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Irony and Clerisy

Alastor, Apostasy, and the Ecology of Criticism

Linda Brigham, Kansas State University


  1. The opposition of life and death, arguably, subordinates other differences—in taste, lifestyle, and politics, for example—however much these might seem like matters of life and death at particular personal or historical moments. Death threats have the capacity to transform effective ideological difference into ideological equivalence. Take the 60s Cold War arms control strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). MAD governed military interactions between the "red" and "free" world superpowers on the principle that neither side would initiate an aggression that would result inevitably in its own annihilation as well as that of the enemy. Making survival the ultimate guarantor of world peace diluted other values, including those on which opposition was supposedly based. The superpower pact with death assimilated politics by pitting nation-states against citizens; the equivalent positions between these states on the one hand and their hostage civilian populations on the other eroded the significance of political difference.

  2. In 1815, Percy Shelley grappled with the effects of a death threat, although largely a false alarm. Misdiagnosed as a consumptive, Shelley, according to Mary Shelley's note about the period, was ordered to change his introspective, indoor, and generally melancholic way of living. The Alastor volume of poetry, published in early 1816, issued from this conflicted period of Shelley's life, and many readers have judged its politics as a quietistic contrast to the outspoken radicalism of Queen Mab. But at least as striking as its difference from Mab is the complex ambivalence internal to the volume.[1] Shelley's collection is a curious mix of equivocation and polemic; the final lines of "Mutability," for example, would certainly sound understimulating to an activist:

    It is the same!—For, be it joy or sorrow,
       The path of its departure still is free:
    Man's yesterday may ne'er be like his morrow;
       Nought may endure but Mutability. (13-16)[2]

    However, "Feelings of a Republican on the Fall of Bonaparte," as the title indicates, is both topical and political, concluding

    That virtue owns a more eternal foe
    Than Force or Fraud: old Custom, legal Crime,
    And bloody Faith the foulest birth of Time. (12-14)
  3. The oscillation between equivocality and political commitment also entangles the critically controversial preface to "Alastor." The preface begins with a descriptive synopsis in which the poem's protagonist is described as "a youth of uncorrupted feelings and adventurous genius," from whose fate the narrator exacts the moral that "the Poet's self-centered seclusion was avenged by the furies of an irresistible passion pursuing him to speedy ruin" (69). But immediately after delivering this lesson the preface breaks into a polemic defending rather than attacking its hapless "luminary." The narrator continues,

    They who, deluded by no generous error, instigated by no sacred thirst of doubtful knowledge, duped by no illustrious superstition, loving nothing on this earth, and cherishing no hopes beyond, yet keep aloof from sympathies with their kind, rejoicing neither in human joy nor mourning with human grief; these, and such as they, have their apportioned curse. (69)

    "These" types are castigated through the rest of the preface, and finally threatened with a "miserable grave" (70). The preface, in other words, swerves into an argument against the detached equivalence expressed by "Mutability," and makes distinctions among the world's losers (who appear to be a variegated everybody "who attempt[s] to exist without human sympathy" [70]), that is, both those deluded by "contemptible" error and those deluded by "generous error." In the world of the dead, it appears, there are good dead and bad dead. Clearly, the preface is ambivalent; the critique of enthusiasm with which the preface begins undermines its polemic, and vice versa. Insofar as Shelley is engaging in argument, his means and ends split off from each other; his first move is similar to MAD's consequentialism; he values effects over worthy intentions, and seems to critique an overrating of ideological matters. But in a second movement, he seems to reverse that emphasis and engage in polemic—leaving the troubling question, if solitude and death are the fate of both enthusiastic pursuit and defensive withdrawal, idealist radicalism and conservative apostasy, what can be the foundation of polemic? Rather than searching for a resolution to this long-familiar inconsistency, in this essay I suggest these contradictions as byproducts of agonistic pressures themselves. "Alastor's" peculiar, sporadic attachment to polemic is the result of a form of argument gone haywire, like the logic of "Live free or die" in a global context of nuclear deterrence.

  4. It might be noted that Shelley's predicament faces all those who risk loosening up the suspicion that has powerfully inflected Romantic studies in the last two decades, signalled by Jerome McGann's provocation, The Romantic Ideology. Ideology critique is not neutral; while it has a major descriptive and explanatory component, concerned with the concealed or repressed processes by which value is conferred on the status quo, the whole point of scrutinizing these processes is lost if "bad" qualities cannot be distinguished from "good," if exploitation cannot be distinguished from neutral production. But ideology critique, because of its dedication to discerning the invisible, has a susceptibility to a hypertrophied anxiety, a paranoia over unaccounted phenomena that tends to the production of equivalences, as I shall further discuss below.[3] We might take paranoia as the hunchback in the puppet described in Walter Benjamin's famous opening to the Theses on the Philosophy of History, an interior dwarf who renders critics, ecstatic mannikins all, as never suspicious enough of themselves, dialectical method notwithstanding. The difficulty of an account of phenomena as totalizing as theories of ideology tend to be, as Benjamin says of "historical materialism," is that "it is to win all the time" (253)—in other words, it is "strong theory."

  5. I take this notion of strong theory from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who takes it from cognitive psychologist Silvan Tomkins.[4] Strong theory refers to a dynamic of interaction between a theory and its environment, both terms taken in a broad sense. In a psychological context, for example, the subject employs "theory" to help regulate contact with the environment in a way that minimizes pain and maximizes pleasure. The fact that Freud tilts his developmental theory primarily towards the former, on the overriding significance of unpleasure, is a symptom of strong theory at work: strong theory tends to be preemptive, organized by the demands of prevention rather than facilitation. The connection of these features to strong theory rests on their responsiveness to feedback: a strategy of pain avoidance, in contrast to pleasure seeking, grows stronger when it fails. In the wake of a failure to ward off pain, the response is to produce a more general theory of wider scope to avoid a repetition of the failure. So failure enhances theory; strong theory grows out of failure (Karl Popper's concept of falsification as the governing process behind the history and progress of science exemplifies this). It is to this dynamic we owe the production of "truth." But—and this point is of primary importance—the dynamic does not work when the object is pleasure-seeking. Pleasure is too local, too particular, too ephemeral, and most important, too delicate; it is too easily deformed by theory itself, as the killing effect of explaining a joke demonstrates. Pleasure seems to require "weak" theory rather than strong.

  6. Thomas Pfau, in his essay for Romanticism and Conspiracy in the Romantic Circles Praxis Series, provided a lucid description of traits constituting a "conspiratorial logic" that seem especially characteristic of Romanticism, traits that Sedgwick, with a different emphasis, discusses in the context of Tomkin's work. Paranoia, that state of being most clearly associated with conspiratorial logic, is indeed a paradigmatic strong theory. Preemptively, it equates potential with fact. As a result it cannot relax before apocalypse, before, that is, the universe has been grasped in its totality. Every novelty, good or bad, is bad in the sense that it represents a breach in surveillance, a vulnerability. This compulsion to full accountability extends to the whole past and the whole future; anything less total permits the disaster of attack. Furthermore, paranoia is mimetic, contagious: it produces a real or metaphorical arms race. As a strong theory, it filters phenomena in terms of hostile potential; in the process, it reduces all "players" to threats or dupes, a reduction that dynamically mediates the deformation of social reality into its fantasmatic orbit. Being regarded as a threat produces a defensiveness that mutates into real threat; being regarded as a dupe forces one, defensively, to wise up to the paranoid's standards. And finally, as theory, paranoia puts all its faith in the exposure of the truth, a self-serving investment, as Pfau points out, that creates a hero of the critic. The critic's work, a complete portrait of the Truth, is also the Good and the Beautiful; there is no other object.

  7. The implications of this approach for criticism in the arts is obviously immense (it is an example of strong theory, I suppose). Essentially, we are talking about an ecology of criticism, a non-linear dynamics of critical causes and effects encompassing the critics themselves (and their products in texts and pedagogies), their domain (both literary and cultural), and "theory" proper. Insofar as criticism by definition is agonistic to a greater or lesser degree, it abounds in defensive structures and their mimetic effects. However, the defensive mimesis that structures critical debate can become exaggeratedly severe—paranoid, that is to say—when literary texts become sites of ideology critique—doubly so for a period when ideology critique itself flourished. Whether it take the classical, analytic method of the Idéologues or the more complex, critically current techniques derived from nineteenth-century German historicism—or whether it follow after Plato's allegory of the cave—ideology critique requires self-critique in tandem with a critique of phenomena, a purportedly therapeutic suspicion of what one might be inclined to take for granted, a keen sense of distinction between appearance and reality, between a conscious self and an unconscious self, an animation behind the animation. Given the consideration—a valuable and necessary consideration—that the relation between appearance and reality is not innocent, that it tends toward an invidious deception, ideology critique needs to remain central to criticism. But there is an excess to its process that also warrants consideration. In an atmosphere where no one can truly be reflexive enough, where there always remain apertures for hegemonic forces to invade and occupy those cultural watchdogs whose very raison d'etre is to exclude such invasions, and where, invariably, some one else finds the weakness of one's position, despite the most disciplined self-surveillance—evidence of the catastrophe of a momentary lapse—under these conditions, opponents, indeed, begin to resemble each other, and straiten the general ecology of criticism. Moreover, such an observation submitted to a paranoid logic can only result in an exacerbation of surveillance. What happens when this becomes the fear? What results from paranoia about paranoia?

  8. Harold Bloom presented a related scenario with quite a different emphasis some time ago in The Anxiety of Influence. Bloom's point was not strong theory, but strong poetry, style that so successfully mastered its engendering conditions that the threat of ventriloquizing the father, so to speak, is overcome. But from a systems standpoint, the anxiety of influence can never be overcome through "strength;" strength as a function of surveilling power only increases the anxiety. The same might be said of many recent arguments based on quite different principles recommending a return to ethics in criticism. Certainly recognition of what criticism does is a valuable addition to the critical obsession with truth, with what is. However, it seems all too easy to incorporate this ethical concern into an increased pressure for self- and other- surveillance that fails to make ethical contexts any more yielding than political-ideological ones. Attention to what Jean-Luc Nancy called the "excription" of meaning, the outside of thought, does not necessarily temper the paranoid bent of critical agonistics (105).

  9. After this excursus on the ecology of criticism, it is with some trepidation that I enter the fray with a critical discussion of "Alastor," a field so brilliantly traversed in the last twenty years. Roughly—quite roughly—this criticism divides along the poles of what Timothy Clark called the "theory of Two Shelleys," presenting either a polemical or a philosophical "Alastor" (4). The first often engages the poem as a response to the apostasy of the first generation Romantics, and the second engages the consistency of the poem itself, often in the context of Shelley's wide reading in literature, philosophy, and politics. Perhaps predictably, I propose to do both of these, but in a specific combination: I engage "Alastor" as a text responsive to an ecology of criticism, subordinating questions of what is true to questions of what the struggle for truth does to an environment that is both ideological and affective, where a poet—in contrast to a political economist, a historian, or a scientist—cannot write by truth alone. Shelley is critically engaged with Wordsworth; however, he is keenly aware that engagement brings with it a dangerous portion of ventriloquizing Wordsworth. Shelley is engaged in systematic philosophy, but reflects on the capacity for both skeptical and positive modes to dilute ideological difference through supervening theory. With these considerations in mind, I take "Alastor" to be hyperbolically paranoid, an exposure of paranoia as exposure, as surveillance, as mimesis. But what I propose to add to this metastasizing of surveillance is the thread of another, different consideration: pleasure. Might we not find in the massively self-reflexive web of the poem something besides strong theory and its discontents?

  10. One of the most productive sites for hyperbolic paranoia is language itself. The difficulty of bending even one's own mental productions to one's desire arises most intimately and immediately from the speed of language; a supposedly prior integrity always dissolves into a temporality that can betray it.[5] Discourse loops into the future and returns, the finished thought sometimes bearing with it unlooked-for contents. Consequence descends so quickly upon intention that the subject must fear the very progress of thought. "Don't think of a rhinoceros"—too late. "Reading this forbidden," says a sign with the official government logo, and the Medusa's stone gaze constitutes an overarching metaphor for the tragic belatedness of knowledge with respect to the powers of surveillance. The self's own future lies in wait for it. Of course, to take the logic of such messages so literally is an extreme response. The structure of the prohibitory examples above is similar to the structure of the famous "liar's paradox," and they generally submit to the same kind of resolution that Lacan brought to the statement "I am lying": a separation of the subject of enunciation from the subject of the statement, a segregation of frames. The enunciating subject, the speaker, refers to something else by the statement, some other utterance as constituting the falsehood in question. But Lacan's deliberate ambiguity in the phrase "subject of enunciation"—both in the sense of the preposition "of" and in the reference of "subject"—also comes to bear on these statements of warning. The frames collude after all, eliminating the gap between cognition and representation, the gap that permits the freedom of imagination. In moments of perverse and paranoid reflection, this freedom seems a false freedom, a freedom whose terms were emitted from beyond an impregnable barrier. On the level of sheer affect, though, there is a vague magical sense of a signifying frontier where the normally perceived relations of signifier to signified yield an element of surprise, where something customarily covered up is revealed. A foretaste of jouissance accompanies this seemingly hypothetical short-circuit.

  11. "Alastor" presents this frame-shattering self-reflexive loop at all levels, from its narrative framework through the minutiae of style. Even a cursory reading of "Alastor" reveals that its respective narrators—an author, a Narrator, and a character—and the character's mental products—interact too closely for simple sequential analysis.[6] And such interaction is familiar; it dramatizes on the level of reading a negative Romantic commonplace, a theme of Bildung and disillusion, the story of the acquisition of a Faustian knowledge that fails to elevate, but instead precipitates catastrophe, and because of this precipitation, contorts the dissemination of knowledge from an ethical imperative into a guilty compulsion. Experience cannot be submitted to communication without contaminating those it sets out to educate, and a similar diegetical contagion plagues "Alastor." The poem's most developed narrative layer consists of the story of the fictional character known only as "the Poet" whose biography a Narrator encloses, and the transferential relationship of the inner narrator to the character explodes the representing/represented binary. This disruption is first of all signalled by surface parallels. The Poet's life consists of distinct phases: gathering an inspiriting knowledge, projecting an imaginary entity, the "veiled maid," losing his creation and falling into inconsolable melancholy. The Narrator's creative experience composes a similar sequence: optimistically petitioning nature in the opening invocation, imagining the Poet, losing the Poet to an untimely death against which the Narrator rails in vain. The effect of transferential repetition is further heightened by the fact that the exposition of these twin courses of narrator and Poet are impossible to disentangle grammatically: it is frequently undecidable whether certain passages tell us about the Narrator or about the subject of the narrative—a breakdown of exemplarity. At its outset, the Poet's journey is vaguely described as a "quest for strange truths in undiscovered lands" (77), a search for novelty. However, whether the desire for novelty is the poet's or the narrator's remains equivocal; the figures that compass the Poet leave in doubt whether we encounter expressions of the Poet's motives or a manner of speaking more indicative of the Narrator. This ambiguity not only suggests representation's inevitable distortion of intention, but also conveys the fact that such distortion is dynamic and reflexive. Poetic creations redound on their creator; identification occurs. The narrator's words, equivocally style or description, seem at once to motivate, relate, and symbolize his object in the overdetermined figurative language with which the Poet's journey is described. The Poet's wandering begins driven by oxymorons: the Poet leaves "His cold fireside and alienated home" (99); attachment to the familiar dies like a flame upon the ashes it produces.

  12. The poet proceeds onwards through extremities of wilderness, passing through ice, volcanoes, gem-filled caves, "making the wild his home" in counterpoint to the home which had wildered him (99). But alongside these overdetermined figures there ensue underdetermined effects. What starts as a flight from the familiar concludes with an arrival at memorials of the forgotten past, in contrast to the uncharted wilderness of the present; the world's horizons have subtly swerved, turning inward. The poet's journey has taken him backwards, not from the familiar to the new, but from the familiar to a hoary and forgotten antiquity. This curvature goes unremarked, as invisible as ideology, as insidious as the grip of the ancien regime upon the post Napoleonic continent, finally terminating at "[t]he awful ruins of the days of old" (108). Shelley's version of the Temple of Dendera temporarily dams the flow of the Poet's thoughts and travels; here "[H]e lingered, poring on memorials of the world's youth" (122). In contrast to the vast panorama of his earlier experience, vision constricts to a singular intense gaze. At the same time, the quest has become a question, an interlocution; the Poet's mode of perception becomes more interactive. The answer to the question is suggestively aural rather than optical, sympathetic vibrations in the midst of an impassive visual screen: the Poet gazed

    And gazed, till meaning on his vacant mind
    Flashed like strong inspiration, and he saw
    The thrilling secrets of the birth of time. (126-128)

    Although the Poet "gazed" and "saw," his objects seem strangely non-visual: "meaning/ Flashed" like "inspiration" (rather than like an object of sight) and "secrets" are "thrilling"—engrossing the ear rather than the eye. Breath and vibration, breaking into this silent visual scene, suggest that something speechlike has happened to the representation of the Poet's desire, in oxymoronic tension with the "mute thoughts on the mute walls around" (120). The poet seems to have acquired a physicality, a complexity, to have gone beyond mere gaze and mere portrait. Again, such a development, equivocally style and plot, suggests at once progress in the Narrator's imagination as well as progress in the narrative. The Poet, by becoming a more fully realized projection, cannot but suggest symbolic maturation. At the same time, though, maturation seems utterly entangled with regression, with a return to origins; progress in Poet and Narrator seem to require starting over, rebirth. Yet time goes on.

  13. This overall equivocality of figurative implication and attribution signals a peculiarly material and sensual relation of thought to itself that becomes most marked at yet another level of the poem. The Poet, initially the inmost layer of the nested imaginary constructs, imagines (or so it seems) a veiled maid, "herself a Poet" (161). As in the case of the narrator and the Poet, the Poet is intertwined with his own imaginative creation. Her singing repeats his journey in miniature; her contemplation moves from tranquillity to passion, from self-sufficiency to excess. Her description changes in focus from the content of her words, "Knowledge and truth... and lofty hopes of divine liberty" (158-159), to the intensified rhythm of her speed: "wild numbers" (163) to the symphony of her own organism: "The eloquent blood... The beating of her heart... her breath" (168-170)—a "thrill" of the body's alterity to itself like that aural thrill the Poet experienced in the Temple of Dendera. This steady increase in awareness of embodiment generates a glow that penetrates her veil, and at the maximum point of physical radiance, as she and the Poet embrace, she disappears. This convergence and divergence has the interactive complexity of weather. The encounter consists of two mutually responsive intersections of experience: the veiled maid's effects on herself, and her effects on the Poet, and the Poet's effects on himself through her meditation and finally his effect on her. She begins calm to herself, veiled to him, passes through a process of excitation that seems entirely self-propelled, yet ultimately propels her towards him, as he moves from registering her voice "like the voice of his own soul / Heard in the calm of thought" (153-54) to a heart "sunk and sickened with excess / Of love" (181-82). But when these paths meet, she passes into the unknown, while he passes into a bottomless melancholy. "Passes," in this description, functions almost as antanaclasis; physical movement and the movement of thought are doubly equivocal. In any case, the overall effect is to heighten the sense of the inevitability of the Poet's investment in the veiled maid, and its inevitable disaster. Desire's relation to thought produces a conundrum of time and space. As long as anticipatory desire remains forever anticipatory, as long as the object of desire seems to lie ahead, the Poet hopes. But such a condition precludes any interaction between bodies; it also precludes the physical reception of the "thrilling secret of the birth of time," where the body's own nature as an alterity to itself produces the compelling vibration. Bodily awakening is an awakening to the otherness of the self within the body, just as ideal awakening is an awakening to the otherness of self in ideas, in representation. Both dispersion and its recoil, the desire for union, exist on two axes, a physical one and a temporal one. But achieving union in one prevents union in another; if the poet wants ideal union, eternity, he cannot embrace his counterpart; if he wants physical union, in space, she can no longer remain ideal. Moreover, the more desire increases—and it does increase along both poles in the process of development—the more the mutual exclusion of the two axes increases the catastrophe of the inevitable choice.

  14. How like the paranoid fatality of Caleb Williams this is, where Godwin's narrator famously introduces his life as "a theatre of calamity." This interpretation insists that the Poet's downfall is unavoidable—not because this assertion is the truth—I do not assert that Shelley held such a view—but because such conditions create the groundwork for strong theory. The Poet's situation ushers in a hyperbolic mode of paranoia where, it seems, no course of action provides a guarantee against corruption. One is not even safe in one's own head. As a strong failure, the Poet's life calls for an extreme and totalizing response. One might find in this hyperbole a response to Wordsworth. Shelley's protagonist outstrips Wordsworth's exemplary failure in The Excursion, the Solitary, whose losses, the deaths and disillusions that have bereft him of faith and hope, are less pure or unavoidable attachments than the more idealized Poet in Shelley's poem. The argumentative strategy of The Excursion is a form of means-extremes: the Wordsworthian Wanderer is able to coopt the Solitary's losses by sympathetically presenting imagined losses much greater, by presenting disillusions much more justified, than those of his opponent. If faith is possible under more perverse conditions than the Solitary's, the argument goes, then it is possible for the Solitary himself. Shelley engages Wordsworth in a means-extremes strategy as well by making his Poet a more far-travelled and uncorrupted figure than either the Wanderer or the Solitary. The blasting disillusion of the Poet outdoes the downfall of the Solitary in sheer megatonnage—at least in terms of the logic of argument.

  15. But if Shelley addresses the ecology of criticism rather than just engages in polemic, as I claim here, the point is not about winning or losing the arms race—and bringing about as a result of mimetic defensiveness an equivocation of ideological difference. The next stage of Shelley's poem consists of response to loss. In The Excursion, the Solitary has responded to his misfortunes with a form of strong theory that he ultimately cannot endure. After praising the Epicureans and Stoics, the Solitary emphatically agrees with their guiding principles, asserting

    As the prime object of a wise man's aim,
    Security from shock of accident,
    Release from fear; and cherished peaceful days
    For their own sakes, as mortal life's chief good,
    And only reasonable felicity. (III.362-366)

    Yet he cannot set up a surveillance apparatus that filters his memory effectively enough to prevent compelling images of the past from intruding. The Wanderer responds to the Solitary by providing a stronger theory, a more totalizing theory, recommending that the Solitary identify with the omnipotent power for whom alone total surveillance is possible. Projection of and identification with God not only make slaves of His creators, as Shelley so often claimed, these processes also facilitate a kind of paranoia by proxy, imputing to a supreme being a total explanation for everything that can never suffer ultimate refutation—as Shelley demonstrated in his Refutation of Deism.

  16. So what does Shelley do? His Poet's response, at least initially, like the luminary of the preface, and unlike the Solitary's or the Wanderer's, or, in the Preface, the "morally dead," makes a strong theory of pleasure-seeking—an impossibility. His theoretical adaptation does not consist of a correction of his own sensibility, is not a regret that he has been naive, and felt too much, or hoped too much, but, instead, it consists of return to an impossible threshold, an impossible convergence of mind and body. The poet, like the Solitary, has made an error of projection, but since he relates his error to the disappearance of pleasure, no ideological solution can offer solace; the rigidity of concepts deforms pleasure. Pleasure, it appears, is not portable in ideas the way philosophy is. As the regressive journey of the Poet suggests, he demands nothing less than a backwards movement in time. And in some respects, he becomes aware of the implications of his demand. In a passage following the encounter with the mysterious beckoning spirit of the well, the Poet reflects (only the second instance of direct discourse in the poem),

               "O stream!
    Whose source is inaccessibly profound,
    Whither do thy mysterious waters tend?
    Thou imagest my life. Thy darksome stillness,
    Thy dazzling waves, thy loud and hollow gulphs,
    Thy searchless fountain, and invisible course
    Have each their type in me: and the wide sky,
    And measureless ocean may declare as soon
    What oozy cavern or what wandering cloud
    Contains thy waters, as the universe
    Tell where these living thoughts reside, when stretched
    Upon thy flowers my bloodless limbs shall waste
    I'the passing wind!" (502-514)

    The poet recognizes here a thermodynamic barrier to the retention of any complex state. His thoughts, like the waters of the stream seeming to compose an integral body, do not remain integrated through time, any more than his body does. Attaining a prior condition of thought amounts to attempting to recreate the stream by retroducing it from individual molecules in the ocean or clouds.

  17. A strong theory of pleasure is for related reasons a contradiction in terms. Strong theory responds to failure by taking in more phenomena, by increasing its scope and generality. But the reductive consequences of generality and scope by definition destroy a form of affect that depends to some degree on an unplumbed complexity and alterity, on surprise. After the encounter with the veiled maid, awakening to a world that now seems a dead reflection of a vibrant reality, the Poet laments, "Alas! alas! / Were limbs, and breath, and being intertwined / Thus treacherously?" (207 209). It is no coincidence that the intertwining of alterities is in the process of becoming a dominant stylistic motif in the poem's over-long denouement. The prevailing figure becomes, in contrast to the opening oxymorons, the repeated image of the Aeolian lyre, an interactive image, a convergence of distinct entities as opposed to a conflictual divergence—but nonetheless, with little of the positive effects one might expect to proceed from such a social figure. Beginning with the "thrilling secrets of the birth of time" (emphasis mine), the frequency of the lyre metaphor becomes marked; moreover, the components of the lyre move progressively from psychic interior to physical exterior. The Poet becomes part of a whole beyond the scope of his own consciousness:

               his scattered hair
    Sered by the autumn of strange suffering
    Sung dirges in the wind .... (248-50)

    The image dominates descriptions of the natural ecology: "The breeze murmuring in the musical woods" (403), and

               black gulphs and yawning caves,
    Whose windings gave ten thousand various tongues
    To the loud stream... (548-50)
  18. But this interactive complexity fails to impress the Poet about the present, in contrast to its capacity to impress him about the future, as his meditation on the hydrological cycle shows. Instead, the Poet's emblem becomes the image of a lone pine that converts the wild spectrum of the winds to a single note:

               A pine
    Rock-rooted, stretched athwart the vacancy
    Its swinging boughs, to each inconstant blast
    Yielding only one response.... (561-64)

    As was true of the hydrologic cycle, this acoustical phenomenon is worth a brief digression. The pine is an extraordinary freak of nature, structured and positioned with such precision that it performs a very unlikely reduction, the inverse, actually, of the desired effect of the Aeolian lyre, whose appeal arises from its wide range of response to minute changes in the wind. The pine is a singular mechanism of agile translation, converting an extraordinarily various input into one-dimensional output, and in this respect registers the obsessive monotonizing force of a totalizing truth, and anticipates the reduction at the end of the poem upon the Poet's death, where the Narrator asserts, "Hope and despair / The torturers slept..." (639-640). This final equivocation accompanies the setting of the crescent moon below the horizon, and underscores the symbolism in the decline of a merely apparent duality, the moon's two "lessening points" of light, into a unifying darkness. The slow demise of the Poet, then, seems to echo the final stanza of "Mutability": "It is the same!"

  19. Yet this reduction, reproducing itself in the retiring "simple strain" of the Narrator's closing elegy, hardly does justice to other forms of alterity that haunt the poem. The Poet keeps producing doubles, unwittingly disseminating himself through the sympathy he commands.[7] The most obvious example of the Poet's effects beyond his awareness is the impression he leaves on the Arab woman whose unnoticed ministrations immediately precede the Poet's dream of the veiled maid; the Arabian, in an trance of unrequited love, gazes upon him as he sleeps. This dimension of the Poet's existence remains unknown to the Poet, but the narrator marks it strongly: the most striking transition in "Alastor" is the "Meanwhile" that segues from the climactic moment of intellectual enlightenment in the Temple of Dendera to "an Arab Maiden brought his food/ Her daily portion..." (129-130). Just fifty lines before the Poet's catastrophic loss of his imaginary love, the Narrator describes this "real" woman, "Made pale by the pale moon, to her cold home/ Wildered, and wan, and panting, she returned" (137-39), anticipating what the Poet will momentarily become.

  20. Critics have sometimes taken the Poet's inadequate awareness here as an indication of a moral flaw. However, to condemn such a lapse of surveillance is, in effect, to indict the lone pine for its lack of responsiveness to the many winds. The alterity of the Arab woman to the Poet's consciousness is a contingent one, morally unaccountable—and the critical move investing responsibility for that alterity in a single agent is a paranoid and totalizing one. Two kinds of alterity collude and recoil through the poem. One, including the Arabian, is natural, the alterities that relate to the nature of the universe, to sexuality, to the limitations of awareness, alterities that defy accountability because of a combination of physical limitation and sheer complexity. The loss produced by this alterity can only find its remedy in forgetting, as Wordsworth's Solitary asserted. Moreover, forgetting, insofar as it concerns the experience in question with all its complexity, has in a strict sense already happened. But this irretrievable experience leaves a residue like the "ghastly presence" of "Oh! There are spirits of the air," the poem in the Alastor volume supposedly addressed to Coleridge. This residue marks the mind like a memory, but it is a changeling, or in Jerrold Hogle's language, a transposition, not a memory at all. Its transformation from an unrememberable complex to a seemingly remembered idea ushers in the second alterity, the alterity that persists as such and continually energizes an urge to union—the urge behind a pursuit that is really the pursuit of pleasure, but has become transformed by fixation on a projection, becoming as a result a pursuit of an idea, a form of totality. This ghostly pursuit constitutes the dark side of sympathy—an important topic I can only sketch briefly here.

  21. In "Alastor," sympathy and paranoia support each other, pursuing and pursued. Shelley's address to Wordsworth's apostasy is not simply a matter of outflanking the elder poet, nor is it a case of capitulating to a more established literary style and taste, or indeed to his own disappointed admiration. Instead, it is a troubled and uncertain withdrawal from the mimetic closure of defensive polemic and sympathetic attachment—for the sake of something aesthetic. Wordsworth's overt ideological engagements in The Excursion express not only a politics Shelley rejected, but also, in his view, a poetic decline, and several critics have noted in "Alastor" an allegory of that decline. Pursuing a sympathy that became too ideal, Wordsworth neglected what the Preface to The Lyrical Ballads asserted as the chief function of poetry: the communication of pleasure. The dynamic of sympathy threatens to assimilate the rich complexity of poetry to other, more ideological disciplines. Lisa Steinman has pointed out the significance of the 1799 poem, "A Poet's Epitaph" to the Alastor volume, and this intertext provides important clues about the indirect relation of poetry to "truth" in terms of Shelley's conception of his own work. "A Poet's Epitaph," after dismissing the sensibilities of various professionals—politicians, scientists, moralists, and so forth, recommends in their place the poet, who is "weak," "an idler," "contented if he might enjoy / The things which others understand" (53, 54, 55-56). These seemingly pejorative descriptions, descriptions of an ineffectuality (to allude to Arnold's term) that contemporary admirers of Shelley have long labored against, could well be arresting to a sensibility as system-obsessed as Shelley's—and our own—in the context of a critical ecology. If there exists a vehicle for the preservation of pleasure, it is poetry. And poetry can be political precisely because it enjoins pleasure, and subverts the mimetically accelerating hostility of totalizing systems. Surely this cannot be entirely antithetical to the goals of ideological criticism.

    Notes

    1 Neil Fraistat refers to the Alastor volume as "an elaborate balancing act" in his illuminating discussion of Shelley's assembly of the collection, 181.

    2 References to "Mutability" and "Alastor" are taken from Shelley's Poetry and Prose (1977); "Feelings of a Republican and the Fall of Bonaparte" and "Oh! There are spirits of the air" from The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1921).

    3 McGann cites a description of this invisibility in Pierre Macherey's memorable simile: "Like a planet revolving around an absent sun, an ideology is made out of what it does not mention; it exists because there are things which must not be spoken of" (91).

    4 Sedgwick outlines the relevance of Tomkin's notion of "strong theory" in the context of literary criticism in her introduction to Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction, 1-26. The main points of my summary are indebted to her account.

    5 For a superb discussion of the effect of speed in Shelley's style, see William Keach's study, Shelley's Style, 154-183.

    6 Tilottama Rajan has helpfully expressed this opposition as "epipsychic" and "episodic," 92.

    7 I have taken this phrase from John Rieder, who uses it as a suggestive echo of Adam Smith's definition of value as "labor commanded," 280-281, expressing, as I do, a suspicion of the operation of sympathy in "Alastor."

    Works Cited

    Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken, 1968.

    Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1997.

    Clark, Timothy. Embodying Revolution: The Figure of the Poet in Shelley. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989.

    Fraistat, Neil. "Poetic Quests and Questionings in Shelley's Alastor Collection." Keats-Shelley Journal 33 (1984): 161-181.

    Hogle, Jerrold E. Shelley's Process: Radical Transference and the Development of His Major Works. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

    Keach, William. Shelley's Style. New York: Methuen, 1984.

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

    Nancy, Jean-Luc. "Our History." Rev. of Wartime Journalism, 1939-1943, by Paul de Man, and Responses: On Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism, ed. Werner Hamacher, Neil Hertz, and Thomas Kennen. Diacritics 20.3 (1990): 97-115.

    Pfau, Thomas. "Bringing About the Past: Prophetic Memory in Kant, Godwin, and Blake." Romanticism and Conspiracy. Romantic Circles Praxis Series (August 1997).

    Rajan, Tilottama. "The Web of Human Things: Narrative and Identity in Alastor." The New Shelley: Later Twentieth-Century Views. Ed. G. Kim Blank. London: Macmillan, 1991. 85-107.

    Rieder, John. "Description of a Struggle: Shelley's Radicalism on Wordsworth's Terrain." Boundary 2 13 (1985): 267-287.

    Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky, ed. Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction. Durham: Duke UP, 1997.

    Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Shelley's Poetry and Prose. Ed. Donald H. Reimand and Sharon B. Powers. New York: Norton, 1977

    ---. The Complete Poetic Words of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Ed. Thomas Hutchinson. London: Oxford UP, 1921.

    Steinman, Lisa M. "'These Common Woes': Shelley and Wordsworth." The New Shelley: Later Twentieth-Century Views. Ed. G. Kim Blank. London: Macmillan, 1991. 64-82.

    Wordsworth, William. Wordsworth: Poetical Works. rev. ed. Ed. Ernest de Selincourt. London: Oxford UP, 1969.


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Romantic Circles / Praxis Series / Irony and Clerisy / Brigham, "Alastor, Apostasy, and the Ecology of Criticism"

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August 1999

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