Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Enlightenment Bubbles, Romantic Worlds

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Enlightenment Bubbles, Romantic Worlds

Article excerpt

While many critics have discussed the bubbles that make fleeting but memorable appearances in several well-known Romantic-era poems-most notably, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Eolian Harp" (1796), Anna Letitia Barbauld's "Washing-Day" (1797), and George Gordon, Lord Byron's Don Juan (1818-24)-discussions of these appearances tend to take the bubble's properties and associations for granted.1 To do so is a mistake, because, from Isaac Newton's Opticks (1704) to the South Sea Bubble (1720), from fashionable paintings of cherubic children playing with soap-bubbles to satirical depictions of Gottfried Leibniz's vision of God likewise playing with worlds, the eighteenth century redefines what bubbles mean. To read the above poems in the light of these varied developments is to discover that analogies drawn therein between bubbles and poetry are not self-deprecating, as they are often read.2 Rather, these poems harness the particular meanings that the bubble accrued in the eighteenth century in order to articulate a new idea of literature that defines the act of literary composition as a form of play that brings forth new worlds.

Just as Elizabeth Kraft persuasively argues that readings of Barbauld's "Washing-Day" have been led astray by a "twentieth-century view of ballooning as mere recreation,"3 so I would argue that when recent critics ascribe meaning to soap-bubbles-whether good: "an ethereal, fairy-like imaginative setting," or bad: "financial ruin, impractical plans, silly chimeras"-they insufficiently register a pervasive eighteenth-century discourse that constitutes soap-bubbles as richer and more capacious vessels of meaning.4 Late seventeenthand eighteenth-century natural philosophy understood soap-bubbles' iridescent colors as the product of light's interplay with the soap-film's two surfaces. Metaphorically speaking, recent criticism has insufficiently registered the soap-bubble's double-surfaced significance in eighteenth-century discourse.

One of the special qualities of the set of thin films to which the soap-bubble belongs is that they shift between transparency and opacity, a quality also associated figuratively with literary texts.5 The metaphor implies that one may ei- ther look at or look through a literary text in a surface/depth dynamic that has recently returned to prominence following the proposition of "surface reading" as an alternative to "symptomatic reading."6 One of the approaches to literature that Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus include under the heading of surface reading is a modest "practice of critical description" that reflects the belief that "what we think theory brings to texts ... is already present in them."7 It follows logically that such a critical practice would render unnecessary the critical metalangauge of "surface reading" itself. The eighteenth- and early nineteenthcentury literary texts examined here illustrate this point, rendering unnecessary surface reading as a critical intervention by virtue of their provision of a highly sophisticated account of their own operations in terms of surface/depth relations, an account that belies the desirability or possibility of privileging either "surface" or "symptomatic" reading but rather making the interplay between surface and depth (and between surfaces) integral to the reading process by finding that process to inhere precisely in shifting back and forth between looking through and looking at the literary text.8

To make this point, I will seem to work backward, beginning not with the eighteenth-century texts themselves but with late twentieth- and early twentyfirst-century critical metalanguage, first Bill Brown's essay "Thing Theory" (2001) and then Peter Sloterdijk's book, Bubbles: Microspherology (1998). Brown's essay begins by alluding to the opening of A. S. Byatt's novel, The Biographer's Tale (2001), in which a frustrated graduate student sitting in a literature seminar looks up at the "dirty window, shutting out the sun" and thinks to himself, "I must have things. …

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