Percy Bysshe Shelley: Imagination of an Atheist

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I seem as in a trance sublime and strange
To muse on my own separate fantasy,
My own, my human mind, which passively
Now renders and receives fast influencings,
Holding an unremitting interchange
With the clear universe of things…

– Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni

Mont Blanc gives us the Shelley who’d recently been kicked out of Oxford along with his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg for publishing the scandalous pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism (1811). On a road trip in France he’d stopped off at the Hotel in Chamonix and Montanvert and caused another grand episode in scandal back in his homeworld of England when he signed the register “Democrat, Philanthropist, and Atheist”. Egalitarian, lover of human kind, and defiant unbeliever: a son of the ‘radical enlightenment’ (Johnathan Israel). A poet of that revolutionary process, which effectively overthrew all justification for monarchy, aristocracy, and ecclesiastical power, as well as man’s dominance over woman, theological dominance of education, and slavery.

The notion that the Mind itself would become the site of the Sublime which Longinus once described as consisting “in a certain loftiness and excellence of language, and that it is by this, and this only, that the greatest poets and prose-writers have gained eminence, and won themselves a lasting place in the Temple of Fame”.1 This notion of loftiness and excellence of language would come under the rhetoric of eloquence in later ages, a high-style that would lift up and register the hyperbolic and metaphoric over the literal and mundane, the symbolic and mental icons and images over the realist embellishments of naturalism. Freud would subsume it under the concept of the Uncanny.

Yet, during the age of the Romantic Philosophers and Poets the notion of eloquence would align itself with naturalism and imagination against Enlightenment Reason. Burke would separate the sublime and the beautiful saying they are mutually exclusive. Burke suggested ugliness as an aesthetic quality rather than beauty (a Platonism staple) in its capacity to instill feelings of intense emotion, ultimately creating a pleasurable experience. Burke would emphasize the effects rather than the causes of the Sublime, emphasizing the physical pain and pleasure effected not upon the mind but upon the passions of the body. This would revise once again that age old battle between materialism and idealism with a difference, that now the battle would take place in the human Mind itself rather than on its objects; an effect of the object upon the mind’s passions rather than as cause of an Idea constructed by the Mind. For two hundred years we’ve been playing out this battle in ever more darkening confrontations until the very power of Mind itself and the Subjective

Consciousness that once was the glory of Romantic Imagination has vanished into the recesses of the neurosciences and speculative philosophies of our own dire era. If I go back to Shelley its because he above all worked through many of the dilemmas of our own era, with its skeptical and ironic deconstructions as well as its atheistic tonalities of Gap and the Real. It was the British Romantics rather than the German Romantics that provided a difference that makes a difference. The work of Goethe, Novalis, Heine, Hölderlin followed a different path than that of Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats and their heirs. This is not the place to trace and compare the two worlds. Rather I want to take up the singular work of Percy Bysshe Shelley.

One difference comes quickly; that between Coleridge and Shelley. Coleridge, a bookish traveler, had lifted a statement from the poetess Sophie Christiane Friederike Brun and used it in his own, saying, “Who would be, who could be an Atheist in this valley of wonders!” Coleridge who would abandon his pagan youth of poetry for the mantle of Christian priest and critic tries unsuccessfully to ironizes Shelley’s atheistic impulse. He was speaking of Mont Blanc. Shelley on the other had actually travelled to this location, so was speaking of what he’d actually seen with his embodied and material eyes. This marking of the Hotel’s register was a pointed attack on the kind of poetry that seemed unoriginal and marked by a complacent and sentimental quality rather than the freedom from the past that Shelley’s sublime was seeking to convey.2 Jaeger on whom I rely for this aligns Shelley’s vision with what Jonathan Israel in his voluminous history of the Enlightenment termed the ‘radical enlightenment’. Here Shelley opposed his mentor William Godwin by relying on a poetics that believed the “only way to grasp mental revolution is through the mediation of the outward scene” (Jaeger).

One remembers Wordsworth in the 1805 edition of the Prelude saying:

Imagination – lifting up itself
Before the eye and progress of my song
Like an unfathered vapour, here that power,
In all the might of its endowments, came
Athwart me! I was lost as in a cloud,     
Halted without a struggle to break through;
And now, recovering, to my soul I say ‘I recognize thy glory.’
In such strength Of usurpation, in such visitings
Of awful promise, when the light of sense
Goes out in flashes that have shown to us
The invisible world, does greatness make abode,
There harbours whether we be young or old.
Our destiny, our nature, and our home,
Is with infinitude, and only there…3

In the above the natural scene all but disappears before the power of the Mind and Imagination as if to say the world is nothing, infinitude is all. Against such vaporous wanderings in the invisible Shelley would have us rather see in the natural world itself the reflection of Mind and Imagination rather than to either annihilate the world or to cut ourselves away from the world in some solipsistic inner-world of experience.

Jaeger brings up another point that before actual atheism appeared in the tracts and pamphlets of apologists it was first a construction of refutation among detractors who used the argument of atheism to refute not those who disbelieved in God but rather as straw man to further their own apology for God’s existence. Ultimately it would be Descartes on geometric method, designed and implemented to combat the very habit of scholastic disputatio that had constructed atheism as a rhetorical position. One could further say that it was from Descartes that the divide between scientific consensus as centered in the institution was contested with the securing of knowledge coming under the banner of cognition and the cognitive rather than dogmatic institutionalism. It was also in this era that religion itself came under the naturalists eye as if it were one more thing among things to be scrutinized, tabulated, compared, and analyzed; as if it were a natural object in the world with a history and a multifarious existence and plurality.

Jager will cite David Berman’s authoritative History of Atheism in Britain where the notion of atheism became available because the frame of religion and its background had shifted allowing the two to be separated and critically appraised for the first time since the Greeks and Romans. Whereas in the age of the Church the notion of beliefs was invisible, a part of the very fabric of one’s existence in the world, now the notion arose that people began to understand themselves as agents who have beliefs. Beliefs were objects one had and could be thought and reasoned about; one could distance oneself from one’s beliefs and think through one’s relations to these once firmly held notions. As Jager says:

Concerned with policing thoughts and boundaries, doctrinal belief gradually disinvested in the social whole and withdrew from the network of activity, practice, community, and routine where religious thoughts had been embedded. Largely the product of a zealously reform-minded Christianity, this process of disenchantment ushers us into the modern secular age. (ibid.)

As William Blake would remark on this turn of events in which the Epicurean Freethinker’s arose out of the very frame of Christian apology as a negation that took on the aura of a new secular belief system bounded by Reason and Imagination.

In The Necessity of Atheism Shelley’s borrowings, references, and allusions offer a crash course in free-thinking radicalism completely in line with the narrative of atheism as intellectual heroism. He’ll cite Michael Scrivener’s Radical Shelley and Martin Priestman’s Romantic Atheism which martial the influx of Lucretian metaphysical materialism from the Renaissance onward as the leitmotif underlying the radical enlightenment project that came late for Shelley. Jaeger sees in Shelley’s inscription of “Democrat, Philanthropist, Atheist” the radical enlightenments stance of egalitarianism, love of humankind, and the occupation of atheism in the realms of State and Society displacing the ancient régime and religion. “What if atheism were not about cognitively held beliefs or nonbeliefs but about postures, arrangements, dispositions, embodied techniques, or disciplined actions?” asks Jager. In other words what if atheism was a way of life, an active form of life rather than like dogma a set of beliefs one could dispute or qualify? What if atheism were one’s mode of being in the world not some carefully reasoned belief system one adhered too and preached on Sunday to a congregation?

In fact Jager will use the analogy of Occupy to describe Shelley’s use of atheism in his poem of Mont Blanc:

But if the “occupation” of atheism is instead about how one organizes one’s  time, then a different set of concepts comes into focus. For occupations, understood temporally, involve the entire self in the organization of experience. And they centrally concern what one does with one’s body—how it is trained, organized, and adjusted, what experiences it pursues and cultivates, what experiences it forecloses on—and what potentials it activates. (ibid.)

The notion that atheism occupies one’s time, space, life as a mode of being in the world rather than a set of beliefs of concepts in one’s mind presents a notion of embodied action rather than Idea. Rather than an idealism of the Idea Jager is implying that Shelley’s was a poetry of event and action, of the enactments of bodies in the world rather than mental reflections in the Mind. As Jager tells us the point Shelley was making is to picture what it might be like to be a part of an “embodied collective, a communal voice louder than the sum of its individual parts”. This is closer to those materialists like Badiou and Zizek who seek the a collective subjectivation. As Badiou remarks there is only one political subject. This is the subject that demonstrates the Real of fraternity. In other words, a true political subject is someone who identifies with the collective “we” of a truth-procedure which posits equality. This subject is not so much opposed by a reactionary subject, as opposed by the inertia of an existing regime. A political subject thinks collectively. It cannot stop thinking collectively for long enough to name or define what it is doing. (Alain Badiou and Politics)

Of course such an unthinking collective subject seems a contrary construction of Badiou’s materialist subjectivist discipline rather than a natural object in the world. Almost as if Badiou had constructed such an object as an example of his Platonic matheme much as Descartes once announced the cogito whose evaluations of res extensa or outer-sense and the inner-sense of res cogitans would form a dualistic and embattled system. Badiou seeks a stable concept that can like set-theoretic form an embattled line against the big Other of either God or Nature. Shelley would not worry about either, but would enter a dialogue of the unknown that wavered and oscillated in the Void between; neither harboring one or the other as a ballast against themselves.

One remembers Shelley’s third section of the Mont Blanc where he describes the wilderness as having an inhuman voice:

The wilderness has a mysterious tongue
Which teaches awful doubt, or faith so mild,
So solemn, so serene, that man may be,
But for such faith, with Nature reconcil’d;
Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal
Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood
By all, but which the wise, and great, and good
Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel.

Here the poet tells us that it is the outer form of the mountain itself as natural process, voice, and utterance which repeals those religious and disputational “codes of fraud and woe” that few understand, but that the wise and great and good seem to decode through careful perusal and critique, as well as empower through the passionate and informed potential of the body’s own embodied life in action and being. Shelley’s was a naturalist’s atheism – part skeptic, part materialist-idealist that took the outer form of things as symbol and icon of the truth revealed not as Idea but as being in its multiplicity as both potential and possible action and event.

Yet not a city, but a flood of ruin
Is there, that from the boundaries of the sky
Rolls its perpetual stream; vast pines are strewing
Its destin’d path, or in the mangled soil
Branchless and shatter’d stand; the rocks, drawn down
From yon remotest waste, have overthrown
The limits of the dead and living world,
Never to be reclaim’d.

Here the emptiness of existence, the blankness of things, Mont Blanc follows Lucretius in registering the entropic decay of everything into that final tomb beyond which nothing moves, and all is loss. Before the power of this impersonal universe of death and necessity nothing triumphs, not even men:

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…

And, yet, in this darkness at the unknown limits of time and thought something exists, a power: “The secret Strength of things / Which governs thought…”. Is this ‘Strength of things’ that of Will or Mind? Is Shelley of the camp of Nietzsche and Bataille, or of those who impose the Idea from German Romantic philosophers on through phenomenology and beyond?

In our time the battle between materialism and idealism seems to situate itself over the gap between Mind and the Real. Where as Idealism seeks to suture the Idea onto the Real whether in subjective, naturalist, or objective Idealisms; materialism seeks to maintain the gap, crack, or blank space between reality and the Real perturbing or disturbing thought just there where things get stuck, obstructed from reflecting either their potential or their active truth. Is this war between perspectival motions in philosophy a Mobius strip that returns upon itself like the Mind upon Mont Blanc?

And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,
If to the human mind’s imaginings
Silence and solitude were vacancy?

 


 

  1. Longinus (2009-10-04). On the Sublime (Kindle Locations 282-283). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.
  2. Colin Jaeger. Unquiet Things: Secularism in the Romantic Age ( University of Pennsylvania Press (November 6, 2014))
  3. Wordsworth, William (2004-09-30). The Prelude: The Four Texts (1798, 1799, 1805, 1850) (Penguin Classics) (p. 240). Penguin UK. Kindle Edition.

3 thoughts on “Percy Bysshe Shelley: Imagination of an Atheist

  1. Very nice. Wile reading this I occasionally leaned over and sniffed my screen, and I could smell the fragrant, almost floral scents of cellulose and lignin. I’ve never done this before while reading from this here screen. I have a personal dislike for new atheists such as Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, and this essay made it clearer to me as to why. I will read Shelly, thanks to you. cheers (and I will post a link to this page at my FB site.)

    Like

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