The Legibility of Liber Amoris[Notice]

  • James Treadwell

…plus d’informations

  • James Treadwell
    McGill University

Every revolution needs its ancien régime, including the bloodless uprisings that periodically ripple through the academy. In the world of Romantic studies (or Romantic-period studies, as they have since become), the now orthodox methodologies and strategies broadly defined as Historicism set themselves the task of exposing, and so overturning, something that came to be known (following Jerome McGann) as 'the Romantic ideology'. The subsequent story of this insurgency—at least in the Anglo-American academy—is pretty well known, and need not be rehearsed again. Historicity has become the guarantee against reproducing Romantic ideologies; and this is based on polarised conceptions of the nature of literary artifacts, or at least of their ontology. According to the revolutionaries, the ancien régime—as ancient as Kant—held that texts existed in some distinctly aesthetic space, and therefore (in McGann's memorable formulation) 'that poetry, or even consciousness, can set one free of the ruins of history and culture'. History was to thwart such suspiciously transcendentalised conceptions by the density of its texture, the intricacy of its causal relations, the specificity of its account of what goes into the production and circulation of literary matter. It situates literature as one among many interwoven strands of cultural discourse: hence the currency of monographs about Romantic economics, Romantic medicine, Romantic geography, Romantic law. The borders between texts and their environments have thus become points of peculiarly intense critical interest. Here, where the abstract formalities of textual interpretation meet the verifiable matter of historical scholarship, the critical reorientations demanded by historicist approaches become most visible. The attack on Romantic ideology appears almost as an attempt to drag literary artifacts over the border from aesthetics into (usually) politics. A case in point might be Nicholas Roe's reading of Keats's 'Autumn' ode as a poem about Peterloo. History locates the poem in the autumn of 1819; historicism does the rest, making that location not an accident of chronology but an actual siting of the text within that time and place, insisting that it is embedded in its environment rather than merely floating along on top of it, encased in its Kantian bubble. The critical act is almost an 'outing' of the text, moving it into the public domain and simultaneously making public (or making explicit) its secret ties to this wider contextual world. Such a thumbnail account oversimplifies the interesting complexities that have been discovered around the border between aesthetics and history over the past two decades or so. One of the most fruitful results of the historicist revolution has been the suggestion that many Romantic-period writers and texts themselves anxiously straddle the opposed spheres, debating their own commitment to or critique of the Romantic ideology as intensively as their modern critics. My aim here is to consider the case of Hazlitt's Liber Amoris and its readers, as an instance of a literary artifact caught oddly in the process of emerging into the public sphere while apparently also trying to withdraw into the secrecy of aesthetic space. I do not intend to supply a full reading of the book—to encase it, that is, in an interpretation that might fix its notoriously unstable place. What seems to be at issue instead is the degree to which Liber Amoris's own agitated recrossings of the border between history and textuality are reproduced by its readers, and what light this might shed on the idea that history is the antidote to Romantic ideologies of literature. A fairly casual mid-century description of the book captures the alternatives under debate: 'something between a work of art and a case history'. Between aesthetics and the actual, between art and …

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