Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Beautiful Conceptions and Tourist Kitsch: Wordsworth's "Written with a Slate Pencil ..."

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Beautiful Conceptions and Tourist Kitsch: Wordsworth's "Written with a Slate Pencil ..."

Article excerpt

THOSE WHO GO FORTH AS TOURISTS COME HOME WITH KITSCH. SUCH IS the banal tragedy of the search for authenticity: it leaves in its wake a Sherman's march of simulacra, an increased rather than diminished distance from its object. Worst of all, the travesty of historical experience escapes the experiencer. Kitsch is in the eye of the beholder rather than the possessor. It is often left for those who stayed home to break the news that the traveller's memorabilia consists only of so much junk.

What is it about such quests that turn on the seeker in such cruel ways? Historian Pierre Nora suggests that the modern discipline of history condemns us to a similar trajectory in its struggle to undo a distorting alienation from organic relations to the past, from embodied memory. History's attempt to compensate for memory's erosion is, according to Nora, actually a war on memory, further fragmenting older forms of temporal awareness sewn into flesh by ritual and community, holistic forms that cannot fit the truth-functional demand to know "what happened." In a provocative and somewhat elegiac essay, Nora divides memory from history, portraying the second as an insidious body-snatcher of the first whose sway has become all but complete. The essay appeared in a special issue of Representations, and the editors of the volume amplified the shifting uncertainty of a modern history that, in order to repair memory, renders it suspect. This in turn contributes to an instability in historical practice itself. "The claim that memory is historical," write Natalie Zemon Davis and Randolph Starn, "is itself subject to shifting historical boundaries...."(1) For Nora, history is historical largely because history always occupies a certain technology of preservation, one now dominated by an information superhighway, overwhelming the relatively narrow, personal, familial sphere of identity-formation. Contemporary technologies of history have a global reach, and they foster imperial designs on all other forms of transmission. "Indeed," says Nora, "we have seen the tremendous dilation of our very mode of historical perception, which, with the help of the media, has substituted for a memory entwined in the intimacy of a collective heritage the ephemeral film of current events."(2)

Like those in literary studies who lament the explosion of the traditional canon, Nora complains that an ungovernable multiplicity seems to have broken from the constraints of tradition; his observation that "[t]he decomposition of memory-history has multiplied the number of private memories demanding their individual histories" takes the tone of a complaint (15). But the consequences of this modern turn are more complicated than hegemonic revision. According to Nora, old-fashioned history's abstraction and systematicity, substituting objectivity for embodied intimacy, has destabilized internally, and somnambulistically circled back on itself. History's "objective" separation from memory renders it in the final analysis a puppet of memory. On the one hand, Nora asserts, "History is perpetually suspicious of memory, and its true mission is to suppress and destroy it" (9). On the other, though, "memory dictates what history writes" (21). And this second, mesmerizing memory creates a strange new practice in historical discipline: it ushers in "a new type of historian ... who, unlike his precursors is ready to confess the intimate relation he maintains to his subject" (18). So not only does history waylay memory; this kidnapping leads to a substitution, a compulsive transferential relation to its object. The return of alienated memory looms even more spectrally vampiric than the displacements of the methodological discipline of written history.

In Nora's remarkable history of history here, the repressed returns as a cheesy simulacrum in the Imaginary. Kitsch, perhaps, is the result of this identificatory bond. And kitsch is also the greatest risk of those who plumb their supposed depths and the supposed depths of the world for "powerful feelings. …

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