The aesthetics of contingency in the Shelleyan "universe of things," or, "Mont Blanc" without Mont Blanc.
This essay, however, challenges the assumption that meaning in "Mont Blanc" is to be found only on the summit of Mont Blanc--and, for that matter, the assumption that Mont Blanc is, in fact, the object of "Mont Blanc." It turns instead to Shelley's musings on the Ravine of Arve, which have long been subordinated to his account of the power represented by the mountain. More than forty years ago, Earl Wasserman characterized the ravine as representing "the discontinuous external world," (6) while Nigel Leask has more recently elaborated a trajectory where Shelley's attention "mov[es] upward rapidly from contemplation of the ravine of Arve with a singular lack of humility, fixing a gaze that rises above the crowded and commercial viewing-platforms of the tourists, above the platitudes of conventional sublime piety." In Leask's estimation, "Shelley suggests that a correct understanding of the mountain's catastrophic agency is contingent upon an elite sensibility which, rejecting the valley view, seeks the view from the top." (7) Meaning always exists somewhere other than in the sensuous world of the ravine, and readers have not been encouraged to linger there among the caverns, commotion, and visions of the unredeemed catastrophe of life and death. Mountain-oriented discussions of the poem thus tend towards one of two possibilities: either "the human mind's imaginings" (143) are triumphant in their ability to give meaning to the famous "vacancy" (144) of the mountain, or the vacancy rebukes the pretensions of that mind, shutting down all responses other than humility.
However, read from a perspective that does not automatically privilege the mountain, "Mont Blanc" offers an alternative experience of sublimity, realized in Shelley's "unremitting interchange / With the clear universe of things around" (39--40)--an experience that is not oriented towards the transcendent power represented by the mountain, but remains attentive to the operations of contingency in the discontinuous space of the ravine. Moreover, Shelley takes the Ravine of Arve--not Mont Blanc--as his figure for the relationship between mind and world. Though indirectly present through the manifestations of power, the mountain does not explicitly "appear" until line 61--almost halfway through the poem--halting the meandering syntax of the first two sections in favor of more discrete units of meaning that characterize the poem from that point on. The description of the ravine in section 2 and the visions of catastrophe that occupy the central position of section 4 disrupt the serenity and stability attached to the mountain, undermining the faith in the "secret strength of things / Which governs thought" (139-40) that he expresses, however provisionally, in the poem's final lines. In the "valley view," section 4's visions of catastrophe remain unrecuperated as emblems of what David Collings calls "disastrous transcendence," a gesture of negation that draws attention to the "persistently alien dimensions of the preconditions of life, in the materiality that at once enables and potentially undermines human flourishing." (8) The life-destroying glacier becomes the life-giving river, displaying a universe that is not only indifferent, but also contingent and ambiguous, obscuring the dividing line between the two. Shelley refuses to fully transcend the discontinuous world around him and accepts, at least provisionally, the catastrophic realization of his own vulnerability and a subject-position that is characterized first and foremost as a relation to contingency.
Christoph Bode argues:
Shelley's universe is decidedly a material one, which does not exist for man but confronts him indifferently. This realization overwhelms him and would leave him helpless were it not for the insight that such knowledge and such self-knowledge is possible only in his mind, this new quality of the universe, and that there alone the world exists as a meaningful one. In 'Mont Blanc' ... Shelley is an ontological materialist and an epistemological idealist at the same time. (9)
By teasing out what he describes as an "almost uncanny" (10) resonance between the Shelleyan and Kantian sublimes, Bode reveals an often-overlooked flexibility that operates within the Kantian paradigm, particularly with regards to the dynamical sublime's ability to "raise the soul's fortitude above its usual middle range and allow us to discover in ourselves an ability to resist which is of quite a different kind, and which gives us the courage [to believe] that we could be a match for nature's seeming omnipotence." (11) From the perspective of Shelley's ravine, transcendence--the means through which the human subject meets the overwhelming force of nature--may be imagined not as a freedom from external conditions (nor as the mastery of those conditions) but as a freedom within those conditions, recognized as inherendy contingent. This essay, then, extends Bode's argument, positing a sublime aesthetics of contingency in "Mont Blanc" that does not seek to escape the discontinuities and confusions of the material world through an identification with infinite reason.
To be able to view nature as a "might that has no dominance over us" (12) is to leave open the possibility that independence from this force is a matter neither of possessing superior force (mental or otherwise) or of simply ignoring nature's power (which would hardly achieve the level of awareness necessary to experience the sublime in the first place). At once immobilizing and empowering, Shelley's state of suspended animation--his "trance sublime and strange" (35)--situates him in a relation to the natural landscape that neither dominates nor is dominated by him. Locating himself in the "unremitting interchange" of things in a universe which includes the mindlessly destructive power emblematized by Mont Blanc, the rolling waters of the River Arve, and even the "wild thoughts" (41) of human projection, Shelley renders a sublime that consists in the power to suspend the distinction between the dominant and the dominated. The embodied figure of trance or suspended animation thereby enables Shelley to dwell in the contingency of the "interchange," both to know and not know what he is experiencing. Rather than following a traditional Kantian narrative that starts with a cognitively-disabling encounter with the overwhelming force of nature that gives way to an elevated sense of power based in transcendent human reason, the sublime of contingency remains in a more prolonged engagement with the outside world. (13) This contingent sublime emerges from the cacophony and commotion of the Ravine of Arve, in the full contemplation of this "universe of things" (1). Thus the "awful scene" (15) of the Ravine of Arve reveals the possibility of a sublime whose telos is not stability but contingency, an undoing or suspension of telos.
Shelley's depiction of his experience in the Ravine of Arve anticipates what the speculative realist philosopher Quentin Meillassoux has recently called the "great outdoors, the absolute outside of pre-critical thinkers: that outside which was not relative to us, and which was given as indifferent to its own givenness to be what it is, existing in itself regardless of whether we are thinking of it or not; that outside which thought could explore with the legitimate feeling of being on foreign territory--of being entirely elsewhere." (14) In the place of this "great outdoors," Meillassoux argues, philosophy since Kant has adopted a "correlationist" view, "the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other." (15) Correlationism occupies a middle term between a naive, mechanical realism and subjective idealism. It attempts to account (however incompletely) for the existence of both an outside world and a subjective mind, but it does so indirectly, by treating the convergence and divergence between the two as the only proper subject of philosophical knowledge. Within the correlationist paradigm, contingency and discontinuity must be seen as deviations, temporary states that reflect the limitations of human finitude that must be resolved through the imaginative identification with the infinite. This is, of course the assumption that underpins Wasserman's view of the ravine-mountain binary in "Mont Blanc," and nearly every other reading of the poem that revolves around a search for the origin of "power." Meillassoux's figure of the "great outdoors," however, is meant to evoke a relationship to the external world that exceeds the correlationist paradigm. The appearance of discontinuity in the world is not, according to Meillassoux, a result of perceptual distortion caused by human finitude (the view adopted, to varying degrees, by correlationist philosophies); rather, it points to the broader operations of facticity, "the real property whereby everything and every word is without reason, and is thereby capable of actually becoming otherwise without reason ... an absolute ontological property, and not a mark of the finitude of our knowledge." (16) To perceive contingency in the natural world, as well as its absolute otherness from human thought, is no longer, in Meillassoux's view, the self-reflexive act of acknowledging human finitude. Rather, it is the form of absolute knowledge itself. (17)
The confusion that Shelley registers when he gazes upon the "Dizzy Ravine" (34)--to say nothing of his descriptions of disaster later in the poem--may thus, in the context of Meillassoux's philosophy, reflect the accuracy of the poet's perception of the absolute status of contingency, which extends even to the distinction between thought and being. Scholars have long discussed how "Mont Blanc" lays out a mutually constitutive relationship between the mind and the world. Ferguson makes the case that Shelley's sublime "makes an implicit argument for the transcendent existence of man ... because he is able to domesticate the material world for the purposes of aesthetics by converting such a massive example of the power of the material world as Mont Blanc from an object into a found object." (18) Bode's arguments about Shelley's ontological materialism lead him to read the poem (and, more specifically, section 2) as a description of "the relationship of subject and object as a continuously dialectical one, but one in which the object pole is clearly dominant." (19) Such concerns, though, belong largely to the "mountain view" that promises a "secret strength" beyond the sensible world, a secret strength that is generally assumed to be as monolithic as the mountain that represents it. Yet, both the "unremitting interchange" of section 2 and the visions of disaster in section 4 point to a radical discontinuity that cannot be resolved into a dialectic of mind and world. Steven Shaviro's recent object-oriented reading of "Mont Blanc" provides a starting point for thinking beyond these categories. He writes that, "On one level, the poem ... posits a subject-object binary, with 'my own, my human mind' passively registering impressions from 'the clear universe of things around.' But at the same time, the poem also suggests that not just 'my human mind,' but all entities, without exception, engage in the 'unremitting interchange' of rendering and receiving 'fast influencings.'" (20) From this perspective, the central drama of the poem lies in Shelley's willingness to suspend binary thinking and enter fully into a relation with a contingent, unconditioned "universe of things."
Read without Mont Blanc, "Mont Blanc" becomes a poem about learning how to live in a world governed by contingency. It asks what it might mean to give up (however temporarily) the search for an underlying reason--even and especially an underlying reason not accessible to human cognition--and to stay with the uncertainty that marks the point of closest contact with this world. Section 2 can be seen as the poem's de-centered center, the locus of an experience of sublimity realized in the form of "unremitting interchange" (enabled by the suspension of discursive thought) that unfolds somewhat separately from Shelley's struggle to wrest meaning from the mountain. This latter struggle does, of course, preoccupy much of the remainder of the poem, which, as Hitt argues, " introduce conventional or intertextual elements in the service of its quest for some positive truth about universe, mind, or nature. But no such truth is ever fully articulated, for whatever might be provisionally posited is inevitably reexamined, questioned, and finally left to collapse on itself." (21) Yet the experience of the second section continues to inform Shelley's more conventionally legible search for reason. The poem leaves open the possibility that the implosion of Shelley's efforts to fathom the unfathomable are the warrants of his success in this endeavor: a form of positive truth that speaks to the absolute absence of what he claims to seek. The world only appears to be continuous and rational from a distant perspective. As awareness and perception become more acute, more focused, the gaps and discontinuities become impossible to ignore. (22) Yet, to the extent that he maintains a "faith so mild" (77) in that "secret strength" of a universe that ultimately conforms to an anthropocentric version of coherent, unified reason, Shelley does not fully recognize the accuracy of his perception.
Even before naming his location as the Ravine of Arve Shelley uses the images of a river and valley to describe the relationship between the mind and the world. "The everlasting universe of things," he writes,
Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves, Now dark--now glittering--now reflecting gloom-- Now lending splendour, where from the secret springs The source of human thought its tribute brings Of waters,--with a sound but half its own, Such as a feeble brook will oft assume In the wild woods, among the mountains lone, Where waterfalls around it leap for ever, Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves. (1-11)
The language of "secret springs" anticipates (in both image and rhyme) the poem's final correlationist turn towards "the secret strength of things," seen from the broad perspective of the "One Mind, which constitutes total Existence and of which each individual mind is a portion." (23) However, that interaction does not offer clearly defined rules of engagement. The "flow" of the universe produces different results at different points in time. In lines 3 and 4, Shelley describes the movement as a succession of evanescent "now"s connected by dashes that serve to highlight the absence of causal connection. The words he uses to describe the flow--"dark," "glittering," "reflecting gloom," and "lending splendour"--are all suggestive of surface qualities: brief, perhaps even illusory, impressions created by the water's interaction with wind and light. Arising in a moment, gone in an instant, these qualities of the "universe of things" draw attention to their discontinuity and, more importantly, to the ways in which discontinuity and unpredictability are constitutive of that reality, indexing an underlying principle of contingency.
Particularly important to note is the way that this opening passage undermines the ability to distinguish between subject and object, an undetermined relation that will continue to inform the following sections. The "universe of things" may be accorded a provisional priority over the "mind" through which it "rolls," but both terms are mutually constitutive; it is never precisely clear where one ends and the other begins. Like a Mobius strip, which transforms two sides into an object with one continuous surface, Shelley effects a connection between mind and world in the middle of the passage, making them continuous without making them the same. Lines 6 and 7 liken the human mind, previously identified with the ravine as a conduit for the "flow" of "things," to a "feeble brook" and tributary to the same river, amplified by the echoes of distant "waterfalls" in mountain forests. The exchange imagined here is unequal because the "feeble brook" of human thought can never resist the "rapid waves" of the universe of things, yet it is not fully determined, lacking a clear regulating principle other than contingency. Moreover, in addition to the complexity of Shelley's figuration and grammatical constructions, what makes this passage so challenging is that it describes a relation to the world that is difficult for a human subject to realize in a single instant, let alone maintain as an ongoing practice of perception. A mind conditioned by binary thought may be incapable of allowing the universe to "flow" through it unhindered: the tendency is towards grasping and attachment, towards im posing the very structures of separation that the section resists. (It is difficult, in fact, to summarize this section of "Mont Blanc" without reinstantiating these structures and thereby oversimplifying the scene.) What Shelley describes in this passage is something close to a meditative state, where attachment and separation drop away. In the following section, this state coalesces into the "trance sublime and strange" that enables Shelley to participate more fully in the movement he lays out in "Mont Blanc"'s opening lines.
Thematically, section 2 is the place where Shelley develops his most sustained relationship with the ravine. A composite of several valleys that Shelley visited in the Chamouni region, the poem's ravine is characterized by multiplicity: it is "many-coloured, many-voiced," with "pines, and crags, and caverns" sprawling underneath "fast cloud shadows and sunbeams" (13, 14, 15). Although Ferguson sees in these early sections the development of an " elaborate schema of reciprocity, " (24) this passage resists that schematization at the level of both content and form. Shelley's use of dashes and semicolons both connects and separates, holding different images in an undetermined relation with each other. An unusual number of rhymes and near-rhymes--"Arve's commotion / ceaseless motion," "sound / around," and "eternity / gaze on thee / phantasy"--intensify the interplay of cacophony and stillness. (25) As a whole, the passage enacts the formal equivalent of a holding pattern, promising an ending that never arrives, spinning itself into a prolonged suspension that is resolved in a way that is perfunctory at best, as the single long sentence that comprises this second section is descriptive rather than narrative. The first section is also a single sentence, but at only eleven lines, it feels more coherent, even with the grammatical and figural twist in the middle. Section 2 also feels much longer than the two that follow it--which use more conventional, manageable syntax--even though it is slightly shorter than section 4 and only a few lines longer than section 3.
As in the first section, the description in section 2 eschews narrative succession as Shelley's awareness gradually expands to include a list of events happening more or less simultaneously. As a result, this passage offers an immediacy present nowhere else in the poem. The river cascades through the ravine "like the flame / Of lightning through the tempest" (18-19)--no longer simply "reflecting" or "glittering" but electrifying and transforming the landscape in ways that, like lightning, are understood to be unpredictable and uncontrollable. The poem's original subtitle, "Scene--Pont Pellisier in the vale of Servox," makes the vulnerability of Shelley's body even more vivid, locating him in close proximity to the Arve River swollen by recent rains and snowmelt. Much as (under the conditions of Kant's dynamical sublime) the mind is capable of responding through active reflection to what it cannot resist through force, the ravine is both "passive" and determinate, channeling and focusing a seemingly uncontrollable "Power." The caverns along the sides of the ravine, "echoing to the Arve's commotion" (30), amplify the sound of the waterfalls and river into "A loud, lone sound no other sound can tame" (31), a sound capable of overwhelming and absorbing all the other "voices" in this vast wilderness. We should read "commotion" not merely as confused or disruptive activity but also as a mode of contingent relationality: a co-motion that draws attention to the undetermined interaction of incommensurable elements in a defined space.
Furthermore, Shelley's description of the "old and solemn harmony" (24) produced by the visits of "chainless winds" to the "giant brood of pines" (22, 20) that cling to the sides of the ravine should not obscure the fact that, in human terms, the Ravine of Arve is a terrifying place to be and that it operates on a distinctly inhuman scale. It is only the limited, human perspective that reads the coursing of the river as an unfolding narrative; in the time-space produced by the ravine, these events are simultaneous and precariously interdependent. Freed from the mind of binary thought, Shelley perceives "earthly rainbows stretched across the sweep / Of the etherial waterfall" (25-26). Ferguson sees in these lines a "transfer of attributes" that renders "the phenomena ... more than themselves," (26) while still preserving some level of difference, to the extent that these objects remain distinguishable from each other. Yet this exchange, set against the incessant roar of the waters and on the edge of a "strange sleep" also contains the possibility of a more radical collapse. It serves as a reminder that, as Meillassoux writes, "there is no reason for anything to be or remain thus and so rather than otherwise, and this applies as much to the laws that govern the world as to the things of the world." (27) No law obtains here except that of contingency, and this realization jolts Shelley into an encounter with his own vulnerability in the paralysis of "the strange sleep / Which when the voices of the desart fail / Wraps all in its own deep eternity" (27-29). The coupling of "deep eternity" with the language of "strange sleep"--a form of suspension, absence, and unavailability--registers an even more profound ungraspability in the "universe of things around" (40). More than that, however, Shelley encounters, in this moment of disruptive pause, a deeper, more constitutive rift. The "deep eternity" signifies a kind of geological time inaccessible to human perception and indifferent to human history. Like the withdrawn objects of object-oriented ontology, the ravine is pervaded with what Timothy Morton describes as "nothingness": "an excess over what we can know or say about [an object], or what anything can know or say about it ... a nothingness, not absolutely nothing, but not something to which one can point." (28) The nothingness of correlationist philosophy points to the finitude of human existence: the failed voices in Shelley's "desart." What speculative realism argues (in a number of different ways, not all of which are compatible with each other) is that nothingness, discontinuity, and withdrawnness constitute an "absolute ontological property" (29) of reality itself.
When the Ravine of Arve is considered separately from the regulative force of Mont Blanc, Shelley's "clear universe of things around" does at least temporarily come to resemble Meillassoux's "great outdoors." By his willingness to remain temporarily present in this space of both nothingness and an overwhelming plenitude, Shelley models one possible response to the world that resists the claims of human finitude. Surveying the valley's "ceaseless motion" against the roar of "unresting sound" (32, 33), Shelley exclaims,
... when I gaze on thee I seem as in a trance sublime and strange To muse on my own separate phantasy, My own, my human mind, which passively Now renders and receives fast influencings, Holding an unremitting interchange With the clear universe of things around ... (34-40)
This is the only passage in "Mont Blanc" where he speaks of "my own, my human mind" as opposed to "the mind" or the "human mind," making explicit the extent to which he is implicated in and affected by what he experiences in the Vale of Chamouni. Significantly, this passage is also the first point in the poem where the lyric "I" emerges. That it is suspended almost as soon as it does emerge speaks to an experience of withdrawal in the constitution of Shelley's own subjectivity: he both is and is not himself. Robert Mitchell describes the trance as "a state in which the narrator's faculties of knowing and desiring are placed in abeyance--[wherein] the specificity and complexity of the faculty of feeling can be best revealed." (30) Yet, the stakes are somewhat higher than feeling and sensation, for suspension is the privileged posture of the sublime of contingency. Laying aside conceptual thought, Shelley enters more fully into the "unremitting interchange"; here, he most fully realizes the meditative exchange he had already imagined in "Mont Blanc "'s opening lines. By adopting a posture of deliberate suspension--this position that he compares to "a trance sublime and strange"--Shelley enacts his own form of "strange sleep" in order to gain access to an absolute experience of "deep eternity." The "trance" becomes sublime insofar as it is able to suspend or bracket the expectations, desires, perceptions, fears, and conditioning that create the "separate phantasy" of individuated subjectivity as separate from the contingent, external reality constituted by "the clear universe of things."
The opening passage presents, in condensed form, a complex model of the relation between the mind and the world. The remainder of section 2 offers a brief glimpse of what that interchange might look like, how Shelley can "rende[r] and receiv[e] fast influencings" even if, as Bode suggests, the "object pole" remains the dominant force in the exchange. Shelley sends forth "One legion of wild thoughts" (41) to float above the "darkness" of the ravine. Though these thoughts may seem insubstantial compared to the jagged physicality of the rocks and raging river, they subtly alter and interact with those more solid-seeming natural objects. The structure of their movement--"whose wandering wings / Now float above thy darkness, and now rest" (41-42)--recalls the flow of the "universe of things," particularly in the repetition of the word "now," which creates an echo of the meditative, contingent relation of mind and world in the earlier section. This resonance makes it more difficult to assume that Shelley has merely retreated into "the still cave of the witch Poesy" (44) in order to escape reality in the shadows of the imagination--or that these "wild thoughts" are legible as images of idealistic transcendence. (31) In fact, addressing the ravine, Shelley describes the cave as a location where "that [the ravine's darkness] or thou [the ravine itself] art no unbidden guest" (43), maintaining the openness to communication that had been established through the trance of the previous lines. The language of hospitality is particularly important here, making it difficult to assent to the interpretation that image represents the "primitive, superstitious enclosure of the mind's cave" to be set against "the sceptical truth which an unflinching and reflective scrutiny of the mountain's naked ice-plains and remote summit can teach." (32) Even "shadows" and "ghosts" and the "faint image" of the ravine that haunts the caverns (45, 46, 47) may participate in this world, for they, like the "strange sleep" reflect the constitutive discontinuity of reality itself, apprehended through a posture of suspension.
The beginning of the third section declares that "Some"--not necessarily Shelley himself--"say that gleams of a remoter world / Visit the soul in sleep" (49-50). In so doing, it distances the poet from the immediacy of the ravine and marks an end to the suspension that had enabled the earlier contemplations; even the language of sleep takes on a more conventional connotation, abandoning the strangeness of the previous section. Turning away from the vulnerable immediacy of the ravine, Shelley hedges his metaphysical inquiries and falls back upon received wisdom:
I look on high; Has some unknown omnipotence unfurled The veil of life and death? or do I lie In dream, and does the mightier world of sleep Spread far around and inaccessibly In circles? (52-57)
For the first time in the poem, Shelley directs his gaze upwards, yet it is not until several lines later that the mountain actually appears in the poem. In this interval, which acts as a hinge (or another twist of the Mobius strip) between the sublime of the ravine and that of the mountain, he looks but does not see, returning to the binary opposition of subject and object, of human questioning and "unknown omnipotence." Here again, however, Meillassoux provides a language for exploring an alternative reading: "in reply to those metaphysical questions that ask why the world is thus and not otherwise, the response 'for no reason' is a genuine answer. Instead of laughing or smiling at questions like 'Where do we come from?', 'Why do we exist?', we should ponder instead the remarkable fact that the replies 'From nothing. For nothing' really are answers, thereby realizing that these really were questions--and excellent ones at that." (33) But these questions are also difficult ones, and the answers that Meillassoux suggests are hard to accept. For Shelley, this exploration provokes a very real crisis: "the very spirit fails, / Driven like a homeless cloud from steep to steep / That vanishes among the viewless gales!" (57-59). The spell of the trancelike interchange is broken, as the human mind is transformed into a flimsy cloud pushed about by the slightest wind, not a ravine-like conduit for the flow of the world. The phallic authority of the mountain ("piercing the infinite sky, / Mont Blanc appears" [60--61]) eventually forecloses this line of questioning: "None can reply--all seems eternal now" (75). (This is the only line in the poem that is also a complete, end-stopped sentence.) But these questions nonetheless register the possibility of contingency that Shelley had discovered in the ravine.
The human mind determined to stay within its self-imposed limitations feels threatened by that which exceeds limits or crosses categories. Indeed, section 4 of "Mont Blanc" contains some of the most violent, destructive, and menacing images in the poem, all while "Power dwells apart in its tranquility / Remote, serene, and inaccessible" (96--97). The passage begins with a detailed invocation of the "universe of things":
The fields, the lakes, the forests, and the streams, Ocean, and all the living things that dwell Within the daedal earth; lightning, and rain, Earthquake, and fiery flood, and hurricane ... All things that move and breathe with toil and sound Are born and die; revolve, subside, and swell. (84-87, 94-95)
The first sentence of the fourth section comprises a total of twelve lines, evoking the holding pattern of section 2. A number of the images of the natural world appear elsewhere in the poem: the forests and streams in section 1, the flashes of lightning in section 2 (and again in section 5). All of this creates a sense of deliberate structuring, a "daedal earth" that evokes the role of the human mind in shaping its experience of the world. Yet, contingency still haunts this scene, for the enumeration of "Earthquake, and fiery flood" also echoes an earlier passage, this time from the speculative questionings in section 3:
Is this the scene Where the old Earthquake-daemon taught her young Ruin? Were these their toys? or did a sea Of fire, envelope once this silent snow? (71-74)
In its first iteration, Earthquake is personified, offering a mythological gloss on a geological past. Seen from the perspective of section 4, however, stripped of its human projections, all that remains is the possibility of ruin that resists recuperation through human narratives. Though nature had been heralded in that same section as the Great Pedagogue, possessing the ability to "repeal / Large codes of fraud and woe" (80-81), it reappears as the avatar of all that evades and exceeds the reach of human consciousness, marking the deep time prior to human existence. More palpable than the glaciers' malevolence ("The glaciers creep / Like snakes that watch their prey" [100-101]) is the mountain's indifference. The heights of Mont Blanc appear immune to the changing seasons (themselves aligned with patterns imposed by human consciousness on a contingent natural world), to say nothing of "The works and ways of man, their death and birth" (92). Where the mountain had once been able to pierce through the atmosphere of Shelley's imaginings, it now appears as the source of a greater-than-human woe, repealing human institutions and, indeed, life itself through brute force.
In section 3, Shelley had looked up and wondered, "Has some unknown omnipotence unfurled / The veil of life and death?" (53-54). In the disaster-riven landscape of section 4, the omnipotence of contingency appears all too present, all too knowable:
Yet not a city, but a flood of ruin Is there, that from the boundaries of the sky Rolls its perpetual stream; the rocks, drawn down From yon remotest waste, have overthrown The limits of the dead and living world, Never to be reclaimed. (107-14)
Even the syntax of these lines can be said to be "overthrown" and distended. Though Shelley's "adverting mind" (100) seeks meaning in this scene, as it had in the previous section, there is now little to be learned. The implacable, slow-moving glaciers contain within them a seemingly unlimited power to destroy the human (and much else that lies in its path). The "perpetual stream" lays waste to trees, soil, and rocks:
So much of life and joy is lost. The race Of man, flies far in dread; his work and dwelling Vanish, like smoke before the tempest's stream, And their place is not known. (117-20)
The result, as Bode describes it, is a view "of nature, of creation, in which man holds no privileged status but is brutally and helplessly exposed to the rage of its elements. Overawed, he recognizes its superior strength, thrown as he is into a world that was not built for him but to which he has to accommodate." (34) The "voices of the desart" are absorbed by the "loud, lone sound" of the ravine; the anthropocentric imaginings of humanity are absorbed into "deep eternity." Undoing the very distinction between life and death, the glacier's disastrous force exposes a rupture not only at the center of referentiality (35) but within reality itself, in spite of Shelley's attempt, at the end of this section, to reinscribe disaster within the language of necessity.
Indeed, section 4 moves from its imagining of catastrophic destruction to end where the poem began--in the Ravine of Arve:
Below, vast caves Shine in the rushing torrents' restless gleam, Which from those secret chasms in tumult welling Meet in the vale, and one majestic River, The breath and blood of distant lands, for ever Rolls its loud waters to the ocean waves, Breathes its swift vapours to the circling air. (120-26)
The caves and river, torrents and valley are all images familiar from earlier in the poem that attempt to recover a sense of reciprocity. The mythological richness of the earlier passages has disappeared, replaced by something perhaps a bit closer to clarity. Discursive thought remains suspended--just as the "swift vapours" hover in the "circling air," mimicking the forms that previously had been associated with the "mightier world of sleep" that figured the world's constitutive discontinuity. Shelley amplifies this point by using the word "Rolls" to describe the movement of the glacial "flood of rain," thus recalling the poem's first two lines--"The everlasting universe of things / Rolls through the mind"--in a way that underlines the precariousness of that situation. At the same time, the menacing glacier-turned-life-giving river also "rolls" through distant lands: a final image of irredeemable contradiction.
Admittedly, one's first response to the encounter with such contingency is rarely a mountain-like serenity. "If we look through the aperture which we have opened up onto the absolute," Meillassoux writes,
what we see there is a rather menacing power--something insensible, and capable of destroying both things and worlds, of bringing forth monstrous absurdities, yet also of never doing anything, of realizing every dream, but also every nightmare, of engendering random and frenetic transformations, or conversely, of producing a universe that remains motionless down to its ultimate recesses, like a cloud bearing the fiercest storms, then the eeriest bright spells, if only for an interval of disquieting calm. We see an omnipotence equal to that of the Cartesian God, and capable of anything, even the inconceivable; but an omnipotence that has become autonomous, without norms, blind, devoid of the other divine perfections, a power with neither goodness nor wisdom, ill-disposed to reassure thought about the veracity of its distinct ideas. (36)
This is an uncanny representation of what Shelley apprehends in "Mont Blanc," particularly in section 4. It is also resonant with David Collings's description of "disastrous transcendence" and the awareness of a post-covenantal God capable of both creation and destruction: "Suspending the covenant makes humanity vulnerable to the dangers of geological and biological processes, to a nature now conceived as truly other, but it also removes any curb on transcendence, exposing humanity to the actions of an uncontrollable God." (37) To "fl[y] far in dread"--to seek a transcendence that promises mental security by denying the reality of the painfully embodied present--is a seemingly appropriate response not only to the physical force of the glacier but to the potentially devastating consequences of vulnerability in the face of contingency. In short, it seems appropriate that Shelley would, in the end, identify with the mountain's "elite sensibility," adopting--or, at least, attempting to adopt--a view that renders discontinuity a temporary state still capable of being resolved and redeemed through the refinement of perception and faith, rather than evidence of some essential, absolute contingency.
The poem's final section is often read as an instantiation of the power of imagination: the glacier may annihilate, the river may both destroy and give life, the mountain may endure, but all these scenes gain importance only because of the "human mind's imaginings" (143). This revelation need not, of course, be a kind of triumphalism. For scholars such as Bode, the mood of the ending is circumspect, marking Shelley's final attempt to come to terms with an indifferent universe emblematized by Mont Blanc:
In the calm darkness of the moonless nights, In the lone glare of day, the snows descend Upon that Mountain; none beholds them there, Nor when the flakes burn in the sinking sun, Or the star-beams dart through them ... (130-34)
There is, of course, an inherent contradiction in the effort to imagine something as existing independently of human imagination. (38) Shelley holds his own effort to think not-thinking (or to imagine not-imagining) in suspension. The poem's final lines--
And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea, If to the human mind's imaginings Silence and solitude were vacancy? (142-44)
--may be seen to leave open the possibility of an independently-subsisting universe, pointing Shelley--and his readers--towards a more complete engagement with a "great outdoors" that no longer places its faith in the "secret strength of things," at least not a "secret strength" that operates according to a rule other than contingency. The "vacancy" associated with "silence and solitude" echoes the "trance sublime and strange" that Shelley had first experienced in the ravine; so, too, does the reference to "the human mind" echo Shelley's examination of "my own, my human mind" in that same passage. This was the place where the human had been revealed in its essential interconnection with the "universe of things," and this allusion at the end of the poem sets forth suspension as the essential posture for coping with the truth of a contingent universe.
Hitt observes that "the 'silence and solitude' of the poem's concluding line allude to what Shelley saw as an outdated idiom, a prescriptive and formulaic mode of experiencing the wild landscape. Read this way, the question at the end of the poem takes on a very different meaning: What would the mountain be if, instead of imagining it in terms of such cold, dead language, we could experience it freely, as a 'vacancy'?" (39) But so long as that question applies only to the mountain, it remains too narrowly focused on the possibility of recovering a "secret strength," ignoring the alternative possibilities, the discontinuous truths, of the ravine. To see the sublime in terms of suspension--the suspension of the comparing powers, the suspension of reference, and suspension as a more broadly available set of practices and forms--reveals that uncertainty is not a negative form of knowing or a lack of knowledge, but is instead a discourse and a posture in its own right. "Mont Blanc" offers itself as an exemplary text for thinking a non-binary, contingent sublime in which suspension is its central posture and condition of possibility. It acknowledges the inadequacies and emptiness of representational language, while also suggesting that sublime experience is made possible by those gaps. Even as Shelley attempts to represent the scene, the text is simultaneously engaged in a disavowal of representation, which is, of course, predicated on the ability to make comparisons: the faculty held in abeyance by the sublime. The "trance sublime and strange" deliberately disrupts thought processes, referentiality, and subjectivity, that is, all those categories that typically condition the experience of the self in the world, including the very categories of "self" and "world." By radically, if momentarily, suspending his typical processes of perception and his conditioned (and conditional) practices of self-making, Shelley allows his separate self to exist alongside the radically undefined, uncontrollable "vacancy" of the mountain and the strangely withdrawn plenitude of the ravine. The "unremitting interchange / With the clear universe of things around" comes only through a work of active suspension and, as a result, is a posture that the poem attains only intermittently before falling back upon conditional language and objectification. To the extent that suspension enables an intimacy between man and nature in the experiential field of the sublime, it does so in a way that is irreducibly marked by contingency, by constitutively partial knowledge that must be experienced as such.
Penn State University
Bode, Christoph. "A Kantian Sublime in Shelley: 'Respect for our Own Vocation' in an Indifferent Universe." 1650-1850: Ideas, Aesthetics, and Inquiries in the Early Modern Era 3 (1997): 329-58.
Collings, David. "After the Covenant: Romanticism, Secularization, and Disastrous Transcendence." European Romantic Review 21 (2010): 345-61.
Ferguson, Frances. "Shelley's Mont Blanc: What the Mountain Said." In Romanticism and Language, edited by Arden Reed, 202-14. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984.
Harman, Graham. "Meillassoux's Virtual Future." Collapse 2 (2007): 187-221.
Heringman, Noah. Romantic Rocks, Aesthetic Geology. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004.
Hitt, Christopher. "Shelley's Unwriting of Mont Blanc." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 47 (2005): 139-66.
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Translated by Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987.
Keach, William. Shelley's Style. New York: Methuen, 1984.
Khalip, Jacques, and David Collings. "Introduction: The Present Time of 'Live Ashes.' " In Romanticism and Disaster, edited by Jacques Khalip and David Collings. Romantic Circles-Praxis. 2012. http://www.rc.umd.edu/praxis/disaster/HTML/praxis.2012.khalip.html. Accessed 10 May 2013.
Leask, Nigel. "Mont Blanc's Mysterious Voice: Shelley and Huttonian Earth Science." In The Third Culture: Literature and Science, edited by Elinor S. Shaffer, 182--203. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1998.
Meillassoux, Quentin. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. Translated by Ray Brassier. London: Continuum, 2008.
Mitchell, Robert. "The Transcendental: Deleuze, P. B. Shelley, and the Freedom of Immobility. " In Romanticism and the New Deleuze, edited by Ron Broglio. Romantic Circles-Praxis. 2008. http://www.rc.umd.edu/praxis/deleuze/mitchell/mitchell.html. Accessed 13 June 2011.
Morton, Timothy. Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality. Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2013.
Roberts, Hugh. Shelley and the Chaos of History: A New Politics of Poetry. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.
Shaviro, Steven. "The Universe of Things." Theory & Event 14 (2011). doi: 10.1353Aae.2011.0027. Accessed 18 December 2012.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Shelley's Poetry and Prose. 2nd edition. Edited by Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat. New York: Norton, 2008.
Wasserman, Earl. Shelley: A Critical Reading. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971.
(1.) I wish to thank Robert Caserio, Claire Colebrook, Noel Jackson, and Alan Vardy for their comments on earlier drafts.
(2.) P. B. Shelley, Shelley's Poetry and Prose, 2nd ed., eds. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat (New York: Norton, 2002), line 97. Subsequent references to Shelley's poems are from this edition and cited by line number in the text.
(3.) Ferguson, "Shelley's Mont Blanc: What the Mountain Said," in Romanticism and Language, ed. Arden Reed (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984), 202.
(4.) Hitt, "Shelley's Unwriting of Mont Blanc," Texas Studies in Literature and Language 47 (2005): 140.
(5.) Heringman, Romantic Rocks, Aesthetic Geology (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004), 6. SiR, 54 (Fall 2015)
(6.) Wasserman, Shelley: A Critical Reading (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971). 237.
(7.) Leask, "Mont Blanc's Mysterious Voice: Shelley and Huttonian Earth Science," in The Third Culture: Literature and Science, ed. Elinor S. Shaffer (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1998), 187.
(8.) Collings, "After the Covenant: Romanticism, Secularization, and Disastrous Transcendence," European Romantic Review 21 (2010): 350.
(9.) Bode, "A Kantian Sublime in Shelley: 'Respect for our Own Vocation' in an Indifferent Universe," 1650--1830: Ideas, Aesthetics and Inquiries in the Early Modern Era 3 (1997): 347.
(10.) Bode, "Kantian Sublime," 356.
(11.) Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), 120.
(12.) Kant, Critique of Judgment, 119.
(13.) Cf. Jacques Khalip's and David Collings's recent observation that the Kantian sublime, at least at it has been conventionally understood, "located human dignity in a space so remote from actual suffering that it left the latter in place, largely unchallenged, cutting that solace off from the suffering body and embodied mind that needed it most" ("Introduction: The Present Time of 'Live Ashes,' " in Romantic Disaster, eds. Jacques Khalip and David Collings, Romantic Circles-Praxis : par. 8, http://www.rc.umd.edu/praxis/disaster/HTML/praxis.2012.khalip.html), accessed 10 May 2013.
(14.) Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans. Ray Brassier (London: Continuum, 2008), 7.
(15.) Meillassoux, After Finitude, 5.
(16.) Meillassoux, After Finitude, 53.
(17.) Meillassoux's description of a contingent universe echoes, at least to some extent, Hugh Roberts's description of "nonlinear dynamic systems" in his longer discussion of Shelley and chaos theory: "any complete description of their state at a given time would be fractal--that is to say, infinitely detailed. The finer the scale of the description, the more information would be revealed, with no convergence to a limit. The basic rationale of the scientific method is, if not exactly defeated, baffled here; 'looking closer' or describing the phenomenon more precisely does not bring us proportionally closer to an ideal, 'complete' understanding of the phenomenon but opens ever new realms of unassimilible data" (Shelley and the Chaos of History: A New Politics of Poetry [University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997], 253).
(18.) Ferguson, "What the Mountain Said," 213.
(19.) Bode, "Kantian Sublime," 335. Bode's argument here coincides with Heringman's, though it operates on a different register. Heringman questions Ferguson's view that "agency is by definition human" from the perspective of eighteenth-century science, holding that "Shelley elaborates a geological agency of deformation in order to question and rejuvenate the sublime, shifting the environmental upheaval associated with the Alps from the cosmological past into the present. Shelley's glaciers are nonhuman agents of violent deformation, rather than legible (or illegible) monuments of it" (Romantic Rocks, 81--82).
(20.) Shaviro, "The Universe of Things," Theory & Event 14 (2011), doi: 10.1353/tae.2011.0027, accessed 18 December 2012.
(21.) Hitt, "Unwriting of Mont Blanc," 145.
(22.) The inability to track the relationship between causes and effects is also a feature of chaotic systems, as Roberts notes: "No matter how precise our information about the current state of the system, our ability to predict its future development will be limited; significant information will always lie below the scale of our measurement" (Shelley and the Chaos of History, 253).
(23.) Wasserman, Shelley, 223.
(24.) Ferguson, "What the Mountain Said," 205.
(25.) William Reach's seminal discussion of "Mont Blanc"'s irregular rhyme scheme suggests how the operations of formal suspension in section 2 continue to play out in the rest of the poem. Like many other commentators, Reach looks toward the mountain itself as the locus of this phenomenon, observing that, "Rhyme in Mont Blanc ... is sufficiently irregular to help evoke the 'untamable wildness' Shelley spoke of: some of the most interesting rhymes in the poem are so distant and so muted by distended syntax that the reader may find them as 'remote' and 'inaccessible' as Mont Blanc itself. With three unrhymed lines Shelley's rhyme remains open, partly unresolved. Yet rhyme is there as one of the resources with which the poet verbally counters as well as encounters an experience of threatening power and sublimity" (Shelley's Style [New York: Methuen, 1984], 199). Robert Mitchell, in "The Transcendental," also notes how the poem's form induces a state of suspension in the reader that mimics Shelley's own "trance." See Mitchell, "The Transcendental: Deleuze, P. B. Shelley, and the Freedom of Immobility," in Romanticism and the New Deleuze, ed. Ron Broglio, Romantic Circles-Praxis (2008), par. 16, http://www.rc.umd.edu/praxis/deleuze/mitchell/mitchell.html, accessed 13 June 2011.
(26.) Ferguson, "What the Mountain Said," 212-13.
(27.) Meillassoux, After Finitude, 53.
(28.) Morton, Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2013), 47.
(29.) Meillassoux, After Finitude, 53.
(30.) Mitchell, "The Transcendental," par. 16.
(31.) Wasserman, for instance, claims that this passage signifies an abhorrence of darkness and vacancy and a transcendence thereof: "thought is seen not only to constitute the universe for man but also to have the power to transcend that universe, to 'float above' the 'darkness' of the ravine that represents the boundaries of the human universe ..." (Shelley, 228).
(32.) Leask, "Mont Blanc's Mysterious Voice," 189.
(33.) Meillassoux, After Finitude, no.
(34.) Bode, "Kantian Sublime," 337.
(35.) "[D]isaster," as Khalip and Collings argue, "floats free of any determining moment, or more radically lays bare a certain nontemporal negativity at the heart of modern historicity itself" ("Introduction," par. 15).
(36.) Meillassoux, After Finitude, 64.
(37.) Collings, "After the Covenant," 352.
(38.) Whether or not we have the ability to do so is one of the central debates in speculative realist philosophy; see, for instance, the discussion of correlationism in Graham Harman, "Meillassoux's Virtual Future," Collapse 2 (2007): 79-81.
(39.) Hitt, "Unwriting of Mont Blanc," 157.
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|Author:||McCarthy, Anne C.|
|Publication:||Studies in Romanticism|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2015|
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