Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his “The Rime of the Ancient Marinere,” (1798) delights in the supernatural, particularly in the realm of spirits. Unlike Wordsworth, his counterpart in Lyrical Ballads and good friend, Coleridge views nature as separate from himself, and in that regard, Friedrich Schiller would have considered Coleridge to be a sentimental poet. Nevertheless, when involving the supernatural, Coleridge depends upon his idea of the “suspension of disbelief”—or “the means by which the reader might accept unreal elements of verse to illuminate senses strictly afforded within the real” (McMorrough 229). It is through this process that Coleridge’s work transcends space and time, and lost in Coleridge’s world, the reader questions his own reality.
In the introduction of Lyrical Ballads, Fiona Stafford of the Oxford University Press discusses the writing abilities and partnership of Wordsworth and Coleridge. She states, “To make the supernatural entirely believable, or to transform the ordinary into something equally compelling, required extraordinary imaginative and technical powers” (xxix). Both Wordsworth and Coleridge viewed the imagination as an almost supernatural feature, although Coleridge dives into the metaphysical much more. Stafford also writes that “although the supernatural are most obvious in ‘The Ancient Marinere,’ the poem can be—and often has been—read psychologically or symbolically” (xxix). Stafford’s point is an excellent segue to discuss what the supernatural symbolically represents in Romantic writing.
The first poem of the 1798 and 1802 edition of Lyrical Ballads is “The Rime of the Ancient Marinere,” which features a mariner who has been cursed. Coleridge’s poems “Kubla Khan” and “Christabel” also feature the supernatural, but it is important to note that he did not include them in Lyrical Ballads. However, all three of these pieces feature dreams, as expressed in Jennifer Ford’s essay. She writes, citing essayist Thomas DeQuincey, “DeQuincey described [Coleridge] as a poet…a prolific dreamer: a man whose poetry was shrouded in mystery—supernatural like the ‘ancient marin
ere’—awfully sublime” (Ford 171).
“The Rime of the Ancient Marinere” features its own spirits, although they look different from traditional ghosts. In fact, Coleridge’s spirits are sublime entities—things not to be understood by the human brain. The following section is an excerpt describing Coleridge’s spirits:
“I saw something in the Sky
No bigger than my fist
At first it seem’d a little speck
And then it seem’d a mist” (lines 139-142).
This “mist” that Coleridge describes also represents the sublime, often symbolized by a mist or a fog. This entity soon curses the entire ship, leaving all the people on board dead except the mariner, who must live with the curse. Here is an excerpt about the curse that plagues the mariner:
“An orphan’s curse would drag to Hell
A spirit from on high
But O! More horrible than that
Is the curse in a dead man’s eye!
Seven days, seven nights I saw that curse
And yet I could not die” (lines 249-254)
By repeating the word “seven,” Coleridge makes these lines sound like a chant, going along with the ballad structure. Because he does not die, the mariner is cursed and must repeat the story in order to find any peace. This is an embodiment of storytelling and the role writers and storytellers play. After hearing the mariner’s story, the wedding guest turns into “[a] sadder and wiser man” (line 624). It is through this repetition, this retelling of stories, that represents the oral tradition of stories, including ghost stories.
Biographical Statement: Elizabeth Laughlin is a graduate student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where she is a part of the English Literature and Composition master’s program. She also writes for the school’s Marketing and Communications Department. Above all, she is interested in Gothicism, Romanticism, and Modernism. In her spare time, she enjoys meditating, writing books, and watching football.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “The Rime of the Ancient Marinere.” Lyrical Ballads. Edited by Fiona Stafford, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp.5-24.
Ford, Jennifer. “Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Pains of Sleep.” History Workshop Journal, no. 48, 1999, pp. 169–186. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4289640. Accessed 20 Jan. 2021.
McMorrough, John. “Funny, Crazy, Silly: Lyrics for The Suspension of Architectural Disbelief.” Log, no. 37, 2016, pp. 228–233. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26324736. Accessed 20 Jan. 2021.
Stafford, Fiona. “Introduction.” Lyrical Ballads. Edited by Fiona Stafford,Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. xii-xlv.
The NASSR Graduates Students Caucus offers graduate students and all other early-career scholars researching Romanticism the possibility to present and discuss their research projects and ideas on our blog. Considering the academic job market crisis and the decision of PhD programs not to admit new students, we especially find it urgent to create a hospitable environment allowing early career scholars to continue to share their research and thoughts, being inside or outside of University.
We welcome blog posts (400-600 words) pertaining to any stage of research. Submissions can include more polished work such as research proposals and abstracts, short essays, but we are also looking for early pieces of writing reflecting the beginning of a research, e.g. a catalogue of questions, first observations and intuitions. You can submit anything connected to your research as long as it can take the form of a thought-provoking and well-drafted blog entry. By inviting each other to look at our “laboratory” of ideas, we want to initiate discussion and reflections about how to approach Romanticism on an intellectual and personal level. To encourage cross-fertilizing conversations among our blog contributors, we are open to submissions from all disciplines (e.g. post-colonial studies, digital humanities, gender and queer studies, eco-criticism). Therefore, authors should bear in mind that their audience might only have a rough idea about their field.
After receiving a sufficient amount of applications, we will start to form a discussion group consisting of our blog contributors to provide detailed and elaborate feedback for each research project in a supportive and constructive environment. We will collaborate with the contributors to decide what this group will look like in concrete when the time comes.
Please, do not hesitate to reach out to us if you have any questions. We are looking forward to your submissions!
We are asking those interested to submit a blog post of no more than 600 words and an accompanying short author biography of approximately 50 words. All submissions should use Times New Roman, 12-point font, double-spacing, and be combined into a single file submission. Blog entries are expected to adhere to MLA 8th Edition formatting and citation style. Please submit your application by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the NASSR Graduate Student Caucus
The NASSR Graduate Student Caucus (NGSC) is intended as a venue, under the aegis of NASSR (North American Society for the Study of Romanticism;www.nassr.ca/), for graduate students interested in the study of Romanticism to make contact with one another and to share intellectual and professional resources.
We are committed to working together to further the interests, not only of the graduate student community in Romantic studies, but also of the broader profession, by helping to train active and engaged scholars who will continue to strengthen and advance themselves and the discipline. All graduate student members of NASSR are invited to attend caucus meetings and to participate in elections and panels.
The Dark Side of Romantic Fairytales – Abuse in Grimm’s Narratives
Some of the most popular fairytales to this day were written down in Germany during the Romantic era by the brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, who published their first edited collection in 1812. Traditional approaches to fairytale studies neglect the suffering and unequal distribution of power which extends beyond gender and class into an imbalance between children and adults. Overlooking these “generational conflicts” (Tatar, Off with their Heads xxiv) means overlooking the macabre and violent aspects of fairytale narratives. I investigate abuse in fairytales, specifically those surrounding generational conflicts. My definition of abuse includes emotional and physical patterns and aligns with criteria set out by from the independent agency for sexual abuse (Unabhängiger Beauftragter für Fragen des sexuellen Missbrauchs). For this I propose a different reading of the tales, as I illustrate on König Drosselbart (King Thrushbeard, KHM 52).
Child abuse in King Thrushbeard
In KD the protagonist is abused by her father as well as her husband. While the former forces his daughter into a marriage with a beggar as a questionable parenting technique during the first third of the tale, the latter establishes a manipulative relationship in his efforts to re-educate his wife.
Suprisingly, the fairytale offers justifications for the males’ abusive behavior, blaming the female adolescent. Her disobedience when she is presented to her suitors is marked by direct speech, which contrasts to the description of King Thrushbeard as a good man and of a socially respectable status (KD par. 1). She proceeds to mock him because of his appearance, further violating rules of politeness. This suggests that the father’s enraged reaction promising his daughter to a beggar and going through with it, is not only reasonable, but also speaks to his noble character as a man who keeps his word. In the same vein, King Thrushbeard states that he treated his wife badly out of love for her, portraying the abuse as a necessary educational measure, which is ultimately in favor of the protagonist (KD par. 8). These justifications are not convincing when looking at the evidence for abuse.
The text signals that the heroine is not married voluntarily through passive, impersonal formulations, such as being lead through the rows of suitors or a priest being fetched (KD par. 1-2). Not only is forced marriage a crime, but it also has devastating psychological consequences. The protagonist is understandably shocked by being married off. Her state of shock becomes visible in her difficulty processing the situation – she still describes herself as a fair maiden despite being married (KD par. 3-5) and simultaneously describes her new home in poverty with pejorative adjectives and diminutives but expects her husbands estate to include servants (KD par. 6-7). The onomatopoetic interjection (KD par. 3-7), which is reminiscent of sighs, occurs seven times in direct speech and supports the expression of her agony. Furthermore, her suffering is expressed through her work resulting in bodily harm. Her delicate hands and fingers are destroyed and bloody from the use of hard branches and thread (KD par. 7). At the court she must do the hardest work (KD par. 8), the superlative and use of modal verbs already indicate that she is forced to perform the worst tasks.
Given that the beggar is in fact King Thrushbeard, he purposefully starves his wife and keeps her in a state of existential threat (KD par. 7). He demonstrates his power three times (as it is typical for fairytales) in direct speech when going on about how vast and beautiful King Thrushbeard’s forest, pastures and cities are (KD par. 3-5). This illustrates his narcissistic tendencies. He also tortures the protagonist unnecessarily after she shows remorse for how she treated her suitor the first time they talk about it. Paradoxically, when she acknowledges that King Thrushbeard would have been a better choice for a husband, he emotionally manipulates her by asking her if he is not good enough and says he does not like his wife thinking about other men (KD par. 6). In addition, he systematically belittles her by attributing her failures at earning her living to personal inability instead of lack of experience. King Thrushbeard purposefully destroys the work she did well (KD par. 7-8) and continuously blames her, cumulating in his realization that he is the aggrieved party in their marriage.
The destruction of the protagonists self-esteem and her suffering through humiliation at the hands of her husband are illustrated by the hyperbolic description of a pot shattered into thousand pieces and her wish to be thousand feet below the earth to escape the public mockery (KD par. 7-8). When she is finally allowed to return to the court and the King reveals himself as her husband, she shows intense feelings of guilt, and shame and tries to flee when her husband touches her (KD par. 8). She even goes as far as saying she is not worthy enough to be his wife, thereby negating her self-worth (KD par. 8), showing typical symptoms for a victim of abuse. In this light, the renewed marriage is not at all a happy ending, but a depiction of a heroine trapped in a repetitive pattern of abuse. The lack of direct speech or reaction from the protagonist to the marriage confirms my interpretation. She was portrayed as outspoken and confident before her wedding; her actions are now again described in passive voice (KD par. 8).
To sum it up, KD can be read as an example of verbal abuse, whose main conflict lies not in the rebelliousness of the princess, but is rather rooted in the abuse of the adolescent princess by her male, adult caregivers. Some interpretations might highlight the importance of hard labor, of forced marriage as a question of gender in patriarchic societies, or the significance of social mobility, but the unequal distribution of power can and should be transferred to the one between adolescents and adult caregivers. In fact, this is not the only fairytale in which similar patterns can be observed as the majority of Grimm’s tales showcases some kind of child abuse as an aspect that remains “remarkably stable” (Tatar, “Tests, Tasks, and Trials” 46). A forced marriage disguised through a father’s promise can be found in The Frog King. Latent incest (All-Kinds-of-Fur, The Girl without Hands) and child labor (Cinderella, Snow-White, Rumpelstiltskin, etc.), often paired with physical and verbal abuse, are not isolated incidents in the fairytale world. Boys (The brother and sister, Hansel and Gretel) or royal children fall subject to abusive patterns just as girls and children from poor families, which proves that gender and social status can be influential factors but that the biological defenselessness of children is far more important.
Why is child abuse prevalent in fairytales?
Of course, what is perceived as abuse today, had been conceived as normality in the pre-romantic era because of the Napoleonic wars, famines, and the plague (Tatar, Off with their Heads 46). Fairytales are derived from orally circulating folk tales of premodern times and their imagination of childhood (Zipes, Breaking the magic spell xi). Until the late 18th century children were treated roughly the same as adults, so the concept of childhood differed significantly from our contemporary one. The conception of childhood changed in the Romantic period due to the upcoming capitalism, which transformed the family structures of the feudal system into the bourgeois nuclear family. This shift influenced the socio-cultural reality of children immensely as they did not participate in out-of-house work anymore (Baader 417). For the first time the concept of childhood was assigned a different value “[s]eparate from the adult world and from its own adult self” (Plotz 3). Romanticist developed a discourse surrounding childhood that sees children as independent, innocent entities (Baader 417). They broke with the doctrine of original sin and developed the genius tradition, so childhood became a place of longing (Baader 419). This mythical elevation of childhood lead to the image of the natural child – “the identification of childhood with Nature […] and the attribution to children of an autonomous, unitary consciousness” (Plotz 5; Tatar “From Rags to Riches” 32; The Hard Facts 77). As a result, pedagogy of the Romantic era focused on providing a safe space for children (Baader 419). Considering this, child abuse in fairytales seems to have little in common with the Romantic concept of childhood. The emerging bourgeoise could even consider some of the rebellious morals in fairytales dangerous and condemned them for their perceived lack of virtues (Zipes, Breaking the magic spell 12,25).
Nevertheless, new social fears about education and the transition of child- into adulthood arose from the Romantic image of childhood. As caregivers had to prepare children for their future role in the economy, they discovered innovative practices of socialization – amongst them narratives targeted to educate the children. Consequently, the violent folk tales had to be edited to suit the need of the new market for educational children’s literature. It has been proven that the Grimm brothers reworked their fairytales, e.g. by excluding pregnancies or incest (Tatar, The Hard Facts 8-10, 30), while explicitly referencing the civilizing, didactic qualities of the violence left in the tales (Tatar, The Hard Facts 17). The protagonists become figures of identification for children that often see themselves as being inferior to the caregivers that distribute resources, have knowledge, and are physically superior (Tatar, The Hard Facts 21), thereby reinforcing didactic effects.
One of the prime educational goals of Grimm’s fairytales, which becomes visible in KD, is obedience. Obedience is especially important in a capitalist society in which hard work, humility, modesty and politeness were deemed to be essential “for the many girls whose household apprenticeships formed the basis for their livelihoods” (Tatar, Off with their Heads 56). Pride, vanity, stubbornness or being self-determined could contradict a marriage or the employment in another household and thus had to be eradicated. KD is a good example for this as the protagonist is described as very beautiful (KD, par. 1), but lacking in the “bourgeoise” virtues mentioned above. Her diminished sense of self but clear obedience can be seen as a successful re-education process.
Moreover, child abuse is not just a didactic variable, it is crucial for the narrative itself. The abusive incident often triggers the events in fairytales. Unbearable traumatic events, in many cases abuse, are what inspire or unwillingly take heroes on their journeys, as described in the narrative patterns of fairytales in “Tests, Tasks, and Trials” by Tatar. The adults are the ones that trigger transformation processes, which are typical for fairytale narratives. The experience of abuse justifies that the children leave the safety and stability of the nuclear family behind. Tatar sums this up as follows: “The child-hero is always a victim: he has been neglected, punished, or abandoned by his parents. Escape from home becomes his sole source of consolation” (“From Rags to Riches” 31). In KD, it becomes evident that without leaving her home the protagonist might never have her journey so that she could develop the qualities desired by parents in the Romantic era. Abuse is essential to the plot as the element that propels the action forward, so this aspect of fairytales can never fully be removed from fairytales, even in our times in which making children obedient is not the primary goal of education anymore.
Does this mean that we should accept the violence in fairytales? In my opinion the answer to this is yes. By embracing the macabre aspects of fairytales, how they are presented to us, and investigating them, we can learn about the realities of children then and even today. The victim-blaming and legitimization of questionable parenting, gaslighting and trivialization of abuse and its consequences in fairytales is a mirror image of how society treats abuse. It is telling that the most recipients of Disney adaptations of fairytales do not even recognize the violence involved in them. Looking at these macabre circumstances in the fictional tales can also help to deal with experiences of abuse – Röhr, for example, uses fairytales in his work as a psychotherapist and elaborates on the benefits of this practice in his book “Ich traue meiner Wahrnehmung”. I propose that readings centered around forms of abuse offers valuable insights into how our society views childhood and generational conflicts.
Plotz, Judith Ann. Romanticism and the vocation of childhood. New York, Palgrave, 2001.
Röhr, Heinz-Peter. Ich traue meiner Wahrnehmung. Sexueller und emotionaler Missbrauch. 5th ed., München, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 2011.
Tatar, Maria. “From Rags to Riches: Fairy Tales and the Family Romance.” Children’s Literature Association Quaterly vol.7, nr.2, 1982, pp. 31-34, https://doi.org/10.1353/chq.0.0644. Accessed 18 October 2019.
—. Off with their heads! Fairy tales and the culture of childhood. Princeton, N.J, Princeton University Press, 1992.
—. The hard facts of the Grimm’s fairy tales. 2nd ed., Princeton, N.J, Princeton University Press, 2003.
Unabhängiger Beauftragter für Fragen des sexuellen Missbrauchs. Geschäftsstelle des Unabhängigen Beauftragten für Fragen des sexuellen Kindesmissbrauchs, 2019, https://beauftragter-missbrauch.de/. Accessed 03 December 2019.
Zipes, Jack. Breaking the magic spell: radical theories of folk and fairy tales. 2nd ed., Lexington, KY, University Press of Kentucky, 2002.
The NASSR Graduate Student Caucus welcomes abstracts by fellow graduate students related to the gothic, sublime/uncanny, and supernatural themes associated with the Romantic Period. This online blog series is intended to reimagine how graduate students can discuss and share their scholarship in a productive and meaningful digital setting beyond the confines of traditional face-to-face conferences. All accepted applicants will have their final essays published in the fall issue for the NGSC quarterly blog series on the Humanities Commons throughout October 2020.
Although all proposals will be considered, we are most interested in essays about Romantic-era works relating to the gothic, supernatural, and macabre for this fall issue, with special emphasis pertaining to:
Romantic works by women and persons of color
Personal, social, and political anxieties/ fears
We are asking those interested to submit 300 to 500 words abstracts and 200 words author biographies by August 31, 2020. Abstracts and author biographies should use Times New Roman, 12-point font, double-spacing, and be combined into a single file submission. Please submit your application by email at email@example.com, with your last name and the word FallblogseriesSubmission” as the file name.
About the NASSR Graduate Student Caucus
The NASSR Graduate Student Caucus (NGSC) is intended as a venue, under the aegis of NASSR (North American Society for the Study of Romanticism;www.nassr.ca/), for graduate students interested in the study of Romanticism to make contact with one another and to share intellectual and professional resources.
We are committed to working together to further the interests, not only of the graduate student community in Romantic studies, but also of the broader profession, by helping to train active and engaged scholars who will continue to strengthen and advance themselves and the discipline. Moreover, the NASSR Graduate Student Caucus is fully committed to helping young scholars engage in antiracist conversations surrounding Romantic-era literature. All graduate student members of NASSR are invited to attend caucus meetings and to participate in elections and panels.
Although we normally discuss terror, horror, and the sublime in relation to early Gothic literature, I’d like to call our attention to another similar, but significantly distinguishable affect: dread. Dread is unique because of its future orientation, something we don’t normally talk about with the past-dominated Gothic. However, I’d like to present two readings of dread, in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and MG Lewis’s The Monk (1796) to demonstrate how integral this expectant affect is to the genre.
…or is it simply a by-product of the Western influence?
I’ve been googling the term Gothic romance in the Balkans, and in certain Balkan countries, apart from getting the search results connected to the Gothic genre and how it came into existence, not much information appeared, specific to that part of the world, in literature, film or any other medium. I did, however, find articles and news reports of the Gothic as a lifestyle, fashion statement and part of the music genre, a “movement” that I belong to as well, but that is a story for a different post. In this post, I would like to focus more on the Gothic genre or the lack of its presence, other than the historical one, on the Balkan territory. Continue reading “The Gothic in the Balkans: Does it Really Exist?”
In my previous post (about the reasons for starting research in the Balkan (horror) cinema, with the focus on Croatia and Serbia), I mentioned a book titled In Contrast: Croatian Film Today, a collection of conversations, articles, reviews and interviews of some of the most important directors, films and recurring themes in Croatian film. The title of this post was taken from a conversation with one of the most prolific Croatian directors, Rajko Grlić. His expertise, as well as his innovative directorial style is described by the editors of this book as:
“Rajko Grlić’s sensibility for political issues doesn’t manifest itself in open proclamations. Rather, he tends to focus on simple individuals and their foibles, on characters who exist within a well rounded social and political environment. As they cannot escape the intricacies of their own temperaments and habits, much in the same way they are entrapped, sometimes even without knowing it, in the circumstances dictated by a specific historical and political moment. His films point to the obvious, the absurd, the ridiculous in our lives – to which we have become oblivious.”
Having said that, this is a pretty well rounded and accurate description of most films made in Croatia, when it comes to topics represented by numerous Croatian filmmakers. Most of Croatian films are permeated with a specific type of light, but remarkable and very distinct sense of humor, which gives the audience a sense of relief among the difficulties presented to them during such films, because they are, more often than not, somewhat too close to home. Different styles in directing call for different views by the filmmakers, of course, but the above mentioned themes and characters are somehow always present in Croatian film, no matter the genre. Showing the life full of everyday passions, romanticized relationships and settings, makes way for all this positivity to fall apart in front of the viewer’s eyes, slowly revealing the true state of our reality, which turns out to be not so funny and kind.
Most Croatian films, especially the ones made by Rajko Grlić, have political undertones, depicting the times in which they were made, often dealing with changes and tumultuous times in Croatia, especially concerning the war and post-war times. These films say a lot about the country, and the mentality of the people, as well as the now very visible social and political issues that seem to form a strange and somewhat hopeless atmosphere in the country. Nevertheless, Croatian filmmakers do keep up pretty well with the West when it comes to directing films, which can be seen in various co-productions and collaborations, and the shift in some of the genres, like horror, where filmmakers, mostly independent, self-funded ones, follow the Western formula of making horror films, but in a Croatian way, still using the previously mentioned characters, oblivious of their own reality until a horrific event breaks all the rules of their seemingly safe and happy lives.
“Films are stories about people, not about ideas”, the one sentence that sums up the core of Croatian style of filmmaking, in the midst of the struggle against representing the political propaganda and the lack of finances in contemporary times. Croatian film is evolving, and focusing more on these distinct themes, and combining them with contemporary issues, it is slowly establishing itself on the world map.
In this post, three of our writers–me, Jacob Leveton, and Christopher Stampone–discuss why Romanticism matters, and why it matters now, in this cultural and political moment, more than ever.
A roundtable post is structured something like a panel discussion. Each writer contributes a brief post, then we discuss each other’s ideas below.
This post is meant to generate thought and discussion, so please add your own comments and let us know why you think Romanticism matters now, more than ever.
George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is a bestseller, again, almost 70 years after its first publication in 1949. This surge in popularity is widely attributed to fear and confusion surrounding the post-truth era in which we find ourselves, with events such as Brexit and the rise of authoritarianism in the US. If this is the case, it means that people are turning to literature to help them understand and cope with what’s happening in the world around them. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a product of the twentieth century, a work of postmodernism written shortly after WWII. But in its aesthetic and its thematic concerns it is a direct descendant of the Gothic literature of the 1790s. Its debt to Romantic Gothic fiction is clear from its atmosphere of paranoia, its panopticon-like culture of surveillance and above all, the pervasive sense of terror of some vaguely defined evil. Like the Jacobin novels written around the time of the French Revolution, Nineteen Eighty-Four uses the imaginative tools that the Gothic supplies for political ends, as the only tools that can adequately express the inexpressible dread that accompanies institutionalized evil. Romanticism matters now for the same reasons it mattered then: it asks the questions that modernity demands of us. The most important one, then as in now, concern the nature of humanity itself: what does it mean to be human? Why does humanity matter? Does humanity matter? Pondering these questions leads to another, more quotidian one. As neoliberalism continues to threaten post-secondary studies of the humanities, it behoves us to ask a similar set of questions: What does it mean to study the humanities? Why do the humanities matter? Do the humanities matter? Nineteen Eighty-Four teaches–as do its progenitors–that humanity is the only thing that matters. In the face of oppression, persecution, and evil itself, humanity is the only effective weapon. Studies have shown that reading is an effective way to increase empathy, since it allows us to imaginatively step into the life of another. This is why, I think, Romanticism matters: the humanities matter because humanity matters, now more than ever.
Indeed, the gothic aesthetic first championed by Romantic authors such Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe speaks directly to our socio-political moment. I am especially struck by the salience of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables (1851). Hawthorne’s novel depicts a present haunted by a problematic past–for Hawthorne, it was the repressive beliefs and values of Puritanism that seemed to haunt contemporary New England. As Hawthorne envisions it, the past casts a shadow over the present with a seemingly menacing gloom, darkening the present and destroying the lives of affected by it. Only by literally and figuratively leaving that past behind–that is, by abandoning the House of the Seven Gables–do the new Adam and Eve, Holgrave and Phoebe, come to escape the oppressive shadow of the past. We know some of the Gothic shadows of our collective past that still plague us today: Racism, sexism, and bigotry–to name a few. How we collectively “escape” from those shadows is entirely up to us. The recent marches and immigrant work protests are a start, but somehow I sense we must do more if we wish to achieve real change. Are there any Gothic novels you find particularly pertinent to teach in the classroom, Jake and Caroline?
One example that I’ve found has really spoken to students is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which uses the Gothic mode brilliantly to critique imperialism.
Gothic literature also works because it relies so heavily on parody. At a time when words like “alternative facts” have real cultural cache, Gothic literature seems to provide something of an antidote–or at the very least a willingness to show mock those things that are overdrawn and absurd.
Definitely. And the Gothic blurs the line where parody begins, calling into question the boundary between what is absurd and what is–true? I’m not actually sure what the opposite of absurd is!
Romanticism remains important as a field of intellectual inquiry because its writers and events inform and speak to our current socio-political moment: Romantic-period abolitionists such as William Cowper, Hannah More, John Greenleaf Whittier, and William Wells Brown fought racism and demanded racial equality in ways that, in some respects, inform modern civil rights movements, including Black Lives Matter; the Romantic period did not see a “Million Women March,” but it did see Mary Wollstonecraft help establish the feminist movement that inspired it with her still-popular polemical treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792); British political radical John Thelwall depicted regicide and the overthrow of a tyrannical government in The Fairy of the Lake (1801), and Madonna imagined blowing up The White House in her “Million Women March” speech. Simply put, Romanticism is a palimpsest of our own time, offering us glimpses into our past and possible visions of our future. Indeed, Thelwall’s works seem especially salient today. Before adopting a more radical politics after being inspired by the French Revolution, Thelwall offered moderate stances on issues such as slavery and imperialism. In both of his unperformed plays, Incle and Yarico (1787) and The Incas (1792), for instance, Thelwall objects to slavery based on Christian principles. In Incle and Yarico, Williams, Thewall’s primary abolitionist voice, decries slavery using Christly language: “I think it’s somewhat cruel to sell these here folks for slaves. Suppose they be a little brown or so, what of that? They’re human beings. Split my mainmast if I don’t think it bloody cruel not to do as we wish to be done by.” The Incas similarly condemns slavery by aligning Christianity and Western culture with paganism and the aboriginal culture of South America. By Thelwall’s careful juxtaposition, the religion of the sun mirrors that of the Son and, as the play reiterates, both cultures learn that divinity—in whatever form one chooses to see it—is more “inclin’d / To pardon than revenge.” Only wicked figures on both sides of the religious divide prevent the two cultures from living in harmony. Each play uses direct quotations and teachings from the Bible to illustrate why Christians should not support slavery, imperialism, or even racism. Students should encounter works like these today because they paradoxically challenge their beliefs using the moral values that inform those beliefs. J.K. Rowling used the same tactic to impugn Mike Pence for recent support of Trump’s travel ban against countries with large Muslim populations. For as abolitionist as they are, however, Thelwall’s early plays do not reach the fever pitch of revolutionary sentiment. Thelwall grew increasingly radical following the French Revolution, and so did his works. The Fairy of the Lake, to borrow language from today’s political landscape, looks back to the time of King Arthur to imagine contemporary Great Britain as a swamp of tyrannical leadership that needs draining. Rowenna, a power-hungry tyrant, seeks to eliminate her husband Vortigern and unite herself—and her power—with the famed Arthur. Upon Vortigern’s death, however, Arthur refuses “A Crown” from Rowenna, “devoted Britain’s curse,” and exclaims, “Love, Glory, Ambition! Are they things / Of such abhor’d conjunction as to blend / With thy pollutions? –I’d abjure them, then.” Arthur later sets fire to Rowenna’s castle with her inside, killing her. The work, as Michael Scrivener notes, might have been “too ‘Jacobin’ in its celebration of the overthrow of the old authority to appeal to a conservative public.” One need not be as radical as Thelwall to appreciate the value of a text such as The Fairy of the Lake: it offers a window into the socio-political environment of Great Britain at the turn of the nineteenth century, and demonstrates the power of art as protest. Thelwall’s works lend themselves to discussions about the capacity of art to motivate people to demand and enact change, and allow students to see some of the ways that political views inform artistic works. Of course, for every Thelwall there is a Wordsworth—a once revolutionary figure who experienced a conservative turn. Putting Thelwall into conversation with Wordsworth might enable students to see the very conversations going on in the Western world today from a different perspective. For the greatest power of literature is that it tells us who we are, and writers and thinkers of the Romantic period allow us to see where we have been and, just perhaps, where we are headed.
The idea of Romantic art as a palimpsest is fascinating, I think. The more I learn about it, the more continuities I see between then and now. In fact, I remember reading Wollstonecraft for the first time and getting angry that, although the Rights of Woman cause has seen some great victories, there is so much yet to do, and in some fundamental ways, not much has changed at all. I had similar thoughts reading Frances Burney’s Evelina, too, since she spends much of the novel escaping from men who feel entitled to her body because she doesn’t legally belong to any man. But Christopher, I wonder, what do you see as the thing that has left its mark the most, as it were, across the centuries? The idea of art as protest, or something else?
Funny that you should say the link seems so short, Caroline, because some critics such as Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre argue that we are still living in the Romantic age. They suggest that Romanticism as an aesthetic approach exists to work against capitalism, though an artist’s particular approach art in a post-industrial world often differs. Their point, I think, bleeds into the question you pose, because I do not see Romanticism–if it still exists–operating in perfect continuity against capitalism. I think, to a great extent, we have been desensitized to the dehumanizing effects of capitalism that polarized so many during the Industrial Revolution. Even anti-capitalists own Iphones.
In my view, Romanticism matters now in a way not similar from the way it has mattered before. The field of romantic studies has always occupied a vital and interdisciplinary space through which new critical methodologies become developed and deployed, often in relation to contemporary social and political pressures and conditions that give such theoretical experimentation a clear and present urgency. What’s energized me about the community of scholars co-involved in the study of romantic culture, in all its forms, has been the particular attention given to the ways in which the “theres and thens” of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain and Europe opens up to the “heres and nows” of contemporary global politics, culture, and history. Romanticism, as a domain of historical investigation and theorization, remains the always and already open field where the start to many of the questions of modernity integral to the post-2000s moment—the emergence of industrial capitalism, societies of spectacle, surveillance, imperialism, climate change, and population control—can readily be asked and begun to be answered. For me, this ties together what I find to be the most exciting theory-driven work being done in the field now, its roots in the 1980s, and what seems to me to be an exhilarating field of potential for criticism, history, and engagement now. Perhaps most specifically, with respect to politics, romanticism is vital because scholars of romanticism are in the best possible position to criticize the negative and destructive romanticisms being called up in our contemporary moment. Ultimately, to understand romanticism’s relevancy these last months, I keep coming back to Walter Benjamin and Jacques Khalip and Forest Pyle’s collaboratively composed essay “The Present Darkness of Romanticism.” In it, they take their point of departure from a mobilization of Walter Benjamin’s kairological notion of history. Benjamin’s notion, first catalyzed provisionally in the Arcades Project, and more fully articulated in Benjamin’s 1940 Theses on the Concept of History, proposed a social-critical view of history, less closed, linear, and determined than open to excavation, difference, and transformation. In Benjamin’s view, past events retain residual “unlived” valances to be activated towards continued ends of redemption, Benjamin’s jeztzeit, or “now-time,” the “dialectical image” as that which emerges suddenly, in a “flash.”[ref]Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/benjamin/1940/history.htm (accessed March 30, 2017) and The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 467-8.[/ref] It’s in this “flash” of preceding history that Khalip and Pyle point to as an index of potential “in which ‘hope’ and the ‘past’ are condensed and the usual temporalities linked to change are displaced.”[ref]Jacques Khalip and Forest Pyle, “Introduction: The Present Darkness of Romanticism” in Constellations of a Contemporary Romanticism, eds. Jacques Khalip and Forest Pyle, Lit Z, series eds. Sara Guyer and Brian McGrath (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016), 2; 9.[/ref] The critical act, in this respect, becomes one in which past potentiality can be located, and in a persistent present can be actualized. Within this nexus I’m just as interested the critical excavation of the negative right-wing ideological flashes imbued with traces of romanticism we’ve seen with the start to the Trump era, as the positive and critical valances we’ve seen in the rise of interest in aspects of the Gothic in Orwell’s now-again bestseller 1984, as Caroline convincingly argues above. Much has been made of the lines of the Inaugural Address in the way of clear discursive parallels to 1930s fascist discourse, There was the scaremongering and insistent rhetorical tactic of saying “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” There was also the ethno-nationalist protectionism of the statement, “We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first. America first.”[ref] “Donald Trump’s Inaugural Speech, Annotated,” New York Times, January 20, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/01/20/us/politics/donald-trump-inauguration-speech-transcript.html (accessed March 30, 2017).[/ref] The corresponding chill felt the world over—but especially by the Atlantic community—saw a vision whereby an internationist system will be made to predominately serve US interests, or it will be abandoned.[ref]Serge Halimi, “Trump says ‘America First,’” trans. Charles Goulden, Le Monde Diplomatique, no. 1702, February 2017.[/ref] But what hit me the hardest was the reference to the “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.” The nostalgia involved is a fascist one, predicated upon an attitude of revulsion toward the contemporary world and corresponding drive to establish an organic community whereby the landscape is put to full use in service of restoring the power and perceived sense of status afforded to the nation-state. Yet in deploying the gesture, the discourse does not just call out to Trump’s relatively modest political base in the Rust Belt (the votes of whom almost surely would have gone to Sanders in the general election, had he secured the Democratic nomination). Rather, the speech mobilizes a tradition in American culture that naturalizes Midwest industry, along with its consequent coercions, cruelties and precariously twinned social-environmental effects. One need only think of artists’ works like that of Charles Demuth, and in particular Demuth’s 1927 painting My Egypt to witness the visual form given to this ideology that was brought into the 2017 present.
The image is of grain elevators in Demuth’s native Lancaster, PA. The industrial-scale farm silo is here transfigured. Rust-belt Pennsylvania becomes Ancient-era Egypt. The modern industrial American landscape is reimagined in its monumentality as an always already existing prehistoric place. The Trumpian act of calling to mind such an American discourse belies and ideological an act of concealment. The idle apparatus of industry isn’t just an image of stalled national prosperity. Rather, it’s a complex image of competing economics interests, struggles, resources, and pollutions asymmetrically spewed along unequal racial and social lines. Given the long view, we must consider the legacies of factory organization of the American Midwest—repression of labor, unsafe working conditions, environmental pollution that has always has a particularly adverse affect on Black public health, and roughshod despoilment of watersheds in the Great Lakes network. An industrialized Midwest landscape running at full productive capacity is, for many people, an unmitigated disaster. With all the talk of coal mining and energy production being at the center of American energy independence and prosperity, it is important we remind ourselves of the racialized structural asymmetries involved when 68% of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal power plant, 71% of African Americans live in counties in violation of air pollution standards, leading to increased risk of death in African American communities relating to complications resulting from asthma and lung disease. That the industrial organization of American society has led to indefensible public health consequences for communities of color in particular must be addressed, but is placed under erasure within Trump’s rhetoric.[ref]Amy Goodman’s interview with Jacqueline Patterson, director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program, Democracy Now!, March 29, 2017, https://www.democracynow.org/2017/3/29/trump_dismantles_us_climate_rules_virtually (accessed March 30, 2017).[/ref] As a result, it may be just as well that factories remain shuttered and those formerly employed in the American manufacturing sector be offered justly earned benefits to retraining, meaningful work, and the full satisfaction of human need. Though, we’d need to be certain and committed to ensure through internationalist engagement that similar structural problems, asymmetries, and violences do not follow the migration of mass-scale production to the spaces in the Global South.[ref]John Bellamy Foster, “Trump and Climate Catastrophe,” Monthly Review, vol. 68, no. 9, February 2017, 4.[/ref] The study of romanticism therefore calls us to attention to understand how the there and then of the discourses we study become put to perfidious uses, to critique them, and offer an informed perspective with which to counter them. At stake, in short, is how to contribute to the opposition.
I am particularly struck by your comment concerning “negative and destructive romanticisms”–a statement I find apropos given our fraught cultural moment. I have encountered some of these “negative romanticisms” first hand. Two years ago I taught a composition course on humankind’s relationship to the environment. We read poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and even some soft science that details our interactions with our environment, as well as our interactions with each other in that environment. Students were allowed to pursue a topic of their choice for the final research paper so long as it pertained to an environmental issue in some way. One student decided to write on fracking. The student started his own land leasing company for fracking in high school after taking an financial investments class and was, in his own words, quite successful. In his essay he argued that fracking was beneficial–a position I found unsurprising–but he did so using William Wordsworth’s poetry! Using Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” as his example, He argued that because nature cares so much for humankind, people have the right to use Nature for their benefit. I suppose we could call such claims “alternative facts,” but whatever we call them we have to recognize the “destructive romanticisms” that they engender.
It seems important, though, to acknowledge that Romanticism isn’t inherently anti-capitalist or democratic, though, and that what we on this panel understand as “destructive romanticism” is informed by our own points of view. That said, what resonates strongly with me in your post, Jacob, and in your example of the essay on fracking, Christopher, is that Romanticism forces us to face the moral problems of capitalism: what do we value most? Is there anything we value more than wealth? This question has its roots, of course, in Romanticism. Capitalism, I would argue, and its ideology, is one of Romanticism’s most important but least acknowledged legacies.
Caroline, are you saying Romanticism birthed capitalism rather than the other way around? If so, what texts do you find particularly instructive on this point?
Well, I wouldn’t say that Romanticism “birthed” capitalism. What I mean is that the way we think about ourselves as economic subjects and the economic structures that we live within are strongly informed by the way the romantics tackled the same issues. Charles Taylor makes a convincing case for this in Modern Social Imaginaries, in which he traces our modern conception of society as an economy to Adam Smith (an Enlightenment writer, of course, but one whose work strongly influenced the romantics). That said, in the context of literary studies, we see the rise of the professional author and a modern publishing industry around the turn of the nineteenth century, along with industries around tourism and spectacle, so perhaps in some ways Romanticism did engender capitalism. What I’m getting at, though, is that many of the issues we’re struggling with in our own historical moment relating to economics and ethics were top of mind for the Romantics, too.
Coleridge’s famous definition of the imagination in his Biographia Literaria rejects John Locke’s understanding of the mind as a tabula rasa, a blank slate upon which experience impresses, though we find the empiricist view extending back to classical thought (see Plato’s Theaetetus and Aristotle’s De Anima). Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) supposes that the mind is a “white paper void of all characters, without any ideas,” a passive slate void of agency or a priori knowledge until acted upon by the external world. Coleridge, who was an increasingly Christian Neoplatonist, abhorred Locke’s static conception of the mind and attributed the decline in English philosophy and theology to the popularity of empiricist modes of thinking. Continue reading “The Medieval Mystic Behind Coleridge's Imagination”