Sunday, November 28, 2010

Keats and the Activist Double Bind

Thirty years of secondary literature treats Keats’s political beliefs as a question: it overwhelmingly proceeds as though there is a relation between Keats’s writings and his radical views, and as though that relation is unusual and needs explaining. In this it echoes Keats himself, in passages of The Fall of Hyperion that intimate that Keats is the sort of thinker who is “less” than an activist. The main response to Keats’s self-accusation is a consensus that the political insights in his writings are far from negligible, but also that it remains difficult to phrase, not what his beliefs are, but what he thought he was doing.

In statements frequently adduced by the secondary literature, Keats intends to make himself useful “on the Liberal side of the question” and avows that he would “jump down Aetna for any great Public good” (Letters, 9 April 1818). He determines that he should “set [him]self doing something, and live no longer upon hopes.” Writing journalism on the liberal side for pay is an example of what “doing something” would mean, alongside activities like not relying on his friend Brown, “living in town in a cheap lodging, and endeavouring, for a beginning, to get the theatricals of some paper.” Keats’s rather low standard for “doing something” shows that he feels an imperative to be active, but also that he considers himself not to have done anything, and still sees nothing convincingly pressing to do, except not borrow from Brown. The letter is not killer evidence of Keats’s social determination. Similarly, his remark about Aetna has sometimes been offered as proof of his dedication to social involvement. Yet it implies that he can’t think of anything he could do, despite infinite willingness, that would result in a “great Public good.” He’d be happy to jump down Aetna; but he hasn’t jumped down Aetna, which means that nothing short of that is available either. A reader rooting for Keats to be politically active will like the Aetna statement if she interprets it as earnest, but if she interprets it as ironic, may hear it as defensive and untrue--conveniently overlooking all the actual things that he could have done to effect public good. “Great public good,” Keats might answer, “I said ‘great public good’”; and who can argue that great public good isn’t required. If we feel inclined to question the concept of greatness and its ability to downplay small actual goods, the strength of that inclination is also a symptom of the current dominant way of coping with the difficulty of disclosing opportunities: focusing intensively on local or short-term matters and setting aside their connections to terrible systems.

Leigh Hunt believes that Keats and Shelley are separated by a great distance, yet his contrast between them actually indicates the double bind of the post-Waterloo political reality in which both Keats and Shelley are caught:

Keats, notwithstanding his unbounded sympathies with ordinary flesh and blood, and even the transcendental cosmopolitics of Hyperion, was so far inferior in universality to his great acquaintance [Shelley], that he could not accompany him in his daedal rounds with nature, and his Archimedean endeavours to move the globe with his own hands. (The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt, Vol. 2 [London: Smith, Elder, 1850], 202)

Hunt references one normative picture of the activist: someone who endeavors to be Archimedes. The ideal picture of how social justice comes about is that it is to be won through the ever harder work of individuals in groups, laboring under a logic of recognition that is increasingly hypothetical and existentialized, and yet never given up. Hunt’s retrospective portrait of Shelley rejects the “realist” assumptions of political complicity in a way that complements Keats’s perplexity at them, and should not be moralized as overreaching (or heroic) any more than Keats’s attitude should be moralized as inadequate (or more knowing). Carl Schmitt moralizes both when he notices the ambivalence of the word “romantic” for restoration radicals: “extreme individualism and vegetative torpor are named together as characteristics” (Political Romanticism, 25). But Shelley and Keats are placed in their double bind by post-Napoleonic political realms: the same political theory that promotes the indiscernability of options in the political field, and makes it difficult to imagine intervening in a present that will always be murkily transitional, insists on the monopoly value of “active alteration.” Shelley, who decides to do it all himself, and Keats, who has sincere radical beliefs and yet does not see himself as knowing either what to do about them or how to adjust his views, are not reacting arbitrarily. The Shelley/Keats pairing of attitudes is an artifact of thinking revolution and restoration together: an amalgamation of options, rendering the desire for stronger opposition recessive or necessarily “impossibly” external, accompanied by the assertion that nothing but positivity is valuable, rendering recessive opposition null and external opposition nonexistent.

The enemies of romanticism agree that romanticism was the initial resistance to the formation of the double bind above. On one level, the aftermath of Waterloo ends with the consolidation of European nation-states, and the consolidation of the state in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. These developments are rival ways of trying to make clear what the process for altering society is. In that case, though, the ending of the aftermath of Waterloo itself has an ending in the globalization that undermines the nation-state and the nineteenth-and twentieth-century theories that assumed its existence. What would end—or end again—the open-ended aftermath of “Waterloo”? Schmitt asserts that there isn’t a lot at stake in being a romantic, because really there is only realism; but in the society delineated by the parameters of realism, there isn’t a lot at stake in being a realist, either. As the Shelley/Keats pairing within romanticism can be understood as an artifact of this dominant realism, the romantic/realist pairing itself is no more real, given anticlimactic translatability of realist possibility. Schmitt’s comment that “romantic activity . . . is a contradiction in terms” (100) barely deflects the insinuation that “political activity” is a contradiction in terms—as he later implies through his radicalization of the “political” as willingness to die and kill. Perceiving the ambiguity of “political activity,” Schmitt heightens activity in order to keep calling it politics, and so diminishes the political again even as he seems to insist on it. Perhaps getting beyond the double bind of activism and doing nothing would mean no longer concealing the nonexistence of “political activity,” either by rarefying or by expanding its definition.

photo: cemetery, Urique, MX

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