Newman, "Site Two: Salisbury Plain, Sympathy, and Historicism"

Finding Romantic Commonplaces: An Interview With Jerome Christensen

Site Two: Salisbury Plain, Sympathy, and Historicism

Steve Newman, Temple University

(permission of Emily Mace)
  1. Steve Newman: Now, I’d like to turn to your position now on historicism and I’d like to come back to the seminar room from a different angle. In the seminars I sat in on and the ones I’ve heard of, where you tend to start is Salisbury Plain. The term I’m thinking of is "sympathy." In the introduction to your new book, Romanticism at the End of History, you assert, "These essays endeavor to fend off sympathy, the historicist’s technology for channeling the past. Being anti-historicist does not entail a denial of history but a rejection of the inevitability of history."5 I was hoping you could clarify what you mean by sympathy — this act that historicist criticism falls into — by thinking about your reading of Adventures of Salisbury Plain, particularly that stanza where the cottagers say, "He is the Man."6 How do those terms link up for you?

  2. Jerome Christensen: One way of reading the revisions that Wordsworth made in Salisbury Plain is to track the transference of speech from one interlocutor to the other, expressions and stories the vagrant woman says in Salisbury Plain that get picked up (appropriated? echoed?) by the "sailor" in Adventures of Salisbury Plain. The history that the vagrant recounts is a story of the state’s technology of dispossession: dispossession of her home, her husband, and her "perfect mind." The state is capable of impersonating history because its technology efficiently produces effects that catastrophically bring great things into conjunction with the small. Yet if the vagrant has been dispossessed of much that makes being benign, she seems to have acquired a force comparable in kind to that of the state’s. At least we credit her historicist account because the narrative that she tells compels the sailor sympathetically to suffer a dispossession similar to her own. Context — the events that, she attests, made her what she is — registers as narrative and narrative acts as compulsion. We know her narrative is true not because it persuasively depicts causal links, but because it forcefully prescribes sympathy. It is fair to call the narrative a technology because it is frequently described as "artless"; that is, it seems to work without the application of a designing mind. Causation without intention. Compulsion to no end. In the revisions of the poem, it is the mission of Wordsworth to imagine the appropriation of that impersonal technology by the sailor as a deliberative art, something for which he can be responsible. In sympathy and out of sympathy he attempts to do justice to history by connecting it to his life, bringing it home. He impersonates the prescriptive force of history, by enacting a murder, committing an authorial crime. But as the "ecce homo" moment of christological exemplarity argues, that attempt to author history is itself prescribed. The multitude of conflicting determinations which sympathy falsifies into compelling affect can only finally cohere in a generic image, a captioned picture that seals off further eventfulness, an effect that proves cause by freezing speech.

  3. SN: So if we trace the analogy out from what you’re saying in your recent collection of essays, it’s your sense that historicist criticism tends to reproduce its own prescriptions by entering into a sympathetic engagement with the past. . .

  4. JC: Yes. To simplify it, historicist criticism understands the speech of historical actors as prescribed: "What else could Coleridge say? What else could Wordsworth say? They’re middle class. They live in the country. They’re trying to earn money. What else could they say?" The other side of that is that one then is compelled to repudiate that speech as interested displacement or neurotic denial. And my response is that, no, as an ethical matter, as a Wordsworthian matter, to accept such speech as prescribed is a choice that one makes in order to construct a certain kind of preferred narrative that is a commentary on a picture that one holds dear, more dear perhaps because of one’s own sense of dispossession by history.

  5. SN: But this is not a problem that you think can be by solved, for example, by reflexivity, the kind of Romantic New Historicism that says, "Yes, of course, I know I’m determined, let me tell you how determined I am." All the reflexivity in the world isn’t going to get you out of the ethical moment that requires you to listen to what other speech might sound like.

  6. JC: I think that’s right. I don’t find that Romantic irony then or now is a particularly interesting way of dealing with prescription and failed transcendence because in fact it’s just reproducing the terms of the argument and is just insisting once again, in the name of an ersatz critical science, that efforts at transcendence will fail. When in fact transcendence is not the real Romantic issue at all. Freedom from compulsion is: the capacity to choose to be obligated.

  7. And I suppose that’s part of the reason why I get caught up in individuals rather than spacious texts, large historical periods. It’s difficult for me not to think in terms of persons speaking and of the places that their speech both presupposes and brings into being.

  8. SN: Given your objections to historicist criticism, I wonder what you think of James Chandler’s new book, England in 1819.7 It talks about anachronism and it speaks of the blind spots in historicist criticism. And it does acknowledge that you and other people have talked about those issues. But it handles those issues in very different ways. For example, the status for anachronism for Chandler is different; for him, it doesn’t pose the kind of threat you see it posing to the naturalized change put forth by liberalism. What’s your general reaction to it?

  9. JC: I applaud it. A history of historicism, it is the long awaited epitaph. Chandler accurately redresses a founding omission by observing that the actual object of The Romantic Ideology’s critique was Natural Supernaturalism and not the Romantic poets. It’s a major testament to Abrams that he was fit to serve as the covering cherub for Romanticism. It’s good to see Chandler set the record straight.

  10. SN: It’s already a long book, so criticizing what’s not in it feels specious. But one thing that’s not in it is deconstruction. De Man, for example, is barely mentioned. That’s maybe because Wordsworth doesn’t figure heavily into it. Still, the issues associated with deconstructive Romanticist criticism, which, like it or not, played an important historical role, are not touched on much. For example, the question of the signifier comes in only at the end, when he talks about how Shelley might imagine a future in "Ode on the West Wind." My intuition is that this elision is partly because the favorite figure in that book is Walter Scott, and I think that Chandler understands what he’s doing is a "Case Study" and that my understanding of casuistry relies on Scott’s understanding of what counts as a case study, what counts as a representative anecdote. These are, of course, Kenneth Burke’s terms, and in response, I would say that by emphasizing "scene," Chandler tones down "act"— understood as the power or charm of words that was so gripping to so many writers at the time and is recapitulated in the post-structuralist criticism of the seventies and eighties.

  11. JC: It’s an interesting way to put it. Because another way of talking about the dark night of historicism is that what you’re seeing is a natural evolution of any kind of movement. And the New Historicism was a powerful one. What we’re getting now is an officializing strategy. What Chandler’s book represents is an attempt to consolidate a field by supplying its theory in a way that will normalize its principles and operations. Nowhere is that clearer than in the extraordinary effort Chandler takes to theorize the case which, in some sense, in the sense that history provides, has been exactly what has gone without saying. As he frequently mentions, there is almost nothing written about cases, in part because within Anglo-American discourse, which has been governed by a jurisprudential vocabulary, "case" is practically synonymous with topos. The theorizing of case involves the officializing of a discourse that has been common to all. In that respect Chandler follows his master, Walter Scott, who had no peer in his ability to take language that was either waning or customary and deploy it for administrative use. For Scott, as for Chandler, the law is the official strategy for all officializing strategies: fiction’s false teeth.


5Romanticism at the End of History (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 2000).

6 See "Ecce Homo: Biographical Acknowledgment, the End of the French Revolution, and the Romantic Reinvention of English Verse," Contesting the Subject: Essays in the Postmodern Theory and Practice of Biography and Biographical Criticism, ed. William H. Epstein (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue UP, 1991), rpt. as chapter in Romanticism at the End of History.

7England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1998.)