Chris Washington, Romantic Revelations: Visions of Post-Apocalyptic Life and Hope in the Anthropocene (University of Toronto Press, 2019). Reviewed by Joel Faflak
University of Western Ontario
One of the most powerful statements in Romanticism is Demogorgon’s speech at the end of Act Four of Prometheus Unbound, which entreats us “to hope, till Hope creates / From its own wreck the thing it contemplates” (4.573-74). Earlier criticism took this as an injunction to wage creative resilience and resistance against sociohistorical adversity. This view tended to elide or ignore gender, sexual, racial, and class differences, an indifferent politics of imagination Romantic studies since worked hard to redress. More often than not such field reconstructions reflect their sociohistorical moment. But Romanticism in particular holds up and holds itself up as a rather uncanny mirror of whatever future our present demands. Shelley predicted as much at the end of A Defence of Poetry. But there’s the catch. As Jacques Derrida reminds us, the future is always avenir. It never exists except as it is borne from the past toward a current longing as much shrouded as moved by its own aspiration. As Chris Washington points out in Romantic Revelations: Visions of a Post-Apocalyptic Life and Hope in the Anthropocene, this entails Derrida’s “radically paradoxical” notion of “democracy-to-come,” which remains “impossible in that it will never arrive, because the future will never arrive because the future is always already here, advancing into each moment that passes away” (22). The outcome of this prolepsis we can’t ever know except as an absent possibility on which we’re asked to pin our desires and above all, as Washington argues, hope and love.
How to wrestle with a future that never arrives because it’s always already not here? This thought that can’t be thought is the central premise of Washington’s audacious and challenging account of Romanticism as a form of post-anthropocentric thought. That is to say, if the idea is at all to be thought, it needs to take out of the equation the very obstacle to our exploration of the idea: the human. Ongoing social and political backlash to BIPOC and LGBTQ2S+ issues and above all, for Washington’s purposes, climate change portend momentous transformations to which Romantic apocalypse holds an even more uncanny mirror to our present than we’d suspected. Add to these a pandemic, which Washington’s book precedes but uncannily anticipates. Up to recently Romantic criticism, and not just ecocriticism, has left mostly unchallenged human thought’s relation to its environment, its imminent desire to (apparently) care for the world. However much history challenged humanity’s guardianship, it also agitated the imagination into action. For Washington, however, apocalypse now raises the question of what a future after apocalypse would look like. Life goes on; but how it does in a world we need but that doesn’t need us utterly changes the human/world equation as we emerge from the Anthropocene as if from the disaster rather than dream of enlightenment.
Washington’s guiding spirit here, apart from deconstruction, is speculative realism. In After Finitude, Quentin Meillassoux takes to task what he terms correlationism, which binds all thought, however much we’re teased out of thought, as in the sublime, to human terms. What about aspects of what Meillassoux calls an ancestrality, like the birth of a star billions of light years prior to our existence, that nonetheless impact our more immediate pasts, presents, and futures? How to think the human without humans, without the human? Unlike Wordsworth’s egotistical sublime, which for Keats entails a sense of human infinitude, Washington hypothesizes a post-apocalyptic sublime in which the world remains insubordinate to human desire, “the reality that the human mind only faces true annihilation if it fails to understand its own finitude and simultaneously accepts the potential infinitude of the nonhuman world” (17). Accordingly for Washington, Romantic thought in the Anthropocene proceeds “in a generative attitude of hopelessness, the realization that we cannot survive” (17) so as to accept our finitude and abjure “our sovereign demands, about the world and ourselves” (17). The affect here, however, is not resignation or, as it is for Anahid Nersessian in Utopia, Limited: Romanticism and Adjustment (2015), a desire to work within the limits of utopian vision, but rather a sense of what Derrida calls “’passivity without any passivity’” (17).
Having laid out this general methodology in its Introduction, Romantic Revelations first turns typically, though not without considerable originality, to Percy Shelley’s “Mont Blanc,” which signifies “the world’s independence from humanity and humanity’s counter-dependence on the world” (54) and thus establishes a kind of speculative realist credo that invites us to see “what we cannot see: a world without us” (54). As a “hard reality rather than a metaphysical idealization” (53), Mont Blanc suspends “the normative rules of sense-making about the world because the world stands beyond human sense even as that suspension allows for sense’s origination” (54). And so “in its numinous quintessence and mysterious intensity the poem remains beyond full human comprehension and apperception” (62). As poem and world reflect to one another the mirror stage of their intractable realities, the mind experiences its apocalyptic limits. Or as Washington puts it, “The mind is its own place: a post-apocalyptic, fruitful wasteland” (62) now capable of imagining human life beyond life itself. Living in this wasted state beyond any mind/world correlation requires that we open ourselves to a “free-floating affect that belongs to the world and not humanity” (38). For Washington this affect takes two forms: hope and, ultimately, love.
The next two chapters turn first to hope. Chapter Two reads Mary Shelley’s The Last Man in the equally apocalyptic company of Lord Byron’s “Darkness.” Both born from the impact of 1816, the year without a summer, they imagine in the face of destruction the “opportunity to rethink how we conceive of what politics is and what it can be” (66). For Washington Shelley’s novel marks us as all already ‘last men’ in our present’s future-to-come “owing to the contingency of our own shortlivedness in the face of an indifferent world” (99). Yet in this space “Beyond sovereignty’s human limits,” we glimpse an impossible futural, presentist democracy” that accepts “powerlessness” as the starting point for, again in Derrida’s words again, “’living on’” (99). Chapter Three then turns to Byron’s Cain to envision what justice might look like in such a world in which justice emerges from “outside of justice itself” (101). Cain’s biopolitics of paradise interrogates “what is unjust about justice in its anthropocentric political guise,” one that (I hear echoes of Leo Bersani here) “elides difference in favour of homogeneity and thus assimilates the other as the same” (122). This violent, antagonistic underbelly of the otherwise benevolent body politic of the human reveals a non-human animality that it would otherwise obliterate in the name of saving humanity’s face. Against the “apocalyptic euphoric finality” that humanity dreams as the final solution to such constitutive antipathies, then, Byron offers the “post-apocalyptic grim hope for the future end of ‘life’ as we know it, a hope that emerges when there should be no possibility of it: the end of not being alive and the beginning of life as posthuman” (122).
In the book’s final two chapters, then, such hopelessness of hope breeds love. Chapter Four takes up John Clare’s poetry as it imagines what the biopolitics of non-human love might be. As if to take Blake’s word that obliterating a fly’s life symbolizes the desperation of holding on to humanity at all (more often than not violent, species-obsessed) costs, Washington reads Clare’s verse as self-sustaining biosphere, one that “brings into being a common space-time that can serve as the political medium for forging communities of humans and non-humans bound by this radical, expansive, non-speciesist love” (149). Such worlds do go on without us, to which we remain blind, as we have always done, at our peril. It is thus to the quotidian attention we do and do not pay to how little we ‘matter’ in this world, usually to proclaiming our sovereignty, that Washington turns in a final chapter in which Mary Shelley’s Creature intrudes in the drawing rooms of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Through the daring and often dazzling counter-factuality of this imagined contact zone, Washington reveals in the apparent humanity of Austen’s world, its dependence on a reproductive heteronormativity that makes life as at once vital and threatened by its own rabid desire for life, a monstrous counter-humanity this world both consciously and unconsciously refuses to admit, yet by which it functions in the face of its own extinction. In this social biospace of “species difference” in which Elizabeth and Darcy “find their identically non-identical other outside of the bounds of propriety, class, station, and convention, Austen envisions a society structured by the inclusion of contaminating pollutants, a society where coupledom is predicated on accepting rejection.” Yet facing such rejection, they “see each other for who they truly are not” (185). By thus “placing the novel as the other to Frankenstein, we can ultimately see that we can be a species if we want, but only at the cost of being the monster we think we are not” (186). The outcome? This atypically monstrous Austenian couple “enact a form of love that does not require reciprocity,” which for Bersani entails the violence of possession and eradication of the other as other, “but is instead purely gifted, purely given, purely thought without sense of preservation or self-regard, the defining feature of humans, as Frankenstein argues” (186). Or as Washington puts it the chapter’s final sentence, “This will be an act of generosity that gifts to us from a world without us, life. It will be a form of love in the ruins that does not ruin” (187). Such a love beyond the loss of all hope, as Anne says to Captain Benwick in Persuasion, remains a form of what Derrida calls “living on.”
Now that we’ve seen the devastation of life (as we think we know it) that is the result of the recent Pacific Northwest heat dome, we can also see the sheer timeliness of Washington’s book. Written before the pandemic, yet prophetic of a future that is always already with us, Romantic Revelations offers a kind of wakeup call not only within Romanticism but for Romantic studies as it struggles to justify its place in a post-anthropocentric world. That Lytton, British Columbia, of all places, not only withered in the heat but was then all but obliterated by the resulting fires is only one example of the urgency to come to grips with what a “democracy-to-come” might look like. Which is to demand of us what seems the nearly impossible task of seeing rather than looking, listening rather than hearing. Which is to say that Washington didn’t need a pandemic to convince himself that things were already dire. But moreover, they were always already dire. The philosophically speculative twist Washington brings to bear on what are undoubtedly, unavoidably acute, searing political challenges makes this a book for our times. As we exit the Anthropocene, hopefully with grace rather than blindness and resentment, to paraphrase John Ricco, we are compelled, as Washington suggests, to understand “the world on its own terms” (66). Seems damn-near impossible to me. But Washington gives me hope that this can be done with hope, and love, and that an emerging generation of Romantics scholars among whom he counts himself might just pull it off. In our current climate of often anxiety and sometime dread, who would have thought?