SHELLEY'S MUSIC: FANTASY, AUTHORITY, AND THE OBJECT VOICE by Paul A. Vatalaro, Reviewed by Stuart Peterfreund

By Paul A. Vatalaro
(Ashgate, 2009)
Reviewed by Stuart Peterfreund on 2009-11-25.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.

               This book begins with something like a thunderbolt. In a pre-emptive coup de foudre by means of which he aims to sunder his project from nearly all of what has gone before in recent Shelley studies, Paul A. Vatalaro spurns what he calls "an exclusively historicist approach to the relevant topics of voice and music in Shelley's writing. . . ." Such an approach, he claims, manifests an "inability to regard jouissance, that force constantly at odds with the symbolic because it gestures in the direction of the Real, as non-historical" (18). He bases his case against historicism and for jouissance on the work of the post-Lacanian critic Slavoj Zizek, who seeks to deploy the Lacanian concept of jouissance--the primal imperative to enjoy the Other (jouir--2nd pers. sg. imp., jouis [enjoy!]), but also the imperative to acknowledge that command and to hear that Other (ouïr--1st pers. sg. past, j'ouïs [I heard])--as the antidote to the always-already dreary, unchanging materialist world view of historicism as the "primordially given." In opposition to a view of "historicity" as "the zero-level state of things secondarily obfuscated by ideological fixations and naturalizing misrecognitions," Zizek claims that "historicity itself must be sustained through an effort, assumed, regained again and again." Below the level of historicity thus "sustained" (i.e., upheld, most likely by those in power), the "non-historical kernel of jouissance is not something accessible only in 'metaphysical' or 'mystical' limit-experience; it permeates our daily lives--one only needs eyes to see it" (Zizek, The Plague of Fantasies [1997] 53). In his own metahistorical coup of sorts, Zizek credits jouissance with the overthrow of historicity in such events as the Velvet Revolution or the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. He takes it as the underlying principle of action responsible for the indomitable will of the people that led to the overthrow of communism in eastern Europe. But in so doing--and in a way that will have telling implications for the cogency of Vatalaro's argument--Zizek thereby historicizes jouissance, if only contingently, as operating in a particular time and place toward a particular end.

               By likewise treating jouissance as the irrepressibly disruptive antagonist of the materialist world view, Vatalaro aims to interrogate what he calls "Shelley's fantasy" in order to view it "as an expression of something other than a symptom of personal pathology" (19). According to Vatalaro, Shelley explored the potential of the music of the Other as a means to the end of establishing--and, more to the point, sustaining--an intimacy with the Other. This fantasy sprang, writes Vatalaro, from Shelley's "fear of estrangement from his own poetic voice. Ultimately, two things troubled him: first, that a man's poetic utterance, in stark contrast to a woman's singing performance, proceeds from vacancy rather than presence; second, that inscription remains silent and mortal, and that, in the end, written words do no more than constitute a non-speaking subject" (2).

               In one sense, the quest motivated by this fantasy is that of the spirit energized by jouissance seeking its kindred spirit, which is not identical with but complementary to the seeker. Quoting from Shelley's essay "On Love" (1818), Vatalaro states that "in Shelley's language, this 'ideal prototype' acts as a 'mirror whose surface reflects on the forms of purity and brightness: a soul within our soul that describes a circle around its proper Paradise which pain and sorrow and evil dare not overleap'" (28; Shelley's Poetry and Prose, ed. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat [2002] 504).

But quotation is not exegesis. Neither here nor in his subsequent discussion of "Epipsychidion" (1821 [83-93]) does Vatalaro discuss the rich literary resonances of this last passage--resonances that work to qualify his argument. The phrase "a soul within our soul" adumbrates in part the argument of "Epipsychidion," where the speaker invites Emily to sail with him to an Ionian island "peopled with sweet airs" and complementary sensations: "every motion, odour, beam, and tone / With that deep music is in unison: / Which is a soul within a soul (445, 453-55). Though Vatalaro implies that the poem salutes "a woman's singing performance," Emily is nowhere represented as the source of the music; she is just as much subject to its power as the speaker is. In finding Emily, the speaker has recovered the type of that earlier encountered "Being" whose "Spirit was the harmony of truth," figured not only as music, but equally

                                                            In the words

Of antique verse and high romance,--in form,

Sound, colour--in whatever checks that Storm

Which with the shattered present chokes the past

And in that best philosophy, whose taste

Makes this cold common hell, our life, a doom

As glorious as fiery martyrdom. . . . (190-216)

Music, in other words, is a metalepsis--a metaphor for a metaphor--that figures a full range of sensory presence (and self-presence), of intimacy arising out of jouissance.

               Vatalaro knows that the poem is complicated by the death of its speaker. He recognizes "a fracture in Shelley's fantasy, because it undermines the central principle on which it is based, that is, the idea that one might achieve ontological healing by uniting logos and jouissance, word [and other sensory inputs] with voice and music" (85). Ultimately, Vatalaro states, "Shelley assumes Emily's passive stature" (85); he even goes Emily one better by killing off his speaker within the poem before he can read it to her and by conveying it to her with a final envoi. But Vatalaro does not connect the representation of the speaker's perishing and temporally enforced mortality with the "fracture."

This link demands close scrutiny. Shelley's proleptic assertion that the "'soul within our soul . . . describes a circle around its proper Paradise which pain and sorrow and evil dare not overleap'" evokes Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" (1798) and Shelley's own "Alastor" (1816) as well as, indirectly, Paradise Lost (1667)--all for the purpose of commenting on the fragility and evanescence of love as it is characterized. In "Kubla Khan," weaving "a circle round him thrice" (51) does not sustain the speaker's opium dream of the Khan's "pleasure-dome" (2), and so the light of common day overwhelms the unsustainable vision. In "Alastor," the Poet, awaking in "the cold white light of morning," elects to pursue the Indian maiden he has dreamed of. In the speaker's words, "He eagerly pursues / Beyond the realms of dream that fleeting shade; / He overleaps the bounds" (205-07). The Poet thus resembles Milton's Satan, the embodiment of "'pain and sorrow and evil,'" who "at one slight bound overleap[s] all bound" (4.181) on his way into Paradise to trouble Eve's rest. The dilemma of the speaker of "Kubla Khan" and the Poet of "Alastor" is the poet's dilemma more generally: neither love nor the poetry that expresses love can be willed (SPP, ed. Reiman and Fraistat, 531-32).

That neither love nor poetry can be willed speaks to their contingent temporality, and calls into question the case made by Zizek and Vatalaro after him for the irrepressibility of jouissance--at least, after it has been historicized, as Zizek appears to do. In fact, Shelley's view of poetic utterance is historically conditioned. His own awareness of changes he has experienced in time--in both biological and historical time--is what prompts him to conclude, in Vatalaro's words, "that a man's poetic utterance, in stark contrast to a woman's singing performance, proceeds from vacancy rather than presence; [and] second, that inscription remains silent and mortal, and that, in the end, written words do no more than constitute a non-speaking subject" (2). Written two to three years before "Epipsychidion," Prometheus Unbound (1820) presents a very different view of jouissance and love. If, "in addition to jouissance, Prometheus introduces desire into Asia's vale" (75), as Vatalaro states, it is important to acknowledge that both are the secondary effects of Promethean full speech, in the form of his "voice," which in Asia's account "fell," much as the "shadow" of Intellectual Beauty falls on the speaker of the "Hymn" (1816 [59]), but with a somewhat different effect, "Like music which makes giddy the dim brain / Faint with intoxication of keen joy. . ." (2.1.65-67). Music, visual art, desire, and the jouissance that gives rise to them take form through the mediation of the Promethean gift of full speech, which brings "measure" to one's perception of plenitude in the form of the "Universe," and puts human beings in touch with the rhythms and dynamics of the life-world. In Asia's words,

He [Prometheus] gave man speech, and speech created thought,

Which is the measure of the Universe;

And Science shook the thrones of Earth and Heaven,

Which shook but fell not; and the harmonious mind

Poured itself forth in all-prophetic song,

And music lifted up the listening spirit

Until it walked, exempt from mortal care,

Godlike, o'er the clear billows of sweet sound;

And human hands first mimicked and then mocked

With moulded limbs more lovely than its own

The human form, till marble grew divine,

And mothers gazing drank the love men see

Reflected in their face, behold, and perish. (2.4.72-84)

               Promethean full speech can be compromised and subverted, as it is under the tyranny of Jupiter, unwittingly abetted by Prometheus when he curses the god. But once recovered, it reaffirms its rhythmic measure and brings the desiring subject back into touch with that rhythm. The Spirit of the Hour reports on the transformation in speech that occurs immediately after the fall of Jupiter.

None talked that common, false, cold, hollow talk

Which makes the heart deny the yes it breathes

Yet question that unmeant hypocrisy

With such a self-mistrust as has no name.

And women too, frank, beautiful and kind

As the free Heaven which rains fresh light and dew

On the wide earth, past: gentle, radiant forms,

From custom's evil taint exempt and pure;

Speaking the wisdom once they could not think,

Looking emotions once they feared to feel

And changed to all which once they dared not be

Yet being now, made Earth like Heaven--nor pride

Nor jealousy nor envy nor ill shame,

The bitterest of those drops of treasured gall

Spoilt the sweet taste of the nepenthe, love. (3.4.149-63)

               It is true, as Vatalaro states, "that a large portion of Shelley's writing consists of a fantasy in which Shelley seeks the unification of language, or the word, with voice and its correlative form of expression, vocal music" (187). But Shelley deployed this fantasy far more frequently in his later poetry than he did in the earlier work, at least in part because he became concerned with one of the possible implications of his arguments in A Defence of Poetry (1821).

If the steady emergence of new poets is required to keep the poets of the past from lapsing into the status of what Vatalaro terms a "non-speaking subject" (2), and if poetry had really reached its terminal iron age, as Thomas Love Peacock suggests in "The Four Ages of Poetry" (1820), then Shelley, rather than wishing for the conferral of a special immortality, is merely wishing for the same immortality achieved by his poetic predecessors as succeeding generations arose "to create afresh" the "vitally metaphorical" language that "marks the before unapprehended relation of things" (SPP 502).

               Vatalaro needs to do more explicating. Though he launches this book by dismissing "historicist" approaches to Shelley and mainly following the lead of Zizek, Mladen Dolar, ("The Object Voice" [1996]), and William Keach (Arbitrary Power [2004]), Vatalaro tends to draw away from the text before he has read it closely and deeply enough to clinch his point. Likewise, as suggested above, he fails to hear intertextual resonances. But the book is admirable for its fearlessness, its attempt to do something new in Shelley studies. When he can find a way to combine that fearlessness with closer scrutiny of the primary texts, Vatalaro may very well prove to be one of the prominent Shelleyans of his time.

               Two brief quibbles by way of postscript: 1) the book's citation format seems idiosyncratic, since multiple full (first) citations appear without any readily evident justification; 2) after Mladen Dolar ("The Object Voice" in Gaze and Voice as Love Objects, ed. Renata Salecl and Slavoj Zizek [1996]), Vatalaro mistakenly refers to the shofar, a ceremonial horn used in the Hebrew liturgy, as a bull's horn. It is in fact a ram's horn.


Stuart Peterfreund, Professor of English at Northeastern University, is the author of several books, most recently Shelley among Others: The Play of the Intertext and the Idea of Language (2002). His essay "Enactments of Exile and Diaspora in English Romantic Literature" is forthcoming in Romanticism/Judaica, ed. Sheila Spector (Ashgate, 2010). He is presently finishing a book on natural theology from Bacon to Darwin.

Leave a comment on Stuart Peterfreund's review.


 Subscribe to RSS feed