THE ECOLOGY OF WONDER IN ROMANTIC AND POSTMODERN LITERATURE by Louise Economides, Reviewed by Matt Lorenz
 

THE ECOLOGY OF WONDER IN ROMANTIC AND POSTMODERN LITERATURE
By Louise Economides
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) ix + 214 pp.
Reviewed by Matt Lorenz on 2017-02-25.

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The present book pursues a rich and often neglected subject in philosophical aesthetics, highlighting the role of wonder as a counterpoint to sublimity in the literature of and commentaries on the Romantic and postmodern ages. This expansive project is made even more ambitious by the author's decision to discuss not only the roles of wonder and sublimity in British Romanticism and contemporary fiction but also such related topics as ecology, feminism, progressive politics, global capitalism, climate change, environmental toxicity, human and non-human ethics, and various forms of sublimity that philosophers and commentators have identified. The result is an engaging account of the evolving, historically determined role that the aesthetic experience of sublimity has played in modernity, as well as of how it has overshadowed the aesthetic experience of wonder expressed by certain Romantic and postmodern writers. The book's overarching aim is to recuperate wonder as a "philosophically important paradigm" (15), not only within Romantic studies, where it has been underappreciated by commentators drawn to its more terrifying and awe-inspiring sibling, but also in ecocriticism, where the author hopes that it might prove more effective than sublimity and beauty at inciting political action and environmental change.

Economides seeks to fill a gap. Quoting several Romanticists who seem to conceive of wonder as a form or aspect of sublimity, Economides contends that the conflation of wonder and sublimity is the chief contributor to a "lacuna" in Romantic scholarship, steering attention away from "the preponderance of wonder in romantic texts" (16). "[T]here have been no recent monographs within romantic studies," Economides writes, "that have attempted a systematic, theoretically informed study of wonder as a philosophically important paradigm" (15). But it is not quite true to say that Romanticists have been neglecting wonder or to imply that the present book fills the "lacuna" she describes.

The subject of Romantic wonder certainly deserves more attention than it has received, but it is not as underexplored as the author suggests. Since Economides's own monograph reaches beyond the Romantic period, I would have expected her to cite other studies that likewise treat Romantic wonder in part, such as Sarah Tindal Kareem's Eighteenth-Century Fiction and the Reinvention of Wonder (2014), which concludes with a chapter on wonder in the fiction of Mary Shelley and Jane Austen, or Shadidha Bari's Keats and Philosophy: The Life of Sensations (2012), which includes a chapter on "Wondering" in Keats's Endymion. Economides cites neither book.

Moreover, aside from the conspicuous discussion of Erica McAlpine's excellent article, "Keeping Nature at Bay: John Clare's Poetry of Wonder" (Studies in Romanticism, March 2011), on the first page of the present book, Economides overlooks studies that highlight Romantic wonder, such as Matthew Scott, "An Ethics of Wonder and the Cure of Poetry: Wordsworth, William James and the American Reader" in Wordsworth and American Literary Culture (2005) and my own dissertation, Wordsworth's Philosophy of Wonder: Epistemology, Psychoanalysis, Phenomenology (SUNY Stony Brook, 2012). Economides also fails to cite recent publications that more briefly discuss the role of wonder in Romantic aesthetics and literature, such as David Sandner, "'Habituated to the Vast': Ecocriticism, the Sense of Wonder, and the Wilderness of Stars" (Extrapolation, 2000) and Jeff Malpas, "Beginning in Wonder: Placing the Origin of Thinking" in Philosophical Romanticism (2006).

Given all these studies of wonder, Economides seems to overstate the claim that it has been neglected. Yet she is certainly correct in announcing that a book-length examination of wonder in Romantic literature is long overdue. Theodore Watts-Dunton's Poetry and the Renascence of Wonder (1916) appeared more than a century ago, and Richard Holmes's engrossing study of Romantic science, The Age of Wonder (2008), is a work of history and biography, not a philosophical analysis of wonder in romantic literature and aesthetics. Also, Economides rightly observes that the tendency to conflate wonder with sublimity has deflected scholarly attention away from wonder and toward sublimity. My own contribution to the recent book collection, Disabling Romanticism (Palgrave, 2016) argues that Blake's Tharmas, a figure much misunderstood in commentaries on The Four Zoas, represents an other-directed wonder in his unfallen state and a self-directed sublimity in his fallen state. Now is the time for further exploration not merely of the relationship between wonder and sublimity in Romantic aesthetics but also of wonder as a Romantic epistemological attitude.

But this book disperses its focus. Though the introduction promises a "systematic, theoretically informed" study of Romantic wonder, only about a third of its nearly two hundred pages treats this announced topic. While Romantic wonder is clearly highlighted in the first section of chapter 1, which is also the introduction, and in the whole of chapter 2, the remainder of the book primarily treats wonder in general and various forms of sublimity. Indeed, the prominence of sublimity in this book makes the title seem like something of a misnomer.

Furthermore, the amount of attention that Romantic wonder receives in this monograph is not only limited but also insufficiently deep. Rather than examining primary sources that would have influenced Romantic writers, the author leans heavily on secondary accounts such as Philip Fisher's Wonder, the Rainbow, and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences (1998). Books such as this help the author examine the many distinct or overlapping types of sublimity that Romanticists have identified. But wonder has premodern origins that classicists have likewise delineated into various distinct or overlapping types, such as the Homeric (wonder as the recognition of a shared kinship between Achilles and Priam), the Socratic (wonder as the perpetual pursuit of a wisdom that resists knowledge claims), the Platonic (wonder as the archê of philosophical practice and the "proper" disposition of the philosopher), the Aristotelian (wonder as the desire to escape ignorance and acquire knowledge), the skeptical (wonder as the epochê that resists judgments, opinions and assertions), the Baconian (wonder as "broken knowledge"), the Cartesian (wonder as a sibling of astonishment that can pervert the use of reason), and the Kantian (wonder as downgraded from Bewunderung, "admiration," to Verwunderung, "astonishment"). Economides mentions a few of these associations in passing, as when she notes that "philosophy 'begins' in wonder" (16), that wonder is extinguished with the acquisition of knowledge (27), and that wonder is "broken knowledge" (27-28). Yet instead of distinguishing Aristotle's account of wonder from the accounts cited by Fisher, she simply distinguishes it from Fisher's account, and she seems unaware that Descartes thought wonder dangerous to the use of reason (48, 50). In over-relying on Aristotle and Descartes, she privileges wonder as an instrument of knowledge production and elides its roots in Socrates, Plato, and the ancient skeptics. These roots are vital to the Romantic renewal of philosophical wonder, as I have argued in Wordsworth's Philosophy of Wonder. Tellingly, the names of Socrates and Plato do not appear in the index to this book, though Plato is mentioned in passing (16).

The topic of wonder in this book is sometimes upstaged by twentieth-century ecocriticism. Though Economides more than once refers to conclusions that "a survey of wonder in occidental thought reveals" (5, 22), the brief survey furnished by her introduction does not adequately distinguish between different types of wonder and skips over premodern and modern accounts of wonder to furnish a cascade of contemporary accounts that are sometimes ecologically inflected (21-27). The first extended analysis of major philosophers of wonder comes at the end of the book, and the philosophers examined, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, again evince the author's preference for writings of the last century (161-92). As a novice in ecocriticism who has written extensively on the subject of wonder, I find the present book fascinating in its treatment of politics and ecology, yet deficient when it leverages wonder for ecocritical ends.

Aside from the general shortcomings already noted, this book under-represents or misrepresents the role of wonder in the work of three Romantic poets: Keats, Blake, and Wordsworth.

On the first page, Economides associates wonder with Keats's concept of negative capability: "To wonder is to wander," she writes. "To not only tolerate uncertainty in the Keatsian sense of 'negative capability,' but also welcome it as a gateway to new possibilities. To not stay put" (1). Thus ending her discussion of Keatsian wonder, she considers neither its relation to negative capability nor what philosophical sources might have influenced Keats's formulation. Suppose, for example, that she had read Bari's chapter on "Wondering," which probes the oscillation between "wondering" and "wandering" in Keats's Endymion (Bari 88-93). This might have led her to Andrea Wilson Nightingale's article "On Wandering and Wondering: 'Theôria' in Greek Philosophy and Culture" (Arion, Fall 2001), which shows that this word pairing springs from the Platonic conception of the philosopher as a disinterested spectator who wanders, watches, and wonders. Other echoes of Plato appear in Keats's correspondence, such as his letters of November 1817 and March 1818 to Benjamin Bailey. Economides might also have explored Coleridge's influence on Keats's conception of wonder.

She gives more space to Blake. Arguing that Blake's prophetic figure, Orc, might be viewed as symbolizing not so much sublimity and violence as a complex of "wonder, ecological renewal, and revolutionary politics" (11), she notes that in America, Orc is described as "a Wonder o'er the Atlantic sea" (Blake, Complete Poetry & Prose [1988] 53). But other references to Orc in America stress his sublimity, and wonder is elsewhere attributed to other characters. In The Four Zoas, Enion is a "bright wonder" (Blake 304), Vala is "a wonder horrible" (Blake 360), and Los is "O Lovely terrible Los wonder of Eternity" (Blake 370). As Blake's intermingling of the words "wonder," "horrible" and "terrible" suggests, he does not distinguish "wonder" from "sublimity" as carefully as scholars now do. While Blake's annotations and his characterization of Tharmas in The Four Zoas indicate that he understood philosophical wonder, Economides's argument that Orc symbolizes wonder is ultimately unconvincing.

Her discussion of Wordsworth in chapter 1 presents further problems. His work, she suggests, articulates two forms of wonder. She finds a form of "elegiac wonder" expressed by the "Intimations" ode (44-48), and she distills a form of "blank and stupid wonder" from his prose and from a passage in Book VII of the 1805 Prelude (48-51). On this evidence, Economides argues that Wordsworth credits only "the individual child" with the capacity to feel "authentic wonder," while the adult's "stupefying awe" is a mere shadow of it (51). To some degree, then, Wordsworth is said to have "participated" in "the enlightenment reaction against wonder" (51).

But these claims are misleading, for Wordsworth's work provides ample evidence of his belief in and commitment to the authenticity of adult wonder. In Book VI of the 1805 Prelude, for example, Wordsworth recalls the wonder with which he studied geometry at Cambridge:

With Indian awe and wonder, ignorance
Which even was cherished, did I meditate
Upon the alliance of those simple, pure
Proportions and relations... (VI.122-25).

In revising these lines for the final (1850) version of the poem, Wordsworth links wonder with something like the role it plays in the works of Plato and the ancient skeptics: "With Indian awe and wonder, ignorance pleased / By its own struggles, did I meditate..." (VI.121-22). In thus identifying his wonder with an "ignorance pleased / By its own struggles," Wordsworth departs from the Aristotelian view of wonder that the present book privileges. Wordsworth does not consider wonder and knowledge "antithetical," as Economides frequently says (36, 48, 52). As Scott has observed, Wordsworth's work animates two contrasting conceptions of wonder: one that "strives to overcome incomprehension" and another that operates as "a humanizing end in itself" (Scott 218).

Nevertheless, in spite of its shortcomings, I find many parts of this book fascinating, helpful, and enjoyable to read. Economides's generous account of Coleridgean wonder (52-71) strikes me as persuasive in many ways, if insufficiently attentive to the competition between wonder and system in Coleridge's thought. Also, besides her illuminating discussions of the technological sublime in Anna Barbauld (81-90) and Mary Shelley (97-107), her ecocritical reading of Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and Nick Hayes's Rime of the Modern Mariner (2012) sheds disturbing light on the current environmental crisis. In sum, I believe that this ambitious book has made an important contribution to the current conversation about philosophical aesthetics in ecocriticism.

Matt Lorenz is Adjunct Assistant Professor of English at Farmingdale State College.


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