WOMEN, LOVE, AND COMMODITY CULTURE IN BRITISH ROMANTICISM by Daniela Garofalo, Reviewed by Ghislaine McDayter
 

WOMEN, LOVE, AND COMMODITY CULTURE IN BRITISH ROMANTICISM
By Daniela Garofalo
(Ashgate, 2012) 184pp.
Reviewed by Ghislaine McDayter on 2012-09-08.

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It seems counterintuitive to speak of enjoyment while reviewing a scholarly work that focuses primarily on pleasures deferred and satisfaction arrested, but for the most part, this book is a real pleasure to read. Garofalo's central thesis is a compelling one. Traditionally, she argues, the heroes of Romantic literature have been viewed and celebrated as figures who strive but always fail to transcend the squalid world of politics. Though they inevitably fail to achieve a perfect love untainted by the banally quotidian, they nonetheless seek it with undiminished ardor. But Garofalo's closely argued analysis of these failed quests shows something else: in repeatedly foreclosing on pleasure and rejecting materiality, they manifest not Romanticism's refusal to engage with dominant systems of material, commodity culture, but rather its insistent replication of precisely these same materialist, capitalist systems. While the Romantic hero is commonly considered a tormented soul, an idealist cruelly thwarted in his unbending quest for transcendence and his efforts to capture perfection in the realm of politics, love, or art, what his journey really maps--for Garofalo-- is how sexual desire and commodity consumption follow the same structural paths and "speak to the same logic" (2) Equally, while critics such as Terry Lovell have pathologized the feminine in Romantic literature by treating it as the source of a sordid consumerism driven by women's ungovernable passions and demands for ever greater material pleasures (Consuming Fictions [London: Verso Press Paperback, 1987] 54-59), Garofalo suggests that, on the contrary, the women in Romantic texts "refuse the desire to escape, transcend, and seek out a beyond that is always promised but never delivered"(5). By thus refusing to defer pleasure indefinitely for the sake of a greater reward promised in some unspecified form, by demanding the immediate gratification forbidden to them, women deny the authority of a growing commodity culture. They will not "save themselves" for some future investment. For Garofalo, then, it is pleasure-seeking women-- not idealistic heroes --who provide a truly revolutionary Romantic commentary on the dangers of consumerism and capitalist culture.

Garolfalo pursues this thesis through a wide range of texts, from the poetry of Byron, Blake, Letitia Landon, and Keats to the prose works of Scott, Bronte and the most popular periodical writers of the day. In drawing out the similarities between late nineteenth-century economies of desire and the structures of an evolving, capitalist consumerism, her theoretical framework partly relies on the work of such important contemporary figures as Adam Smith. Using Smith, Garofalo carefully illustrates how both Romantic and consumerist desires rely on a "narrative of delayed fulfillment that is fundamental for a commercial culture":

Both forms of desire require that the subject enjoy present sacrifice and self-denial in order to achieve the goods promised by some Other, a wealthy husband, the lady of chivalric romance, gods, or figures of authority who mete out the rewards to the worthy. The Romantic writers I discuss reject the prudent economy of desire recommended by political economists. If Britons were insistently barraged with advice about how to manage their desire and, at the same time, by images and narratives that invited them to luxuriate in the pleasures of melancholic love, the writers I study in this book imagine women who reject these forms of desire. (5-6)

To support her claims about the affinity between consumer culture and Romantic desire, Garofalo draws extensively on recent Romantic scholarship and cultural history, as well as on the popular press of the nineteenth century. In particular, her readings of L.E.L. and the writers of women's magazines clearly and compellingly show how "the ideal of transcendence functions within, not against, the system of desire that regulates a consumer economy" (23). Landon, she notes, has long been treated as a poet who "obsessively" reproduces dominant paradigms of transcendent and melancholic love. While fundamentally accepting this assessment, Garofalo denies that Landon acted out of some neurotic repetition compulsion, or out of any high-minded conformity to a Romantic ideology of anti-materialism. Nor was she, as many feminist critics have argued, attempting a subversive and ironic commentary on the consumer culture of "fashionable magazines" such as The Literary Gazette, by which she was known. On the contrary, Garofalo argues, she trains her readers to consume. By repeatedly portraying familiar Romantic types-- heroines who seek death, heroes who seek dying heroines, and lovers who hopelessly seek each other--she "instruct[s]" her readers in the trajectories of deferred desire that make consumerism possible. That is, instead of illustrating desires that her readers might already have experienced in their own lives, her poetic fantasies teach us how to desire in the first place. Thus, she writes,

the arousal and deferral are never simply narrated as a straightforward love story. Instead every tragic love is framed by a poem or painted image--every love story is part of a collection whose purpose is not to offer completion of the set, final satisfaction, but, instead, to repeat the delicious pain of dissatisfaction. (49)

Such a sentimental education teaches readers to take pleasure in the lack of satisfaction and the refusal to consume because such deferral leaves us always wanting more. Like the consumer of fashionable goods, the reader of Landon's poetry in a fashionable magazine is shown how to conduct a Romantically endless quest that mirrors the desire to consume; paradoxically, its goal is never to reach closure or the end of desire. According to Garofalo, then, Landon's poem teaches us that ideally we need to make absence, lack and death into our most cherished objects of desire. For Garofalo, L.E.L. is not the subversive and thoroughly ironic author reclaimed by many modern critics, nor the poet who unveils the ludicrous nature of feminine sentimentality and crass commercialism; she is ironic only insofar as she enables us to read and enjoy her melodramas while simultaneously claiming to know better.

This strikes me as a very convincing and remarkably useful reading of Letitia Landon's romantic narratives, of commodity culture as it emerged in the Regency period, and of the economies of desire that supported both. And yet, even in these first few chapters, it becomes clear that something haunts Garofalo's text -- not the spectre of Marx, but rather of Lacan. Moments of intimated "jouissance" erupt into Garofalo's literary explorations without warning, and more importantly without any real theoretical framework to support their sudden and somewhat inexplicable appearance. Obviously the work of Lacan and his followers seems to "fit" a literary examination of this kind, for Lacan and Zizek have aligned the dominant systems of desire with the operations of capital, and Garofalo is clearly very conversant with the arguments of both. But while she claims in her introduction to be using a Lacanian methodology, and while psychoanalytic terminology permeates the first few chapters, she does not explain how or why such theoretical tools are necessary to her project. Theoretically, it offers little more than the occasional nod at a heroine's orgasmic engagement initiated by the injunctions of the Big Other. Garofalo does not really use Lacan explicitly until the third chapter (on Blake) entitled "The Gaze of the Other and Phallic Jouissance." Here, in glossing Blake's Visions of the Daughters of Albion, Garofalo admirably outlines and highlights the functions of jouissance, the gaze, and prohibition by the Other. But why are Lacan and Zizek needed only now, to explicate Blake? If Lacan's theories of the operations of desire are essential to the reading of Oothoon's jouissance, why are they not similarly essential to the reading of Landon's poems?

Further questions arise from Garofalo's reading of Don Juan. "Don Juan," she writes, "undermines a bourgeois culture of consumption" by showing us how the superabundance of luxury, romantic excess, and sensual bliss freely available in this world demonstrate how we cannot "enjoy objects in a world beyond the father" which is to say, without the father's interdiction (96). In other words, without injunction and prohibition in the castrating form of the Big Other, desire ceases to operate. "For Byron," Garofalo argues, "the attempt to control enjoyment through figures of the punishing father, keeps us in thrall to objects of desire, to the repetition of consumption, to Platonic love, to luxury goods"(96). But while a strong case can be made for the enthralling allure of consumable objects and luxury goods, does Platonic love fit here? Along with Lacanian theories about the Big Other and paternal injunctions of jouissance, along with the prohibitive and castrating father, why do we need "platonic lovers"? In his 1960-61 Seminar VIII, Lacan extensively applies the Symposium to the problematics of transference in analysis, but Garofalo's use of Plato is quite different. In her chapter, curiously enough, his name serves as a kind of coda for the mother/child dyadic union. "For Lacan," she writes, "the desire for full jouissance depends on the illusion that something was lost with the subject's access to language, some direct union with the thing itself, the mother, the noumenal realm, the Platonic ideal . . ." (87). If so, why not simply use the Lacanian term "dyadic union"? Why the slippage into classical tropes and rhetoric?

Part of the problem, it seems, is that Garofalo wishes to use the relationship between Don Juan and Haidee to show how there is "something problematic in enjoyment itself and this limit inherent in enjoyment can only become clear when access to it is impeded" (87). Evidently, Juan and Haidee cannot enjoy the consumption of their luxurious lifestyle because, until Haidee's father Lambro returns, there is no form of prohibition by which to define the limits of desire. In Lacanian terms this makes sense up to a point. But if, as Garofalo stipulates, the relationship between Juan and Haidee is defined by immediate sensual gratification and thus by sexual boredom (we need "fresh features" [Don Juan I. 208] to sustain desire), her reading obfuscates a very important textual fact. Juan and Haidee are likened not simply to "ideal lovers" but also to a mother and child bonded within the dyadic union of the Imaginary realm.

The evidence of this blissful maternal union is heavily underlined for us throughout Canto II. When Haidee resuscitates Juan after his near drowning, he is depicted as "her boy": "And she bent o'er him, and he lay beneath / Hush'd as the babe upon its mother's breast" (II: 148 ). As he grows stronger, she "watch[es] him like a mother" (II: 158 ), and she smiles to see that he can neither speak nor understand her speech. They are "All in all to each other" (II: 189 ), and this idyllic union is not ruptured until Lambro the father intervenes, splitting the two figures from one another, violently enforcing laws, order, and an insistence on self-control. Representing the castrating force of the symbolic order, Lambro brilliantly fulfills his structural function by revealing the violence inherent in the formation of subjectivity and in the articulation of desire. But since the dyadic union is firmly embedded within the Imaginary, it admits no lack, absence, or need for change. If Juan and Haidee are "all in all to each other," they need no "fresh features" if only because this bonded pair can make no distinction between one set of features and another.

As an excellent reader of Lacan, Garofalo clearly recognizes this tension in her reading, and thus relies on Platonic terms instead of Lacan's for her primary, organizing trope. But as Alain Badiou has observed, "it matters a great deal to Lacan to establish that what he called the 'Freudian way' is different from the Platonic" "Lacan and the Pre-Socratics" . Pace Garofalo, the dyadic mother is not fully comparable in structure or in economy of desire to the Platonic lover, and to conflate the two seems problematic at best.

While similar moments of theoretical "slippage" recur throughout this book, Garofalo never loses her focus, and while her analysis displays occasional weaknesses, the core of her argument remains persuasive and engaging. Nevertheless, she ends the book not with a conclusion but with a reading of Bronte's great anti-hero, Heathcliff. The quintessential outsider is here read as a man engaged in an "obsessive capitalist mode" (158), since he positively seeks out absence, deferral, and loss in the form of Cathy's dead body. This is an interesting take on Heathcliff, but it hardly draws together together the many fascinating points made by the book as a whole. How, for example, ought we to distinguish between the violence of Heathcliff's capitalism and the seduction of Landon's? Or should we? Are there distinctions to be made along the lines of race, class and gender? It might be argued that Garofalo is repeating the same impulse to defer and resist closure that she illuminates in her own readings of the canonical Romantic hero, but perhaps true to my own Romantic legacy, I would have preferred the more "feminine" option of satisfaction, closure, and satiation.

Ghislaine McDayter is Professor of English at Bucknell University.


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