AWFUL PARENTHESIS: SUSPENSION AND THE SUBLIME IN ROMANTIC AND VICTORIAN POETRY by Anne C. McCarthy, Reviewed by Sasha Tamar Strelitz
 

AWFUL PARENTHESIS: SUSPENSION AND THE SUBLIME IN ROMANTIC AND VICTORIAN POETRY
By Anne C. McCarthy
(Toronto UP, 2018) x + 218 pp.
Reviewed by Sasha Tamar Strelitz on 2020-02-10.

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Throughout its intellectual history extending as far back as Longinus, a central characteristic of the sublime is reflection, mostly in the emotional realm as opposed to the rational. Regardless of where it lies on the spectrum between grand and grotesque, what makes an object sublime is the observer's affective reflection on it. For example, the ocean itself is not sublime (as I understand the term), but becomes so only through the overwhelming contemplation of its totality. In this book Anne C. McCarthy argues that the reflection which generates the sublime requires suspension, the "enabling condition of the visionary experience of the sublime" (5); in other words, suspension is a temporal interruption that renders possible the sublime's required emotional reflection. McCarthy thus joins a millennia-long consensus on the internality of the sublime, which is thought to spring not from anything external, but from the internal process of well deployed emotion. By "awful parenthesis," she means the suspension of time and space that causes, for instance, a viewer of the ocean to realize its limitlessness.

In chapter 14 of the Biographia Literaria, Coleridge memorably states that "poetic faith" is constituted by the "willing suspension of disbelief." According to McCarthy, this suspension allows a unity between the discontinuous, perhaps even contraposed, poles of reality and the "sometimes unbelievable," which is in fact a "form of reality itself" (49). Likewise, writers and critics of the Victorian era practiced suspension of judgement. As Henry Sidgwick explained in the 1860s, "We are growing more skeptical in the proper sense of the word: we suspend our judgment much more than our predecessors, and much more contentedly: we see that there are many sides to questions..." (qtd. 8). Just as Victorian theorists thought suspension of judgement a "productive mental activity," McCarthy contends that Victorian writers used narrative suspense aesthetically (8). It served as a stop, a standstill, a temporary cessation--however brief or extended--for the purposes of the affective reflection that provokes apprehension of the sublime.

By carefully analyzing suspension, with its "constellation of meanings and images that 'gradually--if only through insistent repetition--take on increasingly general force' in the Romantic and early Victorian eras" (5), McCarthy considerably contributes to the overwhelming body of secondary scholarship on Romantic and Victorian literature. Her title comes from Thomas De Quincey's well-known essay, "On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth" (1823), in which he uses the phrase "awful parenthesis" to describe the "dread armistice" that interrupts the "world of ordinary life" moments before an audible knocking at the gate (qtd. 4). The knocking closes the parenthesis of suspension by audibly signalling that "the pulses of life are beginning to beat again" (qtd. 4), which makes us realize what has just occurred. "[T]he re-establishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live," DeQuincey writes, "first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had suspended them" (qtd. 4), giving us what McCarthy calls an "overwhelming sense of interruption and possibility" (4). Since suspension interrupts linear time and thus enables us to reflect, to effectively deploy emotion, McCarthy aptly applies De Quincey's concept of the "awful parenthesis" to the experience of the sublime.

Yet even though the key term in McCarthy account of sublime suspension originates from De Quincey, the core of her monograph springs from a theory of suspension that Coleridge articulated throughout his poetic, philosophical, and theological texts. Coleridge, McCarthy argues, viewed suspension both epistemologically and existentially. Through her two chapters on Coleridge and the ensuing chapters on Percy Bysshe Shelley, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Christina Rossetti, McCarthy aims to show that from Coleridge's "Christabel" to Rossetti's The Prince's Progress, suspension marks consequential moments in nineteenth century literature. This temporal interruption, she writes, foregrounds contradictory elements of "activity and passivity, of presence and absence" that aesthetically reflect "the ontological crisis of contingency and discontinuity as it was experienced in the literature of the nineteenth century" (6). As McCarthy defines it, suspension is not just a pause, but a temporal and spatial interruption of our habitually lived experience, or in De Quincey's terms, of the beating "pulses of life." The authors treated here are said to use suspension as a response to a "constitutively contingent world" marked by discontinuity and unreliability (6). Rossetti, for instance, whom McCarthy considers "the poet of suspension par excellence," is said to create it in order to resist the chaotic world she lives in (147). For McCarthy, then, suspension is "a gesture directed against the law" and "a catalyst for defamiliarization" that disrupts binary thinking and formal determination (10, 12).

Just as the use of suspension--a device that yokes oppositional meanings--critiques the would-be coherence of the nineteenth-century British world, this book resists the traditional periodization of Victorian literature as a reaction against Romanticism. At first glance, its chronological order (Coleridge to Shelley to Tennyson to Rossetti) seems conventional, but diving into McCarthy's monograph reveals, as she says, "an experiment in a discontinuous historicism that responds to the formal demands and opportunities of suspension" (17). Though it seems to invite comparison with other books that treat both Romantic and Victorian literature, such as Trenton Olsen's Wordsworth and Evolution in Victorian Literature, McCarthy's book avoids the practice of retrospectively combining discontinuous periods simply because one comes right after another. Instead, it argues that suspension "mediates the experience of an inherently unstable reality...of a world constituted by its own discontinuity with itself" (14).

In her conclusion, McCarthy suggests that any inquiry into suspension and the sublime is anchored to nineteenth-century literature, because with the beginning of the twentieth century, suspension and the sublime in poetry become "less urgent and perhaps even less strange": "the encounter with the essential discontinuity of the world no longer needs to be presented as the jolt of the sublime" (177). But considering the discontinuous and overwhelmingly chaotic nature of our world, as well as the salience of disruption as an object of inquiry in contemporary Romantic scholarship, it would be perhaps interesting to think about the concept of suspension as the occasion of the sublime in modern texts.

Sasha Tamar Strelitz is a candidate for the PhD in Literary Studies at the University of Denver.


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