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Noah Heringman, Romantic Rocks, Aesthetic Geology

Sunday, April 20, 2008 - 11:35
Noah Heringman, Romantic Rocks, Aesthetic Geology. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2004.  xix +304 pp. $49.95 (Hdbk; ISBN-13: 978-0-8014-4127-1).

Reviewed by
Kate Rigby
Monash University

Noah Heringman is one of a small but growing band of Romanticists and other literary scholars whose work is located in the liminal zone between the terrain of the natural sciences and that of the humanities and social sciences. As is the case with such interstitial spaces in the physical environment, so, too, in the world of scholarship, this often proves to be fertile ground. This is certainly the case with Romantic Rocks, Aesthetic Geology, which reframes current understandings of both Romantic aesthetics and geological science through a detailed examination of their historical interconnections.

Heringman has previously published a valuable edited collection of scholarly essays on Romantic science, focusing on what he terms the "literary forms of natural history."[1] In his new monograph, he turns his attention specifically to the interface between Romantic poetry and geology, arguing that "the literary culture producing this poetry was fundamentally shaped by many of the same cultural practices that formed geology as a science during the period 1770-1820" (xii). Heringman's investigation of this historical confluence contributes to the archaeology of knowledge by uncovering a paradigm for the process whereby the arts and sciences informed one another during the Romantic period, while nonetheless also beginning to diverge at this time as the modern disciplines came to take shape. More specifically, Heringman's study illuminates "changing attitudes to the earth's material and toward materiality itself" (xiv), at a time when the matter of (and with) the earth is impressing itself on human society with unprecedented force in the context of a global ecological crisis that had its localised genesis in the industrial revolution of the Romantic period. The re-examination of Romantic views of materiality undertaken here is all the more valuable in this context since, as Heringman avers, our current environmental woes were precipitated, at least in part, precisely by a forgetfulness of the resistant agency of the earth's matter, of which, as he demonstrates, some Romantic literature so powerfully reminds us.

While this is not the first study to foreground the significance of the emerging earth sciences for Romantic literature, and vice versa, Romantic Rocks, Aesthetic Geology breaks new ground in a number of ways. The two main precursors for Heringman's work are Marjorie Nicolsen's much earlier Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory (1959) and, more recently, John Wyatt's Wordsworth and the Geologists (1995).[2] Both of these studies trace diachronic processes and tell stories of influence. Nicolsen is concerned with the transformation of the perception of mountains in European learned culture from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, with the Romantic celebration of the alpine sublime in terms of an "aesthetics of the infinite" featuring as the culmination of this process of positive re-evaluation, encompassing theology, philosophy and natural history, as well as literature. The historical trajectory of Wyatt's book moves in the opposite direction in order to disclose the influence of Wordsworth's poetic philosophy of nature on the geologists of the early Victorian period. Heringman's, by contrast, is a more synchronic study, firmly focussed on the Romantic period itself, and less interested in the issue of influence than with the question of what Romantic writing on rock reveals about the relationship between literature and science at this time. In this strategy, his approach is more akin to that of Theodor Ziolkowski, who includes a chapter on mining and the earth sciences in his book German Romanticism and Its Institutions, to which Heringman also refers.[3] Indeed, one of the great strengths of Heringman's work, in my view, is that although his concern is primarily with developments in England, these are placed in a wider European context, with German literature and philosophy, as well as some excellent German scholarship, such as that of Hartmut Böhme, featuring significantly in his discussion.[4]

In company with several other contemporary scholars of Romanticism, such as Forest Pyle and Onno Oerlemans, Heringman is committed to uncovering a "Romantic materialism repressed by earlier critical accounts of nature and the imagination" (11).[5] This re-evaluation of the place of materiality in Romantic literature and science, and in particular the "third materiality" (162) of terrestrial history and geoformation (after the "first materiality" of the letter, examined by deconstructionist critics, and the "second" of socio-economic history examined by new historicists), undertaken as it is within a horizon of concern for the current fate of the earth as biosphere, brings Heringman's work into proximity with that of ecocritics, such as Jonathan Bate or James McKusick.[6] However, rather than seeking in Romanticism precursors and resources for contemporary ecological understanding, Heringman is more attentive to the historical specificity of Romantic geo-materialism. Also, while he stresses the significance of the Romantic recognition of other-than-human material agency, providing a necessary corrective to the "transcendent" materiality of new historicism, which "begins and ends with [human] language" (22), Heringman remains concerned with the socio-economic contexts and implications of both the Romantic poetics of rock and the aesthetic discourses of early geology. In particular, he examines in considerable detail and in a wonderfully nuanced manner the complicity of, but potentially also the tension between, Romantic constructions of the sublime otherness of rock and the economic exploitation of mineral resources.

Corresponding to the dual focus designated in the title, Romantic Rocks, Aesthetic Geology is divided into two halves, separated by an "Interchapter." At issue in the first part is the poetic use of the language of the sublime to constitute rock as the epitome of alterity: that which is most foreign to the human, or das Menschenfremdeste, as Böhme puts it. Here, Heringman provides fresh readings of canonical texts, notably Wordsworth's "Resolution and Independence," Shelley's "Mont Blanc" and Blake's Jerusalem, which are attentive both to a wide range of intertexts (including theories of the sublime and picturesque, travel writing, natural history, and landscape gardening, as well as earlier drafts, letters, journals and other poetic works) and to the structures and imagery of the verse itself. I was particularly taken here with Heringman's recognition of the earth as agent and intertext in his observation that Shelley's disordering of regular poetic form in "Mont Blanc" responds mimetically to the creative deformation that he perceived at work in the Alps, where, as he wrote to Thomas Love Peacock, "Nature was the poet" (qtd. in Heringman 71). Importantly, Heringman's reappraisal of the Romantic poetics of rock in these opening chapters serves as a corrective to Nicolsen's overly linear account of a transition from gloomy to glorifying depictions of mountains by bringing out a continuing ambivalence in Romantic responses to the earth's "geological otherness."

In his investigation of the complex interrrelationship between "aesthetic" and "economic geology" in the "Interchapter," Heringman also puts pressure on the common ecocritical account of Romanticism as a site of resistance to the techno-scientific project of domination and exploitation by disclosing the aesthetic provenance of the concept of "natural resources" in the scientific writing of Humphry Davy where "aesthetic explanation continually embellishes and at times legitimates the rhetoric of appropriation and mastery" (147). More generally, Heringman contends that:

[t]he language and categories of the aesthetic participate in early geology, not as a rhetorical stand-in for "real" explanation, but as a form of knowledge that constitutes the objects of the science; early geology, in turn, explores and helps to define the aesthetic objects of Romanticism. (160)

While the aesthetics of the sublime might have foregrounded the inscrutability of the realm of rock, the reading that was confidently given to the history of geo-formation uncovered by stratigraphers and minerologists was inevitably inflected by various socio-political and theologico-philosophical notions, and generally cast as a narrative of progress. As Heringman indicates in his discussion of Novalis, Shelley and Wordsworth in the second half of the book, the very recognition of telluric agency could thus serve to naturalize the human transformation of nature as consciously carrying forward a perceived process of "improvement" that the earth had itself been about since time immemorial.

The intertwining of Romantic aesthetics and science is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the use of verse form to write natural history, as in the work of Erasmus Darwin, to whom an entire chapter is devoted. Darwin's verse, in Heringman's analysis, represents a "textual form of the cabinet, exhibiting natural and artistic 'specimens' along with culture's uses of the earth's materials in different historical contexts" (214). Darwin's Botanic Garden, nonetheless, figures here as "the last monument of a form of aesthetic experience that accommodated both science and poetry and judged both on one standard of taste" (227). By contrast, William Hamilton Drummond's (1778-1865) topographical 1811 poem The Giant's Causeway, which presents this remarkable geological phenomenon under the rubric of moral philosophy rather than natural history, points to the emerging divergence of science from literature, which would subsequently make it so difficult for literary critics and scientists alike to recognise the earlier interdependence of their disciplines.

Overall, the thing that I most value in Noah Heringman's endeavour to overcome this blind spot is the way that he brings to light the contribution of various hitherto subordinated participants, human and otherwise, in the constitution of the cultural field. These include women, such as Mary Anning, the fossil collector and dealer, whose copious finds made possible the findings of the more famous male geologists who were her contemporaries, and manual labourers, such as the bluestone miners of the Peak District, whose troglodytic way of life played an important part in the constitution of Derbyshire as the most paradigmatically "romantic" of English landscapes. Because of the prominence of Wordsworth and Coleridge in the literary canon, the importance of the Peak District in the formation both of Romantic landscape aesthetics and early geology has been largely eclipsed by the Lakes. In devoting the final chapter of his book to a case study of Derbyshire as it figures in a wide range of writing during the Romantic period, including guidebooks, travel narratives, pantomime, poetry, novels and geological tracts, Heringman thus also gives due recognition to an insufficiently regarded region of Britain, the physical characteristics of which helped to shape "established protocols for the sublime [. . .] in new and specific ways" (235).

In acknowledging the earth as a player in this way, Heringman challenges the prevailing methodologies of both literary scholarship and the natural sciences by disclosing how the physical environment and human cultural practices, scientific no less than aesthetic, inform one another mutually. The idea of the socio-cultural situatedness of all knowledge claims, including those of the natural sciences, while still unsettling to many empiricists, is by now widely accepted within the humanities and social sciences. What is new and exciting here, especially within literary studies in the wake of decades of deconstructive and new historicist constructivism, is the suggestion that literary discourses and aesthetic values might be influenced in turn by aspects of the physical environment. In exploring this dynamic interaction of literature, science and the earth, Heringman shows that what we call "nature," while undoubtedly subject to cultural encoding (not to mention technological manipulation and economic exploitation), should be apprehended not only as the social construct which on one level it undoubtedly is, but also as alluding to a locus of other than human agency, with the power to shape, but also potentially to resist human ideas, ideals and intentions. In Heringman's analysis, moreover, to perceive the materiality of the earth in this double dimension, as both necessarily acted upon by humans, and as acting independently from (and on) us, is to recall a quintessentially romantic ambivalence with regard to nature that has been veiled by earlier critical accounts of Romanticism, which have foregrounded its idealist (and ideological) tendencies, to the neglect of its more materialist manifestations.

[1] Noah Heringman, ed., Romantic Science: The Literary Forms of Natural History (Albany: SUNY Press, 2003).

[2] Marjorie Nicolsen, Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997; reprint); John Wyatt, Wordsworth and the Geologists (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
[3] Theodor Ziolkowski, German Romanticism and Its Institutions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).
[4] Hartmut Böhme, "Das Steinerne: Anmerkungen zur Theorie des Erhabenen aus dem Blick des 'Menschenfremdesten,' " in Das Erhabene: Zwischen Grenzerfahrung und Größenwahn, ed. Christine Pries (Darmstadt: VCH, 1989, 119-41). Another German work on mining in German literature that Heringman cites is Helmut Gold's Erkenntnisse unter Tage: Bergbaumotive in der Literatur der Romantik (Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1990). Heringman might have also made good use of the chapter on mining in Böhme's Natur und Subjekt (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1988).
[5] Forest Pyle, The Ideology of Imagination: Subject and Society in the Discourse of Romanticism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995); and Onno Oerlemans, Romanticism and the Materiality of Nature (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002).
[6] Jonathan Bate, Romantic Ecology (London: Routledge, 1991); James McKusick, Green Romanticism: Romanticism and Ecology (New York: St Martin's Press, 2000).