Corps de l’article
In properly Romantic fashion, Jerome Christensen has written a new book in which form reflects content. Christensen argues that Romanticism resists the maneuvers of corporate global capitalism, which, he argues, seeks to naturalize injustice by reading our current form of global capitalism as the inevitable and irrevocable course of things. Such naturalizing maneuvers are aided by arguments like those of Francis Fukuyama, whose contention that we may have reached the end of history after the fall of Communism Christensen counters in this book. While he allows that the period surrounding the Napoleonic wars saw rhetorical maneuvers akin to recent claims for the “end of history,” Christensen believes that the poets associated with the Romantic movement provide us with a way to combat both such ideologies about the end of ideologies and the dangers associated with capitalism. According to Christensen, “The Romantic Movement sounds along its dim and perilous way as the willful commission of anachronism after anachronism linked by bold analogy” (41). In a stunning and daring anachronism of his own, Christensen argues that such willful anachronisms, which work against the idea that history is chronologically inevitable, provide the proleptic answers to both Fukayama and global capitalism. In unabashed fashion, Christensen pursues a similar methodology for his own book, which proceeds from one willful anachronism to another, often joined by bold analogies. Such a methodology makes the reader’s way through Christensen’s arguments at times dim and perilous but also full of wonder, surprise, and hope.
The ultimate goal, as Christensen states, is “to develop not only the way in which Romantic ethics can be practically applied to the service of critique but also the way in which ethics can be practically applied as a policy within postmodern culture and especially within the university, where I make my living” (2). Christensen asks us to imagine “poets as the unacknowledged conspirators of a future in which poets will openly rule” (2) and he asks us to be complicit in the conspiracy he proposes. For such a claim, Christensen should be applauded; the argument about Romanticism’s continuing relevance to contemporary issues makes his book a fascinating read and a refreshingly original approach to the issues he analyzes. Of course, taking Romantic poets as one’s ethical models also raises certain problems, given their tendency to inefficacy and even apostasy; however, Christensen remains attuned to the contradictions of the period’s authors even as he makes bold claims about practical aspects of our profession and even world order. Whether he succeeds any more so than the Romantic poets he takes as his models is certainly debatable but one can admire him for assuming an idealistic stance that runs counter to the hermeneutics of suspicion more common in the criticism of the last two decades.
The chapters attempt to stay attuned to three historical dates, 1798, 1802, and 1815, even as Christensen resists the methodologies and chronologies of New Historicism. (As he puts it, “Being antihistoricist does not entail a denial of history but a rejection of the inevitability of history, then, now, and for the future” .) The three dates correspond to Britain’s conflict with France, a brief truce following the 1802 Treaty of Amiens, and the final incarceration of Bonaparte in 1815, “when commerce first conquered conquest” (10) as a principle of political control. The period is significant, according to Christensen, because for the first time the state needed to mobilize the people “into a totality, whether as audience, nation, or social class” (4); because wartime became “spectacular” through the increasing importance of the newspaper; and because ideological battles were increasingly fought through language and wide-ranging rhetorical strategies, including a new imagining of the possibility of the “posthistorical.” Christensen argues that, throughout this period, the Romantic poets managed to work against the grain of historical change by providing alternative and altercative possibilities for one’s understanding of personal ethics.
The actual progression of topics in the various chapters is, however, not always clearly tied to the general project articulated in the introduction. The path of the argument, like the Romanticism Christensen paints, is at times full of peril, for the book tends to jump between authors, time periods, theoretical approaches, and issues, making it difficult for any reviewer to summarize the arguments of any individual chapter. Inspired by Christensen’s call for hope in criticism, I will do my best here but I will do so by first spending a little more time discussing the first chapter that sets up Christensen’s methodology. That chapter examines the ways that Benjamin Constant’s The Spirit of Conquest and Usurpation (1814) anticipated the rhetorical maneuvers of Fukuyama. Christensen contrasts both Constant and Fukuyama to the “unruly, demotic speech” (24) of secret revolutionary societies and trade unions that he finds everywhere in Romantic society, but especially in the writings of Coleridge; such utterances, which he claims tend to be forgotten by history because they were not taken up by a specific, hegemonic movement, “save the place of a possible future by performing a social movement without a social vehicle” (26). Christensen subsequently attempts to force even larger connections through what he views as a Romantic strategy of anachronism and analogy:
Sensitive to the strength of willful analogy in forging a common cause, I ask you to acknowledge that Coleridge’s cliché of “Greek fire” marks the demotic heat in Wordsworth’s contemporary reference to those “embers” in which there is “something that doth live” and to affirm that that vital cliché threads through the political unconscious to link Wordsworth’s irrepressible insurrectionary glow by analogy with the volcanic Prometheus Unbound, with the fantastically explosive Don Juan, as well as with the fire of the Greek Revolution and, perhaps, the 1992 insurrection in Los Angeles.31
Christensen does not provide sufficient evidence for many of these forced analogies but, then, that is his point: “it is no doubt irresponsible and inappreciative of time, that is, Romantic, to stereotype uprisings in different lands and different epochs in order to draw analogies with no workable plan in view except to suggest that although we may have seen the end of history, we have certainly not seen the last rumble. Or the last Romantic Movement” (32). In other words, as with Coleridge’s The Friend, much depends on the reader of Romanticism at the End of History. If the reader is willing to meet Christensen half way in his thought experiments, there are many fresh and exciting new critical paths to follow. As if inspired by Coleridge, Christensen also offers many examples of over-reading and even willful misreading (all of them self-consciously presented, of course), so many readers will likely find his arguments off-putting, may even find them to be the more likely products of opium fantasy (a comparison that Christensen himself invites in his final chapter); however, given that his goal is a defense of the humanities and the exploration of a refreshingly new critical method, Christensen’s book and the dangerous ways he explores are certainly worth examining in some depth.
Some of those ways include the following: an examination of the rhetorical maneuvers by which Coleridge establishes the profession of critic in relation to Wordsworth’s commanding genius (Chapter Two); a critique of Alan Liu’s Wordsworth: A Sense of History, in which Christensen claims that Wordsworth does not deny history as Liu claims but fully “celebrates,” in proper postmodern fashion, “the obstinate resistance of the events in which he lived, moved, and had his being to the current apparatus of representation” (63; Chapter Two); an argument for the politicization of the personal in Coleridge’s Fears in Solitude and for Coleridge’s concomitant theorization of an embodied poetic rhythm in Wordsworth, where “the abstracted ‘I’ returns to the body in the sensuous detail of its breathings” (102; Chapter Three); a close rhetorical analysis of three reviews in the inaugural October 1802 issue of the Edinburgh Review, illustrating the journal’s effort to establish a theory of “normal change” that requires the interpretation of journal specialists while uncovering a fear of the “closeted, conspiratorial, [and] eclipsed” (107) that the journal reads behind both the Lake School of poets and the new system of anonymous bank clerks assuming power in England after the 1797 suspension of payments in specie and the subsequent collapse of the gold standard (Chapter Four); an examination of three 1802 Morning Post articles by Coleridge on the marriage of the “Beauty of Buttermere” to an imposter, all of which illustrate Coleridge’s understanding of a new world order that relies on “credit” and that is, therefore, always plagued by the possibility of the counterfeit, in which the personal and political (“sex and sects”) are always intimately linked due to a “conspiracy view of history” (152), according to which the critic must make self-legitimating maneuvers that disturbingly resemble those of the imposter but which, through a rhetoric of conspiracy, also keep open the possibility for an alternative future of hope and revolution (Chapter Five); an exploration of how Scott contributes to a new world order through his particular form of unthreatening but therefore all the more effective realism, a realism understood as “merely one tool of the world pictorialist, whose aim is to engineer the viewer’s full persuasion not in any particular fiction but in the good faith of the system by which effective fictions are generated” (164; Chapter Six); and, finally, the positing of multimedia technology as a way for the university to counter the threats posed by the corporatization of the university along the capitalist models of Microsoft or Nike: “Educational users developing software for educational use have a window of opportunity to exploit available talent and favorable economies of scale and establish distribution networks of diverse users in rewarding apposition, if not competitive opposition, to the corporate giants” (189; Chapter Seven).
Some of the chapters are more convincing than others (I personally found Chapter Six to be the strongest and Chapter Three to be the weakest); however, the sheer diversity of topics will ensure that any given reader should find something of interest in Christensen’s wide-ranging book. His arguments will certainly not convince everyone but he is to be commended for making a bold effort to defend both the study of Romanticism and the profession of humanities education at large. For that reason alone, the book is worth a look. If the reader is willing to follow Christensen down his dim and perilous ways, s/he may well face a few dead ends but, on the whole, will be rewarded with the exhilarating spectacle of a critic unafraid to attempt something that is at once original, hopeful, and bold—in short, Romantic.