ROMANTICISM AND THE OBJECT by Larry H. Peer, Reviewed by G. Todd Davis
 

ROMANTICISM AND THE OBJECT
By Larry H. Peer
(Palgrave Macmillan 2009) 223 pp.
Reviewed by G. Todd Davis on 2012-01-13.

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According to its introduction, this book shows how the Romantics used a new paradigm of language to make material objects express not only ideas but feelings. In his rich, erudite, and illuminating introductory essay, Peer explains how "image-making from the objects of real experience is a key to Romantic discourse" (2). As Peer informs us, this new conception of language was first articulated in 1801 by August Ferdinand Bernhardi, who contended that "all speech acts, in their dialogical origins, are essentially poetic, and that literary expression is thus the primal articulation of humanness" (4). For Peer, this dictum resonates with Schelling's concept of Darstellung, wherein "creative language does not imitate the world and its objects, but instead presents them transcendentally, almost to say uncovers inventively, the 'true,' that is, the 'original' meaning of what is inside and outside the human self" (4). Likewise, Peer intimates, the Romantics sought just such a concept of language so as to make the words for objects symbolically express feelings as well as ideas. With the aid of both Vico and Herder on this point, Peer concludes that in Romanticism "aesthetic language by definition symbolizes the infinite, uses object-symbols to show how inner and outer reality is focused through the flexing lens of language, as Hegel argued (5). Peer thus states the premise for this collection of essays, which--he says--offers a "number of new insights into the use of object symbolism in Romantic works, particularly as regards both author autonomy and strategy as well as the history and legacy of the movement" (5).

In other words, Peer and his essayists explore the symbolic meaning conveyed by particular objects in Romantic literature as well as showing how its authors "use language aesthetically to express and cause the recipient of the act also to empathize with an emotion, especially in coming to terms with the literary artifact's creation of a new and self-projective world" (5). In light of this premise, most of the essays treat fascinating and unusual objects that were in some ways almost fetishized by their possessors and spectators. Regrettably, some of the essays merely touch on the status of the object in Romantic literature while chiefly discussing other matters. Also, none of the essays examines Byron's treatment of objects--a disappointing omission. As a whole, however, this collection keeps its eye on the Romantic object and studies it extensively.

Thing theory was first notably explained by Bill Brown in 2001. Without just a nod to Brown's work (12), Marilyn Gaull distinguishes "Thing Theory" from "Object Theory" by defining the former as "taking a word, concept, object, even person out of its natural or material setting and projecting human values, meanings, or explanations on it" (9). While Objects are inert, Gaull suggests, Things are Objects animated by human contact: "while Things are often living, as Wordsworth said, Objects usually are not, although metaphorically they become things when they enter into a human relationship, which they, like everything else, began to do in the post-Kantian world of Romanticism" (10). Just as Objects can become Things, however, Things can become Objects: "[W]hen body parts are detached from their living owners," Gaull writes, "they are things turned into objects. As artifacts and possessions they take on the character of the person who owns them, rather than the person from whom they are detached" (10-11). The use of the term "body parts" here startles the reader, indicating in some fashion that the things have become physically and by extension emotionally attached to the "living owners" through a mystical bond of symbiosis and graft. The act of detachment enacts an implication of amputation, which instills a more significant sense of permanence and distinct ownership as well as bereavement and grief. She then turns to the other side of the coin: "If perceptions turn objects into things, then memory--the other sacred faculty of Romanticism--in a mysterious reciprocity, turns things into objects, collectables, valued for their history with people, or other objects, or where they were found or purchased" (11). In an interesting and highly suggestive turn, she then suggests that although Wordsworth "included objects in his world," he was essentially a "poet of things" (13). Conversely, she suggests, Keats was a "poet of objects, deeply invested in the empirical, the properties, and the object-ness" (13).

The rest of the essays in this collection show how specific objects in the Romantic period came to express emotion and sensation. Rather than address and delineate each individual essay in detail, it seems more productive and efficient to underscore certain aspects of the essays that coincide with and build most effectively upon--for this reader at least--the groundwork laid by Peer and Gaull. Recounting the trial of Shelley v. Westbrook, for instance, Lisbeth Chapin explains that Shelley's children became both subject and objects. First, in a case that "has been cited ever since as one of the rare legal judgments against the father in . . . [the nineteenth] century" (41), they were used as subjects in the trial for parental custody. But in a fascinating turnabout, Chapin notes, "Shelley objectifies children as symbols and subjectifies them as parts of himself, especially in the role of victim" (37). In Shelley's writing, she concludes, "the child as referent is subjectified with the material circumstances of Shelley's own life while simultaneously objectified in an ambitious symbolism (49).

In what strikes me as the best essay in the collection, Diane Long Hoeveler eruditely shows how the disembodied male head in Henry James's The Aspern Papers embodies--pun intended--a "homosocial exchange object." In sum, she claims, "The Aspern Papers is about how desire endlessly circulates in families, and by extension cultures; or more specifically, how the act of creating cultural products actually short-circuits familial desire, producing a strange substitute-formation, the scholarly artifact--whether papers or portrait--as homosocial fetishized exchange object" (97). She then shrewdly adds: "What James has created in this work is an enactment of the obsessive power of literary and scholarly desire, as if those fetishized and dead male Romantic poets, laid out on a dissecting table, can be grasped, seized, and resurrected as love objects, not by their discarded female paramours, but by the masculine literary tradition itself" (97). This is an essay that should have followed Marilyn Gaull's and served as a touchstone by which the other essays might be tested and judged.

Michael Gamer explains how Shelley's unburnable heart comes to symbolize much of what occurs with Shelley's poetry after his death. "Simply put," Gamer suggests, "Shelley's heart and incinerated corpse would never have had the power to redefine his reputation had not his executors--particularly his most important editor, Mary Shelley--created early, powerful textual counterparts that anchored and secured the anecdotes of which Shelley's Victorian readers rarely tired" (111). Gamer then links Shelley's literary corpus to the treasured heart itself: "If these [works] are literary remains," he writes, "they are less an embalmed corpse preserved in death than representative fragments serving a dual function. Selected and arranged as both the essence and the source materials of Shelley's imagination, they stand in not just for Shelley's corpus but also for those future works he now will never produce" (115).

In other essays, Chene Heady shows how the Anglican Liturgy serves as a romantic object in John Keble's The Christian Year. Looking eastward, William S. Davis shows how--in the works of both Shelley and Novalis-- the East enables them to "share the fantasy of a pilgrimage to a Romanticized East that functions as the site for the fulfillment of a very Western dream of overcoming distance, alienation, misunderstanding, and loss through a form of communion that exceeds the limitations of linguistic signs--paradoxically employing Otherness as a vehicle for sameness" (159). Magdalena M. Ostas argues that the visual idiom of Keats's poetry "must be understood in terms that extend beyond the instinctive characterizations of Keats's verse as slow-moving and sensuous" (121). Treating Fanny Price as a "proto-Marxist character" in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park (74), Rodney Farnsworth contends that throughout Volume One, objects "are used . . . to humiliate and keep Fanny in the place that Norris and all else, except for Edmund, have conceived for her" (74). But as Farnsworth construes them, the objects in this novel have a further purpose: "In this quest to understand and revalue Fanny's soul," he writes, "I began with physical objects. Objects are important but, like all that is ephemeral, they are only truly so when they signify more" (90). The collection also contains essays by Jocelyn M. Almeida and Mark K. Fulk as well as an extraordinary reminiscence from Charles J. Rzepka regarding a brown copper pot and the relativity of "thingness."

What then does the collection as a whole offer us? Peer himself makes modest claims. "Taken together," he writes, "these essays neither prove nor disprove larger claims about Romanticism and its aesthetic use of objects. Nor do they promise to provide a categorical explanation of precisely why Romantics were fascinated by the object. Rather, this book argues that Romanticism's use of the object is neither rhetorically nor ideologically mystifying, and that the relationship between the radical individuality of Romantic discourse and the sign system of natural objects is not incommensurable" (7). These sentiments seem appropriate in this climate of Postmodernism and its distrust of grand narratives and sweeping generalizations. However, an insightful comment here and there about this book's place in the larger scheme of Romanticism might have been helpful. In particular, Peer's remarks about the newly emerging way of conceiving objects could easily have been expanded upon. Ultimately, though, this is an agreeable collection of essays that deserves a place on any Romanticist's shelf.

G. Todd Davis is Chair of the Literature, Languages, and Philosophy Division and Associate Professor of English at Kentucky State University.


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