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Early Shelley: Vulgarisms, Politics, and Fractals

Rethinking the Early Shelley--A Response

by Linda Brigham

  1. I WANT to discuss the papers here today in terms of what they imply about our object of study. The question of "early Shelley" plops us squarely in the midst of the general poststructural and historicist problematic of authorship, agency, and the continuity of identity. Is the young Shelley a year, say 1813, the year of Queen Mab 's private publication? A year we can see at glance in the table of contents of Jerome McGann's Romantic Period Verse ? Is the young Shelley a process, something Shelley-ish, to take Timothy Morton's approach, a function whose iteration describes an oeuvre? Or is the early Shelley a person, an individual embedded in a historical moment we neglect if we begin our consideration of Shelley, as we so often do, with the Alastor volume?

  2. McGann's Romantic Period Verse has no early Shelley, and judging from the papers we've heard here today, it seems unlikely that such a de-authorization of Romantic literature is imminent, either theoretically or pedagogically, even if we do accord greater respect for Queen Mab in its own right. Despite our capacity to acknowledge--by way of Foucault, for example--that Shelley-as-a-time may be just as legitimate as Shelley-as-an-author as an approach to a group of texts, the author-approach is still the one we are most likely to take. It is a matter of economy, as Foucault himself would agree. Assume the simple, assume the local: expel the paranoid complexity of conspiracy theories, wherein agents no longer possess agency, but instead become the ghostly operatives of some prime mover, the subject of The X-Files or the object of a Next Generation Borg. But it may also be, as I'll suggest towards the end of my response, that the author in "author- function" has already mutated out from under us to facilitate an economy whose sheer complexity veils it in mist.

  3. It is no surprise that this panel is dominated by a Shelley-ish approach to Shelley. However, it does so in markedly distinct ways that I will distort by arranging in a spectrum: at one end, we have Tim Morton's Shelley-process, a powerfully idiosyncratic utopian machinery. Next, we have Don Reiman's Shelley, inscribed and inscribing, slipping cannily between the demands of the popular press and the demands of his own aesthetic and philosophical agenda. And finally we have Bill Keach's Shelley-the-person, responding to his contemporary scene as we all do to our own, and responding as a young man. In short, what constitutes the -ish of Bysshe in these three papers moves from an emphasis on texts of an author, through emphasis on the more multiple texts of an author/person, to a person writing and distributing texts.

  4. Let's start off with Tim's dazzling paper, "Queen Mab as Topological Repertoire." Tim juxtaposes two topoi with two techniques of linguistic generation; in one topos language operates as metaphor, incarnation, sacrifice and substitution, and in the other, language is a process of the iterative generation of self-similarity. The former regards depth, the latter surface. The former pierces the organs of the individuated body; the latter skims the skin, replacing individual with algorithm, and sacrifice with intersection.

  5. "Names ... employed as symbols of domination and imposture," as Shelley writes in A Philosophical View of Reform , are the force behind the Blood and Gold topos, names in Saul Kripke's sense of rigid designators, in Lacan's sense of Names-of-the-Father, words that deform consciousness into the pockmarked configuration that guarantees the status quo through the repetition of sacrificial violence. The necessity of such psychic quilting renders the job of psychoanalysis and cultural analysis much more complex than one of mere demystification. It is on the basis of the stickiness of the power of names that Slavoj Zizek attacks the disavowal of language-related affect implicit in a deconstructive emphasis on dissemination, or on mere descriptivism. Yet as I understand it, according to Tim's paper Shelley poses an ingenious alternative to both designation and dissemination in a process likened to "fractal self-similarity." Fractal self-similarity is order in chaos, limits amid indeterminacy. We have a language that is able to have meaning without sacrifice, we have gold that enriches without impoverishing. Yet we're left with a problem, as Tim observes: is this not a description of postmodernism's complicity with late capitalism? Isn't this a troubling second parricide, like Demogorgon's defeat of Jupiter?

  6. But back to the issue at hand: we find these topoi in early Shelley as in late, in the literal cosmology of the notes to Queen Mab as in the figurative geographies of Prometheus Unbound . They are, as Tim suggests, something akin to "strange attractors" in Shelley's oeuvre; these topoi constitute trap doors, holes in space, insults to linearity that bring us hurtling back from the horizons of centrifugal expansion, of development, change, and permutation, back to a singularity: Shelley. We are not talking about 1813, but about the name of a pattern, the generator of a pattern. The author function has literalized itself into something like a Koch curve. This leads me to ask the obvious: what keeps us Romanticists Shelley-ish? Of what function is Shelley the eigenvalue?

  7. Don Reiman's paper provides us with vivid and direct insight on the point. Don suggests that Shelley-as-author is a function of our attention, and close attention transmutes the "early Shelley"--to many, the pre-authorial supplement to Shelley--into Shelley the remarkable poet. Don undermines our evaluative distinction between late and early Shelley on the basis of three pieces of evidence, none of them aesthetic. First, we have Shelley's Trojan Horse approach to publishing his less accessible works; second, his recycling of old works in later works, and third, his manipulation of the material production of his work, the printing process itself. Now what we see here is evidence of Shelley-the-person undermining Shelley-the-author. Particularly in the case of a self (and other)-plagiarism that emulsifies his career, we find developmental schemes of Shelley's intellectual biography undone.

  8. And such undoing is a function of keen editorial attention. Many of the anxieties of historicism issue from this implication of the observer in what she observes. The topic brings us back to Tim's fractals, but from another direction: within mathematics, the significance of fractal self-similarity is also a function of perspective. To take a brief example: the drive from LA to San Francisco along the Pacific Coastal Highway is a long, but finite and definite distance. But how long is the coastline itself? The highway cheats; it approximates the coastline by skipping all the small inlets and sand bars that characterize any coast. The coast is longer than the Pacific Coastal Highway; in fact, it is infinitely longer, but in a kind of controlled, patterned infinity whose expansion with respect to the proximity of the observer differs from point to point. The question of coastline becomes, with proximity, the question of coastal composition, a question of many surfaces, not just sea and shore. If we are a quarter-inch tall, we find the coastline measurable if it's made of slate or some other smooth rock. If it's sand, though, we're already too small; sand is bumpier; our measuring stick bogs down in nooks and crannies.

  9. Now, so with Shelley: the distance between 1813 and 1820 becomes bumpier as we become more intimate with it; we find that Shelley the person is folded into Shelley the author; close reading becomes close-ish. But the terrain does not change uniformly; in the case of the topoi, for example, or in the way Shelley's language relates to things, it changes less than in the case of, say, the manner in which his work incorporates other texts, or in the rhetorical quality of his poetry, the manner and degree of its didacticism. There is the slate coastline in Shelley, and there is the sand coastline.

  10. This brings us to William Keach's paper, a paper that has provided one of the still too few occasions of scholarly attention to pedagogy, to that portion of our activities where we're most likely to have a social impact. Bill's paper sustains a political Shelley for political reasons. In bringing alive the early Shelley of 1811 and 1812, we're bringing alive a time when poetry was political enough to get you arrested (or get your servant arrested). The early Shelley becomes an opportunity to recreate a terrain not unlike the geography of romance itself--a terrain in which both Shelley and his poems move against the foe, are overpowered, are triumphant, or faint within their own equivocations. This is a land in which our students can wander as well, a geography where the interdisciplinary trait called virtue matters, as it so often matters to those we teach. Yet it is an interesting irony that the paper most powerfully attending to Shelley the person is also the paper most stressing Shelley the year, or years rather, 1811-1812, invoking once more the potential for history to pulverize the notion of "author." This strong historicism suggests that Bill's Shelley-the-person is not the product of a presumptive humanism, universalizing and elevating the privileged yet rebellious white male aristocrat for our identification. The break with humanism is made more definitive by the reference to romance. What does it mean to turn to romance in the late twentieth century, and to take Childe Shelley as our guide? If we are now beyond humanism, the age of romance lay beyond it: it is no accident that interactive videogames began with the cult of Dungeons and Dragons . As we turn to the Romantic Circles Website , we find ourselves, in a sense, in romance, on enchanted ground.

  11. For readers of romance, especially as it's inscribed in the political rhetoric of the 1790s, enchanted ground, like the Bower of Bliss, is not necessarily a good thing; it's highly ambiguous. Nonetheless, as David Duff points out (89), in Queen Mab , Shelley eschews the repressive true/false dichotomy that leads to the destruction of the Bower of Bliss and instead reclaims a blissfull regeneration--an ecotopia. But ecotopia only gets us back to Tim's sobering comment on the capitalist form of Shelley's utopian rhetoric. Now, because of this problem, this unease, ecotopia seems to me the ideal term to describe the user-dimension of the internet. Matter, motion, and language become equivalent; language no longer sacrifices things but emanates from things--and in terms of images on the screen, things emanate from language. Let's imagine for the moment a somewhat futuristic Romantic Circles project. Let's imagine a detailed account of the young Shelley in the form of a hypertext video game. In order to play the game, we become Shelley, in the same way we assume the avatar Dogsbody or Baldrick in the old D&D. As Shelley, we belabor cruxes in life or literature, choosing different paths through the composition of a manuscript or through the mysterious events in Wales, where Shelley either was or was not attacked by an armed assailant. In such a game Shelley becomes an experience. This experience is not quite the experience of becoming familiar with an author, nor is it mere knowledge of a biographical entity. It is more attached to us; it is our experience, each user's experience. Insofar as that happens, we assimilate Shelley's agency to our own, perhaps violently. Like the pirates who gave Queen Mab its political freedom by wresting it from Shelley's control, the Shelley video game would perhaps wrest Shelley from the control of scholars, from the story that has the scholarly imprimatur. No doubt fast-selling variants would erupt, in which Shelley can fess up to writing "The Devil's Walk" and take Dan Healy's place in prison, in which Shelley could miss Mary altogether, in which Shelley becomes enamoured of a certain kind of athletic shoe: Young Shelley becomes Michael Jordan.

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Published @ RC

August 1997