Printer-friendly versionSend by email

Romanticism and Disaster

"Mary Wollstonecraft’s Perpetual Disaster"

Scott J. Juengel
Vanderbilt University


I. “I may be melancholy to-morrow”  [1] 

1.        I begin and end with one of the more extraordinary daydreams from an age of philosophical daydreaming, one of such startling theoretical acceleration that it seems to expand at the speed of the universe. Floating off the rocky seaboard of Norway east of Arendal, Mary Wollstonecraft gazes on the barren shoreline and allows her mind to wander:

The view of this wild coast, as we sailed along it, afforded me a continual subject for meditation. I anticipated the future improvement of the world, and observed how much man still had to do, to obtain of the earth all it could yield. I even carried my speculations so far as to advance a million or two of years to the moment when the earth would perhaps be so perfectly cultivated, and so completely peopled, as to render it necessary to inhabit every spot; yes, these bleak shores. Imagination went still farther, and pictured the state of man when the earth could no longer support him. Where was he to fly to from universal famine? Do not smile: I really became distressed for these fellow creatures, yet unborn. The images fastened on me, and the world appeared a vast prison. I was soon to be in a smaller one—for no other name can I give to Rusoer. It would be difficult to form an idea of the place, if you have never seen one of these rocky coasts. (Letters 102)

2.        Of course, Wollstonecraft traverses such forbidding terrain as the ostensible business envoy of her increasingly remote lover, Gilbert Imlay, whose “importing” business supplies a suitable pretext for sending Wollstonecraft northward in the summer of 1795.  [2]  Recently returned from Paris where she had witnessed the Terror firsthand, a disquieted Wollstonecraft savors the political and picturesque neutrality of Scandinavia: indeed, in the opening letter of Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796), she writes of her first glimpses of the “sterile” coastline—“Rocks were piled on rocks, forming a suitable bulwark to the ocean”—and notes the stirring of a “spontaneous pleasure which gives credibility to our expectation of happiness.” “I forgot the horrors I had witnessed in France,” she concludes, “which had cast a gloom over all nature” (14). Faced with such vacant and uniformly austere space, Wollstonecraft experiences the “dilating [of]…emotions which were painfully concentrated” (14).

3.         However, Wollstonecraft’s shoreline reverie intimates the perils of such affective dilation, especially if unchecked by the modest aims of the historical imagination. Arguably, one could view Wollstonecraft’s future distress as a manifestation of what Jean-François Lyotard has identified as a historico-political enthusiasm, a “modality of the sublime feeling” that arises in Kant’s critique of history: specifically, “[t]his enthusiasm is the Begebenheit that has been sought for within the historical experience of humanity so as to be able to validate the phrase: ‘Humanity is constantly progressing toward the better’” (29, 32). Kant’s sense of Begebenheit as an event “which delivers itself into human history” squares with Wollstonecraft’s hyper-generative vision: each seeks to “indicate a cause such that the occurrence of its effect remains undetermined with regard to time” (Lyotard 26; emphasis mine).  [3]  While this sublime feeling occasions the experience of the idea of humanity in ourselves, it also, according to Lyotard, broaches something akin to dementia, “that is, believing there is a direct presentation when there isn’t any….Enthusiasm, for its sake, sees nothing, or rather sees nothingness and relates it back to the unpresentable” (31-2). However, ultimately Wollstonecraft’s meditation would fall short of Kantian sublimity simply because it converts the end of history into a scene of sentiment; or as Kant writes in the third Critique (§29): “A sympathetic grief that will not admit of consolation, or one referring to imaginary evils to which we deliberately surrender ourselves—being deceived by fancy—as if they were actual, indicates and produces a tender, though weak, soul—which shows a beautiful side and which can be called fanciful, though not enthusiastic” (141). Wollstonecraft would certainly not share Kant’s supposition that the feelings that follow in the wake of such mathematical sublimity dilute its force;  [4]  for while she seems discomfited by her manufactured “distress” (“Do not smile…”), the very production of a scene of universal suffering out of emptiness seems strangely consistent with Kant’s contention that “it is the state of mind produced by a certain representation with which the reflective Judgment is occupied, and not the Object, that is to be called sublime” (Critique 110).

4.        Naturally, one might be tempted to view this abrupt unleashing of Wollstonecraft’s imagination, its wild “peopling” of empty inhospitable space, as an instance of Malthusian geometrical terror, save for the fact that Wollstonecraft’s Scandinavian letters were composed in 1795, full three years before the first edition of An Essay on the Principle of Population. But ever mindful of the failed promise of revolution in France, Letters Written During a Short Residence demonstrates a restless commitment to thinking the ends of universal history, at times reading more like a work of philosophical anthropology than a travel memoir. Recall, for instance, Wollstonecraft’s counterfactual hypothesis about early human migration: “the first dwelling of man,” she speculates, must have been in the gloomy rusticity of Northern Europe, leading primitive man to migrate south in search of sun “[so] that the different parts of the earth might be peopled,” for how else does one explain the presence of human populations in such merciless terrains than by resorting to the logic of origins (44). In such instances, Wollstonecraft cribs from that most quintessential of enlightenment genres, the conjectural history, to redirect the narrative of stadial development to corroborate her own sense of the native comforts of “this rejected spot” (43), a spot the likes of which she will, in subsequent letters, imaginatively repopulate to death. Wollstonecraft regularly addresses her observations to “the compilers of universal histories” (48) and “writers who have considered the history of man, or of the human mind, on a more enlarged scale” (49), and few texts of the period demonstrate the penetration of proto-anthropological knowledge into forms of everyday perception more than Letters Written During a Short Residence.  [5]  Thus, one might be content to understand her population distress as simply an errant impulsion of thought in the direction of a grim anthropological future.

5.         Such a reading would certainly harmonize with what Mary Jacobus calls Wollstonecraft’s “sustained inquiry into amatory melancholia”—here dangerously quickened by the power of the imagination to reproduce beyond the means of affective support—leaving us once again “at the common site of transference and maternity” (Jacobus 65, 66). However, suffused as it is with both personal loss and political disenchantment, Wollstonecraft’s peculiar melancholia in Scandinavia exceeds the private demands of a wounded ego, and insists upon recognizing a melancholia haunting the world-historical subject. In his Memoirs of his late wife, William Godwin portrays the impact of the French Revolution on Wollstonecraft as one of blunt trauma, for “while it gave a fundamental shock to the human intellect through every region of the globe, [it] did not fail to produce a conspicuous effect in the progress of Mary’s reflections. The prejudices of her early years suffered a vehement concussion” (Godwin 72). This concussed state interrupted the career of a “mind…insensibly advancing towards a vigorous maturity,” breaking Wollstonecraft’s reverence for “establishment” values and sensitizing her to a world of injustice (72). Godwin’s account of Vindication of the Rights of Men subsequently highlights his future wife’s oscillation between “burst[s] of indignation” and “temporary fit[s] of torpor and indolence” during the process of composition, her progress and political engagement dependent on the availability of “stimulus” (73).  [6]  Thus, in December 1792 when Wollstonecraft left for an already tumultuous Paris to experience the revolution firsthand and alone, Godwin notes that she had no timeline for return since “the single purpose she had in view being that of an endeavour to heal her distempered mind” (83). Wollstonecraft’s fame as the author of the Vindications afforded her access into the circles of the Girondin leadership as well as various British expatriate communities in Paris; but whatever sanguinity she possessed about the fate of the revolution quickly eroded with the cruelties of Robespierre, the establishment of the Revolutionary Tribunal, and the renewal of war between France and Britain in February 1793.  [7]  An Historical and Moral View of the Origins and Progress of the French Revolution (1794), Wollstonecraft’s determined attempt to rescue the theoretical impetus for revolutionary change from its terrifying actualization, registers the seeming impossibility of revolutionary optimism when its “history” cannot progress much beyond 1789, stopping well short of the Revolution’s most violent turns (Furniss 69). Or, as Wollstonecraft writes in Historical and Moral View, “[o]ne great cause of misery in the present imperfect state of society is, that the imagination, continually tantalized, becomes the inflated wen of the mind, draining off the nourishment from the vital parts” (18).

6.         It is this metastasized imagination, incited by the prospect of revolutionary progress and indifferent to the slowness of historico-political time, that concerns me in this essay, for I see it quickening Wollstonecraft’s population terror and producing a form of historical untimeliness that can only be resolved in disaster. By casting Wollstonecraft’s political awakening in terms of a traumatized and volatile sensorium, Godwin cultivates a vision of his subject as “a female Werther,” whose mind “seem[s] almost of too fine a texture to encounter the vicissitudes of human affairs” (88).  [8]  Melancholia is of course always a debilitating excess of inassimilable knowledge, and none more so than the act of mourning one’s fellow creatures, yet unborn. According to the familiar Freudian paradigm, where mourning can eventually release the lost object back to history, melancholia steadfastly, even pathologically, refuses such closure. But what of melancholia oriented, proleptically, toward the disaster of the future, one held open by an impossible act of mourning? On one hand, mourning what cannot be known is constitutive of melancholia, but both mourning and melancholia are structured around the lost object and its remains, so what if there was no object in the first place, no remains to incite (as one recent, rather sanguine account of mourning put it) the “volatile potentialit[ies] and future militancies” available in loss (Eng and Kazanjian 5)? Can one grieve that which is not only unborn, but “a million or two of years” distant, and thus effectively at the limits of historical imagination? Freud makes clear at the beginning of "Mourning and Melancholia" that one can mourn not only “the loss of a loved person,” but also “the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as fatherland, liberty, an ideal, and so on” (164). The substitutability of one lost object for another, here successively abstracted toward idealization (and beyond), allows for the possibility that the source of the melancholic projection may be unrecoverable. Freud’s “and so on” extends the tropological progression continuously, leaving open-ended the question of what might lie beyond lost ideality.

7.         As Judith Butler demonstrates, the inward “turn” of melancholia—whereby the lost object is retained, ungrieved and undeclared as constitutive of the ego—produces “a set of spatializing tropes for psychic life, domiciles of preservation and shelter as well as arenas for struggle and persecution” (171). The psychic topographies that result from this operation are more than simply illustrative figures for interiority; rather, they persist as “textualized symptoms” of what they seek to explain (179). In withdrawing the beloved object from conscious life, Butler argues, the melancholic withdraws “a configuration of the social world as well,” in the process making the ego into a “‘polity’ and conscience one of its ‘major institutions,’ precisely…to annul the losses that [the social] world demands” (181-2). When the lost object is political hope itself, the entire psycho-social manifold becomes politicized to such a degree that even deserted landscape becomes a potential site of revolutionary mourning. In what follows, I want to consider Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Denmark and Norway within the historical imagination of the 1790s and, by extension, within a theorization of romantic history shuttling between the “anticipated…future improvement of the world” and the bleak shores of disaster to come. Haunted by what was to have been the future, Wollstonecraft struggles to reconcile the time of revolutionary politics with what we might call “species time,” resulting in forms of untimeliness that figure as disaster without end. “[D]isaster ruins everything,” writes Maurice Blanchot, “all the while leaving everything intact” (1), a sentiment, I argue, captured in Wollstonecraft’s curious fascination with empty palaces and estates.  [9] 

II. Disaster and Deep Time

8.        Arguably, Wollstonecraft’s speculations regarding the million-year fate of the human species are part of a general shift in what was historically conceivable in the eighteenth century. The Western understanding of historical time underwent a vertiginous change between 1750 and the early decades of the nineteenth century, as the positing of geological or “deep” time began to erode the hegemony of the six-thousand-year-old Biblical earth, and sacral or prophetical histories were challenged by new models of temporalization structured according to the tempos of scientific inquiry. As Daniel Rosenberg has shown, Buffon’s startling hypothesis that the planet was seventy-five thousand years old understated the French naturalist’s suspicion that the age of the earth should actually be measured in millions of years (46-7). Indeed, Buffon’s eventual theory of the cooling planet—which began as a “mass of incandescent matter in space…condensed into a spinning spheroid, which thereafter had cooled slowly to its present state, and would continue to cool” (Rudwick 150)—hypothesizes the most comprehensive “natural history” imaginable, the life of the planet through to its thermodynamic demise at some unavoidable point in the future. This historicization of the earth, and particularly the recognition of a vast geohistory anterior to human civilization effectively burst open the concept of time, making clear that human history is but a brief rustle of surface activity in the immensity that is the fate of a planet. Buttressed by enlightenment natural history, historical time became increasingly accumulative, quantitative, and spatialized, but not altogether graspable. By 1785 when James Hutton presented “The System of the Habitable Earth with Regard to its Duration and Stability” to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the concept of the earth’s dynamic equilibrium was producing an abyssal relationship to time, as the physics of the earth threatened to escape human historical measurement.  [10] 

9.        As the past receded from view, so too did our speculative futures undergo a temporal and conceptual sprawl. A distinctly modern, scientific futurity separated itself from both prophetic thought and eschatological conclusion, even as romantic historicity (to believe Frederic Jameson) acknowledged “the judgment of the future on the present” as a mode of periodization and historical reckoning (26). This decidedly earthly judgment to come allows the future to “flash up” into the present as powerfully, and at times as dangerously, as the past is thought to.  [11]  The question of the open-endedness of time, posed repeatedly as the question of progress in the eighteenth century, encourages a host of new narrative possibilities where prophecy produced only time’s fateful destruction: Rosenberg notes the flourishing of a “uchronian imagination” in fictions of the 1770s—most famously in the French bestseller, Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s L’An 2440—alongside forms of conjectural history that were oriented increasingly toward progressive futures, culminating in the 1790s with the work of Condorcet, Godwin and others (47). As enormous recalibrations of planetary history diminished human presence in the past, futurological thought increasingly posed the question of human ends: indeed, romantic era writers, visionaries, philosophers, and political economists hypothesize the future ontologies of the “human” nearly as fervently, if not as systematically, as the Victorians would worry humankind’s evolutionary past.

10.        Perhaps no speculative model captures this revolution in quantitative time as cleanly and chillingly as Malthus working through his geometrical progressions: “In two centuries and a quarter, the population would be to the means of subsistence as 512 to 10: in three centuries as 4096 to 13, and in two thousand years the difference would be almost incalculable” (75). Even before the mathematical abstractions and demographic tables are converted into reproducing bodies in the thrall of instinct, we recognize what Godwin will later call “the germ of multiplication” working in Malthus’ program, its presumption of predictable, mathematized intervals of time rather than Nature’s mysterious sequencing, “whether her series alternately progress or retrograde;—whether they circulate, or decrease, or flow in straight and eternal lines” (1820: 6, 249). But while Malthus certainly devotes more energy to soberly correcting fantasies of human perfectibility and denouncing Poor Law legislation that disincentivizes labor and encourages reproduction, he does recognize something self-regulating in the planet’s history, for while the “law of increase in a geometrical progression is absolutely immense,”

The laws of nature which make food necessary to the life of man, as well as of plants and animals, prevent the continued existence of an excess which cannot be supported, and thus either discourage the production of such an excess, or destroy it in the bud, in such a way as to make it scarcely perceptible to a careless observer. (266)
Extrapolating from his final point, Malthus argues that historical disasters—e.g. war, drought, pandemics, hurricanes, etc.—are but periodic “checks” on exponential growth; or rather, looked at another way, instances of mass destruction are quickly offset and compensated by the steady engines of human reproduction. “The effects of the dreadful plague in London in 1666,” Malthus writes, “were not perceptible fifteen or twenty years afterwards. The traces of the most destructive famines in China and Indostan are by all accounts very soon obliterated” (107). Epidemics in Turkey and Egypt, earthquakes in Lisbon and Lima, volcanic eruptions in Naples and Pompeii all “have but a trifling effect on the average population of any state” (107-8). It is a measure of the scale and abstraction of Malthus’ principle of population that historical events of this magnitude serve merely a regulatory role; moreover, according to the account of history intimated here, such catastrophic events threaten to disappear from the planetary record, their “traces…very soon obliterated.”

11.        This shift in the scale of history threatens to attenuate how we measure disaster and mass mortality, and it does so just as the Lisbon earthquake and its philosophical aftermath were curing Voltaire of Leibniz’s theodicy and ushering in the modern event-structure of history. As many have noted after Adorno, Lisbon was to the catastrophe of nature as Auschwitz was to catastrophe of history, and as such it punctuated the end of traditional modes of belief and proved a vital if grim catalyst for modern disenchantment. But a deeper ecological understanding of history modifies the seismic import of any single sublunary event, in part because it can imagine a history that is not measured in demographic impact. One might even begin to argue that despite the dark admonitory vision of exhausted resources and mass starvation, Malthus is hardly a theorist of catastrophe, because there is no exceptional event in his theoretical model, only a mathematical horizon and the inevitability of time and instinct. In fact, the 1798 first edition of Essay is remarkably devoid of horror, and hardly the “charnel house” of Hazlitt’s fevered imagination.  [12]  However, touched by what Derrida, writing of Kant, calls the “apocalyptic tone” in philosophy, Malthus imagines the ongoingness of catastrophe, its endless arrival, by which I mean not simply gradual resource depletion, nor even the unthinking and uninterrupted disaster unfolding in the plant and animal world (where the power of increase remains largely unimpeded, and an organic, if merciless equilibrium takes hold), but rather a disaster at the heart of the historical human species.

12.         Graced with reason, social aspirations, and some measure of bodily discipline, humankind must calibrate the relationship between number of offspring and the provisions necessary to support them, the labor necessary to produce such support, the potential loss of independence, the social consequences of family size, and so on. Noting that despite its current populousness the growth rate in Europe has slowed considerably, Malthus speculates that some measure of “preventative foresight” has historically emerged as a consequence of the experience of existential and social distress. This world historical contestation between unflagging reproductive drive and new forms of demographic reason provides the scaffolding for Malthus’ nascent “theory of mind” at the end of the 1798 Essay, but one senses that it is a contestation without a victor (62). All living creatures experience population pressure, and most of nature allows the world’s essential finitude to cull the species; humankind alone has the capacity to “interrupt” the power of increase in its “career” through reason and sexual discretion (76). But most of the checks to human proliferation are as dismal as the everyday disaster felt by plants and animals, for Malthus lists forms of vice (e.g. prostitution, birth control, infanticide, polyandry) and misery (abstinence) as the most common responses to the need for population control. As Catherine Gallagher reminds us, Malthus was the first to contend that “sexual instinct was at the very core of our human nature…as permanent and intractable as the instinct for self-preservation,” and by making sexual desire a motor of human history, Malthus ensured that any restraint on that desire would produce distress and suffering (Gallagher 159). Put another way, whether checked or unchecked the principle of population would seem to insure privation of some sort. In the final chapters of the Essay we begin to discover explicitly what has been clear all along and what gives the treatise its acknowledged “melancholy hue”: Malthus views being-in-the-world as one extended “state of trial,” life a “constant succession of sentient beings, rising apparently from so many specks of matter, going through a long and sometimes painful process in this world” (62, 201). Or, as Malthus announces with Hobbesian economy, “man as he really is [is] inert, sluggish, and averse from labour, unless compelled by necessity” (205).

13.        Malthus’ philosophical pessimism drew the ire of many of his reform-minded contemporaries, but for the author of the Essay on the Principle of Population the unwillingness to intellectually confront “one of the general laws of animated nature”—i.e. “[t]he perpetual tendency in the race of man to increase beyond the means of subsistence”—amounts to “unmanly conduct” (199). Indeed, to chase dreams of species improvement, or worse “perfectibility,” only exacerbates the toll on the already overtaxed human subject, for “we shall not only exhaust our strength in fruitless exertions…but we shall be perpetually crushed by the recoil of this rock of Sisyphus” (199). Every way lies privation and hardship. As a consequence Malthus must insist that “exertion” is what gives form to consciousness, for “[i]f Locke’s ideas be just, and there is great reason to think that it is, evil seems to be necessary to create exertion, and exertion seems evidently necessary to create mind” (204). By adopting a version of sensationalist epistemology that makes struggle and affliction constitutive of mind, Malthus imagines the human subject as something akin to an isolated thermodynamic system asymptotically approaching entropy—or what Malthus repeatedly calls “a general and fatal torpor of the human faculties”—unless roused by persistent calamities of sensation (205).

14.        This argument for the necessity of privation and exertion was not uncommon in period accounts of universal history. Kant famously portrays nature as productive of ceaseless and necessary struggle: “Man wishes to live comfortably and pleasantly, but nature intends that he should abandon idleness and inactive self-sufficiency and plunge instead into labour and hardships, so that he may by his own adroitness find means of liberating himself from them in turn” ("Idea" 45). Meanwhile, isolated in rugged Scandinavia, Wollstonecraft too insists that “[a] degree of exertion, produced by some want, more or less painful, is probably the price we must pay for knowledge” (105). But Malthus alone seems to turn the psychology of strain into a quasi-theology of equilibrium: man’s “sluggish existence” is awakened by “the animating touches of the Divinity,” those “roughnesses and inequality in life which querulous man too frequently makes the subject of his complaint against the God of nature” (202-3). Malthus’ God fashions a human subject weighed down by listlessness and impoverishment, then spurs him to action through relentless and unending want, the “animating touch” of unremitting disaster:

Had population and food increased in the same ratio, it is probable that man might never have emerged from the savage state. But supposing the earth once well peopled, an Alexander, a Julius Caesar, a Tamberlane, or a bloody revolution might irrevocably thin the human race, and defeat the great designs of the Creator. The ravages of a contagious disease would be felt for ages; and an earthquake might unpeople a region for ever. The principle, according to which population increases, prevents the vices of mankind, or the accidents of nature, the partial evils arising from general laws, from obstructing the high purpose of the creation….But it is impossible that this law can operate, and produce the effects apparently intended by the Supreme Being, without occasioning partial evil. (206)
Malthus immediately tries to spin this scandalous vision as “favourable to the growth of the mind” because it produces “the universal exertion…[the] infinite variety of situations, and consequently of impressions” that stimulate human consciousness (206). But there seems a strange distortion of aspect ratio here, leading Malthus to ultimately insist that we “consider chiefly the mass of mankind and not individual instances” (207).  [13]  By reducing war, famine, plague, and natural disasters to “partial evils”—partial because the “thinning” of the human race is countered by inexorable demographic growth, and vice versa—Malthus not only broaches a scale of historical accounting (and accountability) that threatens to evacuate the moral universe of its groundwork, but he imagines the conditions of a necessary, purposeful, and ever approaching disaster.

15.        Malthus is not much interested in this condition of traumatic anticipation. The end of the first edition of Essay is dedicated to the proposition that “Evil exists in the world not to create despair but activity”: where the “uniform, undiversified perfection” imagined by Godwin and Cordorcet would only bring about inaction and regression, the forbidding realism of Malthus attempts to make a virtue of misery, arguing that “[t]he sorrows and distresses of life form another class of excitements, which seem to be necessary, by a particular train of impressions, to soften and humanize the heart” (217, 209). By hewing to a sentimental vocabulary of instructive suffering and by shifting the focus of his treatise from the population dynamics to “theory of mind,” Malthus often fails to differentiate the scale of what goads the mind to activity, such that instances of mass mortality and catastrophic destruction are frequently reduced to the level of “excitations” and experiential “variety.” Natural evil pitilessly contracts the human population, but at least it prompts survivors to further liveliness and improvement. This has important consequences for our thinking of disaster. Despite being introduced as a large-scale planetary modulation that would seem to escape human comprehension, disaster by the end of the 1798 Essay figures as a disturbance of consciousness, a disaster of sensation and feeling that paradoxically moves the species toward life rather than death. The Malthusian disaster is not experienced as inassimilable shock or trauma, but rather it rouses the human subject into a future shaped and bounded by disaster.

16.        This untraumatized mass subject benefits from rarely participating in prospective thought, and thus it seems that disaster’s imminence does not manifest itself symptomatically.  [14]  However, Wollstonecraft cannot so blithely dispel the psychological freight of disaster, and finds herself preposterously mourning that which has not occurred (even as she struggles to mourn more recent traumatizing events). Not incidentally, Wollstonecraft shared Malthus’ general commitment to the maintenance of the mass over the sanctity of the individual. Consider this passage from one of the final letters of her northern tour:

Arriving at Sleswick, the residence of Prince Charles of Hesse-Cassel, the sight of the soldiers recalled all the unpleasing ideas of German despotism, which imperceptibly vanished as I advanced into the country. I viewed, with a mixture of pity and horrour, these beings training to be sold to slaughter, or be slaughtered, and fell into reflections, on an old opinion of mine, that it is the preservation of the species, not of individuals, which appears to be the design of the Deity throughout the whole of nature. Blossoms come forth only to be blighted; fish lay their spawn where it will be devoured: and what a large portion of the human race are born merely to be swept prematurely away. Does not this waste of budding life emphatically assert, that it is not men, but man, whose preservation is so necessary to the completion of the grand plan of the universe? Children peep into existence, suffer, and die; men play like moths about a candle, and sink into the flame: war, and ‘the thousand ills which flesh is heir to,’ mow them down in shoals, whilst the more cruel prejudices of society palsies existence, introducing not less sure, though slower decay. (179-80)
Spurred by the sight of soldiers training “to…be slaughtered,” Wollstonecraft’s mutability ode traverses familiar philosophical ground, yet it does so not to promote an appreciation of life as to lament the austere “design” of the living world, which sloughs off multitudes of individuals through cataclysm in the name of preserving abstract “species.” However, in the next section I want to consider how Wollstonecraft’s brief meditation on species survival might be a product of historically contingent forces that (re)connect this universalist gesture to the political time of the 1790s. The soldiers in training that so discomfit Wollstonecraft represent a historical force in potentia, one suspended in what Mary Favret recently called the untasked, “time-killing,” meantime of wartime (2010: 68-9). They loom as grim figures of a slaughter to come.

III. Revolution and Untimeliness

17.        Wollstonecraft’s arrival in Prussia and the landgrave of Hesse-Cassel in the late summer of 1795 puts her there during the peace accords that would bring the War of the First Coalition to an end. As is well known, that summer’s peace treaties between revolutionary France and Prussia, Spain and Hesse-Cassel were the impetus for Kant’s most famous meditation on our political futurity, Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch (Zum ewigen Frieden. Ein philosophischer Entwurf, 1795), a treatise not incidentally which opens by coyly punning on the “perpetual peace” offered by the graveyard.  [15]  However, what begins as a seeming bit of cleverness gradually sounds the conceptual limits of Kant’s historico-political method, for every strategic concession or attenuating provision that erodes the integrity of political principle awakens the specter of universal death. For instance, models of international right that safeguard the “right to go to war” are, according to Kant, severely compromised, for “[i]t could be taken to mean that it is perfectly just for men to adopt this attitude to destroy one another, and thus find perpetual peace in the vast grave where all the horrors of violence and those responsible for them would be buried” (105). Beginning with the first of his "Preliminary Articles" for lasting peace, Kant condemns any diplomatic treatise that merely suspends hostilities between nations, but worries that “secret reservations” among the ruling parties might hold open the possibility of future war, even if such a thought was heretofore unthinkable: “A conclusion of peace nullifies all existing reasons for a future war, even if these are not yet known to the contracting parties, and no matter how acutely and carefully they may later be pieced together out of old documents. It is possible that either party may make a mental reservation with a view of reviving old pretensions in the future. Such reservations will not be mentioned explicitly, since both parties may simply be too exhausted to continue the war, although they may nonetheless possess sufficient ill will to seize the first favorable opportunity of attaining their end” (93-4). Such “Jesuitical casuistry” places political expediency not simply above principle, but above a commitment to perpetuity as a temporal ideal.

18.        I call attention to this secret thought of a return to hostility, this “mental reservation” rendered dormant by the fatigue of war but capable of being “pieced together” through juridical-contractual remainders, because it contributes something instructive to our understanding of the historical imagination of future disaster. Like Malthus, Kant presumes the givenness of conflict and strife, and the six Preliminary Articles thus labor to trace the negative conditions without which perpetual peace is—almost literally—unthinkable. Or, put differently, holding open the thought of subsequent war holds open the historical abyss of the mass grave as the limit of politics as such, the “war of extermination, in which both parties and right itself might be simultaneously annihilated,” allowing “perpetual peace only on the vast graveyard of the human race” (96). The semantics of “perpetual peace”—the end of all hostilities, in one form or another—toggles uncomfortably in the space of what must be unthought. For the Kant of the unwritten critique of political reason, the question of prospective or probabilistic thinking represents a watershed moment in the history of reason, albeit one tragically hued. In his 1786 "Conjectures on the Beginning of Human History," Kant opens the essay by questioning the wisdom of trying to imaginatively reconstruct human origins (for fear the philosopher becomes a mere novelist), but eventually determines that doing so is “merely…an exercise in which the imagination, supported by reason, may be allowed to indulge as a healthy mental recreation” (221). Assured thus of the wholesomeness of the enterprise, Kant lists “anticipation of the future” as a crucial early phase in the evolution of human reason out of the originary world of pure instinct. Transcending the present to court the future signifies as “the most decisive proof of man’s advantage, in that he is able to prepare for remote objectives in keeping with his destiny” (225). However, “visuali[zing] what is yet to come, often in the distant future…is also the most inexhaustible source of cares and worries which an uncertain future evokes, and from which all animals are exempt”; to which Kant adds,

The man who had to provide for himself, his wife, and his future children foresaw the increasing laboriousness of his work; the woman foresaw the hardships to which nature had subjected her sex, as well as those which the more powerful man would inflict upon her. Both foresaw with apprehension, at the end of the life of toil and as yet in the background of the picture, the fate which must befall all animals but which causes them no concern, namely, death; and they seemed to reproach themselves for, and regard as a crime, that use of reason which had brought all these ills upon them. (225)
As a relationship with futurity splits humankind off from their animal brethren—a separation which, in reason’s subsequent final stage, releases man from a nature he now dominates to emerge an end in himself—it also confirms his wretched humanity: for Kant, reason’s inevitable flirtation with the future creates an onto-historical gulf that can never be recrossed. Devastated by what reason has wrought, man views the fateful recognition of the future as a criminal act, an original sin. “In the future,” Kant concludes, “the hardships of life would often arouse in him the wish for a paradise created by his imagination, a paradise where he could dream or idle away his existence in quiet inactivity and everlasting peace. But restless reason, irresistibly driving him on to develop his innate capacities, stands between him and that imagined seat of bliss, and does not allow him to return to the state of rude simplicity from which it had originally extracted him” (226).

19.        To think of the future is thus already to think of death: to harbor a commitment to future war is but to enable death’s realization on a mass scale. It follows that Kant’s opposition to standing armies (the third of his Preliminary Articles) derives from his prohibition on the anticipation of future war, for the Hessian brigades such as Wollstonecraft observed linger as the political realization of a not-so-secret intention to war. “[T]he hiring of men to kill or to be killed,” writes Kant, “seems to mean using them as mere machines, and instruments in the hands of someone else (the state), which cannot easily be reconciled with the rights of man in one’s own person” (95). Not coincidentally, in Vindication of the Rights of Woman Wollstonecraft too condemns the maintenance of standing armies as “well disciplined machines,” although she clearly prefers more organic metaphors for the threat to human freedom embodied by such regiments: “A spirit inspired by romantic notions of honour, a kind of morality founded on the fashion of the age, can only be felt by a few officers, whilst the main body must be moved by command, like the waves of the sea; for the strong wind of authority pushes the crowd of subalterns forward, they scarcely know or care why, with headlong fury” (Vindication 132, 123). Wollstonecraft’s remarks concerning German soldiers “sold to slaughter” might now be viewed as a concern for the unthinking movement of history toward its catastrophic future. The instrumentalized soldiers are out of time, in every sense of the phrase: untouched by “romantic notions of honour” or the prevailing morality of the age, they are already among the dead (“they scarcely know or care why”). For both Kant and Wollstonecraft, standing armies function within both species time and political time, materializing the possibility of perpetual war.

20.         But there is a question of whether the political future can truly be thought at all. In Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, Reinhardt Koselleck outlines how rational prognosis, inseparable from “the delicate art of political calculation,” gradually supplanted prophecy as the dominant mode of futural thinking in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Or as Koselleck puts it, “the constant similitude of eschatological expectation is dissolved by the continued novelty of time running away with itself, and prognostic attempts to contain it” (19). This unbridled future time is characterized by two significant features:

[F]irst, the increasing speed with which it approaches us, and second, its unknown quality. ‘Unknown’ because this accelerated time, i.e. our history, abbreviated the space of experiences, robbed them of their constancy, and continually brought into play new, unknown factors….This self-accelerating temporality robs the present of the possibility of being experienced as the present, and escapes into a future within which the currently unapprehendable present has to be captured by historical philosophy. In other words, in the eighteenth century, the acceleration of time that had previously belonged to eschatology became obligatory for worldly invention, before technology completely opened up a space of experience adequate to this acceleration. (22)
For Koselleck, the French Revolution actualizes the experience of the new future-conditional bedeviled by contingency, chance and ungrounded speculation: even as the revolution required its subjects to participate in the ‘future work’ of imagining freedom, it presented them with a destabilized and finally “unapprehendable” present. One can already sense this temporal unease in the final chapter of An Historical and Moral View when Wollstonecraft’s painstaking chronicle of revolutionary “progress” abruptly stops short with Louis XVI’s removal from Versailles in late 1789, only to narratively retreat into a speculative history of reformist thinking from the “savage state” forward to the rise of the great European metropolis. “This influence is extremely gradual,” she cautions, “it requires a great deal of time,” and ultimately is no match for the velocity of sociopolitical change in a modern city such as Paris, “the vortex of men and things” (495, 493). This final chapter sounds a sly meditation on the forms of political untimeliness that result from uneven development, for Paris, by “accelerating the epocha of the revolution,” has outraced the measured progress of human emancipation, leading to the out-of-joint horrors that Wollstonecraft chooses not to narrate (508). In other words, An Historical and Moral View reaches a historiographical juncture where it cannot, or will not, keep time with its subject matter.  [16] 

21.         Wollstonecraft’s implicit temporalization of revolutionary ends recognizes what Koselleck calls the shifting “planes of historicity” that characterize modern historical time: “A consciousness of time and the future begins to develop in the shadows of absolutist politics, first in secret, later openly, sustained by an audacious combination of politics and prophecy….rational prediction and salvational expectation” (Futures 21). The period of revolutionary fervor was an instance, engine, and ultimately a casualty of this historical speed-up, as Futures Past notes that a “fixation on an end-state by historical actors” produced but a “futureless future,” the mechanical and mutual supersession of one historical rhythm (revolution) with another (reaction) (23). That said, here and elsewhere Koselleck places inordinate faith in certain forms of historical projection prior to the revolution, returning frequently to a curious example that represents what he calls “the legitimate offspring of historical philosophy”: Diderot’s 1774 forecast of revolution for Sweden, a prediction ultimately realized in France.  [17]  The scenario laid out by Diderot traces the arc of the revolution to come—from popular resistance to the relapse into anarchy, from the coming of a transcendent national-spiritual leader to world historical uncertainty—only it is introduced as an exploration of the Swedish political constitution. Moreover, the prediction is twice displaced, for in addition to getting the historical actors wrong, it appears in Abbe Raynal’s A Philosophical and Political History of the Settlements and Trade of the Europeans in the East and West Indies, albeit written in Diderot’s hand and, according to Koselleck, “smuggled anonymously (in accordance with Enlightenment tactics) into Raynal’s work on European colonial expansion” (2002: 138). Diderot’s speculation—often quoted in full and hailed as “one of the [Enlightenment’s] greatest predictions, which has remained in the shadows of anonymity and geographical camouflage” (2004: 23)—appears frequently in Koselleck’s discussions of secular prophecy and crisis, primarily as an example of a prognostication that fruitfully melds historical experience and “figures of argumentation…derived from Roman history” and other classical sources (2002: 138).  [18]  Remarkably, Koselleck shows little interest in the bizarre (dis)location of Diderot’s judgment, but a possible transposition of Sweden and France was not lost on Mary Wollstonecraft a few years later.

22.         In Letters Written During a Short Residence, Wollstonecraft evinces a desire to revise her own historical itinerary: while the Scandinavian tour promises to distract from her Parisian shock, she declares that she might “have been less severe in the remarks I have made on the vanity and depravity of the French, had I travelled toward the north before I visited France” (161).  [19]  The purpose for the revision is ostensibly methodological: Wollstonecraft articulates her wish to retroactively replot her course while excusing one of her more forceful detours into feminist critique (“Still harping on the same subject, you will exclaim”), and promising a “return to the straight road of observation” (160). In order to preserve “a dispassionate view” while “trac[ing] the progress of the world’s improvement,” Wollstonecraft believes she would have profited from ascending the presumptive hierarchy of European civility. But the circumstances of this fantasy of transposition also speak to its psychic import: France is personal, the site of a disruptive subjectivity that threatens the straight road of empirical assessment. By rerouting the psychic itinerary, Wollstonecraft wishes to symbolically put the therapeutic before the traumatic, the redress before the wound, creating the restorative anticipation of a disaster to come. However, according to a different transferential logic, the swapping of order also reimagines Sweden as the space of revolutionary earliness. Wollstonecraft seems to intuit and lament this logic almost immediately, as she proceeds to debunk assertions that “a rising people” (i.e. Scandinavian countries) possess more natural virtue than those refined cultures of some standing: “yet where has more virtuous enthusiasm been displayed than during the two last years by the common people of France….I am obliged to recollect the numberless instances which I have either witnessed, or heard well authenticated, to balance the account of horrors” (161).

23.         The Sweden that Wollstonecraft describes is hardly on the brink of revolution, or at least not of the kind imagined by Diderot: rather, her opening letter portrays a nation trapped in prehistoric amber, girded round by “huge, dark rocks that looked like the rude materials of creation forming the barrier of unwrought space” (10). Once ashore she encounters “men who remain so near brute creation, as only to exert themselves to find the food necessary to sustain life” and who “have little or no imagination to call forth the curiosity necessary to fructify the faint glimmerings of mind which entitles them to rank as lords of the creation. Had they either, they could not contentedly remain rooted in the clods they indolently cultivate” (10).  [20]  As I’ve argued elsewhere, Wollstonecraft’s navigation of such radically heterogeneous time within modern Europe is guided by a historiographical interest in the migration of populations. Eager to corroborate monogenetic and climatological accounts of human variegation, Letter reintegrates the fate of the species into the longue durée of planetary history, while recognizing that the former is but a minor expression within the latter’s outsized movements. This elongation of time diverts some of the attention away from the immediate political chronologies that structure and overdetermine Wollstonecraft’s contemporaneity, effectively suspending the incursion of the future. For instance, in Letter V she remarks, no doubt with Linnaeus in mind, that “Sweden appeared to me the country in the world most proper to form the botanist and natural historian: every object seemed to remind me of the creation of things, of the first efforts of sportive nature” (40). To view the world with Linnaean eyes is to participate in a recent and critical reorganization of enlightenment historiography, yet Wollstonecraft’s Sweden so obsessively figures the origins of things—at once the source of nature, and the “natural history” that would give it meaning—that one senses a form of history in retreat.

24.        But I want to imagine for a moment that Wollstonecraft’s fixation on origins might also be a vision of post-disaster, in the sense that every one of these founding images restages the possibility of renewal for the melancholic. I see this less as a counterpoint to the failure of the progress narrative, and more a constitutive psychic stratagem for its maintenance. “The more I see of the world,” writes Wollstonecraft early in her travels, “the more I am convinced that civilization is a blessing not sufficiently estimated by those who have not traced its progress” (20). While such a tracing “enables us to retain the primitive delicacy of our sensations,” it also reveals the psychic work performed by the imagination:

Without the aid of the imagination all the pleasures of the senses must sink into grossness, unless continual novelty serve as a substitute for the imagination, which being impossible, it was to this weariness, I suppose, that Solomon alluded when he declared that there was nothing new under the sun!—nothing for the common sensations excited by the senses. Yet who will deny that the imagination and understanding have made many, very many discoveries since those days, which only seem harbingers of others still more noble and beneficial. (20)
Wollstonecraft’s reflections anticipate Malthus on the necessity of regular exertion and variety, only here the imagination compensates for what experience cannot deliver (“continual novelty”), presumably by “discovering” anew what is admittedly “impossible.” Of course, the Solomonic pronouncement in Ecclesiastes 1 speaks to the cyclical, repetitive nature of earthly life and the futility that follows from the knowledge of purposeless time: what has been will be again, generations of humankind will be swept away and the earth will abide. But Wollstonecraft cites specifically the “weariness” of Solomon’s recognition—“All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing” (1.8)— thus underscoring how this is the melancholic’s verse par excellence:
16. I communed with mine own heart, saying, Lo, I am come to great estate and have gotten more wisdom than all they that have been before me in Jerusalem; yea, my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge. 17. And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit. 18. For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. (Ecclesiastes 1.16-18)
Wollstonecraft in Scandinavia is a distressed historical subject, uncertain less of her place than her time in the world, and thus hostage to an existential passivity in the face of imminent historical return.  [21]  As we will see in the next section, this passivity is constitutive of, even as it is a product of, writing the disaster in a Blanchotian sense.

IV. “treading on live ashes”

The disaster, depriving us of that refuge which is the thought of death, dissuading us from the catastrophic or the tragic, dissolving our interest in will and in all internal movement, does not allow us to entertain this question either: what have you done to gain knowledge of the disaster?
Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster (3)

25.        What has Mary Wollstonecraft done to gain knowledge of disaster? Let us look at how she understands the aftermath of a devastating event in order to venture an answer. Near the end of her Scandinavian tour, on the highway to Copenhagen, Wollstonecraft observes a vast plain hosting what seems a motley village of tents, and idly wonders whether the “rage for encampments” (i.e. recreational camping) had reached Denmark. Arriving at the capital however, she learns that a massive three-day fire destroyed well over nine hundred buildings in the city, leaving thousands of residents homeless and adrift. Here is her description of entering the ravaged city:

Entering soon after, I passed amongst the dust and rubbish it had left, affrighted by viewing the extent of the devastation; for at least a quarter of the city had been destroyed. There was little in the appearance of fallen bricks and stacks of chimneys to allure the imagination into soothing melancholy reveries; nothing to attract the eye of taste, but much to afflict the benevolent heart. The depredations of time have always something in them to employ the fancy, or lead to musing on subjects which, withdrawing the mind from objects of sense, seem to give it new dignity: but here I was treading on live ashes. The sufferers were still under the pressure of misery occasioned by this dreadful conflagration. I could not take refuge in the thought: they suffered—but they are no more! a reflection I frequently summon to calm my mind, when sympathy rises to anguish: I therefore desired, the driver to hasten to the hotel recommended to me, that I might avert my eyes, and snap the train of thinking which had sent me into all the corners of the city, in search of houseless heads. (149)
Wollstonecraft’s is a strange and telling kind of equivocation and evasion. Noticeably mystified by the disaster’s presentness—its still-warm organic life, its importunate objects of sense—Wollstonecraft craves the consolations of historical distance and the resulting decathexis that will ensure a tidy aesthetic experience. There is an indignity in the proximity and persistence of suffering: with “nothing to attract the eye of taste,” it is best to “avert [one’s] eyes” altogether. Best to seek refuge from the refugees for fear that the imagination may begin to house the homeless. However, I am struck particularly by what Wollstonecraft reveals to be her customary response to disastrous events (“they suffered—but they are no more!”), its semantic import flickering uncomfortably between relief from suffering in life, or in death. The lingering possibility that Wollstonecraft takes affective “refuge” in mass death haunts the passage. Catastrophe offers a ready-made melancholic withdrawal into the consolations of negation, where the fresh ruins and visibly displaced of Copenhagen press urgently for a response that she is unprepared to deliver.

26.        Clearly, Wollstonecraft’s reaction to the Copenhagen fire reveals her psychic discomfort with the immediate past: sympathy now too easily rises to anguish, and anguish requires something catastrophic to be pacified. Catastrophe looms thus as a welcome limit to thought, summoned even to calm the mind: it is strategically not experience, but rather a retreat from experience into the non-experience of the other committed to death. Here we find something akin to Blanchot’s insistence that “Consciousness can be catastrophic without ceasing to be consciousness; it…welcomes into itself this overturning” (49). This incorporation of catastrophe into consciousness—paradoxically, to relieve “the pressure of misery”—redoubles the event structure of disaster as thought itself. Blanchot’s The Writing of the Disaster may seem an odd interlocutor to summon here, but his intimation that there is no final writing of disaster, only a series of feints, equivocations, and paradoxes that give the event its outside, captures something in Wollstonecraft’s writing of (disastrous) history: ultimately, states Blanchot, “[w]e are passive with respect to the disaster, but the disaster is perhaps passivity, and thus past, always past, even in the past, out of date” (3). Wollstonecraft’s retreat from the prospect of charitable action signals her own version of historico-sympathetic passivity: suggestively, Blanchot writes of the ontological quandaries of “infinite aid” in the aftermath of disaster, an unlimited call that strips each of his or her singularity, causing the charitable agent “to disappear in the infinite movement of service” (21).  [22] 

27.         Copenhagen has become inhospitable not merely for its unhoused citizens, but for the sympathizing outsider unwilling to tread on live ashes. The following morning Wollstonecraft notes that she is already “weary of observing the ravages,” and while admitting that she has encountered the city “in a very disadvantageous light, some of the best streets having been burnt and the whole place thrown into confusion” (149), she grumbles that she “saw nothing to rouse the idea of elegance or grandeur,” save for the Royal Palace (150). But this is not an immaterial exception, for the Palace was itself destroyed by a previous fire “about two years ago” and now stands a handsome, nearly empty, shell of itself. Subsequently,

a great number of the poor, during the late fire, took refuge in its ruins, till they could find some other abode. Beds were thrown on the landing places of the grand stair-case, where whole families crept from the cold, and every little nook is boarded up as a retreat for some poor creatures deprived of their home. At present a roof may be sufficient to shelter them from the night air; but as the season advances, the extent of the calamity will be more severely felt. (150)
I want to linger a moment in the repurposing of these ruins, for not only does the image of the poor taking up tenancy in the royal quarters coyly re-cite the much-debated primal scene of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, but it does so in the shadow of cyclical devastation. The details of Wollstonecraft’s portrait (e.g. the beds on the grand stair; the occupied “little nooks,” the winter draughts, etc.) suggest that she has not averted her eyes from this scene. This is curious, since these are the same victims of the conflagration that she chose to disregard a day earlier, only now they are lodged in an earlier and more symbolically freighted wreckage. However, this is a distinctly modern ruin—built in the 1750s and gutted by flames in February 1794—and as such it flickers as a figure of historical intermittence: liberated from its original context by disaster, the space (a space) has been opened up for imagining a world historically otherwise.

28.         These observations regarding the Royal Palace recall attention to how often during her Letters Wollstonecraft tours empty estates, vacancies that require little by way of imagination to seem remainders of a world recently lost. Compare the above with Wollstonecraft’s visit a few days later to the vacant, muséal chambers of the Rosenborg Castle. Wollstonecraft reports feeling “the vacuum left by departed greatness,” only to populate the emptiness with specters: “It seemed a vast tomb, full of shadowy phantoms of those who had played or toiled their hour out….Could they be no more—to whom my imagination thus gave life? Could the thoughts, of which there remained many vestiges, have vanished quite away? And these beings, composed of such noble materials of thinking and feeling, have they only melted into the elements to keep in motion the grand mass of life?” (165). Earlier she visits one of “only two…estates of any magnitude in Norway,” now unoccupied and neglected by its absent lord, and productive of “a stupid kind of sadness, to my eye”: “I enter as I would into the tomb of the Capulets, to look at the family pictures that here frown in armour, or smile in ermine. The mildew respects not the lordly robe; and the worm riots unchecked on the cheek of beauty” (84). Walking the arbors of the latter at night, Wollstonecraft finds herself in the thrall of an unusual reverie, for “Not nymphs, but philosophers, seem to inhabit them—ever musing” (85).

29.        These are haunted quarters, but they house more than specters of the past. They are spaces of persevering thought (“noble materials of thinking and feeling”); or, for Wollstonecraft, thoughts of perseverance. In a reflection that anticipates her pre-Malthusian population terror, Wollstonecraft remarks how she keeps time with the spectral philosophers of the arboretum: “How often do my feelings produce ideas that remind me of the origin of many poetical fictions. In solitude, the imagination bodies forth its conceptions unrestrained, and stops enraptured to adore the beings of its own creation” (85). The imagination that “bodies forth” and adores its own ghosts possesses the power to remake the world in thought after the thought of its end. Here we find the “principle of population” as an act of sympathetic imagination, a reminder that Wollstonecraft’s imperiled “fellow creatures, yet unborn” merely consolidate the consciousness of the future as so many empathic figures. As Frances Ferguson writes of the rhetoric of nuclear sublimity, “To think the thought of the ‘unborn’ may represent the achievement of the sublime project to find objects of consciousness that definitively cannot exist in the absence of the perceiving subject, but the residual horror of the notion of the ‘unborn’ lies in the way the argument for the existence of generations now living lies in our mere instrumentality” (8). Of course, Wollstonecraft doesn’t shepherd forth the unborn for rhetorical effect, but she does experience the horror, but perhaps also the necessity, of her own instrumentality. In one of the more famous scenes in Letters Written During a Short Residence, Wollstonecraft visits a Norwegian church and is shown into a “little recess full of coffins” containing nameless and mummified bodies. Horrified at this “treason against humanity,” Wollstonecraft, as usual, recovers only by insisting on the solace of thinking historically: “The contemplation of noble ruins produces a melancholy that exalts the mind.—We take a retrospect of the exertions of man, the fate of empires and their rulers; and marking the grand destruction of ages, it seems the necessary change of time leading to improvement” (71). But the exaltation triggered by recounting “the grand destruction of ages” cannot long keep mortality in abeyance: “Life, what art thou? Where goes this breath? this I, so much alive? In what element will it mix, giving or receiving fresh energy?—What will break the enchantment of animation?—For worlds, I would not see a form I loved—embalmed in my heart—thus sacrilegiously handled!” (71). The scene makes clear the distinction between the projective and the preservational, between “this I, so much alive” and searching for a sustaining “element,” and the horrid figures of conservation, history as embalmment. It is only the mind alive to thinking beyond disaster that can ensure “the necessary change of time leading to improvement”: just as Wollstonecraft’s visionary distress off the coast of Arendal imagines perfect cultivation and universal famine in the same moving instant, so too does the spectacle of so many dead, so many noble ruins, harbor within it the thought of life.

V. Coda

30.        In the letter to M. Talleyrand-Périgord that opens her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Wollstonecraft dedicates her volume to the French minister of finance, but in exchange asks that he “maturely weigh” her propositions regarding the rights of woman and national education. She claims to argue as “a disinterested spirit” (“I plead for my sex—not for myself”), and then decorates her point with an image that provides a convenient measure of how her unsettling experience in France would alter her perception: "Independence I have long considered as the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue—and independence I will ever secure by contracting my wants, though I were to live on a barren heath" (101). Here, in the still heady days of revolutionary promise, Wollstonecraft’s confidence is troped as self-sufficiency, her impartiality as emotional parsimony. Of course, by summer 1795 her affective life is catastrophically dilated, pried open by so many personal and political disappointments. The empty, inhospitable heath that once served as the expressive limit of her optimism, now looms as the future’s mass grave.

31.         Curiously, in Kant’s Perpetual Peace, the famous right to resort and cosmopolitan hospitality is grounded in a rather astonishing bit of spatial literalism: such rights are secured by virtue of humankind’s communal possession of the earth’s surface, and “[s]ince the earth is a globe, they cannot disperse over an infinite area, but must necessarily tolerate one another’s company” (106). Kant acknowledges that there are inhospitable and “uninhabitable parts of the earth’s surface such as oceans and deserts,” but ships and camels (!) allow access to even these “ownerless tracts” (106). It is significant that both Kant and Wollstonecraft are imagining the problem of finite space in 1795, and while Kant’s globe provides the theoretical justification for hospitality toward the stranger, Wollstonecraft—who understands her own travels as those of a stranger—is demonstrably wary of hospitality, those kindnesses “too much praised by travelers as a proof of goodness of heart” (21; see also 162). But Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark finally appeals to a more profound form of hospitable relation, one that is open to the arrival of the disaster. For it is only by welcoming that dread future that we can think the future at all.

Works Cited

Blanchot, Maurice. The Writing of the Disaster. Trans. Ann Smock. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1995. Print.

Butler, Judith. The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1997. Print.

Derrida, Jacques. "On a Newly Arisen Apocalyptic Tone in Philosophy." Raising the Tone of Philosophy: Late Essays by Immanuel Kant, Transformative Critique by Jacques Derrida. Ed. Peter Fenves. Trans. John Leavey Jr.. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1999. Print.

Eng, David L., and David Kazanjian. "Introduction: Mourning Remains." Loss: The Politics of Mourning. Ed. David L. Eng and David Kazanjian. Berkeley: U of California P, 2003. Print.

Favret, Mary. Romantic Correspondence: Women, Politics and the Fiction of Letters. London: Cambridge UP, 1993. Print.

Favret, Mary. War at a Distance: Romanticism and the Making of Modern Wartime. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2010. Print.

Ferguson, Frances. "The Nuclear Sublime." diacritics 14 (1984): 4-10. Print.

Furniss, Tom. "Mary Wollstonecraft’s French Revolution." The Cambridge Companion to Mary Wollstonecraft. Ed. Claudia L. Johnson. New York: Cambridge UP, 2002. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. "Mourning and Melancholia." General Psychological Theory: Papers on Metapsychology. Ed. Philip Rieff. New York: Collier Books, 1963. Print.

Gallagher, Catherine. The Body Economic: Life, Death and Sensation in Political Economy and the Victorian Novel. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2006. Print.

Godwin, William. Of Population: An Enquiry Concerning the Power of Increase in the Numbers of Mankind. London: Longman, 1820. Print.

Godwin, William. Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Ed. Pamela Clemit and Gina Luria Walker. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2001. Print.

Hazlitt, William. A Reply to the ‘Essay on Population’ by the Rev TR Malthus. New York: Augustus M Kelley, 1967. Print.

Jacobus, Mary. First Things: The Maternal Imaginary in Literature, Art, and Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge, 1995. Print.

Jameson, Frederic. A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present. London: Verso, 2002. Print.

Juengel, Scott J. "Countenancing History: Mary Wollstonecraft, Samuel Stanhope Smith and Enlightenment Racial Science." ELH 68 (2001): 897-927. Print.

Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Judgment. Trans. J. H. Bernard. New York: Prometheus Books, 2000. Print.

Kant, Immanuel. "Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose." Kant 41-53. Print.

Kant, Immanuel. Kant: Political Writings. Ed. Hans Reiss. Trans. H. B Nisbet. New York: Cambridge UP, 2003. Print.

Kant, Immanuel. "Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch." Kant 93-130. Print.

Kant, Immanuel. "Contest of the Faculties." Kant 176-90. Print.

Kant, Immanuel. "Conjectures on the Beginning of Human History." Kant 221-36. Print.

Koselleck, Reinhart. Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society. Cambridge, MA: The MIT P, 1988. Print.

Koselleck, Reinhart. "The Unknown Future and the Art of Prognosis." The Practice of Conceptual Time: Timing History, Spacing Concepts. Trans. Todd Samuel Presner. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002. Print.

Koselleck, Reinhart. Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time. Trans. Keith Tribe. New York: Columbia UP, 2004. Print.

Lyotard, Jean-François. Enthusiasm: The Kantian Critique of History. Trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2009. Print.

Malthus, Thomas Robert. An Essay on the Principle of Population and A Summary View of the Principle of Population. Ed. Antony Flew. London: Penguin Books, 1985. Print.

Palmeri, Frank. "Conjectural History and the Origins of Sociology." Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture 37 (2008): 1-21. Print.

Raynal, Abbé. A Philosophical and Political History of the Settlements and Trade of the Europeans in the East and West Indies. Trans. J. Justamond. 5 vols. London: T Cadell, 1777. Print.

Rosenberg, Daniel. "An Eighteenth-Century Time Machine: The Encyclopedia of Denis Diderot." Postmodernism and the Enlightenment: New Perspectives in Eighteenth-Century French Intellectual History. Ed. Daniel Gordon. New York: Routledge, 2001. Print.

Rudwick, Martin J. S. Bursting the Limits of Time: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005. Print.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution and the Effect It Has Produced in Europe. Ed. Janet M. Todd. Delmar: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1975. Print.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Ed. Carol H. Poston. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1976. Print.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The Vindications: The Rights of Men and the Rights of Woman. Ed. D.L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2001. Print.


[1] “Adieu! I must trip up the rocks. The rain is over. Let me catch pleasure on the wing—I may be melancholy to-morrow. Now all my nerves keep time with the melody of nature. Ah! let me be happy whilst I can. The tear starts as I think of it. I must fly from thought, and find refuge from sorrow in a strong imagination—the only solace for a feeling heart” (Wollstonecraft, Letters 100). BACK

[2] As Mary Favret discusses, Imlay was involved in blockade running in violation of the Traitorous Correspondence Bill of 1793, delivering vital goods to revolutionary France through the neutral ports of the north. One of Imlay’s ships carrying valuable French silver and plate (a ship rechristened Maria and Margaretha after Wollstonecraft and her maid) disappeared outside Arendal and was reported sunk. Suspecting a double-cross, Imlay sent Wollstonecraft to Scandinavia as his legal representative in a suit against the ship’s captain. See Favret, 1993: 97-8. BACK

[3] As will become clear below, this question of the undetermined time of deliverance troubles post-Paris Wollstonecraft most acutely. Not incidentally, in "The Contest of the Faculties" Kant reflects on the still unresolved revolution in France (it “may succeed, or it may fail”), and asserts that no matter the historical reckoning, “I maintain that this revolution has aroused in the hearts and desires of all spectators who are not themselves caught up in it a sympathy which borders almost on enthusiasm, although the very utterance of this sympathy was fraught with danger” ("Contest" 182). BACK

[4] “But because there is in our Imagination a striving towards infinite progress, and in our Reason a claim for absolute totality, regarded as a real Idea, therefore this very inadequateness for that Idea in our faculty for estimating the magnitude of things of sense, excites in us the feeling of a supersensible faculty. And it is not the object of sense, but the use which the Judgment naturally makes of certain objects on behalf of this latter feeling, that is absolutely great; and in comparison every other use is small….the sublime is that, the mere ability to think which, shows a faculty of the mind surpassing every standard of Sense” (Critique 109-10). BACK

[5] For recent critical reflections on the role that conjectural history plays in the development of the human and social sciences, see Palmeri. BACK

[6] Perhaps befitting for a man who is managing his own grief through feverish writing and editing, Godwin frequently measures Wollstonecraft’s shifting psychological condition by means of her intellectual output. For instance, as her romance with Henry Fuseli is slowly deteriorating, Godwin notes that “she produced nothing, except a few articles in the Analytical Review” over a twelve month period (82). BACK

[7] Godwin recounts a particular moment along the Place de Louis Quinze when Wollstonecraft, pregnant with Fanny Imlay, happened upon a public execution, “the blood of the guillotine appear[ing] fresh upon the pavement.” “The emotions of her soul burst forth in indignant exclamations,” Godwin writes, “while a prudent bystander warned her of her danger, and intreated her to hasten and hide her discontents” (89). Godwin notes that the precarious political situation in France—e.g. the rise and cruelties of Robespierre; the execution of Girondin leaders Brissot and Vergniaud (the news of which produced “one of the most intolerable sensations she had ever experienced”), etc.—“contributed to banish tranquility from the first months of her pregnancy” (89). Here and elsewhere Godwin slyly suggests the imprinting of historical trauma onto Wollstonecraft’s pregnancy. BACK

[8] Of course, Wollstonecraft was in some sense “radicalized” well before the Fall of the Bastille, for by the mid 1780s she had come under the influence of the Dissenting clergyman Dr. Richard Price and within a few years she was regularly writing and translating for Joseph Johnson’s radical publishing house. See Furniss 59. BACK

[9] I am drawn to Blanchot’s conceptualization of disaster as imminence without a future as a way of understanding Wollstonecraft’s pervasive sense of temporal destabilization. Blanchot writes, “We are on the edge of disaster without being able to situate it in the future: it is rather always already past, and yet we are on the edge or under the threat, all formulations which would imply the future—that which is yet to come—if the disaster were not that which does not come, that which has put a stop to every arrival. To think the disaster (if this is possible, and it is not possible inasmuch as we suspect that the disaster is thought) is to have no longer any future in which to think it” (1). BACK

[10] See Rudwick 115-131 for a useful discussion of the threat to the Biblical timescale by enlightenment scientists, and the concomitant stretching of the human imagination in regard to the immensity of time. BACK

[11] The trope of the past “flashing up” into the present “at a moment of danger” is, of course, from Walter Benjamin’s "Theses on the Philosophy of History" (255, 256). BACK

[12] Hazlitt writes of subsequent editions of Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population, “He triumphs over the calamities and degradation of his fellow-creatures. He lays open all the sores and blotches of humanity with the same calmness and alacrity as a hospital surgeon does those of the diseased body. He turns the world into a charnel house” (101). Both Godwin and Hazlitt take Malthus to considerable task for trying to manipulate and frighten the public about population increase in his subsequent editions. BACK

[13] This curious refocalization is perhaps best exemplified in Malthus’ subsequent indictment of perfectibilian fantasies. Complaining of the “fastidious microscopic eye of short-sighted men” looking for perfection, Malthus celebrates the telescopic eye of the realist: “Uniform, undiversified perfection could not possess the same awakening powers. When we endeavour then to contemplate the system of the universe, when we think of the stars as the suns of other systems scattered throughout infinite space, when we reflect that we do not probably see a millionth part of those bright orbs that are beaming light and life to unnumbered worlds, when our minds, unable to grasp the immeasurable conception, sink, lost and confounded, in admiration at the mighty incomprehensible power of the Creator, let us not querulously complain that all climates are not equally genial, that perpetual spring does not reign throughout the year, that all God’s creatures do not possess some advantages, that clouds and tempests sometimes darken the natural world and vice and misery the moral world, and that all the works of creation are not formed with equal perfection” (211-12). BACK

[14] Earlier in his treatise Malthus worries that poor relief shelters its recipients within a false sense of financial security, leading to careless decisions about their reproductive lives (e.g. they marry sooner, reproduce more, labor less, starve more). The argument depends on a familiar psychological portrait of the laboring class in the thrall of immediate gratification and lacking moral restraint, a condition that means “[t]heir present wants employ their whole attention, and they seldom think of the future” (98). Conditioned by a life of struggle and penury to a present alert only to the immediate needs of the body, they would be unwilling or unable to save “a part of their high wages [e.g. from relief] for the future support of their families, instead spending it in drunkenness and dissipation” (99). BACK

[15] “‘THE PERPETUAL PEACE.’ A Dutch innkeeper once put this satirical inscription on his signboard, along with the picture of a graveyard. We shall not trouble to ask whether it applies to men in general, or particularly heads of state (who can never have enough of war), or only to the philosophers who blissfully dream of perpetual peace” (93). BACK

[16] Wollstonecraft suggested that a second volume of An Historical and Moral View would follow, but Godwin notes in a footnote to his Memoirs that “No part of the proposed continuation of this work, has been found among the papers of the author” (85). BACK

[17] “Under despotism the people, embittered by their lengthy sorrows, will miss no opportunity to reappropriate their rights. But since there is neither goal nor plan, slavery relapses in an instant into anarchy. Within the heart of this general tumult there can be heard but one cry: ‘Freedom!’ But how can this valuable thing be secured? Nobody knows. And soon the people are divided into various factions, eaten up with contradictory interests....After a short while there are only two factions within the state; they distinguish themselves by two names, under which all necessarily have to include themselves: ‘Royalist’ and ‘Antiroyalist.’ This is the moment of violent commotion. The moment of plotting and conspiracy….In this, royalism serves as a subterfuge as much as antiroyalism. Both are masks for ambition and covetousness. The nation now is merely an entity dependent upon a collection of criminals and corrupt persons. In this situation only one man and suitable moment are needed for an entirely unexpected result to emerge. If the moment comes, the man emerges….He speaks nothing. And they say: We are nothing. And he speaks to them: I am the Lord. And they speak as if out of one mouth: You are the Lord. And he says to them: Here are the conditions according to which I am prepared to subject you. And they say: We accept them….What will succeed this revolution? No one knows” (qtd. in Futures Past 24). BACK

[18] Koselleck quotes the passage in full in both Futures Past (24) and "The Unknown Future" (137-8), and it appears obliquely in Crisis and Critique in Koselleck’s discussion of Raynal’s colonial history “which foresaw the threatening civil war [as]…at the same time a historico-philosophically disguised invocation of revolution” (183; and passim). BACK

[19] On the very next page she turns this strategic itinerary into a principle of travel “as the completion of a liberal education”: “the northern states ought to be visited before the more polished parts of Europe,” in order to establish a baseline for acquiring “the knowledge of manners” (162). BACK

[20] Not surprisingly, these reflections are immediately contrasted with memories of “the Parisians” and their love of novelty, “a proof of the progress they had made in refinement. Yes; in the art of living” (10). BACK

[21] Wollstonecraft’s sense of temporal disenfranchisement appears frequently, and often in relationship to how she understands universal history. For instance, in Letter XIV she remarks on an unfulfilled desire to travel to the rustic northern country of Norway:

You will ask, perhaps, why I wished to go further northward. Why? [N]ot only because the country, from all I can gather, is most romantic, abounding in forests and lakes, and the air pure, but I have heard much of the intelligence of the inhabitants, substantial farmers, who have none of that cunning to contaminate their simplicity….The description I received of them carried me back to the fables of the golden age: independence and virtue; affluence without vice; cultivation of mind, without depravity of heart; with “ever smiling liberty,’ the nymph of the mountain.—I want faith! My imagination hurries me forward to seek asylum in such a retreat from all the disappointments I am threatened with; but reason drags me back, whispering that the world is still the world, and man the same compound of weakness and folly (127-28).
It is no doubt significant that this vision of the golden age is produced not by experience, but by hearsay and a longing to be otherwise: Wollstonecraft’s symptomatic outburst (“I want faith!”) prompts the telltale “hurrying” of her imagination out of herself into a future that is a past. But oddly her imagination propels her “forward to seek asylum in such a retreat” (although the description she heard “carried [her] back to…the golden age”), while reasons drags her back to her contemporary moment. Without making too much of this adverbial confusion, the slippage here begins to measure something of Wollstonecraft’s disorientation in time, even as it captures Kant’s sense above of “restless reason…stand[ing] between [her] and that imagined seat of bliss, and does not allow [her] to return to the state of rude simplicity.” BACK

[22] Wollstonecraft evinces a steady fear of disappearance and de-subjectification. A few letters before her lament for her “fellow creatures, yet unborn” she is again at sea, literally and figuratively, and indulges a “pleasing forgetfulness.” She observes, “How fallacious! yet, without hope, what is to sustain life, but the fear of annihilation—the only thing of which I have ever felt a dread—I cannot bear to think of being no more—of losing myself—though existence is often but a painful consciousness of misery; nay, it appears to me impossible that I should cease to exist, or that this active, restless spirit, equally alive to joy and sorrow, should only be organized dust—ready to fly abroad the moment the spring snaps, or the spark goes out, which kept it together. Surely something resides in this heart that is not perishable—and life is more than a dream” (76). BACK

About this Page

Published @ RC

January 2012