Session 6B: Romanticism and Chaos

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6B. Romanticism and Chaos

Special Session: Hugh Roberts (California-Irvine)
Charles Snodgrass (Texas A and M): "Fractal Borders of Scotland within Britain; or, How Long is the Coastline of Romanticism?"
Clifford J. Marks (Wyoming): "Ethics and Chaos: Shelley's 'Triumph of Life'"
R. Paul Yoder (Arkansas-Little Rock): "Self-Similarity in Blake's Jerusalem"

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"Ethics and Chaos: Shelley's 'Triumph of Life'"
Clifford J. Marks
Texas A and M

Drawing on recent work in ethical criticism, my paper will demonstrate how Percy Shelley ethically constitutes the self in "The Triumph of Life." But this ethics does not emerge traditionally. In fact, using ideas derived from Chaos Theory, I will trace how the poem relies on devices like sensitive dependence on initial conditions and strange attractors to create a world where determined indeterminacy dictates a frustrating yet viable existence. The poem replicates an internal process- the act of the narrator succumbing to the stream of life and later Rousseau submitting to the Shape All Light mimic external conditions but reveal an inner consciousness which, when challenged, attempts to assert an ontological primacy which remains vital despite the insufferable conditions referenced throughout the poem. I connect this ontological primacy to Levinas's notion of ethics as first philosophy. This ethics must be able to withstand assaults like the ones depicted and alluded to in "The Triumph of Life." Shelley posits a self constructed ethically which seeks affirmation through the gaze of the Other but often receives an unwanted rebuke. This is where Chaos Theory's ideas about sensitive dependence and strange attractors will help me reconcile contradictory effects, using Stephen Kellert's definitions. What seems irreconcilable in this poem can be reconciled using these concepts. The narrator's linguistic foundation crumbles around him as he seeks different sources of language and thought to re-establish his humanity. As he reaches out to Rousseau, who in turn reaches out to the Shape All Light, he gets dragged further into his own sense of personal despair. His reaching out to Rousseau is ethical in that Rousseau, who oddly resembles the unknowable face of the Absolute Other, reaches out to him. The Shape All Light reaches out to Rousseau and temporally dissolves his individuality. Both circumstances evoke the notions of sensitive dependence because the initial events (confronting an Other), seemingly innocuous, nevertheless redound with complicated ethical consequences. Furthermore, both moments have contradictory results: the narrator seemingly gains some footing while Rousseau gets destroyed. That both remain intact at the "end" of the fragment causes "a convergence of trajectories in a different direction" (Kellert 14). I would extend this convergence to ethics as first philosophy while noting that this ethics does not act as any kind of transcendent panacea, particularly here.

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Last updated May 31, 1999
by Kathleen McConnell


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