Darby Lewes, ed. A Brighter Morn: the Shelley Circle's Utopian Project.
Lanham: Lexington Books, 2003. xiii + 182 pp. $60.00.
MANY HAVE WRITTEN of Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley in terms of a poetics of resistance to patriarchal, monarchical, or scientific authority--in Paul Foot's Red Shelley, for example--but only a relative handful seem to have treated either of these Romantics in a specifically utopian-studies context. A collection of essays framing the Shelleys (primarily, though not exclusively, Percy) in the context of utopian thought has the potential to illuminate old subjects afresh. However, this collection may prove a little disappointing for those who are already fairly familiar with Shelley's poetics and political philosophy and wish for the kinds of grander insight or broader perspective the title promises.
For instance, Hugh Roberts's essay on Shelley's fascination with the antiJacobin writings of Abbe Barruel ("Setting Minds Afloat: Shelley and Barruel in Ireland") seems like something of a missed opportunity. Barruel's paranoid interpretation of the French Revolution as a grand conspiracy of illuminated philosophes against the Church and all things holy, Roberts argues, crucially informs Shelley's adventures as a political agitator in Ireland: Shelley imagines himself playing the role of the subversive illuminist, spreading the idea among the as-yet unenlightened masses. This might indeed complicate our picture of Shelley's politics, which some tend simply to identify with those of his mentor and father-in-law, the philosophical anarchist William Godwin (e.g., Michael Scrivener, in Radical Shelley); Roberts raises questions about where, how, and why Shelley resisted the influence of Godwin, who strongly opposed any such conspiratorial organization. However, Roberts seems uninterested in a potentially more interesting aspect of this little episode in intellectual history--namely, this strange confluence of idealistic utopian discourse with the dark, even dystopian genre of conspiracy theory. Perhaps what it reveals is that the world seen through a conspiratorial lens--a world in which all action comes to correspond to a single will (Barruel imagined a system whereby a single master instructs two disciples, who each instruct two more in turn, and so on, in an exponential series), in which all history can be traced to a single infernal principle--is merely the inverse face of a utopian vision of all society as harmonious whole centered on a single set of values, operating according to a single plan. Roberts, however, does not venture any such theoretical speculations, preferring to stick closer to his biographical subject.
This is not to say that the biographical cannot be pertinent to larger theoretical questions, as not a few contributions to this volume demonstrate. Indeed, several essays focus on the tensions between utopia as theory and life as practice. Kyle Grimes probes how Shelley understood the relationship between his "private visions" and his "public responsibilities," between his privileging of "imaginative activity" and his pursuit of "social transformation" (87). Here, the issues raised clearly have a significance beyond the merely Shelleyan: for instance, Shelley's use of prophetic voice in poems like Queen Mab--"a single voice" invested with the "complete discursive authority" of "oracular revelation"--prompts Grimes to ask, "Is it possible to write socially critical literature that does not simply replace the false powers of contemporary society with the different but equally false powers of the poet's own invention?" (78-79). Chris Foss, too, charts Shelley's struggle to balance his emphases on "individualistic self-creation" and "sociopolitical transformation" or "inner and outer reform" (42-43)--a matter which in our time still confounds such neoromantics as the philosopher Richard Rorty, who has enormous trouble articulating the proper relationship between the categories of "private poetry" and "the public sphere" (Cruickshank 17).
These categorical questions, abstract though they may seem, are indeed connected to the darker stuff of Darby Lewes's "Prophet and Loss: Women and Shelley's Utopian Experiment." Where Foss begins and concludes with effervescent praise for Percy Bysshe Shelley as a "keen sociopolitical analyst and strategist," comparing him to postmodern marxist/feminist Michael Ryan (39, 48), Lewes grimly confronts us with the astonishing gap between Shelley's idealistic politico-poetic stances and his personal behavior. Without quite reducing Shelley's philosophy to his biography, Lewes's analysis reminds us abundantly why second-wave feminists raised "the personal is political" as a battle cry. That a man who so consistently preached universal love, liberty, and equality in public should be capable of such callous and vicious behavior in private complicates, to say the least, the arguments of those who, with Max Blechman, are eager to recover a lost heritage of "revolutionary romanticism." The man who emerges in Lewes's portrait is anything but a "revolutionary" in person, except insofar as his radical ideals served to permit him to disregard such paltry worldly affairs as a concern for others' feelings or well-being. If other studies of utopia have called attention to the thousands or millions of victims sacrificed to utopian ideals, this essay remembers how one narcissist commanded just a few sacrifices to his--most notably Harriet Westbrook, and to a lesser degree, Mary Shelley herself. Those of us who have felt a certain utopian elation when reading certain lines in poems like Prometheus Unbound--"The loathsome mask has fallen, the man remains / Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, but man / Equal, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless, / Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the king / Over himself" (III.193-197)--will be unable to read Lewes's essay without wincing: here is Shelley's own loathsome mask. It will certainly give pause to those who have been inclined to take at face value what Paul Foot hails as expressions of "unbounded and sustained enthusiasm" for "women's liberation" on Shelley's part (116).
In the face of this rather gloomy interpretation of "the Shelley circle's utopian project," Melissa Sites focuses on another member of that "circle" to offer a more sanguine perspective. Rejecting traditional readings of Mary Shelley's late works Falkner and Lodore as mere "conventional domestic novels," signs that the author had "abandoned" her earlier feminist radicalism, Sites argues that these novels anticipate another kind of "perfected society"--one in which the very "divisions between public and private" on which Percy's utopia founders can be "broken down," making room for genuine "equality" between men and women: "The Godwinian man moves into the domestic sphere, as the Wollestonecraftian woman takes up her responsibilities outside it" (82, 95). Perhaps it is in this rather earthly vision, and not in Percy's "intense inane" (Prometheus Unbound III.204), that contemporary utopians should vest their admiration and hopes.
In probing such questions, this collection will offer most to those readers interested in certain aspects of utopian problematics, e.g., gender roles and the private/ public divide; it will be of somewhat less urgent interest to readers seeking dramatically new perspectives on Romantic utopianism in general and that of the Shelleys in particular. It might make the best reading for undergraduates encountering the Shelleys for the first time and seeking to understand the complex interplay between these Romantics' writings, their politics, and their personal lives.
Purdue University North Central
Blechman, Max, ed. Revolutionary Romanticism: A Drunken Boat Anthology. San Francisco: City Lights, 1999.
Cruickshank, Justin. "Ethnocentrism, Social Contract Liberalism and Positivistic-Conservatism: Rorty's Three Theses on Politics." Res Publica 6 (2000): 1-23.
Foot, Paul. Red Shelley. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1980.
Scrivener, Michael Henry. Radical Shelley: The Philosophical Anarchism and Utopian Thought of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1982.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2004|
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