AESTHETICS AND THE RESISTANCE TO CAPITAL
IN POE'S THE DOMAIN OF ARNHEIM
Universitatea „Ştefan cel Mare”, Suceava
Abstract: The paper argues that, in The Domain of Arnheim, Romantic
aesthetics, and its associated defenses of the self, is represented in its confrontation with the centrifugal, overwhelming power of capital. The story may be read as an inscription of Poe's ambivalent response to the changes in the cultural perceptions and the tensions and contradictions of modern age, as his exploration of the relationships between aesthetics and economics, art and nature, the private and the public, capital and nature, and their bearing on artistic individuality.
Keywords: nature, aesthetics, money, sublime, labour, Romantic, effect
The Domain of Arnheim, published twice (1842, 1845) as The
Landscape Garden before its final, expanded, version of 1847, seems to be a fantasy of escape from all that Poe was struggling through as a man and as an artist, interweaving aesthetic issues with intimations about the social and economic determinations of artistic individuality.
It is not difficult to argue that its protagonist, blessed with high social status and an exceptional affluence that affords the materialisation of his aesthetic dreams, is a projection of Poe's own self as completely capable of attaining autonomy from the painful pressures of the economic, a vicarious idealisation of the individual self in complete control of the exercise of his creative powers. It is a fantasy not devoid of Poe's characteristic irony: Ellison's happiness is equated with “prosperity,” and the hyperbolisation of the material basis of his happy condition stands in ironic contrast with Poe's conviction, expressed in a letter to Frederick W. Thomas (Feb.14, 1849), that “all which is really valuable to a man of letters – to a
poet in especial – is absolutely unpurchasable“ (Poe 1983: 347). Otherwise,
Ellison's scepticism as to the possibility of “any improvement being effected by man himself in the general condition of man” (ibid.: 225) belongs to Poe: on July 2,
1844, he was writing to James R. Lowell: “I have no faith in human perfectibility. I think that human exertion will have no appreciable effect upon humanity” (344). Three of Ellison's four elementary conditions of bliss – the possibility of free
physical exercise in the open air, the love of a woman, and “an object of unceasing
pursuit” (ibid.: 223) - are also in the list of “unpurchasable things” that Poe draws in the letter to Thomas as “really all that a poet cares for” (ibid.: 347). Like Ellison, for
whom the lack of ambition was essential for happiness, Poe could declare, in the mentioned letter to Lowell: “I am not ambitious” (ibid.: 343) – which is not the
same with the lack of desire for fame, which Poe openly expresses; if ambition is suggested as a reprehensible passion, generated by a competitional, greedy society, fame has to do with the legitimate aspiration of the creative mind to have its individuality recognised – it means, if we take a cue from Poe himself, not losing sight “of man the individual, in man the mass” (Letter to Lowell; Poe 1983: 344).
Poe's entrepreneurial aspirations, in the early 1840s, of setting up a magazine of his own were accompanied by the hope that this ownership would bring him the economic independence necessary for the manifestation of creative freedom. The investing partner that he envisaged would have had to possess “ample capital,” but at the same time concede him “entire control of the
editorial conduct” (quoted in Whalen 2000: 76). While this impossible divorce between the material investment and what it is supposed to control remained a fantasy, Poe could certainly realise that, “in the new publishing environment, artistic individuality had become the prerogative of capital” (Whalen 2000: 77), with the sad conclusion that “the horrid laws of political economy cannot be evaded even by the inspired” (Poe, quoted ibid.)
The Domain of Arnheim dramatises this relationship between capital
and artistic individuality, in a way which emphasises some of the paradoxes and contradictions inherent in the progress of modernity. It is impossible, for instance, to avoid attaching significance to the duration of the accumulation that had led to the enormous size of Ellison's unexpected inheritance. The “one hundred years” that elapsed since his ancestor's death evokes the age of the rise of capital, of economic progress and steady material development in all the modern western world. In the context of the growth of capital and of a money-based economy, it was essential that capital should “circulate” and continue to produce wealth. On the other hand, it was perceived that the concentration of wealth might have negative economic consequences and the transmission of accumulated wealth might remove capital from economic competition (cf. Beckert 2004: 16). Inherited wealth, which “disconnects social position from achievement,” represents a “protective mechanism of social belonging,” which ensures a certain stabilisation of the structure of society by the “intergenerational continuity of social positions” (ibid.: 18), but the economic dysfunctions attending this
phenomenon were felt to be undesirable. As Jan Beckert points out, “the American tradition (…) defends the unlimited individual accumulation of private
poverty, while at the same time rejecting the private bequeathal of large fortunes” (ibid.: 207). The legal institution of the entails, for instance, which allowed the transmission of wealth to a specified line of heirs, and which was associated with European aristocratic traditions, was abolished or restricted in most American states after the Revolution of Independence, as it was found “contrary to the fundamental notions underlying the founding of the American state” (ibid.: 158).
Poe seems to have been aware of this historical reality when he has the narrator report, with regard to the distant bequeathal of the enormous sum to young Ellison: “Many attempts had been made to set aside this singular bequest; their ex
post facto character rendered them abortive, but the attention of a jealous government was aroused, and a legislative act finally obtained, forbidding all similar accumulations” (Poe 1983: 224).
Ellison's perfect life appears to be closely connected with the phenomenon of accumulation and concentration of capital – not only in the
concrete sense of the long increase of his inheritance, but also in the metaphorical sense of Ellison's lucky “inheritance” of “pre-eminent endowments”: he was
“remarkable in the profusion of good gifts lavished upon him by fortune” (Poe 1983: 223), uniting in his person grace, beauty, an intuitive intellect that afforded him effortless knowledge, and poetic genius of the highest order. In an analogy between the accumulation of goods in an inheritance and the outstanding personal qualities of certain individuals, Georg Simmel points out that the “well-endowed”
person is the possessor of “a large quantity of accumulated energies and achievements of the human species (Simmel 2004: 333), and that the genius's astonishing knowledge outside the compass of personal experience indicates “an exceptionally full and easy impressive co-ordination of inherited energies” (ibid.:
415). The intuitive capacity of the genius – Ellison's “instinctive philosophy which,
now and then, stands so well in the stead of experience (Poe 1983: 223) – is nothing
but “the condensed result of the work of generations,” “accumulated in a latent form that is designed for further accumulation” (Simmel 2004: 415).
The virtually endless prospect of accumulation and transmission makes of inherited capital the equivalent of an immortality of sorts, a way of transcending death, since both money and personal endowment as objects of inheritance go beyond the limits of individual existence. However, at least as far as financial capital is concerned, the accumulations implied in inherited wealth act rather, according to Georg Simmel, as “a barrier to economic individualisation,” his conclusion being that “the principle of inheritance is
opposed to the principle of individuality” (Simmel 2004: 354). In Poe's tale, Ellison's resolution to interrupt the intergenerational chain of inheritance and devote his wealth to the artistic “embodiment of a vision” may be seen as the
expression of his desire to rescue indivituality, by freeing the amassed energies –
both pecuniary and personal – for an enterprise that would absolutely proclaim
his “self.” What serves the assertion of individuality in the case of the artist seeking the fulfilment of his “Poetic Sentiment” is rather a “principle of waste” (cf. Bataille 1994: 193 ff), the unproductive expenditure of accumulated energies, in a process of creation which becomes almost synonymous with sacrifice (ibid.:
196). The insistence on Ellison's marital happiness actually makes conspicuous the absence of an heir, and his death, briefly mentioned and left a mystery in the narrative, induces the thought of a “waste” having occurred, but the self of the genius survives in a sublimated form, the incomparable work of art which has absorbed – or “wasted” – all that he has inherited.
Ellison's decision to remove his inheritance from the abstract circuit of multiplication constitutes a symbolic gesture of resistance to Capital. Poe's tale
figures the ambivalent attitude to capital in its age of expansion, an ambivalence highlighted by Paul Crowther when he speaks of both “the fascination with Capital as a mighty power or god... and with [its] direct products,” and the equal “fascination with its epiphenomena and with patterns of resistance to it” (quoted in Amariglio et al. 2009: 5). Poe's narrator reports on the bewildered speculations occasioned by Ellison's unusual wealth, emphasising not so much the potential benefits of its uses as the morally dangerous opportunities that it creates for “engaging to supreme excess in the fashionable extravagances of [the] time,” or the socially spurious ends which appear in fact to deny the genuineness of individual achievement: “busying himself with political intrigue – or aiming at ministerial
power – or purchasing increase of nobility – or collecting large museums of virtù –
or playing the munificent patron of letters, of science, of art – or endowing, and
bestowing his name upon, extensive institutions of charity” (Poe 1983: 224). Key
areas of social action seem to be here downplayed to mere stages on which a purchasable image of individual worth may be flaunted. The magnitude of Ellison's wealth, which renders absurd further capitalisation, exceeds the needs of the social field and its “ordinary objects” (ibid.), and the fact that the possession of this
unusual inheritance affords the genius the safe flight to “self,” art and nature constitutes an ironic twist given to the traditional image, developed in the age of capitalist growth, of the artist whose life, “freed from the discipline of mass production and consumption, exhibits the costs of this freedom – and so a
disturbing aspect of economic rationality itself – in poverty, obscurity, and
madness” (Mattick 2003: 75). This image – better illustrated by Poe's own life, that
of a “natural aristocrat,” as Baudelaire saw him, driven to an untimely death through the neglect of a pragmatic and insensitive society - was itself a from of resistance to the new values that capitalism was implanting. In a clear reversal, Ellison's remarkable life is a well-controlled compensatory fantasy of “extraordinary success” and “uninterrupted enjoyment” (Poe 1983: 223), in which the poet enjoys creative freedom not against the system – which would have
required the perception of the aesthetic and the economic spheres as separate and opposite –, but within the system, drawing on its resources and blurring the
distinction between the two spheres.
This blurring of boundaries, for all its ironic treatment in Poe's tale, is actually a remarkable aspect of capitalist modernity. Half a century after Poe's death, Georg Simmel's Philosophy of Money (1900; cf. Simmel 2004) not only discusses
the relationship between economic value and aesthetic value, but finds analogies between them and draws heavily in its analyses of the former on terms imbued with aesthetic relevance, such as distance, form, or style. In Poe's tale, a deliberate confusion of perspectives on the two realms is achieved by the transfer of the aesthetic category of the sublime to the sphere of capital. Poe's artistic sensibility made him undoubtedly perceptive of and receptive to the changes in the cultural perceptions of a society in which the upheavals accompanying the rise and
consolidation of a money-based economy were often felt as an “alternatively or
even simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying experience” (Mattick 2003: 47). Paul Mattick notices the coincidence between the growing amplitude of these social, economic and cultural changes and the internationalisation of the theoretical th century: discourse on the sublime as an aesthetic category beginning with the 18“Writers responding to the transgression of traditional boundaries, and to the emotionally overwhelming experience of vastness and power in the period's changes imposed on whole populations, were especially drawn to the ancient idea of the sublime, reintroduced into European literary criticism at the end of the seventeenth century” (ibid.). The fascination with the power of capital, the result of “a displacement of the sublime from nature to the urban experience” (Crowther, quoted in Amariglio et al. 2009: 5), is the aesthetic response to an economic and social reality which forced the human capacity for representation beyond its limits.
The narrator in Poe's tale is overwhelmed by the vastness of the sum of money inherited by Ellison, the result of capitalist accumulation of a period exceeding commonly a human lifespan. The sudden availability to one person of such a huge amount is perceived as “one of those extraordinary freaks of fate (…) which startle the whole social world amid which they occur (Poe 1983: 223). Its potentially destabilising effect on the “moral constitution” of the possessor provokes the combined sentiment of wonder and fear traditionally associated with the sublime. But what really confers to Ellison's fortune this attribute is its suggestion of infinity, its “inconceivable” magnitude, which defies the human
attempt to imagine the uses that it might be put to. A note appended to the text mentions a real incident of this kind having occurred in England, the writer reporting it observing that “in the contemplation of so vast a sum, and of the services to which it might be applied, there is something even of the sublime” (Poe
1983: 224). Eighteenth century theoreticians of the sublime emphasise the powerful sense of delight arising in the contemplation of objects that create the impression of boundlessness. For Burke, for instance, the object's seeming to be infinite, when the
eye cannot perceive its bounds, induces the thought of if it being really so (cf. Burke 1990: 67), and sheer magnitude (“magnificence”), or multitude, which thwarts our attempt at reckoning – therefore introducing the idea of difficulty, of
pain, which distinguishes the delight in the sublime – also produces “an appearance
of infinity” (ibid.: 71). Following Burke, Kant formulates the distinction between the sublime and the beautiful in terms of the boundless as opposed to the limitation
of form; for him, too, the sublime “immediately involves, or else by its presence provokes, a representation of limitlessness, yet with a superadded thought of its totality” (Kant 2004: 65). Ellison's wealth is “inconceivable” precisely because it is,
in the terms of Kant's definition, “ill-adapted to our faculty of presentation” and
constitutes “an outrage on the imagination” (ibid.). The attempt to “adapt” its
magnitude to the human power of understanding takes the form of calculating the income that the inheritance was supposed to bring, but this recourse to figures “sufficed to confound” (Poe 1983: 224). Breaking down the sum into discrete quantities, corresponding to time-units, does not solve the problem for the baffled
contemplator – at the level of dollars per minute “the usual track of supposition was thoroughly broken up. Men knew not what to imagine” (ibid.: 225).
The displacement of the sublime from the realm of nature – the proper
field for its theorising in the eighteenth century – onto that of money testifies to the
perception of what Georg Simmel highlighted as the anti-individualistic principle of capital. The sublime as an aesthetic category, applied either to nature or to economics, involves a relinquishment of the self's autonomy under the overwhelming power of an alienating Other, a collapsing of the safe distance between subject and object. In The Domain of Arnheim, the hints at the moral
dissolution threatening the individual self in its relation to the public scene constitute an intimation of the consequences of this overcoming, by means of money, of the “distance” between the desiring subject and any conceivable and available object of desire. Ellison's decision to employ his wealth in turning nature into a work of art may be thus seen as a strategy of defence against the annihilating power of the sublime. Discontinuing the accumulation, ceasing to serve a process of growth in which the pursuit of objects leads to the loss of the self's autonomy, Ellison hopes to regain, in the created “Paradise of Arnheim,” the “pure intimacy” of a self-present consciousness, devoid of any object (cf. Bataille 1994: 186).
Ellison's aim is to transform nature, the traditional locus of the sublime, into a “secondary nature” (Poe 1983: 231) which would collapse the very distinctions on
which the sublime rests – a new nature which should combine “vastness and
definitiveness,” “beauty, magnificence, and strangeness” - that is, which should
display, united, the three aesthetic categories of “the beautiful, the sublime, [and] the
picturesque” (ibid.). This is “an object unattainable by means ordinarily possessed by individuals,” requiring “very unusual pecuniary resources” (ibid.: 230). Aesthetics
and economics become thus closely related, and the only match for the sublimity of capital is the natural sublime. Ellison's aesthetic theory takes account of the capacity of nature to absorb the enormous quantity of his wealth, and his “poetic” attempt consists in fact in bringing together nature, art, and money into a unified complex of experience that would preserve intelligibility and coherence against the centrifugal tendencies of modern times. One may even suppose that the “waste” (in the sense used by Bataille) of this inheritance on such a project is aimed at subsuming, in fact, the economic to the aesthetic: by translating his wealth into aesthetic value, Ellison gives the purely quantitative character of his money a certain “form,” manageable to the imagination. Georg Simmel points out the “absolutely formless” character of
money, as “[f]ormlessness and a purely quantitative character are one and the same” (ibid.), just as “[m]atter as such is simply formless, the counterpart of all form” (ibid.:
273). While arguing that “the universal formlessness of money as money is certainly
the root of the antagonism between an aesthetic tendency and money interests”, Simmel concedes that the extremely great quantity of a “unified fortune” is deprived of the “aesthetic awkwardness of money” (ibid.). As a “poet,” Ellison has no other
choice but to turn “upon self” in the waste of his fortune, thus providing the “personal centre” which, as Simmel contends (2004: 276), confers a certain “image” - therefore
a form – to the respective fortune. Ellison's aesthetic “materialism,” a paradoxical
formulation which both asserts and seeks to transcend the antagonism between aesthetics and economics, determines him to see in landscape gardening the most gratifying form of exercise of his poetic genius, precisely because this exercise involves pecuniary effort.
The relationship between money, nature, and art in Poe's tale may be considered from a yet different perspective, which involves the idea of labour.
Early modern economics acknowledged money as the expression of “a certain
quantity of labour which we exchange for what is supposed at the time to contain the value of an equal quantity,” “the original purchase-money that was paid for all
things,” as Adam Smith pointed out (Smith 1909: 36). The real price of a thing is,
according to Smith, “the toil and trouble of acquiring it” (ibid.). If we define our
relationship to objects in terms of our distance from them, as Simmel proposes (2004: 69), and measure their value in terms of the desire engendered by that distance, the money that enables us to “conquer” that distance is the equivalent of the “toil and trouble” that we have saved in the process of acquisition.
References to labour and related notions abound in The Domain of
Arnheim, beginning with Ellison's proclamation of “purely physical exercise” in the
open air as a condition of happiness, with the erasure of the distinction between physical effort as an end in itself, or effort as leisure, and work proper, as a means of satisfying vital needs (he “instanced the ecstasies of the fox-hunter, and pointed
to the tillers of the earth, the only people who, as a class, can be fairly considered happier than others “ - Poe 1983: 223). To Ellison the landscape designer, natural details witnessed “the efforts of Nature at physical loveliness,” and the fulfilment of
the “poetic sentiment” required that he should “labour to the greatest advantage” and with “the best means” “in the direction or concentration of this effort” (ibid.:
226). As a poet “of the highest genius,” though, Ellison displays a natural lack of
ambition that would deter him from any “distasteful exertion” (ibid.).
It is his inherited wealth – the equivalent of a huge latent quantity of
labour – that will save him this exertion and provide a short-cut to any object of desire, just as his inherited “capital” of intellectual endowments constitutes a generational accumulation of “work” which reduces the distance from any object of knowledge (“His intellect was of that order to which the acquisition of knowledge
is less a labour than an intuition and a necessity” - Poe 1983: 223). The power of
capital affords thus the obviation of “distasteful” work – the size of his fortune
enables Ellison to remove himself from the sphere of social utilitarian exertion and aestheticise effort in the activity of superintendence of his “poetic” plans.
The great amount of human labour that common experience assumes as part of the making of a landscape garden constitutes an issue that is completely submerged, in The Domain of Arnheim, by the insistence on the impression of a
supernatural effortlessness: the “secondary,” aestheticised nature designed by Ellison is made to seem “the handiwork of angels that hover between man and
God” (Poe 1983: 231), “the phantom handiwork, conjointly, of the Sylphs, of the
Fairies, of the Genii, and of the Gnomes” (ibid.: 238). The “artificial style” of
gardening that Ellison advocates and adopts involves adding art to nature,
conferring form to natural imperfections in a way which both exhibits and conceals the labour. The “show of order and design” (ibid.: 229) suggests form as the
evidence of effort; on the other hand, the artfulness of the scene seems to sublimely exceed the possibilities of human work: “The impressions wrought on the observer were those of richness, warmth, colour, quietude, uniformity, softness, delicacy, daintiness, voluptuousness, and a miraculous extremeness of culture that suggested dreams of a new race of fairies, laborious, tasteful, magnificent, and fastidious” (ibid.: 235). With the gradual disappearance of the human presence from the scene of nature, the simultaneous signalling and dissimulating of human labour becomes more insistent. The “exquisite cleanness” of the banks, the absence of the “usual
river debris,” the smoothness of surfaces, and the sharpness of outline” (ibid.: 234)
bespeak the effort of overcoming anything in nature that reminds of “our deathful condition” – the post-lapsarian condition of toil (ibid.: 228). This effort is inferred from the effect of estrangement that nature undergoes – the modifications wrought
upon it have conferred it traits that are alien to it but proper to the realm of art. The “weird symmetry, a thrilling uniformity, a wizard propriety in these her works” (ibid.: 234) render nature absent to the eye but still present in the consciousness of the viewer-narrator – an “absent presence,” like that of the work on nature: “no
trace of labour has been suffered to remain” (ibid.: 236).
This representation of the ambivalent relation between work and art may
suggest, on the one hand, the traditional Romantic antipathy towards effort. Wordsworth's glorification of spontaneity and “wise passiveness,” of Nature as “ready wealth,” which exempts the sensitive soul from the “toil and trouble” of acquisitive pursuits, is paradigmatic for the Romantic bracketing of the issue of the creator's labour, its sublimation into the idea of inspiration, with its connotations of naturalness and organicity. As the idea of work and that of capital are mutually entailing in the rise of modernity, this antipathy may be seen as another form of resistance to capital and its alienating power.
On the other hand, it is difficult to be misled by the spurious metaphysics of Ellison's aesthetics and to assimilate him with the figure of the inspired Romantic creator. Like Poe, Ellison is rather an “engineer” of effect: his landscape garden is carefully designed to “convey the idea of care, or culture, or superintendence, on the
part of beings superior, yet akin to humanity, … while the art intervolved is made to
assume the air of an intermediate or secondary nature” (Poe 1983: 230-1; emphases
mine). The journey to the castle of Arnheim is calculated so as to afford close control of the visitor's impressions and moods; it provides an arabesque of aesthetic experience intended to keep him bedazzled and confused by the constant variation of perspective, manipulation of the sense of distance, creation of hallucinatory perceptive associations, etc. Ellison's “poetics” is largely a pragmatic one, recalling
a principle formulated by Burke: “A true artist should put a generous deceit on the spectators. … No work of art can be great, but as it deceives; to be otherwise is the prerogative of nature only” (Burke 1990: 70).
Poe's own anti-Romantic poetics of effect brings back into focus the notion of effort and the image of the poet as maker. The well-known passage in The
Philosophy of Composition describing “the literary histrio” (cf. Poe 1983: 312)
refers explicitly to the process of selection, revision, rejection, the “painful erasures
and interpolations” which constitute the writer's work for the achievement of the intended effect, but which must not be obvious. What matters in art, Poe repeatedly emphasises in his essays, is the totality and unity of effect, which is to be “wrought”
before anything else in the work of art. Sustained effort in literary composition is
commendable to the extent that it is manifest in the effect it engenders (cf. Poe 1983: 324; 327). If the Romantic poetics of inspiration gave the poet a sense of dignified distinctness in a world which made work and money equivalents of each other, Poe's pragmatic stance re-dignifies, indirectly, creative labour by the emphasis on effect – the latter's Latin etymology (ex-facere) implies indeed the idea of effort. By
translating the idea of labour as an “economic” resource into the terms of an aesthetics of effect, Poe decorously conceals it from view, but leaves it as an implicit measure of artistic success. It is an ambivalent attitude toward the relationship between art and work, the aesthetic and the economic, which reveals once more Poe's effort to reconcile and integrate the contradictions and divisions of modern times.
One such division, relevant to the perception of the relationship between art and the socio-economic sphere, is that between the private and the public. The Romantic defense against the threat posed by capital to creative individuality was that of a superior self-centredness taking distance from the common world of social concern; even humanitarian interest assumed a meditative remoteness which rendered the poet, in Shelley's metaphor, “a nightingale singing in the dark.” To an artist, control of distance from the public space is essential, and Poe's notorious evasion of social issues and of the concrete contextual realities in his fiction may be seen as his peculiar response to the increasing pressures of the public sphere on private freedom. Louis Renza finds that Poe's resistance to the compromising of the private realm is figured in the prevalence of closed spaces in his fiction, which in turn metaphorise a “socially repressive, aesthetic formalism” (Renza 2000: 181). Poe's insistence on the unity of effect would be part of a “poetics of privacy,” whose aim is to “promote the reader's literary experience of privacy” (ibid.), by
insulating him, for the hour of perusal, from the interference of “worldly interests.” To a considerable extent, the landscape designed by Ellison does evoke the closed spaces in Poe's other tales, by the “sense of retirement” and “consciousness of solitude” that it induces, and the ekphrastic trance of the narrator, with its insistence on the self-involved mazes of the river, which cancelled the sense of forward movement, making “[a]t every instant the vessel [seem] imprisoned within an
enchanted circle” and the traveller lose “all idea of direction” (Poe 1983: 234), seems to anticipate the ecstasy of a regained “pure intimacy,” the recovery of a sheltered, paradisiac place of privacy, in which the self is spared the alienating investment in external pursuits, exempt from “the ordinary cares of humanity” (ibid.) and the burden of sociality.
The implicit question that Poe's tale seems to raise, however, is to what extent real or imaginary places romantically associated with privacy – Poetry,
Nature, Paradise – can preserve their impregnability to the encroachment of the public sphere. Ellison takes a long time in finding the appropriate place for his garden, discarding such conventionally Romantic locales as a luxuriant island or a magnificent elevation of land affording a spectacular panoramic view, on account of their isolation: he is not a misanthrope to seek utter seclusion, and the grand view from a mountain top may make one “feel abroad in the world” (Poe 1983: 232).
What Ellison seeks in fact is a compromise between the privacy and autonomy of a regained Paradise and the world of social intercourse, in which he would find his artistic individuality confirmed: “There must remain with me a certain control over
the extent and duration of my repose. There will be frequent hours in which I shall need, too, the sympathy of the poetic in what I have done. Let me seek, then, a spot not far from a populous city – whose vicinity, also, will best enable me to execute
my plans” (Poe 1983: 231).
Ellison's choice of urban proximity reflects Poe's intimation of the new relationship with nature that emerged in modern capitalism. Romantic nature had been the ultimate stronghold of privacy, the place where individual poetic consciousness transcended the mundane, the analogue for the Imagination in its spontaneous geniality. Such high claims for nature defined it in neat opposition with the world of social experience and material concerns. The Romantic perception of nature, its nostalgic idealisation as a lost Paradise, was, according to Georg Simmel, “the result of that increasing distancing from nature and that particularly abstract existence that urban life, based on the money economy, has forced upon us” (Simmel 2004: 479). His conclusion that “it is precisely the possession of money that has allowed us to take flight into nature” (ibid.) points in
fact to the ambivalent power of money to both conquer and create distance. This is also, in his system of analogy, the way in which art works: it simultaneously takes us closer to and “brings about a distancing from the immediacy of things” (ibid.:
12). In lansdcape gardening, whose heavy dependence on money-as-labour undermines the opposition between the aesthetic and the economic, the distinction between art and nature is also collapsed. A garden is a place “at once of nature and unapologetically set against it” (Michael Pollan, quoted in Ross 2007: 259) –
Ellison has no wish to recall “the original beauty of the country” (Poe 1983: 229) in
his designs; on the contrary, the “artificial style that he adopts, while preserving “the thought of nature” (ibid.: 234), creates a distance from it by the modifications
wrought on it. Landscape gardens are thus far from the Romantic idea of nature as spontaneous, authentic, and private; for Ellison, it turns out to be, explicitly, a mere place of “repose” – a necessary but temporary retreat from the din of cities, and the deep desire of communion with it, of “quiet sorrow, that feeling of yearning
estrangement and of a lost paradise that characterises the Romantic response to nature (Simmel 2004: 478) gives way to the “engineerish” endeavour to reduce what for the Romantics constituted its sublime, seducing otherness to the discipline of form. The artful enhancement of nature, and the aesthetic distance that it creates, negates ultimately the promise of privacy: at the end of a journey whose description abounds in images of interiority and sequesteredness, of deep withdrawal and self-