Ideology of Imagination: Subject and Society in the Discourse of Romanticism, The

Ideology of Imagination: Subject and Society in the Discourse of Romanticism, The

Robbins, Bruce


The Ideology of Imagination is a strikingly impressive intervention in a field that has not lacked impressive critical performances. Distinctively, Forest Pyle approaches the humanist commonplace of imagination-as-redemption at once from a Marxist and a deconstructive perspective. He thus discovers many fresh things about some very familiar texts; in particular, he documents a fascinating series of slips, contradictions, and failures in how the imagination is supposed to work, or as he eloquently puts it, “a division in the very faculty that is being called upon to unify” (p. 61). At the same time, his double perspective also makes contributions to both theoretical discourses.

On the Marxist side, it effectively rewrites Romanticism’s activist idealism (turtles of imagination all the way down) as a parallel to Althusser’s refusal of the “false consciousness” model, his insistence on the irreducibility of ideology. Pyle gets a lot of credit for this; up to now, a Marxist criticism without recourse to demystification has been much easier to embrace in theory than in practice. He also gets credit, along with Michael Sprinker and Fredric Jameson, for the unlikelihood of enlisting de Man in the analysis of ideology. I am somewhat less convinced by what Pyle offers as “materialism,” which tends to slide toward “the material, non-human operations of language” (p. 226), becoming a synonym for the putting of conceptual schemes “into crisis (p. 218) . It is perhaps worth noting how often it is death (enshrinement, entombment) that figures the material limits of the human in this book-signs of a second book peeping out of the first, perhaps, and evidence of a deeper, richer, and more charged engagement with humanism than simple opposition.

On the deconstructive side, Pyle valuably refuses to accept anti-humanist “disruption” as the basis of a politics of criticism (p. 222) and insists that the watered-down anti-essentialist common sense of constructivism is equally unsatisfactory. To show that something is fictional is simply not to say enough about it: “Far from spelling its undoing, the revelation of the nation’s `pure fictionality’ is the very condition of its ideological effectivity” (p. 93). At the same time, arguments in this form (the model of suture, the rift that joins and constitutes) have the interesting side-effect of undermining Pyle’s own polemic against the socalled New Historicism. For what is this recuperative turn but a New Historicist topos? But so much the better: the squabble between deconstruction and New Historicism was never more than an academic media event, and Pyle need not fear other would-be mediators between history and poststructuralism.

It is of course daring of Pyle to take on texts as often and brilliantly discussed as Wordsworth’s “Dream of the Arab” and Shelley’s “Triumph of Life.” If not all the ambitions here are fulfilled, it is perhaps because the weight of deconstruction lies heavier here-too heavy for history to deal with. It is not superfluous of Pyle to point out that Wordsworth’s Arab is an Arab. But when Pyle accuses Wordsworth of Orientalism, “a process of identification and appropriation-a process of enshrinement-which empties the Arab figure of his otherness” (p. 135), he is going through abstract political motions in a historical void. I’m unconvinced by the initial assertion of otherness in Pyle’s account (the terror is clearly of the deluge), and perhaps for this reason unconvinced by the supposed “conversion” of this otherness into familiarity. Did such narratives necessarily serve “ultimately to consolidate a sense of European cultural identity” (p. 138)? Perhaps, and perhaps not. Pyle does not seem to recognize, even so far as to argue against it, the Enlightenment universalist in Wordsworth, the historically real possibility (see for example Samir Amin’s Eurocentrism) that a European might not, at least at certain moments or in certain respects, be a “Romantic nationalist” or Orientalist. This is a damaging refusal to acknowledge a difference within-within his authors, and within Europe.

In much the same way, to assert apropos of “Triumph” that the (Enlightenment) notion of a “true Sun” represents “the idealism of the poet-narrator but not of the poem” (p. 205) is to force a pure, undivided Shelley (or poem) on us just when Pyle’s case would have seemed to produce a divided, more interesting Shelley (or poem). It is a strange procedure for a deconstructive critic. More generally, Pyle’s Shelley, seeing poetry as “a material force . . . in a history understood as the strife-ridden and discontinuous confrontation of cultural and social forces” (p. 159), is a somewhat anachronistic figure of (materialist or Benjaminian) virtue. I’m not sure I understand perfectly the argument at the top of page 204, but if Pyle is praising Shelley for exposing the “irreconcilability between Good and the means of good,” he is making Shelley repeat one of the least original and most conservative of political morals. On the other hand, Pyle’s portrait of a Shelley who deconstructs his own utopian poetics and insists on the failures of the project of imagination has a great deal to say to our time.

Lest one suspect too neat a celebration of the second-generation Romantics at the expense of the first generation, the chapter on George Eliot intervenes to complicate the scheme. Here the argument gestures, on the one hand, toward feminism and the possibility that female imagination might be recoded more positively, and (less self-consciously) toward Lukacs. What could be more covertly Lukacsian than Pyle’s analysis of the forced transfer of “sympathy” from characters to narration and the way “the production of sympathy in The Mill on the Floss only demonstrates the absence of what Raymond Williams calls a ‘knowable community”‘ (p. 277)? These gestures are welcome, for one might otherwise feel here, where the argument moves from the epistemological (imagination) to the affective (sympathy), a certain absence of affect-an absence of the sorts of political feeling that feminism and Marxism, for all their imperfections, insist on. The chapter’s last sentence speaks of a failure (of Eliot’s novels to heal the breaks in community produced by imagination) that produces “if not a community, then a model of ‘aesthetic teaching’ that continues to be the most effective means of concealing-if not healing-the break that. . `has no end”‘ (p. 281). Pyle doesn’t evaluate this logic, and even the book’s conclusion, which finally opens the question of evaluation, does not push it farther. It may only be vestigial humanism on my part, but I am eager to know more of how he feels about it.


Rutgers Universtity

Copyright Comparative Literature Summer 1997

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