The Cenci: Gothic Shelley

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According to the period’s dominant imaginary conspiracy was ‘totalizing’; it explained everything. Against this was the urgent task of imaging a form of agency that could effectively countermand the spirit of tyranny. Why was the Gothic necessary for Shelley? Part of our answer lies in the fact that Gothic precedents addressed both these crucial points. At the heart of the post-Walpolian Gothic’s ‘symbolic constitution’ lies the ‘dead hand of the past’, a metaphor for the way the past not only reaches into the present, but holds it in its palsied grip. The Gothic is a means of imagining vicious circles of transgression and violence repeating themselves down through the generations. As we shall see, the inherited vicious circle is precisely the crux that motivates The Cenci. But by the time Shelley started his Gothic experiments crucial modifications had been made to its symbolic constitution that made it even more eligible for his purposes. These changes were instigated by Friedrich Schiller, in Der Geisterseher (1789; translated as the Ghost-seer, 1795) and William Godwin in Caleb Williams (1794).

Schiller’s primary contribution to the Gothic was to provide a narrative form for representing the threat of conspiracy, whether revolutionary or Counter-Reformational.     

It was Godwin who urgently raised the question of historical agency. When he refers to the “Gothic and unintelligible burden of past institutions” he is just one of many radicals responding to Burke’s defense of the Gothic constitution and chivalry, the legal and social customs he celebrates as the ties that bind the English present.

All these constituents of the Gothic’s symbolic constitution (as it stood in the late 1810s) come together in The Cenci:

As a work of abstracted Gothic, The Cenci explores the problematic nature of modern systems of power by drawing upon the symbolic constitution of the Gothic as it stood post-Schiller and post-Godwin. In the preface to The Cenci Shelley references the key elements of the Gothic’s symbolic constitution that will concern him: the dead hand of the past; the baleful influence of Gothic institutions that live on in the present; the tendency of this influence to leave us living in vicious circles of abuse; a moral antinomy that prods the reader into analytical action as a way of rising above such circles; the self-defeating nature of conspiracy; a belief in the totalizing power of tyranny; the strenuous difficulty of regaining historical agency; the delusive glamour of the sublime; and, finally, and certainly not least, critique of Burke. After noting these key Gothic elements, Shelley’s thought takes a surprising turn. Rather than freeing us ‘self-anatomy’ is shown to lead to more Gothic entrapment. The Cenci suggests that the way to lighten the “Gothic and unintelligible burden of past institutions” is through the austere prescriptions of the categorical imperative.

In effect Shelley is telling us that he has moved on from his juvenile, jejune understanding of conspiracy (the sublimity of the secret societies) to a more abstraction proposition in which counterproductive conspiracy (any literal endeavour) is compared unfavourably with a conspiracy to make the reader think.

The Cenci: Gothic Shelley

Robert Miles
University of Victoria

 

1.        The Cenci is one the few undisputed masterpieces of British Gothic/Romantic drama. The awkward “Gothic/Romantic” is unavoidable. One might call The Cenci Gothic, but the locution begs the qualification provided by Tilottoma Rajan: “Thus in Shelley’s major poems the Romantic is never free of the constraint of the Gothic. . . . But equally. . . the Gothic is never free of the Romantic, which is to say that Shelley allows us to grasp a transformative potential in the violence and perversity of the Gothic that is less evident in more popular uses of the genre” (para 4). As a belated work of meta-Gothic The Cenci is at an abstracted distance from a popular form that was, by 1819, already undergoing its first revival after a twenty-year slump. As Jerrold Hogle argues in Shelley’s Process, The Cenci is a complex meditation on a spirit of tyranny Shelley experienced as all-pervasive (95). Until about twenty years ago the honorific for this spirit of aesthetic adventure was “Romantic,” whereas “Gothic” served as the abject shadow-term for non-penetrative pulp fiction. But as Rajan further observes, matters are now much different:

For in the past several years the Gothic has arguably replaced the greater Romantic lyric as a generic synecdoche for the field, though without the metacritical recognition that M.H. Abrams gave the lyric. Or put differently, the Gothic has assumed the task of deconstructing what has variously been called “aesthetic ideology” or “Romantic ideology,” in particular because it makes manifest, almost schematically, what Godwin calls the “Gothic and unintelligible burden of past institutions.” (para 4)
Shelley’s ambition in The Cenci to help lift the “unintelligible burden of past institutions” is precisely why we now say The Cenci is Gothic.

2.         However, the matter is not a simple one of substituted terms, so that we use “Gothic” where we used to use “Romantic,” or “Romantick” where we formerly employed “Gothic.” Still less is it one of accepting the terms as synonyms describing phenomena (such as the simultaneous architectural and poetic revivals) unaccountably separated at birth. Rather it is to follow Jerome McGann in acknowledging the necessity of articulating the twin impulses of the period, one towards a Romantic idealization that obscures history’s ruined forms and a countervailing Gothic revelation of their gloomy persistence. [1]  This is the point I understand Rajan to be making: that we cannot grasp the aesthetic energies of the period without acknowledging a ceaseless dialectical play within them. Gothic and Romantic are indispensable and interchangeable terms for delineating a whole that is larger than either.

3.         But to understand how this works we also have to answer Hogle’s vital question: “what is really most fundamentally Gothic—and what is most fundamentally symbolized because of that Gothicism—in what continues from” Shelley’s Gothic juvenilia “all the way to the unfinished Triumph of Life?” (para 1), including, obviously, The Cenci. If literary Gothic is a kind of narrative language, what does it enable Shelley to say that cannot be said in any other fashion? Why was the Gothic necessary? And why so central? If we are to understand The Cenci as a Gothic/Romantic work, where Gothic and Romantic voices are both in play, we need to understand precisely what was Gothic about it, in the sense Hogle means when he asks the question of Shelley’s sui generis syntheses (their characteristic “overdetermination of social and psychic texts,” as Rajan puts it): “are these semi-transgressions almost entirely Shelley’s, given how emptied-out the Gothic seemed by 1810-11, or are they really creative extensions of what the post-Walpolean Gothic most basically does in the conflicting tendencies endemic to its symbolic constitution?” (para 2).

4.         I agree with Hogle that the answer to his question is irrefutably the latter. Despite the popularity of the Gothic in recent years criticism of The Cenci has been strangely resistant to the Gothic strain that runs through the play. Outside the contributors to this volume, examples of sustained discussion of Shelley’s Gothicism are hard to come by. [2]  This is a very strange omission, not least because, as my fellow contributors all stress, Shelley begins, and ends, as a Gothic writer, starting with the ultra-Gothic works Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne. My take on his early Gothicism comes from Shelley’s friend and intellectual collaborator, Thomas Love Peacock:

A few to think, and many to act; that is the only basis of a perfect society. So thought the ancient philosophers: they had their esoterical and exoterical doctrines. So thinks the sublime Kant, who delivers his oracles in language which none but the initiated can comprehend. Such were the views of those secret associations of illuminati, which were the terror of superstition and tyranny . . . (1.163)
For Peacock, in Nightmare Abbey, the ideology he had to puncture was not Romantic but Gothic. That is to say, at the time of writing (1818), he understood the camera obscura to be casting Gothic shadows, where those shadows were, fashionably, those represented, inter alia, by Flosky and Cypress, Coleridge and Byron. As Peacock saw it, post-Waterloo the dynasts were encouraging an esthetic that propped up church and state and all the old flim-flam of the “ontic logos,” [3]  a mummery sonorously defended by the transcendental whisperings of the German school, a cultural fashion best understood as ‘Gothic’ (in other words, German and backward looking). Flosky’s impenetrable mystic mumbo-jumbo and Cypress’s melancholic apathy were two sides of the same, apolitical coin. The young, impressionable Scythrop, or Shelley, is heading in the same direction until he throws off his Werther-esque leanings, and learns to embrace a stiff, Epicurean neo-Classicism motivated by a proper Enlightened critique (Butler 135). Until then, in a state of intellectual immaturity he dreams of the sublime Kant and the Illuminati.

5.         The conjunction is not an accidental one. During the late 1790’s, when the English print media was saturated with startling tales of a world-wide conspiracy of freemasons hell-bent on fomenting revolution—a conspiracy master-minded by the Ingoldstat philosopher, free-thinker, and libertine, Adam Weishaupt, ably supported by that betrayer of little platoons, Baron Knigge [4] —a plot so heinous and dangerous the House of Commons conducted a special inquiry into the workings of secret societies, vindicating Barruel and Robison in the process [5] —in this unprecedented plot against the peace of Western nations, Kant and Weishaupt were presented as twin horns on the same revolutionary beast.

6.         For the generation coming to maturity in the aftermath of the French Revolution, few developments possessed the irresistible glamour of the secret societies allegedly plotting European-wide revolution. De Quincey’s retrospective essay on secret societies eloquently expresses the attraction:

The very image, unveiling itself by unsteady glimpses, of men linked by brotherly love and perfect confidence, meeting in secret chambers, at the noontide of night, to shelter, by muffling, with their own persons interposed, and at their own risk, some solitary lamp of truth—sheltering it from the carelessness of the world, and its stormy ignorance; that would soon have blown it out—sheltering it from the hatred of the world; that would soon have made war upon its life—all this was superhumanly sublime. The fear of those men was sublime; the courage was sublime; the stealthy, thief-like means were sublime; the audacious end—viz., to change the kingdoms of earth—was sublime. (244)
For De Quincey, as much as for Peacock mocking the immature Scythrop, the operative word for the illuminati was, indeed, “sublime.” The more incredible the stories—the more they tested belief, shattering the mind’s tidy categories—the better: “Tertullian's profession of believing things, not in spite of not being impossible, but simply because they were impossible, is not the extravagance that most people suppose it” (239-40). As a very young man De Quincey believed in Barruel’s and Robison’s paranoid fantasies precisely because they seemed impossible to credit. They were sublime, because outlandish.

7.        De Quincey’s essay probes the reasons why, as a young man, he so deeply wanted to believe in masonic conspiracy, which, as an adult, he now realizes was an “extensive monument to elaborate humbug” (255). The essay starts with a humorous account of the extended debate he developed with his governess, who was morally certain Augustin Barruel was correct, and that they were all hourly menaced by conspirators who even now were hatching their plots, and his pre-adolescent self, who would have ardently agreed, for very different reasons, save for the gnawing presence of his rational mind, which insisted on stumbling over the improbability. Peacock catches the attraction for the young Shelley in his description of Scythrop, who had “become troubled with the passion for reforming the world” (362), so much so that he “built many castles in the air, and peopled them with secret tribunals, and bands of illuminati” and slept with Horrid Mysteries “under his pillow” (363). One of the Northanger Abbey “horrid” novels, Horrid Mysteries features, in scintillating detail, the machinations of the illuminati with their torch-lit crypts, cells of conspirators, and revolutionary maidens willing to do anything to advance the cause. Scythrop (like the young Shelley and De Quincey) dreams gothic thoughts of the Schiller kind, just as Catherine Morland dreams hers through Radcliffe.

8.         Reading Barruel was formative for the young Shelley in two regards. It was here that he first encountered, methodically laid out in four stuffed volumes, tantalizing extracts from the greatest hits of the radical enlightenment—the atheistical horrors of Voltaire, the spine-tingling materialism of Spinoza, the rousing promise of Rousseau’s general will—and it was here that he encountered a sublime conspiracy, where, with De Quincey, his overwhelming response was a fervent prayer to the Deity begging Him/Her to make Barruel’s phantasies come true. [6]  So devoted to conspiracy was the young Shelley, that he started his own at school to extirpate the “Gothic”—that is to say, feudal—practice of “fagging” (Memoir 241).

9.         As regards Shelley’s creative extensions of the “conflicting tendencies” endemic to the “symbolic constitution of post-Walpolean Gothic,” two crucial points emerge from this material. The first relates to the “mentalité” or “imaginary” of radical members of Shelley’s generation. While Shelley’s generation might subscribe to the notion of a progressive “spirit of the age,” they understood it to be one—and this was how Hazlitt himself saw it—continuously buffeted by the headwinds of a spirit of tyranny that was as all pervasive as it was systematic. The period did indeed appear to be an age of conspiracy, although the conspiracy that mattered—or rather, the truly effective conspiracy that shaped lives—was the one emanating from the government side, from the “system of terror” administered through Pitt’s spy networks, to the gagging acts, suspension of habeas corpus, and other repressive measures taken by the central authorities, in a concerted effort to subvert the ancient liberties—and natural rights—of the British populace. The illuminati, alas, might be fiction, but the police state, with its press in the grip of the “paranoid style of politics,” was not. “Obsessed with the threat of revolution, users of the paranoid style—conspiracy theorists by definition—ascribe to their enemies the ability to effect large-scale social and political change” (para 2). So Kim Wheatley on the reviewing culture that targeted the Hunts, Keats, Shelley, and other suspicious personages. Quoting Richard Hofstadter, she notes that for the “paranoid rhetorician, ‘History is a conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power’” (para 29). As Orrin Wang comments in his introduction to the volume in which Wheatley’s essay appears, “the rhetoric and epistemology of conspiratorial thought also acted in varying, emphatic ways upon the imaginary of the second generation Romantics” (para 4). Shelley may have awoken from the self-incurred immaturity of believing in a secret, Europe-wide brotherhood bent on sublime ends, but it was only to a deeper appreciation of the systems of tyranny that gripped contemporary life.

10.         For those in the grip of the paranoid style, “the Illuminati were responsible for both the American and French Revolutions. At such a point conspiracy absorbed all other narratives, becoming the totalizing motor behind history itself” (Wang, para 3). For those opposed to the paranoid style, the key issue was producing “a more complex historical causality” than simple conspiracy (Wang, para 5). Thus the lead article of the first issue of the Edinburgh Review, written by Francis Jeffrey himself, which reviews Joseph Mournier’s memoir of his time as a Girondin in the heart of the Revolution, which sets out to expose Barruel’s work as utter fantasy, on the grounds that he was there, and there wasn’t a Freemason to be seen, no matter how many beds one might lift, let alone a German member of the illuminati. In his review Jeffrey advances economic and social causes for the revolution. [7]  The prominence given to Jeffrey’s article reflects the importance Whig circles set on moving past the notion that history was caused by malevolent individuals armed with a plan.

11.         According to the period’s dominant imaginary conspiracy was “totalizing”; it explained everything. Against this was the urgent task of imaging a form of agency that could effectively countermand the spirit of tyranny. Why was the Gothic necessary for Shelley? Part of our answer lies in the fact that Gothic precedents addressed both these crucial points. At the heart of the post-Walpolian Gothic’s “symbolic constitution” lies the “dead hand of the past,” a metaphor for the way the past not only reaches into the present, but holds it in its palsied grip. The Gothic is a means of imagining vicious circles of transgression and violence repeating themselves down through the generations. As we shall see, the inherited vicious circle is precisely the crux that motivates The Cenci. But by the time Shelley started his Gothic experiments crucial modifications had been made to its symbolic constitution that made it even more eligible for his purposes. These changes were instigated by Friedrich Schiller, in Der Geisterseher (1789; translated as the Ghost-seer, 1795) and Willian Godwin in Caleb Williams (1794).

12.        Schiller’s Ghost-seer is the first work of conspiracy fiction in the Western literary tradition. A young German prince from a Protestant principality with a “love of the marvellous” falls under the spell of the mysterious “Armenian” while visiting Venice during carnival. The Armenian has a habit of popping up at unexpected moments whispering hints to the Prince respecting forms of immanent danger, including a séance arranged by the “Sicilian,” an obvious reference to Count Cagliostro, magus, friend of mankind, and secret agent of the Illuminati ever since he passed through Ingolstadt following his expulsion from St. Petersburg for plotting revolution with the Swedish freemasons. [8]  The Armenian exposes the Sicilian as a trickster employing the mummery of the illuminati: mystic symbols, oaths, and the technology of the phantasmagoria. So impressed is the Prince by the Armenian that he eventually comes to repose all his trust in him, suspending his critical faculties in the process. The Armenian, we eventually learn, is an agent of the Inquisition (the same Inquisition that was later to arrest, torture, and imprison Cagliostro). The exposure of the Sicilian was the first step in an elaborate sting designed to turn the impressionable Prince away from Protestantism, back to Catholicism, as a last ditch effort of the Counter-Enlightenment. Schiller’s novel was immensely influential. Besides such works as Cajetan Tschink’s The Victim of Magical Delusion: or, the Mystery of the Revolution of P----l; A Magico-Political Tale (1795) and Karl Grosse’s Horrid Mysteries (1796), it inspired Shelley’s Juvenilia. Schiller’s primary contribution to the Gothic was to provide a narrative form for representing the threat of conspiracy, whether revolutionary or Counter-Reformational.

13.         It was Godwin who urgently raised the question of historical agency. When he refers to the “Gothic and unintelligible burden of past institutions” he is just one of many radicals responding to Burke’s defense of the Gothic constitution and chivalry, the legal and social customs he celebrates as the ties that bind the English present. For Wollstonecraft in The Rights of Man “Gothic” serves as a synonym for “feudal,” a note she sounds whenever she touches upon Burke’s idealisations of social and legal traditions; for Thomas Christie the Reflections’ “tuneful periods” entomb a “deformed Gothic idol”; while for Thelwall Burke’s constitution is a Gothic customary, a mental Bastille. [9]  For all four breaking the vicious circle of past wrongs that forms our Gothic inheritance, with its dead hand reaching into the present, starts with demystifying the glamour with which Burke wraps the “Gothic idol.”

14.         In Caleb Williams the task of demystification follows a severe logic. The present system of tyranny is indeed all pervasive. No point, then, in railing against chivalry (loaded as it is with its Burkean freight). Godwin shows the totalizing system in action, down to the institutional forms of conspiracy Falkland is able to bring to bear upon the errant individual, and from which there is no escape, as Caleb discovers. Instead the task of puzzling the contradictions, and so breaking free from the immaturity of customary thought, is left to the reader.

15.         All these constituents of the Gothic’s symbolic constitution (as it stood in the late 1810s) come together in The Cenci: the dead hand of the past; the baleful influence of Gothic institutions that live on in the present; the very notion of a vicious circle; a moral antinomy that prods the reader into analytical action; conspiracy; a belief in the totalizing power of tyranny; the strenuous difficulty of regaining historical agency; the delusive glamour of the sublime; and, finally, and certainly not least, critique of Burke. To this mix Shelley adds, I believe, the categorical imperative of Immanuel Kant.

16.         “A few to think, and many to act; that is the only basis of a perfect society” (Peacock 315). Peacock’s phrasing is exact. The comic timing of the line lightly obscures two crucial points, both of which touch upon The Cenci. Firstly, it ironically underscores the reason why conspiracy theories flourished during the period. Conspiracy theories wax when the public sphere wanes. In the aftermath of the French Revolution the republic of letters was in serious trouble. [10]  The public sphere is a “metatopical” space for mediating power in a rational and inclusive manner. [11]  When the public sphere falters conspiracy fills the vacuum, then, as now. In parodying the Illuminati’s political credo as “A few to think, and many to act” Peacock mordantly notes the way the followers of Weishaupt replicate the very power structure they look to supplant. The line references a key issue that led to the breakdown of the public sphere—the demonizing of universal (male) suffrage—while drawing its principle lesson: to fight fire with fire is self-defeating for the obvious reason that it simply replicates the problem. Whatever solution is needed to the present discontent, it is not more conspiracy.

17.         As a work of abstracted Gothic, The Cenci explores the problematic nature of modern systems of power by drawing upon the symbolic constitution of the Gothic as it stood post-Schiller and post-Godwin. As is to be expected of such a belated, self-conscious work, much of the meaning is placed before us on the surface, is indeed collected for us in the preface:

The Cenci Palace is of great extent; and though in part modernized, there yet remains a vast and gloomy pile of feudal architecture in the same state as during the dreadful scenes which are the subject of this tragedy. (para 9)
The phrasing echoes one of the great cliché’s of the period, Blackstone’s metaphor comparing English law to “an old Gothic castle, erected in the days of chivalry, but fitted up for a modern inhabitant” (124). Shelley flips the image, emphasizing, not the modern convenience, but the Gothic structure’s feudal remnants. Shelley’s anti-Burkean phrasing emphasizes the past as a negative force, one drawing us back into the feudal pile’s vast and gloomy reaches. The phrasing does two things: it calls to mind the notion that the nation lives on in a Gothic house (horrifyingly so for Thelwall; reassuring for Burke) and it sets in motion the play’s dominant metaphor, the somewhat trite comment that the human heart is a dark, treacherous place.

18.        The preface’s other de rigeur note is the acknowledgement that the horrors passing before us do so in a Catholic country:

Religion coexists, as it were, in the mind of an Italian Catholic, with a faith in that of which all men have the most certain knowledge. It is interwoven with the whole fabric of life. It is adoration, faith, submission, penitence, blind admiration; not a rule for moral conduct. (para 5)
One might dismiss this as stock Gothicism, as a reminder that truly diabolical acts were to be found almost exclusively among the Catholic nations (as Catherine Morland reluctantly concedes). So stock, in fact, that most critics pass over the remark in silence, as if embarrassed by it as an otiose reminder of Shelley’s predictable anti-Catholicism. In fact it is an attempt to articulate one of Shelley’s key concerns. Just as Beatrice Cenci lived and thought amidst a set of “background” [12]  understandings that formed the “whole fabric of life,” a fabric beyond her powers of comprehension, alienation, and self-reflexive scrutiny, so do we live and think amongst our own enveloping fabric. Beatrice’s attempts at self-analysis and self-knowledge end in abject failure, precisely because she is fully enmeshed in the background understanding of her culture, in its enveloping, and constitutive, systems of power (her mind-forged manacles, as Blake would style them). She has no coin of vantage that would allow her to step outside. The point Shelley is driving at, is that the modern reader, whether Catholic, Protestant or atheist, also lacks a place where they can stand outside their culture and take in the landscape. Shelley argues that the task of stepping outside is not hopeless, just strenuous.

19.        Shelley’s statement of the play’s lesson appears to be a mere bromide:

The highest moral purpose aimed at in the highest species of the drama, is the teaching the human heart, through its sympathies and antipathies, the knowledge of itself; in proportion to the possession of which knowledge, every human being is wise, just, sincere, tolerant and kind. (para 4)
This sounds like trite codswollop. It is. We are meant to catch the broad irony, especially in the closing phrase. And that is because the lesson of the play is to be found on either side of this sentence. The key binary is the one closing Shelley’s statement on Catholicism: “It is adoration, faith, submission, penitence, blind admiration; not a rule for moral conduct.” The sources of right action are not to be found within religious belief, within our background understanding. The sources Shelley urges are more abstract and demanding. They emerge from the telling of the tale:
Such a story, if told so as to present to the reader all the feelings of those who once acted it, their hopes and fears, their confidences and misgivings, their various interests, passions, and opinions, acting upon and with each other, yet all conspiring to one tremendous end, would be as a light to make apparent some of the most dark and secret caverns of the human heart (emphasis added). (para 1)
As Ann McWhir notes in her commentary on it, the passage turns on two applications of the word “conspiracy.” [13]  The characters in the play conspire to murder Cenci; at the same time the representation of their feelings is a conspiracy to shake up the reader (the sneaky work, one might say, of an unacknowledged legislator). In effect Shelley is telling us that he has moved on from his juvenile, jejune understanding of conspiracy (the sublimity of the secret societies) to a more abstract proposition in which counterproductive conspiracy (any literal endeavour) is compared unfavourably with a conspiracy to make the reader think. A representation of the conflicting feelings mobilized by a moral antinomy will subtly immerse the reader in the same murky quarters of the human heart as those traversed by the conspirators. Only then can a process of moral and psychological discovery begin.

20.         Shelley’s statement of the process does indeed sound strenuous:

It is in the restless and anatomising casuistry with which men seek the justification of Beatrice, yet feel that she has done what needs justification; it is in the superstitious horror with which they contemplate alike her wrongs, and their revenge, that the dramatic character of what she did and suffered, consists. (para 4)
More recent critics of the play see this statement as the key to Shelley’s intentions. Shelley presents us with a moral antinomy from which there is no easy egress. We feel at once that Beatrice was both justified and wrong in taking her revenge. Through our sympathetic engagement with the representations of her predicament—and the rights and wrongs of the actions taken—we finally come to know our own dark heart, and our own inner caverns.

21.         That seems to be the drift of Shelley’s preface, and, indeed, of the play’s argument. However, I believe this inference to be mistaken. The clues to this misreading lie in the words “casuistry,” “anatomising,” and “superstitious.” In contemplating Beatrice’s “wrongs and their revenge” the reader initially reacts with “superstitious horror.” Whatever Shelley has in mind for the reader, it surely involves more than terrified stupefaction. Presumably it involves some kind of critical introspection through our sympathetic engagement with the moral antinomy of Beatrice’s revenge, perhaps into our own dark heart. However, as Mary Fin points out in her analysis of the play, “casuistry” held a particular, negative, valence for Shelley. She persuasively quotes De Quincey as someone likely to have had an understanding of casuistry similar to Shelley’s (indeed, De Quincey may be recalling Shelley’s preface and play). The problem with casuistry was that it

held aloft a torch for exploring guilty recesses of human life which it is far better for us all to leave in their original darkness. Crimes that were often all but imaginary, extravagancies [sic] of erring passion that would never have been known as possibilities to the young and the innocent, were thus published in their most odious details. (qtd. in Fin 190)

22.        Henry S. Richardson explains what it is De Quincey is complaining about:

The Roman Catholic casuists of the middle ages did so by drawing on Aristotle's categories. Accordingly, they asked, where, when, why, how, by what means, to whom, or by whom the action in question is to be done or avoided... The idea was that complete answers to these questions would contain all of the features of the action, of which the morally relevant ones would be a subset. (2.3 para 2)
Casuistry proceeds from cases, not theories. In any particular case the casuist begins by comparing the case in hand with an existing stock of settled, therefore paradigm, cases, in order to determine if there is a moral principle that would inform the present instance. But in order to determine if there was an applicable rule one would need to canvass the action in all its lights and possibilities. Hence De Quincey’s complaint: the priest might review a moral issue occasioned by a young person’s desire, but in such exhausting detail, involving hitherto undreamt of permutations, that the young person in question would find his or her mind subtly polluted by the moral quest as he or she contemplated possible sins for the first time. At the bottom of De Quincey’s complaint is the unspoken fear that the act of naming has a talismanic power. To explore one’s own dark heart, one would in casuistical fashion need to name and identify a desire in all its permutations. The act of bringing them to light is also the act of bringing them to horrific life. Named, they flicker, and become real. The fear is not materially different from the one Matthew Lewis appeals to when he cautions mothers not to let their daughters read the Bible lest their minds be polluted by its racy subject matter.

23.         The notion is directly canvassed in the play. Orsino, in a soliloquy, lets us in on his conspiracy to seduce Beatrice. “From the devices of my love,” he tells us, he shall form a net from “which she shall not escape.” Yet he fears

Her subtle mind, her awe-inspiring gaze,
 
Whose beams anatomize me nerve by nerve
 
And lay me bare, and make me blush to see
 
My hidden thoughts. (1.2.84-7)
 
As good post-Freudians our reflex is to read “anatomize” positively as a virtual synonym for therapeutic psycho-analysis. In fact Shelley is using anatomizing as a modifier for casuistry, specifying, in the process, a particularly pernicious kind. Orsino’s repetition of the figure later in the play makes this clear:
I had disposed the Cardinal Camillo
 
To feed his hope with cold encouragement:
 
It fortunately serves my close designs
 
That ’tis a trick of this same family
 
To analyse their own and other minds.
 
Such self-anatomy shall teach the will
 
Dangerous secrets: for it tempts our powers.
 
Knowing what must be thought, and may be done,
 
Into the depth of darkest purposes:
 
So Cenci fell into the pit; even I,
 
Since Beatrice unveiled me to myself,
 
And made me shrink from what I cannot shun
 
Shew a poor figure to my own esteem,
 
To which I grow half reconciled. I'll do
 
As little mischief as I can; that thought
 
Shall free the accuser conscience. (2.2.105-19)
 
The “self-anatomy” referred to by Orsino operates much like De Quincey’s casuistry: “Crimes that were often all but imaginary . . . that would never have been known as possibilities . . . were thus published in their most odious details.” The main difference is that in The Cenci desires are no sooner “published” or named than they are acted. To drag them from the heart’s gothic caverns is to succumb to them. If Beatrice has the trick, the master is Cenci, the monstrous, malevolent patriarch whose oaths have a magical performative power, beginning on himself. As Orsino notes, Cenci fell first through self-anatomy. Not only does the act of cursing announce new desires and abominations to him but the act of utterance itself seems to bring them about—or so Cenci believes, when the malediction on his absent sons is immediately rewarded with news of the deaths he devoutly wishes.
With what but with a father's curse doth God
 
Panic-strike armed victory, and make pale
 
Cities in their prosperity? The world's Father
 
Must grant a parent's prayer against his child
 
Be he who asks even what men call me.
 
Will not the deaths of her rebellious brothers
 
Awe her before I speak? For I on them
 
Did imprecate quick ruin, and it came. (4.1.104-11)
 
As Camillo notes, Cenci commands this power because the Pope “holds it of most dangerous example / In aught to weaken the paternal power, / Being, as ’twere, the shadow of his own” (2.2.54-6). The talismanic power of words to translate utterance into reality extends to planted thoughts. Giacomo complains that his father coined
A brief yet specious tale, how I had wasted
 
The sum in secret riot; and he saw
 
My wife was touched, and he went smiling forth.
 
And when I knew the impression he had made,
 
And felt my wife insult with silent scorn
 
My ardent truth, and look averse and cold,
 
I went forth too . . . (3.1.319-25)
 
Falsehoods are planted, take root, flower. Cenci exults that he will do the same to his youngest son, Barnardo, through memory:
He is so innocent, I will bequeath
 
The memory of these deeds, and make his youth
 
The sepulchre of hope, where evil thoughts
 
Shall grow like weeds on a neglected tomb. (4.1.51-4)
 
The thin boundary between language and prophecy, name and thing, desire and act, is also evident in a particularly arch example of dramatic irony. Cenci taxes his wife Lucretia with conspiracy:
You were not here conspiring? You said nothing
 
Of how I might be dungeoned as a madman;
 
Or be condemned to death for some offence,
 
And you would be the witnesses?—This failing,
 
How just it were to hire assassins, or
 
Put sudden poison in my evening drink?
 
Or smother me when overcome by wine?
 
Seeing we had no other judge but God,
 
And he had sentenced me, and there were none
 
But you to be the executioners
 
Of his decree enregistered in heaven?
 
Oh, no! You said not this? (2.1.137-148)
 
Not yet, but she will. In planting the seeds of his own death it is hard to discount the suggestion that this is one just one further aspect of his verbal string pulling, so that he commits suicide, as it were, through the family trick of self-anatomy.

24.         The Gothic’s symbolic constitution once again illuminates the drift of Shelley’s thought. Receiving an answer from Lucretia he does not like, Cenci once again explodes into a curse:

Blaspheming liar! You are damned for this!
 
But I will take you where you may persuade
 
The stones you tread on to deliver you:
 
For men shall there be none but those who dare
 
All things—not question that which I command.
 
On Wednesday next I shall set out: you know
 
That savage rock, the Castle of Petrella,
 
’Tis safely walled, and moated round about:
 
Its dungeons underground, and its thick towers
 
Never told tales; though they have heard and seen
 
What might make dumb things speak. (2.1.162-172)
 
As Eve Kososvky Sedgwick and Edgar Allan Poe both knew, live burial was the Gothic’s master trope (the dead hand of the past being just another way of entombing the living). At the root of the trope is a perverse boundary between self and other: where one wants one (to keep invasive entities out) there isn’t one, and where one emphatically doesn’t want a boundary (say, between you and life above ground) there is. The principle extends to language, which can be a source of both ingress (deadly thoughts you can’t keep out), and blockage (vital thoughts you can’t convey). In a moment of high camp, Cenci threatens his wife with a theatrical version of live burial: being immured in a ruined Gothic pile guarded by ruffians utterly immune to the pleadings of speech or body. The trope recurs throughout the play. Cenci will shroud his daughter in an impenetrable mist of infamy while Beatrice complains of being so shrouded, or sepulchured. When it comes to the moment of self-polluting anatomy, when the conspirators first conspire, their faces are alternatively an open book others can read, or mirrors shining the viewer back upon himself.

25.        One might think of this strand of Shelley’s imagery, from the Preface on, as a crypt. Cenci’s victims are encrypted, as it were, buried alive or sepulchured inside the perverted “mentalité” Cenci represents, incarnates, and spreads; while the crypts or caverns of the mind disgorge poisonous mists. Self-anatomy simply speeds the process, taking characters down to a place from where none return. Most critics of The Cenci note at some point that the play seems to end, disappointingly, with the simple truth of the vicious circle entrapping both Cenci and the conspirators; that in conspiring against Cenci’s undoubted evil, the conspirators, but especially Beatrice, replicate the evil incarnate in the paternal principle. [14]  Illuminating the nature of The Cenci’s vicious circle is certainly central to Shelley’s purposes, but his thought does not end there.

26.         The thread of his thought is to be found in the Jacobin Gothic carefully unspooled in the play. The source for Jacobin Gothic was Burke’s project (and this was how Archibald Alison understood matters in retrospect [15] ) of making the world once again safe for feudalism. Like other Jacobin-Gothic writers, Shelley tilts at Burke. In the final analysis the problem with casuistry was that it was based on case law; it stands to morality as English common law does to jurisprudence. It is based in practical reason, and is anti-theoretical in its stance. Casuistry works—or worked—in the context of a settled society with established norms of moral thought. “If we lack the kind of broad consensus on a set of paradigm cases on which the Renaissance Catholic or Talmudic casuists could draw, our casuistic efforts will necessarily be more controversial and tentative than theirs . . .” (Richardson, 2.3 para. 5). As moralists as diverse as Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor have stressed, modernity is what it is because all such bases for consensus evaporated in the course of the Enlightenment. As Taylor puts it, we live in a mental universe where there are competing and incommensurable frameworks and “hypergoods.” [16]  Moral antinomies are the order of the day. To rely upon “case law” is simply to replicate the particular system of power—its particular frameworks woven deep into the fabric of life—of a particular social interest. Faced with moral antinomies our reflex prejudices, even if expressive of our morals and manners—in other words, even in the best case Burke presents—can only replicate the system.

27.         We need to put the matter like this in order to grasp the radical nature of Shelley’s thought. It begins with his response to Burke who was, for Jacobins, the high priest of case law, the English common law, the unwritten constitution, and the inherited stock of wisdom bound up in manners. As a moralist, Burke was a casuist. In The Cenci Shelley is a militant Kantian. Burke offered “adoration, faith, submission, penitence, blind admiration”—slavishness, according to his Jacobin critics—not rules for moral conduct. In the Gothic world Shelley depicts—which is clearly also our world—live burial is all pervasive, like conspiracy. Or to change the register, and once again draw upon Hogle, our present is uniformly distorted by the dark powers of transference. Damaged by the system, we project that damage onto others, in infinite series. In the current system, self-anatomy is casuistrical, because uninstructed by theory, by abstract, universalizable, rules of conduct. Insofar as the reader is caught up “in the restless and anatomising casuistry” of justifying Beatrice’s action he/she is caught up in the very gestalt that is the problem. No amount of anatomizing will solve it. By the same token introspection—visiting our own caverns of the heart—is a fallacious route to enlightenment. Nothing good comes of those Gothic spaces.

28.         As Shelley’s best critics note, his thought is dialectical. No single work encapsulates his thought. To read The Cenci correctly, one must counterbalance it with Prometheus Unbound. In Rajan’s terms, we must be alert to the complex dialogue between the Gothic and Romantic Shelley. In The Cenci, Gothic Shelley is at his most militant. As an abstracted work of Gothic, it is explicitly darker—and more radical—than the work of any other contemporary writer, for no other writer of the period is so uncompromising about our inability to emancipate ourselves into free agency while drawing upon inner resources unaided by the austere, Kantian, rules of conduct floating free of casuistry, case law, or manners. Unaided by theory our attempts at visiting our inner caverns will only replicate the horror show. Imagining agency begins with the recognition of the need of impersonal theory at the level of ethics. Self-knowledge is likely to be as effective for us as it is for Orsino.

Works Cited

Alison, Archibald. “The Historical Romance.” Blackwood’s Magazine 58 (1845): 341–56. Print.

Blackstone, William. Commentaries on the Laws of England. Quoted in E. J. Clery, The Rise of Supernatural Fiction 1762-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995. Print.

Butler, Marilyn. Peacock Displayed: A Satirist in his Context. London, Boston & Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979. Print.

De Quincey, Thomas. “Secret Societies.” Richard Bentley and Other Writings. Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1863. Print.

Fin, Mary E. “The Ethics and Aesthetics of Shelley's ‘The Cenci.’” Studies in Romanticism 35.2 (Summer, 1996): 177-197. Print.

Haywood, Ian. Romanticism and Caricature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013.

Hogle, Jerrold. Shelley’s Process: Radical Transference and the Development of His Major Works. Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 1989. Print.

---. The ‘Gothic Complex’ in Shelley: From Zastrozzi to The Triumph of Life. Percy Shelley and the Delimitation of the Gothic. Ed. David Brookshire. Romantic Circles Praxis Series. Web.

McGann, Jerome. Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1983. Print.

McWhir, Anne. "The Light and the Knife: Ab/Using Language in The Cenci." Keats-Shelley Journal 38 (1989): 145-61. Print.

"Memoir of Percy Bysshe Shelley." Poetical Works of Coleridge, Shelley and Keats. Philadelphia: J. Grigg, 1831. Print.

Peacock, Thomas Love. Nightmare Abbey. The Works of Thomas Love Peacock: Including His Novels, Poems, Fugitive Pieces, Criticisms, Etc. Ed. Henry Cole C.B. Vol 1. London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1875. Archive.org. Web.

Peck, Walter Edwin. “Shelley and the Abbe Barruel.” PMLA 36.3 (Sep., 1921): 347-53. Print.

Rajan, Tilottama. “The Gothic Matrix: Shelley Between the Symbolic and Romantic” Percy Shelley and the Delimitation of the Gothic. Ed. David Brookshire. Romantic Circles Praxis Series. Web.

Richardson, Henry S. “Moral Reasoning.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe, The Cenci. Shelley's Poetry and Prose. 2nd ed. Eds. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat. New York: Norton, 2002. 138-202.

Taylor, Charles. Sources of the Self: the Making of Modern Identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1989. Print.

Wang, Orrin. Introduction. Romanticism and Conspiracy. Ed. Orrin Wang. Romantic Circles Praxis Series. July 1997. Web.

Wheatley, Kim. “Paranoid Politics: Shelley and the Quarterly Review.” Romanticism and Conspiracy. Ed. Orrin Wang. Romantic Circles Praxis Series. July 1997. Web.

Notes

[1] Jerome McGann, Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983). BACK

[2] The relative scarcity of criticism on Shelley and the Gothic is explored by David Brookshire in Percy Bysshe Shelley and the Gothic (Unpublished PhD Thesis, U. of Maryland, 2009). John V. Murphy, The Dark Angel: Gothic Elements in Shelley’s Works (Cranbury, New Jersey: Associated University Presses, 1975), is an early exploration of the subject but largely focuses on generic features. Another exception would be Dale Townshend, The Orders of Gothic: Foucault, Lacan, and the Subject of Gothic Writing
1764–1820 (New York: AMS Press, 2007), which focuses on The Cenci as an anatomy of an extreme form of the “Gothic father.” BACK

[3] I borrow the phrase “ontic logos” from Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007). BACK

[4] For the basic background to Barruel, Robison, and the Illuminati, including Adam Weishaupt and the Baron Knigge, see Markman Ellis, “Enlightenment or Illumination: The Spectre of Conspiracy in Gothic Fictions of the 1790s,” in Recognizing the Romantic Novel: New Histories of British Literature, ed. C. Sussman and J. Heydt-Stevenson (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008), 77-98; Daniel Pipes Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where it Comes From (New York and London: the Free Press, 1999). BACK

[5] See Ian Haywood, Romanticism and Caricature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 65-66. BACK

[6] Walter Edwin Peck, Shelley and the Abbe Barruel, PMLA, Vol. 36, No. 3 (Sep., 1921), pp. 347-53. BACK

[7] I discuss this point at length in “Transatlantic Gothic,” Transatlantic Literary Studies, 1660-1830, ed. E.T. Bannet and S. Manning (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press) 202-18. BACK

[8] For the details of Cagliostro’s life, and death, see Francois Ribadeau Dumas, Cagliostro, trans. Elisabeth Abbot (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1966); Roberto Gervaso, Cagliostro: A Biography, trans. Cormac O' Cuilleanain (London: Victor Gollanez, 1974); Iain McCalman, The Last Alchemist: Count Cagliostro, Master of Magic in the Age of Reason (New York: HarperCollins, 2003). BACK

[9] Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Men (London: J. Johnson, 1793); Thomas Christie, Letters on the Revolution in France (1791), in E. J. Clery and Robert Miles, eds., Gothic Documents: A Sourcebook, 1700-1820 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), 244-45; John Thelwall, The Rights of Nature, against the Usurpations of Establishments. A Series of Letters to the People of Great Britain, on the State of Public Affairs and the Recent Effusions of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke. 3rd ed. (London, Norwich: H.D. Symonds, J. March, 1796). BACK

[10] The classic study in the transformation of the public sphere during the Romantic period is to be found in John P. Klancher, The Making of English Reading Audiences, 1790-1832 (Madison, Wisconsin: the University of Wisconsin Press, 1987); but see also Kevin Gilmartin, Print Politics: The Press and Radical Opposition in Early Nineteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), Paul Keen, The Crisis of Literature in the 1790's: Print Culture and the Public Sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) and my “Trouble in the Republic of Letters: the Reception of the Shakespeare Forgeries,” Studies in Romanticism, 44:3 (2006): 317-340. BACK

[11] The classic work of theory on the public sphere is Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger with the assistance of Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990). For its “metatopical character” see Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham and London: Duke UP, 2004), 102. BACK

[12] For my use of “background” here see Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 13-14. BACK

[13] See Anne McWhir, “The Light and the Knife: Ab/Using Language in The Cenci,” Keats-Shelley Journal 38 (1989): 145-161. BACK

[14] For examples, see Stuart M. Sperry, “The Ethical Politics of Shelley's The Cenci,” Studies in Romanticism 25.3, Homage to Carl Woodring (Fall, 1986): 411-427. BACK

[15] Archibald Alison, “The Historical Romance,” Blackwood’s Magazine 58 (1845): 341–56. BACK

[16] See also Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007). BACK

Author

Published @ RC

November 2015