I first started thinking about this post after Wednesday’s Victorian Seminar with Catherine Robson on “one-hit-wonder” W. E. Henley’s one hit, “Invictus,” comparing its reception as a recitation poem within America to Rudyard Kipling’s “If–” and its imbrication within the English educational system. These two poems are, of course, ridiculously popular, part of which can be explained, as CR pointed out, because of the shiftiness of the “I” of “Invictus,” the “you” of “If–.”
One of the things that came up during the presentation and Q & A was the huge fissure between how we as literary critics typically think of these poems–as exemplars of Victorian imperialist manliness, liberal individualism, the stiff upper lip–and how those of the general public feel about them. Here I won’t go into the many nuanced insights that CR gave concerning the critical, institutional, national, and popular reception of these poems.What I was struck by and will fixate upon is just one particular “meaning”–their use as “inspiration.”
As I’ve mentioned before, a side effect of my dissertating has been a nasty running habit, something which caused me to spend three perfectly good hours yesterday out in the rain plodding through a long run. Among runners, and not just the plebeian masses, but up to the highest level of the so-called elites (and including my would-be sub-sub-elite self), the need for inspiration is taken seriously, whether in the form of Youtube videos, mantras, visual cues, or mock motivational posters. I’m sure that there are many runners who recite “Invictus” and/or “If” over and over again mentally (or not!) as they run.
I’m not one of those runners, nor do I wish to be–the literary critic in me forbids it. But it made me wonder just why inspiration as a feeling, or as a genre, or as a genre of feeling is so debased among us as academics. Partly it’s a brow thing–we are who we are because we eschew low-brow motivational posters and middle-brow poetry. Partly it’s because the most valued affects in the training of a literary critic are suspicion of the hermeneutical sort and disenchantment of pretty much any kind. There has of course been some pushback against the latter, but “inspiration” seems to fall outside the purview of reparative reading à la Sedgwick or critical attention to readerly attachments à la Felski.
But what if we think about readerly (or reciterly) affect in terms of genre? What genre criticism gives us is a reason why to talk about underexamined social and historical formations. Genres, especially popular ones, like sensation novels, romances, and Marvel comic books are all particularly worthy of attention from a cultural studies/genre theory point of view. We’ve grown used to thinking about and valuing popular culture–but what about popular feelings?
I’d offer “inspiration” as one such popular feeling–perhaps there are others you can think of (hint, hint, please comment, I get lonely…). Maybe there’s a whole literature on “inspiration” out there, but I have the feeling that there isn’t. Here’s one way to think about inspiration in a non-undertheorized way: I’ve been reading Lauren Berlant‘s Cruel Optimism lately, and she talks about the day-to-day crises of post-Fordian precarious life, and how what sustains us through the impasse (and/or leads to slow death) is being in the vicinity of a fantasy of a good life. Normative aspirations and aspirations to normativity. Maybe one day I’ll be somebody who could’ve been a contender. (Okay, maybe that last one doesn’t make much sense, but I thought it sounded clever.) Maybe what makes “inspiration” so powerful is its ability to hook into these fantasies: expressions not of neoliberal picked-up-by-one’s-own-bootstraps ideology but of sustaining fantasies of the future that allow us to function in the present as if we’ve got our shit together.