198. (Robert Browning)

For Keats, the question of whether it is enough to receive this world on its own terms. For Stevens, as we will see, the most realized commitment of what it means for a person to do just that. Both evolve from a notion of the poet as actively receiving the world, and thereby, in so actively receiving it, actively apprehending its shape. That notion of the Romantic self might also be thought of as a Kantian self, if not a direct consequence of German Idealism (though via Coleridge, possibly so), then of a piece with it. No less than Tennyson, Robert Browning counts as an essential touchstone in the investigation of that self that provides us with one narrative of poetry from Wordsworth to, at least, Stevens.

I have written, in recent posts on Tennyson and Proust, some ways in which the Kantian self gives rise to anxiety over whether the world is being actively received rightly, under the guise of aesthetic criteria and standards of distinction. Another context is helpful for Browning: that of the development of scientific objectivity, the rightness guaranteed by a virtuous scientific self, which occurred simultaneously in the nineteenth century. As Proust and Bourdieu offered access to one crucial context, here the somewhat recent work of Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison offer access to another. Their Objectivity accounts for the arrival of a new standard in scientific communities, and the accompanying new standard of the scientific self, which would compete against, and often dominate, the earlier regime of “truth to nature.”

Their work is helpful for making sense of Browning’s poetry not because it tells us what sort of poet Browning was, but because it suggests the intellectual ferment of which his work was a part.

“Objective” and “subjective” are central to Browning’s only sustained critical essay, an introduction to Shelley. The terms there are notoriously difficult to understand; and though Browning would seem to be saying that Shelley is a “subjective” poet, he might be suggesting that he at times one and at times the other. When confronted with so knotted a discussion as Browning’s, discretion proves the better part of valor: rather than enter into the fray, try to see more clearly the circumstances of the mess.

The uncertainty over “objective” and “subjective” would seem to be not only the pivot but a symptom of the deeper uncertainty and more turbulent discussion over how the Kantian self might receive the world, in the domains of science as well as art. From Daston and Galison:

However divergent the philosophical and semantic reception of ant’s pair could be…there was a shared sense in philosophy, psychology, and even imaginative literature that possessing a subjectivity was a different matter from being endowed with a rational soul (as Renaissance writers conceived the self) or a bundle of coordinated mental faculties (as described by Enlightenment psychology)…

The post-Kantian self, by contrast, was active, integrated, and called into philosophical existence as a necessary precondition for fusing raw sensations into coherent experience. Organized around the dynamic and autonomous will, the self acted on the world, projecting itself outward. Even perceptions were vetted, like callers at the door. This is the subjective self of Idealist philosophy, Romantic art, and, as James bears witness, early experimental psychology: a self–a “subject”–equal to and opposed to the objective world.

These are hardly the most novel passages from Daston and Galison’s work. The work as a whole enriches the context for reading Browning because it reveals and traces the material and intellectual implications and ramifications of such a view, in the field of scientific discourse and atlas-making in particular. They show the practical consequences of the emergent self in the sciences:

The subjective self of nineteenth-century scientists was viewed as overactive and prone to impose its preconceptions and pet hypotheses on data. Therefore, these scientists strove for a self-denying passivity, which might be described as the will to willessness. The only way for the active self to attain the desired receptivity to nature was to turn its domineering will inward–to practice self-discipline, self-restraint, self-abnegation, self-annihilation, and a multitude of other techniques of self-imposed selflessness. 

Attending such an idea, and enabling such practices, came a newly valorized set of epistemic virtues; new habits for a new sort of character, a new sort of scientist. Against the new scientific self, of course, a new artistic self emerged. They were not always opposed to one another, but differently had to justify their receptivity to the world along the axis defined by objectivity and subjectivity, whatever the techniques and technologies they employed.

Browning’s essay on Shelley reveals, whatever else it communicates, an acute fascination with the axis of subjectivity-objectivity; that is, it reveals a fascination with the fact that the world can be more or less objectively or subjectively received and recorded, and that art may proceed with a validity along the axis (much as, Daston and Galison repeatedly posit, science might, given that objectivity co-existed, often uneasily, with “truth to nature,” as an ideal).

In the context of the debates over when the will’s receptivity to the world is most accurate, most valid, most scientific, or most accurate, Browning writes his portraits, not only of his contemporaries, but of individuals who would not have viewed their wills under an equivalent conception.

In any given monologue, Browning does not care so much to set objectivity against subjectivity, or even science against art, but to take science and art, objectivity and subjectivity as the ideal forms of receptivity, and then to present characters as they drift to and from a more or less self-conscious, more or less attentive, more or less transcendent (if such a thing is possible) receptivity of the world. The monologues are punctuated by the moments when the world is received with the particular justness, happiness, rightness, and brilliance that we expect of poetry; the implicit thesis of the poems, their argument, is that it can happen without a person’s willing or even realizing it; in this, Browning’s subjects are inadvertent poets of their worlds, as Stevens imagined anyone might be.

But such moments in Browning’s poems are not presented as rewards; it would be wrong to say that the poems progress towards them or exist in order to present the circumstances of their arrival; they are one function of the willing self, but only one, and they please both on their own terms and in the relation they make to other moments. The most intense receptivity of the speakers is set against and within the intense receptivity of the poems themselves, attending to the virtues and vices, the habits and passions, of the speakers. We hear them seeing, as they say all that they would do and have.

Browning, then, needs to be read on two levels. On one, he presents himself as a presenter of voices and personalities–but not meeting standards of objectivity. Infused as they are with his verbal style, the outward proof of his judgment, the dramatic monologues aspire instead more neatly to the “truth to nature” of the eighteenth-century against which “objectivity” would contend; but the truth that Browning sought to capture, the nature of his subjects, was a Kantian self, the fascination of which lies in part in their fluctuations of will, and their sudden bursts of brilliant receptivity of the world. His poetry looks to the past to recover, by a judiciously artistic and learned imagination, the Kantian self and its powers of receptivity in worlds to which such a conception of the self would be alien.


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