Hampshire Field. Photo: Peter Jordan
Surveillance was one of the Romantic age’s master themes. Some of the period’s most best-loved works meditate on the pernicious social effects of overintrusive prying. Keats’s ode “To Autumn” – usually read as a portrayal of bucolic rural idyll – catches a group of underpaid labourers in the act of evading their foreman’s eye by lying between the deep furrows (“Who hath not seen thee”, indeed?). Similarly Coleridge’s much anthologized “Frost at Midnight”, ostensibly a touching cradle song to the poet’s infant son, captures the uneasy spirit of the watchful 1790s with its chilling description of the frost as a “secret ministry”, conjuring Prime Minister Pitt’s network of spies, in whose crosshairs Coleridge had recently found himself along with confrere, William Wordsworth.
Or if the secret ministry of frostJames Gillray, "Smelling out a Rat" (1790)
Again, in Gillray’s 1790 caricature “Smelling out a Rat” (right), which turns the Tory Edmund Burke into a giagantic snooping nose.
Even Fuseli’s 1781 painting “The Nightmare” (below) – which seemingly depicts the contents of the female sleeper’s febrile imagination – is arguably as concerned with surveillance as it is with erotic fantasy. The crouching incubus and grotesquely phallic horse that peeks through the pleated velvet curtains of that most private space, the sleeper’s bedroom, do double service, hinting at the fetishistic nature of compulsive information gathering.
Fuseli, "The Nightmare" (1781)
To draw a parallel with contemporary political events, when Germany’s foreign minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger recently referred in Der Spiegel to revelations that the UK’s GCHQ, in tandem with the US’s NSA – part of the “Five Eyes” alliance – were using PRISM to spy on the private data of millions of Germans as a “nightmare” (Alptraum), she was closer to Fuseli’s apprehension of surveillance as an always potentially creepy, demeaning act than perhaps she realized.
Illustration from Frankenstein
Returning for the moment to other towering Romantic works that ruminate on issues of surveillance and privacy, we might consider Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1817), itself inspired by William Godwin’s similarly spy-preoccupied novel, Caleb Williams (1794). In both stories, a father-figure – Victor Frankenstein and Falkland, respectively – nurtures, abandons then finally swears vengeance on the son. A psychologized patrifilial struggle ensues, locking father and son in a cycle of flight and pursuit ending in destruction. Both novels abound with unsettling scenes of secretive reconnoitre, voyeurism and espionage – a grim fascination, whose aberrant energies Shelley and Godwin leave the reader in no doubt about.
Millais, "The Eve of St Agnes"
Keats also muses on the unhealthy practice of watching from the shadows to observe private moments of unsuspecting others. In his psychologically fissured work The Eve of St Agnes, the scoptophiliac Porphyro watches Madeline first disrobe then lie down in bed and sleep. The “love scene” that ensues disturbed the poem’s original audiences, as well it might – Porphyro’s controlling, remote passions extend to him violating Madeline while she is asleep.
It's little wonder the greatest writers, painters, journalists and political orators of the Romantic period wrote – openly, at first, then, as dissent became more dangerous, in disguised form – about the expansion, and increasing sophistication, of the surveillance state. In 1791, Jeremy Bentham gave the world his plan of the Panopticon, a model of deep “inspective force” whereby large groups of people could be surveilled efficiently, employing a single inspector. The mere knowledge, Bentham realized, that someone might be watching them was sufficient to induce individuals to self-police. Not only would people comport themeselves to the parameters of state-approved norms, but they would inform on others who refused to conform. Coleridge wrote powerfully in 1795 about how the effect of Pitt’s “system of spies” was beginning to unravel society’s “beautiful fabric of love” (see an earlier blog). As Pitt’s own War on Terror – terror being the spectre of the French Revolution – ramped up, a series of repressive acts were passed that had the effect of pushing the free press underground. Simply to voice dissent at Pitt’s policies on the Napoleonic Wars, on the introduction of paper money, on the rise of bankers, was to risk the charge of sedition, which was used broadly and in comparable contexts to today’s assertion from some quarters that whistleblowers such as Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden have engaged in “aiding and abetting the enemy”.John Thelwall addressing a crowd (Thomas Rowlandson)
Romantic figures who persisted in making themselves thorns in the side of State found themselves targets of smear campaigns, or worse. Political speaker John Thelwall was charged with Treason (a crime punishable by hanging, drawing and quatering - he defended himself in court, and won); poet Percy Shelley appears to have been the target of an assassination attempt during a visit to Wales; and journalist Leigh Hunt was imprisoned for two years for insulting the Prince Regent. Not surprisingly, opposition to Pitt’s and Lord Liverpool’s regimes quickly assume subtler forms (as discussed in this recent lecture).
Hansel and Gretel return home
To get back to the title of this blog: while the Romantic period didn’t invent the family drama, it did invest it with strikingly modern freight. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for instance, can be read as a novel that explores the peril of parents who refuse to let their children mature, who endeavour to keep them in an arrested state of development – and, equally, of children who cling to their parents. As already noted, things end badly. This week, Julian Assange called the agon of Obama’s surveillance apparatus and figures such as Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning and Jacob Appelbaum (all of whom in their twenties) a generational war.
Edward Snowden is one of us. Bradley Manning is one of us … They are the generation that grew up on the internet, and were shaped by it. One day, their generation will run the NSA, the CIA and the FBI. And by trying to crush these young whistleblowers with espionage charges, the US government is taking on a generation, and that is a battle it is going to lose. This isn’t how to fix things. (Wikileaks statement, 22 June 2013)
We might wish to be wary of casting governments as parents and citizens as children – it’s a conveniently puerelizing rhetoric favoured by monarchs and heads of religious institutions through history. But the idea does pull a current quandry into bold relief. Most of us, I suspect, would recoil from the idea of parents who, in the service of keeping their offspring safe, demand to know everything about them, to the extent of bugging their bedrooms, reading their private email, scrutinizing their photos and keeping a log of every page they’ve visited on the internet. Equally, we tend to feel sorry for adults unable to leave the cocooning family home to begin independent existences of their own, free from cloying parental oversight. Both are skewed relationships.Gustaf Tenggren, 1923 illustration for Grimms' Tales
Fairy tales encode these conflicting and competing maturational/ countermaturational urges. In fact, they seem to have evolved with the express purpose of helping us move successfully through adolescence to emerge as full citizens. (Think “Hansel and Gretel” – actually, a failed narrative in this respect, on all sides: the mother and father kick out the kids, but the mother, figured as the witch, tries to return them to her womb, the oven, and even though the children kill the witch, they return to their father at the end).
It's possible that both the NSA, GCHQ and affiliated organizations – occupying the headlines in many countries this week – who wish to keep populations safe at the cost of their mature, private lives, and those who seem to be indifferent to the threat of arrested development, are equally at risk in terms of healthy social outlook.