Khalip, "The Ruin of Things"

"I see around me here / Things which you cannot see: we die, my Friend, / Nor we alone, but that which each man loved / And prized in his peculiar nook of earth / Dies with him, or is changed." Speaking to the narrator of The Ruined Cottage, Armytage perceives what Adorno and Horkheimer call “disaster triumphant”: the invisible and intangible things of the destroyed environment, or things which in their utter lack of specificity and waste define the circulation of sentimental value that the poem has traditionally been thought to sustain. Part of that value depends precisely on this waste or decay that the poem proposes; after all, these things are not simply ghostly revenants but half-material entities on their way to death. Like Margaret, like the broken objects outside the cottage, and finally, like Armytage and the narrator, all things break down in the disaster that the poem paints, and their differences are rehydrated by its lines of sympathy, “in spite of things silently gone out of mind and things violently destroyed” (Preface). And yet, if Romanticism has often been read as synonymous with discourses of humanism, personhood, and community, how should we read Wordsworth’s insistence that we not look away from the disaster, from things in their states of destruction and difference? And more specifically, what would it mean to think of persons as different things themselves? In this paper, I want to consider the non-pathological and transformative effects produced by disaster—that is to say, how apocalypticism in certain Romantic poems is denatured or flattened out to the point where “disaster triumphant” expresses new forms of non-triumphal, wasted life that evoke different ethical versions of social vulnerability. I will work toward a ruined cottage as the place where Wordsworth explores the hospitality of dwelling in the rubble of disaster; in other words, disaster as not the pessimistic obliteration of enlightenment promise, but rather as a kindly reimagination of sociality without a future. The spectral quality of things unseen echoes the commodity form itself which, as David Simpson has argued, describes not simply things-in-themselves but things as they leave the world. Although Wordsworth appears to be striving for a language of “thingification” in his scenes of disaster, he tries to think through a different kind of object relations that is not reducible to the logic of the commodity. The kind of interest in disaster that a poem like The Ruined Cottage appears to evoke is not simply a rehumanization of our relationship with things in the world, but rather an unworking or desoeuvrement of our modes of being, troubling the kinds of economies which shuttle persons and things between durability and transience, gain and loss, wealth and waste. I trace how persons live through and are readily thingified in the disaster, and why the desire to treat persons as things becomes a necessary component of Romantic modernity—to re circulate persons in an aesthetic economy that cannot bear to possess anything, that treats persons as res nullius, and would have us literally waste life.