Romantic Identities, or What do We Really Have in Common?Paul De Man, Romanticism and contemporary criticism: The Gauss Seminar and other papers. Ed. E. S. Burt, Kevin Newark, and Andrzej Warminski. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996 [1993]. ISBN: 0801844614. Price: US$16.Vincent Newey, Centring the Self: Subjectivity, Society and Reading from Thomas Grey to Thomas Hardy. Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1995. ISBN: 1859281516. Price: £45 (US$76.50).Orrin N. C. Wang, Fantastic Modernity: Dialectical Readings in Romanticism and Theory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. ISBN: 080185220X. Price: US$38.50.[Record]

  • Matthew Scott

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  • Matthew Scott
    Somerville College, University of Oxford

In Reason before Identity, the published text of his recent Romanes lecture at Oxford, Amartya Sen begins with an anecdote of the kind that has given academics a bad name. Returning to England on an Indian passport, having given his place of residence as "The Master's Lodge, Trinity College, Cambridge," he was apprehended and asked whether he and the Master were in fact close friends. Though such a misunderstanding were easily rectified, he chose to pause and address the question of whether it were possible that he could be at one and the same time Amartya Sen, Master of Trinity College, and his own close friend. After some debate, he concluded that he is able to ascribe himself both identities, thereby adding to the confusion at immigration. With friends like him, Sen observes, who needs enemies? Nevertheless, his purpose is not to be glib: identity is a vexed issue, and to identify an object only with itself is, given Wittgenstein's caveat, a largely pointless exercise. When we consider the question of identity it is not, we must hope, with a view to coming up with a simple ethnic or political criterion for it, but rather to show that personal identity is complex and that we can ascribe unto ourselves a number of potentially conflicting identities. The question of identity is, of course, a hot property in the study of the Romantic period. It inheres in the examination of that slippery term 'the self' that some would have us believe has existed only since the counter-enlightenment, and is recurrent in discussions of self-consciousness. To write a poem that is self-consciously poetical is, one may presume, to declare one's identity as a poet. Meanwhile, to write a poetical autobiography is to wrestle with the very act of creating identity. More pertinent to certain recent scholarship have been questions of political or national identity, particularly with regard to the role of the Romantic period in the genesis of modern nationalism and imperialism. As such, identity is very much a matter for scholastic concern. We turn back to the Romantic period as historians in order to understand the origins of European nationalism, or indeed to question those origins, with a view to better understanding the vicissitudes of nationalism in our own century. Alternatively, we look to uncover the sources of a discourse of selfhood that we find alive and well today. A wholly different, if no less interesting picture is created if our attention, as scholars of the Romantic period, remains closer to home. In short, what, if such a thing exists, does the community of Romantic scholars look like, such that we may both identify ourselves with it, and identify it as a friend? This review-essay is hardly the place to address such a question in full, and in any case it is one that will, I suspect, have been anticipated by anyone who really cares to answer it. A tentative and rather obvious answer may be that Romantic scholarship in its many guises is only an inevitable product of the grip that the multifariousness of the period itself has had upon the very shape of modernity. Still, I begin with this question in all seriousness in part because each of the above studies goes some way to providing an answer to the problems of what is constituted by the legacy of the Romantic period, and of what is meant by the study of the period. The question has, however, a very long history itself, so much so in fact that it may be said to occupy an important place in the debate …