The Shadow of Death: Literature, Romanticism, and the Subject of Punishment

Article excerpt

THE SHADOW OF DEATH: LITERATURE, ROMANTICISM, AND THE SUBJECT OF PUNISHMENT. By Mark Canuel. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007. Pp. xii + 206. ISBN 0-691-12961-4. £ 19.95.

Writing to his friend James Boswell in 1785, Sir Joshua Reynolds thanked him 'for carrying me yesterday to see the execution at Newgate', and expressed his view that 'it is a vulgar error, the opinion that it is so terrible a spectacle, or that it any way implies a hardness of heart or cruelty of disposition [] I consider it is natural to desire to see such sights, and, if I may venture, to take delight in them'. Reynolds' remarks could serve as an epigraph to Mark Canuel's provocative and wide-ranging new book, for they exemplify the attitudes against which the Romanticperiod authors on whom Canuel focuses were fighting as they struggled to articulate a new ethics, aesthetics and politics of punishment. Canuel's thesis is that 'the Romantic opposition to the death penalty', while unarguably 'a species of humanitarian reform', was more significant for its endeavour 'to redefine the relationship between political subjects and legal structures, and thus to redefine the very meaning of punishment more generally'. This meaning, he argues, cannot be reduced to a single doctrine but rather takes the form of an ongoing negotiation or debate between conflicting but mutually necessary imperatives: on the one hand 'lenience and economy', the utilitarian notion that punishment should 'economise on suffering' and aim to be 'useful to those who are subjected to it'; on the other hand 'severity and rigour', the retributive principle that punishment should be systematically proportioned to offences, with the punishment of death the ultimate sanction. Exploring the implications of this fundamental conflict in the work of Byron, Wordsworth, Austen, Shelley and others, Canuel is particularly attentive to these writers' emphasis on the imagination as a faculty which mediates between the visible operations of the law as a system of sanctions and the subjectivities of those it is designed to affect, punished and spectator alike. Whether the imagination is engaged in the form of horror at the spectacle of suffering or a haunted or chastising conscience, what Canuel calls 'the imaginative involvement between the subject and penal sanctions' is central to his analysis of the Romantic discourse of punishment and its persistence to the present day.

The Shadow of Death is structured as a series of case studies of the complex ways in which specific authors confronted - directly or obliquely - the death penalty and the more intractable question of the aims of punishment. In a superb opening chapter on Romilly, Bentham and the reformist project, Canuel provides a lucid and nuanced account of the conflicting rationales of reform and the efforts of its proponents to establish an imaginative connection between the law and 'the manners and feelings of the British people'. Here he also explains how his work departs from the emphasis in Foucault's work - most notably Discipline and Punish - on the internalisation of 'habits of order and obedience' under a disciplinary regime. For Canuel, it is the very 'exteriority' of punishment that accounts for 'its profound engagement with moral-political subjects. The systems of penalties that are foreign to the self are also intimate to its deliberations and decisions' - a point on which he elaborates in the extended reading of Austen's Mansfield Park in the fourth chapter.

From Romilly, Canuel moves in his second chapter to Hannah More, whose call for acquiescence to providential authority produces a 'divided vantage point on a system of rational rewards and punishments', ultimately - albeit never completely - 'evacuating' the authority of secular institutions and laws and their validity in the regulation of conduct. Canuel's discussion of the tension (or, at times, confusion) between secular/reformist and providential/anti-reformist strains in More's writing is subtle and suggestive, although to my mind only loosely tied to the book's ostensible subject, largely because More has nothing to say about the death penalty itself. …