Amanda Jo Goldstein, Sweet Science: Romantic Materialism and the New Logics of Life

Amanda Jo Goldstein, Sweet Science: Romantic Materialism and the New Logics of Life (Chicago: Universiity of Chicago Press 2017) 336 pp. $35 PDF, $35 Pb, $100 Hb. ISBN: 9780226458441

In De rerum natura, Lucretius imagines the universe as beginning in rain: atoms fall through the void like raindrops, come into contact with one another, and their encounters collectively make up the apprehensible world. In this picture, Amanda Jo Goldstein writes, human lives are nothing more than the 'effects of the lifeless atoms’ fantastically intricate collocations', which are 'irretrievably lost at death, when the configuration ceases to hold, and persons, as Percy Shelley puts it, ‘"die in rain"' (4). Worried about the bitterness of the reality that humans need to accept, Lucretius, Goldstein writes, adds 'sweetness' of poetry to his doctrine. The title of her book, Sweet Science, refers to what she argues is the Romantic-era appropriation of Lucretius’s poetic or figurative Epicurean materialism. In De rerum natura, figuration grounds the reality of things, and poetry, Goldstein proposes, is a technique of empirical inquiry that, through figuration, gets closer to, and 'not farther from, the physical nature of things' (7). Goldstein argues that Romantic-era thinkers such as Goethe and Shelley sought to oppose the reorganization of knowledge in the nineteenth century that attempted to fictionalize poetry’s connection to natural knowledge by revivifying Lucretius’s sweet science in their writing. Lucretius offered them 'a theory, lexicon, genre, and imaginary', in other words a 'poetics', that could accommodate both 'defining fixations of Romantic modernity: the problem of biological life, and the period’s new sense of its own historicity' (4). The young Karl Marx, Goldstein adds, also conceived of sensuous life as embodied time, moulded and thoroughly saturated by influences that 'riddle and enable the present making of history' (4).

Gorgeously written and masterfully argued, Sweet Science is a supreme achievement by Goldstein, assistant professor of English at University of California, Berkeley, that will serve as an exemplar in the field of Romantic literature and science and inspire and educate seasoned and budding academics alike. Engaging poetry and science with equal amounts of dedication and rigour, Goldstein effectively transforms how we perceive both. Particularly striking is the way she makes her argument with precision and care, constantly orienting it within the existing Romantic materialist discourse and clearly outlining for the reader how her argument is to be located and understood in relation to the arguments that have been made by Marjorie Levinson, Kevis Goodman, Denise Gigante, Noel Jackson, and others. For example, she distinguishes Lucretian materialism from other non-Kantian, nondualist ontologies such as Jane Bennett’s 'vibrant matter', commenting that her project aspires to 'illuminate Romantic Lucretius with the specificity, rigor, and imagination that [Levinson] has afforded to Romantic Spinoza' (25).

Before delving into the Romantic writings in which neo-Lucretian figural materialism surfaces, Goldstein begins with a chapter that charts 'the wider field of interaction and indistinction between biological and poetic approaches to living form in the period' (36). In 'Blake’s Mundane Egg: Epigenesis and Milieux', Goldstein reads scenes of embryogenesis from William Blake’s The First Book of Urizen, Milton, and Jerusalem, alongside writings of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin, to argue for a Romantic-era understanding that biological life is dependent on figuration. Contrary to the Romantic vitalist position (as represented, for example, by works of Gigante and Saree Makdisi) that biological life is pure and free from the social and symbolic processes that surround it, Blake, Lamarck, and Darwin see it as being shaped by and working for those processes.

In 'Equivocal Life: Goethe’s Journals on Morphology', Goldstein examines Goethe’s microscopy logs as well as On Morphology to claim that Goethe conceives of living beings as composite forms, each individual being an 'assemblage of independent beings' (32). Goethe, like Blake, challenges the 'ascendant biological and aesthetic virtue of autotelic "organic" form (73). In 'Tender Semiosis: Reading Goethe with Lucretius and Paul de Man', Goldstein explores the poetic dimension of Goethean morphology and argues that it brings back the 'lost semiotics' (100) of Lucretius, which has escaped Paul de Man’s taxonomy of Romantic allegorical and symbolic figuration. Through this neo-Lucretian semiotics, Goethe critiques Kantian epistemology, generally perceived as being foundational to Romantic practices of aesthetic and scientific observation. In place of Kant’s cold rationality, Goethe promotes 'tenderness' as an epistemic virtue.

Goldstein turns to Shelley in Chapter Four, 'Growing Old Together: Lucretian Materialism in Shelley’s The Triumph of Life'. While late-twentieth-century criticism has interpreted the wrinkled faces in The Triumph of Life as allegories of the violence – linguistic and material – that figuration enacts, Goldstein insists that the poem in fact does not consider figuration as a principally verbal or cognitive process. By interpreting the trope of prosopopoeia in the poem, Goldstein argues that Shelley, inspired by Lucretian figural materialism, 'depict[s] wrinkling faces as mutable registers of the "living air" of a post-Napoleonic interval' (33). He approaches a biology and epistemology of senescence in the poem, portraying personal senescence as the 'unintended work of multitudes', with 'each wrinkle attesting, in a way not legible like a text and not evident in the texts of monumental history, to the attenuated impacts of a shared historical present' (138). In the fifth chapter, 'A Natural History of Violence: Allegory and Atomism in Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy', Goldstein looks at why Shelley’s poem treats the suppression of a mass demonstration for parliamentary reform in 1819 as a matter of natural history. By doing so, she writes, the poem 'navigate[s] between affective communication and structural analysis, subjecting the kind of felt, historical "atmosphere of sensation" that has built up over the course of the book to didactic breakdown' (34).

In the Coda, entitled 'Old Materialism, or Romantic Marx', Goldstein considers Marx in relation to the neo-Lucretian Romantic tradition that she has explored in her book, arguing that Marx, whose dissertation was on Epicurus, developed a kind of 'sensuous science' akin to the sweet figural science of Lucretius and the Romantics. Marx was “operating in a mode of counterdisciplinary materialism that deployed figural matter as a substance fit to articulate terrestrial rhetoric, history, and biology together,' Goldstein writes, stating that '[a]ttending to such a materialist semiotics might help historical materialist criticism rise to the again pressing task of writing for social justice in the idiom of natural history' (34).

Catherine J W Lee, Duke University