Timothy Chandler: Too Much and Not Enough
Editors’ Note: As part of our ongoing commitment to methodological experimentation, V21 invited graduate students at the cutting edge of the field to tarry with our recent special issue of boundary2 online, Presentism, Form, and the Future of History. Students from around the US and abroad have charted out exciting new directions that were raised, often in speculative form, by the original symposium participants. We are delighted to feature a series of engagements with issues ranging from the moods of criticism and critique, the presentism-historicism dialectic, and un-fielding, de-fielding, and world literature debates. These pieces showcase new objects and strategies, push Victorian Studies beyond traditional horizons, and plea for committed criticism and scholarly stand-taking in a polarized world. The final installment is below; the first, “Our Critical Affects” is here; the second, “Presentism and / as Critique” is here; the third, World Lit and Worlds is here; the fourth, “Critical Practices and New Forms,” is here.
As several of the contributions to this issue’s section on Nietzsche note, “On the Use and Disadvantages of History for Life” is a polemic against historicism that remains invested in its object. Nietzsche rejects the form of historicism that the V21 Manifesto would call “positivist historicism” and presents as its replacement what Devin Griffiths in his contribution names “untimely historicism,” which is concerned with neither knowing the past dispassionately nor fitting it into a narrative of progress. Such a historicism works against the present and rather than taking the past as the object of knowledge, takes it, as Daniel Wright would have it in “Unhistorical Reading and Mutual Playing,” as the object of love. What I get from this is that historicism and presentism are not necessarily opposed. This is easy enough to demonstrate. Even the most trenchant historicism originates from a reflection on the present. The Rankean attempt to show “how it actually was” is premised on the recognition that this earlier how is no longer the same how, and it is precisely this distance that is being measured. Historicism also leads back to the present. Jules Michelet famously characterized the work of the historian as the resurrection of the dead, but he also insisted on its intensely personal nature. In the 1869 preface to the History of France, Michelet writes, “My life was in this book. […] My book has created me” (143). The father of the archival method, the original positivist historicist, makes the most truly presentist of discoveries: it turns out that history is autobiography. Looking at the relationship from the other side, strategic presentism does not fully extricate itself from history: its critical force is lost if there is no recognition that historical persistence is contingent. Presentism (whether naïve or critical) produces readings for its time alone—this is precisely how they work with and against the present—and so historical transformation is the basis for the power of the occasional.
What follows is a couple of reflections on the impossibility of either a pure historicism or a pure presentism, for both the Victorians and ourselves. Lest I be accused of facile deconstructionism, I want to make clear that I think recognizing the practical limits of these concepts is an important first step in moving beyond them. I believe that our goal as Victorianists should be to do without “historicism” and “presentism” as we work on the relationships that we have with the past, present and future. My first reflection has to do with the status of poetry in Victorian studies (generally) and in this issue of boundary 2 online (specifically). This emerges from my experience teaching Victorian poetry to undergraduates and my thoughts on how the involution of the present and the past characterizes so many of these texts. The second reflection returns to Nietzsche and the task of developing a critical relationship to history that moves beyond presentism and historicism.
I’m intrigued by those moments when presentism seems to require a lot of historical work: I think Victorian poetry is often the provider of such moments. As someone who doesn’t usually work on novels, I’m always amused when Victorianists remark (as Jesse Rosenthal does in “Maintenance Work”) on how familiar the Victorian novel is for twenty-first-century readers, how easily we pick one up and read it, recognize its narratives and characters, its forms of representation. While this doesn’t describe my experience of reading Victorian novels, I understand the point being made. But when my colleagues rehearse this trope, I always want to talk about Victorian poetry, which is barely discussed in the papers gathered here. While my experience with teaching is still slight, having taught two very different undergraduate poetry surveys (one diachronically organized, the other formally) has only reinforced my sense that Victorian poetry is really weird. Even if the students encounter difficulties with Donne, Wordsworth, or T.S. Eliot (to cite some hypercanonical examples), many of them will come to appreciate and even enjoy them. With the exception of a very few canonical dramatic monologues, the situation with the Victorians couldn’t be more different. While there are always a couple of students enthused by “Porphyria’s Lover,” Browning is for most a bit of a creep; Tennyson (especially In Memoriam) is dull; Swinburne, overwrought; Barrett Browning, “too much information” (actual quote); Hopkins, unintelligible; it usually takes a fair bit of prodding for them to see Goblin Market as anything more than a nursery rhyme. They can’t believe it when I tell them that most of these were tremendously popular authors in their time. To be honest, sometimes I can’t believe it either. If Victorian novels (or some of them at least) help us feel the closeness of the nineteenth century to our own, Victorian poetry often has the opposite effect. A Shakespearean sonnet is much more approachable to the average (I want to say any) undergraduate than anything ever written by Swinburne. There are obvious institutional reasons for this: our education systems for the most part teach us to read Shakespeare in such a way that he always remains universal and so interpretable; this might also be true of Tennyson but it is certainly not true of Swinburne. A strictly presentist reading of Swinburne founders on the texts’ strangeness. One can barely even read the poems without some historical context. And this context turns out to be the very problem of historicism and presentism itself. On the one hand, Swinburne resuscitates forgotten medieval and early modern forms and attempts to translate ancient Greek poetic meters into English. On the other hand, these antiquarian readings are carried out under the banner of a Baudelairean modernism that takes the present moment as the absolutely poetical—better, lyrical—moment. Swinburne is an extreme example, but it is a curious fact of teaching that Victorian poetry often requires more historical contextualization for students to begin to read it than the poetry of some earlier periods.
I want to return now to the broader (but not unrelated) question of our relationship to history. One of the contributions that stands out the most for me in this issue is S. Pearl Brilmyer’s discussion of “impassioned objectivity” in Nietzsche and Hardy. Beyond literature, we Victorianists often like to insist on a degree of continuity between our time and the nineteenth century—that familiar trope, “we are still Victorian.” If this is true (and I believe it is), we should be exploring the full extent and limits of this continuity. I think the keynote address and the responses to it are great examples of this line of questioning. But I also think that the peculiar impassioned objectivity discussed by Brilmyer points to a far greater range of domains in which we still live with and as Victorians. I only have space to discuss one of these. Insomuch as it is affective, this objectivity, this relation to history, is embodied, as Brilmyer makes clear. As a white Australian with Irish and English ancestry, I carry the history of British colonialism in my body. Among other things, I am who I am because of the forced transportation of undesirables (a proto-eugenics of the “British Isles”) to a far-flung terra nullius, where genocidal warfare against the Aboriginal population secured property rights for the free European immigrants who followed in search of their fortunes. These are the indisputable foundations of the Australian nation-state. However, this embodied history is by no means self-evident, and it means different things in different places; yet it determines so much about the way I talk and act, the relationships that I have to things and to institutions, to literature and to history. To be clear, I am not claiming some kind of special relationship to Victorianism or the British Empire on the basis of my race and nationality—few things could be less appealing. What I am trying to undertake here is a material analysis of my embodiment. It would not make much sense, I should think, to characterize such an analysis as either historicist or presentist, but it is certainly historical, perhaps in a kinky way akin to that presented by Ellis Hanson in his contribution (“Kink in Time”). It’s a bit like Michelet setting out to raise the dead but then writing himself, or like Swinburne reviving obscure poetic forms for the presentation of intensely personal, “fleshly” and modern concerns. But it’s also more than that. And, like Michelet’s and Swinburne’s historical work, this analysis is not another case of what Rosenthal characterizes as the retrospective work of “producing the past which produces us.” The scope of our relationship to history is much broader than that, as was the Victorians’. Sure, we lack contemporary literary representations of nineteenth-century atrocities, and, certainly, attempting to explain these absences is tremendously interesting and important scholarly work, but the work will inevitably take us to the records that do exist, not just those records contained in archives but the records all around us. Thus, such an impassioned objectivity offers us a way to politicize our work.
University of Pennsylvania/Humboldt University of Berlin
Michelet, Jules. “Preface to the History of France (1869).” Translated by Edward K. Kaplan. On History, Open Book Publishers, 2013, pp. 133–61.
Nunokawa, Jeff. “In Memoriam and the Extinction of the Homosexual.” ELH, vol. 58, 1991, 427–38.
 Scholarship is a different matter, but even Jeff Nunokawa’s devastating AIDS-crisis reading of In Memoriam is mostly concerned with presenting a (dare I say it) historicist reading of Tennyson’s manuscript revisions, the nineteenth-century formation of homosexuality, and bourgeois marriage.