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II. Neuromanticism

Romanticism’s Scattered Leaves

  • Andrew Stauffer

…plus d’informations

  • Andrew Stauffer
    Boston University

Corps de l’article

Near the end of Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner (1982), the replicant/android Roy Batty senses that his four-year lifespan is coming to a rapid end. Waiting in the rain, he makes a last statement that laments a kind of archival failure:

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser gate....All those moments will be lost, in time, like...tears in rain. Time to die.

Rutger Hauer, the actor who plays Roy, delivers the concluding simile with a catch in the throat just after “like,” suggesting the emergence of tears on the replicant’s rain-wetted face at the precise moment of the metaphor-making: the sorrow for lost memories produces traces, themselves instantly swallowed in the uncountable, untraceable rain. For Roy, obsessed with thoughts of an internal clock-timer about to reach zero, the loss of his experiences is imagined as primarily temporal: now that it is “time to die,” “All those moments will be lost, in time,” not only because of time’s innumerable moments, but because he has produced no record of his experiences. The tears that immediately follow can thus be seen as stand-ins for such a record: droplets of expression in mourning for the works of art that they are not. From this perspective, their disappearance into the welter of anonymous rain enacts a material and indeed organizational loss that is related to what Jacques Derrida calls the “trouble de l’archive”: the anxious drive towards forgetting that shadows the archival impulse.

We know that Roy has read William Blake: he quotes with telling inaccuracy from America: A Prophecy in an earlier scene. [1] But if he knows Shelley’s “Defense of Poetry,” he might be recalling the passage in which Shelley writes,

Poetry makes immortal all that is best and most beautiful in the world; it arrests the vanishing apparitions which haunt the interlunations of life, and veiling them in language or in form sends them forth among mankind....Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of divinity in man.

Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, 532

C-beams glitter in the dark, and vanishing apparitions haunt the interlunations of life: both need to be preserved “in language or in form,” a process of compromise that at once veils and redeems the experience in order that it may be passed on to others. Yet Shelley’s description of the process elides the material aspect of this redemption. At his historical moment, it is not in free-floating language, but only as that language is incarnated in ink on paper, that these moments can go forth among mankind and remain there; paperwork is the necessary technology for preserving happy moments from decay.

As Romanticism on the Net has demonstrated exemplarily for the past decade, paper no longer holds this monopoly. Yet our imagination of the internet and the Romantics’ of their evolving print culture share certain features in common. Our current era of attention to the interface and the archive depends on a massive technological shift in methods of information storage and dispersal. The same can be said for the Romantic era, as the new paper media transformed the practice of literature in countless ways both overt and subtle. For us, the enabling technology is digital, predicated on Very Large System Integration (VLSI) circuits that can store and process massive files of information, and on internet protocols such as TCP/IP and HTTP, which allow those files to travel among us with minimal resistance. The Romantic shift began with the industrial transformation of printing and papermaking, and on the new communicative circuits they enabled (one might cite the Edinburgh Review and the Quarterly Review – forerunners of RoN – as emblematic). Yet along with the opening of new vistas of possibility came a corresponding anxiety of loss: busy in creating the flood of paper that defined them, Britons in the Romantic era were troubled by an imagined waste land of forgotten, ruined texts. Like the tears of Roy Batty, the individual writer’s papers were feared to be lost in the general welter of material, increasingly imagined as uncertain, unmanageable, and entropic. The literature of the period registers its unease with its own archival future in ways that illuminate the vexed relationship of Romanticism to materiality, and can help us see more clearly our own complex attitudes regarding the material record at the end of the age of paper.

Shelley is in some ways representative: his emphasis on language rather than print is part of a larger set of philosophical assumptions about literature, a fundamentally formalist and idealizing view that was central to much of Romanticism, the New Criticism, and other theoretical programs for which language is the horizon. In this view, paper is the invisible support upon which the writing rests, and the verbal text in question can easily and without significant transmutation be moved to another platform, analog or digital. Shelley adheres to this view in the face of the paper-covered world his culture was beginning to invent. [2] On the one hand, paper’s increasing presence was key to the rapid replication and distribution of the language arts, in an evolving system of processes that encouraged the dissociation of word and page. In Benjamin’s terms, such mechanical reproduction “substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence” (221). And yet, on the other hand, the sheer amount of paper served as an ever-present reminder of the essentially material relations that predicated the literary. As Marcus Wood writes, in addition to the well-documented rise of cheap publications, “By 1820 the variety and sheer volume of advertisements in London was phenomenal. Print satires show posters papering the walls and fences” (166). The dream of universal communication was thereby shadowed with fears of disposability that might be condensed to a single anxious question: is it all now just ephemera?

Benjamin notes with mournful approval film’s “far-reaching liquidation” of “the traditional value of the cultural heritage,” as it remakes everything according to its own exhibitory priorities (221-22). Roy Batty’s mentioning of the “Tannhäuser Gate” as one locus of his experience can be seen as a metonymic instance and a metaphorical enactment of this phenomenon, as the legendary minnesinger is invoked to name an opening or entryway, a place of spectacle that may be the movie screen itself. [3] Roy is, after all, a replicant, embodying mechanical reproducibility in the same way that film does in Benjamin’s account. [4] And here the obverse of Roy-as-cinema is also apparent in his emphasis on moments of spectatorship — “I’ve seen things,” like those “C-beams glitter[ing] in the dark” which become, from a vantage that approximates ours as viewers of Blade Runner, the flickering light of film projection. Roy’s worry over the evanescence of his “moments” thus can be read as film’s articulation of its own status as replicant, without a place in Benjamin’s “fabric of tradition” (223), which would save it from mere fandom, or “cult” appeal. At the same time, Roy gives voice to the audience’s sense of identification with the camera (“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe”), so that when the screen goes dark, “All those moments will be lost,” leaving no traces except those in the viewer’s memory, something like the tracks of Roy’s lost tears.

This anxiety of ephemerality enjoined upon the replicated work of art grows out of a disembodiment-effect paradoxically caused by multiple embodiments, and it has a literary history as well. As a concept, paperless writing gains currency under the conditions of rapid, cheap reproduction. Only in a culture of disposable paper could the idea of paper be casually dissociated from the literary work. Kevin McLaughlin has recently examined this phenomenon, “the emergence of a material support [i.e. paper] ephemeral enough to suggest to some nineteenth-century writers a point at which the materiality of the support might be understood to dissolve, at least as a self-contained or self-consistent material thing,” and the connection of this “to the withdrawal of the material support in the act of reading” (6). Reading a text, we lose track of the textile upon which it is printed; noticing that material again means ceasing to read. In the nineteenth-century, this cognitive experience finds a larger echo in the changing status of paper itself, a change predicated upon its ubiquity and disposability. Paper becomes a kind of haunting reminder of archival failure, an ever-present and unregarded substance that troubles or even disrupts the scene of reading.

One might see Wordsworth’s Old Cumberland Beggar in precisely these terms, as a figure of the troubled reader:

 On the ground
His eyes are turned, and, as he moves along,
They move along the ground; and evermore,
Instead of common and habitual sight
Of fields with rural works, of hill and dale,
And the blue sky, one little span of earth
Is all his prospect. Thus, from day to day,
Bowbent, his eyes for ever on the ground,
He plies his weary journey, seeing still,
And never knowing that he sees, some straw,
Some scattered leaf, or marks which, in one track,
The nails of cart or chariot wheel have left
Impressed on the white road, in the same line,
At distance still the same. Poor Traveller!

“The Old Cumberland Beggar,” lines 45-58

“Bowbent” over the “white road,” this man resembles Wordsworth’s Leech-Gatherer, “bent double” as he “fixedly did look/ Upon the muddy water, which he conned,/ As if he had been reading in a book” (73, 86-8). He also recalls the exhortation from “The Tables Turned”: “quit your books,/ Or surely you’ll grow double” (3-4). Curved over the flat surface of regard, these figures are folding up like the gathered pages of books, growing “double” to the figurative volumes their eyes scan. Yet the Cumberland Beggar’s absorption is pointedly not the result of attention to the material before his eyes: he “never know[s] that he sees” that “scattered leaf” or that track of marks “impressed on the white road” like lines of type. Rather, his thoughts are turned inward just as “On the ground/ His eyes are turned,” bent in ways that suggest a state of permanent abstraction. Almost literally lost in thought, he resembles a reader eluded by the material of books, with leaves and marks always before his eyes yet never seen: in McLaughlin’s terms, their presentation is simultaneous with their withdrawal.

In this context, the “scattered leaf” also recalls the organizational, archival concerns of the new age of paper, a time when authors found themselves in the rather troubling position of imagining the fate of their writings in the document-laden world they were in the process of inventing. For Shelley, who engages the issue with particular urgency, this imagining begins with a repression of the material vehicles of the written word. He typically casts himself as a content provider, removing paper from his vision of the communicative circuit; and upon this elision depends his optimistic representation of his poetry’s reception. Two early examples of poems about literal vehicles or carriers of his writings provide exceptions that prove this rule. In the early sonnet “To a balloon, laden with Knowledge,” he imagines (and may have fabricated) a small hot-air balloon carrying his works on “their etherial way” towards the “opprest and poor”: the writings themselves are sublimed to “Knowledge,” which is then represented as “Fire…unquenchable”: “A watch light,” “A ray,” “A spark,” “A beacon” and “A sun” which will continue shining even after the balloon’s literal fire has “Fade[d] like a meteor in surrounding gloom.” What has happened to the pages of paper the balloon carries? One answer is they have been consumed in the heat of metaphor, etherialized by the poet’s faith in the spread of Truth. Another, mordant view is that they have burned or fallen unregarded to earth – by far their most likely fate. One can see the same logic at work in this poem’s twin, “On launching some bottles filled with knowledge into the Bristol Channel,” also written in August of 1812, with reference to actual bottles filled with Shelley’s political writings. Again, he calls the paper “knowledge,” doubly-idealizing these pages first to language and then to that language’s imagined effect on its reader. To the bottles, he offers a wish that “Liberty.../...will breathe around your emerald group/ The fairest breezes of her West that blow” and that the “eye-beam” of some “freeborn soul,” will “kindl[e] as it meets your freight” and thereby light the flame of renovation. Behind this wish is faith’s struggle with the knowledge that these messages in bottles will most likely never leave the dark, estranging sea.

Figurative kindling or literal, unquenchable truth or drowned pages, Shelley’s writings are torn about their ability to be torn. Indeed, his work is shadowed by the material pages it represses, which emerge at moments of particular emphasis on the fate of his poems in the world. The opening of the narrative portion of “Alastor” is emblematic:

 There was a Poet whose untimely tomb
No human hands with pious reverence reared,
But the charmed eddies of autumnal winds
Built o’er his mouldering bones a pyramid
Of mouldering leaves in the waste wilderness:—


This “Poet” never puts a single line to paper, and the poem traces the consequences of that refusal of incarnated form: idealizing desire unto death. Yet the first thing Shelley chooses to relate about the Poet is the fate of his mortal remains. Those “mouldering bones” are buried in “mouldering leaves,” his neglected physical frame consigned among leaves that stand in for the papers he did not leave behind. That these leaves form a “pyramid” as they immure the Poet suggests that, in a visionary way, this “waste wilderness” is to be found somewhere near the Ozymandian “low and level sands” stretching “boundless and bare” away from the “colossal Wreck” of the Ramses statue. After all, those sands not only testify to the passing of the pharaoh’s “Works”: they are those works, atomized to the traceless particulate matter of the desert. “Alastor” ends in a similar vein, with an imagining of the Poet’s corpse dissolved by the elements, “those divinest lineaments,/ Worn by the senseless wind” until they “live alone/ In the frail pauses of this simple strain” (704-7) – like Ramses’s visage, in other words, ruined into verse. Within their own narrative horizons, both Ozymandias and the “Alastor” Poet bequeath immemorial legacies, represented as an uncertain quantity of illegible, decaying material.

Shelley typically meets such images with a spell or counter-charm of deeper idealization, so that “the leaves dead/ Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing” (“Ode to the West Wind,” 2-3). Thus the stakes are continually raised, as material and ideal forms oscillate with a massive potential energy that animates the verse, as it figures its relationship to its audience, so that the volume all but vibrates in the reader’s hand. Indeed, the interplay between the wind and the leaves in Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” aptly illustrates the Shelleyean struggle with his material and archival anxieties. James Chandler reminds us that “we must not fail to see [the leaves] as the fallen pages of Shelley’s text” (550), so that, like the “fairest breezes of [the] West that blow” in his sonnet on the bottle-writings, Shelley’s West Wind appears as a spirit of publication: “Drive my dead thoughts over the universe/ Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!” (63-4). But Chandler’s insight that those pages, those withered leaves, are “the form thought takes when it dies” suggests that the process of quickening and rebirth will be more vexed than Shelley’s rhetoric implies (552). As Shelley describes the cycle in the opening section of the poem,

 O thou
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill:


Shelley’s much-discussed morphing of leaves into “winged seeds” involves an idealizing transformation of dead material into a promising source. [5] Furthermore, that promise is predicated on an imagined process of archival organization: the leaves will lie “Each like a corpse within its grave,” as if the wind were sorting and recording individual locations (“its grave” rather than merely “a grave”). In this context, one might expect “dark wintry beds” in line 6, since the verse that follows presents separate resting places rather than a mass burial. In fact, the poem testifies to this shifting vision of the leaves’ fate: catalogued for future use or reduced to unidentifiable pulp, the two poles of concern for the author in an age of abundant paper. “Drive my dead thoughts over the universe,” he asks; “Scatter…my words among mankind!” (63-7). But the two verbs are hardly equivalent. “Drive” indicates a force of direction, evoking the “Chariot” of section one where the leaves are consigned each to its appointed grave, whereas “scatter” suggests a random, entropic dispersal, associated with the sowing of “winged seeds” on the one hand, but shadowed by the negation of the gathering, collecting, and preserving that works on paper require. In short, when Shelley calls the wind “Destroyer and Preserver,” he may be simultaneously addressing the leaves as sheets of paper, based on his anxious sense of their destiny “among mankind.” The poem’s final directive – “Be through my lips to unawakened Earth/ The trumpet of a prophecy” – reveals a complete breaking-free of the poet from his material works, which were first troped as leaves and then as sparks and ashes, and now disappear altogether as the poet makes his own body the instrument of communication. Further, he transcends that last embodiment as well, as meaning of the word “trumpet” shifts away from the physical horn to its player (trumpeter) and to the sound produced (trumpeting). The “deep, autumnal tone” produced by the falling leaves gives way to a song of spring.

Shelley’s poem about the autumn wind is characterized by a sense of energetic struggle predicated on those haunting, dead leaves. Once summoned, they need to be repeatedly dispelled, buried, organized, transformed, and driven, precisely because they threaten the dream of poetry’s survival on leaves of paper. Keats’s “To Autumn” provides a useful contrast: Helen Vendler remarks that in this poem, “Keats’s sense of what his art is and what it can do is unshakably secure” (284); and one index of that security, one source of the poem’s serenity of utterance, may be its complete lack of reference to leaves. Indeed, it is the magic of Keats’s ode that we do not even miss the autumn leaves in the scenes it presents, despite those “moss’d cottage-trees” (5) that must be shedding them. Keats also cancels the anxious image of scattered, dead leaves in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” where the “leaf-fringed legend” tells of “happy boughs… cannot shed / [Their] leaves,” a state of permanent springtime associated with lasting creative power: the “Fair youth, beneath the trees…canst not leave/ [His] song,” and the pun on “leave” here suggests that the removal of paper from the creative process is key to his happiness. [6] Shelley’s lesser work, “Autumn: A Dirge,” completes the contrast, with its image of “the Year/ On the earth her death-bed, in a shroud of leaves dead” (3-4), a reprise of the “Alastor”-poet’s burial in the “mouldering leaves” and a forerunner of the desiccated landscapes of Hardy and T.S. Eliot.

Dead leaves have long served as an image of dead men, particularly in epic contexts (Virgil, Dante, Milton); and the similative connection between leaves and pages of books is older than paper itself. What the Romantics confronted for the first time was a world in which paper bid fair to become commonplace and disposable. The expansion of print culture in their era showed which way the wind was blowing and gave evidence of the amounts of leaves that this wind would be ushering. Therefore, while they hailed the power of the press and its products to transform humanity, their optimistic participation had a shadow-side, an anxious archival disorder predicated on the losses that cheap paper can engender. This aspect of Romanticism has particular relevance to us, the stewards of their papers that have come down to our hands, as we negotiate the ways that the Romantic archive will be represented, organized, and preserved by means of computer technology. Just as Romantic-period authors had to rethink their relationship to text, to audience, to storage, and to posterity – ultimately, to literature itself – in the new paper age, we are now envisioning new parameters regarding the editorial and literary-critical curation of their works in this digital age. And alongside the cheering access, speed, circulation, and collaborative opportunities of web-based work in the humanities, we should place – and attend to – the anxieties of loss that may be one root cause of what Jerome McGann has called the profession’s “troubling…degree of ignorance about information technology and its critical relevance to humanities education and scholarship” (71). That ignorance is a measure of a refusal, not an incapacity, and it cannot be overcome without a vision of the concerns, and even the fears, that drive it. Furthermore, if the Romantics are any guide, these fears are not reducible to nostalgia; they may in fact provide a salutary counterforce of attention in the coming decades, when, according to McGann, “the entirety of our cultural inheritance will be transformed and re-edited in digital forms” (72). At least since the early 1990s, library curation, textual editing, and literary criticism have been confronting deep shifts in themselves and in their relationships among one another, as they engage and augment the growing digital archive. A drive towards preservation motivates all of these activities, which are finding expression more and more frequently in digital forms. Thus an uncanny paradox begins to emerge: those who care for the print record find themselves honing the culture of digital reproduction, optimizing the copy so that (like the replicants in Blade Runner) it becomes a better tool than the original. As libraries, university presses, and individual scholars redirect resources towards this digital world, the book faces a marginalization that may be reversible but likely will not be: the habit of collecting, consulting, and describing physical bibliographical materials faces a severe curtailment in the next two generations, as their digital versions enter the bitstream. The books and papers will remain, but if no one consults them, will they exist? This is the other virtual archive: the depository of materials whose digital simulacra have been so compellingly delivered that the materials need not (so thinks one) be examined. These works will be simultaneously instantly accessible and out of reach, splayed and untouched, so that, as things of paper, they will be even more difficult to remember than things truly forgotten. Literature in a digital age turns phantasmal.

When the “Phantasm of Jupiter” arises in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, Prometheus reads him like a book:

I see the curse on gestures proud and cold,
And looks of firm defiance, and calm hate,
And such despair as mocks itself with smiles,
Written as on a scroll....


The phantasm records not only the words of the curse, but the physical expressions that accompanied it. Indeed, these “gestures” are likened to a scroll upon which the curse has been impressed, so that the phantasm resembles paper in two ways, both as a recording device for language and as physical object revealing legible, non-linguistic signs. In other words, the phantasm of Jupiter is a facsimile. Indeed, it is part of a vast and complete system of facsimiles, “The shadows of all forms that think and live,” which in Shelley’s mythography abide “underneath the grave” (1.197-8). Yet the phantasm also serves as a medium, since the curse it communicates is not Jupiter’s own; the phantasm is made to express an extrinsic record in a way that suggests the portability of data in this system. As a figuration of Shelley’s concern with paper, the scene may be said to present a transcendent archive, with the phantasm as an immaterial locus of the “treasured spell” of language (1.184). From our vantage, the phantasm looks more like an item in the digital library under construction, a piece of software that abides in a great shadowy database and can be called up to display the scanned curse at will. Both perspectives are troubled by the archival implications of the facsimile system, the usurpation of the material record by a dangerous supplement: the phantasmal copy.

Such usurpation becomes particular cause for concern as the future preservation of the copies is uncertain. For the Romantics, the burgeoning culture of print led to two related archival troubles: the fragility of the material and the vast quantities of it. The first of these is focused on paper itself and the second on the paper system, which embraces print culture, libraries, and the use of paper in daily life (including re-purposed paper, like the pages of Don Juan that Byron imagines lining a young man’s portmanteau; DJ 2.16). Would any individual document last, and would it be locatable and legible amid the piles of material being and to be generated, used, and stored? The sight of paper in various stages of decay covering the walls and streets of London would have been a composite reminder of these questions; in a visionary way, autumn leaves seem to have served the same monitory function. Our current archival concerns, with regard to digital records, are similarly energized by the sheer presence of data around us. And, as with the Romantics, these worries are also directed at the fragility and quantity of the material: will the digital objects we create remain stable over time, and will they have a recognizable place and function in the data stream? The difference is one of degree, rather than kind; the ephemerality of the replicant haunts the electronic text in the same ways, but even more assiduously, than it does traditional works on paper.

A 2000 report released by the Council on Library and Information Resources makes clear that the concerns of digital preservation are not focused on material storage: “The threat to aging digital information has surpassed the danger of unstable media or obsolete hardware. The most pressing problems confronting managers of digital collections are data format and software obsolescence.” Two broad strategies for dealing with the rapid evolution of software have emerged: migration and emulation. The former (migration) involves the systematic conversion of older material to new formats, with inevitable losses and changes to the data; the latter (emulation) means the evoking of the older environment within the new system, so that the computer behaves as if it were another machine altogether. One might see these as corresponding roughly to the two traditional forms of preserving paper-based literary materials by means of textual editing, migration being similar to producing a newly-edited version and emulation recalling facsimile or documentary editing that offers the old pages as closely as the technology allows. Replica or phantasm, Roy Batty or Jupiter’s shadow—the choice comes down to one’s level of comfort with translation and transformation. The way of the replicant is one of migration, a carrying across of data to a new chassis, in new forms; the phantasm preserves through emulation, representing the treasured spell faithfully but intractably. Most digital editions use both strategies as ways of representing their paper objects; but which will they choose to preserve themselves, and at what cost?

These seem to be the largest areas of concern for those peering into the digital future and fleeing back to the vales of Har: first, the threat that digitization poses to the paper archive that is our charge, and second, the evanescence of the digital record itself. Both are archival anxieties, and like those of the Romantics facing a new age of paper, they are having far-reaching and subtle effects on our thinking about the materiality of texts. One measure of this in literary culture is the recent spate (in the wake of The Da Vinci Code) of popular novels focused on some unique book or manuscript that points to a mystery: The Rule of Four, The Shadow of the Wind, The Geographer’s Library, The Club Dumas, The Dante Club, The Historian, The Third Translation, In the Hand of Dante, Michaelangelo’s Notebook, Splintered Icon, Codex – and there are others – all offer a rare material document as the still turning point of their worlds. Romantics like Shelley, faced with the encroachment of paper’s materiality on his imagination, responds with spells of transcendence; we post-moderns, faced with the flickering and vanishing of the digital environment, respond with tales of hyper-physical texts – moldy, dusty, worm-eaten, scrawled on in faded ink or blood, bearing signs of their histories on their faces. [7] Both reactions are sides of the same coin, aspects of the archive trouble that is part of our common inheritance from the Enlightenment, and is a side-effect of the thrills of circulation and reproduction.

Romanticism on the Net enters its second decade well-poised to confront the unsettling of the archive, given its born-digital format and its defining commitment to Romantic studies. By the time the journal hits its next decadal mark, the electronic library will be much advanced, perhaps beyond the concerns that I have outlined here, thanks to large-scale initiatives such as the Google Library Project and academic organizations such as NINES (Networked Interface for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship) and The Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH), and to the efforts of many of the people involved with this journal and this special issue. As this work moves forward, we should attend to Romanticism’s scattered leaves – not only the metaphors of paper’s uncertainty but the metonymous pages of their documents – as guides to archival anxieties of our age, and keys to the Romantic imagination of literature and legacy. Our goal should be to use the digital environment not to supplant the paper record, but to develop a more nuanced critical method for understanding the physical forms and features of the papers that the Romantics left behind, a method that will give us a material purchase on that grand archive of loss.

Parties annexes