverted in a reading from Perpetual Peace, which deals with the rules for encountering the foreigner who arrives at the borders of the nation. Melville argues that although the other’s sudden appearance within our border may exceed our expectations, our desire for peace demands that we must react to this excess responsibly.
The next two chapters focus on the role of hospitality in Romantic literary texts. The chapter on Coleridge briefly looks at "Pity," "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and "Kubla Khan,” before offering more prolonged readings of "Christabel,” "Frost at Midnight," and "To Two Sisters," and finally concluding with an analysis of a brief section from Biographia Literaria. According to Melville, Coleridge’s hospitality manifests itself in his reaction to the various unexpected intrusions in his poetry such as the man for Porlock, the "uninivited arrival" of the Mariner, and the “stranger” in “Frost at Midnight.” Unable to ever fully accommodate these intrusions into his thinking, Coleridge instead works to host these surprise visits in the rhythmic movement of his writing, which Melville argues often “plays itself out in a kind of reiterative performance of breach and containment which is not unlike that of [...] Fort-da" (105). Melville’s suggestive analysis of “Frost at Midnight” perhaps best illustrates how the arrival of a stranger can become a “toy for Thought,” and offer a space upon which a series of metonymic associations can be projected and worked through. However, although this “Coleridgean ‘pattern’” functions as something like a “talking cure” (133), such hospitable encounters with difference are never complete and thus analysis remains interminable. The final chapter on Mary Shelley's The Last Man (1826) goes even further with the theme of interminability, as it deals with the most difficult thing to welcome—the end of the world. As a plague threatens to engulf the world, England becomes a kind of hospital of last resort, “the final refuge and last bastion of humanity" (162). Even here in a world where all hope is lost, Melville argues that the call of hospitality and responsibility “is an obligation that is impossible to fulfill but also impossible to ignore” (170).
On the whole Melville’s application of the “Derridian commentary” to Romantic texts is convincing, but there are limitations to this approach. It is never entirely clear how a Romantic hospitality is distinctive from any other kind of hospitality. If we were to apply the Derridian commentary to some other body of writing—Victorian, modernist—would the result be any different? And if there is a difference, then how do we account for the peculiarly Romantic quality Melville finds in his source texts? Is Romantic hospitality a universal phenomenon, a trace or working out of some historical dynamic of self-other relations, or is it sui generis? In other words, how would we historicize Romantic hospitality? A second limitation of this approach is that Melville’s persistent focus on Derrida’s ideas about hospitality risks making Melville a “solitary eater.” There are many thinkers both within and without the study of Romanticism who could have been brought into conversation with Derrida’s ideas. Perhaps the most surprising absence was the lack of engagement with recent debates surrounding the role of the figure of the neighbor in political theology, debates Derrida himself entered into. Despite these reservations, a sign of the book's success is the desire it instills in the reader to invite other texts and other thinkers to the table that Melville has set. There is a deep significance to the idea that there is a disproportion, internal to phenomenon, between manifestation and what appears in it and that there is necessarily, an excess or surplus to the phenomenon in the phenomenon, and in its self-relation. The foremost question is how to read this surplus—this “elsewhere” or beyond that paradoxically is so central to our sense of self. Ultimately, Melville is right in arguing that the manner in which we enter into relation with this surplus is intimately connected to how we read our relationship to the other. But he is also correct that precisely how the other should be read is a question that is impossible to answer just as it is impossible to ignore.
Sean Dempsey is a PhD candidate in the Religion and Literature program at Boston University. He is currently working on a dissertation that examines the impact of secularization upon political theology, epistemology, and aesthetics within British Romanticism.