It’s a very familiar story: Romanticism began in 1798 and ended in 1900, when it was replaced by Modernism. …Although maybe it wasn’t replaced until 1901; it must have taken a while back then, in those days before cellular phones and email, to “get the memo,” as we say today. How long did it really take for everyone to hear that they were to stop making Romanticist works, and start making Modernist ones? Why, in some of the outlying regions, Romanticism may have limped on until 1902—even 1903!
Pinpoint the year when Romanticism died, or when Modernism perished. Can you have two eras at one time? Some have argued that Postmodernism is over; have you heard? Stop making Postmodernist art! It’s sad; I liked Po-mo; I’ll miss metatextuality (plus I had a killer idea for a story that became self-aware, and demanded the right to vote). But there’s also an upside: no more Shrek movies! (Well, not after this year’s Shrek Forever After.)
All of this begs the question: What happens to eras? And what are they? Surely they exist—Modernism happened—and if they exist, they must have beginnings. Right? Modernism surely began at some point. Do they also have endings? When Modernism started, what became of Romanticism?
Let’s see if we can’t find out.
What do we mean when we call an era an “Era”? When we say that Romanticism lasted from 1798 until 1900, and Modernism from 1900 until 1945, and Postmodernism from 1945 until the present (or 2000 or 2001 or whenever)—what do we mean?
Here it will be helpful to invoke Roman Jakobson’s notion of the dominant, an idea he borrowed from his friend and colleague, Yury Tynyanov. As he wrote in 1935:
[T]he dominant [is] one of the most crucial, elaborated, and productive concepts of Russian Formalist Theory. The dominant may be defined as the focusing component of a work of art: it rules, determines, and transforms the remaining components. It is the dominant which guarantees the integrity of the structure. (41)
Jakobson illustrates this concept with an example from poetry. He asks what, precisely, distinguishes 14th-century Czech poetry from nineteenth-century Czech verse. They’re different, but how? What makes them the poetries of their respective eras? Jakobson finds that
in Czech poetry of the fourteenth century the inalienable mark of verse was not the syllabic scheme but rhyme, since there existed poems with unequal numbers of syllables per line (termed “measureless” verse) which nevertheless were conceived as verses, whereas unrhymed verses were not tolerated during that period.
in Czech Realist poetry of the second half of the nineteenth century, rhyme was a dispensible device, whereas the syllabic scheme was a mandatory, inalienable component, without which verse was not verse; from the point of view of that school, free verse was judged as unacceptable arrhythmia. (42)
In other words, in the verse of each period, there is a dominant: some formal component that is valued over all others, without which a poem “cannot be conceived and evaluated as verse” (ibid).
An English-language example: The sonnet was introduced into English in the early 16th century (when Petrarch’s were first translated); it was popularized by Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella (1591). And for a while—at least fifty years—the sonnet became the dominant form in English poetry. Any poet worth his salt had to be able to write one (and more than one). The sonnet, for a time, became virtually synonymous with poetry—the way that one wrote poetry; its regular meter and rhyme became focusing components, without which “verse [could not] be conceived and evaluated as verse.” (The dominant can be more than a single prosodic element; it can be an entire form, form being the prioritizing of certain elements over others.)
Dominants don’t retain their dominance forever. By the Restoration, sonnets had fallen out of fashion; the form lay dormant until the early 19th century, when it was revived by Wordsworth and Coleridge. Then it fell out of fashion later in the century, to be revived once more in the 1960s (although its time in the sun might be over now, again).
So what are poets doing today, if they’re not writing sonnets? It depends on whom you ask—let’s ask the Language Poets. In The New Sentence (1977), Ron Silliman stressed above all else—made dominant—anti-syllogistic writing:
The qualities of the new sentence:
1) The paragraph organizes the sentences;
2) The paragraph is a unit of quantity, not logic or argument;
3) Sentence length is a unit of measure;
4) Sentence structure is altered for torque, or increased polysemy/ambiguity;
5) Syllogistic movement is (a) limited (b) controlled;
6) Primary syllogistic movement is toward the paragraph as a whole, or the total work;
7) Secondary syllogistic movement is toward the paragraph as a whole, or the total work;
8) The limiting of syllogistic movement keeps the reader’s attention at or very close to the level of language, the sentence level or below. (91)
These eight principles dominate the poem’s remaining prosodic components. They make Language poetry Language poetry. (The emphasis of particular components is precisely what gives a form or genre its identity.)
Put more succinctly, Language poetry is dominated by parataxis: “the placing together of sentences, clauses, or phrases without a conjunctive word or words, as Hurry up, it is getting late! I came—I saw—I conquered.” As Bob Perelman summarized Silliman’s argument in “Parataxis and Narrative” (Chapter 4 in The Marginalization of Poetry, 1996):
A new sentence is more or less ordinary itself, but gains its effect by being placed next to another sentence to which it has tangential relevance: new sentences are not subordinated to a larger narrative frame nor are they thrown together at random. Parataxis is crucial: the autonomous meaning of a sentence is heightened, questioned, and changed by the degree of separation or connection that the reader perceives with regard to the surrounding sentences. (61, my italics)
Or put even more succinctly: “Narrative suppresses immediate attention.” (Thus, one should try to do away with narrative—one should diminish it, make it less dominant.) This advice is very familiar to us today, because parataxis is one of the—if not the—dominant formal elements of our times. For example, I was just reading Ken Edwards’s Nostalgia for Unknown Cities (2007):
Dumpsters were positioned next door. The same black youth, his head tightly bandaged, racing endlessly up and down the escalator in the subway station, from morning until late afternoon. Another branch in the path. Slipping on mud, twice. Unseasonable rain, and an absence of population. Flimsy rain jackets were hurriedly unrolled, but they produced more moisture inside than they repelled outside. Evidence of wealth, but none of its production. Wings were invented here. The way the suicide of the defence ministry adviser was reported was interesting. They would always remember how footsore they were. A purple house, and the picture in a newspaper of a purple polar bear, its colour the inadvertent side-effect of medication. Flags. (41)
Before that, I was rereading Ben Marcus’s Age of Wire and String (1995):
God rides bird to the north, act of wind implemented against the stationary position of most oceans. Certain weather is not recognized by the land it is practiced on; funnel clouds necessarily unravel or bank off any crusted terrain, hailstones and other atmospheric shale burn in to water before the city receives them, whole temperate zones dissipate over a lake and suck upward. The lark, the griffin, and the mallard, all birds of indeterminate temperature and vapor content, function as ignitors of the tide. (19)
Marcus’s writing differs from Edwards’s (they have different subjects, and Marcus is not writing new sentences), but in both cases parataxis is dominant. Marcus even employs parataxis within the sentences themselves: by (presumably) deleting the word “an” in the first sentence (after the comma), we get: “God rides bird to the north | act of wind implemented against the stationary position of most oceans.” Both authors are arranging their words to resist the syllogistic pressure of narrative. They are contemporaries.
Now, at any given time, there are many different dominants, because there are many different groups that are making art, many different communities with their own values and priorities. Doubtless at this very moment an MFA grad is composing a villanelle or a pantoum, blissfully unaware of Ron Silliman’s existence. (He’s learned from his teachers that metaphor and image should be dominant.) And somewhere else, another poet is composing poetry very much in awareness of Ron Silliman, but resisting that pressure toward parataxis. Language poetry is over thirty years old, and you can’t trust anything over thirty, so she’s doing the opposite of what Silliman said to do, and writing hypotactic verse:
If you are going to Mulberry Street,
and if you think that you’ll be back by 12,
and if you have the money to afford one,
and if you are not eaten by a lion,
and if you aren’t enchanted by a wizard,
and if you aren’t seduced by another woman,
and if you still remember my name come noontime,
and if you still like me,
please bring me a sandwich.
If this young renegade can get this poem published, and if audiences like it, and if she can attract a scene around her work, then in time parataxis may fall out of favor, and something else—hypotaxis—may become dominant.
Dominants are contingent, and to some extent arbitrary. They often look strange to people who aren’t part of the communities where they’re valued: Why are those Language poets so keen on resisting narrative? Why were John Cage and his colleagues so dependent on chance operations? Why are the conceptual poets more concerned with gimmicks than with content? Why do those Oulipians always have to use constraints?
Resources being unequally shared, some communities will be larger and more visible than others, and their dominants will be more visible (and hence more dominant). I might argue that contemporary English-language fiction is dominated by realism, and thus by the dominants of that community: character, metaphor, lyricism, image. (Each aspect of a work can have its own dominant: description can be dominated by simile, character by psychological plausibility, structure by character arcs, and so on).
…Of course, realism is nowhere near the dominant form of contemporary fiction: fantasy is. J.R.R. Tolkien, Philip Pullman, J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, and Max Brooks sell far more novels that Jonathan Franzen ever will. (Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if Seth Grahame-Smith has sold more.) Even Cormac McCarthy is something of a fantasist—more fantasist than realist. (Just as some science-fiction authors were “allowed in the door” in the 1960s and 1970s, so too will some fantasists be let in the door today, and acknowledged as “Real Authors” by academicians. It will, I predict, be those fantasists whose sensibilities come closest to the dominant academic paradigms.)
But try telling a realist that he isn’t in charge, especially an academic realist—he’ll never believe you. Communities are resistent; they convince themselves that they alone are writing the literature that matters, that their dominants are the most important criteria—the ones that everyone else should adhere to. Everyone else, you see, is behind the times. Out of step. Reactionary. Derriere-garde.
Jakobson, in his 1935 essay, expressed something similar to this. He claimed that dominants go on to define particular epochs:
We may seek a dominant not only in the poetic work of an individual artist and not only in the poetic canon, the set of norms of a given poetic school, but also in the art of a given epoch, viewed as a particular whole. For example, it is evident that in Renaissance art such a dominant, such an acme of the aesthetic criteria of the time, was represented by the visual arts. Other arts oriented themselves toward the visual arts and were valued according to the degree of their closeness to the latter. On the other hand, in Romantic art the supreme value was assigned to music. Thus, Romantic poetry oriented itself toward music: its verse is musically focused; its verse intonation imitates musical melody. This focusing on a dominant which is in fact external to the poetic work substantially changes the poem’s structure with regard to sound texture, syntactic structure, and imagery; it alters the poem’s metrical and strophical criteria and its composition. In Realist aesthetics the dominant was verbal art, and the hierarchy of poetic values was modified accordingly. (42)
We repeat some echo of this idea when we say things like, “The Twentieth Century was dominated by cinema,” or “Literature is in decline,” or “We live in a time of ‘Image Culture,’ not ‘Text Culture.’” Such claims express the impression that, as Jakobson and Tynyanov noted, at different times, different forms seem to be more in vogue, given more attention, driving the culture. Opera, as wonderful as it is, isn’t very important today—at least not classical opera.
Although between 1975 and 1990 (or so), opera experienced something of a resurgence in the US, and could be said to have been driving the classical music then:
…but perhaps not any more.
Note, however, Jakobson’s condition “we may seek.”
I first encountered Jakobson’s dominant in Postmodernist Fiction (1987), where Brian McHale cleverly reinterprets it through the lens of postmodernism (an idea he develops even further in his 1993 book, Constructing Postmodernism). If the dominant is contingent upon the artist’s community values, then perhaps it’s perception is contingent in the critic’s community values as well. In other words
one and the same text will, we can infer, yield different dominants depending upon what aspect of it we are analyzing [as well as] which questions we ask of the text, and the position from which we interrogate it. (6)
This is how one literary critic can read The Unnamable (1953) as a seminal Modernist text—an example of High Modernism nonpareil—while another can consider it the beginnings of Postmodernism. The first critic sees (to invoke Helmut Lethen) presence, narrative, and the construction of a world, while the second sees absence, anti-narrative, and deconstruction.
One might expect this kind of ambiguity of dominant to prevail in transitional periods: The Unnamable might be unnamable because it exists between Modernism and Postmodernism. Possibly. But see, for another example, McHale’s dual reading of Ulysses as both Modernist and Postmodernist. Ulysses? Very few critics date Postmodernism as starting as early as 1922. Ah, but the Postmodernist critic who claims Ulysses is writing from the perspective of Postmodernism, and as such has been trained to look very closely at texts for examples of rupture, and irony, and indeterminacy, and ontological uncertainty.
And where we seek, there shall we find.
The Longue Durée
What happens, then, when an era ends? Do its dominants go away?
No. They remain present, but become subordinated by new dominants. People continue making artworks mostly as they did before, but gradually their attention shifts, and they begin to emphasize different aspects of the work.
When I first went to college, I studied realist fiction, and I wrote realist fiction—I was inspired by Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Amy Hempel, Joy Williams, John Cheever. Afterward, I began reading postmodernist fiction, and my own writing shifted to become more like Donald Barthelme, Kathy Acker, Carole Maso, Steve Katz, Yuriy Tarnawsky.
It could have gone differently. I applied to Columbia, and didn’t get in. If I had, maybe I would have learned to write more like Ben Marcus—I still could, if I wanted to. (Then maybe I could get published in Sleepingfish.)
You can see temporal shifts in aesthetic very clearly in certain quarters. Serial works make for great case studies, since they’re continuously made over long periods of time. Consider Dick Tracy:
(I tried finding some images of “Groovy Grove,” Tracy’s hep 1970s sidekick, but the internet, for once, wasn’t forthcoming.) (Meanwhile, check out the 1990 Dick Tracy movie for the most Batman-esque Tracy you’ll ever care to see.) (1989 Batman, that is.)
Dick Tracy never stopped being a detective—he’s still going at it today, long after Chester Gould’s retirement (1977) and passing (1985). Its dominant concept and aesthetic remained firmly rooted in the 1930s: it’s a sequential comic strip starring a cop who fought gangsters. But other elements of the strip slowly changed to reflect the time, and continue changing even today. Guess who our lantern-jawed hero is busy combatting this very moment?
That’s right: Al Qaeda. (You can sleep easily.)
How does this relate to Romanticism, and its disappearance? Well, let’s take a moment and define what we mean by Romanticism. Here are some commonly agreed-upon characteristics of that era—components that were dominant:
- a yearning for a connection with nature
- an emphasis on strong emotion, especially over reason
- the valorization of youth and fitness
- a pride in regionalist (folk) aesthetics
- an appreciation for arts and crafts
Not everyone at the time made art that exhibited these characteristics—but enough were that when we look now at the period, we perceive these elements as dominants. (I’ll leave aside for now the era’s formal dominants, but we can find those, too—or argue that we can.)
Have these traits, these emphases gone away? No, not at all. One can find many places where they are still very highly prized.
The Lord of the Rings:
Culture is recombinant. Nothing goes away for all that long. Certain things, certain aspects of art may fall out of favor…but someone somewhere always loves them. Elsewhere, those passed-over elements bide their time, hiding in plain sight, waiting for a chance to return, to regain their dominance.
Critics can do a lot to make the supposedly disappeared more visible. Consider the longue durée, a form of revisionist history developed by the French Annales School. (In particular, it was developed Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre in the 1920s and 30s, and popularized by Fernand Braudel, who conducted longue durée studies of the Mediterranean and capitalism.)
In this approach, rather than proceeding by studying events or relatively short-lived eras (decades, centuries, eras), the historian traces out historical movements over much longer periods of time. Thus, for example, one can argue that the Modern Era began in the 12th century (or even earlier), with the invention of the clock tower (when common time became abstracted, and the day was no longer chiefly defined by sunrise and sunset). Capitalism has had, arguably, an even longer history than that; democracy one even longer.
When one relaxes the commonly-held emphasis on history as a constant overturning—a series of ongoing revolutions—a string of minor apocalypses—one gains a much different view of human progress: it becomes possible to trace ideas throughout culture, watching how they change as they come into expression in different times and places.
The book that I’m most looking forward to in 2010 is The Novel: An Alternative History by Stephen Moore, which very much appears to be a longue durée work of literary criticism. Moore traces the novel from the 4th century BCE until 1600:
Anyone who thinks linguistic extravagance in novels began with Ulysses in 1922 hasn’t done his homework. [...] The novel has been around since at least the 4th century BCE (Xenophon’s Cryopaedia) and flourished in the Mediterranean area until the coming of the Christian Dark Ages. The earliest novels were Greek romances and Latin satires, where the plot was a mere convenience that allowed the author to engage in rhetorical display, literary criticism, sociopolitical commentary, digressions, and so on. It was an elastic form that made room for interpolated poems, stories within stories, pornography and parodies where the realistic and fantastic blended together. (In other words, ‘magic realism’ was not invented in the 1960s by the Latin American ‘Boom’ writers, but instead has always been a property of the novel.) These novels peaked with Apuleius’s Golden Ass and Heliodorus’s Ethiopian Story, and even the Christians produced a novel before the fall of Rome ended this phase of the novel’s history. (That Christian novel was called Recognitions, remembered today only because it may be the first instance of the Faust theme in Western literature, and because it gave its name to one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century.) (2–4)
If one were to take a similar approach to the sonnet, it may turn out that it didn’t disappear between 1860 and 1960—and it might still be around right now. We might just not be paying it the proper attention. (Jen Bervin’s Nets (2004) engages with the sonnet form. Who else is doing so? No doubt there are others.)
And there are other ways of reading established history. We forget too easily today, perhaps, that Shakespeare was considered no great shakes until the Romantics revitalized him, and made his reputation. (He’s been the Greatest Writer in the English Language for only about 150 years.) The poet, scholar, and all-around curmudgeon Yvor Winters made a career (and numerous enemies) out of his anti-Romantic readings of Elizabethan poetry; see his essay in Elizabethan Poetry: Modern Essays in Criticism (1967) for the argument that the sonnet should not be regarded the dominant form of the Elizabethan Era. (Winters prefered instead a group of writers he labeled the anti-Petrarchans.) As he wrote in Forms of Discovery (1967): “Only a master of style can deal successfully in a plain manner with obvious matter” (96). (I took a Ben Jonson class in college with a teacher who subscribed to Winters’s views, and who never missed the opportunity to curse Shakespeare and those foolish enough to be enamored with him. Such frivolous writing, he always called it—such fantasy!)
…Of course, the Romantics saw Shakespeare as a kindred spirit; they might have dated Romanticism as starting in the 1590s…
So, returning to the question of when Romanticism began and ended: can we agree on 1590 until the present?
- Edwards, Ken. Nostalgia for Unknown Cities. Hastings, East Sussex: Reality Street Editions, 2007.
- Jakobson, Roman. “The Dominant.” Language in Literature. Trans. Krystyna Pomorska. Eds. Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy. Boston: Belknap Press, 1990.
- Marcus, Ben. Age of Wire and String. 1995. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1995.
- McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. New York and London: Methuen, 1987.
- McHale, Brian. Constructing Postmodernism. Oxon, Routledge, 1992.
- Moore, Stephen. The Novel: An Alternative History. London: Continuum Books: 2010.
- Perelman, Bob. The Marginalization of Poetry. Princeton, Princeton UP: 1996. Print.
- Silliman, Ron. The New Sentence. New York: Roof Books, 1977. Print.
- Winters, Yvor. Forms of Discovery: Critical and Historical Essays on the Forms of the Short Poem in English. Athens, OH: Swallow Press, 1967.