Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Mary Wollstonecraft and the "Reserve of Reason"

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Mary Wollstonecraft and the "Reserve of Reason"

Article excerpt

I. Reason and Sensation in the 1790s

IN A RECENT STUDY OF THE "DISCOURSE ON ENTHUSIASM," JOHN MEE HAS described Wordsworth's Prelude as "an extended attempt to demonstrate that a continuity of subjectivity could survive and benefit from the transports of enthusiasm and remain grounded in the world without dissolving into it." (1) Current British studies of the intellectual culture of the 1790s, and of Romanticism and beyond now abound with attempts to rediscover a lost relation between affect and reason, to examine the rational self's embodiment in the world and to suggest that the self remains "grounded" by resisting visionary transports through regulating emotion. The classic feminist endeavor to "include affect under the sign of cognition," as Isobel Armstrong recently put it, (2) has been supplemented by the view of poetry, in Mee's useful formulation, as a kind of "regulatory discourse" that determines the circumstances under which the rational self may be "transported" with enthusiasm without losing its contours in the "wild" enthusiasm of the crowd or of the religious visionary. Such revisions have in turn challenged a pat view of the archetypal male rationalist of the late Eighteenth Century. The view of William Godwin as a kind of "cold fish" inhabiting the "frozen zone" of the radical Enlightenment that Wordsworth supposedly set forth in The Prelude has been significantly revised, (3) while the stock view of Immanuel Kant as a dry formalist in the metaphysics of morals has been challenged by recent studies of the "anthropological applications" of his thought, and his alleged "embodiment of reason." (4) Many of these studies serve to historicize affect, to look at specific and significant moments of transaction between sensation and thought, rather than to describe a decontextualized sensation either as under the tyrannical sway of reason, or as escaping it in the anarchic and unregulated impulses of popular politics and dissenting extremism. (5) And far from figuring a transcendental authority that is inattentive to the differential life of embodied experience, this increasingly historicized power of reason shows itself, both for Godwin and for Kant, to foster its own dangerously excessive species of enthusiasm in its combined activity with an ambivalent and untrustworthy power of imagination. The worrying capacity to "rave with reason" that Kant encountered in a number of his contemporaries (notably J. G. Herder) required that reason itself be regulated or, as I will suggest below, that it be oriented with reference to sensibility.

But what can these revisions to our understanding of the intellectual culture of the 1790s and its attitudes to emotion, this closer attention both to the structure of reason and the structure of feeling through an account of their significant interactions, tell us about female participants in the culture of radical Enlightenment? (6) Are not accounts such as Mee's in danger of reproducing a traditionalist view of the transcendentalizing effects of poetry in the Romantic period, by describing poetry's overcoming and regulating of an embodied particularity which for feminists such as Cora Kaplan long represented a form of resistance to the canon? (7) Shouldn't we after all be celebrating the capacity of sensibility and the life of the body to escape rational predication, to embody an eternally differential experience that escapes the domineering formalizations of reason? Yet it is not only canonical male poets who seek to regulate emotion in the revolutionary decade. As Mee reminds us, part of Mary Wollstonecraft's polemic against Burke in the Vindication of the Rights of Men serves to attack his "romantic enthusiasm," his attempt to make sentiment serve the ends of a nationalist and hierarchical domesticity against the revolutionary "cold mathematicians." (8) Even so, the breathless animation of the Vindication of the Rights of Men struggles to articulate a type of passionate resistance of reason to Burke's enthusiastic and irrational counter-revolutionary rallying call. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.