Show Less
Open access

Recherche littéraire/Literary Research

Fall 2019

Series:

Edited By Marc Maufort

Daniel Acke, Mark Anderson, Eugene L. Arva, Franca Bellarsi, Valérie-Anne Belleflamme, Thomas Buffet, Ipshita Chanda, Mateusz Chmurski, Wiebke Denecke, Christophe Den Tandt, Lieven D’hulst, César Domínguez, Manfred Engel, Dorothy Figueira, John B. Forster, Massimo Fusillo, Gerald Gillespie, Marie Herbillon, S. Satish Kumar, François Lecercle, Ursula Lindqvist, Jocelyn Martin, Jessica Maufort, Marc Maufort, Sam McCracken, Isabelle Meuret, Delphine Munos, Daniel-Henri Pageaux, Danielle Perrot-Corpet, Frank Schulze-Engler, Monica Spiridon, Jüri Talvet, Daria Tunca, Cyril Vettorato, Hein Viljoen, Jenny Webb

Show Summary Details
Open access

Franca Bellarsi: Larry H. Peer, ed. Transgressive Romanticism. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2018. Pp. 207 + viii. ISBN: 9781527503618.

←166 | 167→

Larry H. Peer, ed. Transgressive Romanticism. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2018. Pp. 207 + viii. ISBN: 9781527503618.

The concept of “transgression” feels like a natural companion to the one of “Romanticism.” Indeed, the intermingling streams that informed this revolutionary sensibility sought to move from an “Old Regime” to a new one at many levels, since such currents “privileged the imagination as a faculty higher and more inclusive than reason, […] replaced theological doctrine with metaphor and feeling, […] and rebelled […] against both aristocratic and bourgeois social and political norms in favor of values more individual, inward and emotional” (Ferber 10–11). In so doing, the various strands within Romanticism redefined the way in which the human subject experiences the self and the self’s cognitive engagement with the surrounding world shaping it. Thereby too, Romantic re-inventions (re)modelled how humans perceive the links binding the individual to society, the sacred, nature, sexuality, and art, simultaneously always (re)fashioning the notion of personal freedom as well. As Larry H. Peer, the editor of Transgressive Romanticism, percussively puts it in his “Introduction,” “the very need to transmute the given, the traditional, the status quo, is central to Romanticism, and, more importantly, is the essence of its process across languages and disciplines” (9).

Yet, if still two hundred years later, the question of what exactly constitutes the Romantic and its multiple, fluid challenges to established political, religious, philosophical, and aesthetic norms remains a difficult one, the same holds true when it comes to identifying with greater precision the nature of transgression and its modes of operation. What proves transgressive in one culture may not be so in another, to which other thorny questions add themselves: how much rebellion is needed to produce effective violations of norms? Can transgression ever constitute a pure phenomenon, or is it inevitably mixed, iconoclastically smashing certain conventions whilst at the same time re-affirming others, be it consciously or unconsciously? Is yesterday’s trespass bound to become tomorrow’s stultified convention? Furthermore, in the scrutiny of an international phenomenon like Romanticism, explaining in systematic ←167 | 168→fashion how different boundaries and limits are gone beyond and transmuted becomes complicated by the need to include different cultural traditions and creative genres in order to understand an intellectual and aesthetic revolution whose inherently cross-cultural circulations reached expressive heights in a variety of media, from literature and architecture to music and painting.

This is why, with its coverage of Romantic challenges to notions of self and aesthetics in a “dialogic mode of enquiry” (5) that makes philosophy, literature, and music interact, on the one hand, and that brings together territories as diverse as England, Germany, Ceylon, and Denmark, on the other, Transgressive Romanticism initially comes across as a much promising title that triggers the reader’s appetite and curiosity. Beyond a daring interlocking of disciplinary fields and geographies, the volume also seems at first to hold another tantalising promise: that of a systematic exploration that might fill an important gap in Romantic studies, which, as curious as this may seem, do actually not abound in volumes addressing the concept of transgression in an exhaustive and panoramic way. Admittedly, due to the proximity of Romanticism to the Gothic and its excesses leading to moral trespass, articles and books on particular Romantic authors sooner or later will touch upon the transgressive politics, ethics, or aesthetics of a Blake, Byron, Shelley, and others. All the same, if the concept of transgression often gets incorporated in the study of other topics in relation with individual Romantic writers and artists, it constitutes only but too rarely the first and major object of scrutiny addressed and buttressed, as is the case here, by an array of individual case studies of different authors and creators operating in a variety of cultural traditions and aesthetic practices. In this respect, Transgressive Romanticism and its contributors begin to redress an important imbalance and to fill a space, surprisingly enough, still left too vacant in Romantic studies.

However, if one must give due credit to the genuine audacity of its complex endeavour, Transgressive Romanticism does not fully deliver on the double promise foreshadowed by its alluring title. Nowhere is there really a sufficient effort at a more systematic and comprehensive reflection on what transgression in general and Romantic transgression in particular entail. Granted that “Romanticism finds that the very essence of identity rises from fragmentary interaction, where the necessity of living in perpetual ambiguity about the self and the external world marks the beginning of understanding” (4). However, even if one accepts to ←168 | 169→work on the premise formulated by Peer in his “Introduction,” one could have expected more of a striving to enlist the fragmentary into a more systematic exploration and eventual synthesis. A study may choose to be an “open-ended conversation feeding on academia’s dialogic mode of enquiry” (5), but the moment it also decides to foreground a particular concept – the transgressive – as a cornerstone, it no longer exempts itself from having to tend towards the scholarly ideal of an intellectual edifice truly held together by a keystone and in which the whole meaningfully exceeds the parts.

The book certainly offers striking examples of different types of Romantic transgression in action, and the reader will – albeit too often implicitly – detect that the contributions are linked by Hegelian dialectics as well as by the Romantic foregrounding of emotion as the vehicle for a “powerful and irresistible transfer of feelings from a creator into the psyche of the receiver as though the feelings originated there” (3). But apart from the binding elements afforded by emotional transfer and Hegel’s influence on aesthetics, the reader is otherwise not offered sufficiently clear fundamental premises that elucidate how the different pieces collected here indeed might form a true conversation, and an open-ended – but not discordant – one at that, with the logic of the fragment paradoxically leading to a potentially emerging order instead of a simply loose, sometimes even jarring kind of juxtaposition.

The fact that the monograph does not clarify enough its own fundamentals and foundations is already obvious in the “Introduction,” which, after general considerations on Romanticism itself, does not preface the overview of the book’s contents with a deeper preliminary reflection on the kind of approach(es) the volume actually takes to transgression. Beyond crossing the boundaries of cultures and intellectual disciplines or creative practices, should readers here expect a privileging of aesthetic over political transgression, or vice versa, or will they be shown how it is impossible to dissociate them from one another and why? Or is philosophical transformation given centre-stage, with political and aesthetic violations seen to derive from it as sub-currents? Does the ongoing unveiling of Romantic trespass in unexpected quarters constitute the main orientation of the volume? Or is the main objective to tackle the problem in reverse, foregrounding how Romanticism actually surprisingly fails to live up to its transgressive ideals? Will the volume mainly immerse readers in Romantic transgressions of former conventions, or will it, in equal measure, explore Romanticism’s self-contained seeds of its own ←169 | 170→displacement and rejection by future generations, subsequent waves this time intent on smashing Romantic assumptions themselves? Alternatively, might readers be repeatedly exposed to transgression understood first and foremost in terms of destabilising reading practices? Each of the possible approaches listed here in fact constitutes a line of enquiry that would already amply deserve a separate study by itself. The book actually embraces all these orientations without ever clearly stating that it does, the inevitable result being that it never exhaustively can deepen and delve into any one of these strands of transgression in particular. Hence the volume’s loose structure, which derives from its very eclecticism that simply tries to do too much at once.

Moreover, though the arguments contained in this book are certainly not for newcomers to Romantic studies, it would also have been useful to know how exactly, beyond a crossing of the boundaries assumed to divide genres, cultures, and physical geographies, the book sees itself as building upon former, more disparate and isolated illustrations of Romantic transgression. Even the Romantic studies specialists who constitute the target audience of this collection for advanced readers in the field, would have found it illuminating to have some overview of how precisely the debate on the transgressive nature of Romanticism has been evolving over the years. Yet this overall contextualisation is sadly lacking.

Despite its structural looseness and incomplete clarification of its own foundations, the book is, however, well worth reading, as it contains a number of individual gems, often offering an appreciable quantity of new information, and at times doing so with undeniable argumentative brio. The first, very dense piece by Richard Eldridge, “Texts of Recovery: Post-Hegelian Reflections on the Work of the Romantic Lyric,” takes the reader on a philosophical journey which re-explains how Hegel’s Die Phänomenologie des Geistes transformed the notion of self-consciousness by understanding it as an active, participatory phenomenon. The piece challengingly (re-)awakens our jaded sensitivities to the revolutionary aspects of the Romantic lyric, which are, too often, no longer readily perceptible to many contemporary readers. Eldridge makes us aware of a double kind of transgression: the one actually performed in the past by the participatory nature of a lyrical form rooted in this Hegelian view of an active individual consciousness, combined with the one that each reader now needs to perform in the present in boldly moving beyond the expectations of postmodern taste through an adequate recontextualisation of what might at first, if wrongly so, appear as an antiquated and, ←170 | 171→therefore, dead and inert form. One must, incidentally, deplore that this very thought-provoking piece, which also encourages a broader reflection on aesthetics as a tool of conscious distancing from socially imposed norms through a re-activation of the senses, is unfortunately not done justice to at the level of copy-editing: the subsisting typos in the many direct quotations from the German are simply unforgivable for an academic press.

To return to poetry proper, the second piece, “ ‘Utterance Sacrilegious’: Poetic Transgression in Keats’s Hyperion Fragments,” will greatly stimulate Keatsian specialists: James H. Donelan goes against the interpretation which sees the two fragments as drafts of one and the same poem. Instead, Donelan demonstrates how the second version of Hyperion had better be understood as radically transforming the first in the sense that “poetry is no longer about the immortality of a particular poet, but about the creation of something eternal outside himself” (40). In showing how Keats recast his own understanding of the link between art and immortality, Donelan also offers sharp insights into how the second Hyperion fragment illustrates the functioning of poetry itself as that of a sacred space (37), which will interest any reader attracted to the wider spiritual implications of Romanticism.

The third contribution, also devoted to Keats, represents one of the high points in the volume: in terms equally accessible to the layperson and seasoned musicologist, Lloyd Davies brilliantly conflates Keats’s “To Autumn” and Beethoven’s “Cavatina” (String Quartet in B-flat Major, op. 130). In this instance, Davies’s detailed, masterly structural analysis of each piece performs a comparative reading that transgresses both some of the expectations created by the boundaries of genre and by the exercise of comparative literature itself. In this case study in which the question of influence does not apply as such, Keats’s “autumnal style” acquires unsuspected dimensions thanks to Beethoven’s own version of Beklemmtheit or oppression, and vice versa. Even readers well-read about “To Autumn” will be electrified into a renewed, fresh appreciation of Keats’s ode by Davies’s limpid Beethovenian adumbration of it.

Another climax in the collection coincides with its fourth chapter, “ ‘Too Anglican Altogether’: Benjamin Bailey’s Transgressive Conservatism in Poetical Sketches of the Interior of Ceylon.” In this essay devoted to the missionary and which teems with a wealth of factual information about this one-time friend of Keats, Thomas H. Schmid explores this non-canonical voice and corpus in today’s Romantic curriculum so as ←171 | 172→to unfurl a highly complex case of joint preservation and transgression of models. On the one hand, Bailey’s celebration of Ceylonese nature remained highly indebted to Wordsworth, including in what Schmid sees as its elision of political tension and conflict (64). However, if in their sublimity, Bailey’s Sketches led to an expression of ecopiety, his letters reveal that the latter did absolutely not combine with an appreciation of Buddhism and with the emerging openness to non-Western beliefs which characterised Romantic voices in other quarters. In his staunchly militant Anglicanism and anti-Buddhism, Bailey did not only widely diverge from the spiritual hybridity pervading Romanticism: Schmid also extensively demonstrates how, ironically enough, Bailey’s positions clashed with the contemporary directions taken by imperial policy on Ceylon at the time. Bailey’s Sketches and correspondence thus resound with a voice that both cultivates and trespasses on prevalent colonial norms and Romantic spiritual syncretism. Beyond its solid documentation of a paradoxical case of transgression mingling with its very opposite, Schmid’s essay is truly a must-read for a much broader audience, one that includes both postcolonial scholars and anyone interested in the religious aspects of Romanticism on either side of the Atlantic.

With the fifth essay, the volume very abruptly shifts to the contemporary French novel and to an instance of rejection of Romanticism’s cult of individual freedom, on the one hand, and assertion of the cognitive value of subjectivity and emotion, on the other. Hollie Markland Harder explores all these aspects in “Finding Fulfillment through Submission; or How the French Should Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Islam: Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission.” On account of some of the very elements of Houellebecq’s plot, the article probes into the links between the 2015 novel and Joris-Karl Huysmans’s 1884 novel, A Rebours, thereby initiating an interesting dialogue between Romanticism and décadence. However, as original as this essay may be, it did not, personally, convince me as strongly as others in the book, leaving me somewhat perplexed. First, the argument unfolds on the implicit assumption that there are only continuities between décadence and Romanticism, whereas it could be argued that the former’s ennui perhaps also distorted and trespassed against the latter in certain respects. Second, Harder’s essay does not at all consider the controversies surrounding Houellebecq’s novel and the divergent ways in which its depicted submission to a highly conservative brand of Islam might be decoded. As if it were unproblematic to do so, the argument here proceeds on the basis of a literal understanding of Soumission, not even ←172 | 173→remotely mentioning the possibility of seeing it as a satire, in which case the hero’s relinquishing of Romantic ideals in favour of a life regulated by the simplicities of religious dogmatism would require a rather different interpretation of the novel’s relationship to Romanticism.

Without any further warning, the next contribution again inflicts on the reader an acutely abrupt shift, as we not only switch from French to German culture, but also from contemporary prose to Romantic music and philosophy. Matt Kershaw’s “Transgressive Dialectic: Kant, Hegel, and Beethoven’s Late Piano Sonatas” is a highly technical piece which will make arduous – if fascinating – reading for anyone who is not a musicologist or highly literate musically. Yet even those who, like myself, are very ill at ease with musical scores and notation will find Kershaw’s essay highly rewarding if they go to the trouble of reading his high-flying demonstration over and over again with their headphones on playing Beethoven’s opus 109, 110 and 111. Even approached intuitively like this, Kershaw’s argument convinces: under his guidance, one can indeed detect this move from “a coherent musical whole” reflecting a more Kantian conception of synthesis (95) to a more Hegelian type of synthesis in which “the positive result of a seemingly negative process is […] a ‘realization’ of a fuller, greater reality” (99). Beyond music and philosophy illuminating one another in spectacular fashion here, Kershaw’s piece, when buttressed by the Beethoven originals playing live, also brilliantly brings home Romanticism’s belief in the “irresistible transfer of feelings from a creator into the psyche of the receiver,” as emphasised by the editor, Larry H. Peer, in his “Introduction.”

The last five contributions to Transgressive Romanticism constitute a somewhat thematically more unified part of the volume, though the sum of their respective explorations still covers highly heterogeneous materials. In these final essays, transgression is, this time, mainly understood in terms of the re-invention of former literary models, ones that nevertheless remain foundational in this very act of transmutation. The first illustration of this paradoxical blend of partial preservation and massive infringement is offered by Kevin M. Saylor in “Future Founding: The Romantic Transformation of Epic.” In a masterful yet beautifully limpid synthesis of the characteristics and twists of the genre, Saylor discusses how the English Romantic epic both breaks with former sources and eventually ends up violating its own re-inventions of them too. On the one hand, Blake, Shelley, and Wordsworth shift away from Virgil’s and Milton’s conception of the epic as the effort to describe and ←173 | 174→preserve the memory of a founding that emerges from history (115–16). By contrast, with an increasing turn inward and a refusal of “any immutable donnée” of the world (129), Romantic epics, Saylor reminds us, “place their account of creation in the future rather than in the past” (116) and become “prescriptive for how the human person and society should be, not descriptive of how we came to be” (116). In the final analysis, however, Keats’s Hyperion – “Miltonic in shape, Wordsworthian in theme, and Virgilian in tone” (127) – can sustain neither this new orientation of prophetic apocalypse nor its radical hopes for the individual and society alike. Both exhaustive and accessible, Saylor’s tour-de-force synthesis must, in my opinion, be put on the compulsory reading list of any course engaging with the English Romantic epic.

Nothing again prepares the reader for the sudden and bewildering shift from grand-scale apocalyptic prophecy to the legend of the zombie, the focus of the next chapter in which Lori Yamato examines a Danish poetic adaptation and renewal of the tale. “Freed by a Zombie: Limitations of Art in Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘Det har Zombien Gjort’ ” will again, I suspect, allow many readers to travel off the beaten tracks in the Romantic canon. With its scrutiny of how the zombie legend becomes transformed into a poem about the power of art that cannot easily negotiate the tensions between art and history, the article abounds in data outside the mainstream. However, those, like myself, unfamiliar with Danish culture would have appreciated some additional information on how this poem positions itself in the wider context of a specifically Danish articulation of the Romantic sensibility. Moreover, the novelty value of this chapter is ill served by its odd position in the volume, infelicitously “sandwiched” as it is in between two major essays devoted to substantive discussions of the English Romantic canon.

Indeed, the next contribution again offers a masterful survey of how Byron’s play Cain is anchored in a complex intertextual web in which both fidelity to models and blasphemous infringement of them simultaneously operate. In “Byronic Indictments: Opposing Transgressions in Byron’s Cain,” Richard Johnston produces a reference article surveying how Byronic defiance of the shackles of divine tyranny is inspired from an array of sources that it equally subverts, from the Bible and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, on the one hand, to William Warburton’s theology and naturalist theories of Catastrophism like Baron Cuvier’s, on the other. Johnston prefers to use this web of paradoxical intertextuality to demonstrate a case of romantic irony, through which Cain “as a work of political protest […] anticipates its own failure” (168). However, what Johnston does not seem ←174 | 175→to realise, is how close to an ecocritical analysis in embryo the detailed section linking Cain to the natural sciences of Byron’s day comes. Any full-fledged ecocritical development of Byron’s play would need to build on Johnston’s highly stimulating chapter, with its wealth of information on Catastrophism and its view that in pre-human times “the surface of the Earth had been subject to a series of creations and destructions caused by unimaginably violent physical upheavals” (159).

The penultimate chapter takes us from the theatrical defiance of religious authority to the defiance of earthly law in prose. In “Taming Wild Readers: Caleb Williams and the Outlaw Tradition,” Cassandra Falke examines how William Godwin’s novel both borrows from and subverts the contemporaneous genre of criminal biography. Abundantly contextualising the latter, this essay not only provides a wealth of factual data that will serve any historian of English literature well, but it also convincingly shows the ambiguities and tensions involved in having to negotiate the romance with realism as well as Romantic social rebellion with Enlightenment rationalism (184). As an aestheticising of violence (185) that “transfer[s]; the freedom originally allotted to the highwaymen onto readers themselves” (184), Godwin’s novel, so Falke argues, simultaneously challenges the social order and tames any attempt at social radicalism.

Transgressive Romanticism concludes with an equally informative piece devoted to the margins of German Romantic drama and how its theatrical aesthetics were overturned from within. In “The Work’s the Thing: Materializing the Romantic Play-Aesthetic on Zacharias Werner’s Stage,” Amy Emm explains the atypicality of Werner: not only did he upset the conventions of Romantic closet drama by really writing for the stage, but his aesthetic challenge to “atheatrical play” (192) went much further, since he refused to relinquish sensual experience in a manner directly running counter to the Romantic “sublimat[ion of] the real work of stagecraft into the ideal play of the imagination” (191). On this basis, Emm exemplifies the various material and linguistic techniques through which Werner actually re-anchored Romantic drama in physical representation for both actors and audience.

As will have become clear by now, Transgressive Romanticism contains genuinely inspiring and innovative essays that will not leave the reader indifferent. Regrettably, though, despite the high quality of scholarship that pervades the volume, just as it misses the opportunity to better clarify some of its fundamental assumptions at the outset, it also fails to seize the chance of producing a final synthesis of the book’s findings and of the ←175 | 176→avenues they outline for future research. A summative overview would have been all the more useful as none of the individual contributions – as interesting as they are in their own right – truly moves from the conclusions of its particular case study to a broader consideration of their import for Romantic studies at large. A comprehensive, final extrapolation of results would have done a lot to remedy the already-mentioned sense of structural fragmentation, which unfortunately persists for the reader to the very end of this otherwise valuable collection of individually fascinating articles.

Since Larry H. Peer’s Transgressive Romanticism often relies on music for its analysis, I may perhaps be forgiven for striking a final note in the form of a musical analogy. Reading through this eclectic, non-linear and heterogeneous volume illustrating transgressions both by and of Romanticism in different media and genres, I really did learn a lot and savoured the multiple unveiling of new vistas. This being said, due to the many abrupt changes in direction disrupting the lines of enquiry, I also repeatedly felt like the concert-goer listening to Henri Pousseur or John Cage when she had been promised Beethoven, and when the Ninth Symphony might have better suited the occasion than experimental dissonance. Whilst not in the least regretting this experience of having to push my way through stimulation and irritation alike, I nevertheless enjoyed the parts more than the whole. And despite the many surprising and interesting movements that hit my brain and senses, despite the repeated discoveries and rewarding climaxes, I still miss a finale as well as a set of sufficiently clear and mutually supporting leitmotivs leading to and fully delivering on the overarching theme promised by the title. Assuredly, Transgressive Romanticism opens up intriguing and innovating paths of investigation more than well worth treading upon, but these qualities aside, it remains for others to take up the eclectic fragments and their findings so as to make them cohere into a symphonic whole.

 

Franca Bellarsi

fbellars@ulb.ac.be

Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB)

Work Cited

Ferber, Michael. Romanticism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.