Academic journal article Essays in Literature

"Monk" Lewis and the Slavery Sublime: The Agon of Romantic Desire in the 'Journal.' (Matthew Lewis's 'Journal of a West India Proprietor, Kept during a Residence in the Island of Jamaica')

Academic journal article Essays in Literature

"Monk" Lewis and the Slavery Sublime: The Agon of Romantic Desire in the 'Journal.' (Matthew Lewis's 'Journal of a West India Proprietor, Kept during a Residence in the Island of Jamaica')

Article excerpt

Narrative representations of the West Indian slave colonies run a wide gamut of formal modes and genres. Elsewhere in my writing I have identified the appropriation of georgic themes, the use of allegory, and the figuration of bodily economies in texts dealing with colonization and production.(1) At first blush, and to a considerable degree, such texts appear to obey the rhetorical norms of the formal languages in which they are couched. Typically, however, the persistent tendency is for the modal and generic forces inherent in West Indian colonizing narratives to defy the gravitational pull towards stability and fixed order in favor of subtle, yet nonetheless disruptive poetics and aesthetics.

Matthew "Monk" Lewis's Journal of a West India Proprietor, Kept During a Residence in the Island of Jamaica (hereafter Journal) (1834) is a case in point. Composed during two visits Lewis paid to the island of Jamaica (four months during 1815-16, and six months during 1817-18) to familiarize himself with conditions on two slaveholding estates he inherited from his father, the Journal records mainly the objective particulars of daily life and experiences on his properties, together with Lewis's subjective critiques of slavocratic order and African manners and beliefs, critiques that assume increasing complexity as Lewis struggles to mediate the disparate roles of slave master, liberal aesthete, and romantic idealist. This struggle roots the deeper literary interest of the Journal in its distinctive productions of the sublime as an agonistic encounter among pre- and post-Enlightenment formal modes and sensibilities, supplanting the sublime's traditional aesthetic functions with intimations of a reformed social and political order. Lewis's transitional identity strategically institutes him at that place of juncture where, as Harold Bloom supposes, the sublime functions as "the category that most unites the Enlightenment and Romanticism" (2). As a documentary history of Lewis's subjective consciousness, the Journal mirrors the sublime's progressive evolution from the hypsous of great writing to the excess of struggle, a contest between the claims of the seigneurial ego and the aspirations of the liberal romantic subject.

Among modern theoreticians of the sublime there is a very broad consensus that the sublime does not retain a unitary essence in its transmission across literary history. The sublime manifests remarkable variability as it evolves from its aboriginal source in Longinus (50 AD) through Edmund Burke's eighteenth-century systematizations to the very clear (ideological) shifts occasioned by the increasing valorization of sentience and romantic ideologies in the early nineteenth century.(2) By the time Lewis composed the Journal the sublime had detached itself from its historical moorings in rhetoric and stylistics (Longinus), from aesthetics and subject response theory (Addison, Burke), and migrated into the realm of ideology and political myth, mirroring the late eighteenth-century ideological shift towards a multifaceted critique of freedom and revolution. All of these temperamental dispositions define the sublime as a dynamic mode, capable of "variable signification," coming of age in an atmosphere of aesthetic confusion" (Price 194), and thus making itself ripe for appropriation by subjectivities predisposed to the rhetorical subversion of formal structures, literary and political: Terry Eagleton, though chiefly concerned with the sublime as an ideological category, concedes the significance of its power to decenter the subject and prod it into "enterprise and achievement" (90). Lewis's Journal and similar colonizing narratives reproduce this latter effect of the sublime in both their aesthetic transmutations as well as in their purely material desire.

Lewis's was just one of such subjectivities referred to above, and his choice of the journal form proved an apt context in which to explore the conflicting motives of public good versus private interest; it supplied a uniquely private genre in which to critique the feasibility of romantic desire. …

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