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Susan Wolfson™s studies of Byron are also important and relevant to the
present discussion: see “ ˜Their She Condition™: Cross-Dressing and the
Politics of Gender in Don Juan,” ELH, µ (±·), µµ“±·, and “ ˜A Problem
Few Dare Imitate™: Sardanapalus and ˜Effeminate Character,™ ” ELH, µ (±±),
·“°. Some of my own recent work on Byron has run along similar lines
(for example, “˜My Brain is Feminine™: Byron and the Poetry of Deception,”
in Byron: Augustan and Romantic, ed. Andrew Rutherford [Basingstoke:
Macmillan, ±°], “µ± “ See also this volume, ch. ; “Lord Byron™s Twin
Opposites of Truth,” in Towards a Literature of Knowledge [Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, ±], “; “Byron and The Truth in Masquerade,™ ”
forthcoming in Romantic Revisions, ed. Tony Brinkley and Keith Hanley
µ Byron and Romanticism
[Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ±] See also this volume, ch. ).
Two key points of departure for recent feminist work in Romanticism are
Romanticism and Feminism, ed. Anne K. Mellor (Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, ±), and Marlon Ross. The Contours of Masculine Desire
(New York: Oxford University Press, ±).
µ See my “The Biographia Literaria and the Contentions of English
Romanticism,” in Coleridge™s Biographia Literaria: Text and Meaning, ed. Frederick
Burwick (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, ±), “µ.
 The most recent of these studies is in The Textual Condition (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, ±±).
· The ¬rst to suggest this critique was Marjorie Levinson, in a series of in-
tense conversations and letter-exchanges shortly after the appearance of
The Romantic Ideology. Her critique of Romantic studies continues, but her
earliest lines of inquiry are set down in her essays in Rethinking Historicism
(note ). See also Clifford Siskin™s The Historicity of Romantic Discourse (New
York: Oxford University Press, ±). Most recent to argue along these lines is
Frances Ferguson in her critical review “On the Numbers of Romanticism,”
ELH, µ (±±), ··.
 This is the demand made by (among others) Michael Fischer in his early
critique of The Romantic Ideology in Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly, ± (±“
±µ), ±µ“±µµ.
 Michael Taussig™s approach to anthropology, set forth in a series of essays
during the ±°s, offers another discipline™s model of what I have in mind.
The essays have just been collected as The Nervous System (London: Routledge,
±).
±° See Charles Bernstein™s collection of essays Content™s Dream. Essays ±·µ“±
(Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, ±); and Susan Howe™s My Emily Dickinson
(Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, ±µ).
±± See two of Randall McLeod™s published essays: “Unemending
Shakespeare™s Sonnet ±±±,” SEL, ± (±±), ·µ“; “Unediting Shak-speare,”
Sub-Stance, / (±), “µµ. Much of his most innovative work remains
in typescript (such as “Information on Information”; “The bucke stoppeth
here”; “Or Words to that dEffect”).
± Jeffrey Robinson, The Current of Romantic Passion (Madison: University of
Wisconsin Press, ±±); Donald Ault, Narrative Unbound: Re-visioning William
Blake™s The Four Zoas (Barrytown: Station Hill Press, ±·).
± A number of these have been published (often under transparent
pseudonyms). The most recent (as well as most comprehensive) is
“A Dialogue on Dialogue,” published in the electronic journal Postmodern
Culture, :± (September, ±±).
± New History of French Literature, ed. Dennis Hollier (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, ±).
±µ My edition here is The Golden Treasury, ed. Francis T. Palgrave, introd. William
Tenney Brewster (New York: Macmillan, ±·).
µµ
Rethinking Romanticism
± One of the few recent critics to give any attention to the period is Virgil
Nemoianu in his The Taming of Romanticism: European Literature and the Age of
Biedermeier (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, ±).
±· See James M. Kee, “Narrative Time and Participating Consciousness: A
Heideggerian Supplement to The Romantic Ideology,” Romanticism Past and
Present,  (Summer ±µ), µ± “.
± For a detailed exegesis of the poem along these lines see my “What Difference
do the Circumstances of Publication Make to the Interpretation of a Literary
Work?” in Literary Pragmatics, ed. Roger D. Sell (London: Routledge, ±±),
±°“°·; See also this volume, ch. .
± All Tennyson citations are from The Poems of Tennyson (London: Longman,
±).
±
CHAPTER


An interview with Jerome McGann




The following is a transcript of an interview between Jerome J. McGann
(University of Virginia), Steven Earnshaw (University of Leicester), and
Philip Shaw (University of Leicester). It was recorded at Warwick
University, England, on ±° July ±. Allusions in the interview to a
paper relate to a talk earlier that same evening by Professor McGann
entitled “Rethinking Romanticism.”

PS: My ¬rst question refers to the work of Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy in
The Literary Absolute. I wondered how you saw your work in relation to
the idea of Romantic literature producing its own critical re¬‚ection. Does
Romanticism constantly demand critical perfection, and do you think that
your work is a contribution to that demand?
J M : I™m not sure I agree with the premise that the literature constantly demands
that perfection. There is an impulse in literary work / artistic work, gen-
erally, that is toward a certain kind of perfection, but it is not the kind of
perfection, at least as I see it, that philosophers postulate, or should I say
a philosopher like Plato postulates “ which is one of the reasons why he
tosses the poets out “ because it™s clear that poetry, insofar as it™s imitation,
cannot be a discourse of perfection, it has to be a discourse of imperfection.
To my mind, poetical writing or imaginative writing, is imitation through-
and-through, so it™s always imperfect in a certain sense but, as in a recent
book of mine [The Textual Condition], I try to point out there™s another way
of thinking about perfection where you™d say of Sister Theresa, or you™d
say of Madonna, or you™d say of Michael Jordan, that they are perfect,
and they are perfect in some sense. It™s a highly inward sense, it™s not a
perceptual sense or theoretical sense. There™s a further sense in which one
would say of someone as ephemeral as Madonna, that the perfection prob-
ably would be very short-lived, its historicality is very short, that™s clear. It™s
always clear in sports. Pindar for me is a very great poet because that is
what he writes about, he is aware that his subjects are that human and that
transient and so he tries to capture them at a moment of what he sees as
perfection, but they™re not transhistorical.

µ
µ·
An interview with Jerome McGann
PS: So you wouldn™t see Romanticism as a speci¬c moment in the history of
ideas? It raises the idea of imperfection and thus the need for perfection in
a way that is unprecedented?
J M : Some Romantics “ say, a theoretical writer like Coleridge, or a practical one
like Wordsworth “ see the presence of fragmentation and imperfection and
use their work as a struggle against it. It is more-or-less heroic in that respect.
It™s also more-or-less self-deceiving in that respect, but not all Romantics
do that. Byron certainly didn™t. He is, it seems to me, a poet who woke up to
realize that he had inherited ideas of perfection and that they were folly. So
it™s like trying to live on after the revolution has been destroyed “ literally in
this case “ and how to live on without ¬nally blowing your brains out. How
do you now pursue culture knowing that culture is self-deceived, that it
cannot be what you have been told or learned to believe it ought to be. His
greatness for me is that he goes on. It™s not an easy thing to do. Wordsworth
lived under illusions, and he could not have carried out his grand project
without agreeing basically to wipe out his self-critical intelligence. That™s
a limit to his work, but to say so is not a debunking. To say so is to describe
his work.
P S : My second question is aligned to this idea of limits, and it™s to do with your
relation to poststructuralist thought. A lot of people, for example, suggest
that Paul de Man™s theory of rhetoric is self-circumscribing. Do you think
that same criticism could apply to what you™re doing with history?
J M : What you said of de Man I would not dissent from. What I do, what anyone
does, is to have a project in mind that is more or less socially, collaboratively,
imaginative. It does seem to me that Paul de Man™s work was far more
personally and subjectively imagined than I try to imagine my work. You
can see it in his students. His students tend to be people who work along the
lines that he believed in so passionately. If you knew my students you would
know that in general this is not the way it is. I prefer to have students who
think differently from me. People think of Marjorie Levinson, a student
of mine, as an historicist critic. She™s not, she™s basically a psychoanalytic
critic with a strong in¬‚uence of Spinozistic and other philosophical thought.
She™s far more theoretically adept than I am. It was important for her to
pass through, as it were, the tutelage and historical method that I drove
down her throat. In any case, my work is circumscribed, but it differs from
the kind of circumscription, as I see it, of de Man™s work.
P S : I liked what you said at the end of the talk about being open to criticism
and positively inviting it, which is, I think, something de Man didn™t really
do. Do you see your own project aligned in some way with what Derrida
would call “responsibility for the other?”
J M : One of the earliest in¬‚uences on me was de Man. I was educated at Yale.
This is very early on. I went there in ±. At that point de Man was a kind
of underground ¬gure. We passed around his essays on H¨ lderlin, his early
o
stuff. There™s a sense in which when I ¬rst read Bakhtin in ±·µ it was a real
problem for me because Bakhtin just overthrew my Yale education, and so
µ Byron and Romanticism
at that point I was in a quite hostile relation to de Man, although, as a friend
of mine used to say “You never wrote about it,” and that is true. I was afraid
of writing about him, taking his name in vain and all that. Now, as I look
back on it, de Man seems to me to have been right about aporias. All those
deconstructive moves on the text seem to me exactly the right thing to have
made at that time. It™s not unlike certain kinds of feminist deconstruction.
The difference is, as I read de Man, he saw this in a highly Romantic
or melancholy way, he saw this as failure. So when people criticized his
writings he bristled, and defended the correctness of what he was doing,
which seems to me a patent contradiction. Derrida is not like that, or has
not been like that in his best works, which is why, to bring back de Man
again, when the whole case of de Man came up and Derrida developed
that series of articles in the Critical Inquiry exchanges, I was appalled at
Derrida™s performance there. I do understand that he wanted to defend his
friend from what were clearly in certain cases the most mean-spirited kinds
of attack. So many people were lying in wait to get him and they didn™t
need anything more than to have this kind of evidence of what they took
to be the evil truth of his philosophical positions. But that didn™t mean that
Derrida had to become what he seemed to behold in the people that he
talked with. He was incredibly contemptuous of his critics.
S E : How successful do you think your call for an engagement between the
textual scholar and the hermeneutic critic has been?
J M : As I see the current scene, one of the liveliest areas of critical scholar-
ship going on today is textual studies. Partly this is because, as I read it,
the problematic of textuality came like thunder into that most sacred of
areas, Shakespeare studies, focused on the two texts of King Lear, when
it was shown that the whole tradition of delivering over Shakespeare™s
texts had been in several fairly important ways mistaken. The subject had
to be rethought. It™s not that you had to rethink the interpretation of
Shakespeare, but you had to rethink the very textuality of Shakespeare in
delivering it up. To my mind, the whole geography of criticism is really pro-
foundly shaken, and this is beginning to happen in many areas, for example,
in something as taken for granted as Emily Dickinson in our country and
her sacred writing. Here the intervention of Franklin™s facsimile edition
about eight years ago has been decisive. It™s clear that she has to be edited
from the beginning “ not just the poetry, but the letters. They™re not what
they appear to us to be. I think we™re seeing similar kinds of dramatic
events taking place for example in Hopkins. MacKenzie™s OET [Oxford
English Texts] edition stands in a radical contradiction to his facsimile
edition. The Hopkins texts are not what we imagine them to be. In those
two cases “ they™re interesting cases because they™re both writers, especially
Dickinson, who didn™t write for print. When you don™t write for print, what
you™re doing has a terminus in the activity you™re engaged in right at that
point.
µ
An interview with Jerome McGann
SE: Is the kind of writing that is just for private use actually part of “the textual
condition” you talk about, or is that only in operation when the writing
enters the public domain?
J M : I used to think that there was such a thing as writing for private use, and
obviously there is a difference between the way Byron writes for his massive
public, or Tennyson, and the way Dickinson, or Hopkins write, in a much
more restricted space. But they™re all to my mind rhetorical spaces. Even if
you are like, say, Dickinson, in many cases, writing to people who are dead.
From the point of view of the writing, these people are still alive, you still
have a conversation going on. But language is always coming through a
Bakhtinian kind of dialectical scene, it™s never private. Once more I™m go-
ing to come back to Dickinson because she interests me a lot. Until recently,
people who wrote about Dickinson wrote about her as if she had no audi-
ence. There are clearly three different audiences in her work, at least, there
may be more. She wrote for her family, and if you write poetry or whatever,
you know that if you write a poem for your mother, or for your sister, now
that™s a certain kind of poem. Other people may read it, but that audience
is determinative for that particular kind of writing. She wrote for her family,
and she wrote for people in her small New England world, a certain kind
of world, and that kind of environment can also be recovered analytically,
and historically, and it should be recovered. Without recovering it you don™t
have the dialogical scene in which the writing is taking place. And then, at
least at one other level, which is often named Master, which is often named
God, which is often named Eternity, some other level of discourse that she™s
carrying on, perhaps with herself, perhaps with God, who knows what it is?
But in any case it is not her family, it™s not the town. It™s another rhetorical
order. Writing is always a conversation of some kind, dialogical as we say
these days. It™s essential that you explicate the scene of writing in this sense
that we™re talking about here, the environment where the conversation or
intercourse takes place. For that means that you don™t interpret in the way
that comes to us through that highly patriarchal form of reading, which
is hermeneutical interpretation of the word of God, where you have the
Bible there, and the presumption is that there is a message in there with a
meaning, which if you have enough grace “ I guess that™s what it all comes
down to “ you can arrive at a sense of it, but that meaning is there in a kind
of transcendental and fundamental form. All the interpretations of course
will vary over time, space and place, but the imagination is in the meaning “
is there transcendentally. I don™t think that we believe that, although I also
don™t think that our criticism is taking our own belief seriously “ that read-
ing, interpretation, is a conversation with a text that itself is what Keats
called legendary, shot through with complicated, multiple, splintered, talk.
P S : Do you think it™s possible to have a conversation with the non-human?
J M : Certainly, I believe that, in several senses. We talk with all sorts of non-
human things, we certainly enter into conversations with our pets, with
° Byron and Romanticism
our plants. I think, for me, the world is alive in the way that John Cowper
Powys believed.
SE: What distinguishes, in your view, literary knowledge from other types of
knowledge? Does it, as you suggest in Shall These Bones Live, depend upon the
“aesthetic experience,” and if it does, how would you de¬ne the “aesthetic
experience?”
JM: Scienti¬c knowledge is committed to conceptualization. Its paradigm form
for us is the replicatable experiment. That means that it™s at once very ab-
stract as a form of knowledge, and highly concrete as a form of replicated
activity. Poetry in a certain sense is the opposite of this. To me, it has to be
physical, poetry is “ even if you don™t speak it out loud “ something that
you get in your ears, your mouth, lips, and it™s best, it seems to me, if you,
as a teacher of poetry, get people to recite it, and physicalize the language.
That™s “the aesthetic” of poetry, literally physical or sensory, sensible. So
knowledge in poetry is always coming through at the level of experience
rather than at the level of concept. Insofar as concepts are in poetry they are
there in highly concrete forms. Take something like De rerum natura, which

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