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  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  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 ), 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
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" ), and William Keach (Arbitrary
Power ), 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 ), 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.