JANUARY 13, 2021
WE LIVE IN unromantic times — where does one start? Maybe with the final bellows of the lame-duck president, or the virus that turned the interconnectedness of our global village against us. Why not the ceaseless stories of violence around the world against women, racial and religious minorities, and trans persons? A century ago, W. B. Yeats reacted to (in his view) a similarly unromantic zeitgeist in “The Second Coming”: things were falling apart; the center might not hold. But maybe — just maybe — Yeats was overreacting, since “mere anarchy” doesn’t look so bad these days.
So, again, we live in unromantic times. But what use is “Romanticism” now? From the historical movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries to a general disposition toward idealism and individualism, whither Romanticism?
Anahid Nersessian is not responding to these questions per se, but her two recent books, The Calamity Form: On Poetry and Social Life and Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse, gesture toward answers nonetheless. The first is the more conventional work of literary criticism, with careful, close, and creative readings of poems from the 18th and 19th centuries. The Calamity Form has two ambitious aims. According to Nersessian, “one [is] modest and the other more intricate.” Both, in fact, are intricate. The first is to describe four types of figuration over the book’s four chapters and how they function in certain works of Romantic poetry: parataxis and William Cowper, obscurity and William Wordsworth, catachresis and John Keats, and the last on apostrophe, a peripatetic chapter which Nersessian links to “clouds” and, cloud-like itself, wanders across the skies of Kate Bush lyrics, the air of Keats’s poetry, the landscapes of loco-descriptive verse, and, most prominently, the horizons of John Constable.
The book’s second ambition is to think “about the limits of historical materialism for literary study” and it is only stated modestly. From Marxian materialism it quickly ramps up to entail questions of ontology, the political utility of literature, and what knowledge (if any) produced by criticism may change the world. For a lot of activist critics, Nersessian bears bad news: poetry cannot change the catastrophic world we live in, and nor can its criticism.
The two features of that world most crucial to the book are the twin calamities of capitalism and climate change, and the inextricable bonds between the two. While experts continue to disagree on when exactly the Anthropocene began, one common contender for the “golden spike” is the Industrial Revolution. Thus, some Romanticists claim climate change as a proper object of their study and suggest that its advent and ideological underpinnings may be elucidated by contemporaneous literature and thought.
In contrast, Nersessian rejects “a literary criticism that subpoenas literature to testify to the existence and the experience” of the causal relation between capital and the climate crisis. Moreover, she does not offer her readings “as an effective contribution to the global struggle against social and ecological catastrophe.” The non-referential character of literary texts, she writes, “relieves them of having either to prove or be rationalized by the soundness of large-scale explanatory models.” In this, Nersessian follows the words of Sir Philip Sidney: “[F]or the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth.”
So what’s a critic to do? The Calamity Form proffers a tentative answer: perhaps we must “continue to think about arcane topics like apostrophe or lyric address in the face of charges that this is a worthless and even a damaging pursuit.” What we may gain is a new orientation to the environments we occupy: “[A] certain way of being in the world and with others that we might want to call commitment.” The critic cultivates the examined life and a “sustained attention” to others. This is without doubt an ethical project, one considering not what to do but how to be. Moving from literary figures to these ethical questions are some of the most project’s most stellar turns. For example, parataxis may permit us to recognize “simple besideness […] [as] an attempt” at navigating the space between what is and what ought to be. Or, alternatively, the chapter on obscurity, which moves from descriptive vagueness to the difficulty of bearing witness in a world where “the thing in the world that hits you the hardest is your sensation of the absence of things.” Ethics arise here even as the book questions the inherent political usefulness of literary objects.
Despite that questioning, however, The Calamity Form intermittently lapses into an old kind of criticism where “large-scale explanatory models” do serve to hint at a poem’s political resonance. Marxism seems spared from Nersessian’s critique of criticism as activism. While the book does not provide a kind of activist playbook, its ethical project remains underwritten by its anti-capitalist principles. Instead of transparent windows into the catastrophes of their epochs, the “ignorance” of poetry (including their nonreferentiality) amounts to “the material signature of the social experience of capital.” This way, art’s social utility lies not in its lack of knowledge but because of its knowledge of lack. Poetry still registers something, and criticism is still the best means to explicate whatever that turns out to be. Nersessian’s title itself is a play on “commodity form,” one of Marx’s keenest insights into how political economy functions. Indeed, capital is the true calamity under discussion here, and at times it may feel like the only one, or at least the primum mobile of all of our other crises. This may be my only disagreement with the book, that its Marxist bona fides dampen the potential reach of the text’s arguments.
Take, for instance, chattel slavery. Nersessian’s reading of William Cowper’s The Task culminates in the claim that the long poem is “an exercise in subliminality, and in its politicization.” This includes “not just slavery, but slavery as a source of the surplus population whose labor produces the various modern miseries Cowper tallies.” It comes across as if “just slavery” wasn’t enough of a sublime evil for Cowper, the ardent abolitionist.
Another instance would be Nersessian’s insistence “that climate change on the scale and at the speed it’s happening in the twenty-first century is first and foremost an economic problem.” First and foremost? Scholars like Axelle Karera and Kathryn Yusoff instead suggest an intersectional approach to thinking about the Anthropocene. To be sure, such an approach would not deny the essential role capitalism has played — that way madness lies. Instead, they scrutinize the ease some scholars have in envisioning global warming as primarily, exclusively, or ultimately an issue of economics and not one equally inflected by race, empire, indigeneity, sex, or even species. Such inflections shift our ideas of victimhood and the proximity to ecological harm. Since a first principle of The Calamity Form is “the belief that the world’s contents are ontologically plural,” there is no reason, then, why everything should boil down to capital.
Where The Calamity Form injects a Marxist soul into Deconstruction’s veins, Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse engages in a different, although still related, project. If the former is thoroughly a book of the present and is poised to become a touchstone of contemporary Romantic studies, the latter book models a kind of criticism for the future.
In 1988, Marjorie Levinson published the magisterial monograph, Keats’s Life of Allegory: The Origins of a Style. The book featured chapters on four of Keats’s long poems and another on the “early poems.” Curiously missing were the “great odes,” poems so canonical that they may appear self-evident at times. These are the poems most of us think about when we think about Keats: the dreamer rhapsodizing on a nightingale, the imaginative yet self-absorbed viewer of an ancient urn, or the melancholic poet of straitened means who was “snuffed out by an article” (as stated by the preeminent Keats detractor, Lord Byron).
Nersessian’s Keats is a horse of another color. This Keats is bellicose and lachrymose, a poet who intertwines the bawdy and the beautiful. He is exacting and tender as both lover and beloved. For Keats’s Odes, the poet and his most renowned poems are not held to be infallible but lifelike in their flaws and feeling. This Keats is fully human. The book is a lover’s discourse in part because that is what love so often means: to love through the flaws and faults of the lover.
We gather this ethics of love from Nersessian’s handling of Keats’s relationship with Fanny Brawne. Engaged to the poet and then separated by his ultimately fatal tuberculosis, Brawne is not a minor character in the readings here. Keats’s letters to Brawne expose a more complicated man than is popularly recognized. Just as she limns a more human Keats, Nersessian also invites Brawne into our speculations, and we can begin to think of her separate from the poet. We see how the specter of death changed her — and changes us — and how we can harm even our most beloved.
Nersessian does not celebrate this; she laments it, whether discussing Keats or her own experience. After all, the book is grounded in the biography of both Keats and Nersessian, parallel lives that structure a couple of chapters. But this short book is expansive, perhaps grounded in six poems but sprawling out to contain reflections on contemporary writers, sexual misconduct, death, and more. At times, the book leverages the personal to paint a move vivid picture of Keats for explicitly feminist ends. A Lover’s Discourse opposes the sexist shibboleth about “rigorous” criticism being impersonal. In fact, Nersessian’s adroit engagements with Keats criticism — from his contemporaries to ours — attests to its so-called “rigor.” Each chapter tries something different, and the book feels essayistic in the truest sense: as attempts at new ways to relate to these poems.
This new relationality includes the tendency to imbue Keats’s poems with various forms of agency. We have a poem that “can only imagine the avoidance of pain as a failure of nerve” and another that “wants […] a version of the longing the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut attributes to a patient annoyed by the way his analyst breathes.” But how do we know what a poem wants? Extracting something like that out of a poem might be the kind of criticism The Calamity Form ostensibly resisted. For example, what if a critic believes a poem “wants” to record or resist climate change or the exploitation of the working classes?
Undoubtedly, this a figurative flourish; perhaps it actualizes the “sustained attention” or careful commitments of the first book. Either way, it also reveals a conception of poetry that one can place on the side of older critics like Cleanth Brooks. That is, there is no expectation for the poem to tell you anything except what is manifestly in it. And as with older books of academic criticism, Nersessian provides the poem under discussion; here, they are given pride of place at the start of every chapter. There is nowhere for the subsequent interpretations to hide, spotlighting the confidence the author must have in her exegeses. But this book is not intended to explain Keats or to help English teachers prepare lessons: we are warned in the preface that “if you’ve never read anything on Keats’s odes before, [then] this book should not be your first stop.” This is a book about Keats but it is for his admirers. It is an ode to a poet and his poems that have touched generations.
Stylistically, A Lover’s Discourse appears freed by the sensuousness of Keats’s own verse, standing on the verge of becoming something more than literary criticism. While not an imitation of Keatsian style, Nersessian shares his willingness for vulnerability and for writing that enfleshes the experience of being subject to the world because you are a subject in it. Love was often on Keats’s mind, and when he “writes about love,” we learn, “he offers it to us […] as the feeling of knowing, for once, what we are truly capable of.” As a feeling of knowing something, Keatsian love is both corporeal and cerebral.
While Keats appears in both books, what truly bridges the two is this embodied knowledge. In contrast to the knowledge that is love, The Calamity Form works with the concept of “nescience.” Nersessian defines it as “the cognitive output of trauma,” as something that “captures […] [the] affective dimension” of traumatic historical events. Nescience is “calamity’s unique structure of feeling.” Trauma has a way of sticking to us (individually and collectively) and manifesting itself in contexts far removed from where we initially picked it up. Love is the knowledge that we can be so much more than we are now; nescience is the knowledge that we are missing something now that we might have had once before.
The first book discusses nescience in the register of theory and how it pops up in the poems or is the substrate of history. A Lover’s Discourse goes further. It demonstrates where the knowledge that is love and the nescient residue of trauma meet in the quotidian living of life. In her reading of the “Ode to Psyche,” for example, Nersessian suggests “that suffering […] makes us worthy of love — not in some narrow masochistic sense, but because suffering gives us access to communal existence, the life we share with others by virtue of being alive at all.” But communities are simultaneously built through inclusion and exclusion. Some suffering feels like it expels us further away from others, something referred to as “dejection” by Romantic writers like Anna Barbauld, Samuel Coleridge, and Percy Shelley. An instance of such ostracism is — as Nersessian relates in the book’s introduction — the “sadder recognition that [Romantic] literature could not imagine me — that if it had helped give me a place in the world there was still no place for me in it.” Some of us may have no place in the Romantic world of revolutionary egalitarianism and radical love. Some of us “don’t look like [our] classmates […] [and] cart around odd names.” Some of us would be in Romanticism, but never of it. So how do we move forward in the world if we have been told it is not for us? Perhaps, following A Lover’s Discourse and The Calamity Form, one place to look is to Romanticism itself.
I asked if we had any use of Romanticism in the present, and that will remain an open question. But Nersessian illustrates the vitality of certain kinds of thinking: thinking about the best aspects of art, about love and harm, about the connections we forge to others and the environment. The Romantics have long been associated with an expansive sense of poiesis, of an innate ability to fashion the world through our creativity. We each have ways of making meaning, and this is our birthright. In her persuasive reading of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” that flows against two centuries of the poem’s reception, Nersessian puts forward the idea that we are owed “the right to describe oneself, not to the exclusion of other descriptions but as a challenge to them.” This is why the artist can be such a powerful figure, for she makes clear that we can reimagine the catastrophes of reality.
Sometimes, reimagining is all we can do. Whether it is enough is doubtful, but it reminds us that we have the power to determine what ways of recording and sharing that world are valued if not yet actualized. Change must be thought before it can be uttered, and it must be shared with others before it can be brought to bear on calamities big and small. In short, there is a kind of Romanticism here, if one wants it.