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  Romantic Temporality, Contingency, and Mary Shelley Theresa M. KelleyELH, Volume 75, Number 3, Fall 2008, pp. 625-652 (Article)Published by Johns Hopkins University Press DOI:For additional information about this article Access provided at 20 Mar 2019 15:53 GMT from Lancaster University https://doi.org/10.1353/elh.0.0015 https://muse.jhu.edu/article/247221  625 ELH  75 (2008) 625–652 © 2008 by The Johns Hopkins University Press ROMANTIC TEMPORALITY, CONTINGENCY, AND MARY SHELLEY BY THERESA M. KELLEY How can we not feel that time  percolates  rather than flows? Far from flowing in laminar and continuous lines, like a well-behaved river under a bridge, upstream to downstream, time descends, turns back on itself, stops, starts, bifurcates ten times, divides, blends, caught up in whirlpools and counter-currents, hesitant, aleatory, uncertain and fluctuating, multiplied into a thousand beds like the Yukon River. . . . Sudden explosions, quick crises, periods of stagnant boredom, bur-densome or foolish regressions, and long blockages, but also rigorous linkages and suddenly accelerated progress, meet and blend in scientific time as in the intimacy of the soul, in meteorology as in river basins.  Would we have understood such obvious facts without the theory of percolation? . . . [T]he word time [  temps ] goes back to the aleatory mixtures of the temperaments, of intemperate weather, of tempests and temperature. If the time of a planet and the time of a river can have such subtlety, what about historical time? We can say, at the very least , that history is chaotic, that it percolates. Simultaneously unpredictable and deterministic, its course blends all paces. —Michel Serres, “Science and the Humanities: The Case of Turner” 1 I. INTRODUCTION In this essay I imagine how Michael Serres’s geological figure for historical time might be used to convey the role of time in romanti-cism as eddying, feathering out, percolating within an uneven substrate rather than productive of a linear chronological development. I do so by pursuing the conceptual and historical filiations between two topics: contingency in late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century thought   and fictional contingency in Mary Shelley’s historical novel Valperga . My argument responds to these related questions: what would happen to our sense of romantic history and chronology if we were to think of both as inhabiting uneven temporalities akin to those uneven strata of events through which time flows like water? How might we understand romanticism as marked by contingency rather than philosophical or  626 Romantic Temporality, Contingency, and Mary Shelley historical necessity, even within the philosophical frame of G. W. F. Hegel’s desire to ward off contingency as a threat to the restlessness of a truly dialectical spirit? 2  The first section of the essay assesses the role of contingency in early modern and romantic arguments about probability, history, and temporality and, particularly for Hegel, the problem of contingency as a barrier to the development of spirit or mind. Ian Hacking and Reinhart Koselleck provide distinctive itineraries for romantic thought about chance and probability. For Hacking, the mathematical transfor-mation of chance into the logic of probability signals a profound desire to tame the unexpected. For Koselleck, the French Revolution is the modern watershed for inserting chance and the unexpected into the  very notion of historical time. Both views recognize a gradual, often unwilling divergence from what Walter Benjamin called “homogeneous, empty time,” that view of history which assumed that it was always the same everywhere, embedded in a chain of continuities that secured our sense of who we were (as long as “we” were only Europeans) and  where we belonged. 3  Contingency names what happens when chance, rather than a prescribed order or continuity, is recognized as having a role in the course of events. Because it interrupts an expected sequence, troubling notions of causality and even the very idea of the event as something  with a before and after, contingency perplexes efforts to write history or write about it. 4  Alain Badiou’s considerations of being and event turn on the perplexity of thinking about events via instances in modernity that effectively unseat expectations about the sequence of events. One such event for Badiou, as for Koselleck, is the French Revolution because it opens up a space in time that was not anticipated and that  was marked in turn by other, contingent eruptions, among them the Terror. 5  In spite of William Blake’s hope in his poem Milton  for a mo-ment that Satan cannot find, such moments either affront or gesture toward the ethics of the future that Percy and Mary Shelley imagine in works they wrote in Italy between 1819 and 1822. 6  The second section of the essay presents Mary Shelley’s Valperga ,  written in Italy as she and Percy Shelley imagined better political  worlds than their own, as a fictional intervention in history states what contingency does to a development that is understood to be linear and unstoppable. As Tilottama Rajan has observed, the novel offers a counterfactual narrative about how to disrupt a march of history shaped by military conquest and authoritarian rule; in doing so, Shelley revisits questions and philosophical disappointments that her father William  627 Theresa M. Kelley Godwin explored, first in the Enquiry concerning Political Justice  and later in works of fiction, beginning with Caleb Williams . 7  The character in Mary Shelley’s novel who represents the usual history of conquest and the defeat of republican possibility is Castruccio, whose career figures in histories of medieval Italy by Niccolò Machiavelli, J. C. L. Sismondi, as well as others that Shelley consulted. Looking back on this history, I surmise, she found there a story often repeated from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries as liberal republics—whether those of late medieval Florence or modern France—submitted to conquest and rule. In reconfiguring historical accounts of Castruccio, Shelley invents two women, Euthanasia and Beatrice, who recall a whole battery of powerful and often maligned medieval Italian women, among them Matilda of Tuscany, Dante Alighieri’s Beatrice, and several mystics and heretics (some were both). Shelley’s Beatrice is a weak, outcast  version of such women. Euthanasia, by contrast, is by birth, position, and character the one who might, if she could, halt Castruccio’s career before he demolishes her hopes for a republican Florence. For this reason, Euthanasia might be said to mimic the work of contingency in the expected (and completed) course of events, akin to those swerves that Lucretius had long before imagined as capable of effecting change in the nature of things. For the Shelleys, who had read Lucretius, a political swerve from a monarchical to a democratic society would be the desired outcome. In Valperga , the fictional addition of Euthanasia, the aristocrat who imagines a future democracy for Italy, fails to produce the desired political swerve in the course of events: both women die and Castruc-cio carries on to the end of his short but remarkable life, crushing all contenders. Even so, or perhaps because of this failure, the novel’s imagined intervention in the historical record has a curious pungency for readers. Writing against modern histories of failed republican experiments, Shelley imagines history and time not as a given linear sequence but as competing narrative possibilities that exceed a single historical trajectory, much as Shelley’s presentation of the story of Castruccio repeatedly marks this character’s proleptic resemblance to Napoleon. By breaking up the march of history, however briefly, Valperga  creates a space for imagining other worlds and outcomes. 8  In this fashion Mary Shelley becomes both the future historian of her own time, as Godwin had urged in the Enquiry , in the service of dis-interested justice, and one who reflects on her own history by looking back to late medieval Italy, where hopes for a perpetual peace broke on
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