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Morse Peckham, The Romantic Virtuoso.

Morse Peckham, The Romantic Virtuoso (Wesleyan/UP of New England, I995), 246 pp., $39.95 cloth.

With its title, The Romantic Virtuoso introduces an ambiguity that Morse Peckham would well have appreciated. Does it refer to each of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writers, composers, artists, and philosophers that pass breathtakingly before us in this masterwork of cultural history? Or does it refer to Peckham himself, the virtuoso author of this seemingly effortless sweep of European and American literature, culture, and history in the early nineteenth century? Indeed, the "Romantic virtuoso," in Peckham's view, aggressively places such intellectual and emotional demands upon his or her readers that they experience the conditions of possibility for transcending their own cultural limits. To accomplish this task, the romantic virtuoso must attain a self-conscious mastery over his or her medium and exercise that mastery as a means to transform its conventions. In its magisterial command of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century culture, Peckham's book exemplifies such a critical virtuosity, and it would be for Peckham, I believe, a complement, to suggest that the nature of that virtuosity is certainly Romantic.

The Romantic Virtuoso divides into two chapters and a coda, neatly framed by Leo Daugherty's introduction, which places these last essays of Peckham's into his lifetime project to produce a theory and history of Romanticism, and a biographical afterword by H.W. Matalene, which sketches out for us Peckham's distinguished and somewhat unconventional career. Organized chronologically, chapters one and two--"1815-1820: The Aftermath of Waterloo" and "1820-1825: The First Romanticized Generation"--tease out the definition of the Romantic virtuoso, as they examine what Peckham calls "cultural and self transcendence" in the works of a stunning array of romantic writers, artists, composers, and philosophers. Like those he writes about, Peckham's cultural grasp is exceeded only by his ambitious reach, as he takes us through a series of vignettes--one might call them etudes--on romantic virtuosi such as Scott, Byron, Beethoven, Rossini, J.M.W. Turner, Constable, Caspar David Friedrich, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Coleridge, the Nazarenes, Ingres, Gericault, Hegel, and Schopenhauer, in chapter one; and Keats, Shelley, Lamartine, Heine, Pushkin, Grillparzer, and Scheuber, in chapter two. In the Coda, which is reminiscent of the aphoristic and fragmentary essays of Schlegel, Nietzsche, and Adorno, Peckham provides his readers with a series of "Meditations on the Consequences of Romanticism." Here Peckham traces the residual impulse of Romanticism in the works of Goya, Nietzsche, Wagner, Browning, Brahms, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Freud, Debussy, Strauss, Picasso, and Joyce, among others. Following the example of their nineteenth-century predecessors, through what Peckham would call "sustained virtuoso performance," these iconoclastic modernists create their own unique niche in cultural history by reaching beyond the cultural and historical limitations that threaten to regulate and constrain their individual talent and inventiveness. Peckham believes that Modernism, like Romanticism, aimed to abrogate all forms of cultural control as the artists rejected the normative cultural instructions of their time in order to invent their own.

Building upon the theory of Romanticism essayed in Peckham's earlier works such as The Triumph of Romanticism (1970), Romanticism and Behavior (1976), and Romanticism and Ideology (1985), The Romantic Virtuoso discerns at the center of Romanticism a drive towards cultural and self transcendence. Emerging at a historical moment when the political, social, and intellectual revolutions of the Enlightenment had destabilized the foundational structures of European thought and behavior, Romanticism, in Peckham's view, transforms a sense of profound alienation into a radical inventiveness that points toward a new order of things. Embodying the liminality of the post-Napoleonic era in their own psychic patterns and behavioral practices, Romantic writers and artists--poets, in the wide sense in which Shelly uses the term--balanced a romantic realism that grounded them in history with a romantic skepticism that revealed to them the semiotic nature of all meaning and valor. Keenly aware of "the fundamental incoherence of Western culture" (4) and the arbitrary nature of all institutional structures of the past and present, the Romantic virtuosi positioned themselves at the threshold of the new, the radically emergent. Hence, a kind of intellectual vagrancy--sometimes in the form of self exile--prevailed in the early nineteenth century, and out of this cultural and institutional homelessness the best writers, composers, artists, and thinkers self-consciously invented new cultural forms and practices that would themselves be challenged in turn, for in such an age no idea or construct could be final. As Leo Daugherty points out in his helpful introduction to this culminating work of Peckham's career, "the innovative Romantic was a person who responded to the collapse of the Enlightenment by deciding ... that not only the explanatory cultures of the past must be dismissed and transcended, but also the explanatory cultures of the present" (xiv). Caught up in something like Carlyle's "centre of indifference," the artists, writers, composers, and philosophers of the early nineteenth century engaged in a fruitful skepticism that alienated them from the normative forms and institutions of their culture and society and so compelled them to create their own in an ongoing, always incomplete, process.

If, as Peckham argues in his earlier works, the first generation of Romantics drew from the unsettled moment of the decades after the French Revolution an ideology of self and cultural transcendence, in the decades after Waterloo that ideology "originally presented as a possibility ... is transformed into a behavioral actuality" (38). Indeed, the central thesis of this work is that after 1815 a new kind of creative individual emerges--the "Romantic Virtuoso," broadly defined as "the man who transforms the verbal directions of cultural transcendence ... into physical behavior" (53). By means of extraordinary talent and imagination, the Romantic virtuoso redeems himself or herself from the widespread alienation, rejects the cultural instructions that would imbricate him or her in the conventions of the status quo, and thereby creates a unique sense of value and a unique identity.

Although he does not use this terminology, Peckham describes part of the romantic project as an encounter with the historical or cultural other as a means to estrange the romantic virtuoso and his or her audience from the pull of the familiar and to rise above the limitations of the present. Thus, Scott and Byron, in their distinctive inflections, turn towards "an alternative society and culture" (9) from which they enlarge their own and from which they achieve self-understanding leading to self-transformation by engaging "events analogous to [their] own experiences" (16); thus Rossini and Shelley synthesize the "culture of political freedom" embodied in the Enlightenment with the culture of individual self-creation embodied in Romanticism in order to create something new out of the resultant tension; thus did Beethoven incorporate and transform aspects of folk art in order "to question his own tradition and to enable him to move beyond what he had already accomplished" (32); and thus did Keats and Gericault turn to Greek architecture and myth in order to challenge the prevailing assumptions about their respective media and to transcend the conventional expectations imposed on the definition of painter and poet.

If Peckham's description of romantic iconoclasm and innovation sounds familiar to those who study Modernism and Postmodernism, it is partly because the dialect between Romantic skepticism and Romantic realism lies at the base of modern and even postmodern thought--at least in Peckham's view. Peckham finds romantic virtuosity underpinning the Modernist romance with the avant-garde, as in the example of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire that adumbrates "almost all the themes of Romantic culture for a hundred years" (209). The 1912 presentation of Pierrot Lunaire was "incontrovertible as evidence that Modernism had arrived, that it was here, that it was triumphing, and that triumph was the triumph of Romanticism" (209). Thus, in the play of what we may prefer to call romantic irony, Romanticism anticipates the modernist avant garde and even postmodern skepticism, with its cautious joy in the instability of signs, the arbitrary nature of value, the plurality of the self, and the multiplicity of cultures. Peckham's concluding sentences suggest a link between Romanticism and Postmodernism: "Because it is not redemptive, art can be free to be anything--free to be trivial, transitory, amusing, evanescent. Because of the Romantic undertaking and its consequences, a few human beings can now revel in man's fundamental and ultimate and freeing affinity: the affinity for chaos" (211).

If readers come to The Romantic Virtuoso seeking a definitive statement on the limits of Romanticism, a critique of romantic ideology, or a theoretical analysis of romantic politics, they will be sorely disappointed. Peckham's virtues are those of his generation: A profound immersion in European and American nineteenth-century culture in all of its aspects, an unself-conscious interdisciplinarity, a precise grasp of historical and biographical detail, and what can only be described as a critical sprezzatura--a critical virtuosity that allows Peckham to construct out of the music, literature, philosophy, painting, history, and biography a picture that is at once a broad panorama and a miniature of fine detail. At the same time, it must be said again that Peckham is the most romantic of critics. Peckham's theory of self transcendence and transformation derived in part from Friedrich Schlegel and the Jena school, who theorized the romantic project as one of incompletion and claimed that the greatest poem was the one that continually undermined its own origins and continually subverted and recreated its own structures. What may strike some readers as most extraordinary--and some perhaps as most admirable --is that Peckham really believes that cultural transcendence is not only possible, but that the works of Scott, Beethoven, Turner, Keats, Lamartine, Schubert, Hegel, and others presents a record of such transcendence.

While readers of Peckham's previous work will find few surprises here, and while some readers may become impatient with the repeated claim that each romantic virtuoso discovered some means to transcend both self and culture, the book presents the general historical and cultural significance of Romanticism in such a way as to challenge our current tendency to dismiss Romanticism as ideology. Although one would like to see a more dialectical appreciation of the conserving tendencies in much romantic thought and culture, The Romantic Virtuoso reminds us--correctly I think--that "the thrust of Romanticism is to question, to criticize, to undermine ideology" (80), as new studies of Wordsworth and Keats, in particular, by David Simpson, Nicholas Roe, and others have begun to show. Above all, The Romantic Virtuoso, Peckham's last book and published posthumously after his death on 4 September 1993, is itself a virtuoso performance that gives us a window into the rich cultural achievements of the nineteenth century as it adds the finishing touches to Peckham's own somewhat iconoclastic, but deeply romantic, theory of Romanticism.

Gary Harrison

University of New Mexico
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Author:Harrison, Gary
Publication:Nineteenth-Century Prose
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 1996
Words:1776
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