Five Questions: Chris Washington on Romantic Revelations

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Chris Washington is Assistant Professor of English at Francis Marion University. His research interests within the broader field of Romantic Studies include philosophy, ecology, biopolitics, the Anthropocene, gender studies and radical hope. In 2019, he published an essay on Shelley’s Triumph of Life as part of the Romantic Circles collection The Future of Shelley’s Triumph (edited by Joel Faflak) and co-edited (with Anne McCarthy) a collection on Romanticism and Speculative Realism (Bloomsbury Academic), to which he contributed a co-written introduction and an essay on Romantic postapocalyptic politics. In addition, he published his first monograph, Romantic Revelations: Visions of Post-Apocalyptic Life and Hope in the Anthropocene (University of Toronto Press), which we discuss in more detail in the interview below.

1) How did you first become interested in post-apocalyptic Romantic thought?

Funnily enough, I was never much interested in the broader post-apocalyptic genre itself, or, for that matter, in how it played out in Romantic-era texts, even as I read through Shelley’s The Last Man in graduate school. I wrote a dissertation on a topic far distant from my book, sympathy in the 18th and 19th centuries (what a neglected topic!). Afterwards, after all the dust and smoke had cleared, on rereading the dissertation a year later, I found myself drawn toward these neglected corners of darkness scurrying around in it. Partially this renewed attention on my part was born out of a reaction to rereading some classic accounts of Romanticism that characterize it as apocalyptic (Abrams, Bloom, etc.), which of course it is in many direct and developed ways. But I also perceived some sinuous counter-pathways winding around in the period as, for instance, in the obvious texts like Byron’s “Darkness” and The Last Man. I became fully interested in this thinking, though, when I realized the texts are about more than the end of the world; they are not simply some doom-and-gloom fantasias that offer ironic consolations of depression. Which of course the genre as such is for many people. But I’ve no interest in contemplating global death as some sort of nihilistic comfort-food reading. Instead, I discovered that post-apocalyptic Romantic thought is, just as you say in the question—and apologies if this sounds tautological—a type of thinking.

In this regard, I also saw that post-apocalyptic thinking is not something that simply appears in those obvious texts by Byron and Shelley. Other texts by John Clare and even Jane Austen, say, think about life-as-it-should-be in some kind of new vision of life after the end of the world, or more accurately, the end of the world as it is for humans. If Darcy is “the last man in the world” Elizabeth might marry, the story’s sparkling conclusion hints at novel experiments in how to live after life has been co-created in a kind of self-writing and—although this point really would require more elaboration than I have space for here (read the book, I suppose)—lastness converts one into something other than what one was. That, at least, is the subject of my last chapter, which reads Pride and Prejudice as a kind of mirror-universe identical twin—or counterpart, or stolen identity—of Frankenstein. In the reading I trace in that chapter, post-apocalyptic thought is a kind of life-writing (in terms of bios=life) in that its concern is post-biopolitical since all social institutions as we know them have fallen—or soon will—and it tries to limn this new form of posthuman life. There was also, I suppose, a return to this type of thinking in contemporary fiction, poetry, television, video games, film, and music that I noticed, although I don’t take up any of that in my book.

Writing now, during the pandemic, post-apocalyptic Romantic thought seems even more obviously important than when I began the book. And that was late one night in New Orleans, when, I remember, I had finally begun to see it all pretty clearly, as if the right key had been touched on a piano and drew what was tarrying at the edge of my mental universe into sight (to mix quite a few metaphors). I sat down and sketched out the whole book in about ten minutes and that guided my work from 2014 on to final publication last year.

2) You contend provocatively in your introduction that ‘post-apocalyptic Romanticism is ultimately about happy endings’.  How did you come to develop this position?

An excellent question! I always worry, in talking about it, that I am going to misremember what I argue in my book, so let’s hope I can do the question justice.

What I do try to argue in the book is that even though we read poems like Byron’s “Darkness” and usually think of them as depressing and choking us with despair, the point of such works is—and I want to be clear that I don’t mean this as a reading-against-the-grain or some kind of counterintuitive reading—hope, to think about hope of a better life tomorrow. I try to show how hope can only appear amidst hopelessness, its most fierce enemy, and therefore, in this deconstructive way, its closest friend. Without hopelessness, hope has no reason to be—nor, in fact, can it be. As Percy Shelley writes at the end of Prometheus Unbound, humans will “suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite…till Hope creates from its own wreck the thing it contemplates.”

The emphasis on hope for a better future, though, should not lead us astray into thinking that these texts are allegories. They actually accurately present what is happening in the real world, at least politically speaking. They showcase the familiar, and still restraining, choice between anarchist libertarianism of the sort Hobbes wrote about as the war of all against all in the state of nature and social contract theories of the sort Rousseau wrote about where the collective good cornerstones society. The Romantics—at least in the argument I present—envision a much different politics, where nonhumans are included in any social contract and we give up on the human sovereignty that has led to our own downfall.

Post-apocalyptic Romanticism, I conclude, is therefore not rebarbative but remunerative of posthuman hope and life.  

3) You argue that ‘post-apocalyptic Romanticism drafts [a] new posthuman contract that is not only socially, but also ontologically, temporally, and politically radical’.  Do you see this draft as one that has been embellished and developed by later writers and thinkers, or principally as a manuscript that has been sadly or unfortunately neglected?

What a great question, and so elegantly put. I think many writers and creators, especially in the last ten years, have returned to this post-apocalyptic world of death, dissipation, and dilution but I don’t see, on the whole, that any of them have truly embellished in any meaningful sense on a new posthuman contract. So as far as that goes, I would say that the social contract, in the radical sense, has been sadly and unfortunately neglected. To that end, I think, beyond the fact that I am a Romanticist, this helps answer why I return to an earlier historical period to think about the Anthropocene as it affects us now. Given this sad neglect, when it comes to post-apocalyptic thinking, we remain called and bound by the Romantics even as the full radicality of their thought continues to out-perform and out-distance our own. In order to grasp this radicality, we have to paradoxically realize that post-apocalyptic Romantic thought is much more than just an originator and contributor to the end-of-the-world genre.

4) Your chapters dwell principally on the tellers of ghost stories at the Villa Diodati and on John Clare and Jane Austen.  Are there other Romantic-period figures who you didn’t have time to discuss at length in the book, but who you’d be interested in putting into dialogue with its conceptions?

Oh wow! Yes, certainly so. I would have liked to think about Anna Barbould’s Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, Charlotte Smith’s Beachy Head, Robert Southey’s apocalyptic epics, John Keats’s odes, Mary Wollstonecraft’s witchy magic, to name only a few. Perhaps L.E.L and her various writings on the fantastic strangeness of a kind of Twin Peaks-like fairyland otherworld glimmering through the red curtain veil to our own. Keats’s The Cap and Bells; or, the Jealousies: A Fairy Tale would have been fascinating in that regard too. Certainly, I should have written more about Coleridge, and at one time proposed in my head to do so, but I think, in the end, space did not permit the fairly deep dive a reading of his works would have required, which I’ve always found intimidating anyway. Likely, I should have done more with “Kubla Khan.” Thinking back on the book, as everyone does on their books I suppose, I wish I had written more about the authors I write about already, more on Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound for sure, as well as turning to his Laon and Cythna, and working through the heroic Satanic provocations of Byron’s The Vision of Judgment. A reading of Austen’s novels beyond Pride and Prejudice would also have been interesting and likely a smart idea.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I’m currently dallying with two different book manuscripts, although more and more one seems to be taking precedence over the other. The second one I’m calling “Quantum Romanticism: Poetry and Politics in a World without Us” and I try to think through how evocations of stars and starlight as connected to love in the work of the Shelleys, Keats, Hemans, and L.E.L create a kind poetics of love. It is the more period-specific of the two and about 50% finished.

The precedence-taking one, which I call “#OccupyRomanticism: Revolutionary Protest from Then to Now,” provides a transatlantic long Romanticism that extends to the present by tracing literature written in relation to various non-violent protest movements from the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 to Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, and #MeToo. I try to show how Romanticism—or, more accurately, post-apocalyptic Romantic thinking—and contemporary thinkers sketch a communal politics for living through the climate wars of the future. The book encompasses everything from Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy, the poetry of Robert Burns, and Shelley’s The Last Man to contemporary work by authors such as Jeanette Winterson (her recent novel Frankissstein, which is a transgender rewriting of Shelley’s novel), Jackie Kay, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Sean Bonney, Natalie Diaz, and Louise Erdrich. Or so I intend it to do. It is not very done at all.  

I’m finishing an article from that book on Frederick Douglass and transgender and blackness. I’ve got another standalone piece on Jane Austen and non-binary and transgender due at the end of the summer I’ve begun reflecting on as well. Other than that, I’m working on a few book reviews of other scholarly studies of Romanticism. Most currently, an issue of Romantic Circles Pedagogies Commons that I edited is in press: “Teaching Romanticism in the Anthropocene.” It features essays by Aaron Ottinger, Brian Rejack, Elizabeth Effinger, Colin Carman, David Ruderman, and myself. My essay “Werewolf Wollstonecraft: Eco-Feminist Beast Wars” is in press with Liverpool for a great volume called Material Transgressions, edited by fellow Romantic scholars Kate Singer, Ashley Cross, and Suzanne Barnett.