Romanticism and Patriotism:
Nation, Empire, Bodies, Rhetoric
Orrin N. C. Wang, University of Maryland
In the wake of 9/11 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, public discourse has undergone a radical impoverishment. It would be naive to assume simply the sophistication of a prior civil discourse, but the cretinization of political argument—the reduction of the current political and global catastrophe we face to a few catch phrases of the “war on terrorism,” “good versus evil,” and “civilization versus barbarism”—has been too stunning to ignore. Given the martial narrative that U.S. foreign policy has embedded this deracinated vocabulary within, we might assume that such a diminishment of discourse has always been served by the language, or event, of patriotism. However, as the Iraqi war enters a new stage of diminished expectations and increased U.S. public restiveness, and the language of a loyal opposition begins to be spoken, it is clear that reducing patriotism to martial language is not simply a given. Following Claude Levi Strauss and Jim Chandler, we might then note how a prior “hot chronology” of history, one also of national panic and imperial overreach, as well as patriotic dissent, demonstrates even more vividly how patriotism actually registers the contradictions of a time lived and represented in apocalyptic terms (Chandler, 3; Levi-Strauss, 259). The writings of the Romantic era reveal patriotism to be neither simple nor transparent in either its ideological inscriptions or rhetorical performances, a predicament that this collection of Romantic Circles Praxis essays, first presented at the NASSR 2005 annual conference in Montreal, begins to explore.
Patriotism in its triumphalist form is arguably always melancholic, either implicitly so as the presence that jingoism defends itself against, or explicitly so as that which jingoism in its memorializing mode exploits. As Freud reminds us, melancholy designates a fixed attachment to a lost loved one; in the case of the melancholic triumphalist the patriotic fixation can center on either the lost martial body or the lost purpose of a war increasingly difficult to justify (124-40). As inhabitants of modernity we might, however, first and foremost associate the “lost one” of patriotic melancholy with the nation state, that which paradoxically can never be lost, if patriotism has any constative or performative value to it. Patriotism repudiates this loss by turning itself into the ongoing affirmation, or discovery, of the nation, which makes the obdurate, patriotic professions of nationless individuals an especially melancholy sight.
Yet, as Frank Crocco's and Mathew C. Borushko's contributions to this volume attest, the equation of patriotism and nation is itself a complicated reification. Crocco's essay, “The Ruins of Empire,” reminds us that the 18th -century historicism of Gibbon and Volney actually disarticulates two terms that we might assume are synonymous with patriotism: nation and empire. For Crocco, Felicia Hemans's Modern Greece (1817) paradoxically mimics a Gibbonesque vision of ancient history in order to bring these ideas together, via a modern patriotism that is at once a polemical incursion of female agency into the public arena. Borushko's piece, “`A Nation or A World,'” considers the Romantic non-patriot par excellence, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and shows how much his politics are actually underwritten by what could be called a poetics of patriotism. In Borushko's estimation, Shelley's patriotism is actually one with his visionary cosmopolitanism, an ethical demand for a life lived centrifugally, a love always taking one out of one's private and national self.
Danny O'Quinn resituates patriotism within the twin projects of nation-making and imperial adventure, though in a way that transforms the melancholic triumphalist into an even more phantasmic agent of conflicting desires. In O'Quinn's contribution, “Projection, Patriotism, Surrogation,” the 1793 Calcutta celebrations of the defeat of Tipu Sultan at the hands of the British Army, culminating in the performance of excerpts from Handel's operetta Judas Maccabaeus, expose a “masochistic nationalism” that reenacts the trauma of past colonial disasters in order to imagine (never quite successfully, nor simply) the pleasures of future empire. Andrew Lincoln's essay, “Walter Scott, Politeness, and Patriotism,” also measures the distance between metropole and empire in terms of the patriotic envisioning of a nation, in this case Sir Walter Scott's creation of Great Britain out of England and Scotland. Scott's patriotism also takes a surprising form in Lincoln's argument, a Swiftian vulgarity now employed at the start of the nineteenth century to unite disparate social groups separated by modernization. Playing off of Peter Stallybrass's and Allon White's argument about the production of refined politeness, Lincoln sees patriotism in Scott as a “relibidnization” of a national body whose gross reality cuts across class lines but whose unsettling powers are also limited by the mediating procedures of the novel.
The gross body also plays a central role in Noah Heringman's study of the “satire wars” of the 1790s. In his “`Manlius to Peter Pindar,'” that body becomes the very material by which the invectives of either a patriotic or unpatriotic stance are made intelligible, as they swirl around the figure of Georgian political satirist (and nemesis) John Wolcot. In their fascination with anal violation and unbridled corpulence, the attacks by and against Wolcot tie the patriotism of a nation to a masculinity in stark contrast to the opportunistic feminine patriotism that Crocco's Hemans will formulate two decades later.
Concluding the volume, Jan Mieszkowski's contribution, “Patriot Acts,” departs not only for the continent but also for another perspective beside the historical, focusing on a materiality as ineluctable as that of the body's in Lincoln and Heringman, but one whose generation of affect is now conceived in terms of its linguistic, rather than simply physical, properties. In Heinrich von Kleist, Mieszkowski argues, patriotism is actually the impossible intervention in language's self-affection, “ in the acts by which language seeks to correspond with a form, structure, or law that is, strictly speaking, inconceivable.” Mieszkowski thus both summarizes and reorients one key coordinate in this collection. The patriotic link between nation and self, the problem of political philosophy, becomes the dilemma of a subject subtended by linguistic violence—in Kleist's play, Die Hermannsschlacht, The Battle of Hermann (1808), cathected as the redundant sovereignty of one word, “heil.”
Both Mieszkowski and Borushko also connect the question of patriotism to that of love, albeit in very different ways. Still, Misekowski's attention to the alterity of language and Borushko's sense of patriotism as a falling out of one's self speak to a further question about patriotism upon which this introduction can conclude. Is there a more radical form of patriotism than that of the loyal opposition, one that, after Derrida, strains past every self-reification, even the ones that cosmopolitanism produces? Can there be a patriotism of the Other? If the force of this question feels like an impossible task that we at this moment cannot afford to fail, Romanticism models for us, both historically and transhistorically, a practice shot through by that same urgency. Dialectically, Romanticism's expressions of social transformation, both libidinal and traumatic, become something more than the cries of a supererogatory utopianism. They constitute instead the very récits of a material, social antagonism that enmesh us to this day.
Chandler, James K. England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Cause of Romantic Historicism . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia.” A General Selection From the Works of Sigmund Freud . Ed. John Rickman, M.D. New York: Doubleday Anchor. 124-40.
Levi-Strauss, Claude. The Savage Mind . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.