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Daniela Garofalo and David Sigler, eds, Lacan and Romanticism; Brittany Pladek, The Poetics of Palliation; and Seth T. Reno, Amorous Aesthetics. Reviewed by Alex Freer

Sunday, October 4, 2020 - 15:14

Daniela Garofalo and David Sigler (eds.) Lacan and Romanticism (SUNY Press, 2019) 208pp. $95.
Brittany Pladek, The Poetics of Palliation: Romantic Literary Therapy, 1790–1850 (Liverpool University Press, 2019) 296pp. £90.
Seth T. Reno, Amorous Aesthetics: Intellectual Love in Romantic Poetry and Poetics, 1788–1853 (Liverpool University Press, 2019) 256pp. £90.

Alex Freer

Trinity College, Cambridge

‘Bid the wan maid the hues of health assume. / Charm with new grace, and blush with fresher bloom.’ So Charlotte Smith’s poem ‘Flora’ asks Fancy for powers to heal and create, turning from mourning and misery, ‘the crimes and follies of mankind’, seeking not only tender images but the promise of human flourishing. But does it work? Three recent books explore the question in different ways, each positing, tracing and testing the claims of romanticism on psychological life.

Some years ago, Alan Liu described romantic New Historicism as a work of mourning. From the outset, it mourned for historical reality: a reality lost to repression; traded for fraudulent aesthetic wholeness; or simply blown away like factory smoke on the breeze. Yet, Liu observed, as New Historicism matured, this tight polemic gave way to a more capacious, self-conscious form. ‘[A]ll the critic’s anger of denunciation turns into something else. It is incorporated within a critical work of mourning able to acknowledge that the poetry itself is a work of mourning and, as such, entitled to normative stages of displacement and repudiation on its way toward “registering” not just the loss of particular history but (and this is the deepest grief of the New Historicism) the fact that history considered universally is loss.’ Looking back, we might add a further development, in which romantic writing is understood not only to register this loss but, in its diverse and creative forms of historical engagement, shape the category of history itself. In this way, as James Chandler, William Galperin, Emily Rohrbach, Jonathan Sachs and Paul Youngquist (to mention only a few names) have demonstrated, romanticism expands the range of people, processes, events and textual forms thinkable as historical.

Work on affect has traced comparable paths. Psychoanalytic studies diagnosed moments of literary trauma (and hence posited feelings that were repressed and concealed). Deconstructive studies heralded the loss of the unified poetic subject, and all the rich emotions she or he might have felt. And more recently, often under the aegis of reparative reading, critics have returned to romanticism with an eye for the moods and states it might both perceive and half-create. In this spirit, Reno appeals to a tradition he calls ‘romantic intellectual love’, Pladek delineates forms of literary care and relief, and contributors to Garofalo and Sigler’s volume trace the psycho-aesthetic loop between sublimity and sublimation. In each case, the literary does not just exemplify but participates in the construction of the category that would claim to explain it.

Romanticism’s unyielding attention to its own losses is at the root of so many of its compulsions and charms. The ‘spilt religion’ it both doubts and cannot relinquish. The energies of childhood that both compel and embarrass. Above all, its loving antagonism with nature. As the most vigilant nature poets knew, the concept of nature partitions the world into islands of rationality, surrounded by a sea of otherness (including territory, creatures, colonised nations and ‘raw’ materials) whose only access to those islands is through calculated exploitation. And yet the same poets return, in spite of everything, to rocks and cliffs, birds and flora, in the hope that some other ecology might have been, or might yet be, possible. The dual urge to recover what it must also critique and mourn gives romanticism both its remarkable intellectual range and its tendency towards abyssal self-consciousness or else defensive irony. These same dynamics of loss and preservation shape romanticism’s engagement with the central concepts in these books: treatment, health, love, desire.

Reno’s project appeals to ‘a philosophical tradition of intellectual love espoused by Spinoza’, which he traces through William Wordsworth, Percy Shelley, John Clare and Felicia Hemans. Its backbone is drawn from Wordsworth, combining well-known passages from ‘Tintern Abbey’ and The Prelude with discussions of affection and philosophy in less-discussed texts such as An Evening Walk and Salisbury Plain. One particularly successful passage aligns Spinozan materialism with ‘ecological love’ in The Ruined Cottage, showing how landscapes and human relations are mutually imbricated. This expansive, even syncretic, account of Wordsworthian love informs the book’s other readings. John Clare’s ‘detail-oriented aesthetics’ is presented as both personal and ecological love. The portrait of Shelley, too, distances itself from ‘sexuality and eros’ in favour of ‘interconnectedness’ in the politics of Queen Mab and the idealism of Alastor. The conviction that ‘love’ stands for a philosophical project rather than mere social convention becomes the lever for raising Hemans’s earlier, ‘more radical poetry’ over the ‘conventional domesticity and Christianity’ of her later work.

The urge to connect love to politics and ecology, to insist that it ‘has as much to do with poetry, science, and aesthetics as it does with sympathy and sex’, might be understood as a reaction against an old reflex to read sentimental talk as personal or ideological dissembling. Consequently, love becomes a rather elastic category, ‘a universal feeling and a forever-becoming set of historical- and culture-specific ideas.’ Discussants range from Erasmus Darwin to Timothy Morton, Plato to Adorno. On the one hand, this permits a remarkably wide-ranging discussion of a term that can sometimes be treated rather narrowly. On the other, as it is presented here, love tends to minimise the differences between those cited, just as it ‘collapses distinctions between humanity and nature, self and other, thought and feeling.’ One aspect is less prominent than you might expect. Insisting that ‘Romantic love … is not all about sex,’ the book presents love more as a stance or state than an activity; there is more feeling than making. But sexuality is the modality of love’s conceptual and historical antagonisms. We miss much of romanticism’s loving self-criticism, from Byron’s relentless irony to Landon’s demonstrations of love’s corrosive social power. And we place to one side context such as the repression of same-sex love (legible in Shelley’s troubled engagement with Plato as in Byron’s work).

The tense balance between speculative thought and self-critique is evident in Pladek’s Poetics of Palliation. Addressing both literary scholarship and a tradition of health humanities which has co-opted literature for the purpose of ‘narrative medicine’ over the past twenty-five years, the book defends romantic aspirations to healing from the (old) New Historicist impulse to denounce it as solipsistic retreat and the attempts to conscript it into a positivist project in which literature can ‘make people whole again’ (a project, as Pladek notes, oddly redolent of the New Criticism). The book argues that romanticism is not restorative but palliative, looking to Wordsworth, Mary Shelley, John Keats and Thomas Lovell Beddoes, but also employing substantive research on romantic period medical writing, to make the case. Pladek shows how romantic literature resists the logic of restorative cure and the ‘rigid models of whole personhood’ that stand behind it. The book is admirable for its ability to maintain genealogies of these conflicting ideas simultaneously, tracing ideals of human wholeness from Schiller and Mill to Arthur Frank’s The Wounded Storyteller, while demonstrating a countervailing tradition that emphasises fragment over narrative and affective detail over organic whole.

The second half of the book works through questions of literary healing and relief more closely. It argues that Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads ‘unsuccessfully promotes poetry as a curative alternative to nature’ yet ‘discovers a more limited, palliative model for poetic therapy.’ Perhaps surprisingly, the proposed alternative to what New Historicist critique called ‘delusory palliative’ is Burkean delight, which is not anaesthetic bliss but a kind of ‘mental “exercise”’ that acknowledges yet ameliorates pain. Subsequent chapters present similar conclusions in which literature does not solve but soften. Shelley’s The Last Man and Keats’s Endymion are considered as reflections on ‘incurable wounds’ and relief without cure. The danger as well as value of pain relief is deftly handled in a discussion of that supreme romantic palliative, opium. And a productive final chapter contextualises Beddoes’s work with broader questions of end-of-life narratives.

Addressing audiences with such different expectations and commitments will always be a challenge. The book’s overarching need to articulate and refute ideas of diagnosis and treatment sometimes renders the literary readings brittle, and questions of form, genre and technique are held at arm’s length at times. We might also wonder where talking therapies fit, since they are open both to linguistic complexity and to the clinical disclosure and treatment of pain. But by combining literary, historical and medical engagements with romanticism, the book both challenges and enlivens the question of literary therapy.

When Freud voiced concern over the proliferation of psychoanalytic ideas beyond the world of trained practitioners, he called the phenomenon ‘wild analysis.’ He had in mind the application of clinical concepts as if they were freestanding insights one could deploy at leisure, rather than aspects of that arduous conversation he called analysis, but the term has come to connote a more general wilding of psychoanalytic ideas. In their introduction to Lacan and Romanticism, Garofalo and Sigler remark that ‘Romantic-era texts tend to be “wild” in the Freudian sense’ because they ‘challenge and distort psychoanalytic orthodoxies.’ But this is to their credit; the best psychoanalytic criticism has always been ‘wild’ in the positive sense, teasing and testing literary forms and analytic ideas, rather than simply translating literary commonplaces into psychoanalytic jargon or vice versa.


These essays unpack one or more of Lacan’s dense and evocative ideas, while simultaneously laying out a literary or artistic work, allowing the provocations and prompts of each to inform the other. Rithika Ramamurthy invokes Lacanian problems of the gaze to articulate some paradoxes of looking in Goya’s painting, ‘its insistence on drawing the eye, to show it nothing at all.’ In a rapid but productive discussion, Colin Carman uses the negativity of desire in both Lacan and Keats to think about Keatsian animal delight and suggest a possible blind spot in Lacan’s treatment of non-human animals. There are some new looks at familiar topics (psyche in The Prelude, Lacan and the gothic, desire in Frankenstein) but also some strikingly original chapters, such as Gottlieb’s psychoanalytic study of literary utopias and Garofalo’s account of Austen, which uses Lacanian terminology to articulate ‘Persuasion’s concern with capitalism’s relationship to loss.’

It’s not clear that an extensive Lacanian apparatus is always strictly necessary to the arguments being made here, and at times they feel like crimes of opportunity. However, at least some of the time the links not only feel secure, but find purchase on conceptual problems that neither romanticists nor psychoanalysts have fully articulated. As essays by Zak Watson and Ed Cameron show in different ways, the relation between sublimity and sublimation is both intuitive to draw and difficult to explain. The metaphors of ‘heightened’ sublime experience and the sublimated object ‘raised to the dignity of the Thing’ share the logic of elevation and limit, yet the aesthetic subject cannot be reduced to the desiring subject, or vice versa.

As one would expect, the Lacanians are the most sceptical about talk of healing or completing the person, and the least interested in asking literature to produce answers. Garofalo, for instance, envisages love in the opposite way to Reno: as an inevitable encounter with absence. You can’t take the lack out of Lacan, after all. For the same reasons, these essays keep coming back to the essential incompatibility between any symbolic economy and the irreducibly non-symbolic Real, closing off the route to literary palliation in Pladek.

Each of these books works through a particular set of commitments and concerns, but what all three speak to is romanticism’s own intellectual wildness, by which I mean both its desire to think on its own terms—in local, non-systematic and sometimes highly idiosyncratic ways—and its sustained attention and attachment to stray and displaced feelings, ideas and persons. In Stanley Cavell’s terms, we could speak of themes out of school; with an eye to the ecological resonance of the term, we might speak of romanticism’s ongoing capacity for wilding and rewilding our questions.