Introduction

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Introduction

David Brookshire
University of Maryland, College Park


1.        Given the growing interest in the relationship between “Romantic” and “Gothic” writing, surprisingly little attention has been given to Percy Bysshe Shelley, for whom, more than any other major Romantic, the Gothic arguably provided the most powerful and lasting influence. Although Shelley claimed, in a letter to William Godwin, that by 1812 he was no longer a “votary of Romance,” the Gothic aesthetic saturates his early poetry and casts a gloomy shadow over even the most idealistic moments in his mature work. As a budding Gothic novelist himself during his teenage years, Shelley appears to have grown impatient with the narrative constraints of prose fiction, choosing instead to invest his creative energies in poetry while still exploring the aesthetic possibilities and contradictions associated with the Gothic aesthetic. His reading habits and poetic interests suggest that what he had given up was not an interest in the Gothic itself but in the stock conventions of the “Old Gothic” of Walpole and Radcliffe that had since become the object of satire in the early-nineteenth century. According to Mary Shelley’s Journal, both Mary and Percy continued to read a number of Gothic texts, which included William Beckford’s Vathek; Charles Brockden Brown’s Weiland, Ormond, Edgar Huntley, and Arthur Merwyn; Charlotte Dacre’s Zafloya; Godwin’s Caleb Williams and St. Leon; Caroline Lamb’s Glenarvon; Charles Maturin’s Fatal Revenge; or the Family of Montorio and J. Bertram; Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey (in which Shelley is playfully satirized in the character of Scythrop); John Polidori’s The Vampyre; along with all of Matthew Lewis’s and Ann Radcliffe’s works. Shelley also enjoyed the Gothic productions of Germany, which included Goethe’s Faust; Frederick Schiller’s The Robbers and The Ghost Seer; and the aptly titled Phantasmagoriana, a French translation of supernatural stories that was translated into English in 1812 as Tales of the Dead.

2.         The contributors to this volume aim to explore the ways in which Shelley “delimits” the Gothic, opening the symbolic potentiality of an aesthetic that is always caught between its reactionary and revolutionary, reifying and transformative impulses. Shelley’s early poetry and prose, including his two published Gothic novels—Zastrozzi, a Romance (1810) and St. Irvyne; or, The Rosicrucian (1811)—and his first book-length poem, The Wandering Jew; or The Victim of the Eternal Avenger (1809/10), have received scant critical attention, often relegated to appendices or a “Juvenilia” section in editions of Shelley’s works. The essays in this volume, however, call for an analysis that approaches these works with the same theoretical rigor that his mature poetry receives and, thus, to fill a gap in Shelley scholarship by establishing new readings and identifying avenues for future research. We all argue, in different ways, that recognizing Shelley’s Gothic sensibility is fundamental to fully appreciate his struggle to mediate the Gothic antagonisms that persist in his poetry throughout his career. Each essay in the volume interrogates the distinction between what can be called the Shelleyan subject of Romanticism and the Shelleyesque subject of Gothicism. Where the Shelleyan gaze finds synthesis, desire, pleasure, beauty, benevolence, and being; the Shelleyesque gaze finds antagonism, drive, jouissance, monstrosity, perversion, and lack. We resist the temptation to literalize this split or to apply a rigid definition to either his Gothic or Romantic works, terms that should be used provisionally. As Michael Gamer reminds us in his Romanticism and the Gothic, “at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century . . . neither ‘gothic’ nor ‘romantic’ had yet taken their modern meanings” and that the Gothic is rather “a discursive site crossing the genres” (2-3). As the essays in this volume demonstrate, the tension between Shelleyesque-Gothic and Shelleyean-Romantic aesthetic modes operate dialectically, if not antagonistically, across the entirety of Shelley’s writing.

3.         Rather than an undisciplined juvenile phase of Shelley’s development (as many critics have argued), the Shelleyesque haunts the Shelleyan in unsettling and provocative ways. The Gothic, for Shelley, thus provides an aesthetic foil against which his most idealistic moments are generated. Shelley’s Gothic provides a baseline account, so to speak, of his earliest attempts to articulate a mode of subjectivity that recognizes rather than sublimates the political, sexual, psychological, and aesthetic antagonisms produced within the social field where the combinatory dynamics between subject, self, object, and other are expressed. Shelley’s Gothic indexes a site of failure when imagination stutters or when the aspirations of the Romantic ego are confronted with the void of subjective destitution. But the Gothic also opens up the possibility of symbolic transgression and transfiguration, exploiting the aesthetic machinery of the Gothic tradition while radically undercutting the expectations associated with that tradition.

4.         Jerrold Hogle’s essay outlines the contours of what he calls the “Gothic Complex” in Shelley’s works. This complex of “interacting symbolic processes,” which Hogle argues can be found from Zastrozzi’s Walpolean borrowings all the way through to The Triumph Life, serve as a “repository for unresolved conflicts among contending beliefs.” Focusing on the “Shape all light” from the Triumph, Hogle shows how this Janus-faced figure exemplifies Shelley’s preoccupation with Gothic imagery that is “continuously being un-shaped and re-shaped again” as Shelley himself shapes and is re-shaped by the symbolic processes he employs. Ultimately, for Hogle, Shelley, the poem, and its audience “cannot escape from the systems of belief” Shelley wishes to dismantle.

5.         Tilottama Rajan takes up Hogle’s “Gothic Complex” and refigures it as a “Gothic Matrix.” Rajan asks whether the Gothic complex “serves as a transition out of a particular historical moment, or whether it represents a permanent kernel of error at the heart of all idealism.” Rajan argues that the “flattened out” Gothic complex that Shelley inherited becomes a matrix “interimbricated with Romanticism itself, as an anamorphic distortion that traverses texts that do not formally belong to the genre.” Rajan analyzes the fluidity and creative potential of this matrix by drawing on Hegel’s distinction between the “symbolic” and “romantic.” For Hegel, the symbolic mode registers the insufficiency of the idea to its content, whereas the romantic mode registers the insufficiency of the content to its idea. The Gothic, as the symbolic disfigurement of the Romantic idea, is thus a “shelter for the potentiality of superstition and perversion,” which Rajan sees exemplified in the dual figure of Ginotti/Nempere in Shelley’s second Gothic novel, St. Irvyne; or, The Rosicrucian.

6.         Robert Miles’s essay on The Cenci reflects upon the theoretical approaches of Hogle and Rajan and notes that “Gothic and Romantic are indispensible terms for delineating a whole that is larger than either.” Miles argues that the Gothic complex, or “symbolic constitution,” produces an intractable deadlock in The Cenci as: “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.” Miles reads Shelley’s Introduction to the drama against itself, pointing out that “to explore one’s own dark heart,” as Shelley instructs, “one would in casuistical fashion need to name and identify all possible motivations for a particular desire. The act of bringing them to light is also the act of bringing them to horrific life.” For Miles, the difficult ethical demands of The Cenci reveal a Shelley who is “uncompromising about our inability to emancipate ourselves into free agency while drawing upon inner resources.”

7.         From Christopher Bundock’s historiographic perspective, “the Gothic offers Romantic and modern culture a space in which to explore but also contain—through predictable, formulaic gambits—the institutional dismemberment and re-articulation often glossed as secularization.” Through a wide-ranging analysis that focuses on The Wandering Jew and Adonais, Bundock explores the tensions between the Shelleyesque and the Shelleyean in relation to the persistence of the “matter” of history and of the act of historicization itself. For Bundock, “unnatural, physical reanimation offers form to historical counter-narratives, a way for what is excluded from official accounts to confront history’s aesthetic ideology.” The figure of the Wandering Jew, excluded from Christian history, “collapses progressive history by bearing trauma materially out of the past and into the future.” Similarly, in Adonais Shelley places Keats—his death and body—in a “material vision of history” that exceeds transcendence and eludes mediation, where “elegiac mourning is recast and re-understood as melancholy monstrosity.”

8.         My own essay on Zastrozzi resonates with Hogle’s and Rajan’s theorization of the regressive and progressive tendencies of Gothic iconography for Shelley. My reading of Shelley’s first significant publication places the work in the literary-historical context of the anti-Jacobin backlash against the scandalous transgressions of the Gothic and the threatening progressivism of republican philosophical positions. Shelley enters the fray late in the game and positions Zastrozzi not as an exercise of generic mimicry, but as an ambitious satire of the “Jacobin monster.” In the character of Zastrozzi, Shelley condenses anti-Jacobin fears and shows how such figures exert their control over the reactionary mind, generating a plague of fantasies for the ostensible “hero” of the novel, Verezzi. At the same time, Shelley also “subjectivizes” the paranoiac image of the other and reveals the impotence of the individual behind the sublime mask. Thus Shelley’s early use of the Gothic is a critical, though perhaps blunt, instrument in the demystification of ideology. But Zastrozzi also introduces obstacles that haunt any totalizing concept of the Enlightenment subject and/or Romantic ego. Zastrozzi, whether as sublime figure of the anti-Jacobin paranoiac imaginary or impotent subject, is still an implacable other bent on revenge, resistant to the ethics of sympathetic identification, guilt, or shame.

9.         In later works such as Laon and Cythna, The Cenci, Prometheus Unbound, and Hellas, Shelley confronts similar tyrannical figures that echo back to Zastrozzi and the Gothic antagonism he presents to emergent Romantic consciousness. Whether or not Shelley is successful in mediating or transcending those antagonisms depends in large part on whether we, as readers and critics of Shelley, consider his Gothic aesthetic to be limiting or delimiting. It is our hope in this volume to spur further critical investigations into the vexed relationship between Romanticism and the Gothic, being fully aware that, as Shelley put it in Queen Mab, “much yet remains unscanned.”

Published @ RC

November 2015