Rhymes of Wonder: Otherness without Distortion

Elizabeth Fay (University of Massachusetts)

This article is a prolonged meditation on the last four lines of Shelley’s The Triumph of Life, composed between May and June 1822, lines which begin to fragment with the occurrence of two ellipses, until the final “Of” that begins the fifth, uncompleted line midway though the final stanza Shelley wrote, leaving the poem unfinished at his death.

All quotations from The Triumph of Life and A Defence of Poetry are taken from Reiman and Fraistat’s Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, hereafter cited by line and page number respectively. I want to thank Orrin Wang and Andrew Warren for their helpful and generous suggestions on drafts of this essay.

The Triumph asks us to extend, extemporize, dwell in the dizzying rapidity of movement of life’s march of time. Rather than imagining this “triumph” as a slowed version of suffering and humiliation, enslavement to the imperial corporate body, Shelley imagines a vertigo of motion, a sweeping up of humanity into the vortex of a fateful present. This sense of intense movement begins with the first lines: “Swift as a spirit hastening to his task / . . . the Sun sprang forth” (1–2). Even though the imagery is apparently bright, it is darkened by the “mask / Of darkness,” which though falling with the Sun’s speedy approach, also prevaricates. For far from a mere masking of what is essentially bright with the dark, this mask is both the masque of darkness that will be the triumphal march of the Poet’s vision as a hideous parody of human life controlled by ideological oppressions, and a prelude to the dark imagery of the poem throughout. It is not long before the Poet’s vision, “that trance of wondrous thought” (41) which is a blind seeing rather than insight (for the Poet-I is confused by the spectacle until his guide, Rousseau, provides an interpretive key), beholds “a great stream / Of people . . . hurrying to and fro,”

All hastening onward, yet none seemed to know
Whither he went, or whence he came, or why
He made one of the multitude, yet so
Was borne amide the crowd as through the sky
One of the million leaves of summer’s bier. (44–45, 47–51)5

This is the temporality spaced by Derrida’s différance, the spacing of time best articulated through writing (and writing’s necessarily ideological inscription of our experience) that wards off the possibility of futurity through infinite recursion to the past. Later I will discuss how metalepsis functions in the poem to break from this recursive bondage to a blind historicity in which nothing is learned, only repeated. What the triumph represents is a veritable negative or negating infinity of time that wards off a possible future-to-come, not just l’avenir but “the urgency and imminence of an à-venir, a to-come. . . inflecting or turning into an injunction as well as into messianic waiting the a of a différance in disjunction” (Derrida, Rogues 108).

Although this is Derrida’s formulation of a futurity both imminent and insistently waiting, I believe it is one that haunts Shelley’s late poetics and The Triumph of Life in particular.

The problem the poem poses and begins to attempt to resolve is that of breaking the frame created by such a negative spacing, a spacing envisioned as an insane flight hemmed in by chaos and fear, so as to stage an eventfulness that could usher in a post-Anthropocenic seeing. Such seeing-without-distortion would mean a sightedness that is blind to the distortions of a self-serving logocentrism.

It is this kind of sightedness that I believe Derrida is after in both Memoirs of the Blind and The Animal That Therefore I Am, and that Shelley is after with his confessional and self-erasing portrait of Rousseau in The Triumph.

History, Shelley suggests, tells us nothing about the forces that corral us along this flightpath that turns back on itself in a temporality that goes nowhere, because we do not learn its lessons. But it is this horizon determined by the past—the horizon of finitude instantiated by différance and the automaticity of human reaction to anything finite—that Shelley puts in doubt by way of the poem’s dream state. Such doubt opens up the Enlightenment frame, with its insistently finite horizon developed from the history of western epistemology and political ideologies, to other possibilities, and I read Shelley’s unfinished poem as already enmeshed in a post-human turn. The poem’s project becomes, in the end, to discover a way out of the scientifism that had stalled thought in its seeking of an alternative to the negative structure of logical postulates, and to chart a path between Humean skepticism and a Kantian walling off of being—two philosophical attitudes that mark Shelley’s intellectual thought thus far, but against which the Triumph finally crashes in its last stanzas. It is in the poem’s provisional ending that an overleaping of the two positions begins to manifest.

Shelley’s visionary poem, in the moment of its apparent crashing against the walls of Hume and Kant, wants to, desires to, locate in an epochal terminus an un-distortion of otherness. The terminating question Shelley asks in The Triumph of Life, which the poem itself has asked throughout—“Then, what is Life?”—suggests the possibility that otherness-in-itself lies not on the other side of subjective, anthropocentric limitation and finitude, but elsewhere. This is a free-range understanding of Life that absorbs the human into it. Such an elsewhere would eschew the need to stage the contest between idea and substance, a contest Shelley sedulously avoids in his poetry (except in dark works such as The Cenci (1819), but for a different purpose. This elsewhere imagines what Derrida’s democracy-to-come might inscribe anew. Or it might imagine this if the poem could be finished, could be differently written, if its terms could be thought.

My interpretation of the question provisionally prompting the poem’s ending—a poem foreshadowed by the Poet asking “And what is this? / Whose shape is that within the car?” and Rousseau’s answer, “Life” (177–78, 180)—rests on a Derridean reading of the ghostly presence of its guide. Rousseau is marked by his “disguise” of “an old root” of “strange distortion”—recalling the “mask of darkness” that hides another version of what is there at the poem’s beginning (204, 182–83), but also indicating his having been marked by the distortions of the Derridean trace, the writing that rewrote Rousseau as a misguided corpus. In revisiting Derrida’s reading of Rousseau I hope to illuminate why it is this philosopher Shelley finally singles out from those he had considered equally as important in earlier drafts.

In “Shelley Disfigured,” de Man uses Reiman’s archival work in Shelley’s The Triumph of Life to reduce the philosopher-guides to a single one, Rousseau, a significant revision in the poem.

Although Rousseau had indeed been part “of that deluded crew” following the triumphal car, he asks the Poet to “forbear / To join the dance, which I had well forborne” through a “deep scorn” (the scars of which he bears on his corpse-corpus) which “Led me and my companions” to resist the mad dance of Life (188–89, 191). Or rather, Rousseau and his few companions have scorned the machinations of the arche-trace, the insistent rewriting of which the poem accuses “those spoilers spoiled, Voltaire, / Frederic, and Kant, Catherine, and Leopold, / Chained hoary anarchs, demagogue and sage” (235–37). In Of Grammatology Derrida is less kind to Rousseau, seeing him as being one of the spoilers, but nevertheless granting the philosopher pride of place as the middle term between Plato and Hegel for his foreseeing analysis of logocentrism as the erasure of presence through writing, the animal-machine of reading and rewriting that is our automaticity, our reactive blindness. Écriture allies us in our auto-blindness with the four-faced, eye-banded charioteer of Shelley’s triumphal car, the figuration of Life itself, since like him we cannot see beyond the perimeter of our own insistent spacing and deferrals of any possible future.

Derrida’s reading of Rousseau’s importance rests on a grammatology as all that can be thought within the limits of the scientific épistémè; indeed, within the limits of the Anthropocene. But I suggest that The Triumph of Life asks Rousseau to help move the dream vision beyond such perimeters, into a different plane with a different horizonal potential. In The Triumph Rousseau acts as the speaker’s Virgil, interpreting the pageant, discovering its trace and spectrally pointing a finger to a different horizon unconditioned by scientifism’s rejection of passion as way of knowing. But for Derrida, Rousseau is always unsettled by his incorporation of the supplement into a theory of human nature, always undone by passion’s unsettling priority over need. Despite Rousseau’s attempts to settle passion into its place, passion’s prewriting in the business of survival and articulation becomes, in Rousseau’s anthropological scheme, inverted (articulation as subdivision of sound and meaning, understanding and reason, that is “the opening and closure of a cleft” [Johnson 128], according to Derrida, or the making of a judgment). The “Essay on the Origin of Languages” (1743) asserts love’s role in the immediacy of touch (versus the mediacy of gesture), and love’s role in inventing drawing as well as, plausibly, language (“Love might also have invented speech”)—but if it is need that in general motivates language, “Dissatisfied with speech, love disdains it” (Rousseau 240–41). However, pity is the passion more befitting Shelley’s Rousseau; pity is the moderation of amour-propre (self-love, which is a corruption of amour de soi, love of self) into compassion. If the “Essay” places judgment before pity, the Second Discourse (1754) makes pity anterior to reflection. Thus need (in which reflection prompts the preservation of the species) follows passion (love of self, self-love, and pity), communication displaces sympathetic communion. Shelley’s spectral vision shows the detrimental effects of not following this scheme—of species preservation distorted by language’s death-grip, of self-love’s violence absorbed into linguistic warping. Rousseau makes this point explicit: “What the ancients said most forcefully they expressed not in words, but in signs; they did not say it, they showed it” ( “Essay” 241). Language as the first social institution, according to Rousseau, is founded as a distancing trope, as not just sign but metaphoricity, with the need to communicate by gesture logically displacing the passion of an immediate touch and voice, following after it (“the needs dictated the first gestures, and the passions wrung the first utterings [voix]” [245]). This unsettling, in which need overrides passion only to install death into language as distance and metaphor rather than touching intimacy, disturbs the provenance and authority of signs (articulation and writing are the malady of language, it’s “fatal advantage,”

Rousseau uses this phrase to describe writing’s supplementation of both speech and music, quoted in Of Grammatology 199.

and if “the most vigorous speech is that in which the Sign has said everything before a single word is spoken,” too often symbols lose their meaning and power to the condemning inefficacy of “circumlocutions” [241]). Rousseau therefore distrusts words as he does not the accentuation of music, and the musical intonation of poetic speech, both of which are more originary and less dangerous than writing because less destructive of presence (the very thing “Life” robs from human being in The Triumph): “The speech of the first men . . . were Poet’s languages” (245). But for Shelley, if poetics is grounded in musical intonation, poesis is grounded in the affiliation of sound with metaphoricity, in the sound’s affinity in relation to the sign’s differential potency, its gesticulatory capacity—indeed, in its imaginative intimacy. Poesis as allegory—as resounding metaphoricity—provides the only recuperation of presentful meaning possible in the face of language’s onto-theological death-grip (a fate Shelley sees as written on Rousseau’s body/corpus before his conversion by confession).

I refer to both Rousseau’s Confessions and to his confessionary narrative that consumes Shelley’s poem. On the intimacy of sound and metaphor, and their relation to the idea, see Reiman’s Shelley’s The Triumph of Life 9–10.

That Shelley, an astute deconstructionist before the fact, would choose Rousseau to interpret life’s pageant puts into question Rousseau’s idealization of love’s power, of life’s perverting evil, and of shadows. In Derrida’s terms the first two are eidos and ousia, ideality and substantiality; shadows encompass the enfolding of one with the other, the space-time of otherness.

Ousia is also translated as being, but Derrida specifies substantiality as Rousseau’s understanding of the term (Of Grammatology 18–26).

What is less doubtful than Rousseau’s idealizations is his facility with the legible, with locating and reading (interpreting rather than deciphering) the trace at the site of supplementarity. This is the site for Rousseau, Derrida argues, of unease, suture, inversion, and perversion. But Shelley’s Rousseau offers a different instruction; rather than point back to origins, his ghostly finger-pointing gestures not toward so much as beyond current epistemic limits; predictive, pre-vocative, provoking an elsewhere as a way out of the metaphysical trap of signs and beyond the Anthropocene. If Rousseau himself saw gesture as less meaningful than either touching voice or metaphor, it is because it is also less immediate, but Shelley’s Rousseau points intimately and tellingly otherwise—at once confessional and prophetic. The lines, “Before the chariot had begun to climb / The opposing steep of that mysterious dell, / Behold a wonder worthy of the rhyme” (469–71), indicate the nature of this beyondness which is not the supplement but rather its abolishment; the wonderment of rhyme is exactly its inscription of accentuation, music, and most importantly, passion—“the wondrous story / How all things are transfigured, except Love” (476). Shelley asks us to follow the index of this passionate trace as it avoids inversion, perversion, transfiguration, and supplementation, since it names the absorptive beyondness that the poem’s breaking off cannot or does not yet know how to inscribe, but toward which, with Rousseau’s help, it gestures.

Such a gesticulation is necessary to ward off the blindness, the necessary not-seeing, that Derrida takes as the essence of philosophical discourse without which the aporias of the metaphysical tradition cannot be overcome, yet it is a willful blinding that prevents the leap out of, and beyond, the épistémè. Shelley has already understood this in making Rousseau not blind but hollow-eyed, “And that the holes it [he] vainly sought to hide / Were or had been eyes” (187–188). The philosopher-seer’s eyeless state is precisely what allows him to guide the poet-dreamer in “forbear[ing] / To join the dance” of “this sad pageantry” (188, 176), and in forbearing the Poet might then refuse the auto-machine of a discourse that closes down on itself. Derrida’s designation of what he calls the animal-machine of reading and rewriting that reacts with automaticity is essential to his concept of the trace as the infrastructural articulation of the arche-trace, or interdependence of self and Other without which presence cannot be conceived. It is the interplay between the self and its objects presumed essential to human self-consciousness, but that Shelley might view as essential to an unconditional hospitality, an open-door policy with regard to the unconsciousness’ or visionary state’s capacity to witness suffering as the condition for the possibility of change, and therefore of futurity. In The Triumph of Life the trace of writing does not produce what for Derrida is the double finitude of the animal-machine of écriture, but rather creates fault lines and openings in that structure, fragmentations and ellipses, open doors as it were. The visionary state, which elevates the poet-speaker into what Kant, in one of his rare non-despoiling moments, considers the highest stage of beautiful art, enables a poetry in which the sublime interacts with the beautiful, moves beyond the unlawful freedom of the imagination adjudicated by the lawful restraint of the understanding—although not perhaps beyond the infusion of both with spirit so essential to a lingual art that delivers more than it promises, as Kant notes—making it thus more moral than the other arts (Critique of Judgement [1790] §51).

Shelley’s most moral poem, a quality noted even by Mary Shelley who appeared not to like the poem, pushes beyond a mere liminality ordained by the sublime register. Its transgressiveness suggests the violence inherent in a sacrificial structure. The structural ploy I have in mind is Derrida’s concept of autoimmunity as the auto-immunitary function that mediates a supposedly untenable open or unconditional hospitality, a welcoming that puts the self at risk. This is not the threat of the sublime but that of sacrifice as what holds sovereignty up: sacrificial indemnification. The sacrifice of objects and others is what enables the auto-immunitary function that closes opened doors and protects the subject and its proper/properties. What gets sacrificed in the poem is not just the endless stream of suffering humanity hurried on by a frenzied cosmogony, the very essence of a sovereignty gone mad with its own immunitary logic; populations are sacrificed so that the door to futurity remains firmly closed.

Shelley’s response, I am arguing, to the free-wheeling auto-machine of logocentrically grounded sovereignty is to imagine the advent of the future-to-come. His imagining cannot be of an ideal republication state, as is Rousseau’s in The Social Contract (1762), nor may it be of the impossible event of an unconditional democracy as the truth of the other, as is Derrida’s in Rogues (2005). Instead, Shelley’s poem prepares for the possibility of an unforeseeable future beyond the horizon of state ideology, a horizon containing all of western history and epistemology since Plato. To imagine a horizonal “beyond” is not to envision a distinct event as such (e.g. revolution), nor an “outside” impervious to the auto-immunity of the political machine which casts itself as “Life.” It is rather to imagine the leap to a new plane of immanence made possible, according to Deleuze and Guattari, by a new idea. This evental idea or philosophical concept must go beyond the truth-idea of Prometheus Unbound (1820), love as a revolutionary force, since The Triumph announces no program of patient waiting after Rousseau has imparted his revelation to the Poet. Indeed, the idea ushering in the to-come may not be open to articulation, as the disintegration of language in the final lines indicates.

In the auto-immunitary machine epitomized in the Car of Life, suffering is the predominant human experience. Rousseau, hovering in the ectoplasm of Triumph and bearing the marks of that suffering on his body, represents by his oeuvre the lawfulness of the understanding interceding in the unlawful freedom of the imagination. Such remediation is of course problematized by the autobiographical Rousseau’s unaccountable outrages of taste in his ongoing self-psychoanalysis, but these disappear along with his fleshly form in the poem, where his corpus stands in for a Derridean “auto-immune auto-indemnification” that authorizes sovereignty at every level (Derrida, Acts of Religion 78).

Derrida develops this concept more fully in Acts of Religion as what underlies the doubled-nature of “identity,” which not only includes and excludes, but “ex-propriates” and “re-appropriates,” that is, “ex-appropriates” (78). He analyzes the concept more simply as “auto-immunity” in Rogues.

But dead, ghost-like, Rousseau’s role in sacrificial indemnification is revised by way of his own dead body marginalized from the multitudes in Shelley’s dream-vision. This vision produces an altered state, a poetic possibility in which sovereignty is unveiled as a mad careen destined to slam up against the walls of its own horizon; the alteration makes possible a different plane in which doors might open, in which an unconditional hospitality does not usher others in to the spaces of the proper, but rather welcomes the ground of the possibility of a futurity not yet imagined. The unlawfulness of the imagination is not, as Kant believed, an ugliness not subject to the dictates of taste, but rather the dismissal of a necessary adjudication of justice by law. For Shelley, law can only be evil by referring justice to the dictates of pragmatism, the proper of the subject self, and sovereignty. How can what might only be called an immunitary rationale for limiting the application of justice ever ground a futurity at all? We might view this as the difference between a marriage that necessarily mediates love by way of pragmatism, and a free love that opens the door to an unimagined relation, to a commingling without adjudication, to a truth without a past. Such an analogy might indeed sit behind the inexplicable poor taste of the poem to Jane probably written before two-thirds of The Triumph had been completed.

That is, before line 373 (Reiman and Fraistat 480n1).

The implications of a new plane of immanence—inaugurated by the evental idea as having to do, for Shelley, with freedom, democracy, and the unconditional (perhaps a democracy-at-hand),—and the possibilities for a post-human turn in such a plane; this is a prospect at which language falters and poetic sound and metaphor can only carry partially inscribed meanings. However, in these falterings I believe Shelley is struggling to sound out his vision for a more humane, if less logo-onto-anthropocentric, futurity. To think the ending of the poem, I want to return to the implications of The Triumph of Life’s maddened and dizzying progress. That speed is essential to a new plane of immanence developing. One of the ways to speed up while still inhabiting the structures of the past is metalepsis, the two-at-once of metaphoric achievement. If metaphor provides an analogous relation, a side-by-side correspondence of idea and impression,

This is Reiman’s reading of Shelley’s use of metaphor: idea corresponds analogously to impression, but not to object or to thing-in-itself (Shelley’s Triumph 10).

metalepsis imposes an inverted correspondence in which logic skews otherwise. The possibility opened up by the dizzying movement of the triumph, by way of its reversion to the past, begins to dissolve not into a metonymy but into a metalepsis, in which two tropes at once—a doubled metaphoricity (the fading coal and the mind’s inconstant wind of the poetic imagination in Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry [1821] [531])—oppose the double finitude of écriture by “reconfiguring the relationship between a ‘before’ and an ‘after,’ an anteriority and what this anteriority makes possible or forecloses,” as Kir Kuiken explains, allowing the imagination, or we might say the poetic dream state, to be the site-source of “ever-changing future alterations” (171). Metalepsis as the poetic device by which the future can open up by way of the past—rather than via metonymy’s side-by-side logic—becomes in The Triumph the condition of the possibility of a new plane with a new horizonal opening to the future. I am imagining Shelley imagining Deleuze and Guattari’s plane of immanence, wherein the speed of thought is made possible by the constellation of the event to come configured in the evental concept.

For Deleuze the event is epiphenomenal, spoken in the proposition; “The concept speaks the event, not the essence or the thing” (What is Philosophy? 20). See esp. pp. 35–60.

It is this concept, this eventful thought, which opens the poem’s horizon to a positive infinite, to a futurity that can be thought without the trace, albeit not without a repurposing of the past and its necessary conceptual contributions. The dizzying vision of the pageant is accessible to the speaker-poet as insight, so that “speed in the van and blindness in the rear” which brings the suffering multitudes so “little profit” offers the speaker a way into an undistorted and thus possible futurity (Shelley 101, 100).

Access to this futurity requires a variant eye, for blindness is the cancellation of what makes representation possible. Not blindedness, as in the charioteer, but the cancelling of sight, like Rousseau’s hollowed eyes, is the condition of seeing out of this world, Life as it is. Although Rousseau gestures toward the past, he is the guiding hand in the poem toward an as-yet to be represented future. As Derrida notes, portraits of the blind are “prey to allegory,” the allegory of drawing as a “specular folding” or “withdrawal [retrait] in meaning of itself,” whereas language “always speaks to us from / of the blindness that constitutes it” (Memoirs of the Blind 2–4).

David Farrell Krell’s meditation on Derrida’s meditation, The Purest of Bastards, has informed my understanding of blindness as having a different knowledge structure.

Shelley makes clear that such blindness—specular folding or blindfoldedness—is the condition of life as well as of language. For Rousseau, as Derrida reads him in Of Grammatology, the contamination of nature’s purity is already enfolded within nature; thus, everything associated with the human that Rousseau designates a supplement is already enfolded in nature, including the sign. Similarly, the possibility of a future, not as a blind acquiescence and error in judgment, but rather as the sublime yes of an unconditional welcoming of the yet-to-come is also enfolded, a repli of the outside/future is always folding over into the origin of life. But Shelley does not “read” Rousseau: in allowing him to tell his recursive tale of conversion, he portrays him allegorically, allowing him the specular folding of seeing otherwise. He does so because the problem for Shelley is how to welcome such a future without deferral, without supplement—or at least, with a different relation to the outside and otherness. For this, the Rousseau who Shelley depicts is helpful. What Derrida calls spacing, or the endless deferral of meaning, is a scuttling back and forth in the differentiating machine of language that, if unattended, also blinds us to just how non-meaningful a life lived can be; it enables the headlong careen of the pageant of Shelley’s allegory of unmeaning life. The differentiating machine can only under extraordinary circumstances leverage the scuttling of meaning into the dizzy rapidity of thought that energizes a new plan of thought, a plane of immanence.

The plane of immanence is “the horizon of events,” or evental concepts: “The plane of immanence is not a concept that is or can be thought but rather the image of thought, the image thought gives itself of what it means to think” which stands in contrast to “the slow brain” (Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy? 36–37).

It is such a plane, such an immanence, that Shelley’s poem invokes but cannot see in its last elliptical lines. But it is what Rousseau, by gesturing toward the past, helps Shelley’s speaker metaleptically envision, if only in its barest contours, as the cliff walls of wondrous rhyme.

“What is Life?” Shelley’s speaker asks, struggling blindly with the repli of death into Life, the supplemental sacrifice that protects and indemnifies life.

See Ross Wilson, Shelley and the Apprehension of Life.

Reiman notes that the “Essay on Life” was “perhaps the most important single document of Shelley’s intellectual development” (Shelley’s The Triumph 12). The essay divides the immutable celestial realm from the terrestrial, necessity-driven world; it provides a cosmology to house Shelley’s purposefully chosen array of symbols, but The Triumph asks about a different conception of life: what is Life? This is the question the post-human turn posits, since there is no longer possible an illusory tying of origin and life to certain biological forms, while sentience itself has become less definable. Shelley’s possible future, predicated on opening the door to a new plane of immanence, holds open the possibility that a just world without suffering might be possible. Shelley the vegetarian might have embodied such a world with non-objectified subjects that, regardless of their species, would not be required to supplement the idea of justice with their suffering. Such a world, however, would have to be free of the deferral or spacing of writing. Of the endless play of differentiation that inscribes the world we know. To depict a different world, one not yet visible, would require a new writing without deferral, hierarchy, origin fables, distinctions that wound. For Shelley, such a world could not yet be written—but the ellipses, the “. . .” that punctuate the last portion of the poem he did write, mark where the leaping off into a new writing might occur, where a new concept might gather itself for an event to come of wondrous rhyme and otherness without distortion.

It is this last impossible concept, arising from the dismantled self of Shelley’s later thought, of the impossible possibility of otherness without distortion (a radical otherness against which language falters) which coheres with the unspeakablility of an impossible future. A new plane of immanence requires the event to come, the unpredictable and thus unspeakable event, which might recall before the fact what must not be said (or, what might be too terrible to be said). This is the gamble, the leap of blind faith into the future that Shelley’s vision demands. Again, it demands it blind-fully, and unvoicedly.

I want to move in three directions at this point (a point is a departure that permits new paths to the horizonal limit—and it is the limit at which Jean-Luc Nancy says that freedom begins in The Experience of Freedom). First, blind faith recollects Derrida’s ruminations on allegories of the blind; second, unvoicedness resonates with both Plato’s khora and Derrida’s engagement with apophasis (the voiceless voice)—both blind faith and apophasis also have associations with Rousseau’s hollow-eyed seeing and gesticulations; and finally an impossible futurity gestures toward Nancy’s and Derrida’s articulations on freedom at the limits of experience. I cannot do justice to all of these; rather, I want to fold in these more recent mediations with Shelley’s perspicacious, pliable, and concise weaving of blindness, faithfulness, unvoicedness, limits, futurity and freedom in The Triumph.

In Rogues Derrida defines the khora politically: meaning originally “locality in general,” khora designates “spacing, interval . . . another ‘taking-place’” that Plato conceptualizes in the Timaeus (c. 350 BCE), but also a beforehand, “a spacing from ‘before’ the world . . . from ‘before’ any chronophenomenology” (xiv). The irony of our world is that it is precisely the khora-interval that allows “anthropotheological dogmatism or historicity” to take place without “providing any ground or foundation” (xiv); khora “would make or give place” (xiv). In this retrospective placement of the politico-theological and historicized now, Derrida nevertheless posits khora’s relation to the anticipatory function: it is “before everything,” part of no-thing while giving rise to what is, “it would give rise or allow to take place” (xiv). It is therefore, perhaps metaleptically, the very stuff of what is to come, and perforce related to “the unforeseeability of an event that is necessarily without horizon, the singular coming of the other, and, as a result, a weak force. This vulnerable force, this force without power, opens up unconditionally to what or who comes and comes to affect it” (xiv). Because the khora is fully other in its non-being, in its spatial anticipation, it offers a place in which futurity can begin to be thought—but not the space of that futurity, and this is Shelley’s point. It is only at the limits that futurity can even be gestured toward.

Shelley begins that gesture even before Rousseau points his finger. The problem in the poem’s opening stages is that of the multitude following the arrogantly blind-ful charioteer: suffering as they are in their maddened dance, they are themselves “the truth of the other, heterogeneity, . . . disseminal multiplicity, the anonymous ‘anyone,’ the ‘no matter who,’ the indeterminate ‘each one’” that is the other truth of democracy (or liberality, or freedom) that opposes the autonomy and ipseity that we hold dear to democracy (Derrida, Rogues 14). To see these whirling and convulsed dancers as suffering, and as heteronomic rather than a blind and frenzied mob is to begin to distinguish genius (embodied in Rousseau, albeit skeletally) from the no-matter-who of a future-to-come. This is the gesture already in place by the time Rousseau appears pronouncing “Life,” so that the speaker-I must begin again, “But first, who art thou?” (180, 199). First causes cannot be the grounds of freedom, and Rousseau’s explanations cause the speaker-I to understand that “God made irreconcilable / Good and the means of good” (230–31). Kant who himself delved the abyss of freedom is included in “those spoilers spoiled,” which also include Voltaire (235), those reasoners and mechanists who have brought on the “Sorrow, terror, anguish, despair . . . [that] are often the chosen expressions of an approximation to the highest good” (Shelley, Defence 529). Such a future-to-come must, by the stopping point of The Triumph, open up to the whoever-comes and not just the select few and self-chosen. The courage required to welcome such a future is wrenching; its unvoicedness both compels, in the sense of the apophatic call, and stops short, in the sense of an illegible moment. In both cases language fails, as it does for the multitude whose frenzy is all that can be expressed; the future must be wrenched from the past at such a point, it must exceed the promise held by all pastness and go beyond the breaking point.

Frenzy, then, must be part of the breaking of the limit, the push beyond the grounds of the triumphal careen. That the speaker stands apart from both the multitude and the frenzy does not preclude his taking part in futurity, a partaking that may already be beginning with the fragmentation of words into ellipses. As Derrida notes, “ellipsis names not only lack but a curved figure with more than one focus. We are thus already tween the ‘minus one’ and the ‘more than one’” which is “the time there is not” (Rogues 1). The time there is not, which may be the escape from finitude for Shelley, is at least in terms of The Triumph the possibility of an impossible future. Such an impossibility requires dizziness to be sure. It also requires blind faith, “Fidelity to come, to the to-come, to the future” (Derrida, Rogues 4). There is reason for this since the “to-come of democracy is also, although without presence, the hic et nunc of urgency, of the injunction as absolute urgency” (29). Such urgency demands a leap into the to-come, possibly even a new now. That is to say, a new plane of immanence that cannot be foreseen or even seen at all during its formation: a dizzying something which requires hollow-eyed determination without the possibility of prediction.

Significantly, the Poet’s encounter with Rousseau, and Rousseau’s narrative take up the majority of the poem. As the Poet and reader learn about Rousseau’s encounters with the “Shape all light” (308–433), we also learn that he has been translated by that shape, becoming increasingly hollowed out. He is metamorphosed, in de Man’s words, to a state “in which his brain, the center of his consciousness, is transformed” ( “Shelley Disfigured” 99). Whereas Rousseau’s recurring focus is on the “Shape all light,” de Man reads the Poet as avoiding the shape-light through his narrative fragmentation at the unsubstantial end or leaving off of the poem. Such a reading suggests the ending might be unsubstantial in the sense of a dissolving substance akin to what de Man describes as the light’s “hovering motion” ( “Shelley Disfigured” 105), or it might be insubstantial (not a fading dissolve but an incorporeality). While both are plausibly true, and the poem itself plausibly readable as a problem of the specular fold that enables rather than prohibits insight (“Happy those for whom the fold / Of” are the last words of the poem),

I refer here to Gilles Deleuze’s reading of Leibniz’s system in The Fold.

the ending also contains the kernel of the whole poem—not as fragment but as ellipses, as points of departure for a leaping out of the spatio-temporal horizon of the poem. De Man is largely concerned with language in the poem, both as rhetorical figure and as disfiguration, but as Rousseau himself points out in his essays on language, time is the essential medium of language creation. De Man recalls Rousseau’s (and Levi-Strauss’s) theories of language in writing about the violent linguistic acts that occur in the poem, each more damaging than the violence depicted in the triumphal parade itself; the poem is eventually revealed to be a “mutilated textual model [that] exposes the wound of a fracture” ( “Shelley Disfigured” 120). It is a wound that de Man finds at the heart of all texts, although Shelley might want the fracture traced back to the collusion of writing and ideology rather than mitigate the potential for poetic language to burst its bounds. But Rousseau and Levi-Strauss were more of de Man’s opinion; as Derrida notes, what the father of Romanticism and the father of structuralist anthropology (who declared himself to be “Rousseau’s modern disciple”) comprehend in their fraught relation to writing and presence is that the violence that language suffers in writing is not a “disease” inherent in speech and not separable from it that precipitates its fall, but rather “the original violence of a language which is always already a writing” (Of Grammatology 105–6). But the violence is in itself a disease, a genetic self-destruct mechanism and it is this disease that Shelley’s poem narrates. Neither Rousseau’s writings nor the voiced narrative embedded in the poem remain, or rather count, by The Triumph’s end. Counting is how Shelley’s fragmentary ending records language’s demise; its self-violence is played out neither as the figure of a hollowed-out (diseased) Rousseau nor as his “recapitulative” narrative in which logic dissipates,

This is de Man’s phrase, “Shelley Disfigured” 103.

but as language’s final failure to capture through anything but its own erasure—its ellipses—what might speak itself beyond “Life”’s horizon.

This ellipses is related to Rousseau’s hollowing out: diseased by the light’s erasure of his self-consciousness, of his presence as writing and as predecessor figure, Rousseau himself is reduced to a periodic gesture, like beats in a measure rather than Cartesian stopping points (for Descartes, points stop things dead; Shelley’s Rousseau continues to move after death). Translated by the light into an ellipsis of himself, Rousseau’s hollowing is of his self-presence, his consciousness as center of self; he thus sets the stage in the poem for the transfiguration (not translation) of the narrative at the end into ellipses. Derrida writes that the “other ellipsis of the metaphysics or onto-theology of the logos” is the “effort to master absence by reducing metaphor within the absolute parousia of sense” (Of Grammatology 106). “Onto-theology” is, importantly, the very beast Shelley is trying to eradicate in The Triumph; for Shelley this is the real disease of language, subjectivity, self-consciousness, and knowledge that creates the horizonal parameters of a “Life” that enslaves us. To imagine reducing or dissolving metaphor into sensory presence (absolute parousia) is to elide the pronunciative function of language, its rhythms and beats matching the rhythms and movement of sensory presence. In the Essay Rousseau had pronounced language to be the first social institution (219), but as such it is a disfiguration that cannot hold in its literalization of meaning, its denial of language’s capacity for metaphoricity, for figuring truth. As de Man notes in “Anthropomorphism and Trope in the Lyric,” “truth is a trope.”

The Rhetoric of Romanticism, 241. Quoted in Cynthia Chase’s “Double-Take.” The reference is to truth-statements as philosophemes, but for Shelley truths are poetic tropes, metaphoricity.

Rousseau’s translation from self-consciousness into a forgotten selfhood is accompanied by metaphors for light that offer little narrative reason; their illogic exposes the absence language covers over, stripping away the onto-theology Rousseau himself had come to figure and revealing another truth.

Metaphor, Derrida notes in Of Grammatology, is irreducible despite all attempts at mastery (allegory is decidedly metaphoric in this sense) (106); de Man proves this irreducibility in his reading of the “Shape all light,” and its own narrative logic. More intriguingly, interpreting Rousseau’s history of illuminating confessions by way of metalepsis—as a metaleptic recursiveness—allows for the movement that will transform or curve itself into the new evental idea of a possible democracy that is without logocentric, androcentric, and anthropocentric distortion, and thus a new paradigm. This movement is the leap to a new plane of immanence at the poem’s ending. De Man notes that the question and answer enacted by the figures of Rousseau and the Poet (the question of “‘whence I came, and where I am, and why—’” in line 398, accompanied by the same vision) is that of “a question whose meaning, as question, is effaced from the moment it is asked,” in the structure of a forgetting (98). For de Man, this repeating pattern of question, effacement, and forgetting (rather than question and answer) functions like a knot that “arrests the process of understanding” (98). For Shelley, Rousseau the writer has, “in a sense . . . overcome the discrepancy of action and intention that tears apart the historical world, and he has done so because his words have acquired the power of actions as well as of the will.” His words “literally, are actions” (de Man 103). But Triumph undermines this understanding of historical intervention, change, and dialectical movement. Rousseau is himself faulted for not valuing history’s truths, but not because history must be taken as dialectically progressive—rather, because of its evidentiary and repeating truths. If Rousseau’s arrestingly ineffective language in the poem is read metaleptically, in which the cause substitutes for the effect, truth may be achievable, for in this way history and the future are exchangeable. The question cannot have an answer, since the answer can go both forward and backward; more importantly, in classical rhetoric metalepsis creates a passage from one context to another, effecting a change in terms or of formula that opens up a third way. We might say, it is the movement of the energy from one plane of immanence to another, that which enables the event that announces change. In The Triumph, that event is the chariot careening toward the chasm wall of wondrous rhyme; it is announced, but not comprehensibly articulated as an evental idea for the rhyme is not legible in the terms that hold sway before the leap it announces. Promising everything, like the Shape all light, the wondrous rhyme signifies potentiality, both as the power of creative language and as the power of significant movement that opposes the recursive forgetting of Rousseau’s and the Poet’s “why?” and the enslaving movement of the chariot’s triumph.

Without making a connection between the effacement of history and of self-consciousness and that of counting in language, de Man does suggest that the Shape all light is inextricably bound to the natural beats of human consciousness, as we know these through the hovering, glimmering intermodal qualities of light and water, and the rhythms of measure and poetic language. The first two phenomena signify the “birth of form as the interference of light and water passes” (de Man, “Shelley Disfigured” 107), whereas the second two signify formalization. Counting (or natural rhythm or energy and movement as periodic units) is what is common to all four modalities; and counting is a way of signifying without the representational limits of signs or a blindness to metaphor. Shelley goes further, with measure in The Triumph obliterating thought, as de Man notes (114). For Rousseau in the Second Discourse, measure or counting functions in both dance and music as a more primary and primitive medium than the sight/light medium of the image and sign, which comes later as touching is replaced by the distance of gesture and then drawing.

Derrida discusses these ideas in Of Grammatology 229–55.

Counting comes down to points of measure, of comprehension, of community. In The Triumph Shelley shows light as the scene of what de Man calls “optical confusion” (106), which we might call image confusion, in echo of the vision that is delusory for its participants, diffusive for community, and difficult for the spectator Poet to interpret. “The thematization of language in The Triumph of Life occurs,” de Man notes, “when ‘measure’ separates from the phenomenal aspects of signification as a specular representation, and stresses instead the literal and material aspects of language,” adding that “it is precisely these ‘feet’ [of the terza rima] which extinguish and bury the poetic and philosophical light” (113). This literalization of language that ignores metaphor, this death of poetic capacity and of an originary communication, is precisely what Rousseau finds to be the history of language as a whole. For Shelley it is the history of western political ideology as well.

In Rousseau’s highly political theory of language’s origins as developed in Essay on the Origins of Language (1781), metaphor and music were early on prone to instability. He posits a geographical development of language, such that in northern regions the passions and desire are substituted and repressed by work and the need that provokes it; passion there takes the form of violent emotions, of fury, and speech turns toward articulation and away from tonality and musical speech. Writing is therefore “at the north” where articulation is heightened; writing allows for history, which “hollows out” both vowel accent and articulation, “extending the power of writing (Rousseau 226). “Our tongues,” Rousseau notes in the “Essay,” “are better suited to writing than speaking,” an observation noteworthy for The Triumph in which Rousseau’s writings are metaleptically hollowed out in favor of his spoken recitative, which nevertheless has no historical compass. Moreover, the “oriental corpse is in the book,” but for the north, “[o]urs is already in our speech” (qtd. in Derrida, Of Grammatology 226). The north, in effect, is death. This death, which need and work attempt to evade, accounts for the loss of melodious sound, of music from languages of the north where accent signs and punctuation replace intonation, that is, they replace the resonance of intoned life and desire (227). Nothing more clearly theorizes the living death of Shelley’s Rousseau, whose language has been so hollowed out that it is eviscerated of anything but a haunting. Even its attempts to capture image and figure, poetry and measure disintegrate toward the forgetting that is overtaking him. The warning he represents for the Poet prepares us, and him perhaps, for the disintegration of the poem’s integrity at the ending, its substitution of stuttering punctuation for poetic imagination, poetic imaging, poetic music. What does remain is measure, measure as counting, as beats, as what might be a gathering of dissipated energies rather than a dying into itself.

What is it that can get The Triumph back from the edge of a vertiginous loss of meaningful vision (Rousseau’s hollow-eyed seeing; the spectacular triumph’s mad careen into meaninglessness)? Hollow-eyed, hollowing out, and the root that is no root (of language, of origin

Derrida meditates on the nature of roots and entangled or intertwined roots in language and writing in Of Grammatology in an early passage in the section on Rousseau (101–2).

) but rather a man after all (the unrecognizable image of Rousseau when the Poet first encounters him), provide spectral figurations for the failure of both sight and language in the poem, or rather, for the disfiguration that de Man locates there.

The problem of the poem is not that it dis-articulates figuration and narrative, or that it encapsulates frenzied motion and a kind of centrifugal force so that the center empties out—or is seen to have always been empty, although these are both at play. The problem is that the poem is about the struggle between existence and control as a drama of the all in all; to convey this, the poem references so many ideas that it works rather like a magnet that has attracted little metal bits that it allows to disfigure the unity of the whole. In the Preface to The Rhetoric of Romanticism, De Man says that “Shelley Disfigured” is “The only place where I come close to facing some of these questions about history and fragmentation,” which include attempts to aestheticize modes of fragmentation to a kind of “unity and substance” that may be what the poem, and the entire period, resist (ix). That unity and substance, disenfranchised by the hollowing out Rousseau represents, and by the insistence on a messily chaotic history doomed to repeat itself represented by the triumph, comes to an end with the elliptical ending. There a blind seeing is required in order to see beyond the ending; it is the kind of sightedness poets are renown for, but Shelley resists putting such seeing into words. What he requires is a different kind of writing capable of resisting the death of presence that Rousseau accords to writing by refusing that dichotomizing of essence/substance, and of presence/distance encoded in Enlightenment theories of language. Such binaries recall one even more pertinent to the origin of language, that of nature/culture, which asserts an ideological, onto-theological interpretation on history as powerful as that of writing itself.

Describing Levi-Strauss’ focus on the split between nature and culture, Derrida refers to “the originality of a scandalous suture” (Of Grammatogy 105). This might well also describe the chasm wall inscribed with hieroglyphs or “rhymes of wonder” in The Triumph (105). The “rhymes of wonder” are both the failure of logocentric writing and the eradication of presentful voice, already dissimulated by Rousseau’s incoherent narrative. Derrida refers to iterability as repetition with a difference;

Derrida defines iterability as a concept in “Signature Event Context.”

rhymes of wonder would then be writing with a difference, writing beyond the trace or after the points of departure have been taken. Shelley is envisioning a different kind of writing then, one still necessitating an enabling violence against the chasm wall of horizonal or spatio-temporal limitation—but a writing that would not require the trace, the play of difference and of arche-writing. This is a writing that cannot be said, but can be felt in the beats, the counts of the ellipses that measure out the poem’s partial ending.

I have not yet alluded to The Triumph’s allegorical form. Despite its clear allegiance to Dante’s Divine Comedy (1320) and Petrarch’s own Triumph, the Trionfi (c. 1350-74), another allegory sits behind the poem, Plato’s allegory of the cave. Shelley’s Platonism is well known, but I believe that in his last major poem he overleaps Plato’s vision just as he does Dante’s. Derrida’s analysis of Plato’s allegory in Memoirs of the Blind is helpful here because it reveals the difficulty at the heart of the cave analogy: human passivity as the condition for seeing differently. Plato describes his allegorical cave as peopled by humans chained to the walls by their various kinds of blindness, caused when opinion is valued over the logic of ideas. Unable even to move their heads, these prisoners mistake shadows for real things. They are passive while chained, but even what frees them is not due to their own agency: “A conversion will free them . . . But before this dazzling ascent, an anabasis that is also an anamensis,” a journey through previous lives must take place (Derrida, Memoirs 15). This “passion of memory . . . will turn the soul’s gaze towards the ‘intelligible place’ . . . .” Far from being an act of will, however, Plato’s prisoners are represented as motionless through this process; Rousseau’s conversion is a rewriting of this allegory, his repeated retracings of his life as a philosophe prompted by the “Shape all light” rather than by his own initiative, and like the prisoners, the process produces a second kind of blindness, as Derrida notes, that Plato attributes to the exchange of dark shadows for intelligible light, where otherness might indeed be perceived otherwise and without blinding distortion. Thus Rousseau must see through eyes hollowed out of their prior blindnesses. Part of what Rousseau, and the Poet who he instructs, must forget is the blinding opinions of epistemic thought—constrained by postulates, skepticism, and Kantian critique—which rejects any stretching out to the thing-in-itself. Clearly Rousseau’s finger stretches in just such a way to point to the in-itself, the triumphal march as the essence of ideologically bound and blinded Life. Derrida notes that Plato’s prisoners never stretch their hands even toward the shadows on the cave’s walls, they are motionless in their inability even to touch the representations of things, let alone things-in-themselves. Shelley rejects such rejection, insisting that Rousseau can see blindly, can point to verities and intelligibilities. De Man disagreed with Derrida’s interpretation of Rousseau’s blindness, remarking in a letter that “The desire to exempt Rousseau (as you say) at all costs from blindness is therefore, for me, a gesture of fidelity to my own itinerary . . . that, on the specific question of the rhetoricity of his writing, he was not blinded.”

Quoted from private correspondence in Andrzej Warminski, “Machinal Effects,” 1073. See also de Man’s “The Rhetoric of Blindness: Jacques Derrida’s Reading of Rousseau.”

The truth-tropes of poetic language, for de Man, Derrida and Shelley, were accessible to Rousseau under certain conditions: when his metaphors overtook him, as does the Shape all light. The intelligible place he points to is off the map, of course, just as is Plato’s ideality.

This is a futurity worth risking the erasure of past histories if those histories are only doomed to repeat themselves; Rousseau’s erasure of self points this out. And if Shelley evinces anxiety in A Defence of Poetry over the distorting mirrors of futurity, surely Rousseau’s hollow-eyed seeing can overcome distortions that would only return us to a recursively recycled history of error and suffering. Indeed, “we let ‘I dare not wait upon I would,’” whereas instead “We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life” (Shelley, Defence 530; emphasis added). Poets have long been able to create a bridge from the past into a possible futurity (“The poetry of Dante may be considered as the bridge thrown over the stream of time, which unites the modern and antient world” [526]), but “poets have been challenged to resign the civic crown to reasoners and mechanists” (528), categories to which Rousseau at first capitulated in his poetical philosophy. The imagination, action and poetry requisite for a futurity without distortion in The Triumph would inaugurate the post-Anthropocene, and require, as Shelley’s Rousseau has demonstrated, a giving up of past words, memories of self and achievements, and therefore of the Cartesian cogito per se. His recursive story-making of self into nonself is a movement towards a new temporality in which past histories are forgotten or overwritten so that a new time may come into being. Similar to Rousseau’s self-fragmentation, The Triumph’s ending ellipses—which might be a cracking or fissuring in the chasmic walls, a positive fragmenting whose leaving off opens up the potentiality of poetry rather than a breaking up of logocentric linguistic formulations—gesture toward the possibility of a non-cogito realm in which selfhood is spelled differently. This is also the vision of philosophers of the non-Anthropocene, such as Cary Wolfe, in arguing that nonhumanist thought must not be brought back to a concentrism that still harbors the human at its core. The nonhuman must not be a veiled concern about the future of human survival; it must not be a practice of care toward other beings and toward the environment that restores the primacy of human agency. Both of these orientations distort otherness, casting it in logocentric terms that privilege the cogito and thus human history, undoing the lessons of the The Triumph’s allegorical vision. “Rhymes of wonder” foresees this linguistic breakthrough that could restore sight’s capacity to see what is there, awaiting a resolution into recognizable patterns whose interpretation need not privilege the logos, its theology, or its human subjectivity. Just as those currently struggling to envision what such a linguistics might entail cannot do more than gesture toward such a future, so too does Shelley’s great poem do no more than indicate pointedly language’s dissolve in such a futurity. Nevertheless, it is a rhyme of wonder.

Works Cited

Chase, Cynthia. “Double-Take: Reading de Man and Derrida Writing on Tropes.” Romantic Circles Praxis, May 2005.
Deleuze, Gilles. The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. Translated by Tom Conley, U of Minnesota P, 1993.
———, and Félix Guattari. What is Philosophy? Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell, Columbia UP, 1994.
de Man, Paul. “The Rhetoric of Blindness: Jacques Derrida’s Reading of Rousseau.” Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, U of Minnesota P, 1983, pp. 102–41.
———. The Rhetoric of Romanticism. Columbia UP, 1984.
———. “Shelley Disfigured.” The Rhetoric of Romanticism, Columbia UP, 1984, pp. 93–123.
Derrida, Jacques. Acts of Religion. Edited by Gil Anidjar. Routledge, 2002.
———. Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins. Translated by Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas, U of Chicago P, 1993.
———. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, corrected edition, Johns Hopkins UP, 1997.
———. Rogues: Two Essays on Reason. Translated by Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas, Stanford UP, 2005.
———. “Signature Event Context.” Margins of Philosophy. Translated by Alan Bass, U of Chicago P, 1982, pp. 307–30.
———. The Animal That Therefore I Am. Translated by David Wills, Fordham UP, 2008.
Johnson, Christopher. System and Writing in the Philosophy of Jacques Derrida. Cambridge UP, 1993.
Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of the Power of Judgment. Translated by Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews, Cambridge UP, 2000.
Krell, David Farrell. The Purest of Bastards: Works of Mourning, Art, and Affirmation in the Thought of Jacques Derrida. Pennsylvania UP, 2000.
Kuiken, Kir. Imagined Sovereignties: Toward a New Political Romanticism. Fordham UP, 2014.
Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Experience of Freedom. Translated by Bridget McDonald, Stanford UP, 1993.
Reiman, Donald H. Shelley’s The Triumph of Life: A Critical Study. U of Illinois P, 1965.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Confessions. Translated by J. M. Cohen, Penguin Classics, 1953.
———. “Essay on the Origin of Language in which Something is Said about Melody and Musical Imitation.” The First and Second Discourses together with the Replies to Critics and Essay on the Origin of Languages, edited and translated by Victor Gourevitch, Harper and Row, 1986, pp. 239–95.
———. The Social Contract. Translated by Maurice Cranston, Penguin, 1968.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Edited by Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat, 2nd ed., Norton, 2002.
Warminski, Andrzej. “Machinal Effects: Derrida With and Without de Man.” Modern Language Notes, vol. 124, 2009, pp. 107–90.
Wilson, Ross. Shelley and the Apprehension of Life. Cambridge UP, 2016.
Wolfe, Cary. Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame. U of Chicago P, 2012.


1. All quotations from The Triumph of Life and A Defence of Poetry are taken from Reiman and Fraistat’s Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, hereafter cited by line and page number respectively. I want to thank Orrin Wang and Andrew Warren for their helpful and generous suggestions on drafts of this essay. [back]
2. Although this is Derrida’s formulation of a futurity both imminent and insistently waiting, I believe it is one that haunts Shelley’s late poetics and The Triumph of Life in particular. [back]
3. It is this kind of sightedness that I believe Derrida is after in both Memoirs of the Blind and The Animal That Therefore I Am, and that Shelley is after with his confessional and self-erasing portrait of Rousseau in The Triumph. [back]
4. In “Shelley Disfigured,” de Man uses Reiman’s archival work in Shelley’s The Triumph of Life to reduce the philosopher-guides to a single one, Rousseau, a significant revision in the poem. [back]
5. Rousseau uses this phrase to describe writing’s supplementation of both speech and music, quoted in Of Grammatology 199. [back]
6. I refer to both Rousseau’s Confessions and to his confessionary narrative that consumes Shelley’s poem. On the intimacy of sound and metaphor, and their relation to the idea, see Reiman’s Shelley’s The Triumph of Life 9–10. [back]
7. Ousia is also translated as being, but Derrida specifies substantiality as Rousseau’s understanding of the term (Of Grammatology 18–26). [back]
8. Derrida develops this concept more fully in Acts of Religion as what underlies the doubled-nature of “identity,” which not only includes and excludes, but “ex-propriates” and “re-appropriates,” that is, “ex-appropriates” (78). He analyzes the concept more simply as “auto-immunity” in Rogues. [back]
9. That is, before line 373 (Reiman and Fraistat 480n1). [back]
10. This is Reiman’s reading of Shelley’s use of metaphor: idea corresponds analogously to impression, but not to object or to thing-in-itself (Shelley’s Triumph 10). [back]
11. For Deleuze the event is epiphenomenal, spoken in the proposition; “The concept speaks the event, not the essence or the thing” (What is Philosophy? 20). See esp. pp. 35–60. [back]
12. David Farrell Krell’s meditation on Derrida’s meditation, The Purest of Bastards, has informed my understanding of blindness as having a different knowledge structure. [back]
13. The plane of immanence is “the horizon of events,” or evental concepts: “The plane of immanence is not a concept that is or can be thought but rather the image of thought, the image thought gives itself of what it means to think” which stands in contrast to “the slow brain” (Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy? 36–37). [back]
14. See Ross Wilson, Shelley and the Apprehension of Life. [back]
15. I refer here to Gilles Deleuze’s reading of Leibniz’s system in The Fold. [back]
16. This is de Man’s phrase, “Shelley Disfigured” 103. [back]
17. The Rhetoric of Romanticism, 241. Quoted in Cynthia Chase’s “Double-Take.” The reference is to truth-statements as philosophemes, but for Shelley truths are poetic tropes, metaphoricity. [back]
18. Derrida discusses these ideas in Of Grammatology 229–55. [back]
19. Derrida meditates on the nature of roots and entangled or intertwined roots in language and writing in Of Grammatology in an early passage in the section on Rousseau (101–2). [back]
20. Derrida defines iterability as a concept in “Signature Event Context.” [back]
21. Quoted from private correspondence in Andrzej Warminski, “Machinal Effects,” 1073. See also de Man’s “The Rhetoric of Blindness: Jacques Derrida’s Reading of Rousseau.” [back]