Reflection by John Schulz
Against Kantian theories of the sublime as a transcendent space of “supersensible reason,” Anne McCarthy’s Awful Parenthesis locates the phenomenological experience of suspension, or states of remove from the continuous experience of reality, as the “occasion of the sublime” itself (Kant 128). This revision powerfully opens out to a vast archive of nineteenth century poetry and asks us to practice our own brand of critical “suspension” and stave off deciding what the Romantic and Victorian sublime can be. From thwarted speech in Coleridge’s Christabel (1816) to the interstitial cries from the grave by Tennyson’s speaker in Maud (1855), Awful Parenthesis asserts that the critical concept of suspension “can make certain kinds of images newly available for theorization as versions of the sublime,” because of its emphasis on the experience of contingency (15). McCarthy attends, albeit with fresh insight, to familiar events in the critical narrative surrounding Romantic theories of sublimity and nature’s sublime: Coleridge’s sublime as the “suspension of the comparative powers” and Shelley’s ecstatic embrace of the ever-mutable “universe of things” in “Mont Blanc” (1816). Nevertheless, “suspension and its potential for sublimity” (15) leads us just as sure-footedly to Christina Rossetti’s under-read A Prince’s Progress (1866). Read through McCarthy’s interpretive frame of suspension, what critics have often diagnosed as a bathetic refusal of narrative progression in Rossetti’s poem comes to have sublime implications; for Rossetti digression and thwarted progress are inevitable in the contexts of a cosmology that preserves a sense of divine mystery.
As someone whose work engages with questions of historical aesthetics and poetics across the long-nineteenth-century, I found that the range of McCarthy’s study raises exciting, yet challenging questions about methodology and periodization. On the one hand, Awful Parenthesis, because of its emphasis on suspension, “proposes a version of the sublime that is capacious enough to function in readings of both Romantic or Victorian literature” (17). On the other, McCarthy emphasizes that the new sites for sublime contemplation that she identifies in Victorian poetry are not contiguous with those of Romanticism. Without disrupting current critical narratives about the waning influence of the discourse of the Romantic sublime in the Victorian period, she argues that aesthetic engagements with suspension span the nineteenth century. The difficulty lies in the question of how we might account for an “alternate trajectory” of the sublime as it orbits around suspension, while still acknowledging that even as sublime experience “and its structure of visionary suspension does not change…such embodiments have a different resonance for Victorian poets” (17). In short, Awful Parenthesis asks what it means for there to be a longer history of suspension even as Romantic and Victorian encounters with the sublime insist on being understood in discontinuous terms?
McCarthy proposes, as “an experiment,” what she calls a “discontinuous historicism” (17). Reasoning that, “historical proximity, even adjacency does not necessarily translate into continuity,” she avoids situating Romantic and Victorian poetic engagements with suspension and the sublime in a “long nineteenth century” (19). Instead, by way of Caroline Levine’s recent arguments about the “affordances” of form, McCarthy suggests that “suspension” is a “form” whose longer history allows it to connect relatively disparate sublime occasions in the nineteenth century.
There is much to admire in Awful Parenthesis’ attentiveness to historical nuance in this methodological experiment. Yet rather than reify the phenomenological experience of suspension as a “form” and close off the possibility of considering suspension and the sublime as a long-nineteenth-century poetic phenomenon, I wonder whether McCarthy might be giving us an opportunity to discuss what “long-nineteenth century” can mean for Romantic and Victorian studies. Should “long-nineteenth century” always demand that we demonstrate unequivocal lines of continuity and influence across aesthetic traditions, which, as McCarthy persuasively demonstrates, saw themselves as responding to a world characterized by discontinuity and uncertainty? Or, might we build literary histories that show concepts, like the sublime, that emerge along several “alternate trajectories” even as it maintains some experience of suspension at its core? Both within and beyond the scope of Awful Parenthesis is the proposition that there can be continuity in discontinuity, that dominant narratives of the rise and fall of the sublime don’t foreclose other possibilities for the sublime in the nineteenth century, and that we need methods of periodization that can support such a mutable literary landscape.
Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis, Hackett, 1987, 128.
Levine, Caroline. Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2015, 6.
McCarthy, Anne C. Awful Parenthesis: Suspension and the Sublime In Romantic and Victorian Poetry, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018.