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Reading Shelley's Interventionist Poetry, 1819-1820

Shelley, Adorno, and the Scandal of Committed Art

Mark Kipperman, Northern Illinois University

  1. Response
    In fact, can't Shelley be said to be experimenting with a kind of radical "ventriloquism" from the time of his early collection, Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson? The self-conscious balladic simplicity of the Mask, including its adoption of the popular-print and pamphlet idioms, is further evidence of his attempt to "throw his voice" into the fray from a position outside it. Though Shelley is concerned about the problem of "virtual representation," we must remember that he was the rogue son of an M.P. who continued to see just representation as his calling, even if he renounced it as his birthright.

    The scandal of Shelley’s great political ballad, "The Mask of Anarchy," is that its appeal to the power of mass resistance is written from aristocratic exile. Certainly this position does not disqualify its interventionist rhetoric: no one criticizes a Brecht for becoming an outspoken émigré in Denmark in the 1930s. The problematic issue is not the writer’s personal safety so much as the nature and expression of his commitment to those masses whose sacrifice he exhorts. The "Mask" appeals to an ultimate and utopian harmony between the masses and the oppressor’s troops, grounded in a common nationalism ("the old laws of England") and an idealized shame provoked in that nation by the willing martyrdom of passive protesters who virtually invite the army to "slash, and stab, and maim, and hew." Such an appeal to universal Promethean virtue, shared by proletarian and stormtrooper, may indeed strike us, at the very close of the twentieth century, as so naive as to warp the very real commitment of Shelley’s art. This dilemma brings to mind Adorno’s famous critique of such "commitment" by an artist like Brecht, who was trapped in the paradox of committed art in advanced capitalism: the intellectual must speak as a kind of ventriloquist, speaking for the proletarian; yet it is the powerful bourgeois he must capture, addressing oppression in the ideological terms and values of the oppressor, appealing to a spurious "harmony" of interest. "In an attempt to bridge the gap" between the fact of oppression and the language in which he must address it for the bourgeois theatre-goer, "Brecht affected the diction of the oppressed. But the doctrine he advocated needs the language of the intellectual" ("Commitment" 187). At the same time, Adorno does allow to art a utopian, ideal aim: literary works "point to a practice from which [as ideal creations] they abstain: the creation of a just life" (194).

  2. Response
    As Kipperman suggests below, one can read the cthonic voice—"as if" from the earth—as a figure for a hoped-for collective agency, though admittedly led by intellectual orator-poets like Shelley, an idealized form of unacknowledged legislation. Anyway, in the age of General Ludd, the device of a deliberately diffused and "anonymized" voice of hidden radical orators and leaders was conventional.

    Most recently, Susan Wolfson has challenged the status of Shelley’s "Mask" as one of the great examples of English radical poetry. Is Shelley’s political poetry "no more than aesthetic processing of politics?" (195). This poem alights upon a poet dreaming "over the sea," a dream, says Wolfson, "from which he is never seen to awaken" (196). Those words of liberation spoken to the "Men of England" (line 147) arise only "As if" an allegorical Earth were speaking to her children, though the actual speaker is obscure, "the words," she points out, arising "by an inexplicable agency. . . borne by fantastic illusion. This dreamy shimmer is a tension that both sustains the poem’s idealism and exposes the ideological bind of proffering poetry as the thing to be ‘done’ in political crisis" (198). Ultimately, Wolfson sees the poem’s energizing conflict deriving from the question, "can poetry have political agency or is it ‘supererogatory’ to political action?" (195).

  3. I would argue that this is not quite the real contradiction in Shelley’s poem. For one thing, this way of raising the question tends to confuse political import with political impact. Only within Departments of English (or at MLA sessions) is a "contestatory" utterance seen as a roofbeam thrown on the barricades. But the gestures of poets are more often moonbeams than roofbeams. Contestatory how, to what audience, in what context? Is the "contestation" produced, taken up, and consumed by a comfortable and unmoved bourgeois readership? Or, on the other side, is the "contestation" merely confirmation for the oppressed of what they have already learned, and have always already lived? Brecht, said Adorno, "taught nothing that could not have been understood apart from his didactic plays, indeed, that could not have been understood more concisely through theory, or that was not already well known to his audience: That the rich are better off than the poor, that. . . goodness requires the masks of evil" (Aesthetic Theory 247). Adorno warned that the political import of art must be sought elsewhere: "That artworks intervene politically is doubtful; when it does happen, most often it is peripheral to the work. . . . Just how far artworks intervene on a practical level is incidentally determined not only by them but far more importantly by the social moment" (Aesthetic Theory 242).

  4. This leads me to respond to Susan Wolfson’s question about the political role of a visionary poetry: the answer is a moving target, and it will be defined only historically within the ideological modes and even literary forms, like satire, in which particular classes express their aspirations and fears. And the political import will emerge from the real relationship of these aspirations to the actual total historical and social situation, what Lukács called "class consciousness." In the case of Shelley, the dream vision of an aristocrat may perhaps constitute a more incisive political analysis than a ballad about the rebel framebreaker, General Ludd. In fact, peculiar though it may seem, Adorno would probably see the dream vision section of Shelley’s poem as even more subversive than its working-class balladry. (Brecht, who translated this section of Shelley’s "Mask," perhaps thought so.) More subversive because it can envision the oppressed collectively seeing what the visionary sees, the unmasking of anarchy as the rule of monarchy and the death of tyrants on the bloody field of their own creation as the beginning of a new call to class solidarity and courageous resistance: "A sense awakening and yet tender. . . Had turned every drop of blood / By which [Earth’s] face had been bedewed / To an accent unwithstood" (lines 136-37). The call to the "Men of England" that follows is indeed an exhortation not spoken by any agent. It is, rather, a call "unwithstood" because, as Steven Jones has implied, it is the ineluctable voice of the historical moment and opportunity itself (112).

  5. Response
    Adorno was uneasy about Benjamin's theory of the "dialectical image," which he found too cabbalistic, magical, unmediated—too romantic. It is tempting to connect Benjamin's talismanic Angelus Novus with the recurrent angelic shapes in Shelley's poetry, but Shelley's shapes always remain genetically related to the revolutionary figure of Liberty Militant and in the Mask, at least, Shelley's "Shape arrayed in mail" is much less "symbolist" than Benjamin's dialectical images are. As Kipperman deftly suggests in this quotation of Adorno, the Shape is more instrumental and praxis-oriented, a figure of figuration, sure enough, but in the key of Hone and Cruikshank. Shelley's translucent shape means any reader can see through the artifice of the figure—maybe even learn to imagine and project such figures—while still finding it a sufficient inspiration to action.

    True, that voice must be mediated by a poet trapped in his own political commitments, agendas, and privileged status. Adorno warned that literature with an explicit political agenda risks "preaching to the saved" and so loses the autonomy from which it might mount an implicit critique of the social totality from whose economic and power relations art abstains. He is particularly–I think unfairly–hard on Brecht in this regard. Art can become "praxis," he says, only by "renouncing persuasion," working "not by haranguing but by the scarcely apprehensible transformation of consciousness" (Aesthetic Theory 242-43). I recognize the dangers of tendentiousness. However, I find this a too-restrictive view of the genuine historicity of political satire as genre, especially the popular art of the Regency period. As Jones and Michael Scrivener have demonstrated, Shelley’s "Mask" evokes the satiric popular cartoons of the day, in which the unmasking of the powerful is often emblemized by their dispersal by a light or a translucent shape, exactly Adorno’s "scarcely apprehensible transformation of consciousness" that anticipates a new order of "Liberty" (see Jones 113-117; Scrivener 200-210). This invocation of popular iconology grounds his satire not in an ideal realm from which the powerful are merely lampooned but rather within the actual and bloody struggle of the oppressed both to free their understandings and to appropriate for themselves their land, labor, and nation.

  7. The real conflict and contradiction of this poem, then, emerges not from the political potency of words. It is the conflict over the revolutionary violence that might follow the new comprehension and the new demands of the oppressed. The danger is not at all that one particular poem may be politically superfluous; the danger is that Shelley’s "Shape arrayed in mail," imaginary though she may be, allegorizes a moment of new popular consciousness which Shelley’s poem simultaneously participates in, records, and exhorts. As part of a broad popular uprising, Shelley’s poem may be part of a larger and all-too-effective culture of resistance. So Shelley calls for a new assembly, a fantasized repetition of the St. Peter’s field gathering, in which the passive victimization of the protesters is transformed into the passive resistance of fully politicized agents. In prescribing this remedy, Shelley can fantasize himself as revolutionary leader, who, though far from the action, can decree "Let a vast assembly be, / And. . . Declare with measured words that ye / Are. . . free" (lines 295-98). The masses, like their poet leader, will arm themselves with "words" that are "swords" (lines 299-300).

  8. But make no mistake: the poem’s call to non-violence is also a call to resistance, and its treatment of the people as powerful agents is anything but a fantasy. As Jones has put it, the poem "does not merely wish away or dialectically supersede the potential bloodshed and the conflicts it signals; it embodies them in its own structure of images" (110-111). (Adorno: "A successful work, according to immanent criticism, is not one which resolves objective contradictions in a spurious harmony, but one which expresses the idea of harmony negatively by embodying the contradictions, pure and uncompromised, in its innermost structure," "Cultural Criticism" 32.) The remarkable gesture of the poem is the power of definition and of language it shifts to the laboring poor. "What art thou Freedom?" asks the poet. His answer, "For the labourer thou art bread," and "clothes, and fire, and food" grounds and determines Freedom’s other roles as Justice, Wisdom, Peace, and Love in the following stanzas. Clearly, Shelley identifies this as the only class whose interests and ideals are one. In this instance, the poet surrenders his power of metaphor to the material experience of the silent worker. And while the poet may not awaken in the course of the poem, the masses are called upon to 'Rise like lions after slumber' (line 151). The poet directs the masses’ understanding only this far: in allowing them to possess for themselves their own experience of Freedom he reminds them that self-possession precludes vengeful violence. If slavery is "hunger" (line 172) it is also "to feel revenge" (line 193). This warning is an index of the power of self-definition, is predicated upon a sudden accession of assured self-command. And there is no telling what such people might do.

  9. Shelley’s poem, as a sophisticated ballad, may scandalize in its appeal to an unlikely remedy, which exposes the work’s origin in a paralyzed and distant intellectual’s hope to lead a nationalist moral apocalypse. As a ballad and a subversive "masque," however, it is a scandal to literary form and decorum in its analysis of oppression and its attribution of Promethean virtue to the hungry, the homeless, and the despised. Shelley’s allowing the poor to define freedom as bread even anticipates Adorno’s Marxist dictum that all culture begins "in the radical separation of mental and physical work" ("Cultural Criticism" 26). Shelley implicitly critiques his own role and power even while the separation of labor enables this critique. At the same time, from his position of relative autonomy, Shelley can anticipate a harmony of ideal and material experience that scandalizes and should shame the present. As Adorno put it, "just because culture affirms the validity of the principle of harmony within an antagonistic society, albeit in order to glorify that society, it cannot avoid confronting society with its own notion of harmony and thereby stumbling on discord" ("Cultural Criticism" 27).

  10. And what of Shelley’s hope for the moral force of the masses’ protest? Shelley demands that the poor stand upon their urgent material needs not only as a class demand for satisfaction and power but also as a just sign of their self-respect. Self-respect in itself becomes a categorical demand on the community to reciprocate respect. When the illusory "mask" of anarchy falls away, it is the ruler who is the anarch, the victims who stand for the absolute moral order of reciprocal justice. Of course, in appealing to a rule of justice grounded in common interests, Shelley does risk invoking what Adorno warned was a spurious universalism that compromises the believability and effectiveness of committed art–as he charges was the case with Brecht. But even Adorno is aware that ideological practices of an era after the triumph of the bourgeoisie and the descent of a European proletariat into fascism cannot be readily applied to analysis of the early nineteenth century ("Cultural Criticism" 21; 29-30). Adorno’s warnings, we should recall, respond to both the contemporary sense of a capitalism so totalizing as to absorb dissent ("ideology today is society itself," 31), and also to the modernist era’s greatest challenge, the clumsy attempt by bourgeois culture to give human meaning to the horror of Nazism and the Holocaust. He is most astonished at works like Brecht’s Arturo Ui or Chaplin’s The Great Dictator which "become obscene" ("Commitment" 184) when they satirize Nazis as lumpen buffoons. Shelley’s era is not Adorno’s, and his satire is not modernist. We might acknowledge the dangers of the committed art of the intellectual while adjusting our equation of revolutionary force for an era "before Auschwitz," when respect and shame, justice and nationalism, have unsettling (not self-congratulatory) utopian power for lower and middle classes still struggling for power. Shelley evokes the horror of Peterloo as an official act of a threatened elite. This official violence is exposed as a moment in a real crisis of revolutionary class redefinitions (as Nazism after 1933 was not). The idealization and effective satire with which Adorno credits some committed art has a role to play in this case in defining a revolutionary struggle, despite the risks of such intervention posed by Shelley’s own class position and interests.

  11. As for Shelley’s moral/political hope for popular forgiveness of the tyrant and avoiding revenge in the name of nation building, we dare not, even (especially) in our century call this naive. Before a space can be cleared for forgiveness, a circle must be drawn around the murderers and the tyrants, and that clearing may not be bloodless. Shelley, even in his proleptic rush to the ideal and the hoped-for harmonies of civil life, did not overlook this. But he locates the most deadly and persisting violence with the anarchs. Our bloody twentieth century has rolled over millions like a column of tanks in an acrid night. Standing today on the very horizon of the twenty first, we must believe that it is not naive to hope that the terrible, titanic, scandalous labor of forgiveness—the only true, ideal act of civil nation-building—that this is no throwback to the last century’s idealist nationalism but rather a glimmer of light from the next one. It is our utopian anticipation.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. "Commitment." 1965. In Ernst Bloch et al. Aesthetics and Politics. Ed. Ronald Taylor. London: Verso, 1977. 177-94.

---. "Cultural Criticism and Society." 1965. Prisms. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981. 17-34.

---. Aesthetic Theory. Ed. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann. Tr. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997.

Jones, Steven. Shelley’s Satire. Dekalb: Northern Illinois UP, 1994.

Scrivener, Michael. Radical Shelley. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1982.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Ed. Donald Reiman and Sharon Powers. New York: Norton, 1977.

Wolfson, Susan J. Formal Charges: The Shaping of Poetry in British Romanticism. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1997.

Published @ RC

May 2001