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NASSR 2019 Panel: Melancholic Environment. Reviewed by Elizabeth Giardina

Wednesday, December 11, 2019 - 16:41

Romantic Elements

North American Society for the Study of Romanticism

Chicago, Illinois

August 8-11, 2019

North American Society for the Study of Romanticism
Chicago 2019
Panel: “Melancholic Environment”

  • Chair: Kathryn Ready (The University of Winnipeg)
  • Benjamin Blackman (UC Davis), "Melancholy Matters: Wollstonecraft's Empty Commerce"
  • Shelby Carr (Lehigh University), "'I, the offspring of love, and the child of the woods': Natural Oblivion in Mary Shelley's Matilda"
  • Taylin Nelson, "'Ever open grave': Romantic Melancholy and Devouring Landscapes"

Reviewed by Elizabeth Giardina (University of California, Davis)

This panel largely cohered around how the affective state of melancholy affords individual freedoms and the ability to imagine oblivion as well as obfuscated systems of capital. The three speakers all engaged with melancholy as a mood with specific, circumstantial utilities, whether as a heuristic for thinking about the heavy dangers of industrialization or as an impetus for pursuing the freedoms and horrors found in the process of ecological self-destruction. Blackman, Carr, and Nelson—who analyzed the work of Wollstonecraft, M. Shelley, and Goethe, respectively—created a lively conversation about one of the more dour psychological states in literary history. 

Benjamin Blackman's paper, titled "Melancholy Matters: Wollstonecraft's Empty Commerce," explored Wollstonecraft's Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796) and how its melancholy tone—borne largely out of her and her daughter's abandonment by Gilbert Imlay, whom she met during her time in revolutionary France—allows her to understand and describe the material conditions of the rising industrial economy in Europe. Melancholy is a useful affective state for Wollstonecraft, Blackman argued, because it operates outside the bounds of the individual to become an epistemological framework, enabling description of the manners in which the individual and world are embedded within one another. In this way, individual melancholy is both a symptom and a cipher of societal conditions, and, in this instance, Wollstonecraft mobilizes it to understand the industrialization of European capitalism at the end of the eighteenth century on a personal level. Blackman contrasted melancholy with commercial capitalism's lightness and social swiftness, showing how the heaviness of melancholy indexes the loss of a grounded sense of place and materiality. Wollstonecraft witnesses the transformations of early-industrial Scandinavia, but she is "unwilling to conceptualize this emptiness," instead turning back into her own world and losses, thereby drawing an emotional link between the degradations of her personal life and the society around her. This paper's argument pushed further, however, by showing how melancholy is also a figure of hesitant possibility as well as despair. Blackman associated Wollstonecraft's melancholy with the figure of an almost-extinguished flame. In the face of personal and societal degradation, the flame, and melancholy, is trapped in a kind of "almost-mode," caught between the real and the ideal of history. Blackman made broad moves in this paper, showing how the specific, personal interiorities of the Romantic era might metonymically describe changing social conditions. In his future work, I look forward to a more in-depth description of the respective materialities associated with commercial and industrial capitalism and how the "heaviness" or materiality of melancholy evolves under various economic systems. 

Shelby Carr's paper was titled "'I, the offspring of love, and the child of the woods': Natural Oblivion in Mary Shelley's Matilda." Mary Shelley figures the melancholy in this novella as a method of freedom and healing, according to Carr. In the face of the trauma her incestuous father inflicts on her, Shelley's heroine Matilda turns to nature to seek freedom and oblivion. Oblivion, argued Carr, is not a negative reaction to the outside world, but a dissolving of Matilda's painful trauma as well as her limiting human and female identities. Throughout the novella, Matilda's relationship with nature is integral to her self-understanding, and she frequently tends to nonhuman beings and inanimate objects in an attempt to refigure her connection to the outside world. Though she cannot find recognition in other humans, she can in the web of relations between natural and human things, which Carr described with the help of Timothy Morton's theorization of the mesh. Matilda cannot find recognition in even the figure of Woodville, the poet with whom she attempts to draft a suicide pact and with whom she could be relegated to marital submission. Finally, she resigns herself to the ecological dissolution of her body and mind, imagining how turf and flowers will cover her grave when she dies, and she walks into the wilderness to find freedom in oblivion. Shelley's melancholy, in Carr's estimation, is in this way a method of liberation for Matilda. It is where she can find autonomy even in the process of self-destruction. In further iterations of this paper, it would be helpful to see a clearer definition of the relationship between ecology and oblivion, as well as how oblivion appears in the history of melancholy and other affective states commonly explored in the Romantic Era. 

The final paper on this panel was Taylin Nelson's "'Ever open grave': Romantic Melancholy and Devouring Landscapes." Nelson engaged with Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) to understand how landscapes might themselves perform melancholy and actively incite melancholy in a viewer. She examined passages from Werther in a phenomenological manner to show how Goethe's melancholy characters and landscapes mutually intensify their shared affective states. Werther, after being rejected by Charlotte, goes to the wilderness to die. Nelson meticulously traced this scene, showing how the hope of religion is extinguished in Werther, how nature taunts Werther with his failures and becomes antagonistic in response to his melancholy, and how the landscape's abundance threatens to swallow Werther whole in a horrifying disruption of the metaphysical Great Chain of Being. The human, in this instance, is threatened with the predatory ecology around him; the mountains begin to encompass him, and the rocks and moss nourish one another in a symbiotic relationship while almost pointedly excluding Werther. In this way, Werther experiences a melancholic unity with nature, but it is one founded on grief, fear, and loneliness. His melancholy is an extension of the landscape around him, but he does not find recognition or solace in nature. "The wasteland devours him," Nelson argued, and ultimately the wasteland fatally reflects and intensifies the wasteland that Werther harbors in his heart. There is a destructive feedback loop between Werther and the landscape he finds himself in—a feedback loop Nelson presented as a defining feature of a "melancholic landscape." Nelson also used this argument to consider how her observations bear on the creative process. Werther's ability to make art is deeply associated with his tendency to wander, whether in inhospitable landscapes or in his mind. In connecting these ideas, Nelson showed how the self-destruction Werther finds in the melancholy landscape is also a destruction of his ability to create. This seems like a particularly fruitful line of thinking, and I anticipate a deeper articulation of the processes of creation and destruction, and how those concepts might meaningfully relate to the ecology of Werther's suicide, in Nelson's future work.

The Q&A of this panel began with questions of gender, particularly around how the ecological self-destruction of Matilda and Werther are tonally distinct. Both seek release in being devoured by the landscapes around them, but Matilda finds freedom in her oblivion while Werther finds only terror. The panelists suggested this might be due to the constraints placed on Matilda's gender, since as a woman, she is more intensely confined than Werther and may only be able to find empowerment in an ecological death. Shelley may be making this point in Matilda with the character of Woodville, Carr offered, who is also melancholic like Matilda but is unwilling or unable to follow her path to self-destruction. Blackman also reminded the room of the real-world constraints placed on Wollstonecraft during her writing of the Letters as a result of her gender, including her having an infant and "illegitimate" daughter to care for during her journeys. Nelson brought up a moment in Werther's suicide scene, where his perspective shifts into that of a woman, that may be useful for future inquiries into this subject. The Q&A finished with some comments made about the utility of melancholy and how a largely depressive affective mode can be instrumentalized to understand larger systems, as in the case of Wollstonecraft, or to buck those systems, as in the case of Shelley. Overall, this panel offered gainful methods for work being done with the history of melancholy in environmental contexts.