Figuring Disfiguration: Reading Shelley after De Man

By Woodman, Ross | Studies in Romanticism, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Figuring Disfiguration: Reading Shelley after De Man


Woodman, Ross, Studies in Romanticism


I. Apocalyptic Fury in The Triumph of Life and Adonais

IN "SHELLEY DISFIGURED" PAUL DE MAN EXPLORES THE DELUSION OF figuration as the "erasure" of what de Man describes as the nonphenomenal "positing power of language" (64).(1) Figuration, he argues, is "the madness of words" (68) that, by its false metaphysical assumption of meaning, erases the "senselessness" of language's "positing power" ("Be"), a power that acts randomly and autonomously prior to any human signification so that its mindless flat "Be" is entirely independent of "It Is" (or "We are"). Unlike the Biblical Logos or Word as the divine and absolute creator of all that is ("Be" and "It Is") that bestows a divine or symbolic meaning upon all that is, the mindless "positing power of language" ceaselessly erases whatever it posits in its blind act of positing. Implicit, if not explicit, in this "positing power" is Nietzsche's death of God that abandons the world to fiction and, as fiction, must no longer wear the disguise of truth. Fiction masquerading as truth is "madness." The "triumph of life" is a masquerade in which the poet's enslavement to figuration appears as "the just similitude / Of a triumphal pageant" (The Triumph of Life 117-18) from which in Shelley's final fragment both the Shelley and Rousseau figures seek release, a release that can only come through some final defacement, conveniently offered to de Man in the "defaced body" of Shelley "present in the margin of the last manuscript page" (67).

"How," de Man asks,

   can this positional act, which relates to nothing that comes before or
   after, become inscribed in a sequential narrative? How does a speech act
   become a trope, a catachresis which then engenders in its turn the
   narrative sequence of an allegory? (64)

Unlike the questions posed in the text of The Triumph of Life that spring forth as if, like the sun of the opening stanza, they were "hastening to [their] task / Of glory and of good" (1-2) when in fact they are hastening to their own extinction, de Man, in answering his questions, is constructing "the narrative sequence of an allegory" of reading that renders meaning or comprehension problematic because, as David L. Clark explains, "[l]anguage's denegation [hidden for de Man by the "madness of words"] possesses the eventlike character of an accident that suddenly and irrevocably interrupts life: unpredictable, unmotivated, prosaically indifferent to human desire."(2) "It can only be," de Man replies to his own question, "because we impose, in our turn, on the senseless power of positional language the authority of sense and of meaning" (64). This "authority" resides in figuration and, for de Man, all figuration is, as figuration, mad. An allegory of reading understood as making sense of madness without "attributing value to it," he further boldly suggests, "may be a Verneinung, an intended exorcism" (68) of" [l]anguage's denegation" and of"the madness of words" (68).

De Man in his essay is constructing in the presence of "madness" an exorcizing, rational dialogue with himself very different from the dialogue between Shelley and Rousseau in The Triumph of Life. Through question repeating question to no end, the latter dialogue keeps canceling itself out much in the manner of the "great stream / Of people" in the narrator's "strange trance" (29) within which he "sate beside a public way" watching it, not as an "actor" (306) in it, but as a "spectator" (305) of it. The "stream" that the narrator observes is a metaphor (within an already operative metaphor) of questions repeating themselves as variations of the single question with which the fragment breaks off: "`Then, what is Life?' I said" (544). Rousseau tries to answer it, thinks he may partly know, becomes confused, and then forgets what he may have started to say. "Whence camest thou, and whither goest thou?" the Shelley figure asks the shade of Rousseau:

"How did thy course begin," I said, "and why? …

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