Maureen N. McLane. Romanticism and the Human Sciences: Poetry, Population and the Discourse of the Species.
The critical study of literature draws much of its prestige from the assumption that it offers a unique perspective on the meaning of the "human." With more or less of self-consciousness, it sustains itself through an implicit faith that literature is a distinctively human activity and even defines the human as such. The proper study of mankind, as Pope might have said, is literature. Romanticism, in particular, plays a crucial role in the formulation and institutionalization of what one might call literary humanism. For romanticism (to summarize somewhat schematically) literature is the language of imagination, and imagination is, as it were, humanity's watermark. So, for example, in Percy Shelley's "Defense of Poetry," "Poetry ... may be defined to be 'the expression of the Imagination' and poetry is connate with the origin of man" (my emphasis). Of course, this and other, similar pronouncements inevitably undergo dialectical transformation in the texts of the romantics and their critics, and recent scholarship on romanticism has done much to show how even romanticism's most idealizing formulations concerning the nexus of humanity, imagination, and literature (or poetry, usually--as in Shelley--the preferred term) belong to wider discursive networks that include economics, anthropology, and even biology. That is, it has done much to show how what is called "human" and what is called "poetry" has to be understood according to historical criteria that put the mutually defining authority of both terms in doubt. Maureen McLane's Romanticism and the Human Sciences: Poetry, Population and the Discourse of the Species contributes to this ongoing scholarship by asking, with astute forthrightness, what precisely the "human" signifies to the canonical romantic authors. For McLane, the romantic investment in the "distinctively human faculty" of imagination is not only informed by the disciplines of philosophy and psychology but "should be assessed in light of transformation in the natural as well as the human sciences" (31). She shows how the works of authors such as Wordsworth, Scott, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, and Keats respond to a conception of humanity that was undergoing radical redefinition in debates concerning political economy, ethnography, and natural science. More particularly, she shows how their works respond to the growing intellectual hegemony of utilitarianism--and the concomitant marginalization of literature--across all of these disciplines. (The argument often relies on the work of Alan Bewell and Frances Ferguson, both of whom McLane acknowledges repeatedly.) Underlining the increasingly scientistic context of romantic writing, Romanticism and the Human Sciences offers fresh perspectives on canonical texts and ultimately seeks to sketch a position that both recontextualizes romantic arguments and remains sensitive to how those arguments themselves test the boundaries of any merely contextual reading. Ultimately, like the romantics she reads, McLane remains deeply committed to a "defense" of literature against the encroaching authority of other discourses though she still aims to situate that defense on the far side of a critical rereading of romanticism: "... this project wishes to elude and thus to criticize both neoconservative humanist pieties and the anti- or post-humanist contempt for literature" (3).
In keeping with this project, Romanticism and the Human Sciences is sympathetic to romanticism's attempt to carve out a space for literature amidst competing discourses even as it registers romanticism's debt to those discourses. Its reading of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein draws attention to Shelley's awareness of that debt, arguing that it offers an explicit critique of the literary humanism Shelley found articulated in the work of her father, William Godwin. In Godwin's words, "'[l]iterature ... forms the grand line of demarcation between the human and the animal kingdom'" (quoted on page 84). As McLane reminds her readers, Frankenstein's monster seems to share Godwin's view: language especially imaginative or literary language-will, the monster believes, enable him to join the human community. He discovers instead that an irreducible biological difference sets him apart. In attempting to create a human life, Victor Frankenstein inadvertently produces "a biological anomaly" (87). Literacy cannot overcome the species barrier that the existence of the anomaly exposes precisely because he is literate. In effect, Mary Shelley shows that an unacknowledged biology underwrites Godwin's literary "line of demarcation" between the human and the animal. Human beings may define themselves as literary beings, but the definition only applies to those already constituted as human according to a very different set of (usually unacknowledged) criteria.
The reading of Frankenstein crystallizes how biological and naturalistic determinations of the human inform romanticism's literary humanism. In McLane's words, "the discourse of the species confronts the differential power of the disciplines" (101). The discourse of the species here also includes the specter of reproduction. When Victor Frankenstein refuses to help the monster procreate out of fear that that the earth will be overrun by monstrous progeny, he shows a Malthusian preoccupation with mass populations. Malthusian themes inform several other readings that show how the moral-philosophical debates concerning population (Malthus and Godwin, but also Hazlitt) inflect the works of Wordsworth, Percy Shelley, and Keats not only when they address the question of human reproduction explicitly but also when they take up such speculative questions as that of human and poetic immortality. Throughout these readings McLane underlines repeatedly that the interiority that characterizes romantic texts "coincided with the emergence and stabilization of a mathesis of persons as 'biopower,' as reproductive bodies quantified and managed through various institutional and discursive regimes (for example, the census, first conducted in England in 1801)" (111). However, the Foucaultian rhetoric of bio-power is finally somewhat misleading. McLane's real interests as a reader and historian of romanticism lie elsewhere, though her account of them is sometimes conflicted. Most of Romanticism and the Human Sciences offers a highly sympathetic account of how romantic writing contests the "mathesis of persons as 'bio-power.'" McLane may read the Wordsworth-Coleridge debate over Lyrical Ballads as a debate about changing definitions of the human in the context of quasi-anthropological modes of writing developing at the same time, but her Wordsworth emerges as a proto-postmodern critic of anthropology for whom literature has a continuing and crucial role to play in any attempt to define humanity: "In his relentless invocation of types of marginal humanity ... [he] brings us to the threshold of an impasse: the imminent breakdown in understanding across human beings is not so much avoided as indicated, articulated, dramatized" (53). Wordsworth's poetic experiments operate at the very limit of literature's humanizing possibilities and hence expose the discursive limits of the human. However, unlike the characters that people Mary Shelley's novel, Wordsworth's poetic avatars are forced to acknowledge the being that they cannot understand as, precisely, human being. In doing so, they paradoxically preserve literature as the uniquely privileged site for reimagining the human in all its problematic impossibility. Poetry turns out to be the "truth" of anthropology.
Other readers of Wordsworth have insisted on his alertness to the enigmatic singularity of other beings--without necessarily accounting for it in terms of "the human sciences." Here and elsewhere in the book, the argument might have gained in specificity from a more direct analysis of the late-eighteenth-century works of "the natural as well the human sciences" that it frequently invokes, but (except for Malthus) does little more than invoke. Romanticism and the Human Sciences occasionally suffers from other scholarly lapses. Such lapses may be inevitable given the demands and protocols of contemporary academic publishing, but I will give one example that hints at a somewhat cavalier attitude towards detail. After discussing Coleridge's criticism of Wordsworth in the Biographia Literaria--and drawing attention to Coleridge's elitist and Eurocentric distrust of Wordsworth's "types of marginal humanity" as typifying anything human at all--McLane presents the opening stanza of Wordsworth's "We are Seven" as exemplary of his more inclusive and experimental temper: "The framing interrogative of the poem establishes the meeting of maid and man as a kind of anthropological inquiry ..." (54). She seems not to know or not to care that Coleridge wrote this stanza with its "framing interrogative," and I rather think that Coleridge's contribution to the poem calls, at the least, for a footnote. The Coleridge of "We are Seven" is not, to be sure, the Coleridge of the Biographia written nearly two decades later, but since both Wordsworth and Coleridge remain in constant dialogue with each other as well as with younger versions of themselves--dialogues not always easy to distinguish--one should be careful not to schematize the opposition between them prematurely.
I am addressing a detail, but Romanticism and the Human Sciences is a book of wide scope and intellectual ambition. It raises its most compelling questions through the sheer range of its historical and theoretical argument. As discussed above, McLane argues that debates in the natural and human sciences inform romanticism's defense of poetry, but she herself remains committed to that defense--and committed, therefore, to poetry as something that cannot be understood in terms of extra-literary debates. These are not, in the end, irreconcilable positions, but a certain tension persists between them, especially when McLane seems to take up the very literary humanism that her own argument has put into question. In readings of works as various as Wordsworth's "Immortality" Ode, Shelley's Revolt of Islam and Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" romantic topoi of birth, futurity, and immortality are suggestively related to biological, anthropological, and utilitarian discourses only to be at last interpreted as representing a counter discourse of imagination--a discourse positing poetry as a unique and, indeed, uniquely human supplement to its scientistic rivals. Romanticism and the Human Sciences thus somewhat unexpectedly approaches earlier literary--historical readings of romanticism that it mentions, for the most part, only glancingly. I am thinking of figures such as Abrams, Hartman, and Bloom (though one might well go back to still earlier generations). These critics fiercely defended the critical power of the romantic imagination, showing that its transcendental claims were "directed against inadequate accounts of reason, but not against reason itself" (Bloom, from The Ringers in the Tower), for--in a different but related formulation--the romantics "dared to think that literature might become a rational enchantment" (Hartman, from Beyond Formalism, my emphasis). McLane appears in a direct line of continuity with such reflections when, for example, she concludes a discussion of Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" by remarking that "it is instructive to see how Keats, like Shelley, refuses to renounce the magical aura of poetry-as-spell, as transporting power and mesmerizing utterance: their skepticism, we might say, fuels a rage not for demystification but for a more adequate imagining ..." (211). What is this "more adequate imagining" if not the mirror--and thus reversed--image of Bloom's more adequate "reason"? What does Keats's and Shelley's skepticism fuel if not the desire for "a rational enchantment"? Yet throughout Romanticism and the Human Sciences the argument proceeds as if indifferent to the extent of its affinities to earlier romantic scholarship. (Though Hartman is mentioned twice in passing, his work does not appear in the bibliography at all.) Outside of a few remarks in the introduction, it fails to explore these affinities when doing so would, I think, have clarified the historical and theoretical trajectory of the entire project--including, as I understand it, its intuition of connections between "older" and "newer" historicisms, and the interpretive challenges that romantic poetry poses to both.
Indeed, towards the end of Romanticism and the Human Sciences, several references to Heidegger and Arendt point towards a more purely theoretical, rather than literary-historical framework for integrating its argument(s)--although I recognize that the distinction is hardly a tidy one. These references draw attention to poetry's ability to broach the terrain between "earth" and "world" or, as the notes summarize the Heideggerian formulation, "between the natural given and the human (and thus humanly transformed) home ..." (267). Such formulations locate poetry (or, as one might now say, literariness) within the discursivity of "the human and natural sciences" and yet suggest that poetry itself is always working to dislocate discursive boundaries. In its disclosure of the difference between "earth" and "world," poetry can neither transcend nor be understood in terms of one or the other. Rather, like Wordsworth's "types of marginal humanity," it is a type of marginal discursivity, and it remains on the horizon of the historicisms it makes possible. One does not find precisely this kind of formulation in Romanticism and the Human Sciences, but something close to it, albeit in a more humanizing vein, in a passage on The Triumph of Life in which The Triumph of Life may be read as a stand-in for "poetry": "The Triumph of Life asks us to consider to what extent ... obliteration in and by the world manifests 'Necessity' (or history as necessity) and, further, to what extent human intervention, artifice broadly conceived, might alter as well as create the conditions of life" (224; my emphasis).
I do not think Romanticism and the Human Sciences ultimately arrives at a consistent or explicit development of its many suggestive formulations, but its capaciousness and its complexity make it a more intriguing work than it would have been had its multiple points of emphasis been sacrificed to a narrower argument. In raising far-reaching questions with seriousness and candor, it does not shy away from the very real difficulties of its subject, and it makes a compelling case that the challenge posed by romanticism to today's readers--whether humanist, anti-humanist, or none of the above--remains as potent and problematic as ever.
Deborah Elise White
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|Author:||White, Deborah Elise|
|Publication:||Studies in Romanticism|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2004|
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