Where the Frye-inspired 1960s Yale critics (Abrams, Bloom, Hartman) saw a “theodicy” (Abrams) of the growth of the poet’s mind, or an “internalization” of the epic heroics of “quest romance” (Bloom), “theory”-inspired critics of the 1980s saw an escapist gesture toward autonomous interiority that put under erasure the particularity of material conditions (whether this avoidance or diversion is to be seen through a Marxist sociopolitical lens or thorugh a Freudian psychosexual lens).

[The crude formula for the Marxist reading might be: the romantics attempted to set “consciousness” before “history.”  McGann, for instance, refers to Marx’s The German Ideology, in which Marx declared:

In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven…. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life…. Division of labour only becomes truly such from the moment when a division of material and mental labour appears…. It is self-evident, moreover, that ‘spectres’, ‘bonds’, the ‘higher being’, ‘concept’, ‘scruple’ are merely the idealistic, spiritual expression, the conception apparentlly of the isolated individual, the image of the very empirical fetters and limitations, within which the mode of production of life and the form of intercourse coupled with it move.  (37-41) (in Lodge and Wood)

McGann (and the early Levinson, after him) applied this formula to romantic poetry:

The displacement efforts of Romantic poetry, its escape trails and pursued states of harmony and reconciliation – ultimately, its desire for process and endless self-production (“something evermore about to be”) – are that age’s dominant cultural illusions which Romantic poetry assumes only to weigh them out and find them wanting…. The poetics of Romanticism supposed that in a dark time the eye might begin to see into the One Life through the Imagination, which would establish a “standard law” for the self-destructive world of one’s experience… Romantic poetry pursued the illusions of its own ideas and Ideals in order to avoid facing the truths of immediate history and its own Purgatorial bind.  Its triumph, and Keats’s odes demonstrate this face as well as any work produced in the period, is discovered when the pursuit is thwarted and interrupted, and finally broken.

When reading Romantic poems, then, we are to remember that their ideas – for example, ideas about the creativity of the Imagination, about the centrality of the Self, about the organic and processive structure of natural and social life, and so forth – are all historically specific in a crucial and paradoxical sense… In the Romantic Age these and similar ideas are represented as trans-historical – eternal truths which wake to perish never.  (133-134)

[In the afterword to The Romantic Ideology, “The German Ideology Once Again,” McGann draws strong parallels between the young Hegelians critiqued by Marx and the literary critics of his own day, who likewise entertain the belief that “a critique of ideology can be made in the realm of ideas… launched from, and grounded in, conceptual space” (154).  He quotes Marx: “‘Liberation is a historical not a mental act, and it is brought about by historical conditions…. then subsequently, in accordance with the different stages of their development, [they make up] the nonsense of substance, subject, self-consciousness and pure criticism, as well as religious and theological nonsense, and later they get rid of it again when their development is sufficiently advanced” (154-155).

The patent materialism Marx displays in this passage is particularly helpful; this directness clears away a great deal of the usual high-toned obfuscation practiced by Marxist critics.  Marx clearly states that, to his view, all discussion of consciousness and subjectivity, including religious experience, is no more than superstructure built upon an actual techno-economic base.  That is to say, it’s invented “nonsense.”   Truly, one could take this stance and still be open-minded, even a mystic.  But McGann goes on to slam Althusser and Macherey for their affinity with the Frankfurt School’s notion of art, “in particular with Adorno’s idea that art is the negative knowledge of reality” (156) in which McGann detects “the persistent hold” of “certain types of Romantic idealism” (156).  Only Eagleton, in McGann’s view, avoids this tendency to view art as trans-historical and transcendent, because of his awareness that both art and criticism “take place withing concrete and specific Ideological State Apparatuses” (158).  Even Eagleton, who recognizes literature as “an ideological form per se” (159) makes the mistake of fetishizing art, in his tendency to use the term ‘text’ (as consumer good) rather than ‘work’ (as the site of the ongoing labour of specific human beings).  Ultimately, it seems that McGann’s reading is, like Marx’s, reductive:  “The whole thrust of The German Ideology is to bring critique out of the realms of consciousness (out of ‘German’ ideological space) and return it to the world of praxis” (159).

It has become a commonplace to speak of the reaction of the second generation to first generation romantics as an imminent critique of romantic illusions that nevertheless preserves (even in self-conscious incompleteness and failure) the supreme illusion of transcendence of aversive material fact through visionary imagination.

The clash of these readings – of the 60s and 80s – is this: the former understands romantic poetry to oppose the shrinking of the senses (Blake) that leads to the view of nature as a dark, impersonal machine (and thus to torpor, dejection, or spiritual death/slumber) by insisting on the resurrective or redemptive capacity of the actively receptive mind, which effects a sacred marriage or reunion between mind and matter (a reunion that privileges mind over matter, ultimately transforming all matter into mind); the latter sees romanticism as a key period in the formulation of an ideology of the aesthetic that does not so much salvage the cultural forms of feudal society so much as help to rationalize the transition into bourgeois capitalist forms (McGann, Eagleton).  In Eagleton (whose Ideology of the Aesthetic was published in 1990), Kant was a central figure in the period because he helped hegemonic power to extend into the particularity of subjective life, such that a modern person could call oneself free because one’s freedom was identical with, and none other than, the free choice to follow a moral law inscribed within oneself. [find quote]  For McGann, romantic ideology is an escape toward transcendent, ideal consciousness.  For Eagleton, the ideology of the aesthetic is more than a displacement, but a deliberate effort to convert into new formulae notions of pure consciousness that perpetuate and validate power at the expense of actual material conditions and relations.  Where the 60s critics see a rebirth of value, in the emancipated sensese, the 80s critics see a social construction of feeling that does the opposite of what Percy Shelley wants to claim:

For the end of social corruption is to destroy all sensibility to pleasure; and, therefore, it is corruption.  It begins at the imagination and the intellect as at the core, and distributes itself thence as a paralysing venom, through the affections into the very appetites, until all become a torpid mass in which sense hardly survives.  At the approach of such a period, Poetry ever addresses itself to those faculties which are the last to be destroyed, and its voice is heard, like the foosteps of Astraea, departing from the world. (in McGann 117)

How curious to look back from a current perspective in which the rage is for technology, media, and mediation, and the consequent reopening of the status of the senses and of the relationship of body and language, or nature and culture, so thoroughly problematized by “theory.”

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