On the Currency of Images: Percy Shelley’s Minor Event

This is an essay about a minor event in a major poem. I hope to demonstrate how the minor event of a detached poetic image offers us a way of understanding what is in back of or behind the proto-cinematic energies on display in The Triumph of Life (1822). And I am also interested in exploring the inverse proposition: can the “minor” lyricism of our own contemporary cinema open a means of beholding the image-event in Shelley’s poem? If this second possibility is realized, perhaps it is possible to discern in these past poetic and present cinematic images a form of historical “circuitry” that reveals something about the agency or “currency” of images. I want to propose that the currency of the poetic image is best understood by what Roland Barthes identified as the obtus or “third meaning,” a glimmering residue of the stilled cinematic image that offers the point of contact for the current that circulates between the literary and cinematic modes of image production.

On the Currency of Images: Percy Shelley’s Minor Event

I. “When a Veil of Light is Drawn / O’er Evening Hills They Glimmer”

1.         If every essay we write has a back-story, we usually have the good taste for it to “remain untold” even when, as in Percy Shelley’s case, it might keep us “as wakeful as the stars that gem / The cone of night” (21–23). [1]  But given that this is an essay that is very much about the “back-story,” I will take the liberty of beginning it by telling my own. When Joel Faflak first wrote me about the MLA panel for which this essay originated, he asked cryptically if I wanted to revisit “our favorite poem.” I was struck by the audacity of the invitation: we are rarely asked—at least in an institutionally authorized setting such as the Modern Language Association—to identify “our favorite poem,” much less to speak about how it strikes us and moves us. But my respect for Faflak’s scholarship is such that I agreed immediately to the invitation; and that agreement prompted me in turn to reflect on how I might extract “my favorite poem” and from what catalogue of favorites it might be drawn. I understood Faflak not to be soliciting a talk about a poem that was necessarily a significant achievement or a decisive event; rather, I thought he was making a less critical and more intimate query into “my favorite things,” something like “raindrops on roses,”—those poems, in other words, that whether major or minor become precious to us, even indispensable. Given that it was Joel Faflak making this request, I assumed he wanted me to select such a poem from English Romanticism. I reflected on my usual romantic suspects, poems that I feel are necessary to my being—those poems about mountains or birds—before I realized what I had long known: my favorite poem was The Triumph of Life (1822). It was only then that I revisited—and actually read carefully—Faflak’s initial request and realized I never had a choice in the matter of favorite: I had been assigned to write about The Triumph of Life because it was already known in advance to be my favorite. I am happy to know that there are others quite like me, singled out for the great gift of this poem, a gift that can feel every bit a curse.

2.         Shortly after this recognition, I read Faflak’s astonishing essay on the “vitally cinematic” nature of Shelley’s final poem and immediately discovered there the most succinct account to date of what is at stake for Shelley’s poetics of the image, one that is not merely a reflection of its historical moment but its projection of a futurity: “The Triumph of Life reflects a society of the spectacle still in visual flux. But it predicts a history fascinated by the production of images that body forth life, then compromise any return to life itself” ("Dancing" 168). Faflak’s principal point of reference for his re-reading of The Triumph is Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000), a film which invokes and even inhabits The Sound of Music (1965) with the director’s special form of lovingly perverse devastation. This constellation of ironies and overdetermined coincidences prompted me to wonder how a poem such as The Triumph of Life can qualify as a “favorite”? If The Triumph is the final poetic gift Shelley bestowed on futurity, it is most certainly not delivered in a “brown paper package tied up with string”; and it certainly has none of the palliative or compensatory qualities that singers from Julie Andrews to Bjork have invoked with “my favorite things.” Indeed, it’s a poem that seems likely to undo every happy item in that song’s catalogue of favorites and would seem one of the least likely candidates for a favorite poem. I wondered what might make The Triumph of Life not only an important poem for Shelley studies, for the field, even for the profession, but also my own personal favorite?

3.         There are many political, theoretical, rhetorical, disciplinary, and biographical aspects of this astonishing text that make it such a beacon in Romantic studies: it seems to be one of those poems that simply won’t be done with us, a sprawling remnant too relentlessly demanding to be answered once and for all, a hallucinatory thrill-ride that promises or threatens to take us far beyond its own vanishing point. It’s a poem that conveys both the originary fiat of the sun “springing forth” and the trippy “perpetual flow” of visions “ever new,” while making the conveyances and the conveyed an urgent matter of political and poetic history. In fact I feel authorized to read the famous opening lines—“Swift as a spirit hastening to his task / Of glory and of good” (1–2)—as referring not to the sunrise, which takes its own sweet time, but to the poem itself. Still, these features of the poem, however exhilarating and exacting, are not the aspects of literature we typically characterize as endearing or intimate. And as necessary and demanding as I find these defining features of The Triumph of Life, they are not the qualities that make this daunting and undoing poem so precious to me. The answer to the initiating query—what makes The Triumph of Life my favorite poem?—can be traced to the personally arresting effect of an accidental but notable aesthetic event.

4.         Folded inside one of those sprawling terza rima verse sentences in the introductory proem to Shelley’s The Triumph of Life are the following lines: “when a veil of light is drawn / O’er evening hills they glimmer” (32–33). [2]  Though I have extracted the lines in the form of a grammatically complete sentence, they serve in fact as part of a dependent clause, the minor vehicle to a simile which is part of an elaborate phenomenological figure and a major interpretive crux of the poem. The extracted lines themselves are not obscure. Stuart Sperry has suggested that adding a comma after “hills” makes the lines “intelligible,” but I believe that the absence of the comma extends what we might call the “glimmer effect” to the demonstrative pronoun: “evening hills they glimmer” (181). [3]  Once one restores the passage to its grammatical and rhetorical operation in the poem, things are—as always in Shelley—immediately complicated given that this glimmering veil of evening light is a figure for transparency. Here is the extracted image in its immediate context as well as the opening and conclusion of the proem:

Swift as a spirit hastening to his task
Of glory and of good, the Sun sprang forth
Rejoicing in his splendour, and the mask
Of darkness fell from the awakened Earth.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . .before me fled
The night; behind me rose the day; the Deep
Was at my feet, and Heaven above my head
When a strange trance over my fancy grew
Which was not slumber, for the shade it spread
Was so transparent that the scene came through
As clear as when a veil of light is drawn
O’er evening hills they glimmer; and I knew
That I had felt the freshness of that dawn,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Under the self same bough, and heard as there
The birds, the fountains and the Ocean hold
Sweet talk in music through the enamoured air.
And then a Vision on my brain was rolled. . .
(1–4, 26–34, 37–40; my emphasis)
I still find Paul de Man’s rendering of the significance of the passage to be the most acute account of the complications of the passage and its implications: the “clarity” is “like that of a veil drawn over a darkening surface, a description which necessarily connotes covering and hiding, even if the veil is said to be ‘of light’” ("Shelley Disfigured" 106). For de Man this passage is part of a textual “knot” that by way of an echoing “glimmer,” repeated by the figure of Rousseau almost 400 lines later, “unites the poet-narrator to Rousseau” and establishes a principal site of the poem’s treatment of “knowledge, oblivion, and desire” (106, 105, 107). In fact, the passage can be said to achieve the status of a de Manian “allegory of reading”: “Light covers light, trance covers slumber and creates conditions of optical confusion that resemble nothing as much as the experience of trying to read The Triumph of Life, as its meaning glimmers, hovers, and wavers, but refuses to yield the clarity it keeps announcing” (106).

5.         I regard this sentence from "Shelley Disfigured" to be an allegory of what it means to read de Man and his own “altogether tantalizing . . . play of veiling and unveiling” (106). But though it is as seductively beautiful as the poem it interprets, de Man’s account of the early passage in the proem of The Triumph identifies an “optical confusion” that seems unwarranted by the lines themselves. The “transparent . . . scene” and the “veil of light” both describe the “strange trance” that “grew” over the “fancy” of Shelley’s speaker; but what is perhaps most “strange” about the “trance” is not the “confusion” it generates but the weird fact that the trance changes nothing at all: the speaker merely knows what he had already “felt” (“the freshness of that dawn,” “bathed in same cold dew,” etc.). The “scene”—the very scene he is witnessing—simply “came through” clearly. If the proem begins and ends with two major events—the “springing forth” of the Sun and the “rolling” of “a Vision”—the only occurrence in the final four stanzas is something that doesn’t even happen to the speaker in the poem: “when a veil of light is drawn / O’er evening hills they glimmer.” Though the lines may be positionally important insofar as they establish the phenomenological conditions for the “Vision” to be “rolled” on the speaker’s “brain,” they are themselves poetic non-events, especially when measured against the scale of the universal history that unfolds in the “Vision” itself, the triumphal pageant of The Triumph of Life. These first forty lines are, after all, mere back story.

6.         Nothing authorizes me to identify the two special lines I’ve extracted and turn them into a complete sentence-image, especially given their dependent and supportive role in the fragmented passage of a fragmentary poem. [4]  But perhaps it is the very quality of their provisional “completeness”—a passively rendered action and its effects—that makes the lines obtrude, suspending temporarily the relentless and even delirious movement of Shelley’s verse: clauses opening upon new clauses, similes in which vehicle overtakes tenor, figures sprawling across stanzas, all breathlessly enjambed. [5]  That we can detach this image from the course of the poem doesn’t substantially affect the poem’s interpretation: nothing in The Triumph hinges on these two lines. Rather, Shelley’s poem offers this glimmering sentence-image in the manner of an arresting if minor detail in a painting, one which has little to do with its compositional arrangement or symbolic meaning but upon which we might inexplicably dwell, like the delicate stroke of lightning drawn in the corner of Giorgione’s The Tempest (circa 1506). The sentence-image I’ve extracted from Shelley doesn’t undermine the figure of a “transparent” “shade;” and it suits the poem’s tone and tenor. But to me this sentence image also seems to belong elsewhere and on its own. This is the case in part because the image is invoked as something not necessarily experienced by the speaker: the feature of the veiled illumination does not belong to the speaker’s catalogue of observations but may merely be a recognizable aesthetic occurrence, a glimmer that is given or expected to occur under certain atmospheric conditions. Withdrawn from the longer passage, the extracted passage offers a discrete reflection on the temporality of images, the particular “when-ness” of a “veil of light.” [6]  There is a compressed if passing constative and declarative independence to this sentence-image that invites us to take it as something complete and something known: “when a veil of light is drawn / O’er evening hills they glimmer.” In any event, I feel the image’s invitation; and thus it is perhaps less accurate to say that I have extracted this image from the poem than it is to acknowledge how the image has extracted itself and solicited me in the process, the minor event of an image that arrests us without doing anything or promising more.

7.         This is an essay about a minor event in a major poem; and I hope to demonstrate how the minor event of this detached image offers us a way of understanding what is in back of or behind the proto-cinematic energies on display in The Triumph of Life. But I am also interested in exploring the inverse proposition: can the “minor” lyricism of our own contemporary cinema open a means of beholding the image-event in Shelley’s poem? If this second possibility is realized, perhaps it is possible to discern in these past poetic and present cinematic images a form of historical “circuitry” that reveals something about the agency or “currency” of images. I want to propose that the currency of the poetic image is best understood by what Roland Barthes identified as the obtus or “The Third Meaning,” a glimmering residue of the stilled cinematic image that offers the point of contact for the current that circulates between the literary and cinematic modes of image production.

8.         In the following section of my essay, I explore this “minor currency” of the image by way of a constellation of critical positions or relays. If Barthes’s account of the obtus of the image is my point of departure, for my sky-map of history I look to Walter Benjamin’s "On the Concept of History," his final theses about the role of the image for historical constellations. [7]  For an understanding of the “detachability” of the image, I turn to Jean-Luc Nancy’s meditations on The Ground of the Image. However unlikely it may seem, Walter Pater’s notion of “appreciations” suggests a mode of discerning the force and mobility of literary and visual images. And finally Deleuze and Guattari’s notions of the mineur and the assemblage in their book on Kafka suggest a way of thinking how image-connections work. In the third section of the essay, I turn to Velvet Goldmine (1998), Todd Haynes’s ambitious film about “glam rock” as both a consonant cultural text and a methodological guide for how we might use the currency of the “stilled” or arrested image to extract Shelley’s poetry of the “minor event.” I conclude the essay with a brief thought experiment which links the minor cinema of the third meaning to The Triumph in order to ask how this circuitry of images, simultaneously vibrant and beyond life, might open itself to the Deleuzian mineur.

9.         My thinking about the poetic and cinematic meditation on the image is made possible by this array of theorists and poets and filmmakers who may share nothing more methodologically than a keen eye for detail and the apprehension of the minor event. If this poetic, cinematic, and theoretical constellation “lights up” for us to behold it—if it “glimmers” or “glitters”—then it might also offer us what Benjamin called a “historical construction”: this would not be another historical narrative, and not even a “counter-narrative,” but arrested and extracted dialectical images which, behind and beyond any story, offer a new way to think the sky map of “eternal history” as the “eternity of its transience” (407).

II. How to Stay Minor

10.         It’s harder than one might think. A minor event seems like a contradiction in terms: the moment a literary or visual image or textual passage achieves the status of an event, it will have passed from its position as minor, lesser, or subordinate to the level of the major or the principal. I think we can assert with confidence that the hermeneutic project in literary and cultural interpretation is predicated on the achievement of the “major.” However divergent in implication or application, every influential critical undertaking I know of, belonging to critics as diverse as Auerbach, de Man, Greenblatt, Spivak, Žižek, involves some effort to isolate the unsuspecting detail or figure, unearth its hidden significance, and thereby move from the minor to the major. De Man’s "Semiology and Rhetoric" offers a paradigmatic example of a critic attending to what may have appeared to the many trained and thoughtful readers before him to be the most insignificant distinction between a rhetorical and a literal question, only to learn that the “innocent-looking” exploration of a minor textual undecidabilty results in the “rhetorical suspension of logic and vertiginous possibilities of referential aberration.” “It turns out,” as de Man often puts it, that in “our” close philological scrutiny of these apparently minor rhetorical details, “we are in fact playing for very sizeable stakes” (10).

11.         But what does it look like if we keep the stakes “minor”? My thinking about the minor event is prompted by Benjamin’s declaration in his third thesis on the concept of history: “The chronicler who narrates events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accord with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost to history” (390). It’s easy to overlook the fact that Benjamin is making the case for the narration of minor events, especially since nothing feels minor about the "Theses on the Concept of History" and the “state of emergency” in which they were written: those are indeed “very sizeable stakes” (392). And the essay’s major declarations are the most memorable and most cited: “there is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” “the historical materialist . . . remains in control of his powers, man enough to blast open the continuum of history,” “What we call progress is the storm (of history),” the “one single catastrophe” (396, 392). And for his agents of historical redemption, Benjamin invokes major theological figures: the “Angel of History,” the Antichrist and the Messiah, Judgment Day. Moreover, for his notion of historical redemption, Benjamin uses the theologically charged Erlösung rather than the more prosaic Einlösung, the “cashing in” or redemption value of deposits or vouchers. Nevertheless, this minor strain in Benjamin’s theses has not gone unnoticed. Elsewhere, Jacques Khalip and I have invoked Werner Hamacher’s account of Benjaminian redemption as what Hamacher calls “unactualized possibilities of that which is past: the unfinished, the failed, the thwarted” (40). If Benjamin’s conception of history is more kairological than chronological, his object of its redemption is reclaiming the lost currency of the minor event. “If the concept of redemption points towards a theology,” Hamacher writes, “then this is not a straightforwardly Judeo-Christian theology, but rather a theology of the missed or distorted—hunchbacked—possibilities, a theology of missed, distorted or hunchbacked time” (40). [8] 

12.         Here I want to enlist Hamacher’s reading as my prompt to thinking of the theses as Benjamin’s effort to “make minor” the notion of redemption and the theological structure from which he extracts it. If, as Benjamin continues, “our coming was expected on earth,” it is expected “like every generation that preceded us”: it is both always expected and it may always fail to arrive (390). Moreover, the “messianic power” with which we’ve been endowed is, as Michael Levine has stressed in his fine book with this title, A Weak Messianic Power [eine schwache messianische Kraft]. It is this “weak” or minor power—what with perfect pitch Amanda Jo Goldstein calls a “slight susceptibility” (163)—that allows us to catch what Benjamin calls the “sun rising in the sky of history” not at daybreak but by way of the “secret heliotropism” of flowers, the most “inconspicuous of all transformations” (390). [9]  “Every second,” writes Benjamin in thesis “B,” is “the small gateway in time” through which this “weak messianic power” “might enter” (397). For Levine, the “secret agreement” that is always in effect between past generations and the present is not a pact but an appointment or a rendezvous, one which may just as easily be missed as kept. The event for Benjamin is not the historical occurrence, not the what that happened but the “image” projected from the past that may—or may not—be “caught” as it passes through the “sky of history,” both when the sun is rising and when it has set and left us with our shifting constellations in the night sky. “The true image of the past flits by,” writes Benjamin in the fifth thesis: “the past can be seized as an image that flashes up at the moment of its recognizability, and is never seen again” (390). [10]  For the Benjamin of the theses, the truth of history is its status as an image: fragile, contingent, fugitive.

13.         Benjamin posits a historian who “ceases to tell the sequence of events like beads of a rosary,” who resists the poverty of historicism’s directive to “establish a causal nexus” among consecutive events and to tell the past “as it really was” (397); and he imagines a “historian” who dispenses with the “idea that history is something which can be narrated” ("Paralipomena" 406). But if the truth of history is not its sequential narrative but its composition as images that coalesce in a constellation, this implies that images must be independent of any narrative sequence or at least extractable from the course of empirical events. Jean-Luc Nancy identifies this “extractability” as the “essential” feature of the image: he calls it the image’s “distinction” (1). The image, writes Nancy, “must be detached, placed outside and before one’s eyes, . . . and it must be different from the thing. The image is a thing that is not the thing: it distinguishes itself from it, essentially” (2). According to Nancy, the “image is always sacred,” “set aside, removed, cut off” (1). Sacred but decisively not religious, which Nancy opposes to the sacred (1). For Nancy, the image as “the distinct stands apart from the world of things considered as a world of availability” and is “withdrawn” from utility or “has a completely different use” (2). In other words, this is the image’s sacred “redemption value,” a marking or a stigma which—withheld from any community of faith—exerts a force: the image “pulls and draws, . . . it extracts something, an intimacy, a force” (4). The force of the image has nothing to do with what it represents; rather, the image for Nancy is this force: “this intimate force is not ‘represented’ by the image, but the image is it, the image activates it, draws it and withdraws it, extracts it by withholding it, and it is with this force that the image touches us” (5).

14.         These features of the image—its extractability, its intimate force, its sacred “distinction”—are not, according to Nancy, limited to its visual properties: “the visual image plays the role of a model” for the extractable force of the image; but the “image is also musical, poetic, even tactile, olfactory or gustatory, kinaesthetic, and so on” (4). Perhaps this is what makes the sentence-image I have extracted from The Triumph so “touching” and so definitive: withdrawn from the world of events—the events of the world and the events of the poem—my image is itself a “glimmering” “veil of light” “drawn” but not represented or representing, itself a force which comes from nowhere or, as Nancy claims for all images, “comes from the sky—not the heavens, which are religious, but from the skies, a term proper to painting” (5). “When a veil of light is drawn / O’er evening hills they glimmer” is a poetic image which invokes the visual as the “model” for its own workings. It is the minor event of the image as such, the “order” of the image.

15.         Once we have grasped the image as something to be drawn and withdrawn, distinct, extractable, sacred and redeemable, those of us motivated by Benjamin’s model of history must ask how a “constellation” comes into existence or, perhaps more precisely, how one beholds a constellation of images which was always present in “the eternal lamp” of history. At the most basic level, what connects one image to another if not narrative causality or sequentiality? If the relationship between images is no longer a matter of causality or sequence or mimesis, why does this one image connect with that one? How does something as complex and recognizable as a constellation of images come to be formed? How might we determine that a particular arrangement of images is a genuine constellation and not a mere asterism, or conveniently recognizable pattern of images? Benjamin doesn’t seem to imply that a constellation of images is solely the fictive projection of a percipient-beholder of sheerly random and contingent pulses of light and sensation. Perhaps, then, history’s event-images have their own agency or, more precisely, possess their own currency?

16.         A “currency” of the image seems the most appropriate way to understand Benjamin’s notion of the constellation and the potential for an historical “redemption” of event-images that “may be separated” by “thousands of years.” Perhaps it is no accident that, according to the OED, each of the principal “current” meanings of the words “currency” and “current” had come into circulation by the time of Romanticism’s appearance: 1) currency as the “time during which something is current,” something like Benjamin’s “now-time” [Jetzeit]; 2) currency as the “medium of exchange” or “the circulating medium,” that which establishes an object’s “redemption value”; 3) currency as the fact or quality of being current; and 4) “current” as “the name given to the apparent transmission or ‘flow’ of electrical force through a conducting body.” For Benjamin the “the dialectical image is an occurrence of ball lightning [Kugelblitz] that runs across the whole horizon of the past” (403). An image’s currency is that which allows it to pass through and connect to another “conducting body” and which makes it susceptible to a “now-time” in which it may be redeemed. For Shelley that faculty for redemption is the imagination which in A Defence of Poetry (published posthumously in 1844) he defines as “the perception of value” (510; emphasis added). An image’s currency may circulate invisibly for epochs until it is clandestinely plugged in to the present with what Shelley, also in Defence, calls its “electric life” (535). I’m interested in exploring the currency of images for the minor events they offer, the currency of their connections and the minor historical “back-ways” they light up, mostly hidden and often obscure, “glimmering” “veils of light” “drawn” across the sky.

17.         If we are not accustomed to thinking of Pater alongside such figures as Benjamin or Nancy, the mode of aesthetic criticism Pater undertakes in The Renaissance (1873) offers an example of the kind of force or charge I am describing. Pater’s aesthetic critic “regards all the objects with which he has to do, all works of art, and the fairer forms of nature and human life, as powers or forces producing pleasurable sensations, each of a more or less peculiar or unique kind” (xx). Pater devotes himself to identifying and discerning the particular “powers or forces” of each image or text he is summoned to examine: his project is to locate that “active principle” of a text which has “crystallized” in the painting or the poem. “Sometimes fusing and transforming entire compositions” and “sometimes, as if at random depositing a fine crystal here or there,” this “active principle”—which is not a theme or a form or a genre—animates or charges the image (xxii). Few would accuse Pater of historicism; and the “studies” in The Renaissance “trace” the “active principle” or current in an historically and culturally disparate constellation of pictures, stories, poems, and criticism that connects Heloise and Abelard to Winckelman and Goethe.

18.         The currency of the image—what Pater might identify as its animating principle—is not the primary intended or symbolic meaning of the image but closer to what Barthes describes as its “image-residue” or “third meaning.” In his "Research Notes on Several Eisenstein Stills," Barthes begins by pointing at an image from Ivan the Terrible (1944) —the young tsar being showered with gold—and immediately distinguishes “three levels of meaning”: first, the level of “information” or “communication,” amenable to a “primary semiotics”; and second, the symbolic level where “referential,” stylistic, iconic, historical, and ideological symbolisms can be discerned (42). “This second level, in its totality,” writes Barthes, “is that of signification. Its mode of analysis would be a more highly elaborated semiotics than the first,” the mode of semiotic analysis with which he had been most identified and that had he done perhaps the most to refine (42). “The third meaning,” then, derives from the residue or leftovers of the first two levels, something detachable in that particular image that eludes semiotics and something from which Barthes says he “cannot detach” (42). Looking at the image, Barthes reads the “third meaning:” “I read, I receive (probably straight off, in fact) a third meaning, erratic yet evident and persistent” (42). No longer ideological, historical, symbolic, or referential, this third meaning, in fact, does not really belong to the domain of meaning at all but is experienced as passing from communicative or symbolic or ideological meaning on its way to the “obtuse” (44). Without abandoning what Barthes calls the “good faith” of the referent or the sense of narration, the “obtuse” or “third” meaning is that feature or property of some images that “appears ‘in excess,’” writes Barthes, “as a supplement my intellection cannot quite absorb, a meaning both persistent and fugitive, apparent and evasive” (44). The third or obtuse meaning generated in these precious images elicits what he identifies, in his own quotation marks, as “a poetic apprehension” (43).

19.         It is fascinating to watch Barthes cast about for the best way to describe the occasional and fleeting appearance of the third meaning, variously identified as a “blurring” of meaning, an “accent,” the emergence of a fold or crease, “a gash from which meaning is expunged,” an “anaphoric gesture without significant content” (56). It calls to mind the many “likenesses” which Shelley invokes in his Hymn to Intellectual Beauty (1817) in order to signify the apprehension of beauty, as if to demonstrate that an infinite likeness and similitude is the very mode of beauty’s sensible appearances and its worldly consequences. The “obtuse meaning,” concludes Barthes, “inevitably appears as a luxury, an expenditure without exchange” (57). If Georges Bataille’s principle of expenditure is invoked here—and elsewhere in the essay Barthes refers explicitly to Bataille—it is a much gentler variation, one without sacrificial mutilation or rhetorical aggression, what we might call “minor Bataille.” [11]  Of course, Barthes is not satisfied with discerning occasions of the obtuse and delineating them from the levels of communication and symbolism available to semiotic analysis. Here as elsewhere, he is prompted to move from an act of apprehension to the mobilization of a new “practice”: “a new—rare—practice affirmed against a majority practice” (56). Though this vision of a practice emerging from the “third” or “obtuse” meaning may remain new and rare, Barthes proposes it as the minor route to the “flashes” of what he calls the “the founding act of the filmic,” that which “paradoxically cannot be grasped in the projected film, the film ‘in movement,’ but only, as yet in that major artifact which is the still” (59).

20.         Acknowledging his “lack of cinematic culture,” Barthes wonders early on whether his “reading of this third meaning is justified” (43); and yet he insists that the “obtuse” is not merely his critical or affective projection but a recognizable property of the image itself: “if you look at these images I am talking about, you will see the meaning: we can understand each other about it ‘over the shoulder’ or ‘on the back’ of articulated language: thanks to the image (frozen, it is true. . . ), indeed thanks to what in the image is purely image (and which to tell the truth, is very little indeed), we do without speech yet continue to understand each other” (55; emphasis added). Though the “obtuse meaning” “will not enter the critic’s metalanguage,” “you will see” it, if you look (55). By this point in the essay, Barthes has substituted seeing for reading in order to insist on this shared “apprehension,” one made possible by “what in the image is purely image” (55). This is where the “third meaning” resides: in that minimal portion of the image that is purely image, its minor portion that is nonetheless constitutive. We will all see it in the stilled image, the “freeze-frame” or, to use the name of a website devoted to this form of image extraction, the “filmgrab.” [12]  The cinematic image, whether stilled, frozen, or seized and extracted, offers the prospect of lyrical moments that arrest the narrative, bring it to a standstill, in order to gather its own currency for future redemptions or dispersals.

III. “Singled Out for a Great Gift”: From Glimmer to Glitter

21.         I feel devoted to "The Third Meaning"; but I confess that I don’t always recognize the instances of the obtus that Barthes asserts with confidence that I will see in the stilled images he selects and presents. Given that Roland Barthes issued me the invitation, I would have loved nothing more than to have been his imaginary interlocutor as we shared these images “over the shoulder” of “articulated language,” understanding each other—perhaps mutely—and simply pointing at what in those particular images is “purely image.” And yet, if I have always wanted to be a party to the “poetic apprehension” Barthes is experiencing and describing in that essay, in all honesty I find the idea of the “third meaning” more arresting than the images themselves. This is not the case with the complementary notion of the punctum that Barthes develops in Camera Lucida, his beautiful meditation on photography, in which I do feel and respond to the touch or prick of almost every example (or if I don’t yet feel it, I see how and why Barthes does). [13]  But in the earlier essay, I often fail to apprehend what Barthes assures me that I will see in those Eisenstein stills. So I seek out on my own a “third meaning” in the stilled images extracted from other motion pictures that move me. I feel authorized in this undertaking by the belief that for Barthes’s notion of the “third meaning” to have genuine analytical purchase or “currency,” we must be able to locate convincing examples of this effect outside the films of Eisenstein.

22.         Cinematic genre is irrelevant to the emergence of the obtus: the issue of genre and its conventions, its expectations, and even its deviations all fall within the purview of Barthes’ “second meaning.” But Faflak’s essay on the cinematic aspects of “Shelley’s final spectacle” raises important generic questions about The Triumph of Life when he argues that the poem anticipates and “parallels” the genre of the film musical, which it then turns inside out. As Faflak puts it, The Triumph “parallels von Trier’s vision of a musical utopianism violently wagering the stakes of subjectivity dreamed by its phantasmatic afflatus” ("Dancing" 168). Faflak’s essay prompted me to consider what other film genres might be at play with or might “parallel” this poem. If the poem’s Italianate mode and structure suggest the “epic,” it would be an epic that may have Virgil and Dante as poetic precedents but that has no precedent in film history. Perhaps, as James McFarland suggested, we should think of the poem in terms of “zombie films,” given the “undead” aspects of the disfigured Rousseau as well as the lifeless “crowds” (50) and “multitudes” (49) that greet and accompany the triumph as a zombie-apocalypse. [14] 

23.         In this generic vein, the cinematic and thematic aspects of The Triumph of Life anticipate what Peter Szendy has called “apocalypse-cinema.” Szendy’s genre is a cluster of contemporary films that meditate on or project images of the apocalypse: Terminator, Planet of the Apes (and its many sequels), A.I., Blade Runner, Sunshine, The Road, and above all and “after all,” Melancholia, Lars von Trier’s 2011 film that for Szendy defines the “apocalyptic genre,” where “the end of the world is the end of the movie.” Or, as Szendy also suggests, “vice versa (because this terrifying equation of filmic eschatology can be reversed without being changed in the slightest): The end of the movie is the end of the world” (2). Percy Shelley’s untimely death by drowning interrupted what we might understand to be the inexorable drive to the apocalypse generated by his final poem; but the poem and its visions also seem propelled to what Szendy calls the “after all” [après tout]: both the minimizing response (“it’s only a movie or a poem, after all”) and its excess, the thing that remains after it’s “all over” (2). When the screen goes black for a full ten seconds after the annihilation of the earth at the end of Melancholia, there “is no longer really cinema any more” but rather the “cinema of the after all” (3). And it can certainly feel as if The Triumph of Life is headed in that direction, drawn toward the apocalyptic specter of the “after all” or après tout, and not just in terms of the apparently inexorable annihilation of everything that appears in the wake of the historical pageant. [15]  In one sense, The Triumph projects cinema’s pre-history with its own elaborate attention to the apparatus and the effects of cinematic illusions, what Faflak calls “the refulgent source of cinema’s illuminations” ("Dancing" 168), as well as the end of cinema, or cinema as the end, in terms of the “white-outs” produced by “a shape all light.” But that form of closure or finality seems at odds with the vitally eruptive “visions” and skeptical “vacancies” of Shelley’s poetics and with the propulsive nature of the poem, one in which the perpetual poetic interruption of ever new visions and even the poet’s own death forestalls the inexorable pull of the “after all.” More precise to say that Shelley’s final spectacle projects its reader-beholders as well its spectator-actors to the images after the end. And, after all, what attracts me to this poem is an image from the prologue where we encounter not the “after-all” of a proto-apocalyptic cinema but the before all of the pre-production, The Triumph’s “back story.”

24.         The film from which I will extract an image that qualifies as a “minor event” and which I believe to exhibit the “third meaning” is not an epic, a “zombie-film,” or an example of apocalyptic cinema. Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine bears no generic relationship to Shelley’s The Triumph of Life, unless we consider their mutual lack of stable genre conventions to be analogous. Nor is there any implicit or explicit Shelleyan influence on the story or the characters of Haynes’s ambitious and delirious 1998 film about a fictitious episode in 1970s British “glam rock,” the brief musical and cultural phenomenon that even rock music historians, especially in the U.S., typically characterize as its own “minor event.” [16]  Velvet Goldmine, which is in part a musical, also reflects and projects what Faflak calls vis-à-vis The Triumph “a society of the spectacle still in visual flux”; and I think it qualifies as another installment in what he elegantly characterizes as a “history fascinated by the production of images that body forth life, then compromise any return to life itself” ("Dancing" 168). Velvet Goldmine is not so much a glam rock biopic as it as an allegory of cultural history in the vein of Benjamin, Wilde, and Shelley. [17]  For Haynes, glam rock is a momentary and minimal appearance of a queering spirit that, as Faflak puts it, “bodies forth life” as it is represented as erupting from London’s underground in the 1970s (168).

25.         My interest here is something quite minor in every sense, something that rarely rises to the level of analytical importance, even for the film’s most attentive critics. With Benjamin also in my mind, I want briefly to examine how the film shows us something that never happened. For this exploration I turn to the film’s “back-story,” the four-minute pre-credit “overture” which makes no mention of the film’s major characters. The film opens with a shot in the midst of a nighttime constellation of stars and an audio sampling of old muffled British radio recordings, transmissions beaming through space from distant epochs. The first spoken voice is that of the narrator, Janet McTeer, delivering what sounds as if it should be the lost fragment of a thesis from Benjamin’s final meditation on history: “Histories, like ancient ruins, are the fictions of empires. While everything forgotten hangs in dark dreams of the past, ever threatening to return.” I remember acutely the experience of hearing this narration when I first saw the film in the theater: I was convinced Haynes had gained access to some secret Benjamin archive and had uncovered a new “paralopenomenon” of the "Theses." But the film’s initiating voice-over also conjures the model of history suggested by Benjamin in an earlier essay on Kafka: “Everything forgotten mingles with what has been forgotten of the pre-historic world, forms countless, uncertain, changing compounds, yielding a constant flow of new strange products” (qtd. in Bensmaia xii). [18]  Benjamin’s Kafka describes Todd Haynes’s cinematic perception of the production/projection of “glam rock”: something from a forgotten world that “mingles” with the present and by “changing compounds” yields a flow of “new strange products.”

26.         Following the film’s opening images and lines, and still very much lost in the stars, a spaceship that looks as if it has flown straight from a Jules Verne inspired B-Movie descends to Earth amid tufts of space clouds, depositing on a storybook Dublin doorstep in 1854 a baby swaddled in a blanket pinned with an emerald green broach. Bestowed or abandoned, the baby is Oscar Wilde, our first “space oddity” or cosmic nomad. [19]  We watch along with the Wildes and their housekeeper as the spaceship returns to the stars; and the film then cuts to a scene featuring a classroom of Irish schoolboys, nine to ten years old, who stand one by one in a tight tracking shot declaring their aspirations before their prim schoolmaster. “I want to be a barrister,” says one; “I want to be a farmer,” and so on, until the final boy, labeled “O. Wilde” and wearing the green broach, rises and declares, “I want to be a pop idol.” And as if to demonstrate how “Benjaminian” constellations are formed, the subsequent scene is separated from Wilde’s arrival by “one hundred years.” The film cuts to a scene of a young boy, Jack Fairy, who—after being beaten by a score of bullying schoolmates—lays face down in the street, his lip bloodied, and discovers in the dirt and grime the emerald broach that adorned Oscar Wilde. The following scene looks as if it is a hand-drawn page in a children’s picture-book, one featuring a little boy in school shorts walking into the sunlight as the narrator’s voice-over resumes: “Childhood, adults always say, is the best time in life. But as long as he could remember, Jack Fairy knew better.” The narration continues as the film cuts to a series of dark interior shots featuring the head of the boy bathed in blue light and poised in three different angles before a mirror we never quite see—“Until one mysterious day when Jack would discover that somewhere there were others quite like him, singled out for a great gift.” Jack Fairy meticulously draws the blood from his wound as if it were lipstick until his eyes flash on his reflection, suddenly smiling directly at the mirror/camera/spectator as the narrator concludes her overture: “and one day the whole stinking world would be theirs.” [20] 

The title sequence which erupts from this moment takes place in London in 1972 as scores of giddy glitter kids pour across the Waterloo Bridge and fill the streets to the jubilant guitars in the opening strains of Brian Eno’s "Needle in a Camel’s Eye" in what reminds me of Shelley’s “glorious phantoms” who “burst” from the “graves” of “England in 1819” to “illumine our tempestuous day” (13–14).

27.         Though there are repeated sightings of Jack Fairy, he is not a character in the film; and his presence is as solitary as it is ephemeral. He doesn’t utter a line of dialogue in the movie, although he does deliver a song—a highly stylized version of Roxy Music’s “2HB”—and recites a few lines of poetry. Jack Fairy is just an image, in other words, a transitory image of transit; and his function in the film, tangential to the story itself, is to show us the transfer of the emerald broach from the stars to Oscar Wilde and Fairy and on to Curt Wild before it is deposited with Arthur Stuart near the movie’s end. Jack Fairy is the image for what I am calling the currency of images, the film’s “minor event” that shows us how to assemble images in constellation. On the other hand, Jack Fairy’s recognition scene, his moment of redemption, is the minor event: the bloodied lip drawn into lipstick by virtue of the green broach, sent from the heavens, but dug out of the grimy street by Jack Fairy. And thus for Jack Fairy and for those “others quite like him”: in this fleeting but precious moment of redemption, we are those others and this moment is ours as well since we behold ourselves in his reflection and are thus positioned in this fantasy of the mirror stage to declare, as does Arthur in another scene, “that’s me! that’s me!” Saturated in dazzling blue light, the stilled smile of Jack Fairy in the mirror/camera, which is simultaneously our own visual address, produces for me the “third meaning,” a non-signifying or symbolic image that retains its residue and which never returns to the “first” or “second” regimes of meaning. If it comes from the film’s overture, it also now belongs to us, its most current observers.

28.         In his Dialogues with Claire Parnet, Gilles Deleuze offers a beautiful account of the constellation of philosophers that “singled him out” and his construction of this “sky-map” of philosophers conveys the sense of the relationships I am suggesting, one that exists in the “ideal space” of Velvet Goldmine:

Lucretius, Spinoza, Hume, Nietzsche, Bergson: These thinkers have few relationships with each other . . . and yet they do have them. One might say that something happens between them, at different speeds with different intensities, which is not in one or other, but truly in an ideal space, which is no longer a part of history, still less a dialogue among the dead, but an interstellar conversation, between very irregular stars, whose different becomings form a mobile bloc which it would be a case of capturing, an inter-flight, light-years. (15–16)
Wilde, Fairy, Wild-Pop, Slade-Bowie, Cobain: these figures in literary and popular culture have “few relationships with each other,” and yet in the “ideal space” of Velvet Goldmine “something happens between them, at different speeds with different intensities.” “No longer a part of history,” the currency between these very “irregular stars” constitutes its own sort of pop “interstellar conversation,” one which achieves its own originating energy with the third meaning of a special but minor image.

IV. Pessimism of the Poet, Optimism of the Verse

Should the appearance of life . . . be once entirely effaced, then the monstrosity . . . will triumph.

— Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia


29.        How are constellations formed between poems and films, or between paintings and prose? Outside of cultural “influence” or historical development, how do these connections occur? What is the nature of their currency? Invoking what Deleuze calls the “ideal spaces” of his history of philosophy, I believe that “something happens” between Haynes and Shelley, separated by 175 years and at least one artistic medium, in the “ideal spaces” of Shelley’s poetry and Haynes’s cinema (Dialogues 15). A Defence of Poetry proposes an unprecedented model of cultural history which features moments of the eruption of “spirit” (Plato, Lucretius, Dante, Shakespeare, Bacon, Milton, Bacon, Rousseau, and the celebrated “spirit” of his own “age”) as well as periods of decay and regression and Benjaminian states of emergency, moments of spirit’s eruption and extinction (535). For Haynes as for Shelley, cultural and artistic history is not an evolutionary development but lyric pulses of possibilities throughout time, pulses which find their own connections, regardless of theme or genre: for the Shelley of the Defence, they are Plato’s dialogues, Dante’s poetry, Milton’s epic, and Bacon’s scientific enquiry. For the Haynes of Velvet Goldmine, they are Wilde’s origins and his poetry, Fairy’s poses, glam’s eruption, the anticipation of Cobain.

30.         Narrative history in Velvet Goldmine is a recursive and filtered account, one that splinters its invocation to Citizen Kane’s (1941) cinematic investigations; and The Triumph features a similar narrative structure as well as the fractured deployment of Dante’s terza rima. Both Haynes and Shelley offer us “prologues” or “overtures,” their own “back stories” that set the principal narratives in motion. And both artists fashion stories constructed by multiple retrospections and looping narratives: back stories, “present” narratives, followed by “pre-stories” which often appear as arresting “lyric” events. Marcia Landy’s thoughtful characterization of Velvet Goldmine’s narrative “technique” as “investigative”—“what happened?” asks Arthur—applies to The Triumph: Shelley’s speaker and interlocutor ask the same questions: what happened? how have things “been brought to this dread pass” (301–2)? in “this valley of perpetual dream / Shew whence I came, and where I am, and why” (397–98). And in both film and poem, answers to these questions fail to materialize, replaced instead by “savage music, stunning music” (435), “flashing” images and a “shape all light” (351–52), what an exhilarated Bowie would much later call "Sounds and Visions." And in the course of what are by turns lavish and garish spectacles paraded in both film and poem, “spectators” “turn” into “actors or victims” (305–6). At the most fundamental level, both texts explore the relationship between life and the image, the relationship of “fair shapes” or fairy shapes to “light’s severe excess” (411, 424). “A man’s life is his image,” says Curt Wild near the end of Velvet Goldmine. But the affinities between poem and film aside, my primary motivation in this essay has been to learn how to discern the “third meaning,” the obtus that attaches to the extracted, stilled image in poetry and in film.

31.         Though the particular experience of reading The Triumph of Life I want to describe has less to do with its narrative dimension than with the minor effects of a single atmospheric image, that image’s “minorization” produces its effects in relation to the scale and breadth of the story Shelley’s poem tells about history. The first forty lines of the poem are devoted to the speaker’s physical placement as he lounges outside in the shadow of the Apennines at daybreak in the moments before “A vision on his brain is rolled” (40). The next section of the poem, roughly 130 lines, depicts the “waking dream” as it unrolls before the speaker. It’s a grim “triumphal” pageant of history—complete with its own chariot—one which celebrates the conquerors. The speaker grows weary and disillusioned of this spectacle, the “jubilee” that greets a conqueror’s advance: “Struck to the heart by the sad pageantry” of Western history, the speaker asks aloud “what is this?” (176–77). He is answered by the disfigured image of “what was once Rousseau” which becomes his Virgilian guide and commentator to the unfolding spectacle, though “Rousseau’s” commentary only compounds the speaker’s distress when he learns that in this version of the “jubilee” the “captive multitude” is chained to the “triumphal pageant” of “thoughts empire over thought” (111, 119, 118, 211): anarchs, demagogues, and sage, even Voltaire and Kant, an extensive catalogue of those Bowie called the “men who sold the world.” Only the “sacred few,” Christ and Socrates, escape this ideological vision by remaining what de Man calls “mere fictions in the writings of others” (97). In the last extant section of the poem, Shelley’s speaker turns to this post-Rousseau to ask how of all the historical figures on display, his guide became complicit with the “triumph of life.” The disfigured Rousseau then relays the nature of his own seduction and undoing by a mesmerizing “shape all light,” one that turned his brain to sand. Percy Shelley’s drowning brings the poem to an end; but it’s difficult to see how the obliterating pull of these repeated visionary disfigurements could be “brushed against the grain,” difficult to foresee how any “glorious phantoms” could burst from this grave pageantry to “illumine its tempestuous day” given that life and death have grown into mirrored images of each other, leaving the speaker/viewer “eye-sick”: “mine eyes are sick of this perpetual flow” (298). If Shelley’s “cinema” is predicated on the hope that it might discover “a trace of light diviner than the common sun / Sheds on the common earth” (338–39), it is not to be found in the movie we call The Triumph of Life. Or at least not in its diegesis: I want to conclude my essay by considering how a version of the Deleuzian mineur, might be assembled for Shelley’s last poem from Barthes’s critical observation and Haynes’s cinematic thinking about the workings of the poetic “still.” Perhaps in that stilled image we might find “a trace of light diviner.”

32.         If The Triumph activates the many philological resources of “still,” the effect of all this “stilling” in this most restless and mobile of Shelley’s poetry is ironic, as if it should suggest the possibility of an arrest or standstill that its propulsive movement forecloses. When, for instance, the “strange distortion” called Rousseau describes the effects of the “shape all light,” one of those effects is the obliterating of her poetic feet through which “the sweet tune / To which they moved, seemed as they moved to blot / The thoughts” of all beholders (180, 352, 382–84). Here, the poetic measures of verse, when delivered—or “flung”—by a “shape all light,” “blot” the “thoughts” of the gazers, a poetic obliteration that seems to characterize each successive manifestation of the vision (386). Inscribed, however, in these lines is a characteristic Shelleyan pun, which isolated in a sort of “poetry grab,” brushes the poetics of obliteration against the grain with the urgency of an alarm: “still her feet,” demands the poem, arrest the relentless imposition of the “Shape’s” effects. [22] 

33.         The triumphal pageant exerts a diachronic force generated by its own propulsive terza rima, its motion accelerated by enjambments that create the effect of a perpetually receding horizon line drawn by some unnamed and invisible force. As exhilarating as this unrelenting horizontal movement of the poem can be for even its most seasoned readers, the repeated sudden “vertical” “bursts” of visions and shapes and figures—like repeatedly pulsed stills—exert an obtuse force on the obvious ideological dimension of the poem’s story. Shelley’s critical version of Platonism always conveys a proto-cinematic quality, but The Triumph of Life realizes it as tenor and vehicle. It is the combination of features both obvious and obtuse, both major and minor, that makes The Triumph of Life a movie. Goldstein has shown compellingly how the images that unfold in the poem’s vision—“like atomies that dance / Within a sunbeam” (446–47)—“signal an emphatic switch to an alternative, neo-Lucretian model of sensation and figuration” (155), but the passage has always struck me as motes dancing in the projection beam, a sign of what Orrin Wang has called the “coming attractions” of Romanticism’s proto-cinematic verse that manufactures the opportunity to see “the in visible in the image, the always social self in projected, kinetic form” ("Coming Attractions" 500).

34.         As much as my intellectual orientations and political impulses are engaged by the poem’s critique of European history, it is not the poem’s political project that compels me to sit down and read it again and again. It is rather to renew the experience of the poem’s cascading visions and figures that come from nowhere and arrest or dissolve the poem’s narrative movement. And above all it is the strangely affecting couple of lines about that evening glimmer on the hills in a poem that seems to have galvanized all the formal and rhetorical resources available to British poetry. To invoke the famous dictum attributed to Gramsci—“pessimism of the intellect, optimisim of the will”—those two lines of the poem allow us to see at one and the same time the pessimism of the poet, but the optimism of the verse. In other words, the poem undertakes a radical negation and performs a radical affirmation. This double-movement takes place simultaneously: the corrosively ironic triumphal pageant of “universal history” paraded before the speaker-beholder and the eruptive terza rima that generates ever new visions that seem to unfold on perpetually receding planes of immanence.

35.         I am availing myself of a Deleuzian idiom, one which activates the politically resistant and “optimistic” aspects of the “mineur” in Shelley’s poem. For Deleuze and Guattari a “minor literature”

finds itself positively charged with the role and function of collective, and even revolutionary, enunciation. It is a literature that produces an active solidarity in spite of skepticism; and if the writer is in the margins or completely outside his or her fragile community, this situation allows the writer all the more the possibility to express another possible community and to forge the means for another consciousness and another sensibility. (Kafka 17)
Has there ever been a better way to characterize the Percy Shelley of The Triumph of Life: “outside his fragile community,” such as it was in 1819 on the Tuscan coast, seeking an “active solidarity in spite of skepticism”—an undying skepticism—and writing “to forge” in poetry “the means for another consciousness and another sensibility”? In spite of his skepticism, Shelley would have understood the project of his literature as “positively charged with the role and function of collective, and even revolutionary, enunciation,” a currency of his poetic images he called “electric energy” (535): the energy of the poem’s enjambments, the energy of the terza rima planes, the energy of a revolutionary impulse in the poem’s charged undertaking. “We might as well say,” as do Deleuze and Guattari, “that minor no longer designates specific literatures but the revolutionary conditions for every literature within the heart of what is called great (or established) literature” (Kafka 18).

36.         The Deleuzian mineur helps us to understand how The Triumph of Life, a poem that seems to explore not only the events of European history, but how the very “eventness” of the event might simultaneously mark the event’s “minorization.” “History,” writes Deleuze in his account of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, “thus appears as the act by which reactive forces take possession of culture or divert its course in their favor. The triumph of reactive forces is not an accident in history but the principle and meaning of ‘universal history’” (Nietzsche 139). If we hear in these sentences echoes of Benjamin, there is also no better way to summarize The Triumph’s critical impulse toward history. Nor can I think of a better way to characterize the effect of Shelley’s refusal of a sober revolutionary ascesis than the “nomadic” Italianate estrangement of English verse forms that characterize his poetic intervention, every bit as jubilant as the guitars in a Roxy Music song. [23]  As Deleuze describes this aspect of poetic minorization: “The overload is not a rhetorical figure, a metaphor, or symbolic structure; it is a mobile paraphrase bearing witness to the unlocalized presence of an indirect discourse at the heart of every statement. The closer a language gets to this state, the closer it comes . . . to music itself” (Thousand 104). It’s no accident that this sounds more than a little like a “mobile paraphrase” of Walter Pater, since Deleuze’s notion of minorization always involves the arresting of poetic representation: in its minor mode, “language stops being representative in order to move toward its extremities or its limits” (Kafka 23). The Triumph of Life is a poem that seems to make its devotees—if not its genuine readers—into Paterian acolytes of one sort or another, whether willingly or not. In "The School of Giorgione," Pater famously or scandalously invokes the Anderstreben or “other striving” of each mode of art: “it is noticeable,” writes Pater, “that, in its special mode of handling its given material, each art may be observed to pass into the condition of some other art, by what German critics term an Anderstreben—a partial alienation from its own limitations, through which the arts are able . . . to lend each other new forces” (105). If cinema is the “as yet unimagined” art, the coming attraction that lends Shelley’s poetry its own “new forces,” its Paterian-Lucretian constellation of sheer sensations or what Pater calls “a matter of pure perception” shows how Shelley’s last poem poses the example to which all of cinema still strives (108).

37.         If The Triumph of Lifeis a poem that moves toward language’s “extremities” and thus minorizes its relation to European history, what “gets” the poem going towards that minor event are the preliminary lines, which include a cinematic vision of their own, the majestic procession of a sunrise that Derrida describes as “the outpouring of light and solar glory” ("Living On" 131). Oddly in this poem that seems at every turn to explore and deepen the problem of spectatorship, the sunrise itself goes entirely unbeheld by our speaker or any entity other than the “awakened earth.” But in lines 26–40, we are presented with a cinematic projection: a “strange trance” “grows” over the speaker’s fancy which in turn “spreads” “a shade” so “transparent” that the scene came “through / As when a veil of light is drawn / O’er evening hills they glimmer.” Shelley anticipates both the cinematic apparatus and the quasi-hypnotic spell it induces, and once we are introduced to the advent of sound, “sweet talk in music through the enamoured air,” the “vision” can be “rolled” not “in his mind” but by way of this carefully delineated external apparatus, “on his brain” (40 emphasis added). [24] 

38.         However much I find this aspect of the poem critically compelling as a poetic figure which anticipates the full range of a future medium’s possibility and effects, I always feel myself drawn more to the detached glimmering image of a veil of light drawn over evening hills. In this magnetic moment, my critical appreciation of Shelley’s account of the cinematic apparatus recedes in the light of this single image: a “drawing” possessed of its own agency, an application of its own force that not only pulls a veil over the hills but traces a line that is extended, lengthened, unfolded. Shelley animates the various resources of this simple word “draw” and in the process galvanizes the effect of this subjectless and potentially agentless verb. To draw can mean to carry or convey a vehicle, even if that vehicle is the tail end of a simile; or it can mean to represent a picture, to draw in words, or to attract, as by a rhetorical force that seems to exude the magnetic qualities it generates, a force that draws us to it, “singling us out,” and makes it arresting. Most suggestively for me is the meaning of drawing as “extraction,” as when one draws a conclusion from an investigation or perhaps as when one extracts or draws out an image to which one is drawn. If this veil of light is not yet the historical pageant of images that unfolds in Shelley’s cinematic vision, it is perhaps what Barthes calls the third meaning of the “stilled” image, the “founding act of the filmic,” at least of Shelley’s own poetic cinema, the gift of a glimmering lyrical minor event inscribed like a pulse or a broach in the poetic and cinematic image, the promise of a currency.


Earlier versions of portions of this essay were delivered on several occasions. In addition to the 2016 MLA convention in Austin, in the Keats-Shelley Association session chaired by Joel Faflak, I gave lectures based on this material in the winter of 2015 at Vanderbilt University and at Brown University. I want to thank my hosts, Scott Juengel and Jacques Khalip, for their invitations; and I want to acknowledge several members of those audiences who posed questions which resonated with me long after the lectures: Jim McFarland, Jennifer Fay, and Rachel Teukolsky (Vanderbilt), Marc Redfield and Bill Keach (Brown).

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia: Reflections from a Damaged Life. Translated by E. F. N. Jephcott, Verso, 2005.

Attridge, Derek. "Roland Barthes’s Obtuse, Sharp Meaning and the Responsibility of Commentary." Writing the Image After Roland Barthes, edited by Jean-Michel Rabate, U of Pennsylvania P, 1997, pp. 77–89.

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Translated by Richard Howard, Hill and Wang, 1981.

———. "Leaving the Movie Theatre." The Rustle of Language. Translated by Richard Howard, U of California P, 1986, pp. 345–49.

———. "The Third Meaning: Research Notes on Several Eisenstein Stills." The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representation. Translated by Richard Howard, U of California P, 1985, pp. 41–62.

Benjamin, Walter. "On the Concept of History." Translated by Harry Zohn. Eiland and Jennings, pp. 389–400.

———. "Paralipomena to On the Concept of History." Translated by Harry Zohn. Eiland and Jennings, pp. 401–11.

———. "On the Mimetic Faculty." Translated by Rodney Livingstone. Selected Writings, Volume 2, Part Two, 1931–1934. Translated by Rodney Livingstone, et al., edited by Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith, Harvard UP, 1999, pp. 720–27.

———. "Trauerspiel and Tragedy." Translated by Rodney Livingstone. Selected Writings, Volume 1, 1913–1926, edited by Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings, Harvard UP, 1996, pp. 55–58.

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Clark, David L. "Goya’s Scarcity." Khalip and Pyle, pp. 86–121.

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de Man, Paul. "Semiology and Rhetoric." Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Rilke, Nietzsche, and Proust, Yale UP, 1979, pp. 3–19.

———. "Shelley Disfigured." The Rhetoric of Romanticism, Columbia UP, 1984, pp. 93–123.

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———, and Félix Guattari. Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. Translated by Dana Polan, U of Minnesota P, 1986.

———, and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi, U of Minnesota P, 1987.

———, and Claire Parnet. Dialogues. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam, Columbia UP, 1987.

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Eno, Brian. "Needle in the Camel’s Eye." Here Come the Warm Jets. Island Records, 1974.

Faflak, Joel. "Dancing in the Dark with Shelley." Khalip and Forest Pyle, pp. 167–85.

Goldstein, Amanda Jo. Sweet Science: Romantic Materialism and the New Logics of Life. U of Chicago P, 2017.

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Haynes, Todd, dir. Velvet Goldmine. Story by Todd Haynes and James Lyons. Hyperion, 1998.

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———, and Forest Pyle, editors. Constellations of a Contemporary Romanticism. Fordham UP, 2016.

Levine, Michael G. A Weak Messianic Power: Figures of a Time to Come in Benjamin, Derrida, and Celan. Fordham UP, 2013.

Marcus, Greil. Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. Harvard UP, 1989.

McFarland, James. "Philosophy of the Living Dead: At the Origin of the Zombie-Image." Cultural Critique, vol. 90, 2015, pp. 22–63.

Moverman, Oren. "Superstardust: Talking Glam with Todd Haynes." Velvet Goldmine, by Todd Haynes. Film script, Miramax Books, 1998.

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———. "The School of Giorgione." The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, Macmillan and Co., 1893, pp. 102–22.

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Wang, Orrin N. C. "Coming Attractions: Lamia and Cinematic Sensation." Studies in Romanticism, vol. 42, no. 4, 2003, pp. 461–500.

———. "Technomagism, Coleridge’s Mariner, and the Sentence Image." Khalip and Pyle, pp. 290–308.

Wilson, Ross. Shelley and the Apprehension of Life. Cambridge UP, 2013.


[1] All references to Percy Shelley’s poetry are taken from Reiman and Fraistat’s Norton edition of Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Further references to Shelley’s poetry and prose are to this edition. On the speaker’s withholding of “thoughts,” it’s relevant to invoke Walter Benjamin’s account to Gretel Adorno of his “holding” “certain thoughts” “safe with” himself and “yes, even from” himself until 1940 when the “war and the constellation it brought with it” prompted him to compose them. These “certain thoughts” are his "Theses on the Concept of History" (cited by David L. Clark in "Goya’s Scarcity" 86). BACK

[2] It’s no accident that The Triumph generates lines that have had this effect on its readers. Jacques Khalip’s beautiful “admission” of his long-standing relationship with the third-to-last line of the poem speaks directly to my own connection to the poem: “I admit that for years, I have been perplexed by the minimal yet arresting power of ‘as if that look must be the last,’ to the point where the whole apparatus of the poem dissolves for me into something like the floaters that Mary saw in the manuscript. The words, however, have never sounded especially elegiac to me but rather quietly withering in their kitschy and clichéd tone, even recalling the countless small disasters of standard torch songs composed in the minor key—noncatastrophic gestures and affects that explode at micro-levels and dissipate, neither fetishistic nor talismanic. Like Etta James’s "At Last," then, this is a love that has ‘come along’” (77). BACK

[3] See also Ross Wilson’s treatment of the passage in "Poetry and the Life of Theory," his illuminating chapter on The Triumph in his vibrant book on Shelley’s poetics of life: Shelley and the Apprehension of Life, esp. 150–51. BACK

[4] I take the figure of the sentence image from Jacques Rancière’s formulation of that term: “By [the sentence image] I understand something different from the combination of a verbal sequence and a visual form. The power of the sentence-image can be expressed in sentences from a novel, but also in forms of theatrical representations or cinematic montage or the relationship between the said and the unsaid in a photograph” (45–46). If Rancière inaugurates this mode of inter-art “assembling” with his notion of the sentence-image, my own immediate deployment of the term is more directly derived from Orrin N.C. Wang’s important “reworking” of the term as a feature of Coleridge’s “techno-magism,” or the poetic capacity of “making something out of nothing” ("Technomagism" 300). As Wang characterizes it, “the sentence image, in line with Ranciere’s political vision, asserts an overcoming of parataxis without the subordinate relations that structure the hypotactic clause” (296). In my own “reworking” of the term, I’m interested in an extractability or detachability of the image that allows it to crystallize into something withdrawn and discrete. BACK

[5] As far as I am aware, no critic has surpassed William Keach’s understanding of Shelley’s versifying, especially the poet’s deployment of terza rima in The Triumph which, according to Keach, displays “a compositional intelligence fully in touch with the arbitrariness of its expressive medium yet capable of shaping that arbitrariness into, as well as according to, precisely provisional ‘constraints of meaning’” (188). BACK

[6] I want to acknowledge here my gratitude to Henry Wonham for his generous and exacting reading of this essay and especially for his eloquent and strenuous objections to my critical practice of “image extraction.” BACK

[7] All references to Walter Benjamin in the body of my essay are from his theses "On the Concept of History," except where noted. BACK

[8] Benjamin’s dissatisfaction with historicism and his interest in the theological notion of a “redeemed” or “fulfilled” time are present throughout his work, as is the careful distance he keeps from the biblical origins of “messianic time.” In one of his earliest writings on the Trauerspiel—an unpublished essay from 1916—Benjamin treats the Bible not as the source but as a resource: “Historical time is infinite in every direction and unfulfilled at every moment. This means we cannot conceive of a single empirical event that bears a necessary relation to the time of its occurrence. . . . [The] idea of fulfilled time is the dominant historical idea of the Bible: it is the idea of messianic time. Moreover, the idea of a fulfilled time is never identical with the idea of an individual time” (55–56). BACK

[9] And perhaps it’s in this spirit of “minorization” that we think of Benjamin’s “angel of history” as it might be routed through the Hebrew, less as a savior and more as a “messenger.” BACK

[10] Benjamin’s account of the “flitting” and “flashing” of the image appears as something like a refrain in his work, and not only as the “true” form of the past’s historicity. See for instance the 1933 fragment "On the Mimetic Faculty": “The mimetic element in language can, like a flame, manifest itself only through a kind of bearer [Trager]. This bearer is the semiotic element. Thus, the nexus of meaning of words or sentences is the bearer through which, like a flash, similarity appears. For its production by man—like its perception by him—is in many cases, and particularly the most important, tied to its flashing up. It flits past [Sie huscht vorbei]” (722). BACK

[11] “This is just the kind of thing Georges Bataille could have meant, particularly in that text in Documents which for me situates one of the possible regions of the obtuse meaning: The queen’s big toe (I don’t remember the exact title)” (Barthes, "Research Notes" 51). BACK

[12] “filmgrab.com” is an ongoing archive of thousands of cinematic stills from canonical films, including Velvet Goldmine. BACK

[13] Of the many commentators who have discussed this connection between the obtus and the punctum, I would stress Derek Attridge’s bracing essay on what he calls Barthes’s “impossible task” of naming and even “codifying” a relationship that remains “singular” (88). Attridge links this “impossibility” to Barthes’s embrace in the last decade of his life to “something as vague as ‘aesthetic experience’” (85). BACK

[14] When I presented an early version of this essay at Vanderbilt University in 2015, McFarland suggested that “what was once Rousseau” was perhaps best understood as “zombie-Rousseau.” BACK

[15] With the end in mind, consider Khalip’s lovely reflection on The Triumph’s “after-look”: “What if we took the brief and under-read lastness of the line ‘as if that look must be the last’ as a very particular kind of utterance, stolen ‘as if’ from the poem’s social fabric and effectively pulling it apart like an end of the world? The line would be a last scrap of the poem but, principally, it would also push up against the lastness of the look. What would then happen to the world after the last look? And what is an after-look?” (Last Things 76). BACK

[16] Of course, David Bowie, on whom the character of Brian Slade is “virtually” based, qualifies as the “major star” produced by the fleeting period of glam rock; and, again of course, “glam” was only one of his many personae or poses. Bowie did not permit any of his own music to be used in the film, though "Velvet Goldmine" is the title of a B-side from a Bowie single. BACK

[17] I regard Shelley’s Defence and Wilde’s "The English Renaissance of Art" (first delivered as a lecture in 1882) as kindred examples of the mode of cultural history Benjamin develops in his "Theses." See my Art’s Undoing (37–47, 210–15). And to this constellation I would add Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, a book to which Haynes also pays homage as he tracks across a series of glam rock album covers in a record store, and we see one of Slade’s fictional singles bearing the title Lipstick Traces. BACK

[18] Bensmaia’s account of the "Kafka Effect" offers an illuminating model for the kind of “constellation” I am proposing here. Without conflating Deleuze and Guattari with Benjamin or even suggesting a resemblance between them, Bensmaia posits Kafka as what we might describe as their “nodal” connection. The Kafka that Benjamin shares with Deleuze and Guattari is one resistant to the exegetical modes imposed upon him, the Kafka who rejects symbolic, allegorical, mythical, and theological interpretations in order to allow the “Kafka-universe” to emerge, in Deleuze and Guattari’s case the Kafka who introduces a “minor literature.” BACK

[19] In "Superstardust," the interview with Oren Moverman which prefaces the published screenplay, Haynes is particularly eloquent on the historical relationship between Wilde and glam rock: “It quickly became clear to me that glam came out of the English tradition of camp and applied counter-philosophies about art and culture, which I saw originating from Oscar Wilde. To me Wilde became the perfect manifestation of the glam era. . . . I think glam rock was the first overt alignment of the notion of the alien with the notion of the homosexual—both of which became this fantastical, galvanizing potential for musical expression, a potential freedom for kids trapped in their dreary lives. The space ship definitely brings in the outsider elements of the period, which I attribute to Wilde and dandyism, but it also refers to feelings of ‘otherness’ confronted at the time of adolescence” (xii–xiii). BACK

[20] It’s impossible to resist recognizing in this sequence of shots the initiating “mirror stage” of the Lacanian imaginary, even if it’s a misrecognition. Perhaps it’s better to call it a redemption of the Lacanian scenario, or at least a redemption fantasy. Spoken but not yet speaking, battered and bullied, Jack Fairy not only delights in the image of his bodily integrity suddenly reflected in the mirror (which the screenplay specifies as his “mother’s vanity”), he—and we—recognize his image as both subject and object of desire. BACK

[21] I have extracted this passage in a form that does damage to Adorno’s more genuinely Marxist dialectical formulation. This sentence is taken from the dedication to Max Horkheimer of the volume’s collection of dialectical reflections: “Should the appearance of life, which the sphere of consumption itself defends for such bad reasons, be once entirely effaced, then the monstrosity of absolute production will triumph” (15). BACK

[22] In "Living On/Borderlines," Derrida traces “living on as the braiding of triumph and arret.” Indeed, his “double-reading” of Blanchot’s L’arrêt du mort with The Triumph of Life suggests an involution of these figures, one that makes possible “a certain intertranslatability (triumphant and arrested) of these two texts” (107–08). In her game-changing essay on the Lucretian impulses in Shelley’s last poem, Goldstein outlines a philosophical foundation to the poem’s subterranean arrest or resistance; and she argues that the final and critically “neglected ‘new Vision’ with which Shelley’s poem breaks off . . . urges readers to review the scene of life that The Triumph of Life has been showing all along, but this time under changed philosophical premises about the relation of life, matter, and trope” (138). For Goldstein this “new Vision” is very much a “coming attraction,” one produced by Shelley’s “retrieval”—or what I might call redemption—of “Lucretius’ (now) astonishing poetics of sensation” (150). BACK

[23] I know of no better way of describing the jubilance of the poem than Claire Colebrook’s account of the crucial challenge of discovering instances or events of an “art that is joyous, that intimates a joy outside humanity and organisms. . . . Canonical literature gives us some indication of an autonomy of created affects that are not those of the organism, as though art could give body to that which exceeds the lived. . . . It is as though these worlds offered affects as such, there to be lived, as if they existed as potentialities for all time, even if captured through the depiction of a certain time” (93–94). BACK

[24] I am both drawn critically to and dazzled by Shelley’s anticipatory poetic symbolization of the cinematic apparatus and the positioning of the spectator in preparation for the epic film of European history that the poem subsequently unfolds. The proem spells out in advance the kind of demystification of the cinematic illusion-machine that was the project of so much of the 1970s as well as the bedazzling effects—“the fascination of film”—that Barthes acknowledges in "Leaving the Movie Theatre," “spent visions” and “a trace of diviner light” (348). BACK