The Minimal Unit

The minimal unit in romantic-period writing maintains the uneasy status of being in time as well as out of it: both temporalized as a condition of occurring and sufficiently freestanding to withstand incorporation to any narrative in which the present would be captured by the future in becoming anterior and contained or, in the case of poem like Shelley’s “Mont Blanc,” in bringing “vacancy” to some larger account. Closer to an instance of “stopped time,” the minimal unit marks an interval where time proceeds just enough for something monadic to occur as a pathway (or detour) to something else--some other timescape, some other world or stratum, some recessive consciousness--of which the unit is now an apprehendable trace.

The Minimal Unit

William Galperin
Rutgers University

1.         In a recent discussion of modernity as a discourse of empowerment, where the past is presumed fixed and capable of yielding historical knowledge, Harry Harootunian notes that in histories “devoted to reconstructing the past of a present” that is putatively modern there is also (and paradoxically) no time for that present or for the “minimal unity” (in his phrase) from which the modern might be ratified in its break from what precedes it. That’s because “what distinguishes modernity,” according to Harootunian, “is consciousness of time and how it relates to both past and present. If all events are,” in some sense, “catastrophic,” he argues, “constantly destroying the new landscape, it will not be time that successively carries away each now, each present. Rather each present is empty, vacated of meaning at the moment it arrives” (18). My interest here, then, is in the way writing of the Romantic period, despite its subscription to a “self-accelerating temporality that,” in Reinhart Koselleck’s description, “robs the present of the possibility of being experienced as the present” (22) (as in “Can Spring be far behind?” or “something evermore about to be”), manages also to make time for the present. And it does so not by monumentalizing the minimal unit (in rendering it, say, a spot of time) but, following Harootunian’s claims, through a dialectic of vacancy and occupancy. In instances ranging from “hinge moments” in Austen and Keats to double-takes in Wordsworth, the minimal unit surrenders to time but not at the expense of either the unit’s eventfulness as such or the vacancy or pause that, thanks to its unitary quality, prevents this suddenly “[a]pprehendable present” (Kosselleck 22) from simply escaping or being negated. [1]  It is the case rather that the minimal unit in Romanticism maintains the uneasy status of being in time as well as out of it: both temporalized as a condition of occurring and sufficiently freestanding to withstand incorporation to any narrative in which the present would be captured by the future (Koselleck’s notion) in becoming anterior and contained or, in the case of Shelley’s “Mont Blanc,” in bringing “vacancy” to some larger account.

2.         And so what I’m describing here are instances of “stopped time” where time doesn’t really stop but proceeds just enough for something monadic to occur as a pathway (or detour) to something else—some other timescape, some other world or stratum, some recessive consciousness—of which the minimal unit is an apprehendable trace. For Harootunian this other world is nothing less than culture or cultural practice itself or what, with special focus on Japan, he calls “history’s disquiet”: the commonness of tradition lived in the everyday where both history and time appear motionless (155). And while there are ways, certainly, that the minimal unit, as I construe it, performs a cognate function in Romantic-period writing in focalizing a state of being that is typically missed or overlooked or discounted, especially in the welter of modernity where “one’s own time” is just a heartbeat from becoming “what went before” (241), what I’m after here is less wieldy even as it is by definition bounded.

3.         But it is, first and foremost, minimal: constrained to a present that, for all its alterity in the long run (as I’ve been arguing), is irreducibly unitary and/or the same. We can take as an example of such a unit the “hinge moment” in Jane Austen’s Emma, where the phrase “Emma could not forgive her”—this in reference to the heroine’s same-aged counterpart, Jane Fairfax—closes one chapter only to inaugurate the chapter that follows immediately. (Another example from this same novel, working to quite different ends, would be the largely depersonalized and strangely vacant view from Ford’s store, where “a mind lively and at ease can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer” [183].) In his characteristically brilliant brief on the hinge moment, D. A. Miller notes that, however out of place this repetition might appear, particularly for a writer “whose sentences frame everything with elegant edges, . . . . it becomes clear that a shift, a change, has occurred in the time or space between” the first “Emma could not forgive her” and its reiteration. “What generates the first ‘Emma could not forgive her,’” he observes, is

Emma’s own affective consciousness, intimately accessed and ironically inflected by its free indirect narrative performance. What generates the second ‘Emma could not forgive her’ is pure narration, a detached consciousness to which Emma’s own has ceased to contribute having been reduced to a little bit of information useful to the plot. By virtue of repeating the same formula (truly magical), we move from free indirect style—for all its irony, always grounded in an intimate identificatory relation to the image of a person—to mere omniscient narration, more remote in its detachment, and less engagé in its impersonality. (64-65)
Or maybe, just maybe, it’s the other way around: that the repetition, far from registering some stylistic progress, figures—by and through its very infelicity—something monadic (again) that, to borrow Walter Benjamin’s formula, blasts the protagonist, or a consciousness to be precise, out of the homogenous course of both developmental narrative, where Emma will eventually learn forgiveness (among other things), and the equally appointed course of narrative performance, where by Miller’s lights the narrator and her erstwhile double eventually, inevitably, part company. What gives the reiteration force, in other words, or enough force to interrupt progress of all kinds in Emma, is not the difference or change that Miller marks (however brilliantly) but a sameness, alternately subliminal and of the surface, in which a little bit of information achieves both unitary status and an exemption in the process from the operations of time by which either information, or more generally a given present, is captured by narrative and thereby vacated.

4.        But there is also, it turns out, something surprisingly vacant about this unit or about the rabbit hole, in effect, to which it proves tantamount. In the build-up to it, in fact, we are forewarned that the problem with Jane or with “her” to be exact, which the unit at once formalizes and amplifies, is not just a problem with the novel’s heroine (who is inclined to think “too well of herself” and too badly of others) but a problem, more importantly, in and with the present in which the narrative, the narrator, and even Emma are ultimately bystanders:

Why she did not like Jane Fairfax might be a difficult question to answer; Mr. Knightley had once told her it was because she saw in her the really accomplished young woman, which she wanted to be thought herself; and though the accusation had been eagerly refuted at the time, there were moments of self-examination in which her conscience could not quite acquit her. But “she could never get acquainted with her: she did not know how it was, but there was such coldness and reserve—such apparent indifference whether she pleased or not—and then, her aunt was such an eternal talker!—and she was made such a fuss with by everybody!—and it had been always imagined that they were to be so intimate—because their ages were the same, every body had supposed they must be so fond of each other.” These were her reasons—she had no better. (130-31)
It bears noting that the word “her” appears no fewer than eight times in this passage and that in one remarkable instance it is used in reference to the now-culpable and, dare I say it, unforgiveable protagonist “herself.” And while there is surely some collusion with the narrator in assigning moral authority to Mr. Knightley, who is briefly introjected by Emma as someone who knows best, the equally remarkable feature here involves the various rationalizations that Emma—with no guidance or assistance—dismisses on her own by putting in quotations. By the time of the minimal unit, in other words—and that time, once again, is the present—the “unforgiveable her” is really all that’s left: a misogyny that, beginning with Emma’s self-loathing and with the vacancy into which it gradually morphs (“These were her reasons—she had no better”), is seemingly beyond justification.

5.        To be sure, there are enough characters in this novel, from Mrs. Elton to the absent, equally odious, Mrs. Churchill, who bear a special onus in which both the narrative apparatus and the narrator, who does not scruple to distribute blame, conspire. But it is clear too that the acts of containment and judgment that the narrative performs in partnership with time fail on balance to forgive “her,” which is to say any woman. Miss Bates, who is a victim surely and deserving of sympathy, is only the most obvious instance of this unregulated hatred. But it takes just a moment’s reflection to recognize that misogyny is unregulated in Emma because it is omnipresent: the substance of a now-time (if you will) that, depending on one’s perspective, is either accessory to the narrative and its regulatory operations over time or the oxygen that the novel continually breathes and a stratum to which the minimal unit effectively drills down. This explains, better than anything, why Miller is so invested in dissolving the minimal unit in tracing its temporal progress from point A to point B. For the monadic alternative, where the novel makes time for the present and for the social catastrophe that is the present, also stops time in virtually the same way that a broken phonograph record (in Miller’s analogy) stops it: as an irritant or “malfunction” (63) where narrative vanishes and where culture, for want of a better term, takes hold.

6.         The minimal unit does not always work to such miserable, if revelatory, ends. But in opening onto something continually present, it operates as a formal antidote to the consolations of form whether as narrative or, in the case now of Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” poetical argument, which is another kind of narrative. In the case of the “Ode,” the narrative/argument is embedded in the famous closing question— “Do I wake or sleep?” (80)—which, for all its mimetic force in capturing the speaker’s confusion and in breaking, thereby highlighting, a temporal continuum, lopsidedly pits the escapism that the speaker has been dallying with throughout against an immersion in nature and in time (again) that the poem both advocates and celebrates. And yet, in the hinge moment, where the poem turns irrevocably to the present (“forlorn. . . . Forlorn! The very word is like a bell / To toll me back from thee to my sole self!” [70-72]), something irrupts (or returns) that complicates the poem’s management of time and the homology more specifically of world and time that is Keats’s version of the fabled “marriage” of mind and nature. While it purports, as a formal artifact, to represent the movement of the speaker’s mind in a present that, like the environment before him, is ongoing, what the “Ode” stages—with an assist once more from the minimal unit as I’ve been describing it—is a disconnect, where in seeming to capture the present the poem does precisely that. Thus for all the poem’s subscription to immediacy, or to an engagement in real time, it is increasingly clear that what is presented here as process is not really process but a simulation in which virtually all that follows in the wake of “My heart aches” (1) is relegated to a teleology where the commitment to wakefulness is preordained and a paradoxically closed affair (like a poem). And it is the minimal unit, once more, the echoing, monadic, present demarcated by “forlorn,” that reopens things, vacating the “Ode” of its fiction in real-time or what is presented as a working through in time by tolling back, however counterintuitively, to the here and now and to the pain that, like the social catastrophe of Austen’s world, is always there and untethered.

7.         This has become a more melancholy demonstration than I had intended, so I’ll conclude on what I take to be a happier note: with the floral arrangement in Wordsworth’s Great Ode, which opens onto a materially glorious present that remains a steady, if at times invisible, accompaniment to the Ode’s progress, both in tracking developments in time and as an argument. Wordsworth, as we know, began writing what eventually became the “Intimations Ode” in 1802 only to suspend composition for two years upon completing the fourth stanza ending in the question “Whither is fled the visionary gleam / Where is it now, the glory and the dream?” As a goad to blockage, rather than the rhetorical question it became in the completed poem, where an answer of sorts is eventually provided, the question as it stood in 1802 is almost always viewed as an index of despair. But as the “meanest flower” in the poem’s last lines eventually confirms, this initial stoppage was an instance more properly of “stopped time,” where a present abides against artifice of all kinds, including the mythologies here of both loss and gain:

While Earth herself is adorning,
This sweet May-morning,
And the Children are culling
On every side,
In a thousand vallies far and wide,
Fresh flowers; while the sun shines warm,
And the Babe leaps up on his Mother’s arm:--
I hear, I hear, with joy I hear!
--But there’s a Tree, of many, one,
A single Field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone:
The Pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream? (43-57)

8.        Refusing to leave the present, even as it shifts perspective, the 1802 stanza goes from a “now” marked briefly by participatory jouissance (though we should pay attention to the enjambed flowers as well), to one that demonstrably slows, beginning with the Tree and then the field before stopping finally with the pansy. And while the pansy’s status as a pensée or pathetic fallacy would appear to transport it to a world and time elsewhere, there is a palpable tension between the figment of mind, on the one hand, to which the environment is indeed “gone” in this stanza, and the “it” or materiality, on the other, to which, as species of the “now,” the “glory and the dream” (and I’m assuming the pansy) potentially belong in the same way that “is” substitutes for “has” in the first interrogative: “whither is fled the visionary gleam.” In making time for the present or, better still, a parallel present in a text seemingly consumed by mutability, Wordsworth not only reaches a stopping point of considerable note; he reaches, however unbeknownst, a solution to the dilemma that he will proceed, as we all know, to belabor.

9.         That this is not how Wordsworth immediately perceived things, at least in 1802, may be reckoned a windfall for literary history. However, just as the speaker is tolled back to the present and to the very beginning of “Ode to a Nightingale” amid that poem’s procession through what purports to be real time, so it devolves on the minimal unit of stopped time—the flower’s thing- or “it”-ness as broached in stanza 4 and focalized in the abbreviated question “is it now”—to perform a cognate function in disposing of the argument eventually summarized in the poem’s subtitle (“Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”) and prosecuted in the remainder of the poem. The “meanest flower” that brings the Ode to a final stop, rather than to closure, in largely bypassing its argument for trickle-down immortality, is simply a less adorned—if properly cryptic—version of a present that was stumbled upon when the poem first stopped and subsequently elided in the life-course that the poem outlines in preparation for the notably weak transcendence it eventually offers. But it is in the poem’s most famous passage arguably—“Though nothing can bring back the hour / Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower; / We will grieve not, rather find / Strength in what remains behind” (180-83)—that the vacancy created by this timescape and the quite different vacancy or durée that defines the minimal unit (and the floral thinking to which it gives rise) are properly juxtaposed.

10.        I have already suggested that the hour or interval of glorying in the flower is a now-time rather than a placeholder for what is past and no longer available. Thus even as he insists that “nothing can bring back the hour . . . of glory in the flower,” the speaker is literally tripped up from “behind”—both in the lines just cited where the interval of stopped time is acknowledged along with the flower marking its immediacy (“is it now?”), and in the “behind” on which so much still depends. Moving seamlessly from an argumentative referent—a past that is fixed and lost even as it remains a resource going forward (as the poem elaborates)—to one that is far less argumentative—specifically a residue in and of the present—the hinge-work that “behind” performs is not a pun of sorts where past and present (or behind and behind) are conjoined in intimations of immortality from recollections of early childhood, but a narrowing of “time” to something minimal (as in “There was a time”) to which the poem, amid its bombast, reverts. This something minimal, it turns out, has a contemporaneous analogue in the famous caesura or pause of which Hölderlin speaks (and that de Man later mobilizes in discussing him), where in “a reversal of tone as well as . . . time,” an “end” (Hölderlin is referring specifically to the Oedipus plays) reestablishes a contact with the beginning which it seemed to have lost (Romanticism 72). And in Wordsworth, with impending confirmation from the meanest flower and the peculiar (but hardly tragic) vacancy it occupies on reflection (thoughts that lie too deep for tears), “behind,” in disregard of any progress or mythology that the poem tracks, figures a “remainder” (in the poem’s own language) where only the present or, better, only a present prevails.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Emma. Ed. James Kinsley and Adela Pinch. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003. Print.

Benjamin, Walter. “On the Concept of History.” Selected Writings. Vol. 4. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2003. Print.

de Man, Paul. Blindness and Insight. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983. Print.

---. Romanticism and Contemporary Criticism. Ed. E. S. Burt, Kevin Newmark, and Andrej Warminski. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993. Print.

Harootunian, Harry. History’s Disquiet: Modernity, Cultural Practice, and the Question of Everyday Life. New York: Columbia UP, 2000. Print.

Keats, John. Selected Poems and Letters. Ed. Douglas Bush. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959. Print.

Kosselleck, Reinhart. Futures Past: On The Semantics of Historical Time. Trans. Keith Tribe. New York: Columbia UP, 2004. Print.

Miller, D.A. Jane Austen, or The Secret of Style. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2003.

Wordsworth, William. The Major Works. Ed. Stephen Gill. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1984.


[1] I am concerned broadly speaking here with a polarity bounded by Benjamin’s sense of a recurrent present and de Man’s sense of recurrent loss or what, with specific reference to figuration, he describes as an authentically temporal destiny” (“Rhetoric” 206). BACK