Turning Points: Essays in the History of Cultural Expressions.
This book is introduced as a counter to materialist approaches to cultural expression. The thesis is that certain individual works, in criticism, literature, philosophy, and music, 'act in and on history', and so shape historical change, rather than simply reflect, or react against, the conditions of their making. The emphasis is on the variations of style and form in works which somehow 'escape their time'. In the introductory essay, 'Errours Endlesse Traine', Brown explores metaphors of movement such as mills, swings, rivers, and wheels in literary works, and relates these to revolution and dialectic. This works well enough within the literary-artistic sphere, but it is not clear to me how these metaphors for human perception of history, and metaphors for socio-historical change within literary works, can be applied to the emergence of individual works out of the flux of cultural history. It seems to me that there are too many differing categories of history under the same spotlight.
After this lively and provocative introduction, most of the book is taken up with revisions of Brown's earlier, wide-ranging work, on various monuments in the history of cultural expression. Beginning with Hippolyte Taine's History of English Literature, Brown re-evaluates this unfashionably determinist attempt to know England through its literature. Next comes Heinrich Wolfflin's Principles of Art History, which, Brown argues, is concerned with the production of works in historical flux, and not only with the categorization of works according to spatial form. In the next section, Brown explores Romantic consciousness through music, philosophy, and literature. In 'Mozart and After', he suggests that the 1780s saw a new conception of form derived from a Kantian model of temporal self-consciousness, but it is Mozart who applies musical terms to the emotional and psychological foundation of this Romantic consciousness. I found this essay on Mozart, and another piece, relating musical structures to narrative, 'Origins of Modernism', very interesting interdisciplinary stabs at synthesizing patterns and structures within different forms of cultural expression. In the essay on Mozart, there are some worrying references to an 'infrastructure' somehow organizing our perception of forms, but this is a minor criticism.
This collection also includes an essay on Coleridge and Sarbiewski and an essay called 'Romanticism and Enlightenment'. In the latter, Brown explores the idea of the moment of awakening in which the dream is preserved as a commonplace in Romantic poetry, and suggests that this 'awakening', in the works of Shelley and Wordsworth in particular, might be read as an awakening from the dreams, and the darkness, of the Enlightenment. The book closes with an essay on silence, on 'unheard melodies'. This is an intelligent, wide-ranging, and well-written exploration of the pictures, music, and poems behind the form, from which form derives its 'energy, expression and movement': a great finale. My only reservation is that the essays, important and interesting as they are, are really variations on a theme, and despite judicious topping and tailing, they do not really follow on from one another.
<ADD> PAUL SMETHURST UNIVERSITY OF HONG KONG </ADD>
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|Publication:||The Modern Language Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 1999|
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