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equally and at once, the law of authorial intention and the law of integral
aesthetic form. In its bibliographical doubleness The Ambassadors estab-
lishes alternative ways of thinking and reading both with and without
an order of intentions. James™s novel lies open to two linear sequences
of text simultaneously, and it has generated them as if by some fate, or
deliberation, of its special textual condition.
The situation argues that text may be founded as an order of discon-
tinuous phenomena. The question is, just how deeply are these orders
of chaos grounded? Does the case of The Ambassadors expose a textual
freak, an accident and exception that prove the rule of normal orders of
conscious control? Or is it a dramatic instance of just how strongly, and
in the end vainly, we resist the presence of aleatory orders?
When we think with a post-Heisenbergian imagination (or, alterna-
tively, with a pre-Socratic one), we have no dif¬culty grasping the random
order of things. We are not surprised by sin, by the operations of fate, by
Lucretian swerves, by Mandelbrot sets. Seen through the text of the
Bible, they reveal the necessity of a willful refusal of necessity. Seen
through the text of De rerum natura, they declare the presence of love “
Aphrodite, alma Venus genetrix “ at the foundation of the human world.
We have also developed distinctive twentieth-century literary and artis-
tic methods for expressing analogous forms of order. (By “we” I mean
Euro-Americans.) But in our scholarship and criticism we still behave
as if randomness and contradiction were not essential to the order of
things. Perhaps we merely execute our habits of contradiction.
However that may be, let me close by returning to the subject of his-
torical criticism. The case of The Ambassadors is important because no
amount of nonhistoricized analysis could have exposed what is going on
in that work. Reciprocally, the historicized analysis shows the objective,
the positive, existence of the work™s contradictions. Meaning outstares
the blindness or insight dialectic of the hermeneutic circle. The analysis
exposes (by critical reciprocation) a chaotic originary order in the textual
condition. In rough terms, facticity appears logically prior to the con-
cept of facticity. That logical priority assumes a concrete material form.
µ
Literature, meaning, and discontinuity of fact
We experience and de¬ne it as a historical priority. For all its historical
character, the priority is a philosophical condition.
That condition explains why The Ambassadors needs to be faced as a
complex (and evolving) set of material and socio-historical events. If it
isn™t, we shall encounter it at no deeper level than that of its semantics.
We will be limited to either structural analysis or thematized reading.
While both of these critical procedures are important, they require a
historical dialectics to supply them with re¬‚exive power. Criticism needs
this vantage because the works it investigates are themselves eventual
and interactive.
Eventual: While criticism wants to know what literary works are saying,
even more it needs to know what they are doing in saying what they say.
Interactive: Literary work comprises a ceaseless dialogue of many
agents. By their fruits we shall know them . . . and they us.

NOTE

± Jerome McGann, “Revision, Rewriting, Rereading; or, ˜An Error [not] in The
Ambassadors,™ ” American Literature,  (±), µ“±±°.
±
CHAPTER


Rethinking Romanticism




I

Until the early ±°s scholars of Romanticism generally accepted Rene
Wellek™s classic modern de¬nition of their subject: “Imagination for the
view of poetry, nature for the view of the world, and symbol and myth
for poetic style.”± This formulation represents, on one hand, a synthesis
of an originary Romantic tradition of thought, and, on the other, the
bounding horizon for much of the work on Romanticism done until
fairly recently.
Today that synthesis has collapsed and debate about theory of
Romanticism is vigorous “ from cultural studies, feminist scholarship,
even from various types of revived philological investigations. My own
work has been much engaged with these revaluations, not least since the
publication of The Romantic Ideology in ±. Because these discussions
have (inevitably) in¬‚uenced my own thinking about Romanticism, as
well as the more general problem of periodization, I want to return to
the subject once again.
Between ±· and ±, when I ¬rst addressed these issues, I was
not concerned with the question of periodization as such. I was more
interested in the conceptual representations of Romanticism “ contem-
porary representations as well as subsequent scholarly representations.
The periodization issue entered my purview obliquely “ for example, in
relation to the kinds of problems that arise when a clear distinction is
not maintained between certain cultural formations (like Romanticism,
modernism, or post-Modernism) and the historical frameworks within
which they develop and mutate. So I worked to clarify the distinction
between “the romantic period” (that is, a particular historical epoch)
and “romanticism” (that is, a set of cultural/ideological formations that
came to prominence during the Romantic period). The distinction is
important not merely because so much of the work of that period is not


·
Rethinking Romanticism
“romantic,” but even more, perhaps, because the period is notable for
its many ideological struggles. A Romantic ethos achieved dominance
through sharp cultural con¬‚ict; some of the ¬ercest engagements were
internecine “ the civil wars of the Romantic movement itself.
Later I shall try to examine these topics more closely. For now let me
summarize the argument I began to elaborate in The Romantic Ideology.
It seemed to me then, and it still seems to me: ¬rst, that Wellek™s po-
sition ¬‚attens out the rough terrain of the cultural formation(s) we call
Romanticism; and second, that Wellek™s position fails to map the phe-
nomena comprehensively because it is a specialized theoretical view
derived from a Kantian/Coleridgean line of thought. In other words,
between approximately ±µ and ±° the most in¬‚uential interpreters of
English Romanticism examined their material with a historically deter-
minate theory of their subject. To recognize the historicality of the theory
is to understand more clearly its limits (as well as the powers). The recog-
nition also helps one toward possible reimaginations of Romanticism “ to
think beyond the conceptual framework of Wellek™s synthetic theory.
The limits of that interpretive line pressed themselves upon me because
I was much occupied with Byron and his works. A Byronic vantage on
the issue of Romanticism immediately puts in question Wellek™s imag-
ination/nature/symbol tercet. That Byron did not ¬gure importantly
in the representations of the Romantic period of ±µ“±° is not an
anomaly, it is a theoretical and ideological fate.
The contrast between the view of Romanticism that dominated the
period ±µ“±° and the nineteenth-century™s view seemed to me
equally startling. Once again Byron loomed as the unevadable locus of
the issues. The continental vantage exposes the problems in their most
telling form. From Goethe and Pushkin to Baudelaire, Nietzsche, and
Lautr´ amont, Byron seems to stand at the very center of Romanticism.
e
The nineteenth-century English view is slightly different. Though Byron
remained an important resource for England and the English, he had
emerged as a highly problematic ¬gure. From different Victorian points
of view Byron™s famous “energy” (as it was called) seemed one thing “
usually a positive thing “ whereas his equally famous critical despair
seemed something else altogether “ typically, something to be deplored.
Nineteenth-century England therefore kept opening and closing its
Byron with troubled (ir)regularity.
As Coleridge and Wordsworth gradually came to de¬ne the “center”
of English Romanticism in twentieth-century critical thinking, Byron
slipped further from view. Wellek™s intervention was a key event because
 Byron and Romanticism
he sought to integrate a European philological view with a corre-
spondent line of English cultural thought. In the Romanticism that
emerged from this synthesis, Byron™s deviance seemed virtually com-
plete. “Imagination” is explicitly not Byron™s view of the sources of poetry,
“nature” is hardly his “view of the world” (Byron is distinctly a cosmopoli-
tan writer), and his style is predominantly rhetorical and conversational
rather than symbolic or mythic. No one would, I think, disagree with
this general representation of Byron, any more than one would deny
that Wellek™s formulation corresponds very closely to Wordsworth™s and
Coleridge™s work. Wellek™s triad can of course be traced through Byron™s
work, especially via a study of Byron™s peculiarly antithetical ways of en-
gaging nature, imagination, and myth. When this is done, however “ for
instance, in the guiding work of an Abrams or a Bloom “ what one dis-
covers are precisely traces and differences. Observed through a theory
of Romanticism like Wellek™s, Byron appears either a problem or an
irrelevance.
The dif¬culty is at its root a historical one. While Byron does not ¬t eas-
ily into Wellek™s criteria for Romanticism, he cannot easily be removed
from the historical phenomena. In the theoretical (and Romantic) line
synthesized by Wellek, this Byronic contradiction was negotiated very
simply. Although the splendor of Byron™s miseries initially seemed an as-
tonishment to many, they came at last to be judged a kind of vulgar theater
of Romanticism, the debased margin of a complex cultural center: at best
perhaps historically interesting, at worst probably factitious. The subject
of Byron™s late masterpiece Don Juan was set aside altogether so far as
the question of Byron™s Romanticism was concerned. For while here one
could see, very clearly, a panoramic (dis)play of “romantic irony,” Byron™s
work pursued its ironies in an apparently unsystematic and nontheoret-
ical way. Byron™s resistance to theory “ famous in its time “ troubled the
Romanticism of his ironic masterpiece. It became a negative cultural sign
that his work lacked depth and cultural seriousness. Himself at odds with
so much of his age™s systematic theorizing “ “born for opposition,” as he
¬‚amboyantly declared “ Byron courted marginality and inconsequence
from the very center of the Romantic fame he had acquired.
(Let me say in parenthesis that the recent “return of the Byronic re-
pressed” does not simply re¬‚ect the editorial scholarship that has restored
his texts to us during the past twenty years or so. At least as important
has been the emergence of post-Modernism, with its Derridean concern
for textual play and instability and its Foucauldian pressure to recover
salient but neglected historicalities. )

Rethinking Romanticism
Working from the antinomy of Byron, then, The Romantic Ideology drew
out a dialectical critque of Wellek™s ideological synthesis. Once begun,
such a move lays bare a whole array of similar deviances concealed within
the synthetic structure. For example, if Romanticism takes “nature” for
its view of the world, then Blake falls out of the synthesis. “Nature”
corresponds to a Romantic Weltanschauung as a scene of fundamental
innocence and sympathy; conceptually opposed to the urban and the
arti¬cial, Romantic nature is the locus of what Wordsworth paradigmat-
ically called “feeling.” As an artistic resource it generates a constellation
of anti-Enlightenment cultural formations that are critically recollected
in phrases like “the meddling intellect,” and Romantically transformed
in phrases like “the philosophic mind.” Because Blake also attacked key
Enlightenment positions, one may overlook or set aside the manifest
differences that separate his view of nature from, say, Wordsworth™s or
Coleridge™s. But the fact is that Blake does not take “nature as his view
of the world” any more than Byron does, though the antinaturisms of
Blake and Byron are also noncongruent with each other.
A close investigation of the ideas that particular Romantic writers had
about imagination, nature, and symbol or myth will disclose a series
of similar fundamental differences. I recently tried to illustrate what
might be demonstrated along these lines by tracing important distinc-
tions between different Romantic ideas of imagination.µ Memory is so
important to the theories of Wordsworth and Coleridge, for instance,
that their views deviate radically from Blake™s. Imagination is a con-
scious activity for Coleridge, subject to the will, whereas for Shelley it is
a faculty precisely distinguished by its total freedom from willful control.
Keats evolved from Wordsworth a sensationalist theory of imagination
that stands quite at odds with Shelley™s more idealistic views. For that
matter, Wordsworth™s work is so deeply in debt to associationist theories
of imagination that Coleridge himself wrote Biographia Literaria in large
part to demonstrate the crucial differences that separated his aesthetic
ideas from those of his early friend. (In doing so, curiously, he aligned
himself closely with the criticisms initially raised by Wordsworth™s most
famous antagonist, Francis Jeffrey.)
Now it might be objected that this general line of critique against
Wellek™s synthetic representation of Romanticism simply returns us to
a neo-Lovejoyan skepticism. Differences are so elaborated and insisted
upon that we effectively abandon all hope of theorizing the phenomena.
Instead we atomize, discriminating ever more particular forms within
an enchafed but ¬nally featureless Romantic ¬‚ood.
° Byron and Romanticism
To the extent that The Romantic Ideology was written as a critical polemic
against what I took to be a false consciousness of Romanticism, its
arguments might be used to bolster such a Pyrrhonist approach. My own
view, however, is very different, as might perhaps be seen from more re-
cent critical projects. These projects have not been speci¬cally addressed
to the question of Romanticism or to the problem of its periodization.
I have been trying rather to develop a general set of research and teaching
protocols for the historical study of literary work, regardless of “period.”
This more general aim grows from investigations into the changing rela-
tions of language and textuality, and particularly the changing relations
of language and the textuality of literary or poetical work.
From this perspective, Romanticism is inadequately characterized by
a synthesis like Wellek™s because the synthesis is too abstract and con-
ceptual. The best work to utilize this synthesis has tried to resist that
conceptual framework, to preserve the dynamism of the phenomena
even as a continual resort is made to terms like imagination, nature, and
symbol, with their fateful positivist inertias. Nor can we, nor should we,
dispense with those terms, which are primary philological data of the
originary historical efforts to forge Romantic experiences of the world.
What we have to bear clearly in mind, however, is the heuristic and
constructivist character of those terms and the ideas they generate and
pursue. “Imagination,” especially as it was deployed in Romantic dis-
course, is a radically dialogical term. When Coleridge or Shelley, say,
use the term in prescriptive and ideological frameworks, they try to limit
the dialogism of the word, to set it within a de¬ned conceptual position.
The same is true with regard, let us say, to Wordsworth™s or Byron™s or
Blake™s expositions of terms like “imagination” and “nature.” So we can
speak of different (Romantic) “theories” of nature or imagination, and
we can separate these different theories from each other. However, to the
extent that Romanticism is executed not as a prescriptive but as a poet-
ical economy “ a dynamic scene of evolving tensions and relationships,
as in a family “ its primal terms and data cannot lapse into systematic
rectitude. Romantic poetry, in short, constructs a theater for the con¬‚icts
and interactions of the ideologies of Romanticism.
In this sense, to de¬ne Romanticism with Wellek™s tercet of keywords
is not wrong so much as it is abstract and preliminary. If our critical
point of departure is poetry and art rather than culture and society,
we have to begin the study of Romanticism at least from a Bakhtinian
vantage, as a disputatious scene whose internal tensions re-present the
strife of historical differentials and ideological con¬‚ict. The period is
±
Rethinking Romanticism
notable, as I have said, for its various cultural/theoretical controversies,
and in particular for the emergence of the manifesto as a distinct literary
subgenre. The cultural forms of Romanticism are famously volatile and
shape-changing because they typically hold their ideas and projects open
to transformation “ even to the point, as I shall try to show, of their own
self-destruction.

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