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Celeste Langan. Romantic Vagrancy: Wordsworth and the Simulation of Freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. ISBN: 0-521-47507-4 (hardback). Price: £35 (US$54.95).

  • K. Oishi

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  • K. Oishi
    Keble College, Oxford

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Walking is an inspirational habit for Wordsworth's imagination. De Quincey estimated Wordsworth's lifetime pedestrian distance at approximately 180,000 English miles. The image of walking permeates through the whole body of his poetry. In his first published poem Evening Walk , the peripatetic motion is accompanied by observations of the picturesque beauty of nature. Descriptive Sketches is a descriptive account of his walking tour on the Continent. Walking is certainly an epic adventure for Wordsworth, who in fact supplants the conventional style of epic with a new mode of narrative which traces his imaginative revisits to the 'spots of time'. Wordsworth's composition while walking up and down on a straight gravel is an act of recollection and reflection. The physicalism of walking spontaneously induces his mind into an imaginative trip to the spots of the past scattered in his mind.

This conservative reading of walking in Wordsworth is radically pulled down by Langan in her Romantic Vagrancy. She offers a most 'liberal' interpretation of such a Wordsworthian phenomenon of walking. She deconstructs its significance on a highly sophisticated theoretical basis. Her companions to Wordsworth's poetry are Marx, Adorno, Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari. With them, we are taken through a twisted and lumpy grand neo-Marxist tour of the warped landscape in Wordsworth's mind. The stride of her intellect and the stretch of her imagination are so wide and vigorously quick that naive readers may find her an unfriendly, tough guide. We are shown into the shrines of modern or post-modern thinkers more often than into the historic spots which bear significant meanings in Wordsworth's poetic world. In the course of this metaphysical journey, we are shocked to find such an Adam Smithite, anti-Whiggish poet transformed and monumentally sanctified as a staunch defendant of liberalism.

Langan's interest is in the study of the pathos of liberalism which surfaces in the phenomenon of Romantic vagrancy. Liberalism here means the 'negotiation' between economic and political liberalism, that is, between laissez-faire capitalism and representative democracy. By reading Wordsworth's walking with the help of Marxist theories, she attempts to subvert the common view that the poet was a radical in his younger days and a Tory in later years. Walking and Freedom are tautological equivalents; and she finds the liberal form of human society in this banal analogy. By singling out as significant those moments when the vagrant encounters the passer-by, she argues, Wordsworth gives a pathological expression to the shaping ideology of liberalism. It is a historical experience which forms the crux of social, political, and economic life. Adopting Adorno's terminology to describe Kant's transcendental idealism, Langan names this Romantic encounter 'a meeting of the transcendental surplus and the empirical deficit'. It presents the juxtaposition between the liberally educated poet as the private epistemological subject and the vagrant, a peripheral presence in society, as the aesthetic object. Romantic vagrancy is thus read as a political phenomenon in the literary text.

In Chapter 1, the premise of Romantic vagrancy is applied to the reading of Rousseau. She detects a dichotomy of Rousseau's identity in his political and literary writings. In contrast to his political texts, Rousseau's identity in his literary texts is unsettled and blurred in the growing market of literature. Because of this, he is qualified to be a representative Romantic vagrant, an exiled and pedestrian citizen. He is a beggar pleading for the charity of the readers towards his lack of autonomy in his literary texts. The age of Romanticism certainly saw the beginning of the defacement and disfigurement of the authorial self in literary productions, as the capitalistic mode of consumption became dominant and the taste of the audience was multiplied and diversified. Rousseau's anxiety over the production, distribution, and consumption of his writing exposes his obsessive concern with the importance of new modes of production. But he is not a liberal in the sense Langan defines. He is rather an opponent and victim of the liberalised society. It is controversial, as Langan does, to assert that his republican vision of the welfare system prefigures capitalist formations. Her theoretical argument about Rousseau's vagrancy violently overthrows a common historical understanding of the Rousseauist republicanism.

Chapter 2 pursues the theme of impoverishment in Lyrical Ballads in relation to the idea of literary 'property' evident in Wordsworth's revised expansion of the 1800 edition. This aim of the chapter is very intriguing, but the method of her investigation is devastating. In her forcible attempt to bundle the collection with Marx's Capital, she seeks a link in what she calls the 'balancing' act. She explains that the second volume of Lyrical Ballads is an experiment with numbers, i.e. with (ac)count, and, to our surprise, dares to associate its style with what Max Weber identifies as the rhetorical form of capitalism, that is, double-entry bookkeeping. The conclusion she aims to reach is that Capital and Lyrical Ballads implicitly establish a formal equivalence between capital and vagrancy. Thus arguing, she transfigures the representative text of Romanticism into a textbook of accounting. Her reading is fundamentally figurative and therefore misleading. Her principal axiom is 'Money walks'. Walking assumes a monetary face in her eyes. In its physical movement, she sees the shadow of currency ominously haunting. This Marxist hallucination is problematic because of its universal applicability: Would it not possible to argue with the same logic that the pilgrimage in Canterbury Tales or in Pilgrim's Progress anticipates the rise of capitalism? Perhaps the most representative liberal poet would then be Hopkins, whose poetry is numerically constructed in a very skilful way.

The neo-historical reading of The Prelude in Chapter 3 will not be so shocking to those readers who are fully convinced by Alan Liu's bold argument that Napoleon is the referent for 'Imagination' in the famous apostrophic interruption in Bk. 6 so long as 'the overflowing Nile' refers to Napoleon's invasion to Egypt. Drawing on Marx's proleptic reading of the historical referentiality of the French Revolution in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte , Langan tries to demonstrate the historical significance of the pathos of vagrancy, as in the episode of the Discharged Soldier. The power-relation of the double histories of The Prelude is thus radically subverted: the autobiographical account is negated by history. The vagrancy of the Discharged Soldier is interpreted as a symptom of the circulation of capital and expansion of empire which necessitated charitable assists from the nation for the aged and the poor.

In contrast with the preceding chapters, the last chapter of this book entitled 'The Walking Cure' offers a moderate and elucidating interpretation of the psychological significance of walking in Wordsworth. Taking up The Excursion as an example, Langan demonstrates how the act of walking exercises psycho-therapeutic effects on the Wanderer. The contrast between the pedestrian merchant and Margaret is clear: while the Wanderer's persistent journey keeps his intellect active and his sympathy strong, Margaret suffers her health to decline in a lonely and stagnant state of living. The Wanderer's vagrancy is also contrasted with the Solitary whose melancholia represents the political, economic, and historical 'malaise' of post-revolutionary depression. The encounter between the missionary salesman and these disconsolate subjects exhibit the conjunction of surplus and distress. The Wanderer can exert a curative influence thanks to his surplus of sympathy. This seems quite plausible, but at the basis of this argument still lies that ever-haunting Marxist premise that 'Money walks'. It is difficult to follow the logic of her argument, which leaps 'analogically' from the topos of walking to the economic subject of money-circulation. The Wanderer's immunity from melancholy is because of his identification with 'the money-form', she claims: without this rather anticlimactic jump of the argument, her conclusion that 'the cure for dispossession and unemployment—vagrancy—is walking', would be more convincing.

Romantic Vagrancy was positively reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement (May 24, 1996) and described as 'theoretically sophisticated'. Langan's argument is highly complex and ambitiously original. But it is often historically incorrect and obscure. When she discusses vagrancy, the historical state of vagrants, vagabonds, migrating labourers, and ordinary travellers is nowhere properly addressed. Langan's flexible use of the term 'vagrancy' is evidence of the historical insubstantiality of her term. She seems to inherit from neo-Historicism and neo-Marxism the habit of attending not to the history, but to the 'historicality', that is, here, the arbitrary contrived interpretation of walking as a historical phenomenon. As the background knowledge of The Ruined Cottage and The Excursion , she touches a controversy over the propriety of enclosure, one of the capital-directed actions which uprooted the traditional life of agricultural labourers and degraded them into migrating industrial labourers or ever-travelling vagrants. However, instead of referring to contemporary theorists, such as Adam Smith and Malthus, who saw the necessity of mobilising the labour market while ideologically helping the formation of the modern policing system, she jumps into twentieth-century America and introduces us to Edward Koch, Mayor of New York City who justified the police's removal of the homeless from Grand Central Station. Her knowledge of Adam Smith seems questionable, when she jokingly compares the hands of the Old Cumberland Beggar, the instrument of acquisition and feeding, to the 'invisible hand' in the Wealth of Nations .

Langan can also be criticised for her opportunistic use of the term 'liberal' in her book. It covers ground from the generosity of feeling, gentleman's education, to an unprejudiced political and economic viewpoint. When she argues that The Old Cumberland Beggar envisages 'liberality' as voluntary charity, she carelessly ignores the historical fact that generous private charity formed the basis of conservative local paternalism under the eighteenth-century Old Poor Laws. Conservatism in history is distorted into Liberalism in theory. What is more important, Langan seems to dismiss, intentionally or not, another significant aspect of liberalism. As the division of labour in industrial production symbolises, liberalism leads to the modern individualist style of human life. The analogy of walking and individualism is suggested by Hazlitt. In his 'On Going a Journey', he presents walking as an essentially asocial self-reflective act. He declares that liberty of soul is gained only through purposeless walking.

The soul of a journey is liberty, perfect liberty, to think, feel, do just as one pleases. We go a journey chiefly to be free of all impediments and of all inconveniences; to leave ourselves behind, much more to get rid of others.

Here we hear the vivid voice of Hazlitt as a liberal thinker. Langan does not discuss Hazlitt's walking, just as she ignores Byron's exile. She could take this unrestrained, undestined wandering analogically to represent the peculiar manner in which money ambulates in the commercial world as if it were taking on a life of its own.

But is Wordsworth's walking so solitary? As Langan herself shows in the fourth chapter, the Wanderer seeks for a communal sympathy, in contrast with Margaret and the Solitary. When the poet sings on daffodils, he did not actually wander 'lonely as a cloud': his sister Dorothy was with him. She regularly accompanied his walking and attended his revisit to Tintern Abbey as an agency to connect his past and present. It is through familial or communal sympathy that walking becomes a means of dissolving the dichotomy of the self. His walking trips to Scotland enabled the poet to feel the timeless and universal communion of holy bards.

Past, present, future, all appeared

In harmony united

Like guests that meet, and some from far,

By cordial love invited.

'Yarrow Revisited'

Dorothy's presence occupies a more important place in his home-making sauntering at Grasmere. In the rural community, the poet attempts to construct an earthly paradise for himself and his Emma. Walking thus becomes a creative communal activity, not a solitary indulgence like Rousseau's misanthropic promenade.

Where'er my footsteps turned,

Her Voice was like a hidden Bird that sang.

Home at Grasmere

This rural rambling activates his imagination which envisages a harmonious 'Centre' of his social life 'Made for itself, and happy in itself / Perfect Contentment, Unity entire'. Unlike Shelley and Byron, Wordsworth's wandering life did not end into an ever-shifting exile. Either physically or imaginatively he frequently returns to nature in the Lake District. His Guide to the Lakes, is not only a product of the observations made in his daily walks, but an epitome of the Wordsworthian walking which connects past and present and harmonises nature and man. The human life he describes is not a society anxiously haunted by capitalism, but an old rural community which keeps the 'pure Commonwealth' of local yeomen, who live under the beneficent protection of Nature and the Church. Is this social attitude to be considered as 'liberal'? In her Walking, Literature, and English Culture (Oxford, 1993), Anne Wallace gives such a communal walking in Wordsworth, the name of 'peripatetic' walking, which is an substitute for and a preventive against the decline of georgic England. Her book was a great consolation to me after reading Langan's avant-garde reading of Wordsworth.