Stoned Shelley: Revolutionary Tactics and Women under the Influence

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THE PAST FIFTEEN YEARS OF SHELLEY SCHOLARSHIP HAVE BEEN OCCUPIED with bringing the idealist Shelley down to earth. New historicism has patiently uncovered a historical world off which the poet fed, connecting personal acts of consumption with social and political praxis. (1) In particular, Timothy Morton's Shelley and the Revolution in Taste reveals how Shelley's revolutionary project, especially his vegetarianism, aimed at rejuvenating the body and the land, and Nora Crook and Derek Guiton's study of Shelley's obsession with medicine depicts how the poet's efforts to preserve his own body translated into a passionate concern for the health of society. If food and medicine both represent means of promoting health and vitality, for Shelley, drugs seem to form a special category of substances which do not simply push the limits of the body but offer the possibility of transcending it altogether, if only for discrete moments. They also present a strange kind of nutrition in edibles that make the body sick, and threaten its vitality in hopes of a monumental convalescence. Unlike Coleridge and De Quincey who consumed laudanum for its own sake, drugs for Shelley are serious business. They do not merely open doors of perception, and the liberation they offer is not recreational or solely artistic. One wouldn't catch Shelley philosophizing from his armchair on opium--or even writing on it. Instead, drugs appear in Shelley's poems at very specific moments as mechanisms of a precise political, revolutionary plan, aimed at interrogating and sometimes erasing the kinds of habituations and addictions the body often demands. Earl Wasserman might remind us that for Shelley the very distinction between the subject and its object is in fact a mental solipsism that the poet aims to reveal and move beyond. (2) Shelley internalized a tremendous number of discourses at once through his expansive reading, and his output reveals a syncretic poet attempting to move beyond the fragmentation of language and those specialized discourses that reify difference, hierarchy and ideology through the kind of synthesizing and reflective experience that drugs can produce.

In Prometheus Unbound and "The Triumph of Life," major cruxes of both poems might be described as psychedelic experiences. Asia, in Act II of Shelley's lyric drama, inhales "oracular vapors" at the pinnacle of the mountains, which sends her on a trip to the cave of Demogorgon, ultimately to be swept away by the Spirit of the Hour's chariot, but not before she expectorates a genetic history of gods and humans that explains how she got there in the first place. In Shelley's last, unfinished poem, the wayward Rousseau drinks nepenthe offered by the "shape all light" in the hopes of discovering how he found himself in the "valley of perpetual dream" (397). In both cases, Asian women are implicated in the drug experience. Asia ingests the revolutionary gases and then emits liquid fight that intoxicates all those who come into contact with her, and the "shape all light," auroral light from the East, purveys the cup of laudanum-like nepenthe that provides Rousseau with his vision. Asia and Rousseau both internalize drugs in order to externalize something already within themselves--a representation of socio-political structures--precisely so the imagination can move beyond the kinds of hierarchical relationships that accompany patriarchal, colonial discourse. For Shelley, drugs act like an emetic, forcing their users to regurgitate the poisonous status quo they have swallowed, insisting they contemplate social and linguistic change from the self-critical vacancy of an empty stomach. Moreover, we might reread the "shape all light" not as a nauseating, evil seductress who entices Rousseau once again to fall prey to his bodily desires, but instead as a figure who provides him with the only possible way out of the nightmare of history, with a vision of history that contains its own critique. Rousseau's hallucination goes so far as to reflect the very structure of habituation--the patriarchal libidinous energies that narrate and produce history--that prevents social change instigated by a creative act of the imagination. …