Session 9C: The Bodies of Romanticism

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9C. The Bodies of Romanticism

Glen Brewster (Wesfield State College): "The Distintegration of the Social Body in Blake and Mary Shelley"
M. Royce Kallerud (Truman State): "The Body Politic and Shelley's The Last Man"
Peter Otto (Melbourne): "Becoming (post)modern/Recovering the body: Blake, Swedenborg and the Desire for an Absolute Body"
David J. Bondy (Windsor): "(Re)Reading Oothoon's Desire"

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"The Body Politic and Shelley's The Last Man"
M. Royce Kallerud
Truman State University

My reading of The Last Man is part of a larger project, based on my dissertation, that examines the ways in which authors of the eighteenth and early-nineteenth century used ethnographic reports from the Americas first in order to formulate, and then to challenge, the premises of natural law and social contract theory. In particular, I focus on a genre that has its roots in the work of the Scottish Enlightenment: conjectural history. Conjectural history is what it sounds like: A supplement to factual history, a tool that a range of authors--political theorists, philologists, and poets, among others--used to "fill" gaps in the historical record. In the present context, the link between social contract theory and conjectural history is particularly significant. Conjectural history was social contract theory's genre: Social contract theorists based their arguments on the supposition of a prehistoric agreement between men, and such an agreement could only be deduced by conjecture.

Conjectural historians drew, in their work, on two apparently disparate, but actually quite closely allied, sources. First, they turned to ethnographic descriptions of the inhabitants of America to determine the makeup of "pre-historic" European society. Second, they turned to natural law theory, to the idea that humans will, in similar circumstances, develop similarly (thus the idea, prevalent in the work of writers like Montesquieu and Adam Smith, that external phenomenon such as geography and climate will determine the sort of national culture that will emerge in a given locale). In this paper I read The Last Man as a covert response to the image of man and woman proposed by conjectural histories.

It is perhaps best to begin by noting a structural similarity between The Last Man and Frankenstein. Where Frankenstein poses a man without a world, The Last Man poses the world without man. This text ends with its narrator Lionel Verney alone, outside society, writing the eulogy for a planet depopulated by a devastating plague. This situation, which is precipitated not by a physical creature, but by a disembodied plague, takes history out of human hands, and thus deeply compromises the human act of reading. In "The Last Man: Anatomy of Failed Revolutions" Lee Sterrenburg attributes this "cancelling out [of] history" to a breakdown in the "orderly, eighteenth-century vision of society": "[O]ne of the central philosophical issues in The Last Man," he suggests, "is the decline of mind and wisdom as forces for governing and ordering the world" (331-333).

Sterrenburg ultimately concludes that Shelley nihilistically rejected her revolutionary heritage in this novel: "Mary Shelley could find no . . . formula for rebirth, either on a personal or collective level" (343). Instead, Sterrenburg contends that The Last Man

is an . . . encyclopedic survey of a number of political positions, including utopianism, Bonapartism, and revolutionary enthusiasms of various kinds. The Last Man deals with politics, but ultimately it is an antipolitical novel. The characters in the novel discuss and try to enact various reforming and revolutionary solutions, but all such endeavors prove to be a failure in Mary Shelley's pessimistic and apocalyptic world of the future. (328)

If history and politics are thus taken out of our hands, it is worth asking what purpose there is in reading the novel. I will attempt to answer this question through a synthesis of Sterrenburg's stance with the more hopeful readings suggested by Anne K. Mellor and Jane Aaron. At first glance Mellor seems to second Sterrenburg's historical and theoretical conclusions. She suggests, for example, that The Last Man "open[ed] the way to twentieth-century existentialism and nihilism" (169). Mellor, however, perceives a gap in this nihilism; The Last Man, she argues, "asserts that all meaning resides . . . in human relationships and language-systems which are inherently temporal and doomed to end" (169).

While Sterrenburg's reading of The Last Man as politically nihilist is convincing, it is not airtight. The frame tale of Shelley's novel enacts a plain fissure between its fictional and its real audience: From the first pages of this work, it is apparent that someone is reading the novel. This fissure implies not that there was no possible audience for the text, but that Shelley could not herself conceive the audience for her text. Aaron's "The Return of the Repressed: Reading Mary Shelley's The Last Man" supports this view: "Although the women characters in The Last Man, trapped in their domestic roles, unable to find sufficient consolidated strength to break through and assert themselves, are wiped out along with their menfolk," Aaron contends that "the female principle--which had not been included within civilisation's frame of things--is released to live on, uncontrolled and unpossessed" (19-20).

I wish, then, to argue that a consideration of conjectural history's role in the novel can produce a more concrete understanding of the covert politics of this work. If anything conjectural history was, in the eighteenth-century, and prior to that time--to use Aaron's formulation--"civilisation's frame of things." In the typical view, conjectural history posed society progressively (and often inevitably) moving through four stages. Charles H. Hinnant identifies these stages as "hunting and gathering, pastoralism, agriculture, and the formation of cities and states" (79). This theory had existed in various forms since antiquity, but was revived in the eighteenth century, Hinnant tells us, by "the widespread circulation of reports of primitive societies abroad" (80). Dugald Stewart, who introduced the genre in a 1793 lecture on Adam Smith's Dissertation on the Origin of Languages, similarly isolates the reliance of conjectural history on the "detached facts which travels and voyages afford us" (293).

Where Frankenstein points toward the extra-European world in just this way, The Last Man relies more on that aspect of conjectural history which is contained in the ancient theory of the ages of man--a theory that suffused the work of the eighteenth-century and Romantic era. We see its influence, for instance, in the distinct pastorals of Pope, Clare, Wordsworth, and Goldsmith. Instead, however, of simply tracing the temporal history of mankind, Mary Shelley's conjectural history also follows the geographic trajectory of the plague, which emerges unexplained in Asia and the Nile Basin, spreads to Greece, and finally England. The plague literally progresses from civilization's cradle to its putative apex in England.

Verney's life likewise mimics the progress of conjectural history, moving from pastoralism, to agriculture, to the modern political world. Before his birth, Verney's father had been among the king's inner circle; following repeated indiscretions, first among them the accumulation of an unmanageable gambling debt, however, Verney's father shamefully "buried himself in solitude among the hills and lakes of Cumberland" (9). Lamenting his fate, the elder Verney falls ill, and is nursed to health by "the daughter of a poor cottager" (9). After his recovery, Verney's father marries the cottager's daughter, and together they give birth to Lionel and his younger sister, Perdita. Before Lionel is six years old both parents die, and Verney--like Victor Frankenstein's creature, an "outcast" from the English body politic--begins his life a literal shepherd (14).

When Adrian, the son of the late king, visits Cumberland years later, Verney pledges revenge in the name of an imagined conflict between their fathers; instead, Adrian befriends Lionel. Writing from the end of the world, Verney recounts his reaction to this kindness: "I lay on the ground, and giving rein to my thoughts . . . began . . . to discover how brutish, savage, and worthless I had hitherto been" (22). In order to counterbalance Verney's "savage" youth, Adrian sets out to "cultivate" his friend's sensibilities. "Friendship, hand in hand with admiration, tenderness and respect," Verney writes,

built a bower of delight in my heart, late rough as an untrod wild in America, as the homeless wind or herbless sea. Insatiate thirst for knowledge, and boundless affection for Adrian, combined to keep both my heart and understanding occupied, and I was consequently happy. . . . I read or listened to Adrian; and his discourse, whether it concerned his love or his theories for the improvement of man, alike entranced me. (27)

Following this "education," the novel turns to the wider political sphere. Though Adrian's father had relinquished his crown in willing "compliance with the gentle force of the remonstrances of his subjects"--who wished to form "a republic" of England (15)--he and Verney, along with their companion Lord Raymond, actively participated in the public sphere.

The difference between the standard uses of conjectural history and Shelley's use of this genre is apparent first in a plague that materializes from the "cradle of civilization" to wipe out mankind, and then in the allegorical resonance of Verney's life, which extends the successive stages of the theory of the ages of man to a dystopic end. Seen from this perspective, The Last Man clearly rejects the political theory borne of conjectural history, most notably social contract theory. In order to realize this conclusion we need only remember Rousseau's argument that, under the social contract, conditions are "the same for all" (The Social Contract 60). This condition is succinctly represented in the central trope of the social contract, the body politic. Rousseau's ideal could be reached, it is clear, only through the fiction proposed by the title of Shelley's book; it could only be realized by the last man. In this context, Verney is not simply a literary representation of the body politic. Rather, he is the social contract incarnate. He is the body politic. In a nation thus composed of one man the literal and figural collapse into one another, tropes become real, and language disappears.

In a speech that simultaneously invokes the rhetoric of social contract theory and the cultural superiority which conjectural history assumes, Verney mobilizes the people of England for one last stand against the plague. "'My friends,'" he begins,

"our risk is common; our precautions and exertions shall be common also. If manly courage and resistance can save us, we will be saved. We will fight the enemy to the last. Plague shall not find us a ready prey; we will dispute every inch of ground; and, by methodical and inflexible laws, pile invincible barriers to the progress of our foe. Perhaps in no part of the world has she met with so systematic and determined an opposition." (193-194)

The most vexing part of the novel is the inexorable progress of the plague. When it seems it might be checked, it is not. Nothing slows its advance. The Last Man thus foregrounds the limits to subjective knowledge. Where a genre such as the gothic draws our attention to these limits, conjectural history--and in particular, social contract theory--attempts to circumvent them. The social contract represents, as Paul de Man has noted, not a "transcendental law" but rather an attempted deferral of "the moment . . . when fictional seductions will no longer be able to resist transformation into literal acts" (Allegories of Reading 159). The Last Man, in contrast, hastens that same moment. It represents, quite simply, the literalization of the social contract.

The way out of Verney's plight--and out of our difficulty in reading the novel--lies in Sterrenburg's observation that Shelley "works dialectically, adapting old metaphors to new ends" (328). By taking the dominant eighteenth-century political metaphors of conjectural history and social contract theory to new contexts--that is, to the future--Shelley enacts a method in which our subjective position is always untenable, a method in which we cannot meaningfully act without reference to other men and women. By definition, the genre of conjectural history addresses that part of our history that lies beyond our subjective reach; conjectural history paradoxically addresses that part of the past which most resembles the future. There is no room, however, for that which we cannot yet understand--for that which has "not been included within civilisation's frame of things"--within a social contract that attempts to make conditions "the same for all." Shelley thus declines to propose a new legal order; instead she insists on a method that forces the hand of a congenitally "inflexible law" by making visible the true object of conjectural histories.

Finally, I turn to Paulo Freire's theories of education, which pose women and men's education by others as central to their experience in the world, to address these difficulties. In a passage directly evocative of The Last Man, Freire writes:

To deny the importance of subjectivity in the process of transforming the world and history is naive and simplistic. It is to admit the impossible: a world without people. This objectivistic position is as ingenuous as that of subjectivism, which postulates people without a world. World and human beings do not exist apart from each other, they exist in constant interaction. (32-33)

The Last Man's pointed reconfiguration of conjectural history and social contract theory reflect, then, the inadequacy of a law that proposed "a world without people"; in the same breath, we can read Frankenstein as a comment on those who would propose "people without a world." Shelley's novels demonstrate in their structure and their method, which can best be called "conjectural," that which they could not demonstrate factually. They thus serve to critique and replace a politics that failed to account for the subjective limits of our perception, a politics that manufactured facts where there could only be conjecture. If we are to imagine a society that directly engages the historical experience of men and women, then we must take our subjective limits for our point of departure. While such an approach does not resemble current political models, it is--in a very real sense--practical.

Works Cited
Aaron, Jane. "The Return of the Repressed: Reading Mary Shelley's The Last Man." Feminist Theory: Criticism and Practice. Ed. Susan Sellers. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991. 9-21.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. New Revised 20th-Anniversary Ed. New York: Continuum, 1994.
Hinnant, Charles H. "Swift and the 'Conjectural Histories' of the Eighteenth Century: The Case of the Fourth Voyage." Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture 21 (1991): 75-88.
Mellor, Anne K. Mary Shelley, her life, her fiction, her monsters. 1988. New York: Routledge, 1989.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract. Trans. Maurice Cranston. London: Penguin Books, 1968.
Shelley, Mary. The Last Man. Ed. Anne McWhir. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Literary Texts, 1996.
Sterrenburg, Lee. "The Last Man: Anatomy of Failed Revolutions." Nineteenth- Century Fiction 33 (1978): 324-347.
Stewart, Dugald. Account of the Life and Writings of Adam Smith, LL.D. Ed. I.S. Ross. Essays on Philosophical Subjects. By Adam Smith. Eds. W.P.D. Wightman and J.C. Bryce. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980. 269-351.

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"Becoming (post)modern/Recovering the body: Blake, Swedenborg and the Desire for an Absolute Body"
Peter Otto
University of Melbourne

It is often assumed that the influence of Swedenborg on Blake came to an end in the early 1790s, with the latter's judgement in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that the writings of the former are 'a recapitulation of all superficial opinions, and an analysis of the more sublime, but no further' (E43). As a result, the impact of Swedenborg on the architecture and thematics of The Four Zoas is understated. In particular, the relation between Swedenborg's spiritual/rationalist metaphysics" and the "pornographic" illuminations in that poem is ignored.

In contradistinction to these views, this paper argues that after 1790 Blake came to see Swedenborg's life and work as exemplary instances of the modern desire for an absolute body. It traces Blake's analysis of this desire in the illuminations to The Four Zoas. Whereas previous writers have argued that these illuminations are opaque, too idiosyncratic to be subject to detailed interpretation, "Becoming (post)modern" argues that these difficulties are only apparent, the product of a "forgetting" of Blake's close links with Swedenborg.

Like Bacon, Newton and Locke, Swedenborg imagines an absolute (rational) body, divorced from wayward matter and intransigent emotions. However, unlike these authors, he describes in great detail a set of social and sexual practices designed to bring the corporeal body into conformity with the absolute body (thus producing a spiritual-natural). In so doing, he sketches a nascent psychology, including a rudimentary theory of sublimation that, revised by Blake, is able to explain why, although superficially opposed to reason, imagination and desire should on a more profound level share reason's dream.

In the illuminations to The Four Zoas Blake draws on, critiques, and extends Swedenborg to depict the fate of the body in modernity, a culture characterised by the desire for "rational" transcendence. He maps in remarkable detail the deployment of sexual energy required to support a rational heaven: Swedenborg's rational heaven (formed by a conjugial marriage between love and reason) is depicted as a "phallic" body, in which desire, the sexual body, and imagination are harnessed to Urizenic ends.

In Blake studies it is frequently assumed that the absolute (rational) bodies celebrated by Bacon, Newton, Locke and Swedenborg can unproblematically be displaced by the living bodies forged by the imagination. In postmodern recensions of this view, the lifeless forms of reason can be displaced by living bodies, created by the imagination from the resources of a textual (rather than religious) infinite. "Becoming post(modern)" concludes by arguing that these "redemptive" imaginations fail to escape the dynamics analysed by Blake in The Four Zoas. It contends, somewhat provocatively, that in The Four Zoas, as in modernity as a whole, the trajectories of reason and the subject, rationalisation and subjectification, complement each other. Arguably, it is Blake's perception of the interdependence of the dreams of emancipation variously announced by reason and imagination that pushes him towards a (post)modernity willing to embrace a body of suffering and pain.

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Last updated June 1, 1999
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