Collings, "Rhyming Sensation in 'Mont Blanc'"

Romanticism and the New Deleuze

Rhyming Sensation in "Mont Blanc": In Response to Rob Mitchell

David Collings, Bowdoin College

audio version (in MP3 format)

  1. In his paper, "The Transcendental: Deleuze, P. B. Shelley, and the Freedom of Immobility," Rob Mitchell outlines Deleuze's immanent critique of Kant's theory of the faculties in order to demonstrate that it provides a broader philosophical template on which readers of English Romantic poems can draw. Mitchell rightly argues that insofar as the Kantian framework remains useful to such readers, Deleuze's critique is a significant development, for it allows us to attend with greater rigor to unsuspected dimensions of a poetics of the sublime. Deleuze points to how Kant's theory of the faculties relies on aspects of the mind he does not discuss, such as the faculty of sensation. As a consequence, Mitchell argues, one can expand the frame of a Kantian reading of "Mont Blanc" by finding terms such as "torpor" or procedures such as irregular rhyme which variously present the intensities of sensation.

  2. In this response to Mitchell's paper, I'd like to set aside the validity of Kantian readings of "Mont Blanc," as well as the question of the accuracy of Deleuze's argument or Mitchell's summary, in order to pursue further certain implications of Mitchell's intuition regarding this poem's irregular rhyme, particularly the key innovation with which he concludes. In aligning Deleuzean intensities of sensation with the poem's unusual sound structure, Mitchell draws new attention to an important question in the study of Romantic poems: what role do sound or rhythm play in the articulation of the sublime?

  3. At first, it seems clear that "Mont Blanc" is neither attempting to imitate the sublime experience itself nor to enable the reader to undergo that experience while reading it. The poem does not directly assault the senses, shatter the representational medium, or attempt to push beyond the limits of language. Rather, it muses upon sublimity in what most readers for many decades regarded as a consistently maintained and elevated version of blank verse. Moreover, it sustains a rather oblique relationship to sublime experience per se; its use of philosophical concepts and images and its openly speculative interest in the import of the mountain and ravine suggest that it shares much with a philosophical analysis of the mind's faculties. Although the poem does not provide philosophical argument per se, instead representing its characteristic concerns in part through the dramatized situation of an embodied speaker, it evacuates this speaker of particular biographical features and goes so far as to read features in the landscape itself allegorically, as instances of the faculties of mind. This blend of embodied response and universal import closely resembles Kant's own procedure, for he too insists both on the uniqueness and the communicability of aesthetic judgment. The dramatic scenario of this poem nicely captures the particular status of aesthetic judgment itself, as if to make explicit a representational scenario already operating in Kant's text.

  4. But at this point one must move beyond Kant, for "Mont Blanc" attempts to share its aesthetic judgment in an aesthetically appealing mode of its own. In effect, the poem engages the problem of the aesthetic on two distinct levels at once, rendering aesthetic theory in a beautiful form. It does aesthetic philosophy poetically, conducting its analysis of the mind's faculties in a text that also draws upon the resources of imagistic patterns, rhetorical tropes, allusions, meter and sound. In examining the poem, one's attention to aesthetic concerns is inevitably divided between its philosophical import and these features of poetic statement. Yet one cannot be too strict in policing the boundaries between these two levels, for in drawing attention to the poetics of articulation, "Mont Blanc" suggests that philosophical argument inevitably relies on representations of an embodied "I," narrative exempla, privileged metaphors, and repeated terms. Its own inventiveness, not least in imagining what might transpire on the peak of a mountain no one has yet ascended, parallels what Deleuze considers to be Kant's own resourcefulness; both Kant and Shelley, perhaps, are "inventors of concepts," crafting new philosophical categories and scenarios. In short, the poem suggests that patterned verbal statement is a precondition of philosophical argument and hints that there may be an aesthetic appeal to the form of argument itself.

  5. This shift from propositional content to verbal texture might remind one of the characteristic procedures of Derridean reading, which typically treats the philosophical text as a specifically written thing. But in this case, at least, Deleuzean reading must differ from Derridean, for it focuses not on the vicissitudes of certain core terms but on the non-signifying features of verbal statement, such as rhythm and sound. One might say that it attends not to the non-conceptual dimension of concepts but to the non-representational dimension of representation. But because of Deleuze's immanent critique of Kant, one need not regard the non-representational dimension of the poem as extraneous to its philosophical import; within the space of the poem, that dimension stands in for the non-representational aspect of the mind, the faculty of sensation, which for Deleuze is a precondition for the operation of other faculties. As Mitchell argues, then, the Deleuzean critique of Kant enables the reader to discern a philosophical significance in what might otherwise appear to be purely poetic features of the text.

  6. Rhyme in "Mont Blanc" has philosophical import thanks to another, often unremarked, feature of the poem. One does not so much hear these poem's rhymes consciously as read them, patiently, over the shoulder of Keach. While one might discern such rhymes on an unconscious level in listening to a recitation of the poem, they are notable primarily in retrospect as one inspects the written text. In this case, what normally appeals to the ear reappears after a careful reconstruction of the poem's sounds: rhyme remains, but only when we are drawn to recognize it where we might otherwise miss it. This retrospective procedure has an uncanny import; by challenging us to discover its encrypted relationship to rhyme, the poem suggests that rhyme somehow operates inherently within articulation itself, even when, or especially when, the ear is unaware. In this shift from ear to page, "Mont Blanc" does not efface the poem's solicitation of the senses but hints that such a solicitation is more ubiquitous, and unconscious, than readers have thought—at least those readers who, before Keach, had never noticed this feature of the poem. Even where a poem may seem to set aside rhyme, for example by relying on the conventions of blank verse, it can never entirely efface rhyme, for rhyme seems to be inherent in the aural dimensions of language; articulation necessarily brings in its train poetic effects. By problematizing rhyme in this way, the poem treats it philosophically, drawing attention in a proto-Deleuzean fashion to that element of sense inherent in what one might here call the faculties of articulation.

  7. Precisely because Mitchell's argument illuminates this poem so well, I am tempted to exert pressure upon it in two respects, in the hope that doing so will help Romantic critics pursue further the consequences of Deleuzean reading. The first question bears upon the exemplary status of "Mont Blanc" in this argument. Mitchell emphasizes the particular efficacy of the poem's irregular rhyme, which avoids both repetitive rhyme and the absence of rhyme and thus makes all the more palpable a specific singularity of sensation. But where does this argument leave most other poems, which typically choose one or the other of those options? Ironically, this reading may work too well; in using "Mont Blanc" to exemplify a Deleuzean reading, it may remove from view a vast field of other poetic forms or strategies. What we need is an argument that explores a series of possible instances of Deleuzean poetic articulation. In fact, it is not yet clear exactly why one must set aside "repetitive rhyme" in Deleuzean poetic analysis, given Deleuze's own rigorous treatment precisely of repetition. Perhaps "Mont Blanc" marks out one of many strategies by which poems may capture the specific intensities of sense.

  8. The second question is this: which Deleuzean critique of Kant should one use in reading Shelley? For the most part, Mitchell relies on Kant's Critical Philosophy (1963), where Deleuze primarily exposes the preconditions of Kant's analysis of the faculties. This is an immensely useful text for Shelley studies, not only because it enables one to carry out the reading of "Mont Blanc" that Mitchell provides but also because it might help one grasp Shelley's alignment of aesthetics and ethics. The correlation here between a Deleuzean Kant and Shelley is quite precise. In his analysis of the Critique of Judgment, Deleuze argues that for Kant, the "free accord of the faculties" is discordantly harmonious because it is already determined by reason's legislative role in the moral sphere. For Kant, "the suprasensible destination of all our faculties is the pre-destination of a moral being." Accordingly, Kant argues that "the interest of the beautiful implies a disposition to be moral" (55). In a similar vein, in the Preface to Prometheus Unbound Shelley argues for the ethical and political efficacy of "beautiful idealisms of moral excellence." Like Kant, Shelley may be invested in a concept of the ultimate unity of the faculties, a unity that, as that poem suggests, he too may conceive teleologically.

  9. However, Deleuze responds to Kant in a rather different mode in Difference and Repetition (1968). Here he pushes well beyond an immanent critique of Kant, radicalizing the insights of the earlier volume and providing an alternative account of the relation between the faculties. Mitchell draws upon this Deleuze in his opening reference to an organic synthesis and in his later remarks on discordant harmony and on the rhythm proper to sensation itself. Here again, the correlation between Deleuze and Shelley is potentially quite precise. One can illustrate the conjunction here by extending Mitchell's argument about "Mont Blanc." Mitchell suggests that one need not read irregular rhyme within the Kantian framework of threat and recovery, as does Keach; that unusual form may point instead to the singularities of sensation. But in the system proposed in Difference and Repetition, those singularities may exemplify a conflict of the faculties also evident in the Kantian sublime. What may be at stake here is not a displacement from sublimity to sensation but an account that treats both sublimity and sensation as instances of a broad "discordant harmony" of all the faculties, which, in a passage that Mitchell cites, arises when "each [faculty] communicates to the other only the violence which confronts it with its own difference and its divergence from the others." This discordant harmony, Deleuze goes on to argue, many not arrange itself under the Kantian Ideas as cogitanda, but under Ideas conceived as this problematic site of violence between faculties (146). Here Deleuze generalizes the violence proper to Kant's account of the sublime, although in doing so he deprivileges the legislative role of reason. Yet his argument makes it possible to read Keach with Mitchell, as it were, and bring sublimity and sensation into a broader discordant field no longer determined by any supreme faculty. In this version of a Deleuzean Shelley, there is no ultimate destination of our aesthetic and moral faculties, for they belong to a domain of coherent divergence in which none is privileged.

  10. The key question in this regard is whether Shelley's practice in "Mont Blanc" more closely resembles the earlier or the later Deleuze. Does the poem foreground the dimension of sensation requisite for Kant's own account of the sublime and ultimately endorse a teleological operation of the faculties, or does it explore a less legislated operation of the faculties akin to the scenarios of Difference and Repetition? Or does it outline yet another possibility? At first one might argue that the poem more closely resembles the earlier Deleuze, for it calls attention to the singularity of sensation in the way Mitchell argues without directly or specifically emphasizing a non-legislative divergence between the faculties. Dwelling at length on the mountain's hyperbolic destructiveness, the poem broadly identifies with the perspective of the mountain itself when it views "the race of man" from afar, celebrates the mountain as a moral and political exemplar, and even affiliates it with a "secret strength" that operates "as a law." Arguably, it insists on a teleological justification of sublime violence more aggressively than does Kant himself. Yet precisely this aggression should give one pause. The poem's apparent ease in celebrating destruction ironically accentuates the impulse to repudiate violence, to resist the claims made on behalf of the mountain. But the poem relies on a countervailing identification with what it assumes we will resist. Although it may not espouse an explicit philosophy of divergence, its very tone suggests that it enacts a non-teleological conflict of the faculties, at once endorsing the sublime while recognizing its inhuman costs, subscribing to an ethical idealism while emphasizing that its exemplar carries out a devastating assault on ordinary human concerns.

  11. This reading extends Mitchell's argument but remains broadly congruent with his, suggesting that the poem draws attention to aesthetic conflict in several ways at once—through the use of irregular rhyme as well as the complex ironies of its embrace of the sublime. In these two ways and possibly more, the poem superbly exemplifies an unresolved conflict of the faculties, in its beautiful harshness capturing what a Deleuzean Kant would describe as a discordant harmony.

  12. The fact that it is possible to enlarge upon Mitchell's argument in these ways points to the strength of his approach, for it suggests that the affinities between Shelley and Deleuze are strong enough to illuminate as yet unsuspected features of Shelley's philosophical poetics. By drawing Deleuze into our critical conversation, Mitchell has made possible a new, more searching reading of this difficult poet and of the whole question of the intersections between Kant and English romanticism.

Works Cited

Deleuze, Gilles.  Difference and Repetition. Trans. Paul Patton. New York: Columbia UP, 1994. 

---. Kant's Critical Philosophy: The Doctrine of the Faculties. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1984.