Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"Read Your Fall": The Signs of Plague in the Last Man

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"Read Your Fall": The Signs of Plague in the Last Man

Article excerpt

How are we then to understand the message on each leaf, the doubly inscribed leaf that forces us from the botanical realm of organic continuity to that of the written text: how are we to read this volume of scattered pages?

--Carol Jacobs on Percy Shelley's Prometheus Unbound (1)

MARY SHELLEY'S THE LAST MAN, BEGUN IN 1824 AND PUBLISHED IN 1826, embraces a confluence of narratives that resists an interpretative closure or categorization: combining tales of multiple love-triangles, political debates, psychological struggles, historical vignettes, records of war, bits of travelogues, the text is cast as a dystopian vision invoking a classical myth. In addition, the novel enfolds the author's psychological state into the fabric of the narrative: the "Sibyline" prophecy of the war-torn, plague-ridden, desolate earth prophesied in the text reflects Mary Shelley's emotional inscape as she mourned Percy's death, a loss which threatened her sense of human agency. The novel's formal hybridity also calls into question various thematic or conceptual boundaries and fixed identities, including those of self, gender, class, race, religion, and nationality. The phantasmatic coalescing of personal tragedy with the apocalyptic extinction of humanity destabilizes hierarchical power dynamics and nullifies any illusory hope for humanistic redemption.

In light of such a textual explosion, it may be helpful to attempt to examine the rhetorical devices and ideological impulses that underpin the web of reality and fantasy, history and vision, destabilizing drives and (un-)conscious elisions. With the premise of apocalypse, the text relentlessly insists on radical freedom through the "decomposing figure" of the plague, "the vast annihilation that has swallowed all things--the voiceless solitude of the once busy earth" (193). (2) Despite the text's almost transcendental leap beyond fixed identities, however, the political unconscious of racialized British-Eurocentrism persists. This paper investigates the conjuncture, equivocation, and explosion of these two aspects. On the one hand, the textual deconstruction of human agency (the autonomy of the consciousness-of-the-self) in general and the British nationalist subject in particular propel the narrative towards the apocalyptic fall of the human race. On the other hand, the remnants of British white subjectivity manifest in racialized configurations of color. In other words, The Last Man's textual insights into the limits of (British, Eurocentric, Western, white) consciousness through the dystopian prophecy of the borderless society coexist with its blindness to a racial ideology that appropriates different races to maintain a wholesome oneness. Examining an array of textual figuration and disfiguration, this paper locates historically-specific, ideological moments couched in the futurist narrative of the post-human perspective and the textual rhetoricity of its delimitation.

Crossing Boundaries, Annihilating Identities

   The text is not a co-existence of meanings but a passage, an
   overcrossing: thus it answers not to an interpretation, even
   a liberal one, but an explosion, a dissemination.

--Roland Barthes, "From Work to Text"

In The Last Man, plague is set up as the "other" to the logic and concomitant social relations that exist in the late 21st century, when the story begins, and it unleashes numerous literal and figurative boundary-crossings. The boundaries crossed have been essential to maintaining Eurocentric domination and conquest. When the plague breaks out, characters repeatedly assert that a breach has been made and that the Rubicon has been crossed (188). The plague rapidly breaks loose various fixed identities or dynamics, unsettling, dislocating, and displacing the existing chain of identities and events. (3) With the plague, England's historical antagonism against Ireland and ambivalence towards America are displaced by awareness of humanity's common bond. …

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