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Early Shelley: Vulgarisms, Politics, and Fractals

Queen Mab as Topological Repertoire

by Timothy Morton


Material Supplementary to this Essay:
Topoi of 'Blood and Gold' in Mary and Percy Shelley
'Ecotopia' in Mary and Percy Shelley
Fractal Self-Similarity in Percy Shelley
  1. I WISH to focus on the poetics of Queen Mab. The well-worn arguments of 'political' readers of Shelley have for too long been pitted against the narrative of his increasing scepticism, poetic sophistication and political disillusionment. Rather than championing an early apparatchik  or a later poetically masterful sceptic, I would like to demonstrate the poetic sophistication of Queen Mab  and its continued use in later poems, which will look more 'political' in turn.

  2. 'Topological' in the title refers both to the notion of topos and to the idea of shape and space. The topics discussed evoke a proximity to the world 'alongside' poetry and a meditation upon substitution within them.

  3. I will be talking about two topoi, which I have chosen to call 'Blood and Gold' and 'Ecotopia'. These topoi, resonating in the early poems and especially in Queen Mab, are persistently revised in later works. I will also be commenting upon the anxieties about language-as-metaphor suggested by Blood and Gold, and the poetic sophistication of Ecotopia.

  4. The notion of topos is due for a revival, especially if we are to consider seriously the recuperation of sentimental poetry and the many women poets who do not invest in the masculinised rhetorics of anti-rhetoric proffered in the Lyrical Ballads  model of Romantic-period literary history.

  5. 'Topos', as commonplace, micro enough to be portable within and between poems, and macro enough to make sense of the worlds of reference supposedly outside them, makes the topology of poetry and culture Moebius-strip-shaped. Topos metonymically touches the 'inside' and 'outside' of poetry, in a somewhat ordinary, graspable way.

  6. By concentrating on topos we are looking closely at that which from a close-reader's point of view, is the most irritating: the same, the habitual. If poetry is to be read in a formalist manner as a systematic deviation from a norm or logos, then topoi are somewhat pesky phenomena.

  7. Moreover, by concentrating on topos we are also ignoring the hysterical anxiety of the historicist or cultural analyst to get out of the embarrassing world of the up-close-and-personal literary text. Nevertheless, we are also doing ourselves a favour, for what could be better than topos for conceptualising what Althusser and others have in mind when they say 'ideologeme'? So topoi are useful for a new kind of close reading, a sort of close-ish reading.

  8. Let's start with the 'Blood and Gold' topoi, which delineate symbols in the Coleridgean sense of chunks of the Real which have somehow ended up in a textual form. They are also symptoms, marks of social weakness and woe which Shelley is anxious to erase, representing the alienating power which seems in Shelley to emanate both from the despot and from despotic capital. They are the fluids of the body and of the body politic, and they symbolise the corrosive fluid of language.

  9. They are part of the world of poison, and of language as poison, the gush from a traumatic wound in the symbolic order which Shelley desperately wants to suture with the counter-language of Ecotopia. Like the blood of the Alien in Ridley Scott's film, they appear to be more real than reality, corroding the tissue of signs which decorously protect the phallus of patriarchal power. They are the world and word of meat, the social symbolic horrorshow whose aversive qualities are obsessively traced in Shelley's poetry (and in Mary Shelley's prose) even after Shelley the person has stopped trying to eat his way out of it through vegetarianism. Derrida also has a word for it: re-mark. Blood and Gold, and meat, are those marks which establish the social symbolic order as such, as an order of signification. Shelley loathes the pockmarks they leave, those damned spots on the smooth face of meaning which will not come out and which he images in his oft-repeated lines about not killing beings which have a face (and there's an allusion to Macbeth  in The Revolt of Islam ). Meat is unnecessary and what is more it has to be cooked, and what is more, it has to be spiced. The efflorescence of supplements of supplements is more than he can stomach. In 1812, the biographical analogue for this form of what Lacan would have called 'extimacy' would have been Shelley's panic about elephantiasis.

  10. Shelley reproduces the Paineite and French Revolutionary rhetoric which needs to know through sight: to register truth on the revolted body. He recoils against the notion of language as transubstantiation, in other words, as metaphor, as meat, as re-mark, or what William Keach skillfully calls 'incarnation'. So what he says about the vital metaphoricity of poetic language in A Defence of Poetry  is as Hogle has shown more to do with transferential agility. This kind of redeemed metaphor does not punctuate the skin of fantasy, but gently glides along it, embodying it with the metonymic richness of an environment that is, in the ecological words of Queen Mab  viii, 'habitable'. Through the gliding action Shelley hopes to iterate an algorithm, to evoke an effect which is both hyperreal and natural, in an emulsion of fantasy and reality typical of a late eighteenth-century aesthetics that seeks to fit mind and world, poetry and politics together.

  11. With the genius of phobia, Shelley is often at his best when at his most gory. The vertiginous traumas of meat and marking often generate spectacular results, like the miasmatic language of Beatrice in The Cenci, or the prosopopeia of Swellfoot the Tyrant  . But if this is 'bad' metaphor, what of 'good' metaphor? Can Shelley, even in the early days of Queen Mab, conceive of a language which does not mark? An elaboration of ideological fantasy unpunctuated by the wound of the real?

  12. Such a language, for such a poet, would seem to fluctuate endlessly around the margins of trauma, seducing the imageless truth into emancipatory significance by its constantly repeated nuzzling. It would be mantra-like, woven into the poetry with the soothing repetitiveness of pure voice. And whose voice? None other than the voice of an Old Testament prophet, Isaiah (11:6-9). Isaiah is literalised in this mantric repetition. The lion, for instance, does not just lie down with the lamb but acquires the nature of a lamb, so that we are unsure whether he might actually have metamorphosed into one.

  13. This is Shelley's poetics of Ecotopia, which, for the sake of compactness, memorability and not much else I call Fractal Self-Similarity. I have been influenced in my discussion of fractals by Tom Stoppard's recent play Arcadia, which portrays a young woman understanding the fractal geometry of nature in a house visited by Byron, in a way which slips between the cracks of a non-fractal history of mathematics.

  14. 'O Happy Earth! Reality of Heaven': Queen Mab, canto ix, line 1. It follows the ecotopian revision of Isaiah 11 in canto viii, where babies sport with basilisks and lions lie mutated into lambs, and 'no longer now / He slays the lamb that looks him in the face / And horribly devours his mangled flesh' (211). This is the living centre of Shelley's ecologocentric ideology: the place where words seem to emanate directly from things in a symbiotic relationship, like a lichen. And it is the role of likening which is so important, the role of simile. It is ideological language: prescriptions dressed as descriptions, revolutionary wolves dressed as lambs.

  15. A fractal is caused by an iterative algorithm mapping itself on a complex plane with a ratio of slightly more than one. Fractal shapes are common in nature: look at a snowflake, it contains a infinite-seeming series of tinier snowflakes upon snowflakes. Shelley often uses fractal similes in descriptions of fluids, which is appropriate, but their use doesn't stop there. Fractals are wonderful if you are a poet of nature but also a poet of desire. You are anxious about the disfigural properties of language, as evidenced by your phobic image of the sign as weapon and language as a butcher's knife, and vegetarianism as a way of eating and signifying without disfiguration. But you do not want to get rid of it entirely. That would be kow-towing to Burke and his resistance to theory. You like the French Revolution, you just get queasy at the sight of all those bleeding heads. So you have to find a way of signifying which appears to dovetail intellectus  into res  without a boundary. Fractals might work. Shelley's equation seems to be: Earth=Heaven, only real. They are the same . . . almost. Fractals are also significant in the notion of silent eloquence, which in Queen Mab  describes the operation of the universe and is part of the ideological structure of vegetarian language (a recent example is the role of silence in The Silence of the Lambs ). The notion of the universe as a 'wilderness of harmony', a revision of Milton's Eden (ii.79), is fractal: a fractal may be plotted as a line which is both wild and harmonious. The metamorphosis of lion into lamb in canto viii is also fractal: we are unsure whether he is now exactly like a lamb. It is undecidable to what extent he looks physically like a lamb (his claws are pared and so forth) while emulating the lamb's behaviour (he 'now forgets to thirst for blood', viii.124). Through the syntax of the passage the reader loses track of the lion's identity.

  16. Now consider the following, from Adonais : 'the moving pomp might seem / Like pageantry of mist on an autumnal stream' (116-7). Another instance of fractal self-similarity: pomps are pageantries, but 'of mist' maps them onto themselves with a ratio of slightly more than one. Shelley was onto this, poetically, from the start.

  17. Milton's Neoplatonic cunning in Paradise Lost  v enables a similar form of dovetailing, where the vegetarian diet of Adam and Eve promises, according to Raphael, a smooth tempering of matter to spirit and a diet of rhetoric which may mediate the acts of God to temporal ears (v.331-505, vii.126-30, 175-79). But Milton's logic is subtractional rather than fractal, suggested by his famous reversed syntax, suggesting events which happen before they are fully told and thus outsmarting the tropological twists of rhetoric. That logic resembles Ficino's model of progressive realisations of the Good through a series of subtractions from the complex world of matter towards an ultimate perfect simplicity. While deft at employing Miltonic syntax himself, Shelley also explores iteration and thus complexity.

  18. There are examples of Percy and Mary Shelley using the topos of Ecotopia. The fractal substitutions which Percy employs in and beyond Ecotopia are also present in larger discursive strings. The revoking of the curse in Act I of Prometheus Unbound  is an example of an iterated algorithm which alters meaning through repetition. 'How did we get here?' is a question most often to be asked, of Queen Mab, where a most unsatisfactory image of a temporal purge displays mangled babies being plucked from the jaws of Saturn, of Prometheus Unbound, where the economic aesthetics of zero and infinity operate in an image of an anorexic abysm where revolutionary meaning disappears down the plughole of its own desire, or of Hellas, where tyranny destroys itself, a self-devouring equation which leaves us high and dry in the Hesperides.

  19. So it appears that Percy Shelley developed an oppositional poetics which pitted one kind of topos against another. But this would a) misunderstand his relationship with capitalism and b) misconstrue his sophisticated poetics, which from the start attempted to weave capitalist ideologemes into its complex geometry rather than ditch them altogether. After all, the positive register of Queen Mab  includes the notion of variegation, a kind of naturalised complexity.

  20. Shelley's use of the poetics of spice in canto viii of Queen Mab  and the 'Fragment of an Unfinished Drama' is an example of the poetry of ornamentation and sentimentality which spawned Ecotopia, and an acknowledgement that commercial capitalism has its metonymic flows as well. His poetic debt to spice undercuts his ideological aversion to meat, and spiced meat at that, and to language as supplementarity, or spicing. It is a curious iteration of the capitalist ideology which gave eighteenth-century poetry its panegyrics to long-distance trade and its phenomenology of luxury, affecting poets as diverse as Samuel Jackson Pratt, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Keats and Felicia Hemans. There, too, the turbulence and flow of capitalism is treated in ornamental poetry which exploits it in different ways, hyperbolically overdeveloping it like Keats in The Eve of St Agnes  or showing its contiguity with sensations of contagion, corruption and violence, as in anti-slavery poetry. Shelley's Ecotopia may be said to be anti-capitalist in content but capitalist in form. Just when those cottages and rills seem to be supporting a myth of little England in the desert, a kind of mirror-image orientalism, an 'occidentalism', we are drawn to the odoriferous trade winds whose scent of luxury wafted across the ocean to the Providential nose of the English consumer. Ecotopia and hyperreal capitalism interpenetrate, to use one of Shelley's neologisms. His politics and poetics are local, but international. The best model for this interpenetration would be a fractal. It is hard to know where one stops and the other starts.

  21. The term algorithm is derived from the name of the Arabic economist, Al-Khowërazmi, who invented them as a way of performing mathematical operations associated with debt and credit. Algorithms are the stock in trade of capitalist economics and it is thus unsurprising that in the late twentieth century a new form of naturalised capitalist ideology has emerged which maps stock market figures as if they were clouds: with fractals. The wild west wind-like turbulence of stock adjustments and weather patterns may be reduced to an iterating algorithm, where the result is fed back into the equation in a way which tends towards infinity. Infinity and zero are associated with the Kantian mathematical sublime, and also with political economy. The Indian economist Brahmagupta and Al-Khowërazmi coined these notions in order to generate the negative numbers which in the early modern period would help balance the books in double-entry book keeping.

  22. The sublime, dizzying, spiralling poetics of Shelley, minted as he tries to fit the asymmetrical ideologies of capitalism and ecology together, persist throughout his work. For such a mind, ecotopia can only exist in a stable equilibrium, a poised shimmering of forces like the paradoxically occidental oases described in Queen Mab  viii, and it can only be conjured again through repetition, for there is no exact fit between Shelley's ideal future and the pockmarked world in which it is imagined.

  23. Perhaps Shelley, heaven forbid, wants to be considered as a new kind of poet of the Thing. As The Demon of the World  puts it, 'No longer now he slays the beast which sports around his dwelling'. Dwellings and faces are topologically equivalent: signifiers sport and gaze upon them. They are meeting places, commonplaces, topoi, strange attractors. Things are pulled towards them. Dwellings and faces are the Thing in the Old English sense of a meeting place, quotidian not in Weisman's sense of the iceberg on which the Titanic of poetry-as-epistemology sinks, but quotidian as a meeting place in the sense of oikos, the root of ecology. Gasp! Could Shelley be a cousin of Wordsworth? But this Thing is not to be found amidst the cruditäs  of nature: it is to be constructed in the future by those who hate hate so much it turns into love, people who scratch the itch of metaphor so much it begins to look providential.

  24. Outside the world of the face is an aleatory chaos of mangled partial objects, money, blood, tropes scuttling hither and thither. But as Hogle has demonstrated, Shelley's Lucretianism allows him to imagine a moment of clinamen  during which these random vectors might start to be attracted towards one another to form worlds, even ecotopias. Shelley rails against Adam Smith in Queen Mab  v, but at the level of the ideologeme is expressed the hope that Adam Smith was right, and that an invisible hand will shape our ends, rough-hew them how we will.

  25. Shelley's fractal poetics also demonstrates something about dialectics: how simplicity, reflected into itself, becomes complexity. A triangle, negated by having a process applied to it which adds itself to itself or reflects it into itself, becomes a Koch curve, a dynamic process tending towards triangle-ness without ever simply manifesting it. Thus it is cancelled and preserved, aufgehoben: 'O Happy Earth! Reality of Heaven'. The common misunderstanding of Aufhebung  as synthesis can quite clearly be seen as incorrect here.

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Published @ RC

August 1997