Romantic Things: A Tree, a Rock, a Cloud

October 18, 2012

This book is not only about William Wordsworth, it is also about John Clare, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Rainer Maria Rilke, John Ashbery, Seamus Heaney, J.M. Coetzee, W.G. Sebald, Michael Hamburger, Alice Oswald and David Wright. Nor is it solely about "Romantic things", like trees, and rocks, and clouds, but also about gravestones and epitaphs, loss and mourning and (ir)retrievability, and about the human body and its senses (and the loss of them, particularly blindness, deafness and muteness).

It is also a book about the visual art of John Constable and William Turner, Albrecht Durer, Matthias Grunewald and Albrecht Altdorfer, Gerhard Richter and Jan Peter Tripp, about Tacita Dean's films Michael Hamburger (2007) and Merce Cunningham Performs STILLNESS (in Three Movements) to John Cage's Composition 4' 33" (2008), and, by implication, about Paul Klee.

And all this is refracted through Mary Jacobus' readings of Walter Benjamin and Martin Heidegger, Denis Diderot and John Ruskin, Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, W.D. Winnicott and Melanie Klein, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Maurice Blanchot and Emmanuel Levinas, Thomas Nagel, Martha Nussbaum and Jonathan Bate, Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman and Paul Fry, and - most prominently so - through her continuous and ongoing debate with Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy (talking to the dead is a great topic here, too).

All but two of the eight chapters of Romantic Things have been published previously in one form or another (some of them even twice), but Jacobus largely succeeds in weaving together this material into a sufficiently coherent fabric, taking her cue from a Carson McCullers story that also gave her the subtitle: "McCullers leaves the readers uncertain whether the old man's progress through the world of things is the by-product of his wanderings or a slow epiphany (maybe both?). The essays collected here adopt the same method: graduating from one Romantic thing to another, they work on getting the technique."

Chapter 2 ("Pastoral, after History: The Apple Orchard") may serve as an apt illustration of this technique: Jacobus begins with Heaney's translation of a Rilke poem, The Apple Orchard, then touches briefly upon Durer's wood engraving The Fall, before she discusses extensively the use Sebald makes of the past of his poet-translator friend Michael Hamburger, then Dean's 2007 film and the Sebald-Tripp collaboration Unrecounted (2005), before Hofmannsthal, Grunewald, Altdorfer and Richter (all working against the background of an unacknowledged or irretrievable, but in any case catastrophic, past) allow her to zero in on the insight that Pastoral is always "after history" (but, of course, at the same time, always undeniably "of history").

One hesitates to call the result of this interweaving a rhizome, because when she reads, for example, Wordsworth's Nutting through Derrida's reading of Nancy under the aspect of "touch", then we have the illusion of a hierarchy, or at least of a telescoping effect - but in any case of a deferral, sometimes endless, for not always can the objective of one of her excursions be summed up as neatly as in the case of Pastoral. We have her traces.

And that is inevitably so: Jacobus is fascinated by an idea she found in Merleau-Ponty, viz. the concept of the "visible invisible", or blind spot, the point that on the one hand makes visibility physically possible, but is also, on the other, edited out of the subject-object relationship. It is exactly the point where the medium ceases to be transparent, but becomes opaque and thereby self-referential. The realm where this happens to language is called poetry, and "the regulated speech of poetry may be as close as we can get to such things - to the stilled voice of the inanimate object or the insentient standing of trees" (although I'd much prefer "de-regulated" here).

If therefore we can never speak of things "as such", or of the "thinginess of things", because we can only ever speak of a specific subject-object relation that is dramatised in a specific way, then it makes sense that Jacobus time and again gives us different "takes" and variations on seemingly identical objects, variously related through all those networks she weaves. It is the only way to approach these foolish "things". Anything else would be a performative contradiction.

Most of all, we should be grateful that hers is such a fecund mind, because, after all, it is she who brings it all together. We have the traces that she left in tracing others. And what a web it is.

Romantic Things: A Tree, a Rock, a Cloud

By Mary Jacobus

University of Chicago Press

240pp, £29.00

ISBN 9780226390666

Published 10 September 2012

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