The Gothic Matrix: Shelley Between the Symbolic and Romantic

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The Gothic Matrix: Shelley Between the Symbolic and Romantic [1] 

Tilottama Rajan
Canada Research Chair in English and Theory, University of Western Ontario


1.         Towards the end of Shelley’s second Gothic novel St.Irvyne (1811) the alchemist Ginotti is about to initiate Wolfstein into the secrets of life. Wolfstein is the hero of the main plot, while Ginotti is the obscure figure, the unstable compound, who sanctions Wolfstein’s poisoning of the bandit Cavigni to obtain the lovely Megalena. In the main story Ginotti functions as the Dark Interpreter of the increasingly dissolute Wolfstein, until the plot disposes of both in its Faustian “Conclusion.” The novel is also intersected by a Radcliffean subplot focused on Eloise, who turns out to be Wolfstein’s sister, even though she seems to be French while he is Bohemian. Eloise is seduced by the casuistical Nempere, rescued by another libertine, and marries Fitzeustace, a Peacockian parody of the Shelleyan Poet. This Romantic subplot fantastically escapes the Gothic main plot, by which it is nevertheless enveloped as Nempere turns out to be Ginotti. The result is that Nempere, though terminated in the subplot, is still alive in the main plot,thus casting doubt on whether the text has indeed disposed of the matrix figure whose metamorphic alias he is. And do we want to dispose of this matrix towards which the more obscure and elusive figure of Ginotti gestures? Or does the novel’s titular remembering of Godwin’s St. Leon (1799), where alchemy is also a metonymy for schemes of sociopolitical improvement, make Ginotti a shorthand figure for a still undigested future transformation of “the potable waters that flow from death through life” (Defence 533)?  [2] 

2.         Indeed this unprocessed dimension of the characters and “figures” that “rise on the bubble” of Gothic experimentation only to be cast off (Triumph 248-50), is evident in the hasty algebra with which St. Irvyne ends:

Ginotti is Nempere. Eloise is the sister of Wolfstein. Let then the memory of these victims to hell and malice live in the remembrance of those who can pity the wanderings of error; let remorse and repentance expiate the offences which arise from the delusion of the passions, and let endless life be sought from Him who alone can give an eternity of happiness. (252)
With these pious clichés Shelley throws away a project with which he has grown impatient. But three chapters earlier, when Ginotti promises Wolfstein the elixir of life, he endows this juvenile literary performance with an unexpected metaphysical depth. As a prelude to this promise which is never fulfilled, Ginotti launches into his biographia literaria.He tells how by the age of seventeen he had delved into the secrets of “natural philosophy” and “metaphysical calculations,” convincing himself of “the non-existence of a First Cause” (236-7). This epistemological transgression, or acte gratuit as André Gide might call it, had led him to experiment with poison, killing a youth who had offended him. Thereupon, having tasted death, he became despairingly nihilistic yet avid for eternal life. Contemplating suicide, he found himself on the edge of a gulf, facing a “form of most exact and superior symmetry.” The passage is worth quoting at length:
The phantasm advanced towards me; it seemed then, to my imagination, that his figure was borne on the sweet strain of music which filled the circumambient air. In a voice which was fascination itself, the being addressed me, saying, `Wilt thou come with me? Wilt thou be mine?’ ... “No, no,” I unhesitatingly cried, with a feeling which no language can either explain or describe. No sooner had I uttered these words, than methought a sensation of deadly horror chilled my sickening frame ... the beautiful being vanished; clouds, as of chaos, rolled around, and from their dark masses flashed incesant meteors. ... My neck was grasped firmly and, turning round in an agony of horror, I beheld a form more hideous than the imagination of man is capable of portraying, whose proportions, gigantic and deformed, were seemingly blackened by the inerasible traces of the thunderbolts of God; yet in its hideous and detestable countenance, though seemingly far different, I thought I could recognize that of the lovely vision. (237)

3.        This passage from Shelley’s early novel strikingly anticipates Rousseau’s symbolic autobiography in The Triumph of Life, where Rousseau too is offered the elixir of life: “a chrystal glass/ Mantling with bright Nepenthe” (358-9). In Rousseau’s dream-vision, the Shape all light, the aestheticization of a revolutionary idealism that Ginotti pursues in more Sadeian and Nietzschean ways, becomes the deformed shape in the Car, returning us to the Gothic scene that opens the character “Shelley’s” dream-vision of history. [3]  As in St Irvyne, while the figure constructed by Romantic idealism is disfigured, [4]  it never quite ceases to be present in the “severe excess” of the enlightenment that follows: “The ghost of a forgotten form of sleep” (Triumph of Life 424-8). While in both cases we seem to proceed sequentially from illusion to disillusion, both texts are better described as folding the Gothic and Romantic into each other. In St. Irvyne, that is, the romance of Eloise and Fitzeustace, which itself exists only by repressing a traumatic Gothic kernel, is enveloped within a larger narrative of Faustian depravity that conceals a core of idealism disclosed and defaced in Ginotti’s vision. Likewise in The Triumph of Life, “Shelley’s” dream-vision is infolded with Rousseau’s in a pattern of blindness and insight that confuses misprision and enlightenment: while Rousseau awakens from his encounter with the Shape all light to the nightmare of history, “Shelley” dreams this nightmare which folds inwards and backwards to a core of idealism at the heart of darkness.

4.         In connecting the passage from St. Irvyne  [5]  to Shelley’s last poem, I want therefore to suggest that it entwines the Gothic and Romantic in a way that is emblematic of the role Gothic has come to play in Romantic Studies. 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 Greater Romantic lyric. Or put differently, the Gothic has assumed the task of deconstructing what has variously been called “aesthetic ideology” or “Romantic ideology” (McGann; Redfield 24-7), in particular because it makes manifest, almost schematically, what Godwin calls the “Gothic and unintelligible burden of past institutions” (II.101). The prominence of the Gothic also marks a shift from so-called “High” Romanticism to the popular that might superficially seem to be part of “cultural studies.” Yet unlike cultural studies, if the Gothic deconstructs Romantic ideology, it does so on the ground of literature, by exposing Romanticism to its own in(di)gestion of the work of the negative, rather than by demystifying it from the outside as a social or economic phenomenon. Thus in Shelley’s major poems (as also in Blake’s Europe and (First) Book of Urizen) the Romantic is never free of the constraint of the Gothic. An example from Shelley’s most ethereal text is the unprocessed melodrama of Demogorgon’s victory over Jove. But equally, for Shelley at least, the Gothic is never free of the Romantic, which is to say that he 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.

5.         We can approach this linkage of Romantic and Gothic through Hegel’s distinction between Romantic and Symbolic art: modes he opposes while conceding their profound connection. Hegel’s triad of Symbolic, Classical and Romantic art in his lectures on Aesthetics is particularly useful because on the one hand, though the post-Walpolean Gothic may not fall chronologically within the Oriental phase that Hegel delimits as Symbolic, Hegel’s association of the Symbolic with the monstrous and fantastic applies equally to the Gothic (I. 76). On the other hand, the Symbolic is a broader category than the Gothic, including as it does the sublime, which we might conventionally expect to find in the Romantic phase. As such, the category of the Symbolic helps to open up the Gothic philosophically beyond the sensationalism to which the sheer mass production of the genre at the time reduces it. Indeed there is a certain consistency between Hegel’s unconventional placement of the sublime in the Symbolic phase and my own use of the Symbolic to think through the (pre)Romantic genre of the Gothic. For both anachronisms register the generative potential of a mode whose disfigurations form part of a creative negativity.

6.         Hegel theorizes three modes based on art’s ability to fully configure the “Idea,” a term derived from Kant, but which is curiously unreferred in Hegel, as it is not the idea “of” anything and is thus a form of desire. For Kant in the Critique of Judgment “aesthetic ideas” are forms that have not quite found their content, while “rational ideas” are concepts (such as freedom) that have not achieved material form (192, 218). Thus already for Kant a certain inadequacy seems to be at the heart of the “Idea.” As a desire for the Idea rather than any specific idea, Hegel’s Idea is not unlike what Shelley defends as “poetry,” which often turns out to be a creativity that exceeds generic and historical containment (Defence 518). In Hegel’s sequence, which historicizes Kant’s analyses of the beautiful and sublime, the Symbolic, Classical and Romantic involve different relations between "inwardness" and its "externalization," “theme” and execution,” or the Idea and its "embodiment" (I.75, 79, 96, 422). [6]  In the Symbolic phase, which is pre-art, pre-mature, art fails to achieve identity with itself because of a deficiency in self-consciousness that is reflected in the Idea still being "indeterminate." This problem is overcome in the Classical, as art becomes "the adequate embodiment of the Idea" (I.76-7). But in the Romantic, form and content are again separated, this time because of a deficiency in matter that repeats and reverses the problems of the Symbolic. For while the Idea in the Symbolic fails to embody itself because of its own deficiency, in the Romantic phase the Idea is fully developed, but “can no longer find its adequate reality” in the “shapes” available to it in its culture (I.442). Thus the Romantic “reverts, even if in a higher way, to that difference and opposition of the two sides which in symbolic art remained unconquered” (I.79).

7.         The “critical history of Poetry” in which Shelley finds the “defence” of his Idea “betrayed” (528) likewise contains both Romantic and Symbolic versions of this inadequacy. Thus on the one hand poetry is constrained by “distorted notions” that result in even poets such as Dante and Milton walking “through eternity” “enveloped” in the “mask and mantle of prejudice” (526). On the other hand poetry is also figured in the quintessentially Romantic images of a “fading coal” (531) or a “lightning which has yet found no conductor” (528). On one level the Defence presses towards a Romantic telos that disavows the Symbolic matrix of the history in which it finds itself embedded. Yet the very contradiction between the images of the fading coal and the lightning, in the first of which the idea is fully developed while in the second it is yet to come, marks the tenuousness of the Romantic category.

8.         Act IV of Prometheus Unbound, or the scene where Asia grasps Panthea’s dreams by reading her “written soul” in her eyes (II.i.110) are examples of a Romanticism that presses beyond mediation. By contrast, the Symbolic is associated with the monstrous or fantastic, and disfigures its too hasty hypostasis of the Idea through what Hegel calls a “bad and untrue determinacy” (Aesthetics I.76): a description we can extend to the Gothic. Thus in St. Irvyne Nempere de-forms rather than embodies Ginotti . For his part, Ginotti is himself the inchoate materialization of a juvenile and indeterminate Idea. Like Demogorgon, who is nothing if not Symbolic, this Idea has neither “form nor outline” (Prometheus Unbound II.iv.6). It is an unstable compound in which the Nietzschean “death of God” in the materialism of the philosophes makes possible social and thought experiments whose association with libertinism and perversion figures their underlying ideological contradictions.

9.         Ginotti is a “figure” that materializes at the threshold between fear and desire. Opposing “figure” to “discourse” Lyotard describes three levels of figuration that are more and more removed from any kind of clear formulation: the image-figure, which is visible but already blurred; the form-figure, which can be “perceived” but not “seen” and is a schema that underlies the visible; and finally the matrix figure, which is neither “visible” nor “readable,” and which is “difference itself” (277-8). Ginotti is this form-figure or schema that gestures towards the matrix described by Lyotard, which Wolfstein and Nempere, as stereotyped image-figures, disfigure through their “bad and untrue definiteness” (Aesthetics I.74). Yet if the Gothic is “bad” literature, Shelley’s explicit association of the genre in St. Irvyne with the philosophes (236-7), gives its distortions a Symbolic potential: one that Hegel recognizes when he describes how in the crudity of the Symbolic, “the Idea . . . persists sublime above all this multiplicity of shapes which do not correspond with it” (Aesthetics 77).

10.         Returning to Hegel, what is notable in his dialectic is the place of the Classical, as a synthesis oddly displaced to the middle. For the Classical, as the "unity of the artist's subjective activity with his work,” “achieves what true art is in its essential nature” (I.427, 431). Yet Hegel is dissatisfied with this completion, as the Classical is superseded by the Romantic, which reverts to the difference of Idea and shape in the Symbolic, as if it is really inadequacy which is the essence of art. We sense Hegel’s disappointment with the Classical when he says that the Classical artist adequately embodies the Idea only because he receives his content “cut and dried” from “national faith and myth,” leaving him free to work on the formal and rhetorical shaping of this content (I.439). By contrast, form and content in the Symbolic have a more integral relationship: Symbolic art senses "the inadequacy of its . . . shapes” and yet can do nothing but distort these shapes, thus "positing it[self] as the inherently deficient, something to be superseded" (I.318-19). Yet the Symbolic, as a mode in which the "Idea . . . does violence" to "natural shapes," also “stretches them unnaturally" in order to "elevate their phenomenal appearance to the Idea" (I.76; italics mine). There is thus something sublime in its deformations that distinguishes it both from Classical complacency and from the ineffectually angelic claims of the Romantic.

11.         Hence Hegel’s strategic location of the sublime in the Symbolic rather than Romantic phase. For there are two kinds of Symbolic art: the “positive” art of India and Persia and the “negative” art of the sublime (I.364). In a section of the third Critique that Hegel cites, Kant argues that the physical presentation of the sublime (as in a raging ocean) is merely “horrible,” because it fails to understand the sublime as an “invisible meaning devoid of shape” that has no adequate objective correlative in phenomena (Hegel, Aesthetics I.363-4). Hence Kant prefers the dynamic sublime to a merely mathematical sublime limited to res extensa. Hegel’s criticism of Symbolic forms such as the grotesque that involve a hyperactive visual surface has its origin in these comments by Kant, and is generated by a philosophical argument against visibility as the premature foreclosure of negativity. The Symbolic, then, is by no means simple. It is the site of a difference between an Idea falsely posited in a determinate image-figure like Nempere, or Zastrozzi whose gigantic stature makes him mathematically sublime, and the more invisible matrix to which this character gestures.

12.         At the same time this matrix is by no means to be identified with the transcendental Idea of the Kantian sublime. It is not just that Kant still assumes that “the Thing-in-itself, ” or we might say Idea, “exists as something positively given beyond the field of representation,” whereas for Hegel the “basic dialectical moment of the Sublime” consists in “the notion that the Idea is reached through purely negative presentation – that the very inadequacy of the phenomenality to the Thing is the only appropriate way to present it” (Žižek, Sublime Object 205). Kant, as Žižek says, also refused to confront the monstrous (Plague of Fantasies 280-1).Thus on the one hand, in the wake of the Kantian sublime, Hegel’s location of the sublime in the Symbolic associates even the more positive forms of the Symbolic such as the Gothic with projects of Reason and freedom. Hence Ginotti’s excursus on materialism (236-8) and Zastrozzi’s defiant embrace of an atheism that rises “above the shackles of prejudice . . . and injurious superstition” (153). But on the other hand the Kantian sublime involves a missed encounter of these projects of Pure Reason with a core of darkness that we necessarily confront in characters like Ginotti. [7]  This is to say that the Gothic, precisely because of its unsublimated materiality or untrue determinacy, recognizes a kernel of error at the heart of all projects of Reason and freedom.

13.         Yet the Symbolic artist, “toss[ing] about in a thousand forms” and adapting “to the meaning sought the shapes that ever remain alien,” does possess a freedom denied to the Classical artist, even if this freedom is entwined with necessity (I.438-9). [8]  For in Symbolic art “the spirit . . . shapes itself out of its own resources” (I.362). Its “restless fermentation” is the “labour” of the negative, wherein consciousness is still “producing its content and making it clear to itself,” rather than resting in ideas “already determined for imagination as settled” (I.438-9). Similarly, to adapt Shelley in A Defence, the “distorted notions of invisible things” in the Gothic are the “mask and the mantle” that conceal a certain “poetry” (526). But this very distortion makes aesthetic form the site of a perpetually vital struggle between dominant, residual and emergent ideologies: one that calls for a symptomatic reading of what Jameson calls “the form of content” and “the content of form” (Political Unconscious 99). Other essays in this volume also locate in the Gothic a “matrix” that continues to trouble Shelley’s work. But the question is whether this matrix, even if it recurs in Shelley’s work, is a kind of “vanishing mediator” that 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. And the further question is whether “error,” the word with which St. Irvyne concludes (252), simply means “mistake” or whether it is, in a pathological and twisted way, also creative. [9] 

14.         In Jerrold Hogle’s essay in this volume this question remains unanswered, or is perhaps answered in the form of a “both/and” rather than an “either/or.” In Hogle’s previous work, which has been seminal in opening up the seriousness of the genre, the post-Walpolean Gothic is the expression of a particular cultural moment that is riven by underlying contradictions. Or as he puts it here, it has been “the fictive place where the deepest and thus most feared irresolutions in the culture between ideologies and world-views are sequestered and distanced.” But insofar as Hogle places these irresolutions within a historical development that in fact does resolve them—from feudal to capitalist, Catholic to Protestant, or symbol to sign—the Gothic then becomes what Jameson calls a “vanishing mediator.” For Jameson, writing on Max Weber, the vanishing mediator is the catalyst that disappears in the transition from the residual to the emergent. But if Shelley inherits a “Gothic complex” “almost intact” from Walpole and the 1790s Gothic, and if Shelley’s Gothic novels are in this sense derivative, does the Gothic “complex” in becoming a “matrix” reconstitute the Gothic as the permanent expression of an irresolvable contention and ferment in the work of culture, for which Hegel’s Symbolic also provides a name? And is this emergence of the Gothic as not simply a complex but also a matrix what happens between Shelley’s early Gothic novels and The Triumph of Life? My answer would be in the affirmative. Indeed it is because the Gothic becomes a matrix, and not just a complex flattened out by its containment within a genre that is its “form-figure,” that the Gothic has become so interimbricated with Romanticism itself, as an anamorphic distortion that traverses texts that do not formally belong to the genre: texts such as Blake’s Lambeth books, Godwin’s Caleb Williams and Fleetwood, Mary Shelley’s Mathilda, and Byron’s The Giaour, and even Adonais as discussed by Christopher Bundock in this volume.

15.         For on the one hand, as Hogle argues, Gothic figures are transitional insofar as they are “‘floating signifiers’ separable from their older grounds and thus able to signify newer ones.” As a result the “figures ever new” of The Triumph of Life (248), “the material simulacra given off by objects and people in Lucretius” (and Baudrillard), are the sedimented traces of past ideologies which they render “spectral.” The Gothic mode thus becomes an epistemology for diagnosing how the present continues to be haunted by the ghosts or residues of “old symbolic orders,” and in this way is part of the work of ideological progress. But on the other hand it is precisely this progress that is put in question when Shelley, as described by Hogle, recognizes the claims of the old as well as the new: [10]  hence the functioning of these figures not just as “signs” but more archaically as “symbols.” I would go farther and suggest that the force of these symbols is not just critical—a sense that the new must be mediated through the old if anarchy is not to result [11] —but also creative. The “emptied-out figures” of the procession, Gothicized as “vampire bats” (484), retain, in their very decay, a kind of creativity. Thus in the enthusiasm of the procession, which includes Plato as well as Caesar and Constantine, “something not yet made good pushes its essence forward,” as Habermas says of the utopianism of Ernst Bloch (71). This (de)constructive creativity is implicit in the differend between “Shelley” and Rousseau over the “figures” cast onto and cast off by the Car of Life. “Shelley” disdains to “worship” these idols that fashion projects onto “the world’s false and fragile glass.” But Rousseau, even as he acknowledges the relentless consumption of the old by the new, insists that the “vitally metaphoric” process of history goes on as a mixture of idealism and idolatry: “Figures ever new / Rise on the bubble, paint them how you may” (Defence 512; Triumph 243-51).

16.         Put differently, the cultural work of the Gothic is not limited to the demystification of past systems of belief. As Deborah White argues, in the spirit of Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of “enlightenment,” the Romantics’ attitude to “superstition” is tied up with the issue of imagination. This is to say not only that modernity is itself built on superstitious foundations, but also, as a correlative, that literature “cannot surrender the resources of illusion” even if it thereby becomes a form of superstition (12, 51). Hence a certain persistence of idolatry in The Triumph that resists both “Shelley’s” disdain for life, and what White calls the “Enlightenment’s quasi-materialist vision of history,” evident in the poem’s relentless serialization of its failed “figures” (12). Hence also the way the rationalization of the supernatural in Gothic novels is set up not to work: a procedure that Shelley strategically if impatiently repeats in the emptiness of the formulae that conclude St. Irvyne. For the Gothic is in fact a shelter for the potentiality of superstition and perversion, for the “gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present” (Shelley, Defence 535).

17.         This restless fermentation of the Idea as superstition is what Hegel tries to access through the Symbolic. For the Symbolic is the form taken by what Žižek calls the “sublime object of ideology”: as a form of fantasy rather than Coleridgean imagination, it projects an Idea but, through its bad and untrue determinacy, allows for a “traversal” of the fantasm (Plague 7-11, 97). Of course in the spirit of Enlightenment, Hegel dismisses the Symbolic as crude and pagan. He prefers the Romantic because its dissonance of matter and spirit is Christian and accords with criteria of beauty. Shelley expresses the same historical complacency when he claims that the “poetry” of “Chivalry and Christianity . . . erase[s]” the “deform[ities]” of earlier social formations (Defence 518). But the Romantic for Hegel is an alibi for revisiting the Symbolic; hence their distinction in terms of a reversed relation in the two between the Idea and its embodiment keeps collapsing.

18.         In the Symbolic, as we will recall, the Idea itself is said to be inadequate, while in the Romantic the Idea is complete in itself but external forms are inadequate for its purposes. But if the Symbolic warps the forms it takes, is this not because they are inadequate, or as Shelley says,because its “distorted notions of invisible things” are “the mask and mantle” in which poetry “walk[s] through eternity enveloped and disguised” (526)? And if the Romantic cannot find adequate forms, is this not because its Idea too is undeveloped? And finally if art needs an “external medium for its expression,” is not the Romantic also defective in resisting an “adequate union with the external” (Hegel, Aesthetics I.81)? At issue here is the very criterion of “adequacy,” since as Hegel also says "the specific shape which every content of the Idea gives” itself “is always adequate to that content” (I.300), which means that Symbolic forms too are organic and purposive dis-integrations of their content. Unable to resolve these tensions in his idea of art, Hegel finally announces the “end of art” (I.602). But rather than conclude that there is no future for art, we should see this “end,” as the ex-termination of a term exhausted in its current conception. For in conjunction with the forms of art that have emerged in the Aesthetics, the end of art can also serve as a deconstruction that allows us to imagine new configurations of the aesthetic.

19.         But as we think such models, we must also attend to the difference between the Symbolic and Romantic. Pinnacled dim in the intense inane, the Romantic artist is the beautiful soul whose bad faith Hegel criticizes in the Phenomenology of Spirit (406-7). He is superior to the Symbolic artist because he withdraws from existing discourses into the clarity of a free resistance, while the latter is at the mercy of contemporary material, his imagination deformed by what it cannot form. On the other hand, this withdrawal into Spirit is a form of bad infinity. By contrast the Symbolic artist does not refuse mediation, but works on content at the material site of forms. This positing and consequently positivity, which Hegel also criticizes, often results in a "bad and untrue determinacy" which closes off the dissonance of “Idea and shape” (I.76-7). Thus Ginotti,as the schema for an Idea with neither “form nor outline,” is given an untrue determinacy by his avatar Wolfstein and by his own role in the narrative: a role constricted by the form Shelley had available to him, namely Faustian melodrama. And Zastrozzi too, the eponymous hero of Shelley’s previous Gothic novel, is conventionalized by the way his author has been interpellated into the model of revenge tragedy. Nor is the Gothic as a genre unaware of the force of institution, what Jean-Paul Sartre calls the “practico-inert,” or the matter in which past praxis is stuck by a “reifying sociality” (67, 318). It is this automatized sociality that leads Verezzi to prefer Julia to Matilda, even though the Narrator concedes that what he prefers is Julia’s “image” (116). Interestingly, the Narrator goes so far as to note “a comparison between [Matilda] and Julia” (84); and hence in the next novel, St. Irvyne, the lovely Megalena quickly deteriorates from being a Julia to being a Matilda. Indeed the Gothic insistently marks its conventionalism, its badness, as a way of breaking the moulds into which it is forced.

20.         For Shelley such deformations of “poetry” occur in “periods of the decay of social life,” such as the one he describes after the Restoration, when “vice,” “weakness,” and “obscenity” take over (Defence 520-1): an account that applies equally to the depraved world of Italy and Bohemia in the Gothic novels. Symbolic art is just as frequently limited by its bad determinacy as it is expanded by an indeterminacy that allows for the development of the idea which Ginotti’s dream-vision gestures towards. Yet such determinacy is what Jameson calls a “symbolic resolution”: a temporary overriding of contradictions, without which negativity could not be invested in the work of history (Political Unconscious 77-80). And it is only through this investment that art remains responsible to the cultural unconscious, or to what is left out in its attempt to classically domicile the Idea or romantically defer it into the infinite future. We see this investment in history in Shelley’s novels. Indeed in The Defence Shelley’s description of the decayed history he despises is strikingly Gothic. The “obscenity” of the Restoration, he says, “is a monster for which the corruption of society for ever brings forth new food, which it devours in secret” (521). And yet this supposed monster recalls the earlier description of poetry as “replenishing” imagination “with thoughts of ever new delight . . . which form new interstices whose void for ever craves fresh food” (517).

21.        In short, Hegel lets us think a dialectic that circulates imagination between its premature hypostasis in the Symbolic, and withdraws it as “spirit” from the concepts that limit it so as to think it once more. In its disfiguration of the Romantic Idea the Gothic is thus part of the work of the negative, whether as a transitional negation of Romanticism’s tendency to settle into aesthetic ideology, or as an untransformed potentiality aware of its traumatic core. Conceived on this model, the work of art is not form or hypostasis, but “configuration,” “the work on form, the deformation of form” as much as its “formation” (Carroll 29, 39). As such, even in its positivity it requires what Žižek calls an “anamorphic” reading, able to release the underlying negativity of its bad and untrue clichés. In “Kantian terms,” as Žižek puts it, such a reading would allow “us to discern an apparently positive object as a ‘negative magnitude,’” to see even a character such as Nempere or Zastrozzi as the “‘mere positivization of a void’” (Plague 97).

22.         In conclusion let me then sketch three versions of the relation between the Romantic and its Gothic disfiguration that attempt to deal with the return of the moment of Symbolic blockage staged in Shelley’s early Gothic novels: a return more fully detailed in other essays in this volume. In Prometheus the Gothic is no more than a concessive clause. Shelley grants the Romanticism of an Idea that cannot be embodied in existing forms when Prometheus and Asia retire to a cave after their marriage, to dwell “Like human babes in their brief innocence” (II.iii.33). At the same time the means used to end the Jovian age in the present are crudely Gothic. For if Demogorgon is a metaphysical principle or Idea “devoid of shape” (Hegel Aesthetics I.363), in order to act in time he becomes Jove’s son. The bad and untrue determinacy of this positing of the negative is then reflected in the brutality with which he overthrows Jove: a violence at odds with the Promethean reign of peace. Hence Shelley, who as Asia has insisted on converting Demogorgon’s cryptic words into a project of Reason and freedom, admits that Jove may rise again, offering a variety of “spells” to deal with him (IV.562-9), which are no more than what Kant would call rational ideas.

23.         Nevertheless in Prometheus Unbound Shelley manages to segregate the Romantic from its Gothic disfiguration. In fact the Gothicism of Jove’s downfall reduces to a cliché the unreadable matrix that the play approaches in the figure of Demogorgon. More tangled is Alastor, which conflates the Gothic and Romantic. In the opening, the Narrator invokes the Muse of the Greater Romantic Lyric, only to speak of himself as a “desperate Alchymist” who has made his “bed / In charnels and coffins” (23-5). At the end, having failed to make the Poet credible, he ends with a disconnected outburst on the elixir of life and the Wandering Jew, describing himself as a “dark magician . . . raking the cinders of a crucible” (682-4), and appealing to “Medea’s wondrous alchemy” (672). This Gothic self-representation is matched by the Narrator’s lurid figure of the Poet, whose “divinest lineaments” are “Worn by the senseless wind” (704-5), as if he foresees the body of the Poet, whose grave was “ a pyramid / Of mouldering leaves” decaying, his skin and bones blown round and literally caught on the thorns of life (53-4). And yet the Poet is also referred to Romantically as a “surpassing Spirit” (714), a beautiful soul whose inwardness transcends materiality.

24.         Alastor is Shelley’s autonarration of his unsettled relationship to “poetry” as “subjective poetry,” which Browning in his essay on Shelley describes as the “Ideas of Plato, seeds of creation, lying burningly on the Divine Hand” (63-7). Yet the “frail” figure of the Poet (Alastor 687) cannot bear this Romanticization, which has become part of the practico-inert. Indeed the Poet seems disconnected from the “image” of him that the Narrator constructs (661). For the depopulated global landscape through which he moves, the perilous journey he takes in his drunken boat, and the tattered scenery of a Nature that Shelley cannot put into a Wordsworthian frame, all point to a more modern conception of poetry as sifting through the waste land of culture that would emerge later with Rimbaud, Nerval and Baudelaire. Alastor is thus hysterically split between the Romantic “spirit” of poetry, and its de-jection into the Gothic as a “peculiar cultural space into which the horrors generated by early modern cultural changes . . . can be ‘thrown under’” or abjected, as Jerrold Hogle puts it (178): cast off but also cast into a future “crucible” whose void “for ever craves fresh food” (Alastor 683; Defence 517).

25.         Nevertheless in Alastor the Gothic is more a defacement of the Romantic than it is the creative matrix suggested by the word “crucible” (624). Finally, in The Triumph of Life Shelley’s Gothicism shows itself first in the defacement of Rousseau, whom “Shelley” initially encounters in the vegetable form of an “old root which grew / To strange distortion” (182-3), and then in the disfiguration of the Shape all light, the figure for the dawn of a new revolutionary era. It would be easy to see the Shape in the Car as punishing the idealism of the Romantic shape, and the poem as demystifying Prometheus Unbound, where Asia, after her missed encounter with the Symbolic matrix of the play in the Cave of Demogorgon, romantically bounds off the Chariot of the Hour driven by the spirit with a “dreadful countenance” from the one guided by a spirit with the “dove-like eyes of hope” (II.iv.142-62). Returning to this scene of the chariots through the Car of Life, Shelley’s last poem unleashes a different hour in which the two perspectives on the second coming of the world-historical spirit can no longer be separated. Nevertheless the ensuing dis-integration releases an energy as powerful as the beauty of the Shape was lethargic, for the “crew” dance “like atomies . . . / Within a sunbeam” (444-6), while Rousseau “plunge[s]” into the future (467) with a blindness that is the very condition for the deconstructive creativity thrown off and around the Car in whose disaster he urges “Shelley” to participate as “actor or victim” rather than “spectator” (305-6). Shelley describes this “restless fermentation” of “Life” in terms of a Symbolic pre-maturity when he compares the Car to “the young moon,” which bears “As the herald of its coming . . . / The ghost of her dead Mother, whose dim form / Bends in dark aether from her infant’s chair” (79-85). In this Gothic unfolding of the beautiful simile of the moon, history becomes a “process without a telos or a subject” (Althusser 91-8). For the dead mother shrouds a chair that may be empty, since the lines refer only to the infant’s chair. Moreover, she bends “from,” not over, the chair, as if brought down by this second coming of an infant power whose advent is or was expected, but whom we do not see.

26.         Yet it is notable how simile follows simile, or how one simulation enfolds another, such that “veil after veil [is] undrawn” (Defence 528), without any adequate embodiment of a phenomenon that has neither “form nor outline.” For like the “sun’s image” reflected in a well, which is then brought into focus and perceived as the “shape all light” (Triumph 345-52), the young moon contains another figure: the dead mother bending from her infant’s chair. This composite simile is then displaced by a further likeness, as the slouching mother becomes “the dusky hood and double cape” shrouding a shape that is now unnaturally old rather than young: “as one whom years deform” (87-90). “Figures ever new” are cast off in the cinematography of the poem (248), which commingles the beautiful, the sublime, and the repellent. “Shelley” wants to arrange these figures to distinguish various phases of the procession: the Car at the centre, and in front the leaders, while an anonymous crowd brings up the rear (101, 131-8). Because the core experience for him is the Shape’s disenchantment, “Shelley” also wants to level the difference between those who lead and those who follow, dismissing “All but the sacred few” as a “deluded crew” (128, 184). He asks himself why “all” is “here amiss” and does not hear the irony when a voice answers “Life!” (178-80).

27.         But the scene is in fact a moving army of differences, metaphors and metonymies. At the end the poem is taken over by Bosch-like scenes of “vampire bats” and “vultures” sitting on the tiaras of “pontiffs” (484-505), what Shelley in the Defence describes as the “utter anarchy and darkness” that sometimes threaten to engulf poetry (523). But since the manuscript of The Triumph of Life omits quotation marks, we cannot know if this segment marks Rousseau’s renunciation of his idealism, or is spoken by the Thel-like “Shelley.” [12]  Moreover, just as the leaders include figures as different as Plato and Caesar, so too the ribald crowd is metamorphically imaged through bats and apes, but also “elves / Danc[ing] in a thousand unimagined shapes” (490-1). Indeed this last segment is prefaced by a reference to Dante and described as “a wonder worthy of his rhyme” (469-80), though what follows is hardly wondrous in any conventional sense. The scene, in other words, is one of degeneration and entropy, yet harbours a strange vitality. Its logic is not Dante’s serial logic of Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, but combines all three “in the chaos of a cyclic poem” (Defence 512), whose “rotary motion” is figured in the wheel of the Car and the cyclic form of the poem itself, which returns upon and into itself through its folding of figure within figure. In this chaos, Shelley can no longer insulate “the form and the splendour of unfaded beauty” from “the secrets of anatomy and corruption” (531), nor protect literature from a cultural and political debasement that “eats out the poetry” from history so as to rethink both poetry and history as a void that forever craves fresh food (515, 517). Instead he lets down his ladder “into the foul rag and bone shop of the heart” (Yeats 391-2), finding the crucible of a disastrous creativity in this space into which the horrors of early modern culture have been cast off.

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Notes

[1] This paper is based on a paper given in a session on “Shelley and the Gothic” organized by Neil Fraistat at the 2011 MLA in Los Angeles. A significantly different and expanded version of the same paper appeared under the title “The Work of the Negative: Symbolic, Gothic and Romantic in Shelley and Hegel” in Studies in Romanticism, 52: 1 (2013), 3-32. The author wishes to thank the Canada Research Chairs Programme for research support that has made the writing of this paper possible. BACK

[2] References to A Defence of Poetry are to Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, ed. Reiman and Fraistat. BACK

[3] I use “Shelley” in quotation marks to refer to the first-person speaker of the poem, the character Shelley, as distinct from the author. BACK

[4] My use of this term obviously evokes de Man’s “Autobiography as De-Facement” and “Shelley Disfigured” (The Rhetoric of Romanticism 67-82, 93-124). However, disfiguration is not the same kind of analytic operation that deconstruction is. My use of the term thus tries to restore some of the generative potential of a mutilation of figures whose affect suggests the struggle or “restless fermentation” that Hegel sees in the Symbolic. BACK

[5] For a more extensive discussion of Shelley’s Gothic novels themselves, see Rajan, Romantic Narrative (46-74). BACK

[6] In Kant’s terms from the Third Critique the Classical is beautiful, whereas the Symbolic and Romantic are different versions of the sublime. It should be noted that Hegel does not use the term “Symbolic” in the way it was used by contemporaries such as Goethe, Schelling, Coleridge and others (nor in the way it is used by Lacan, for whom the “symbolic order” is really an order of signs). For Hegel’s contemporaries the symbol is the unification of the particular and universal, whereas allegory is their separation; in effect, the symbol is a form of the beautiful. For Hegel the Symbolic is one form taken by the separation of particular and universal. Indeed Hegel’s inversion of the usual meaning of the term is part of a complex critique—engaged with the work of Goethe and Friedrich Creuzer—of the idea of art as Darstellung or the presencing of the Idea. For elaboration of this point see Rajan, “Towards a Cultural Idealism” (62-5), which also discusses the relation between Symbolic and Romantic in Hegel. BACK

[7] Comparing Godwin with Kant, David Collings explores this fanaticism of “Pure Reason” in Caleb Williams (“The Romance of the Impossible: William Godwin in the Empty Place of Reason,” ELH 70 (2003)), 850-4. BACK

[8] For elaboration of this point see Rajan, “Difficult Freedom: Hegel’s Symbolic Art and Schelling’s Historiography in Ages of the World (1815).” BACK

[9] Thus Stanley Corngold distinguishes between mistakes, which are simply wrong, and error: “the skew of error implies a truth” (92). BACK

[10] Shelley’s interest in Charles I, on whom he wrote a fragmentary play, is also relevant here. BACK

[11] I take this to be the gist of Hogle’s comment, in his essay here, that the “looking-backwards-and-forwards simultaneously, like the ‘Janus-faced shadow’ that actually drives Life’s chariot for Shelley, coincides with Walpole’s preference . . . for keeping at least a ‘shadow of monarchy’ on an ‘otherwise empty chair of state,’ . . . rather than facing the uncertainties of total revolution that eventually made England (and even Shelley) fearful of the violence in France.” BACK

[12] The manuscript does not contain quotation marks, which were added by Mary Shelley so as to create a reading text, and retained by Donald H. Reiman with slight alterations that often have unscrutinized consequences. Thus we do not always know whether to attribute particular lines to Rousseau or “Shelley,” or where the breaks between the lines of the two speakers occur. On this subject see Rajan, The Supplement of Reading (332-35, 346-48). As regards the infernal vision with which the poem ends, Reiman attributes everything after l. 300 to Rousseau. But one could argue that “Shelley” again becomes the speaker after l. 469 (the description of Dante) or after l. 480. BACK

Published @ RC

November 2015