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Teddi Chichester Bonca. Shelley's Mirrors of Love: Narcissism, Sacrifice, and Sorority.

Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999. Pp. xiv+311. $21.95 (paper)/$65.50 (cloth).

One of the commonplaces of biographically informed criticism of Percy Bysshe Shelley is that he spent his adult life trying to recreate the idyll of his Field Place childhood. As a boy, Shelley appears to have been the center and circumference of his sheltered world--surrounded by four adoring younger sisters with a beautiful mother presiding in the background. (A younger brother, John, was born when Shelley was fourteen.) The first cold blast of boarding school followed by more open confrontations with his family the broken engagement with his cousin Harriet Grove, expulsion from Oxford, elopement with Harriet Westbrook--eventually brought an end to this idyll. But it retained its pride of place in Shelley's imagination of what the real world ought to or even could become: a realm of nurturing sympathy, imaginative play, and sisterly love. One may well notice the not-so-hidden masculine bias of this idealized scene--a positive harem of oceanide-sister-cousins all in service to Prometheus Shelley--and Shelley himself came to have a certain insight into the narcissism that informed his visionary ideal. Shelley's Mirrors of Love: Narcissism, Sacrifice, and Sorority by Teddi Chichester Bonca offers a serious and nuanced analysis of this dynamic in his life and writing. It traces Shelley's sense of identification with a "sorority" increasingly linked to ideals of selflessness and "sacrifice" and his struggle with an underlying "narcissism" that at once interferes with those ideals and also, more subtly, expresses itself through them. Bonca focuses on the broken engagement with Harriet Grove as a particularly decisive moment in the unfolding of this psychic pattern. She presents it as crucial to understanding Shelley's lifelong fascination with (feminine-coded) ideals of love and selflessness and their (masculine-coded) shadow of selfishness, lust, and violence. In a tour de force of psychoanalytically informed reading, Bonca explores how the breakup, which was precipitated by Shelley's increasingly open attacks on Christianity, produces a hysterical and violent repudiation not just of Christianity but of the figure of Christ himself. The letters Shelley wrote to Thomas Jefferson Hogg during this time, the fall/winter of 1810--1811, exhibit the full range of his aspirations toward selfless love and of his wounded narcissism, and they do at times take Christ--rather than, say, Harriet Grove or her disapproving parents--as the focus of their highly charged, quasi-sexual frustrations. The vehement and personal tone is quite different from that of his initial argument with Christian orthodoxy as it is from his more mature critique (in both of which Jesus himself figures as an admirable reformer). In Bonca's reading, the rage Shelley directs at Christ indicates a deeper identification with Christ at an earlier, admittedly less documentable, stage of his development. Drawing on the work of Heinz Kohut, she suggests that Christ functions as a kind of ego-ideal or, more precisely, "selfobject" for the young Shelley, and that this ideal was characteristically (in the context of Field Place) somewhat feminized. In the instant of alienation in which Shelley seems to blame Christ personally for the loss of Harriet, he begins to identify with an opposing figure who already had awakened his imaginative interest--the Wandering Jew. A series of intricate readings spanning Shelley's earliest and latest treatments of both these figures shows how intimately they are connected--how often the Wandering Jew melds into Christ and vice-versa. Each, in effect, takes turns as the figure of merciless tyranny and its martyred victim. Both, therefore, become paradigms for Shelley's repetitive tendency to idealize and reject a whole slew of "sister spirits"; in a more nuanced vein, they model his understanding of love as an act of selflessness and sacrifice, to be imagined ultimately as feminine, and yet always at risk of exposing a streak of narcissism or "Selfhood" and, in still darker imaginings, sexual violence. Bonca supposes that such idealizations and alienations may be traced to earlier traumas of Shelley's youth--positing some withdrawal of his mother's affection that is doubled, repeated, and recalled in the moment he loses Harriet Grove and, soon after, the intimacy of his sisters. More importantly, she shows how they put in place a paradigm that can be followed throughout Shelley's writing.

The readings that follow this intriguing account of Christ as adored and rejected "selfobject" pursue a whole series of doublings that exemplify such "volatile conjunction[s]" in which the invoked pairs "share certain qualities" and "interact dynamically" rather than serving as "rigid emblems of virtue and vice" (45). The double is not the other, but the self in all its contradictions. In effect Shelley desires to `be' Christ even as he knows that the very desire, with its implicitly selfish and narcissistic underpinnings, disqualifies him, so to speak, for the position. More generally, he wishes to (re)enter a world of sororal love even though, or--more disturbingly--precisely because his entry cannot help but spell its destruction. One of the strengths of this portrait is that Shelley's Mirrors of Love avoids, as it were, the Scylla and the Charybdis of debates on Shelley's feminism. Several critics have noted that Shelley's writings display a profound impulse of identification with the feminine as he understands it, and even something like an authentically political feminism; most recent critics have, however, been quick to point out the narcissistic, egotistical, and masculinist swerve that these same writings almost invariably take. These debates ultimately reflect Shelley's own sense of what is at stake in his struggles and disappointments. He is at once a more troubled and a more candid figure than a mere feminist hero or, for that matter, romantic mascuhnist egotist. Bonca is not, of course, the first to negotiate such complexities, and she makes excellent use of earlier studies of Shelleyan eros such as William Ulmer's. Perhaps her book's most original contributions occur in its compelling and often detailed analyses of his earlier writings: Zastrozzi, Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson, lyrics from The Esdaile Notebook, as well as passages from Queen Mab and the neglected fragment The Assassins. The careful attention to these sometimes clumsy texts proves surprisingly productive and deepens one's sense of Shelley's work as a whole. Shelley's Mirrors of Love also includes thoughtful consideration of later writings, but the discussion tends to develop within a framework of critical consensus already in place. So, for example, the account of Beatrice Cenci's failure to break free from her father's shadow falls well within the parameters of how this play is usually read. Bonca does, however, make the suggestive comment that when Shelley imagines Count Cenci, in all his horrific "Selfhood," he may well be performing a more truly selfless act of imagination than when he imagines the more idealized Lionel or Laon.

There is a lingering irony in the fact that a study devoted to exploring Shelley's attempts to break free from the boundaries of self remains so caught up in the representation of that (supposed) self, or, to put it more plainly, so biographical. As it happens, the interpretations of his work do not entirely depend on the biographical frame. Writing of another book that emphasizes an adolescent trauma in its interpretation of Shelley's development as a writer, Bonca makes an interesting aside on just this issue. The reference is to Shelley's Venomed Melody by Nora Crook and Derek Guiton, a study that speculates on the possibility of an early sexual encounter with a prostitute that may or may not have left Shelley with syphilis or, at any rate, the belief that he had contracted syphilis. Bonca remarks that Crook's and Guiton's reading of Zastrozzi (which she admires) is perhaps overly invested in the literal truth of its biographical speculations: "the novel's own blurring of the psychic (or psychotic) realm with external `reality' suggests that hunting for a particular biographical incident is unnecessary ..." (143-44). This reflection might well be generalized as a response to much of Shelley's Mirrors of Love. Shelley's writings are nothing if not hard to pin down on the question of referents and origins. Even the "merely" biographical record is scarcely straightforward, and questions of causality or even genealogy are not easily answered. (Shelley seems to have deliberately brought on the Harriet Grove crisis.) More fundamentally, one may ask whether the conjunctions, not just of the "psychic (or psychotic) realm with external `reality'" but of the literary and linguistic realm with the biographical are any less "volatile" than any of the other doubles that inhabit Shelley's writing. To give a fairly straightforward example: Bonca relates the topos of the abandoned woman in his earliest poetry to unease with his father's "aristocratic" (58) attitude towards the sexual exploitation of women. (According to Medwin, Shelley said that his father had told him that he was willing to support any illegitimate children Shelley fathered but not to countenance a mesalliance.) The literary prominence of the abandoned woman topos in eighteenth-century writing is only lightly acknowledged and the notion that it might, as a literary topos, play a genuinely productive role in the poet's self-invention does not enter the analysis at all. The nature of the dynamic give and take--or, for that matter, the absence of give and take--between "poetry" and "person" is not really questioned. And, as this example attests, Bonca, too, occasionally invests in the literal truth of biographical speculations: the initial inferences concerning Timothy Shelley's sexual attitudes and Shelley's adolescent response are actually drawn rather cautiously on the basis of Medwin's anecdote--which is indeed thin evidence; a few pages later, the discussion refers to the entire scenario as a matter of fact. I do not deny that the speculation is plausible, but it remains a speculation and its supposed explanatory power constitutes, in turn, yet another speculation. Even the very persuasive and fruitful reading of Shelley's Christ is presented as if necessarily determined by what can only be a reconstructed and unprovable early childhood identification. Up to a point, this is an accepted psychoanalytic manoeuver but, as Freud knew, what the analysand may or may not have seen is finally much less important than what she says.

Withal, the biographical emphasis leads, as it usually does in Shelley criticism, to a slightly moralizing tone. Once the staging of the proper name "Percy Bysshe Shelley" is allied to a whole theater of disappointments and sufferings, personal and ethical judgments seem all but inevitably to follow. For literary criticism, however, the rhetoric of ethical judgment may not mark much of an advance over that of aesthetic judgment. Both often serve to evade the peculiar specificity and materiality of the literary. Bonca only rarely addresses the literariness or, indeed, the language of Shelley's writing. She is, to be fair, after other game. But I confess to a wish that more of the refinement and nuance of the (psycho)analysis of how Shelleyan selfhood and selflessness "interact dynamically" (45) had been brought to bear on the very notion of a self whose bios grounds the grapheme of our reading. I should add that, of course, not all readers will share my wish, and most will, I think, learn a great deal about Shelley from this intelligent and articulate study.
Deborah Elise White
Emory University

DEBORAH ELISE WHITE is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Emory University. Her book, Romantic Returns: Superstition, Imagination, and History, was published by Stanford UP in 2002.
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Author:White, Deborah Elise
Publication:Studies in Romanticism
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2001
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