Nancy Yousef. Romantic Intimacy.
Toward the end of her dense and rewarding Romantic Intimacy, Nancy Yousef turns to what we might call the mise en scene of Freudian psychoanalysis: an office with a couch on which the patient reclines; an analyst sitting behind the patient, tactfully and tactically out of sight, but never quite out of mind. For Yousef, the analytic floor plan materializes a complex and at times awkward encounter between vulnerable subjects, one at once carefully stage-managed and riven with contradictions and contingencies. Moreover, it recapitulates a mode of remote proximity that Yousef has traced back to the eighteenth-century occasional encounter, albeit now with more clinical trappings. Freud famously admitted that while he aspired to affective neutrality in this clinical setting, he also preferred these particular sightlines due to his own unwillingness "to be gazed at for eight hours a day or more. " At issue here is Freud's contention that analysis requires the analyst's surgical dispassion--including putting aside "human sympathy" [menschliches Mitleid]--in order to "ensur[e] a needful protection for the physician's emotional life and the greatest measure of aid for the patient" (qtd. in Yousef, 139-40).
Yousef rightly notes that Freud's justification of scientific and situational detachment both strategically attenuates the role of sympathy in the analytic scene and reveals "the persistence of conflicting feelings beneath the impenetrable surface of neutrality" (140). The meditation on "sitting with strangers" that closes Romantic Intimacy also expresses something of the study's methodological tenor: Yousef's book on intimacy can seem at times paradoxically chilly, formidable in its rigor, but it is necessarily so. It exposes how often Romanticism's signal moments of ethical encounter are structured by what she calls "intersubjective asymmetries," a constitutive relationality that persistently stops short of becoming relation. To take the measure of these ethical and affective registers, and to avoid collapsing the whole enterprise back into the easy consolations of sentimentalism, Yousef must read with such a delicate and exacting touch that it can feel as if she is taking a scalpel to what passes for intimacy. But the critical yield that derives from such fine-grained practice is substantial, capable of reorienting how we understand the ethical coordinates of both Romanticism and its psychoanalytic afterlife.
It is clear from the opening pages that Yousef wishes to both contest and work through the ascendency of sympathy in recent accounts of Romantic-era ethics. To look for intimacy where we once focused on sympathy is to "turn the axis of inquiry away from terms such as 'identification,' 'imitation,' and 'recognition,' all of which presuppose and anticipate precisely what is in question: an end or aim--be it perceptual, affective, or moral--for the contingent, evanescent, multitudinous forms of experience among others" (2). Intimacy can refer to something innermost and personal, as well as something deeply shared with another, and this capacity to toggle between the irreducibly private and what is judiciously communicated means that the concept never quite stabilizes, never resolves into a critical achievement. Yousef openly worries that scholars have overlooked the skepticism that so often abuts discussions of sympathy in eighteenth-century moral philosophy--"the first generates an excessive anxiety about the accuracy and reliability of our apprehension of things and the second presumes an improbable confidence about our intimacy with other persons" (7)--and as a result we too often wield an understanding sympathy that is overly efficacious. In other words, sympathy should be much stranger and more estranging than it is, for it rarely achieves the mutuality and connectivity to which it aspires. "The humbling of sympathetic presumptions and aspirations for respectful recognition," Yousef writes of her project, "allows for acknowledgements of dependence that seek no rectification or vindication in reciprocity or equality" (24).
Romantic Intimacy understands that such a claim might send a shudder through the so-called "ethical turn" in literary studies, so Yousef dutifully returns in her first chapter to the foundational texts of enlightenment moral philosophy. Reading recognizable passages in Hutcheson, Smith, Hume, Shaftesbury and others, Yousef is adept at identifying small contradictions and impossibilities that reveal the gap between the sureness of moral sentiment and all that is ultimately unknowable. For instance, she tracks the recurrence of a monstrous figure in both Shaftesbury and Hume, the misanthropic individual solitary amidst society: what Shaftesbury conjures as a seeming limit against which natural sociality defines itself, Hume internalizes as part of his own spasm of philosophical alienation halfway through Treatise of Human Nature. Hume is subsequently able to specify "the conditions in which the skeptical mood of estrangement arises," and thus "imagine its alleviation, if not its definitive resolution," and Yousef reads back from Hume's unfolding self-examination to discover that Shaftesbury's dark exemplar is similarly constituted by a kind of mood disorder, one "not so very different, after all, from that of the unestranged lover of mankind" (40-41). Romantic Intimacy is continually alive to these moments of signifying frustration, where a particular rhetorical or theoretical impulse founders on an inability to follow through or add up: this can feel like a new form of symptomatic reading, one that locates the stalled energies of unfulfilled sentiment, and then calls this failure indispensable.
The core of Romantic Intimacy is a series of close, meticulous readings of Rousseau, Wordsworth, Austen, and Coleridge that stretch the argument across multiple genres and national traditions, as well as across a "long" Romanticism that by the end arguably includes Freud and Winnicott. Often these chapters return to topics familiar to Romanticists--e.g. Rousseau's ideal of transparency, Wordsworth's figures of dispossession and vagrancy; withholding in Austen, and so on--but in each instance Yousef pries open these encounters to discover rarely acknowledged disappointments that thwart any desire for reciprocity. Between knowledge of others and feeling/or others falls a persistent shadow. For instance, Wordsworth's discharged soldier episode in The Prelude evinces "the discomforting sense that to be drawn from solitude is not necessarily to enter into fellowship" (87), while "Resolution and Independence" illustrates a "paradoxical intimacy between strangers who cannot be said to truly come into contact with one another but between whom something might nevertheless be understood to have been communicated" (133). Formulations of this kind abound, but they cumulatively produce not a sense of futility, but rather a renewed commitment to the task of being in proximity with another, or as Yousef puts it, "[c]ounting on the other to be there and yet not to matter" (127). Yousef's ability to discover the smallest moment of arrest in the microdrama of intersubjective encounter is at times astonishing, and is consistent with a recent turn in affect theory away from what we might call "big affect" (boredom, rage) toward its more modest, ambient, and incomplete forms: reading Romantic Intimacy, I was reminded at times of Kathleen Stewart's Ordinary Affects and its appeal to nonhierarchized forms of attachment and a version of agency no longer synonymous with achievement.
Yousef is clearly one of our more deft and sensitive close readers and Romantic Intimacy is arguably at its best when she is examining a poem like Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight." The meditative solitude of "Frost" is, of course, always partial, for the sleeping infant's "gentle breathings heard in this dead calm" keep time with the speaker. Noting an inflexibility in our thinking about solitude and sociality, silence and enunciation, Yousef traces how an inwardness can be achieved through the necessary--but muted-presence of another. Yousef parses multiple silences and multiple forms of calm in "Frost," ensuring that these become states of plenitude and variability rather than the absence of stimulation: the result is that "relational affects (appreciation, thankfulness, gratitude, humility)" can quietly emerge apart from "the logic of mutuality" (128). Interestingly, the section on "Frost at Midnight" is one of the few moments where Romantic Intimacy explicitly addresses extant political renderings of its particular Romantic canon. Yousef is fully cognizant of the unsettling implications of Dorothy's silence in "Tintern Abbey" and Sara's abstraction in "Eolian Harp" (126-27), or the politics of utility in "Old Cumberland Beggar" (91), and she is careful to note that "[t]he sense that self-involvement precludes, or seeks to evade, engagement with communal and civic life only duplicates the rigid opposition between solitude and sociality that a poem such as 'Frost at Midnight' interrogates" (123). As rejoinders go, this is entirely reasonable, and left me wondering what Yousef's dexterous argument about the complicities of mute presence would look like in more explicitly political settings, such as Wordsworth's "September 1, 1802," with its supremely awkward silence around the sonnet's black female refugee. This is to say, there is a certain insularity to Romantic Intimacy that isn't surprising given its method and critical program: it reconsiders a range of highly canonical Romantic texts we thought we knew, and attunes us to the strangeness of that knowledge.
Scott J. Juengel
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|Author:||Juengel, Scott J.|
|Publication:||Studies in Romanticism|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2015|
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