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CENTRE ROUSSEAU
Groupe d’Études dédié à Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Rousseau et Shelley. Thomas Roche

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lundi, 02 décembre 2013 15:42 Written by 

Tom Roche

NASSR conference, "Romantic Movements"
11 August 2013

Corruption and Conversion in Percy Shelley's The Triumph of Life


Most of the images in Percy Shelley's The Triumph of Life that figure movement echo the poem's central image, that of a speeding triumphal chair and the rushing motion associated with a Roman triumphal procession. These images create an impression of chaos, misdirection, and an absence of control. The figure of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who watches the procession from the wayside, now in a quasi-vegetative state, withdrawn and with his energies exhausted, seems to represent the inevitable consequence of the blind, purposeless movement of the procession, rather than suggesting a manner of detaching oneself or resisting it.[1] Indeed, the autobiographical narrative that Rousseau will later tell depicts a process of degeneration and decline that seems inevitable, and that terminates in exhaustion and psychic rigidity. In contrast to these images, however, we find others that portray the sunrise, flowers opening, plants unfolding, fountains bursting, and other cyclical processes that include at least an element of renewal. By implication, these processes figure a form of energy that perhaps tends to be corrupted or mistranslated, as is often argued, but that also suggests a different manner of acting in the world.

            I'll begin by discussing a number of specific examples of physical movement, in order to draw out this contrast and to identify some of the more controlled and aestheticized forms of movement that are obscured or overwhelmed by the onrushing procession. I'll then move to the psychological movement that these images represent. The psychological processes depicted in the poem take their ethical sense, I argue, from the thought of Rousseau himself, who is described in the poem as an example of physical and moral corruption, and whose ethical thought centers on the corruption of man's natural goodness by social institutions. The lines in which Rousseau identifies himself to the narrator set up an opposition between the corrupting influence of the social world and another, beneficial but obscure, influence: "if the spark with which Heaven lit my spirit / Earth had with purer nutriment supplied / Corruption would not now thus much inherit / Of what was once Rousseau." The spark or energy that becomes embodied in Rousseau, following this image, seems to inevitably become corrupt as it motivates specific action in the social world. This narrative, as told in the Triumph, reflects certain well-known aspects of the historical Rousseau's thought, such as his narrative about the corruption of man's natural goodness by social institutions and his account of how his own good intentions are corrupted by the Parisian society and the circumstances of his life. This narrative of corruption and decline, not necessarily Shelley's own, is countered by a movement toward renewal, which, I argue, is most strongly present in two conversion narratives that are among the Triumph's most important literary sources: Dante's conversion as recorded in the late books of the Purgatorio and Rousseau's narrative of his own conversion process, known as the Illumination of Vincennes. I'll end by examining these two narratives, as they are present in the poem, as examples of psychological movement--of transference of ideas and energies from one individual or group to another. I'll also ask why such resistance apparently fails, in Shelley's poem, in the case of Rousseau.

            Many of the poem's examples of physical movement describe the procession and by implication speak to the collective movement of large groups. The "stream" of people "hurrying too and fro," who pass by the poet as his vision begins, are compared to leaves borne on the wind, to a flood or torrent, and to trees shaken by the wind. Their movement seems to be guided or directed, almost systematically, by an influence outside the self, as in the wind, the flooding water carrying tiny bubbles downstream, clouds being driven about in a thunderstorm. These are all similes for the people, moving collectively as a mass, subject to larger, physical and uncontrollable forces. Shelley also compares the people to animals, such as gnats or birds or bats, that instinctually move in groups, in a way that seems frenetic and haphazard and uncontrolled. They are motivated by affects, such as fear and desire--"some flying from the thing they feared and some / Seeking the object of another's fear"--that seem primitive, animal-like, and un-moderated by thought or reflection. Their affect seems contagious or mimetic, so that the people come to resemble each other, "mixed in one mighty torrent," without individuation or autonomy.

            I won't be talking about political change, except to add a little about the political dimension of this portrayal of the crowds. The energy that impels this collective movement isn't inherently violent, but rather is neutral or impersonal--storms, natural forces, animal instincts. However, it is easily taken control of by an external source and assimilated into a single process most often described using examples of corrupt political power. On this point, I'll just note that, although Shelley's readers will of course think about the French Revolution, these crowd images can be explained by Rousseau's writings themselves, in their own political context, about the spectacle, and about festivals that include the theatre but also festivals that occur in the countryside, such as harvest festivals, weddings, etc. Rousseau puts these festivals in two categories, as he does with so many issues, as they are inspired by the affect that develops out of amour-propre or amour de soi. I think something important is lost if we go immediately to Edmund Burke. For Rousseau, the important question is the affect that participation in the group inspires--whether it be the competitive emotions associated with vanity and self-interest, as in a Roman triumph, or communal emotions that are based on fellow-feeling and compassion. Rousseau's thought points to a deeper layer of affect that lies beneath the emotions that drive the crowd in the Triumph of Life, and that has been misunderstood or covered over, but not lost. Another source, Dante's Purgatorio, also contains several examples of movement in groups inspired by similar emotions, whereby collective identity serves to express the beginning of their movement away from selfhood.

            I raise this subject primarily to narrow the focus on the question of how the people in the procession are guided, and on the affect that motivates them, as the source of corruption, rather than simply their participation in the procession itself. Against the examples of collective identity celebrated in Shelley's sources, the procession, guided by a blind charioteer, appears as the primary example of misdirected movement: "little profit brings / Speed in the van and blindness in the rear." Even in describing the chariot, Shelley allows for a different kind of energy, figured as the "music" of the shapes' "ever moving wings"-- a music that only the a "music" that only the narrator can hear, but that is present as potential nonetheless.

            In addition to collective movement, we have examples of guided movement, with several figures in the procession joined together in pairs. Aristotle is joined to Alexander the Great, for example, Voltaire and Frederick the Great are linked, Kant and Catherine the Great, Plato and the youth, Aster, he was in love with, Rousseau and the "shape all light," the narrator and Rousseau, and Dante and Beatrice. Critics have also suggested pairing Rousseau with Napoleon, following the opinion of the time and evidence in other texts by Shelley. Some of these relationships are specifically pedagogical. These pairings suggest directed movement, which is more stable and ordered than the procession in general. They also raise questions about authority and cultural transmission. Following the dynamic of these paired relations, the thought and ideals of the one figure is influenced and given form by the second, as its influence is extended onto the broader society. The first three examples seem chosen to illustrate the poem's refrain, "God made irreconcilable / Good and the means to good," as intellectuals, primarily of the Enlightenment, are bent to the will of political rulers, and the latter are in turn enslaved themselves. Rousseau's encounter with the "shape all light" is less straightforward, in that it inspires a search to re-find her, "forever sought, forever lost," seemingly leading him toward transcendence, perhaps, and also into poetry. The encounter also initiates a process that ends in him joining the procession, or public life, a political life that eventually predominates over poetry. The example of Beatrice is more exclusively represented as a muse figure, without any hint of harmful influence, of course. Both the "shape" and Beatrice represent authority, and both initiate a process that, moving quickly, leads each writer into public life. These latter two examples suggest an opposition between false guides and true guides, rather than between guided movement and abstention or withdrawal.

            The latter two examples initiate psychological movement, more than physical movement, and I'll turn now to the dialectic between psychic rigidity and movement that I think is central to the role of Rousseau in this poem. Again, despite the poem's dark tone, many of its images of psychological movement suggest renewal or creativity. The poet's vision "rolls" on his brain, an image that suggests impulsion, direction, and change and that counters the feeling of déjà vu that precedes it. The narrator seems passive, in a trance, sitting by the wayside, but also participates actively, in a dialogue with Rousseau, and expresses emotions such as pity, grief, and wonder. Rousseau's brain becomes "as sand" as he begins to experience his vision, an image that suggests falling and dissolution: "I rose; and, bending at her sweet command, / Touched with faint lips the cup she raised, / And suddenly my brain became as sand." However, this experience is also linked to creativity, in that it initiates a vision, and psychic movement, as the vision is compared to the tracks of deer fleeing from a wolf: "so on my sight / Burst a new Vision never seen before." In both examples, the vision clearly comes from an external source, and, despite being a dream vision, it has a clear historical and political significance. They are thus both examples of cultural transmission--of the transmission of cultural energies from one source to another, in a manner that allows for distortion, but that can be also adapted to models of romantic creativity that valorize receptivity and the abandonment of habitual forms of selfhood.

            Because the process of distortion, corruption, and disfigurement in this poem has been so well studied, I'll end with two points, drawing on Shelley's sources, that look in a different direction. First I'll quote a few lines from Dante, in order to show a successful example of cultural transmission and to examine the affect that accompanies it. When Dante meets Virgil in Canto One of the Inferno, Virgil identifies himself in a recognition scene that recalls the narrator's response to Rousseau's self-identification in the Triumph. Dante's response to Virgil is as follows: "'Are you then, that Virgil, that fount which pours forth so broad a stream of speech,' I answered him, my brow covered with shame." When he meets Beatrice in Canto Thirty-One of the Purgatorio, similarly, he writes, "as children stand ashamed and dumb, with eyes on the ground, listening conscience-stricken and repentant, so stood I." The affect that begins his transformation, and that initiates a new stage in his transformation, is shame, before a teacher. Although Shelley's thinking about authority differs from Dante's in many ways, I think that the contrast between the introduction of the teachers, in this sense, is intentional, and signals something specific about Shelley's critique of Rousseau. In the Commedia, the teacher corrects Dante's behavior, but the affect arises internally. It is a social affect in this sense, but does not spread through mimesis or contagion. When the narrator meets Rousseau in the Triumph, the shame, conversely, is expressed by Rousseau himself, the teacher, who "vainly seeks to hide his eyes," as Dante hid his eyes when confronted by Beatrice, and expresses remorse for the errors that led him "to this deep scorn." Dante's teachers both inspire desire--desire to emulate Virgil, and love for Beatrice. I don't insist on shame, but more generally on the copresence of desire along with an affect that limits desire and directs it. Rousseau, as here represented, hasn't assumed this pedagogical role, or internalized a principle of authority that would allow him to move beyond the role of student. His emotions only can communicate themselves mimetically, as the narrator mirrors his despair and contempt.

            I'll have to limit myself to a final point about Rousseau's encounter with the "shape all light," leaving out many details of the historical event in Rousseau's life that this passage represents. In this encounter, Rousseau is in the role of student, who asks questions and seeks experience, rather than in the role of teacher. The historical Rousseau received an inspiration, while travelling on foot to the nearby town of Vincennes, a vision that contained in condensed form the insights that would inform his major published works. In Rousseau's text, the narrative including a dazzling vision of a "thousand lights" that recalls Saint Paul's conversion, and that Shelley would represent as the encounter with the "shape all light" that is the turning point of the narrative. Other elements of the historical event, such as Rousseau's reading of a passage chosen at random, rapid walking followed by shelter underneath a tree, sudden tears and other physical disturbances, recall Augustine's conversion and the literature of conversion narratives that it inspired. Rousseau presents this narrative as an autobiographical event, but nonetheless it is saturated with cultural references that it does not openly acknowledge or discuss, or that he acknowledges only to reject. Again, moving very quickly, I'll limit myself to noting Rousseau's refusal to open dialogue with this tradition and to the standing apart and forgetting that characterize his narrative as given in the Triumph. Rousseau's refusal of cultural mediation, which would be initiated by such a dialogue, strongly contrasts with the openly allusive Triumph of Life and is a very specific point of disagreement between the two writers that informs this portrayal in the Triumph. It points to a specific failing, a missed opportunity to initiate a process of cultural transmission such as is modeled by Dante and by other writers with whom the poem is in an open dialogue.

Bibliography :

Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy. Trans. Charles S. Singleton. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1970-1975.

Dart, Gregory. Rousseau, Robespierre, and English Romanticism. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998.

Duffy, Edward. Rousseau in England: The Context for Shelley's Critique of the Enlightenment. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.

Lee, Monika. Rousseau’s Impact on Shelley: Figuring the Written Self. Lewiston, N.Y.: Mellen, 1999.

Morillo, John. "Vegetating Radicals and Imperial Politics: Shelley's Triumph of Life as Revision of Southey's Pilgrimage to Waterloo." Keats-Shelley Journal 43 (1994): 117-140.

Peterfreund, Stuart. Shelley among Others: The Play of the Intertext and the Idea of Language. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2002.

———. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, Authoritative Texts, Criticism. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat. New York: Norton, 2002.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Les Confessions. Ed. Jacques Voisine. Paris: Garnier, 2011.

Voisine, Jacques. J.-J. Rousseau en Angleterre à l’époque Romantique: les écrits autobiographiques et la légende. Paris: Didier, 1956.

Wang, Orrin N. C. "Disfiguring Monuments: History in Paul De Man's 'Shelley Disfigured' and Percy Bysshe Shelley's The Triumph of Life." ELH 58 (autumn 1991): 633-655.

Weinberg, Alan M. Shelley's Italian Experience. Basingstoke, Eng.: Macmillan, 1991.


[1] Shelley introduction of Rousseau seems to comment on the abandonment  of conscious will celebrated in the fifth Rêverie: "'If thirst of knowledge doth not thus abate, / Follow it even to the night, but I  / Am weary' . . . Then like one who with the weight / Of his own words is staggered, wearily / He paused."

Additional Info

  • Auteur: Habib Claude
  • Année de publication : 1990
  • Angle d'étude: Angle 4
Read 3286 times Last modified on vendredi, 22 septembre 2017 14:06

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