The Persistence of Romanticism in World Literature
The immense space of the supersensible
. . . is filled for us with dark night.
— Immanuel Kant
The historical conditions that gave rise to Romanticism are still with us. So why would it be surprising that contemporary world writers look toward the techniques of Wordsworth, Keats, and others leading Romantics?
In a recent Poets & Writers article, novelist William Giraldi bemoans the cult of “hipster-literary-narcotic” types devoted to Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son (1992) the way “outlaw literati” of previous generations idolized sloppy, drug-inspired writers like Kerouac or Bukowski. What bothers Giraldi is not just that these slackers “would rather inject turpentine into themselves than puzzle through George Eliot or James Baldwin” but that they want to “feel” rather than “think” their way through Johnson’s sentences.
Giraldi recounts meeting a “recent graduate of Emerson’s MFA program” who “couldn’t find a job in writing, couldn’t convince anyone to publish his work, and so had become a not-so-reluctant hawker of weed.” When the young would-be writer discovers Giraldi’s love for Jesus’ Son, he offers a salute by reciting “the most famous line of the book: ‘I knew every raindrop by its name.’” But what does that sentence mean? Giraldi challenges, and the kid’s answer sets his blood to boiling: “It can mean anything you want it to mean, that’s why it’s so great, man, it’s poetry.”
Now, only a fool would try to defend the idea that sentences can mean anything a given reader wants, and Johnson is a writer of remarkable sentences—lucid and textured and often richly expressive sentences that grip, confront, confound, tease, exalt, and demand our admiration. Nonetheless, and however unwittingly, Giraldi’s nemesis has a point. Johnson’s best work, Jesus’ Son included, depends a great deal on a reader’s willingness to feel his way through its sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and all manner of sudden narrative swerves.
This particular trembling haze shares a great deal with what we once called the sublime.
Of the raindrop sentence, Giraldi says its meaning is pretty easily discernible. In the first instance, it’s “precisely what [the character] see[s].” Then, within the larger context of Johnson’s aesthetic vision, he goes on, “the line is really want of a Wordsworthian affinity for the natural world, or a groping after the kind of Buddhist cohesion with the cosmos.” In fact, the sentence appears as the book’s protagonist, referred to as Fuckhead, stands hitchhiking in the rain: “At the head of the entrance ramp I waited without hope of a ride. . . . My jaw ached. I knew every raindrop by its name.” The raindrop sentence seems at first glance to cap a string of expressions of weariness. It’s tempting to read it as I knew every one of those goddam raindrops by its name—our character is that soaked through. If the paragraph had ended there, the line would be forgettable. But the passage is followed immediately by, and feels lifted into, a very different sensibility: “I sensed everything before it happened. I knew a certain Oldsmobile would stop for me even before it slowed, and by the sweet voices of the family inside it I knew we’d have an accident in the storm.” And so the raindrop sentence lies on an active fault line between expressions of misery and the claim of clairvoyance that sets it trembling into a kind of haziness. In context, the sentence is difficult to reason through—consonant as it is with two wildly different values—but it vibrates with an electricity born of conflicting meanings.
This particular trembling haze shares a great deal with what we once called the sublime. By no means does Johnson’s scene traffic in the operatic drama of a J. M. W. Turner painting, but it is built of the same elements: a pervasive gloom that is suddenly, unexpectedly pieced by a strange and otherworldly light, the resulting effect of which is felt as beauty.
Jesus’ Son offers several eerily powerful moments that appear initially to be “want of a Wordsworthian affinity for the natural world” but which are constructed along Turneresque lines. In “Emergency,” the narrator has just discovered that he has killed the baby rabbits whose lives he’d been charged with preserving:
“Deceased,” I said.
To which Fuckhead’s companion, Georgie, says:
“Does everything you touch turn to shit? Does this happen every time?”
“No wonder they call me Fuckhead.”
“It’s a name that’s going to stick. . . . ‘Fuckhead’ is gonna ride you to your grave.”
And then, once the gloom is established and confirmed, once it is given a to-your-grave permanence, this:
Or maybe it wasn’t the time it snowed. Maybe it was the time we slept in the truck and I rolled over on the bunnies and flattened them. What’s important to remember now is that early the next morning the snow was melted off the windshield and the daylight woke me up. A mist covered everything and, with the sunshine, was beginning to grow sharp and strange. . . . I felt the beauty of the morning. I could understand how a drowning man might feel a deep thirst being quenched. Or how a slave might become friends with his master. . . . I saw bits of snow resembling an abundance of blossoms on the stems of the drive-in speakers—no, revealing the blossoms that were always there.
There’s the intimation that the veil of the natural world has been lifted, permitting Fuckhead to see through it to a Platonic and eternal beauty.
What precisely has happened here? The passage has the feel of an epiphany, and we certainly have reason enough to try to parse out its content, but the power is generated by the sudden piercing of Fuckhead’s and the story’s gloom, and the light that does the piercing, though it seems to take the appearance of the natural world, is stranger and more complex than that. How, for instance, does one explain the blossoms that had always been “on the stems of the drive-in speakers”? There’s the intimation that the veil of the natural world has been lifted, permitting Fuckhead to see through it to a Platonic and eternal beauty, and insofar as that’s the case, Johnson manages the effect not through precise and faithful description but through the kind of poetic license Turner takes in Fishermen at Sea, in which the painter allows the earth’s one moon to cast two pools of light on the surface of the dark, brooding water.
Just as importantly, the epiphany—or whatever it is—does not arise from the emotional trajectory of the preceding scenes. It is not, in workshop parlance, earned. Instead, it arrives by way of a sudden swerve—first Fuckhead kills the bunnies and, for it, is awash in shame; then, revelation. It is the suddenness of the arrival of the gloom-piercing light that produces the moment’s strange power. It’s worth noting, too, that the swerve includes a confusion of time. This may or may not have followed the events so far depicted in “Emergency,” which themselves may or may not constitute an accurate account of what has happened, but what’s important is that the narrator feels the connection between those events and the moment of epiphany and links them. The swerve is sudden and dislocating. It is incongruous. But it carries us swiftly into the feeling of this moment in Fuckhead’s life, even as it eludes explanation.
We see the same trembling combination of dark, light, and swerve in the brief moment in which the wife of a man killed in a car accident responds to the grim news:
Down the hall came the wife. She was glorious, burning. . . . The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated, as if by some stupendous process diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imaged an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it!
In “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” when the premonition of the wreck is realized, Fuckhead reminds us that, “I’d known all along exactly what was going to happen.” But consider how the moment unfolds from there:
But the man and his wife woke me up later, denying it viciously.
What are the man and his wife denying? The “it” seems to refer to Fuckhead’s foreknowledge of the accident. But clearly they are not denying that—they couldn’t even have known about it. In fact they are denying exactly nothing. Their shouts of “no” are expressions of terror as their car is about to slam into another, killing its driver. As for “viciously,” what in their expressions is in any way vicious?
Johnson’s techniques are not designed to clarify or suggest pathways by which analytical thought can bring us to some precision of meaning. Their purpose, rather, is to erode meaning, to defeat our efforts to think through the most powerful of Fuckhead’s experiences, and to produce a thickness of feeling, often a mystical or otherworldly feeling. In Johnson, the greatest power comes from the expectation that meaning and order are tantalizingly within reach just at the instant they dissolve. (Skip Sands of Johnson’s Tree of Smoke longs to “read and feel the meaning erode under the work of his mind”—perhaps the perfect expression of this Johnsonian ideal.)
We have seen this kind of technique before. Variations were invented by the English Romantics to assault the assumptions of the Enlightenment. The very conceit of Wordsworth’s Prelude—an unfinished and often revised introduction to a never-written revelation of his true self—gives us a strong sense of what the Romantics believed were the limits of what we could know of the world—even, or perhaps especially, of those things like one’s self that seem nearest at hand. To provide us with a heightened experience of that conceit, Wordsworth gives us sentences so long and winding that we often, in the middle of them, forget where we started, defeating any expectation that syntax can do more than collapse under the weight it bears, and we find ourselves lost in a rich but untethered space. There are also Wordsworth’s stupefied repetitions (“she was fair, and very fair”), which suggest the ineffability of even the simplest experiences, and his lengthily developed negative images (“These beauteous forms / Through long absence, have not been to me / As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye”), which provide us with the feeling of flickeringly present and mysterious absences. Wordsworth’s speakers are always at a dreamlike remove from their subjects, whether they are speaking of others, generally strangers or lost loved ones, or of their own past experiences.
Such is the spontaneous overflow of feeling recollected in tranquility.
John Keats, though he employs a different set of techniques, brings us to a similar sensation of dissolution. “Ode on a Grecian Urn” opens with three evocative descriptions of the vase that is the poem’s subject, but the accumulation of images does not bring us any closer to understanding. In fact, the effort to reason through them leads into an ever-denser fog—an appropriate beginning for a poem about an unknowable subject. The Grecian urn, the poem tells us, is a “sylvan historian” whose silent tale the poet cannot hear and so cannot translate to the page, just as, later, the poem’s pipers can play only unheard melodies. Keats’s techniques, therefore, bring us to a vivid appreciation of the subject’s unknowability.
The historical conditions that gave rise to Romanticism are still with us.
This fundamental unknowabilty is the essence of Romantic thought. The senses misguide us. Mountains seem to move as we row away from shore. Language provides us with the ability to think, but it is also the crux of misunderstanding. As for reason, Johann Georg Hamann, arguably the father of Romantic thought, makes the situation pretty clear: “The farther reason looks, the greater is the haze in which it loses itself.” Reason, he goes on, is one of those “pure scholastic concepts” that is not especially useful by itself but which can “awaken our attention” to the world’s “mysterious, inexpressible” “divine energies.”
Viewed by this light, Artistotelian poetics, the preferred mode of rationalists, including those who populate creative writing workshops, is destructive. Its emphasis on the unifying logic of plot, teleology, hamartia, anagnorisis, etc. amounts to a mathematics that slices into pieces the original wholeness and vitality of the world. Hamann preferred a poetics of myth that honors the haze rationalists sought to explain away. He did not believe, as the lovers of reason did, that myths were simply false statements about the word. Nor did he believe that words, those vague signs of human thought, could describe the world with any kind of precision or fidelity. Rather, myths, in all their evocative suggestiveness, were the only means by which human beings could express the essential mystery and ineffability of experience.
The historical conditions that gave rise to Romanticism are still with us. In fact, the emergence of democracy and consumer capitalism is accelerating, not just across the globe but even within American culture, and with them a spreading and intensifying belief in the virtues of individuality, difference, tolerance, and relativity. It should not be surprising, then, that not only Johnson but most of our major writers continue to rely and improve upon techniques invented by those who first witnessed and responded to the cataclysmic changes ushered in during the mid- to late eighteenth century.
In a distinctly Wordsworthian mode, Philip Roth’s American Pastoral posits the essential unknowability of other people. Its narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, tells us at some length that all of our efforts to know other people necessarily fail. We get them wrong, and, what’s more, our failure is so defining of human experience that it is “how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong”—at which point Zuckerman embarks upon a novel-length effort to know another person that will, of course, be wrong in all its conclusions.
Roth’s Operation Shylock begins with a broken-down self, in this case the novel’s protagonist, “Philip Roth,” who leaves London on a quest for wholeness by tracking down a second Philip Roth who has shown up in Israel. Both American Pastoral and Operation Shylock begin as purported memoirs (“This is as accurate an account as I can give,” Roth tells us at the beginning of Operation Shylock), inviting us to recognize that no matter how far-fetched their plots, these books are preoccupied with stalking the real. But the real, as in Wordsworth and Keats, is unwaveringly elusive, and all our efforts to pursue it through reason, even through the cause-and-effect logic of plot, are flops. In acknowledgment of such, Operation Shylock includes a review of its own plot in a chapter titled “The Uncontrollability of Real Things.”
Perhaps no major writer of recent years has embraced the Romantic haze of myth as completely as the German W. G. Sebald. His Rings of Saturn, when first published in England, was cataloged as fiction / nonfiction / travel, suggesting that perhaps the world implicit in the term “nonfiction” is merely a fictive construction or, alternatively, that it can only be evoked in myth. Sebald’s The Emigrants and Austerlitz are largely endeavors to resurrect lives annihilated by Sebald’s countrymen. Each effort, however, is doomed to failure. In The Emigrants, Sebald’s narrator tries to address the limits of his own subjectivity by including what appear to be verbatim accounts collected from interviews (Sebald eschews quotation marks) and journal entries as well as drawings, photographs, and other documentation. In the end, however, the narrator admits that his efforts amount to little more than “a thing of shreds and patches, utterly botched.” Most strikingly, the objects of his pursuit appear and dissolve in dreams, and by means not unlike Johnson’s swerves, we can feel on the verge of revelation only to end up an instant later, as one of Sebald’s characters puts it, “about 2,000 km away—but from where?”
The list of major writers who continue to work in the Romantic mode is as long as it is impressive, and especially given the rationalist approach to writing fiction that dominates in creative writing programs, it is striking how many celebrated realists (Richard Yates, Andre Dubus, William Maxwell, Peter Taylor, John O’Hara, to name a few recent ones) diminish in death while twentieth-century Romantics like Kafka, Borges, Nabokov, and, recently, David Foster Wallace tend to grow in stature and influence, producing followers across the globe.
To hone in on just two examples of young American writers working in the Romantic vein, consider David Means and Rivka Galchen.
Galchen’s debut novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, is told from the point of view of Leo Liebenstein, who believes his wife has been replaced by an identical-looking imposter. The reader is quick to understand that Leo is in the grip of a delusion. The woman in question is in fact his wife, but she no longer evokes in Leo the old ecstatic feelings of love. A rationalist approach would diagnose Leo’s condition, as Richard Power does in The Echo Maker, as Capgras syndrome. But Galchen allows the delusion to spool out a myth with multiple possible referents, including the author’s autobiography, all of which point to the ephemeral nature of knowledge and experience. Galchen’s mode also allows her to invest the novel with a kind of Romantic irony in which she inserts into the text a photograph of her own family and allows Leo to imbue it with the kind of transcendental idealism that Johnson manifests in the abundance of blossoms that had always been on the stems of the drive-in speakers.
David Means’s short story “The Spot” opens with an extended metaphor that puts allegory-like pressure on questions of chance or fate. What follows is not interested in the essence of the story’s characters, Meg and a man who goes by many names, most recently Shank, so much as it is in enlisting its characters in service of a myth about the story’s thematic preoccupation: “One minute you’re one thing, the next you’re another, and choice had nothing to do with it at all.”
We are told the Romantic era ended around 1850, but even while we surround ourselves with the fruits of reason, the basic unknowability of things persists.
Shank spends most of the story imagining an event he does not witness—what he imagines is, of course, perfectly wrong—and narrating to Meg a story about his own experience of chance. The end is told from the point of view of a character who has just entered the story’s frame and who returns us to the opening metaphor and the mysterious, inexpressible nature of our lives on earth: “Whatever produced these bodies with regularity would go on, he thought. If there was a way to stop it, it had long ago been forgotten.”
We are told the Romantic era ended around 1850, but even while we surround ourselves with the fruits of reason, the basic unknowability of things persists. Neuroscience is rapidly demystifying the brain, but it is bringing us no closer to understanding the self. Social media intensifies and accelerates the Romantic era’s most defining activities—the production and consumption of self-image—leaving us perhaps further from any hoped-for, underlying essence. Freedom, the central theme of democracy’s myth, requires us to go along in the absence of any overarching teleology. Technological advances continue to provide us greater opportunities for pleasure and fewer for pain, but they do not save us from the mysteries of our existence. Hamann’s haze still shrouds us, and so our writers continue to adapt and employ Romantic techniques—indeed, most of what we call “postmodern” has deep roots in the Romantic—even while Aristotle rules the workshop. Given the power these techniques can generate, I would tolerate—and maybe even encourage—a reader, no matter what he’s been injecting, to hang out in the feelings they produce rather than try to reason his way through them and into meaning. It is, after all, poetry, man. Romantic poetry.