10 August 2008
Dear Professor Jones,
You have asked me to submit the results of my inquiry on the relationship between education and the sublime; and I am both moved and challenged by the invitation. The challenges of such an undertaking are, of course, considerable: on the face of it, nothing seems less “teachable” than the sublime. This is not to say that the writings of Longinus or Burke or Kant, for all their considerable difficulty, are not eminently teachable. And closer to us, the texts of Weiskel or Hertz or de Man remain indispensable not only to the scholarship of Romanticism but to its instruction as well. Moreover, the literature of the sublime–literary representations of the sublime as well as the literature that achieves sublimity–has long claimed a privileged position in the Romantic canon. And I would side with those who contend that, structurally speaking, the Romantic sublime remains the limit case for discourses of infinitude. Thus, in theory, the sublime should be no more or less challenging to teach than other topics in philosophical aesthetics.
But there is an important difference, of course, between teaching theories or representations of the sublime and teaching the aesthetic experience we judge to be sublime. The former can be presented with the critical rigor afforded to other forms of literary studies, such as narratology, literary history, or even the analysis of tropes and figures. But with the experience of the sublime, it is impossible to determine whether or not one can succeed in its teaching, since no examination could be devised to demonstrate that success short of that which could replicate the experience. Nor is it clear whether it would be pedagogically responsible to profess the sublime, even if we knew how to do such a thing. A sublime experience, after all, would be “pre-critical,” and what pedagogy worthy of the name would aspire to that?
At the same time, I have always felt that there was something sterile and punitive—puritanical even—about a critical knowledge of the aesthetic categories of the beautiful and the sublime which disallows access to their sensory manifestations. Even Schiller declared that it was necessary for “the understanding to destroy the objects of the inner sense before it can appropriate them;” but he was referring to the task of the philosopher and not the teacher. So, I will confess that in the pragmatic situation of instruction I have found myself forced back onto the force of examples. In the first instance, these are examples drawn not from Romantic literature or culture but–and this assumes for the moment that such experiences and judgments are not historically restricted–from cognate versions in more contemporary literature, film, music, painting. In other words, one might not only present Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue or Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa to illustrate and, indeed, to prompt the feelings of the sublime, but John Coltrane’s live 1967 recording in Stockholm of “My Favorite Things,” or the original Velvet Underground studio version of “Heroin,” or Patti Smith’s “Horses,” or Cormac McCarthy’s depiction of the Comanche attack on an American military expedition in Blood Meridian, or the account of Port’s death in Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, or Jorie Graham’s “What the End is For,” or Cy Twombly’s sprawling “Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor,” or Maria Falconetti’s ecstatic performance in Carl Dreyer’s Passion of Jean D’Arc, or the dizzying entirety of Wong Kar-Wei’s 2046.
I list a handful of examples over which I claim at least minimal classroom competence and through which I have achieved modest classroom success in order to stress both the pedagogical possibilities and dead-ends posed by an individual’s catalogue of sublime judgments. On the one hand, these examples fulfill an important pedagogical function in the teaching of the sublime insofar as they represent formally and thematically the aesthetic judgment they elicit. But elicit for whom? The examples I have cited also demonstrate how quickly this can deteriorate into an idiosyncratic “playlist,” more an index of individual “taste” (in the more restricted, colloquial, Nic Hornsby sense of that term) than a foray into the experience of the sublime. On the other hand, when in the classroom we point out the canonical examples of the natural scenes that have been said to evoke the sublime from Longinus and Lucretius through Kant and the Romantics—“Bold, overhanging, and, as it were, threatening rocks,” “thunderclouds piled up to the vault of heaven,” “volcanoes in their violence of destruction,” the boundless ocean,” etc.—we effectively dispense with the singularity of the aesthetic experience that is supposed to accompany such judgments. “There are numberless beautiful things in nature,” says Kant, “about which we can assume and even expect, without being widely mistaken, the harmony of everyone’s judgment with our own. But in respect of our judgment upon the sublime in nature, we cannot promise ourselves so easily the accordance of others” (104). Perhaps nowhere more than in the pedagogical situation does the insistent aporia which no aesthetic judgment, sublime or otherwise, can elude–namely, the aporia between singularity and universal communicability–assert itself most dramatically. And is it not the case that universal communicability is as much the premise as the goal of a democratic education? Is Kant not thinking pedagogically in the Third Critique when he immediately goes on to suggest that “a far greater culture, as well of the aesthetical judgment as of the cognitive faculties which lie at its basis, seems requisite in order to be able to pass judgment on this peculiarity of natural objects [i.e. their sublimity]” (104)?
Can we teach the sublime without working to identify, if not cultivate, the capacities of aesthetic discrimination in our students and ourselves? Can it be achieved without the force of example? It is certainly the case that my efforts in the classroom to identify exemplary contemporary works of art which elicit the experience of the sublime deliver such scenes of instruction to the diexis of distinction: I point out works which appear to achieve the status of the sublime by pointing at them. And I point at as many of them as possible in order that at least one of them will point out for my students what occurs in the sublime. As such, this form of exercise might serve as a prologue to a more sustained inquiry of those texts that one need not simply point out and point at, but where one can engage the workings–the formal and rhetorical components, as it were—of a sublime experience and judgment. They might best serve, in other words, as a prologue to reading. In the particular literary tradition which we profess, I know of no text which better invites this inquiry–what we might call a reading that opens onto a teaching—than one of the extraordinary poems Percy Shelley wrote during the summer of 1816, “Mont Blanc.” And I wonder whether it is the Kantian impulse that prompts me to teach “Mont Blanc” alongside and by way of comparison with “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” that other great poem on the workings of the aesthetic written during that decisive summer?
If the “Hymn” sets up the problem of the sublime by teaching us how beauty works, it does so in the beginning through its own catalogue of examples, by pointing out five instances of its effects or, more precisely, its likenesses (“moonbeams,” “hues and harmonies of evening,” “clouds in starlight widely spread,” “memory of music fled,” and, finally, “aught” itself).
The awful shadow of some unseen Power
Floats though unseen amongst us,—visiting
This various world with as inconstant wing
As summer winds that creep from flower to flower.–
Like moonbeams that behind some piny mountain shower,
It visits with inconstant glance
Each human heart and countenance:
Like hues and harmonies of evening,—
Like clouds in starlight widely spread,—
Like memory of music fled,—
Like aught that for its grace may be
Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery. (1-12)
But what do we learn from these examples? If Shelley’s poem teaches us to read the examples it points at, we learn nothing. Beauty’s very “spirit” is its transience, its fleeting impermanence; its rhetorical mode is that of the simile. The “awful shadow” of the spirit of “BEAUTY” “visits” us and leaves us; what these visitations leave us—at least those of us who reside in this “dim vast vale of tears”—is the vacancy and desolation of fugitive semblances which we recognize only in their passing. If the first four of these similes convey sensory manifestations–what we might characterize as the experience of the blur or the trace–the last of them belongs to a different register entirely. The shadow of beauty’s spirit comes and goes “Like aught that for its grace may be / Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery” (11-12), in other words, like anything that possesses beauty’s own “grace” and “mystery,” the very features which make it dear and dearer. Beauty’s transitivity reveals itself in this collusion of tenor and vehicle, leaving us with this concluding “aught,” this anything whatsoever, which is also nothing in particular. Both the “Power” of Beauty and its “awful shadow” remain “unseen amongst us”: they are nothing we could point at.
If the mediations and complexities of these lines are scarcely unusual for Shelley, the extent of their disarticulations is unexpected in a poem which sounds so lovely. If beauty’s “light alone” (32) “Gives grace and truth to life’s unquiet dream” (36)–grace and truth as gifts bestowed upon the world by beauty–this happens “like” “music by the night wind sent / Through strings of some still instrument” (33-34). This is the poem’s aesthetics and its poetics: indeed, it is its aestheticist poetics. The poem teaches us the charms and seductions of the aesthetic experience which, through the manifold instances of its appearance, it tries to name and deliver. In an essay called “’Frail Spells: Shelley and the Irony of Exile,” I suggest that the Hymn’s undoing of the “frail spells” of “God and ghosts and Heaven” relies upon the quasi-theological charms of the aesthetic, particularly given the conversion experience “in which the eruption of an ecstatic ‘shriek’– ‘I shrieked and clasped my hands in extasy’–prompts the declaration of poetic vows.” And while Shelley’s “spirit of Beauty” is forever elusive as presence, it is nonetheless a “Power,” a force which insists. And it is the insistence, even the magnitude of this force that makes the distinctions between theology and aesthetics difficult to maintain.
But consider in this context what one of our own most rigorous contemporary theologians of the beautiful, David Bentley Hart, has to say on what beauty means:
Whatever “beauty” means is grasped only by analogy, by constant exposure to countless instances of its advent, and through constant and continuous revision (this because, in theological terms, God is the “primary analogate” to whom beauty is ascribed); and in the more radically ontological sense, that beauty is not some property discretely inherent in particular objects, but indwells the analogical relationship of all thing. (18)
Hart says that this is what “’beauty’ means,” and yet I think it is more to the point of his own argument to say that this is what and how beauty teaches: by the making of analogies, “by constant exposure to countless instances of its advent,” beauty instructs us about the “primary analogate,” what Hopkins would call “God’s better beauty, grace.” If for the Shelley of the “Hymn,” “beauty” is also “grasped only by analogy,” by “countless instances of its advent,” the radicality of Shelley’s conception of beauty is that the countless instances of its advent occur in likeness without “primary analogate,” which would be but another of Shelley’s “frail spells.” The teaching of beauty in the “Hymn” is the teaching of an aestheticism.
If the poem teaches us that lesson, it does so in part because nestled within the hymn is the autobiography of an aesthetic education: it is an education of beauty which, once learned, makes this poet’s beautiful singing possible. The story is told in the fifth and sixth stanzas of the hymn as the poem introduces its speaker and moves to the first person and, temporarily, to the past tense. It is at first what in “On Life” Shelley describes as an “education of error”; but here the teaching that must be unlearned is more noxious than mere error. Indeed, it qualifies as superstition: “I called on poisonous names with which our youth is fed; / I was not heard–I saw them not–” (53-54). Lucretius would have identified and celebrated this process as the freeing of the mind “from the narrow bonds of religion,” those “frail spells” dispelled by the hymn itself. It is in the resulting blankness, the vacancy produced by this unlearning, that the activity of thought (“musing deeply on the lot / Of life” (55-56) at just the right moment (“at that sweet time when winds are wooing / All vital things” (56-57) prepares the poet for the event of the “sudden” and decisive “falling” of the “shadow” of beauty.
Alain Badiou would no doubt say that this narrative of beauty’s descent is formally and thematically nothing more than the “frail” but persistent “spell” of romanticism itself. It is, after all, this very romanticism from which Badiou seeks at last to deliver us in order for philosophy to bestow its gift of truth:
What is romanticism? . . . Art is the descent of the infinity of the Ideal into the finitude of the work. The artist, elevated by genius, is the sacrificial medium of this descent. This is a transposition of the Christian schema of the incarnation: the genius lends Spirit the forms it has mastered so that the people may recognize its own spiritual infinitude in the finitude of the work. Since in the end it’s the work that bears witness to the incarnation of the infinite, romanticism cannot avoid making the work sacred… What we are calling “romanticism” is an aesthetic religion. (Cent 154).
Is this “aesthetic religion” but another name for aestheticism? Can a hymn sung to the “Spirit of BEAUTY” “avoid making the work sacred”? Shelley’s poem seems to confirm Badiou’s account readily enough when, in the sixth stanza, the speaker recounts the “vows” he made to beauty, the solemn promise and engagement to devote himself to a life guided by the forms and figures, the shadows and phantoms of beauty: “I vowed that I would dedicate my powers / To thee and thine” (61-62). And as the poem re-establishes itself in the present tense, it performs in the middle of its sixth stanza a passionate and tearful renewal of that vow, echoing while displacing the earlier “call” “on poisonous names”:
With beating heart and streaming eyes, even now
I call the phantoms of a thousand hours
Each from his voiceless grave: they have in visioned bowers
Of studious zeal or love’s delight
Outwatched with me the envious night–
They know that never joy illumed my brow
Unlinked with hope that thou wouldst free
This world from its dark slavery,
That thou–O awful LOVELINESS,
Wouldst give what’er these words cannot express. (64-72).
Given the poem’s overt deployment of what Badiou calls the “Christian schema,” I doubt that Shelley’s painstaking discrimination between the nature and the effects of “the phantoms of a thousand hours” and the “poisonous names with which our youth is fed” would satisfy the French philosopher that the performance of this hymn to “O awful LOVELINESS” constitutes anything more than the positing of an “aesthetic religion.” But for the topic at hand it is certainly worth noting that Shelley’s speaker stresses how the phantoms he addresses have “outwatched” with him “the envious night” “in visioned bowers / Of studious zeal or love’s delight,” “visioned bowers” of love or learning. These are phantoms–not unlike those “glorious phantoms” promised by “England in 1819”–whose knowledge points the way not only to beauty but to its inherent “link” or “bond” with the hope of freedom from “dark slavery.” To those who join Shelley in opposing what in another context he identified as “the advocates of injustice and superstition,” the “worship” of the spirit of beauty and its sensory manifestations (“every form containing thee”) spells for “all human kind” the binding hope of universal love.
At Chickering Hall in New York, on January 9, 1882, Oscar Wilde delivered his first public lecture in the United States to a packed house, at least some of which must have been looking on with “studious zeal and love’s delight.” Wilde titled the lecture “The English Renaissance of Art,” the term he bestowed on what he was identifying as “our romantic movement.” “I call it our English Renaissance,” says Wilde, “because it is indeed a new birth of man, like the great Italian Renaissance of the fifteenth century, in its desire for a more gracious and comely way of life, its passion for beauty, new forms of art, new intellectual and imaginative enjoyments” (2). If Wilde believes this new English Renaissance to be “a new birth of man,” it is not what we would identify these days as the “dominant” or “hegemonic” cultural tradition; it is, rather, much closer to what we would call “counter-cultural,” this “romantic movement” which begins with Shelley and Keats and which claims Wilde as one of its own. It is “ours,” he declares to this audience of potential initiates: it belongs to those aesthetic conspirators who find themselves hailed as one of “ours.” Wilde judges “our romantic movement” to be that which finds its true measure in the “great Italian Renaissance of the fifteenth century” in part “because it is our most recent expression of beauty” (2)–the site of beauty’s own most contemporary manifestation–and in part “because it is the source for what he characterizes as “the two most vital tendencies of the nineteenth century”:
The two most vital tendencies of the nineteenth century–the democratic and pantheistic tendency and the tendency to value life for the sake of art–found their most complete and perfect utterance in the poetry of Shelley and Keats who, to the blind eyes of their own time, seemed to be as wanderers in the wilderness, preachers of vague or unreal things. (23)
Not only are aestheticism and democracy the “two most vital tendencies” of the age, they are “uttered” in their “most complete and perfect” form by the poems of Shelley and of Keats, these animating but unapprehended “spirits” of their own age who teach as “wanderers in the wilderness, preachers of vague or unreal things.”
With these last phrases, Wilde might as well have been characterizing himself as he embarked on his lecture tour of America, “wandering” westward with his aesthetic teaching of the “vague or unreal thing” of beauty itself. Wilde undertakes to teach us what Shelley has taught him: “Love art and all the things will be given to you.” Dedicate yourself solely to “awful LOVELINESS,” make good on your vows to beauty in all of its forms, and the hope of freedom will come to you as your gift. But if in Shelley as in Wilde beauty gives us an aestheticist education, can the same be said for the sublime? Just what does the mountain teach?
When I assign “Mont Blanc” to my students, I find that it is the poem’s formal, rhetorical, and epistemological difficulty that makes it so “teachable,” particularly when we can be equipped with the resources of the extraordinary scholarship that has been bestowed on us by such distinguished Romanticists as William Keach, or Jerrold Hogle, or, above all, Earl Wasserman. Whether we teach the poem as a paradigmatic example of the attempt to represent in poetic language an object which presents itself as sublime, or as an epistemological riddle which tests the limits of skepticism, or as an ethico-poetic engagement with the otherness of materiality, or as the performance of a radical experimentation in form and figure, or as all of the above and all at the same time, “Mont Blanc” is likely to elicit in every serious teacher as well as student a “pleasure” that emerges only indirectly and only by way of the alternating feelings of attraction and repulsion. The agitation, the restlessness that the poem both invokes and provokes in students and teachers alike is best described as a species of negative and negating—or, closer to Shelley’s idiom, “vacating”—pleasure which will result in something like sheer astonishment if not deep admiration. In other words, we are likely to experience and judge the poem to be “sublime.” Try as one might to resist it (and there are many good ideological if not pedagogical reasons to try), I cannot imagine a genuine engagement with the poem which can ultimately escape the problematic of the sublime, even if that critical tradition is not explicitly engaged and even if the word “sublime” never appears as such. Indeed, Shelley’s poem does not merely invoke or refer to the sublime: it insists upon it.
But exactly where is the sublime in the poem? Is it Mont Blanc itself, not referred to by name until the middle of part III, where “far, far above, piercing the infinite sky,” it “appears,—still, snowy, and serene” (60-61)? Is it “the everlasting universe of things” with which the poem opens? Is it the “Power”—what Kant calls Macht —that appears three times in the poem, in the first instance as semblance, “in likeness of the Arve”(16)? Is it that abstract force which stands removed from the mutability of natural existence and human history, the “Power” which “dwells apart in its tranquility / Remote, serene, and inaccessible” (96-97)? Is this same “Power” made into a more or less viable candidate for sublimity when we note that in the version of the poem included in the Scrope Davies Notebook, Shelley actually wrote “sublime” before amending it to “serene” when preparing it for publication? Is the sublime located in the poem’s final section, where power is no longer rendered “in likeness” or abstraction but deictically as the defining feature or property of the mountain: “Mont Blanc yet gleams on high:—the power is there” (127)? Is it “there” in the poem, where the speaker points at the gleaming to the place he cannot see (“none beholds them there”), that power finds “its home,” a “there” which can never be a here (11.132, 136)?
Of course, the word “sublime” does appear once in the final version of the poem published in The History of a Six Weeks’ Tour where it is used as an adjective to describe the feeling of a “trance” brought on by the experience of gazing not at the mountain but at the “Ravine of Arve”:
Thou art pervaded with that ceaseless motion,
Thou art the path of that unresting sound–
Dizzy Ravine! And when I gaze on thee
I seem as in a trance sublime and strange
To muse on my own separate phantasy,
My own, my human mind, which passively
Now renders and receives fast influencings,
Holding an unremitting interchange
With the clear universe of things around; (32-40)
This lone explicit invocation of the condition of sublimity was a late addition. In the Scrope Davies Notebook, Shelley’s speaker seems “as in a vision deep & strange”; and Michael O’Neill seems quite right when he says that “’vision’ may seem profounder than ‘trance,’ but ‘sublime’ claims to have access to a quality of apprehension not aimed at by ‘deep’” (619). Visions and trances are often synonymous for Shelley–explicitly so at the beginning of The Triumph of Life, for instance–and the substitution of “sublime” for “deep” does elevate what O’Neill carefully calls the “quality of apprehension” invoked by the experience. And in a Kantian register, when Shelley’s speaker emphatically and apostrophically attributes dizziness to the ravine, he allegorizes (performs and demonstrates) the “subreption” which is constitutive of a judgment of the sublime: “the feeling of the sublime in nature is respect for our own vocation, which we attribute to an Object of nature by a certain subreption” (96). Moreover, as the passage follows the “path of that unresting sound,” that “ceaseless motion” from ravine to mind, it seems yet again to offer an instructional guide to Kant’s account of the sublime:
The mind feels itself set in motion [bewegt] in the representation of the sublime in nature; whereas in the aesthetic judgment upon what is beautiful therein it is restful contemplation. This movement … may be compared with a vibration, i.e. with a rapidly alternating repulsion and attraction produced by one and the same Object. The point of excess for the imagination . . . is like an abyss in which it fears to lose itself. (97)
I would venture both here and in the classroom that Kant’s representations of the sublime are not merely those which “Mont Blanc” is also representing “as the poets do,” but that Kant gives us both a name for and an account of the aesthetic experience that is taking place in the poem itself.
Michael Palmer, perhaps the most Shelleyan poet of our generation, has described how for the poets of his own generation, “Shelley was a poet under several erasures,” most immediately the “prohibitions of the modernists”: “Shelley’s difficult and audacious juxtaposing of (at his best) precise physical detail with philosophical rumination ran counter to the entire economy of modernism” (201). I know of no reader to have surpassed Earl Wasserman in pointing out and working through the philosophical questions and traditions dramatized in and by “Mont Blanc.” Wasserman not only taught generations of readers schooled on the “prohibitions of the modernists” to take Shelley seriously as a poet; he taught them how to understand the “difficult and audacious juxtaposition” of “precise physical detail with philosophical rumination” and nowhere more powerfully than in his account of what he calls the “artistry” and “poetic intensity” of “Mont Blanc.” We recall, of course, that Wasserman takes the title of The Subtler Language from Shelley’s own account in The Revolt of Islam of the effects of “a subtler language within language wrought,” a poetic capacity Wasserman links to Shelley’s project of producing “a poetic reality that would unfold to him the further imaginative truths it implies” (12). This instructs us not merely to appreciate Shelley as a “serious” poet–“of sufficient seriousness and scope as to touch on ontological concerns” (10)–but to discern how Shelley’s own “subtler language” engages and in fact advances the very nature of the philosophical debate in epistemology, ontology, and—I would add— aesthetics. For Wasserman, “Mont Blanc” “is the product of the poet’s urge so to reconstitute his available language”—namely, Shelley’s philosophic idealism— “that it will, not express, but inherently contain that philosophy and thereby open the otherwise closed doors to the dark corridors of thought that lie beyond ordinary conception” (208). Though Wasserman doesn’t name it as such, this is a sublime undertaking; indeed, it is precisely this movement of an uncontainable thought which is the basis for Shelley’s famous claim in the Defense that Francis Bacon be regarded as a poet:
Lord Bacon was a poet. His language has a sweet and majestic rhythm, which satisfies the sense, no less than the almost superhuman wisdom of his philosophy satisfies the intellect; it is a strain which distends, and then bursts the circumference of the hearer’s mind, and pours itself forth together with it into the universal element with which it has perpetual sympathy. (Shelley 514-515).
Students are as quick to point out the tropes of the sublime at work in that extraordinary description as I am to point to the sublime as a poetic effect, such as the one produced by “Mont Blanc.”
The principal claim of my reading of the poem is a simple one, but I’m not aware that it has been made in this form. My argument is based upon the aesthetic experience produced by–and produced in–the poem: the first section of the poem is sublime; and its sublimity is registered thematically, formally, grammatically, rhetorically. The poetic aftermath of that sublimity, the final hundred lines of the poem, demonstrates not only that Shelley is resisting the theological position he understood in Coleridge–that the sublimity of the mountain sings the presence of God, that “primary analogate” of worldly sublimity–but that even Mont Blanc itself is not the object by which the sublime is represented. Rather, Shelley’s poem gives us and its speaker the sublimity of poetic language itself, the experience of that sublimity in the force and movement of lines which not only tell us about the porous reciprocality of subject and object but which make that happen in poetry.
The everlasting universe of things
Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,
Now dark–now glittering–now reflecting gloom–
Now lending splendour, where from secret springs
The source of human thought its tribute brings
Of water,—as with a sound but half its own,
Such as a feeble brook will oft assume
In the wild woods, among the mountains lone,
Where waterfalls around it leap for ever,
Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river
Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves. (1-11)
Wasserman can help us tease out the grammatical and philosophical meanings of those opening lines and demonstrate the poetic “artistry” by which he exceeds his philosophical debts; but the immediate experience of the language itself is that of a precision of description that nonetheless turns itself into almost sheer abstraction. The lines take place in a present tense which cannot exist as such in any here or now except as language and as a poetic language whose “strain” “distends” the “circumference” of the reader’s mind. Infinite vastness not only “flows through the mind” but possesses “waves” which it “rolls” in various forms of obscurity and aesthetic illumination and which takes this sentence impossibly through an adverbial clause to a place “where from secret springs / The source of human thought its tribute brings / Of waters . . .” (4-6). In advance of our attempts to make sense of these lines–epistemological, ontological, grammatical–we watch and apprehend the boldness of the opening line dividing and dissipating into mirrored and diffused images that are delivered to hidden, even impossible places. If Wasserman can help us with the philosophical meaning of the lines, I’ve always been struck by the way their aesthetic effects deliver us closest to what Roland Barthes called the “obtuse”: a “third meaning,” neither informational nor symbolic, that does not eliminate signification but postpones it in the adventure of the signifier. I suspect that the invocation of this Barthes in this context must sound outdated; but I know of no better way to approach how the opening lines of the poem enfold the reader in an experience for which meaning remains something like a perpetually receding horizon–the “source of human thought” which vanishes in the lines as anything we might understand or locate as “source”–toward which we hail and from which we turn away. The most fitting pictorial emblem for this poetic condition is another document of sublimity, Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa, in which the shipwrecked figures in the top right corner of the painting enthusiastically hail the ship on the horizon, only to have the prospects of rescue give way in the canvas itself to those who have relinquished all hope and have given themselves over to the fate of the endless sea.
The poetic “subreption” by which the speaker attributes “dizziness” to the Ravine and judges that experience to be like a “trance sublime and strange” signals a series of subreptions by which this initial poetic sublimity–the place where the sublime occurs–is ascribed first to the “Ravine of Arve” and subsequently to Mont Blanc, as if the poem itself must look down and up and down and up again to secure “fit” emblems for the representation of the sublime. Thus, the “thus thou”: it opens part II, and it opens us onto the poetic aftermath of that sublime experience. In fact, the entire poem becomes a series of “thuses” struggling and failing to account for that initial poetic representation. Seen from this perspective, the final four sections of “Mont Blanc” are magnificent poetry and yet nothing more than a chronicle of the efforts to comprehend the poetic apprehensions generated from those opening eleven lines: perpetually failed analogies or broken similes, cancelled attempts to mythologize, narrativize, naturalize, and even philosophize that sublime poetic event. There is, for instance, the “giant brood of pines” which is represented as “clinging” (20) to the “Ravine of Arve” (12), “children of elder time” (21). There are the efforts to comprehend Mont Blanc “piercing the infinite sky” (60), its “appearance” (61) “far, far above” (60) its “subject mountains” (62) piled “around it” (63), “a desart peopled by storms alone” (67). There is “Frost and the Sun in scorn of mortal power” (103)–the slow work of glaciers–which “have piled . . . / A city of death, distinct with many a tower / And wall impregnable of beaming ice. / Yet not a city” (104-107). A city; no, not a city. This erasure of the complicated metaphor of human social architecture for the resolutely inhuman processes unfolding on the mountain merely makes explicit what the poem has been doing after its initial event: successively negating or “vacating” each trope of comprehension, each metaphor or simile or apostrophe or metonymy ventured in the poem. If, for instance, “likeness” occurs as often in “Mont Blanc” as it does in “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” it does so in the former without holding, without sustaining similarity. The cumulative result of the poem is a series of unanswered questions which open onto another set of such questions, often implicit, sometimes explicit. The famous and powerful final question of the poem (which, one should add, even Wasserman could only interpret as rhetorical) is but the culmination of some of the decisive questions posed by “Mont Blanc,” questions that get asked throughout Shelley’s poetry: How to represent such an “aweful scene” atheologically? How and where does poetry come of this? How is this representation political? What is its relationship to Power?
The cumulative effect of these examples in the poem offers an entire syllabus of an “educations of error,” a catalogue of rigorous critique and unrelenting unlearning. There are, however, two moments of affirmative instruction in the poem, two moments which might instruct us how to teach the poem’s own failures to comprehend the sublimity it has produced. The first occurs straightforwardly enough: upon reaching the discovery that “Power dwells apart in its tranquility / Remote, serene, and inaccessible,” the speaker points to that which is available solely to the senses, that which, demythologized and sheerly natural, teaches those who are attentive: “And this, the naked countenance of earth, / On which I gaze, even these primaeval mountains / Teach the adverting mind” (96-100). But the scene can only function as an example of affirmative instruction if we remain, impossibly, in the present tense of the present acts presented to us in these lines. Extracted from the poem’s narrative and frozen into this pedagogical allegory, the lines actually teach us about the force of deixis, the linguistic power to insist on “this” and point at something as if it were there to behold. It’s a useful lesson to learn, especially for reading Shelley’s own poetry. But the genuinely “adverting mind” will quickly learn that this very lesson is yet another feature of an “education of error”: not only is that “naked countenance of earth” a blank page upon which to write and erase our mythological or theological projections (the very next lines embark on the failed metaphor of the “city of death”), but that same “countenance” is not just an appearance to the senses but for Shelley a semblance or likeness, an aesthetic effect.
The second explicitly pedagogical moment in the poem occurs at the end of part III, the famously tricky lines in which the poem spells out the lessons to be learned from the “mysterious tongue” of “wilderness” and then explicitly addresses the mountain and its capacity to effect profound ethico-political change:
The wilderness has a mysterious tongue
Which teaches awful doubt, or faith so mild,
So solemn, so serene, that man may be
But for such faith with nature reconciled;
Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal
Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood
By all, but which the wise, and great, and good
Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel. (76-83)
Wasserman sees no essential difference between the “mysterious tongue” of “the wilderness” and the “voice” possessed by the “great Mountain”: both teach us the truth of Power, that it is “an inexorable force man cannot command or control” and that it “has no human concerns” (228). The lesson to be learned from the tongue and voice of Power is the lesson of a relentless skepticism: “The skeptical doubt and the submission to the Power lead to no further truth, but merely destroy man’s false conceptions of Power, expressed in the institutions man has constructed and called ultimate and compelling truths” (229). This is as compelling an account of Shelley’s skepticism as we have; and it is fully consistent with the poet’s own accounts in “On Life” of the task of the “Intellectual Philosophy.” But this interpretation does not account for the shift in tone and figure as the lines move from the trope of “wilderness” as such to the address to this particular mountain, a shift which can be understood to indicate a meaningful disjunction between the Wordsworthian reverence offered by the former and the revolutionary political force of the latter. Indeed, if we imagine Shelley to be ignoring every lesson about the workings of prososopeia that the poem teaches, we might read the final lines of this passage as an exhortation to the mountain itself: Find your voice, Great Mountain! Or, more to the point of the prospective and instructive form of the infinitive: Use your voice, Great Mountain, to annul once and for all those fraudulent statutes that cause our world nothing but misery! Of course, to suggest this is to imply that the speaker if not the poem has succumbed to the spell of the trope.
We might ignore the lessons that “Mont Blanc” teaches us about workings of tropes in general, and specifically about the epistemological and even ethical inability of any trope of comprehension to account for the apprehension of the sublime: they are, says the poem, “not understood / By all.” After all, the knowledge to be gleaned from the rhetorical lesson of the “great Mountain’s” “voice” is as unrelentingly ironic as it is vacating: the poem points explicitly at the failure of the trope its speaker deploys. What the “wise” “interpret,” the “great” “make felt,” and the “good” “deeply feel” is the obdurate refusal of the mute mountain to accommodate the voices and the voicings that will inevitably be ascribed to it. This is the poem’s version of what I’ve been alluding to as what “On Life” presents as “an education of error”: “it destroys error, and the roots of error. It leaves, what is too often the duty of the reformer in political and ethical questions to leave, a vacancy” (Shelley 507). If it is “too often the duty” of the teacher of “Mont Blanc,” of Shelley, of the sublime “to leave a vacancy,” it often seems too stringent a duty. Not even Wasserman can leave it at that. If the final lines of the poem offer us a paradigmatic example of what de Man identified as the “undecidability” between literal and rhetorical readings of three lines “whose grammatical structure is devoid of ambiguity,” Wasserman makes the decision without hesitation: “the mode of the lines is a rhetorical question. . . . Silence and solitude, therefore, are decidedly not a vacancy . . . in the ‘human mind’s imaginings’” (240, 237).
It is the coupling of the poem’s rhetorical power and its self-awareness that teaches us the limits of Wasserman’s if not Shelley’s skepticism. And it is the coupling of the poem’s rhetorical power and its self-awareness that teaches us the limits of any aestheticism we might be eager to ascribe to Shelley in general and to this poem in particular. The final section of this poem begins by pointing up yet again at the mountain with that starkly glorious line: “Mont Blanc yet gleams on high:—the power is there” (127). Following Wasserman, I have tracked the poem’s various “gleamings” that lead to this final beholding. For Wasserman, this is the “’gleam’ of the Power [that] is beyond and distinct from what man calls ‘light’”: it is a “characterless transcendent light” (234-235). I regard this “gleaming” as the ineradicability of the aesthetic: not the “gleams of a remoter world” (49) which might allude to the aesthetic, but the power of an insistent aesthetic gleaming. Shelley understood that gleams could occur with a light that is either reflected or emitted. The de-theologizing impulses of the poem should prompt us to expect that the light which reaches us from the mountain would merely be a reflection. And yet, up there, on the mountain, “none beholds them” (132); rather, it is Mont Blanc itself that “yet gleams on high.”
But even if this aesthetic reading of Shelley’s mountain gleaming is plausible or teachable, it cannot answer the questions or fill the vacancies posed by the poem’s last lines. In the poetic aftermath of the sublime, the gleaming may insist but it cannot solve.
Expectantly the gaze of philosopher and citizen of the world alike is fixed on the political scene, where it is widely believed that the very fate of humanity is being decided. At moments such as these, how can the quandary over the status of the aesthetic and the complicated if not convoluted meditations on beauty and the sublime not seem superfluous? Confronted with the terror of the wars that a government wages in the name of a terror it invokes or, conversely, presented with the glimmerings of HOPE, the “glorious phantoms” which might burst to illumine our tempestuous day, have we always successfully resisted the temptations to look to the aesthetic as the mode through which we might find the way to freedom? How often have we spelled (in the sense of substitution, as when a worker spells or relieves her comrade) the alluring problem and blank possibility of the aesthetic, the persistent question it poses to “the human mind’s imaginings,” with an answer, with something that fills in the “vacancy” and thus turns into a “frail spell”? In other words, have we consistently resisted what de Man diagnosed as the “Schillerization” of Kant?
When de Man argues that Schiller “offers as a solution” to what Kant painstakingly unearths as “a very difficult problem”–for instance, the problem figuration poses for philosophy–de Man identifies a pattern that not only runs throughout Schiller’s project but that finds some unlikely affiliations in contemporary theory. What Kant calls hypotyposis–“the difficulty of rendering, by means of sensory elements, purely intellectual concepts”–is, as de Man puts it, “for Kant certainly a problem for understanding, and a very difficult problem that again threatens philosophical discourse; whereas . . . it is offered by Schiller as a solution” (153) and, ultimately, as a political solution. Thus does Schiller declare in his second letter on Aesthetic Education: “If man is ever to solve that problem of politics in practice he will have to approach it through the problem of the aesthetic, because it is only through Beauty that man makes his way to Freedom” (27). Within the tradition Wilde outlines in his New York lecture on “The English Renaissance,” the aesthetic “solution” almost invariably takes the form of a professing or espousing. Given the rhetorical resources of aestheticism’s purveyors, the forms of this espousal were remarkably limited, a cliché almost from the very beginning. “Love art for its own sake,” Wilde exhorts his New York audience, “and then all things you need will be added to you” (36). I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that according to its many critics as well as to its few proponents, aestheticism makes the embrace of aesthetic judgment into the solution of the many ethical, epistemological, and political problems generated by aesthetic judgment in the first place. But even for its most important exemplars, the effects of the aesthetic are scarcely consistent. If, for instance, the Shelley of the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” can be construed to endorse the trajectory which leads from beauty to freedom, the Shelley of “Mont Blanc” spells the problem of an aesthetic experience which cancels every proposed solution and leaves it as an open question.
And yet there is no way around the embarrassment of Wilde’s aestheticist imperative when it is placed in the context of Kant’s painstaking critical analysis of the nature of aesthetic judgment. De Man effectively dismissed the legitimacy of any “lineage that is supposed to lead from Kant, by ways of Schiller and Coleridge, to decadent formalism and aestheticism” by declaring that “the juxtaposition of Kant and Oscar Wilde” “border[s] on caricature” (119). And yet that “lineage”— as illegitimate as it may indeed be —persists in the work of literary critics and philosophers far more theoretically diverse and unlikely than the “American historians of the Enlightenment, of Romanticism, and of the transition from the one to the other” singled out by de Man. In the first place, we do an injustice to Wilde if we fail to stress that his epigrammatic mode—which we have come to recognize as a facet of his performativity or theatricality —operates in an entirely different register from that of critique. If this theatricality seems far removed from the studious absorption of critical philosophy, it poses nonetheless its own pedagogical imperative. For as many fine readers of Wilde have demonstrated, the Socratic process by which the creeds and refrains of aestheticism in the lectures and the dialogues are manufactured makes explicit Wilde’s commitment to a certain form of enlightenment. It is the enlightenment that flowers from the love of art; and it is an enlightenment that Wilde believes can be taught: whether as a collective mission or a personal disposition, aestheticism is offered as an ethos, one which can be professed, learned, cultivated, and lived.
Such a position is not incompatible with one that Michel Foucault developed in the latest phase of his work. That an aestheticism could come to be regarded as an ethical mode of being is for Foucault the decisive irony of what he describes as the “event, or set of events and complex historical processes” called the Enlightenment: even as it includes the “projects of rationalization of knowledge,” it also offers “the ironic heroization of the present, this transfiguring play of freedom, this ascetic elaboration of the self” that makes Auflklarung into an Ausgang, the Enlightenment as an exit sign, a name which points the “way out” (313, 312). Foucault’s fascinating essay is called “What is Enlightenment?” and it takes its title and its point of departure from the answer to that question Kant published in 1784 in the periodical Berlinische Monatschrift. “A minor text,” Foucault admits. But “without giving it an exaggerated place in Kant’s work,” he nonetheless stresses “the connection that exists between this brief article and the three Critiques” (E 308): “Kant . . . describes Enlightenment as the moment when humanity is going to put its own reason to use, without subjecting itself to any authority,” the moment when humanity begins to be “released from the status of immaturity” (E 308, 305). This is the moment, as Foucault puts it, when “the critique is necessary”: “the critique is, in a sense, the handbook of reason that has grown up in Enlightenment; and, conversely, the Enlightenment is the age of the critique” (E 308).
“Kant says that this Enlightenment has a Wahlspruch,” says Foucault, “a heraldic device, that is, a distinctive feature by which one can be recognized, and . . . also a motto, an instruction that one gives oneself and proposes to others” (E 306). If Kant’s “heraldic device” is scarcely the flowered lapel of the dandy or (for that matter, the kerchief peaking out from the left rear jeans pocket), its function is the same. And if the content of Kant’s motto—Aude sapere— is a far cry from “Love art for its own sake,” the cry itself, the form of the creed or motto, is not. But what makes Foucault’s essay particularly relevant for our forum here is what happens when Foucault takes leave of Kant in the second half of his essay. There he turns to Baudelaire, not to pose a challenge to Kant’s Auflarung, but to fulfill it or, more precisely, to find and describe the theatre of its realization. The Baudelaire that Foucault invokes is the Baudelaire of The Painter of Modern Life, the Baudelaire who “defines modernity as ‘the ephemeral, the fleeting, the contingent,” the Baudelaire who proposes and professes “a deliberate attitude” towards this modern condition, “what Baudelaire, in the vocabulary of his day, calls dandysme” (310, 311). This entails an education that requires a “discipline more despotic than the most terrible religions”: it is the asceticism of aestheticism, realized at this historical moment in “the asceticism of the dandy who makes of his body, his behavior, his feelings and passions, his very existence, a work of art” (312). To this characterization of the Enlightenment Foucault adds–emphatically–“one final word”: “this ironic heroization of the present, this transfiguring play of freedom with reality, this ascetic elaboration of the self–Baudelaire does not imagine that these have any place in society itself or in the body politic. They can only be produced in another, a different place, which Baudelaire calls art” (312). For Foucault, then, the only viable Ausgang that Auflarung both produces and points out is that of aestheticism, the Enlightenment as the disposition, the ethos through which the subject learns “the transfiguring play of freedom with reality” and “dares to know” how to become an (art) object.
Do we ever take leave of our mentors? In the course of this assignment on the teaching of the sublime, I have thought a great deal about the teacher who taught it to me, the teacher with whom I read Shelley’s Defence as an undergraduate and Kant’s Critiques as a graduate student. This assignment has prompted me to revisit in an explicit form the question that I have never stopped asking at least implicitly in everything I write: “what would Gayatri think?”
I studied with Gayatri Spivak long enough ago and for long enough a period to have witnessed the early responses to her translation of and introduction to Of Grammatology as well as the many versions of “Can the Subaltern Speak?” As any of her former students can attest, the route of Spivak’s singular and formidable scholarly project always passes through the crucible of her seminars. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason was no exception. “I am not erudite enough to be interdisciplinary,” she writes in the preface to that book, “but I can break rules. Can anything be learned from this? I ask my two former students who suffered through most of the early parts of the book in the form of classroom teaching: Jenny Sharpe and Tres Pyle” (xiii). I would respond to this question by saying that there can be no reckoning of the debt I owe to what I would call not the suffering but the strain of a teaching that distends the limits of what one can think beyond the circumference of what one knows.
And back in the day it was a teaching that always demanded not only the most painstaking engagement with Marx and Hegel, Derrida and Foucault but time and again with Kant, especially the Kant of the Third Critique and most especially the Kant of the sublime. But in her teaching as in her essays and books, Spivak was always much more interested in tracing the rhetorical processes through which an experience of the sublime was turned into a judgment than she was in Kant’s (or, for that matter, anyone else’s) representations of the qualities of a sublime aesthetic experience. Nothing is more indispensable to Spivak’s understanding and use of the Kantian sublime than her reading of “a certain subreption.” We recall that in the Third Critique Kant describes “the feeling of the sublime in nature” as “respect for our own vocation” (or “determination,” Bestimmung) “which we attribute to an Object of nature by a certain subreption” (96). Spivak identifies this as “a clandestine metalepsis (substitution of effect for cause)” (11); and it teaches us, says Spivak, that “the structure of the sublime is a troping. The sublime in nature is operated by a subreptious impropriety. Our access to morality is operated by rhetoric and clandestinity” (12). For Spivak, the implications of this troping are not limited in Kant to the judgments of sublimity. It is instead the case that Kant’s “Analytic of the Sublime” makes critically available a subreption at work in the project of culture as the institution of the human which is the path from aesthetic judgment to aesthetic education, or in other words, the anthropomorphism that takes us from Kant to Schiller.
Spivak’s explicit engagement with Kant in A Critique of Postcolonial Reason is limited to the first of three sections devoted to “Philosophy,” itself the first of four main rubrics (“Literature,” “History,” and “Culture” follow). In a book that runs well over four hundred pages, much of the thirty-seven pages actually assigned to Kant address either his “Schillerization” or “The Critique of Teleological Judgment.” When Spivak turns in the second chapter of her book to the figures of “colonialism and postcoloniality” in “a cluster of literary texts”–Charlotte Bronte, Mary Shelley, Baudelaire, Kipling, Rhys, Mahasweta, Coetzee–she takes leave of the sublime in any of its philosophical expositions or literary representations (x). But if Spivak’s attention to the workings of the sublime is quite brief, it feels decisive. The trope of subreption that Spivak gleans from Kant’s “Analytic of the Sublime” not only begins the book but initiates the procedures of a genuine critique which sets the project in motion “toward” what she points to in her subtitle, “a history of the vanishing present.” “My book,” she writes in the preface, is “a ‘critique’ in that it examines the structures of the production of postcolonial reason” (xii). But in its early stages–at least throughout the period I encountered this material in seminars–the book project was called “Master Discourse / Native Informant.” The substitution of the Kantian title with its imprimatur of critique is interesting for a number of reasons, including the most obvious: while Spivak’s principal engagements with Kant involve the Third Critique, the book’s title in its final form alludes not to judgment but to reason, conjuring the Kant of the first two critiques.
Though this tactic may sound like a version of the old “bait-and-switch,” I think it is more appropriate to describe it in Kantian terms as “a certain subreption” or as what Spivak calls a “subreptious impropriety.” For while it is certainly the case that aesthetic judgment in general and the sublime in particular are indispensable to Spivak’s project, any reader of this book–or of any of her many other books and essays–will attest that the sublime is not what she moves toward and not what she’s “after.” As I’ve put it in another context, the “Analytic of the Sublime” functions for Spivak as what she herself has called a lever, a piece or element of a text which might be dislodged from its original function and used to different ends, in this case, to pry open the “structures of production of postcolonial reason” (“BCS” 188-189). Spivak takes this notion of the lever from a 1971 interview given by Derrida in which it is invoked as “one among other” concept-metaphors for “one among other” version of the practice of “deconstruction.” Pressed by his interviewers Houdebine and Scarpetta to account for the effectivity of deconstruction, Derrida invokes the lever as that which by “strategic necessity,” “an old name” is displaced and used “to launch a new concept” (71). By just such a “strategic necessity,” Spivak makes the “old names” into that which she describes throughout her book as “new and useful readings”: here, the “old name” of the Kantian sublime is a lever which “launches a new concept-metaphor” in the form of this critique of postcolonial reason, “toward a history of the vanishing present.”
Spivak distinguishes her reading of the Kantian sublime from that of her own teacher in terms of a refusal to stop. If Paul de Man’s practice of reading never seems as useful to Spivak as Jacques Derrida’s version of deconstruction, it is because Spivak understands de Man to stop short. In the case at hand, the case of the Kantian sublime, Spivak marks her departure from her teacher by declaring that de Man’s readings “stop at Kant’s tropology or figurative practice and ignore the dissimulated history and geography of the subject in Kant’s text” (16). If the lever of the aesthetic allows her to take leave of “Kant’s tropology” as well as de Man’s rhetorical readings, it also presents us with the pedagogical tool by which Spivak teaches us not to surrender to the arrest of the aesthetic. I would venture that from Spivak’s perspective, nothing could sound more oxymoronic—not to say more politically irresponsible—than “aestheticist education.” From Spivak’s perspective, aestheticism—and not merely the indolent and langorous affect it connotes but the very fact of dwelling in or on the nature of aesthetic experience—would be the exemplary case of “stopping short,” far short of the critical-linguistic analysis she learned from her teacher and a very far cry indeed from anything that might resemble a “politics of the subject” or a “critique” of the “structures of the production” of knowledge. From Spivak’s perspective, there is no “daring to know” in aestheticism; and as an ethos, it is not an Ausgang but merely a dead-end. In short, from the perspective of her research and from the example of her teaching, Gayatri would think that an aestheticism is just plain useless.
Must aestheticism always be something that is espoused or denounced? You know that I’ve been exploring for some time something I call a radical aestheticism. This is not the aestheticism which espouses or professes “art for art’s sake”; and though it is indeed useless, I think it is not something which one could denounce. Such an aestheticism is not something an artist or a critic or a teacher chooses: it is not an ethos or a solution or an Ausgang. A genuinely radical aestheticism is best understood as that which befalls a text; and its radicality is predicated on the text’s inability to escape its originary or root condition as a work of art which is about art. There are, of course, many works of art about art which we would not regard as aestheticist, radical or otherwise. One need only to point to “Ozymandias” to demonstrate how a poetic reflection on art can produce unrelenting critical and demystifying results and, as Ian Balfour has demonstrated, can achieve sublimity in the process (Balfour 187-188). But a text succumbs to a radical aestheticism the moment it finds itself and its representations of the aesthetic at its “vacating” radical, which is the moment that total aesthetic immersion is experienced as the undoing of any aesthetic claim to an autonomous self-reflexive totality. A radical aestheticism is as useless as any other version of aestheticism: it is encountered both as the failure of the aesthetic to enable any social, political, or ethical resolutions and as the absence of any way out of the aesthetic condition. But a radical aestheticism delivers us not to the autonomous domain of pure sensuous perception but to the effects of an interference–what Shelley calls “light’s severe excess”–which voids all that is habitually claimed in the name of the aesthetic. In other words, we may judge the aestheticism of “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” either to be compelling or disappointing or, for that matter, beautiful; but in my understanding, we cannot call the aestheticism of that poem radical.
Some of the most arresting examples of this radical aestheticism are to be found in the canon of the Romantic sublime, though the example of “Mont Blanc” demonstrates that the condition of sublimity is not in and of itself the cause of a radical aestheticism. Earlier, I tried to point out that “Mont Blanc” is a sublime poem about the nature and effects of sublimity, one that manages, moreover, to “teach the adverting mind”: it offers scenes of instruction which make possible what de Man calls a “negative knowledge” and Shelley “an education of error.” Such scenes of instruction are often a feature of the literature of the sublime: one thinks of Apollo’s combustible reading lessons in Hyperion or the schooling which Keats’s visionary poet must suffer at the hands of Moneta in The Fall of Hyperion. But I was first prompted to think about the qualities and implications of a genuinely radical aestheticism when I tried yet again to teach the teaching in The Triumph of Life, a poem which Arkady Plotnisky has aptly characterized as the “catastrophic sublime.”
Every time I try to write something about Shelley and in every course I try to teach him, I find myself returning to this one scene in this impossibly sublime poem, the scene at which Shelley’s aestheticism arrives at its radicalization. It is the famous scene in which Rousseau, or “what was once Rousseau” recounts to Shelley’s speaker the origins of his implication in the “wretched” vision of world history that unfolds before him and us, the “triumph of life.” In this hallucinatory scene, our post-Rousseau describes the appearance of a shape which seems to arise “amid” the Sun:
“And as I looked the bright omnipresence
Of morning through the orient cave flowed,
And the Sun’s image radiantly intense
“Burned on the waters of the well that glowed
Like gold, and threaded all the forest maze
With winding paths of emerald fire–there stood
“Amid the sun, as he amid the blaze
Of his own glory, on the vibrating
Floor of the fountain, paved with flashing rays,
“A shape all light (343-352)
As the “Sun’s image radiantly intense / Burned on the waters,” there appears, “standing,” “amid the sun,” “a shape all light.” In an essay called “Kindling and Ash,” I tried to read the staging and production of this figure which I described as “this sensory impossibility, a non-natural and non-theological ‘shape all light’” (456). But reading might not get us close enough to what’s happening here. To begin with, unlike God or the truth, this “shape all light” is in reality nothing at all: it affords no genuine illumination by which the world can be known, especially the urgently historical world which unfolds in this poem. “A shape all light” is sheer radiance, a radiance which can only exist as the radiance of figuration and which can be beheld only as an aesthetic effect since it is, after all, a figure made of light.
The Triumph of Life undertakes a poetic reckoning of its own historical “state of emergency” with such critical force that it often feels as if it passes far beyond what Frank O’Hara called “meditations in an emergency” and toward what Spivak might regard as a genuine “critique” of the ideological structures of the production of western history, toward the place where we might learn something. And yet the scenes in the poem which are presented with the full weight of an event—with the sense of something happening now—are those few intricate impossible scenes in which the peculiar non-event of an aesthetic experience is both produced and registered. Peter de Bolla has written that “intense moments of aesthetic experience feel as if they are in the orbit of knowing” (12). If an aesthetic experience–including one we judge to be sublime–makes us feel as if we are gaining knowledge, when the experience of a radical aestheticism “bursts” upon us, it makes us feel as if we never knew anything or, perhaps, anything else but this: as the disfigured Rousseau will describe its effects: “And suddenly my brain became as sand” (405).
Before the appearance in the poem of “a shape all light,” Shelley’s speaker, “sick of this perpetual flow” of history unfolding before him (298), beseeches his guide to teach him something, something autobiographical about how “one of those who have created” has wound up in this parade of “wretchedness.” “Partly I seem to know” (300) is the best this disfigured but non-deluded Rousseau can offer. He agrees nonetheless to take on this new pupil:
“But follow thou, and from spectator turn
Actor or victim in this wretchedness”
“And what thou wouldst be taught I then may learn
From thee.–Now listen (305-308)
The chiasmic formulation at the center–“what thou wouldst be taught I then may learn / From thee”–is a pedagogical project that Shelley might well have learned from Rousseau, but its function here is a curious one, in part because it makes this lesson into a loop to be played out over and over. What the poem’s speaker is about to learn which he may then teach is predicated on his “following”–both his discourse and his example–a teacher who is both “actor” and “victim” “in this wretchedness.” What the poem’s speaker is about to give up in the course of this sublime education is the possibility of “spectatorship”; and what he is about to learn is that he will no longer have purchase on any position of knowledge outside this “triumph of life.” What he is about to be taught is something more than sublime and less than useless: it is the lesson of a radical aestheticism that will get him nowhere but there.
—University of Oregon