Last week when I was hanging around the site reliving past glories, I was sort of shocked to realize how out of date my project description is – the prospectus I mention being about to hand in was approved way back in November of 2008. (I was also like, man, we’ve been blogging kind of a long time, albeit sporadically.)

So, what do things look like nearly three years, four chapters, two articles, and one pass at the job market later? I now call my project “That Willing Suspension”: Signification and the Ethics of Literary Form in 19th-century British Poetry – very dissertation-y, but doing the job for right now. Somewhere along the line I decided not to write on Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and, more recently, have decided to write a chapter on Percy Shelley. Among other things, the change suggests that I’m really trying to think this as a credible “long 19th century” project, trying to do something other than write an influence study, say, and it also has the effect of at least loosening the grip of 1855. Many of my original ideas about suspension have proved to be pretty constant and borne out in these poems (I was able to mine the prospectus for parts of my dissertation abstract, for instance). Right now, there are two central threads in all of this: suspension marks the limits of our ability to know (as in the suspension of reference or suspended animation), but it also structures a response to that uncertainty (a movement that I argue is parallel to the way that the Kantian sublime is supposed to work—the inhibition followed by supersensible awareness). And I’ve spent a lot of time, particularly as of late, trying to recover experiences of failure and falling short and consider the different kinds of efforts that people make to work through those and remain receptive to experience. Where Matthew Arnold said that poetry was a criticism of life, I’d also say that it constitutes a practice of living. You know, if I wanted to make a slogan out of it.

In the chapter I’m revising right now on Christina Rossetti, I’ve found myself talking less about “images” or “language” of suspension, less about the de Manian referential aberration, and more about techniques or practices of suspension. I’ve started to call this a shift into “method,” though I perhaps have yet to fully work out what that means. In some ways, I’m trying to draw a distinction between the willing giving-over of one’s “disbelief” (as in Coleridge) to an even more actively undertaken mental posture of engaging with an impermanent world. Part of my argument about Rossetti is that suspension is part of her ongoing practice of faith – not a doctrine, but a method of maintaining a balance between engagement and non-attachment. I’ve also been trying to use Rossetti to think about other experiences that overlap with suspension, such as the state of being “held up,” which to me suggests both exemplarity (being held up as an example) and frustration (finding yourself thwarted, prevented from moving forward). This is proving to be more complicated than I bargained for, but it may provide a way for me to get past some of the binaries I’ve been rather comfortably deconstructing over the past few years.

Through all of this, I’ve probably moved closer to formalism than I anticipated. I’m still  not sure that what I’m doing is formalism per se, but it does certainly have an affinity to the practices of strategic formalism that Caroline Levine laid out in her 2006 Victorian Studies article. I talk a lot about how suspension enables my poets to make interventions in other fields – philosophy, religion, science, and so on – which is, I think, somewhat similar to what Levine is getting at when she posits a “destabilizing” relationship between literary and other institutional forms. It’s possible that suspension is (at least partially) what happens when certain kinds of forms overlap, a kind of force field produced most strongly by poetic form when it meets, say, religious doctrine. (I feel like there must be a way to talk about this in terms of musical suspension, the dissonance produced by unexpected simultaneity … but I never quite feel myself to be on solid ground here.)

Religion itself has also become a lot more present in the dissertation. In retrospect, it seems like a fairly obvious direction for a project that deals with, say, Browning’s “Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician,” or that comes within ten feet of anything Christina Rossetti ever wrote. It’s also, of course, present in Coleridge: the “willing suspension of disbelief” is what “constitutes poetic faith.” And yet. It’s only recently that I feel like I’ve begun to consider these questions on their own terms, possibly as the central terms of this project. (And the religion thing is really the subject of another post.) We’ll see, of course, how that shakes out when I start writing about Shelley next month.

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