Sunday, November 30, 2008

Book Review Contest: Poetics of Self and Form in Keats & Shelley (reviewed by Hema Madhavan)

As second-generation Romantic Poets, it is understandable that John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley would feel the ‘anxiety of influence’ in relation to their Romantic forefathers. Coming late unto the scene, Keats and Shelley struggle to come up with a unique voice amid the throng of Romantic luminaries like Wordsworth and Coleridge. If we take Mark Sandy’s word, it is we, the reader, who share the responsibility of ensuring their poetic posterity. Mark Sandy is a pioneer in Romantic criticism for undertaking the task of comparing Keats’ and Shelley’s works over several genres in a field which is dominated by comparison studies between Shelley and Lord Byron. His study is mainly informed by Nietzsche’s idea of ‘the subject as a site of conflicting fictions’. It must be emphasised that Mark Sandy is not suggesting, Bloom-like, that Nietzsche exerts a strong influence on the writings of these poets; rather, Sandy is suggesting that the works of Keats and Shelley anticipate key Nietzschean concepts. These include (1) the rejection of rational metaphysics, (2) the Apollonian-Dionysian binary opposition, and (3) the idea of writing for a future, unknown audience.

Nietzsche’s rejection of rational metaphysics is a backlash against the Enlightenment’s insistence on a monolithic philosophy which purportedly categorises and controls natural phenomena. The belief in this one truth of the Enlightenment leads to the notion of the self being fixed and static, a condition known as Being. Nietzsche, however, believes that the self is multiple and divided, and has the ability to create fictions. By extension, this means that the idea of the Enlightenment is just one out of many possible fictions that can be concocted to make sense of reality. In contrast, poets like Keats and Shelley are seen to always be in a state of Becoming, a condition where the poet’s sense of self is flexible and amorphous. This indeterminateness allows for a constantly shifting sense of identity, so that the artist becomes the art object; the reader becomes the artist. This obviously undermines all Enlightenment pretensions of stability and certainty in favour of a liberating sense of Romantic chaos. Sandy uses the metaphor of the self as a revisable script, capable of constant invention and revision. Indeed, Shelley believes that poets should be regarded as the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’ (Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, p. 535) because they do not subscribe to a ‘fixed logocentric system of language’ (18).

In Keats’ Lamia, two types of illusion are pitted against each other, the mask of sensual illusion conjured by Lamia colliding with Apollonius’ philosophical classification system. Lycius is torn between these two fictions, and in dramatising Lycius’ dilemma, we as readers are made aware that neither of these fictions have any absolute authority over us. Neither is any better than the other; each attempts to seduce Lycius with its promise of illusion and order. What is telling is that Lycius dies because he finds himself unable to sustain either illusion, suggesting that though there is no one single fiction that fits all, one needs some form of fiction in order to go on living. Similarly, Shelley’s The Witch of Atlas explores the theme of self-creation through fiction-making as symbolized by the witch’s shape-shifting ability and her needlework (used figuratively to embroider tales). Again, the fragility of the fiction-maker is revealed, this time through the device of the poem’s narrator, who in telling the tale reduces the witch to a mere fiction who revels in fabricating fictions of herself. The common bond between Keats’ Lycius and Shelley’s witch is their dependence on fictions which prove to be ever-shifting and unstable, thus endangering their sense of existence. Having said this, it is that fiction which allowed either of them to function at all in the first place.

A useful concept suggested by Nietzsche and applied by Sandy to the works of Keats and Shelley is the Apollonian-Dionysian opposition. The Apollonian refers to the tendency towards illusory dream, a longing for absolute, idealized reality. The Dionysian, on the other hand, represents tragic reality, embracing the mutability and instability of the human condition. Both Keats’ Endymion and Shelley’s Alastor feature men who quest after an attractive but distant woman, representing the Apollonian desire for an ideal which is always just beyond reach. Similarly, Sandy points out that Wordworth employs a fiction of solitary communion with nature in Tintern Abbey as an Apollonian ideal. However, where Wordsworth is content to dwell in this illusion of harmonious communion, Keats and Shelley depart from their forefather’s influence by at first paying homage to that convention, and then later betraying an uneasy apprehension that this fiction might vanish at any time to be tragically replaced by a Dionysian waking unto reality. The self-awareness of both romances with regards to its own fictionality distinguishes them both from Wordsworth’s relatively self-indulgent reverie, which is in danger of becoming fossilised as another absolute truth of Being because it does not offer an alternative counter-fiction. The Dionysian artist is cautioned against settling for any pat truths, for the spirit of Becoming requires that he embrace flux and change.

‘Un-timeliness’ becomes the fate of Nietzsche, Keats and Shelley, in the sense that they see themselves as being ahead of their time and forced to rely on a future audience to ‘counter-sign’ them. Nietzsche’s prophetic lunatic finds his counterpart in Keats’ and Shelley’s visionary poet. These are people who see beyond the contemporary reality of their times and behold a vision of the future, at the expense of being misunderstood and ostracised by society at large. This holds especially true with respect to literary fragments, which demand the reader’s active participation for its completion. In the process of reading, the reader is also fashioning his own self-fiction, and in doing so, he counter-signs the author by interacting with the text. This borrows heavily from Derrida’s notion of the ‘borderline’ in which Keats’ ‘margin-sand’ (Hyperion, 1, 15) and the shoreline imagery in Shelley’s The Triumph of Life converge to delineate the “cross over point between the life and work of an author, poet and reader, forcing a collision of life and literature” (112). In reading the dead authors, the reader, in a manner of speaking, ‘resurrects’ the memory of Keats and Shelley, thus ensuring their legacy.

Notwithstanding his insightful ideas, Sandy’s writing tends to suffer from an excessive use of jargon in places. One gets the impression that to properly understand Sandy, one needs to either be a PhD holder, a philosopher, or Sandy himself. Wading through this thicket of thorny jargon impedes easy and smooth comprehension of Sandy’s subject, which is a shame because it is an engaging one. This kind of writing succeeds in intimidating novice readers such as myself, and may deter the faint-hearted student of Romantic literature from proceeding further.

A further objection that I would like to propose is that Sandy’s insistence on reducing everything into a fiction could in itself be seen as an imprisoning fiction. The assumption that Sandy necessarily makes is that instability is inherently desirable in literary works, and by implication, any author who displays a self-consistent unity in their writings should be suspected of promulgating a linear, autocratic view of things. But to insist upon instability is paradoxically Apollonian, for it betrays an ironic desire to order reality through chaos. Ultimately, all forms of thought reveal a propensity for system (even if it is in fact an order of disorder) and most systems have a tendency to tyrannize through convenient concept-making. Sandy, like Apollonius, comes up with a ‘dull catalogue of common things’ (Lamia, 2, 233) and imposes his systematic framework on the reader. To enforce liberty and choice by force may seem, in this light, the bigger tyranny. Besides, what’s wrong with tyranny if we happily choose to be tyrannized?

From reading this book, I have gained more insight into the writings of these second-generation romantic poets, especially with regards to the inter-textual connections between their works as perceived through the lens of a Nietzschean sensibility. The unique effect of reading this book is that of having witnessed a scintillating dialogue between Keats, Shelley and Nietzsche over the same coffee-table. Besides contributing much needed comparative commentary on Keats and Shelley, Sandy’s book does much to promote Nietzschean thought as a useful aid to illuminating Romantic works, especially in relation to its emphasis on the primacy of imagination (in creating self-fictions) over reason. However, Sandy deliberately omits a comparison of Keats’ and Shelley’s dramatic works, believing that such an undertaking warrants a separate study. It also remains to be seen whether the works of the first-generation Romantic poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge are equally susceptible to the Nietzschean treatment.

While being highly scholarly and refreshing, Poetics of Self and Form in Keats and Shelley comes across as a difficult text to read in parts. Still, praise must be accorded to Mark Sandy for pioneering a comparative study of Shelley and Keats which also promotes Nietzschean literary concepts. As a beginner, I am encouraged by the depth and ingenuity of his arguments to re-read Shelley’s and Keats’ works to verify his analysis. Sandy’s study should be used as a model for scholars who wish to initiate a three-way (or more?) study of major writers and thinkers. In Keats, Shelley and Nietzsche, we have three highly intellectual guests for dinner; in Mark Sandy, we have one very good host.

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