Romanticism and Disaster
"Romantic Disaster Ecology: Blake, Shelley, Wordsworth"
University of California, Davis
1. Our world appears to be on the brink of disaster, an appearance that is itself disastrous. The disaster of disaster is that disaster is everywhere, all the time: while on the one hand it appears obvious that disaster should be the exception that proves the rule of a generally non-disastrous world, in actuality no non-disastrous moment arrives. Like a deer in the headlights, thinking is paralyzed by disaster. Whether this is strictly a function of modernity, beginning with the Romantic period, or whether it is a function of disaster as such remains to be seen. But what Naomi Klein accurately, but not thoroughly, calls “the shock doctrine” is the capitalist norm: the state of exception is capitalist reality. For Klein, capitalists fleece the rest of us when they need a whip-round. For Marxism, this is the normal state of affairs, the deep structure of capitalism as such, which must keep on accumulating more money in order to exist. And perhaps it is also the reality of actually existing socialism: to avert the imminent disaster in capitalism, a socialist emergency must be declared.
2. It is possible, argue Žižek and Badiou, that ecology is simply the latest version of capitalist disaster ideology at work.  For instance, to ward off what is still seen (weirdly) as an imminent disaster of global warming, it is entirely likely that a green bubble based on derivatives of the existing carbon trading market will eventually eclipse the recent implosion of global capital. (This is weird because science keeps telling us that the disastrous climate change has already occurred and that we are now living in its aftermath.) Nevertheless, truly to think what I call the ecological thought (and I believe that there is a thinking that is truthful here) is to recalibrate what we mean by disaster, such that ecological thinking and practice must entail dropping the imminence of disaster, with its resulting states of exception. This thinking would be non-disastrous both in content and in form.
3. Take plutonium for instance: a disaster that has already occurred, and one that will continue for at least 24 100 years. Just how many of those years do we think will be capitalist? Do we seriously imagine that the end of the world is more likely than the end of capitalism? Or consider global warming, the cause of the Sixth Mass Extinction Event (there have been five since the beginning of life on Earth). This is not a disaster waiting to happen. Atmospheric CO levels are now well above the safety ceiling of 350 parts per million (ppm). Since Neolithic times, humans have lived under about 275ppm. Current levels are around 387ppm and climbing by about 2ppm annually (350.org). Percy Shelley was already talking about pollution in 1813: “the putrid atmosphere of crowded cities; the exhalations of chemical processes” (Note 17 to Queen Mab, 1.406–23 (411)). Or take petroleum: the product of whatever disaster wiped out the dinosaurs (Žižek, Defense, 441–442). Thinking of past disasters causes thinking to leak out around the threat of imminent disaster, like water seeping through a badly constructed dam. In the language of fighter pilots, disaster “cones down” our attention to focus on a singularity that is strictly unthinkable.
4. We can visualize a time before and a time after disaster, in which disaster remains as a fundamental category of our visualization. What about thinking beyond disaster, or is thinking forever caught in disaster's shadow? Art imagines post-apocalyptic worlds: Romanticism in particular is full of them, from Byron's "Darkness" to The Last Man. Is poetry, as Allen Grossman puts it, “the postponement of the end of the world,” and how Romantic is this postponement (Grossman and Halliday 336)? Or is there another way to think, without disaster, a non-disastrous thinking, that isn't just postponement? And is there any Romantic literature that can help us think this way? In this essay, I shall consider three writers who adopt three quite different positions concerning disaster. Percy Shelley, argues the essay, is fundamentally disaster-prone: despite his proclaimed anti-capitalism, and indeed his objective usefulness to progressive and socialist thinking, his poetry even anticipates some of the more recent moves of global capital. I shall argue that Shelley did, to his credit, eventually figure out (at least on the level of artistic form) that his poetic language was trapped in disaster mode. William Blake satirizes the subject position from which disaster becomes visible, in his special mode of ideology critique—part of his larger project of trying to change the attitudes that come bundled with ideas such as disaster. William Wordsworth emerges as a genuine poet of non-disaster, or post-disaster: his poetry is perhaps the only one of the three still capable of performing something like thinking while caught in disaster's headlights.
The Disaster of Disaster
5. Strictly speaking, ecology is a discourse of non-disaster. Disaster is literally an unfortunate star (dis plus astron), an astrological misfortune. This accident is a portent of things to come on Earth:
6. In the technical literature of disaster management, an ecological disaster is precisely an event for which “inside” resources do not suffice to provide a remedy—help from “outside” must be brought in (European Environmental Agency, “disaster”).  This rather elegantly encapsulates the problem—there remains no “inside,” or everything is “inside” in the sense that there is no longer a beyond, since the beyond is only legible on the horizon of a here and now.
7. We can only conclude, then, that “ecological disaster” is an oxymoron. To what purpose? Paul Virilio predicted a long while ago that environmental threats would allow the state to stage rehearsals for military and industrial displays of power (Virilio). This is not congruent with ecological reality. The trouble with ecological awareness is that it is drastically non-teleological. Life science has demonstrated that life as such has no fixed, rigid origin: this is the lesson of the ironically titled The Origin of Species, in which Darwin successfully undermines every possible biological distinction (species versus species, species versus variant, variant versus monstrosity, and so on) (Darwin, Origin, 34, 94, 100, 109, 131, 133, 141). The rhetoric of disaster is the tropology of an absolute end, a sudden misfortune. How sudden is the half-life of plutonium: what is the span of that disaster? Does it have peaks and troughs? When did the disaster called global warming begin? Is it at all possible to say with a straight face that on a certain date at a certain time, a threshold will have been crossed that guarantees the arrival of apocalyptic catastrophe?
8. There is a rhetoric of catastrophe in which the narrator overleaps apocalypse altogether. It is as if one could watch a video of one's own funeral. Of course, literature enables us to fantasize this all the time: the act of narrating in the first person is just this kind of doubling. But the totality of global ecological disaster, of which one consequence might be human extinction (as in Mary Shelley's The Last Man), means that there is strictly no one around in the future to watch any videos whatsoever. The ghostly presence of ourselves, spectators to a future in which we do not strictly exist, can only be vicarious at best and is often sadistic. Elegies for deaths that have not yet occurred, they mourn for the still living in a way that only repeats the dreaded dualism of subject and object that many environmentalists see as public enemy number one. For the subject who is reading the elegy is different from the subject whose death is being witnessed, even if they have the same name, and are to some extent the same person. Radically different: separated by an ontological firewall, indeed, such that ecological elegy is a form of the Cretan liar paradox (“I am lying”).  Byron's "Darkness" manages this uncanny doubling by staging disaster as a dream. Shelley's The Last Man imagines a further future in which some people come across the story. Nevertheless, in both cases, part of the pleasure of works such as these is that one can't help thinking for a moment that one is voyeuristically privy to a future in which one does not exist.
9. The ideology and the rhetoric of ecological disaster, then, have nothing to do with actual ecology. They are “environmentalist” in the same sense as some ideas about gender are sexist. That is, they set up the environment as a metaphysical construct on a pedestal, torn down, built up, worshipped, admired as an aesthetic object, and so on. Aesthetic images of the environment are predicated on disaster: we are shown we want to avert it; we are compelled to imagine it vividly. This seems like a truism: recordings of whale sounds and Douglas Adams's book Last Chance to See would not have appeared if human-caused extinction were not on the cards (see Works Cited). It is always unfortunate when reality coincides with fantasy. The trouble is not so much the quite legitimate wish to preserve species from dying out through human misuse. The problem is in the attitude engendered in the disaster narratives we keep telling ourselves. For at least one of these attitudes happens to provide some strong cement for the maintenance of an oppressive status quo.
10. If we are going to think ecology beyond capitalism, we shall need to think beyond disaster and beyond disaster speak. It would be preferable to refer to ecological difficulty as a “drag,” in both performative and work-related senses. Ecological difficulty will beset us for the long run, perhaps forever (whatever that means). And ecology is profoundly a view that accommodates display, performance, sheer aesthetic illusion (for example in Darwin's theory of sexual selection), and so on (Darwin, Descent). Take the evolutionary notion of “satisficing.” A rabbit is not really a rabbit. It is not that a rabbit by any other name would act as nose-twitchy. All the way down, there is no rabbit, no rabbit flavored DNA. And all the way up: rabbits act like rabbits, and thus pass on their genome. This is called “satisficing,” a form of performativity (Dawkins 156). If a life form does its thing without dying, its descendant can keep whatever it does. The fact that homosexuals exist across a vast array of sexually reproducing life forms, for instance, indicates that evolution has no problem with them. In fact, heterosexual behavior floats on top of a vast ocean of cloning, transgender switching, homosexuality and intersexuality (Roughgarden). A genome could not care less if its vehicle acts like someone else's idea of a rabbit. This includes having mutations that not all rabbits might have. There is no essence called race, or gender, or species—or environment. Thus there is no fixed gender against which “deviations” are measured as disastrous.
11. Ultimately, thinking ecology beyond disaster means thinking ecology without nature; and even thinking ecology without environmentalism. Looked at one way, evolution is a long history of disasters, such as extinction: which is to say, since disaster is everywhere, it is of no cosmic significance. Ecological awareness demands that we care for ourselves and nonhumans on time and space scales far in excess of the usual parameters, even if the parameters are based on modified forms of self interest that include greater numbers under the umbrella of “kith and kin” (Parfit, 355–357, 361, 371–377; Morton, "Hyperobjects" ). It just does not make sense to try and find self-interest-based reasons to care for a “hyperobject” such as plutonium 239, which has a half-life of 24 100 years: what a drag. The kind of excitement demanded by disaster tropology will not serve us well. We need something like Wordsworth with his adverse reaction to the “gross and violent stimulants” of his literary age (Wordsworth, "Preface," 746).
12. Are there archaeological remnants of oxymoronic “disaster ecology” in the British Romantic period? And do these remains contain anything like a critique? Percy Shelley is forever thinking of planetary and solar disaster. He favors the global over the local in a way that would scandalize the typical Romantic ecocritic. For this very reason his writing seems apt for an era of global warming. The poetry performs aesthetically what ecological damage and global positioning technology perform in the real, swallowing horizons and worlds (Morton, "Shelley's Green Desert" ). This disorientation is indeed disastrous, a symptom of a general collapse of local reference points.
13. A few disastrous stars appear as such in Shelley's poetry.  Of the rather few astrological (rather than astronomical) ones, most are favorable.  Yet there are disasters closer to home, having to do with the Sun and Moon, taken as figures for the brute ideological force of geocentric common sense—the cosmology of despotic theism. These fluctuate somewhere between the pathetic fallacy and an earlier, classicist tropology of nature echoing human weal and woe, as when in elegy the mountains resound with echoes of loss. In Hellas Hassan describes the sky as if it were the Muslim flag:
14. The classical tropology of the globe was already out of date: some more up to date poetry turned to what I've called the poetics of spice, the capitalist advertising language that weaves together Earth's far flung corners via trade routes and precious commodities (Morton, Spice 39–108). Shelley was well aware of this new menu of poetic devices, and used them frequently and knowingly in allusions to Milton, one of their first great exponents. The poetics of spice is significantly not a poetics of disaster but of continued and undisturbed flow: a fantasy of luxury that airbrushed the ongoing disaster of slavery and colonialism out of the global picture, rather like an Archer Daniels Midland "Supermarket to the World" advert today. Although knowing this may upset the environmentalist apple cart, the first stirrings of global awareness came from the heart of commercial capitalist fantasy, not from within opposition to capitalism.
15. Shelley, however, needed to think and imagine how it had all gone so wrong. He was deeply aware of how the poetics of spice was tainted by commerce, and often uses it perhaps rather too forcefully to make this very point. Unable to theorize fully how disaster is intrinsic to capitalism (he writes it off as a rapacious, excessive farcical repetition of aristocratic power), Shelley resorted to language that talks about the disturbing of a fundamental balance. In this he shares much with contemporary anti-capitalist writing such as Naomi Klein's. Yet Shelley is perhaps unique for the deadly seriousness with which he articulates the imbalance. This becomes a matter of scientific and philosophical positing, not just rhetorical play. For Shelley, Earth was a perpetual disaster, in the precise astrological sense: a mishap in a planetary body. Earth's axis is bent. This terrestrial disaster was caused by human injustice, including the eating of animal flesh. In the utopian future, the Earth's axis is righted and the planet orbits “straight up” around the sun. Ironically, Shelley's evidence for the disaster, and its solution, is a snapshot of what later became known as continental drift and climate change. Note 10 on two lines of his early poem Queen Mab (6.45–46) establish this:
16. Earth-righting justice includes proto-feminism, atheism, democracy, some form of non-capitalist economy, and vegetarianism. The sound minds in sound bodies who will enjoy this future state will live in harmony with their world, conceived not as a patchwork of localities, but as a genuine globality, as Book 9 of Queen Mab makes clear: “Oh Happy Earth! Reality of Heaven!” (9.1). Shelley's somewhat future-primitive imagery imagines the future state as a blissful global village in which nonhumans “sport around” human habitations, in a rewriting of Isaiah 11 that strikes us now as rather New Agey (The Daemon of the World, 444). For instance, the following passage strikingly situates the future humans on a republican lawn, level and smooth like the metaphorical level playing field:
17. Yet while in Pope there is a reactionary knowingness that disaster continues, Shelley truly wants to image a time without disaster, figured as a time of no meat eating (not even for the lions) that we can achieve by not eating meat, among other things. For Shelley, the Garden of Eden is a future state. Human being is and has been a disaster, beginning with the Promethean (technological, that is) disaster of cooking animal food. Thus at the end of Prometheus Unbound the Earth herself is finally able to articulate how disastrous violence is transfigured:
(4.400–405)Man, one harmonious Soul of many a soulWhose nature is its own divine controul,Where all things flow to all, as rivers to the sea;Familiar acts are beautiful through love;Labour, and pain, and grief, in life's green groveSport like tame beasts, none knew how gentle they could be!
18. The trouble is, how do we get to the future Eden? As argued just above, this would require the very state of mind (the nonviolent, non-disastrous one) that Shelley reckons is unavailable to us in our disastrous present. All right then, try vegetarianism in the mean time. But here the problem repeats itself: in order to become vegetarian, one must be nonviolent (Morton, Shelley 126–169). Vegetarianism also presupposes the mindset it claims to generate. This recursion is evidence of ideology at work. Shelley is in a bind because he cannot think past disaster. How do you convince the unconscious (Demogorgon), which has no sense of time, to behave differently—to imagine things differently? Shelley's progressive political view wants this difference to be possible, but his poetics creates enormous difficulties.
19. What ecological thinking, emerging during his lifetime, opens up, Shelley includes in his work. Yet with another hand, Shelley domesticates the disastrous vision, turning disaster into a singularity through which human history will pass, as the rather grisly introduction to Book 8 shows: “Time! … Render up thy half-devoured babes” (8.3–5). It is hard not to think that at some level, the remarkably anti-capitalist and prescient Shelley is stuck in a capitalist ideological mode, rather like the Enlightenment philosophes he so admired and whom Marx later criticized for being as fetishistic, in their way, as the “primitive” believers they undermine.
20. Shelley appears trapped in the tropology of disaster, like an insect beating itself against a glass window. Since what appears to be required is a dramatic inner transformation that includes transcending prejudices of all kinds, how is it possible to think the moment of change? Shelley obsesses over how to transition from the time of disaster to the time of no disaster. It is only perhaps at the very end, with The Triumph of Life, that he opts for the judo-like approach of staying with the moment of disaster, inventing a poetics of disaster appropriate to this staying. Yet it isn't quite right to call this incomplete text a judo move. It's more as if Shelley was at last content to see the implications of his poetic imagination through to some conclusions that might be uncomfortable for the kinds of progressive box into which he fitted his politics. For The Triumph of Life is incomplete both as literary text, and in terms of thinking through and beyond the political and philosophical ramifications of disaster.
21. The strange beginning of Shelley's The Triumph of Life, elucidated in Paul De Man's essay “Shelley Disfigured,” is a poetics of disaster, literally a dis-astron, since the sun's weirdly sudden rising is the basis for De Man's deconstructive essay. Talk about a “disaster in the sun” as Horatio puts it:
22. The disruptive, fluid freefall of this poem's terza rima enacts disaster at a textural level: you can feel it in the disorienting interweaving of negation upon negation. Finally, Shelley appears content to court disaster. The vertiginous way in which visions and dreams appear caught within one another in a non-teleological parody of medieval allegory leaves the narrator trapped within the glass of disaster, against which we saw Shelley's earlier work to be beating itself. For to discover oneself in a dream, only to find that the exit from the dream is another dream, puts in peril the neatly teleological story of disaster transcended or averted. When everything is a disaster, it is not that nothing is a disaster: rather, we enter a world of risk assessment without an exit, and find ourselves unable to shake the monkey of too much consciousness off our backs (Beck).
23. Perhaps, then, there is some truth in the idea that The Triumph of Life is deliberately unfinished—at least this intuition is congruent with some of the conclusions the poem forces upon us. I prefer, however, to think of this poem as radically impossible to finish by Shelley at the time of his death. Where do you go once you've figured out that the future (and the future of your poem) leads you into another ream of disaster? In this sense the unresolved poetic problem is also an unresolved philosophical and political problem. Shelley's palpable boredom with old solutions, however, should not lure us into concluding that he had given up on revolution. Quite the opposite: the unhappiness with fake endings is a reflex of a continued revolutionary project.
24. Perhaps the most obvious Blake “disaster poem” is his Song of Experience, "The Tyger." The tiger itself is “burning” (1) like an asteroid fallen to Earth, “In the forests of the night” (2). It's thus no surprise that stars appear at a crucial moment:
25. The personified stars do not portend evil in this case as true astral “disasters” would—they witness it. Their reaction of horrified pity is in accord with the narrator's objectifying, materialistic gaze—they are the evil they see. Evil thus already haunts the Universe, in the form of an unconscious subjectivity that sees certain phenomena as material embodiments of evil, as if from a great distance. If the stars are angelic titans (Lucifer being the chief among them), then God is the exception, the one that creates an evil universe, much to their dismay. Yet evil has already manifested in the form of an evil gaze.
26. Blake comes close to articulating a theory of disaster that is highly relevant to this essay's proposal that we think beyond disaster. This is unsurprising, since his work is ideology critique through and through, and since the materialism and capitalism that spawn disaster, and disaster thinking, were operational by the time he was writing. Like Hegel, Blake had figured out that ideas come bundled with unconscious attitudes, and he was determined to expose them. The portrayal of the tiger as terrifying misses the uncanny familiarity of the tiger, hinted at in the cuddly toy illumination that accompanies the poem. This missing of the mark resembles the way in which sublime Nature, objectified as wilderness, is set up to loom around, beyond and behind human activity like a distant mountain range. The reified sublimity passes too quickly over the distressing intimacy and “lameness” (to use an appropriate modern adjective) of human and nonhuman interaction.
27. The most ambiguous disaster ecology is found, unsurprisingly, in that master of ambiguity and anticlimax, William Wordsworth. The “dream of the Arab” episode, a spot of time that occurs in the fifth book of The Prelude, is strictly about an apocalyptic flood; and about poetry as the medium, the telephone, down which this telos is heard. Wordsworth's image within the dream of the book as telephonic shell is remarkably phonocentric: intriguingly spiraled and opaque, silent and mysterious, you don't even read it with your eyes, you have to put it to your ear:
28. This sound is a “blast,” sound as disaster, somewhere between an explosion and a fanfare on a brass instrument. Like a hi-fi speaker whose volume is dangerously high, the shell might cause pain: a message delivery system so potent that one becomes vividly aware of what Jakobson called the “contact,” the material medium of communication as such (Jakobson). The alarm-like blast wavers disturbingly between speech and noise and music (“harmony”): it is “loud” and “prophetic,” made of “articulate” sounds. Yet the sound is in a language the dreamer does not recognize—thus a language from a beyond, over the horizon, outside, reinforcing the notion that disaster is the outside impinging on an inside; a language that is doubly foreign, yet also a “tongue,” as if the narrator had a tongue in his ear. In the both–and logic of a dream (Freud asserts that the unconscious knows no negation), beautifully modeled in Wordsworth's description of simultaneous unintelligibility and intelligibility, the sound is both noise and meaning, recognized as such even though the words cannot be understood. Three possibilities are superimposed: the sound is inarticulate noise; the sound is articulate, meaningful yet not understood; the sound is meaningful and understood.
29. The telephonic shell is itself an alien technology, and the narrator's account of the Don Quixote-like Arab impressing him with shiny gadgets is reminiscent of first contact narratives. Yet the scene is inverted, as if modern technology (this is after all a highly ambiguous account of books and reading) arrived from another world onto English shores. With its shiny, iPhone-like nacre, the shell impresses, and the narrator perhaps appears to undergo the assumed embarrassment of the indigenous person who does not know what to do with the objects presented to him. Then space and time collapse in apocalyptic fashion, and suddenly the end of the world is “at hand.” One cannot help finding in this passage something that is indeed prophetic about the distance collapsing technologies of the last two centuries. It is particularly strange, this effect, considering that the entire passage is in the context of a meditation on the already existing technology of books. With their world-ending promises of instant presence, modern communication media do indeed resemble material symptoms of a disturbing new metaphysics. Many times ecological criticism has labeled technology as such disastrous, precisely insofar as it is the end of the world as a bounded place of distances and opacities and hidden corners—worlds need horizons, and global warming reduces these horizons to mere abstraction and false immediacy.
30. The immersive sound of the seashore, the quietness here amplified so as to threaten overwhelming (literally, over-whelming) noise, is heard throughout modern new age and environmental music as the sounds of a disaster-stricken planet: disappearing lifeworlds recorded for elegiac evocative pleasure. The innocent seeming hush of an environmental soundscape is thus a threat of imminent destruction: as if the recoding said, “I could be your last chance to hear a world such as this.” In these fragmentary voices of “real world” ambience, global capital and imperial power are audible both in their phantasmagorical energy and penetrating scientific gaze. Such fragile sonic worlds are objects of sadistic pleasure and Schadenfreude, as well as the more obvious marketing of the “oceanic feeling” that constitutes a core of the long history of consumerism (Morton, Ecology 111–112). “World” is strictly a function of modernity, like the idea of the Middle Ages.
31. Like Magritte's La condition humaine, a painting of a painting of a landscape placed within the landscape it has painted, such that the actual landscape overlaps with it, Wordsworth's narrator hears apocalyptic ambience on the seashore itself. This coincidence of fantasy and reality takes place within a dream whose dreamer is himself situated on a seashore. The dreamer awakens: the ocean is the same; disaster has been framed by the drag of the real. It's a typically Wordsworthian anticlimax, a “spot of time,” a record of weakness, failure and collapse. Wordsworth is enabling thinking to carry on around and through disaster.
32. As failure, it's the exact opposite of Freud's record of the dream of the burning boy, in which the boy signals that the dreamer must wake up and smell the real smoke. Perhaps the role of the dream in Wordsworth's poem is more like Lacan's reinterpretation of Freud: Lacan argues that to spare himself the anxiety of the murderous erotic fantasy, the dreamer awakens to the drag of the actual fire (Lacan 57–60, 68–70). The real disaster would be remaining within the dream and giving vent to one's violent fantasies. This is indeed salutary in an ecological sense. Environmentalism is perhaps nothing but the desire that one's dream—that one inhabits a meaningful and immersive “lifeworld” surrounded by familiar but not uncanny nonhumans—remain undisturbed. The persistence of this dream inhibits directly intervening in the realm of “life on Earth” for the sake of life forms. In this sense, as counter-intuitive as it sounds, environmentalism is hostile to ecology.
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 The International Disaster Database defines a disaster such that at least one of the following occur: ten or more people are reported killed; one hundred people are reported affected; a state of emergency is declared; a call for international assistance is made. BACK