19 July 2012

The Romantic Agony, by Mario Praz

Someone should do a proper reissue of this book. And when they do, they should put in the extra work to fix it up; interpellate the Addenda, and most importantly, provide translations of the quotes. Because the book is basically a pastiche of quotes some of them over a page long, and if you don't know French, you're pretty s.o.l. (amusingly/infuriatingly enough, a lot of the quotes from Poe are given in French). There's a fair amount of Italian in there as well, and some Latin (the German is mostly translated, and the Russian quotes are provided in English. Snobbery much?). I skipped over a lot of the French (I tried to skim most of it at least, but I'm pretty lazy and my French is only so-so), and obviously got a lot less out of the book as a result. The book is mostly structured as a kind of show-and-tell; for example, he has a chapter on the Fatal Beauty as a type, and the whole thing is basically a bunch of quotes that mention evil women. There's very little analysis, unfortunately. Or maybe fortunately, because what does appear is occasionally quite, ahem, dated ("Like Mrs. Radcliffe, other authoresses also adopted the persecuted woman as a character; but there may be nothing more in this than another of the many manifestations of feminine imitativeness." (113)

Nonetheless, the book is definitely a classic, not least in almost encyclopedic collection of sources and quotes. And there is something delightful in its focus on what we might call the ickiest aspects of Romanticism. I mean, my god, those guys were seriously f*#!ed up. By the end, I was fairly well convinced that there is nothing new in the current penchant for ultraviolence, and if we are de-sensitized, maybe we should blame the Romantics. But I suspect that one could produce a similar overview of horrific cruelty and sadism in earlier times just as easily (though inflected differently, maybe).

As far as classics on literary criticism go, this doesn't hold up nearly as well as The Mirror and the Lamp, which I read recently as well (and didn't blog about, sorry...), and which, while a bit dry and long-winded at times, is still pretty incredible. That opening chapter should definitely be required reading in any lit theory class (in the same way the first chapter of Auerbach's Mimesis should be). The Romantic Agony isn't really a must-read, though I'm glad to have done it. And it's perhaps worth noting that it's a surprisingly fast-paced read (maybe more so if you're skipping some of the quotes, heh heh) - the collage-like structure makes it pretty light reading over all, because you're not bogged down in dense analytic prose. But you definitely emerge with a kind of overall sense of some of the darker currents within Romanticism. 

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