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Samuel Lyndon Gladden, Shelley's Textual Seductions: Plotting Utopia in the Erotic and Political Works

Saturday, December 20, 2003 - 06:11
Samuel Lyndon Gladden, Shelley's Textual Seductions: Plotting Utopia in the Erotic and Political Works. Studies in Major Literary Authors Series.  New York: Routledge, 2002. xviii + 351pp. $90.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-415-93702-7).

Reviewed by
John Kandl
Walsh University

Samuel Lyndon Gladden's Shelley's Textual Seductions itself presents a seductively engaging study of the political implications of Shelley's major "erotic" works, including Oedipus Tyrannus, The Cenci, Julian and Maddalo, Epipsychidion, Laon and Cythna, and Prometheus Unbound. Throughout the book, Gladden demonstrates how Shelley's "processes of textual seduction model political strategies for displacing larger oppressive social structures" (xvi ). "Time and again," Gladden states, "Shelley stages the erotic as a device for renegotiating power and privilege, so that every context in which the erotic figures must be understood as a resolutely political one" (xvii). Acknowledging that the erotic has traditionally been associated with the apolitical and private, Gladden draws upon a "range of interpretive strategies" (xv) as well as an impressive range of critical authorities, to reveal the ways in which, for Shelley, the physical (or public, exterior world) and the psychological (or private, interior world) "dissolve into a radical contingency" (xvi). Shelley's dissolution of boundaries between the private and the public, which Gladden playfully and appropriately terms "ooziness," expresses at once the most definitive characteristic of the erotic while exploiting its subversive potential for exposing, and offering alternatives to, oppressive social relations. Gladden contends that Shelley, perhaps to avoid charges of treason, transposed "the language of radical politics into a discourse of eroticism," developing "a parallel language for the production of anti-hegemonic texts [which enabled him] to speak about political engagements even amidst seemingly apolitical retreats to pleasure, love, and aesthetics" (18).

Drawing upon Roland Barthes's The Pleasure of the Text, Gladden sees the erotic in Shelley's texts as "not clearly definable as a specific pleasure, or even a catalog of pleasures; instead, the erotic emerges as something of a rupture, or split, between culture and what we might think of as its 'other'" (14). Drawing upon Lynn Hunt's and others' studies of the politically subversive implications of French Revolution-era pornography, including the works of Sade, Gladden links Shelley to this tradition--emphasizing the ways in which Shelley seduces his readers by employing the "titillating potential of the erotic as a discourse of force; descriptions of love and pleasure are posed to sway readers by mediating the subjective experience of desire rather than by appealing objectively to reason and utility" (17; original emphasis). Gladden's emphases upon the erotic as negotiating a political rupture between dominant culture and its "others," as well as his emphasis upon the seductive power of erotic and pornographic representations of revolution, come together in an aptly chosen revolution-era engraving by A. Clement which represents erotically revolution as a female figure offering her breasts to the people of France. "The bare breasted woman," Gladden contends, "defies the public/private split by advertising the pleasures she promises, themselves both erotic and political" (24). Clement's engraving, moreover, "anticipates the image Shelley unveils throughout his erotic narratives--the revolutionary icon as the conflation of God and mother, of masculine and feminine, of public and private, of politics and the erotic" (24).

Adventurously, Gladden also sees this transgressively gendered dialectic as erotically embodied by Shelley's texts themselves: "Shelley's texts situate themselves as the feminine 'others' in opposition to the heteropatriarchal power-structures they reject" (15). With this contextualization, Gladden provides a useful insight into the political rationale informing the Tory press's feminization of the Cockney School (including Shelley and especially Keats and Leigh Hunt)--an issue the "Introduction" aptly develops in some detail by linking the response to the Cockney School to Southey's castigation of Shelley and Byron as members of the "Satanic School." Gladden concludes, "I find it particularly important to understand the place assigned to the Cockney School in the Blackwood's reviews because those attacks more broadly outline an ideological space congruent to the one Shelley and Byron are imagined to occupy in the literary and political climate of their day. Like the 'Cockney School' of Hunt and Keats, the 'Satanic School' of Shelley and Byron must be understood to operate in terms of textual strategies that infuse erotic narratives within revolutionary political agendas, and thus that pose a real threat to 'good' readers, a real germ of ideological infection, of textual taint" (33). And finally, for Shelley, this "ideological infection" takes the form of "a series of decidedly erotic narratives dedicated to the mapping of a liberated world, to the plotting of utopia" (34). Having fully set forth his central thesis, Gladden then divides the book into two parts: "The Problem" and "The Solution," admittedly broad categories designed to negotiate the ways "Shelley investigates the full range of potential embedded within representations of [erotic] relationships, acknowledging that the presence or absence of equality within any relationship determines whether that relationship tends toward liberation or oppression, as well as whether the relationship plots the liberation of the world or simply anatomizes the systems of oppression that mark Shelley's own historical moment" (xvii).

Part I ("The Problem") considers Oedipus Tyrannus; Or Swellfoot the Tyrant, The Cenci, and Julian and Maddalo as works which "examine erotic relationships that exemplify inequities in power, where one partner is privileged--and pleasured--at the psychic and, sometimes, the physical expense of others" (xvii). In Swellfoot, for example, "the tyrant's long absent wife, Iona Taurina, is rumored to have engaged in sexual exploits that become the subject not only of much gossip but also of enthusiastic support by the masses of swine, who for generations have been kept in poverty under English monarchial rule" (57). The allusion to Burke's "swinish multitude" places this relationship broadly against the background of British responses to the French revolution, but Gladden focuses upon a much more specific and contemporary issue--the Queen Caroline affair, directly paralleled and satirized in Shelley's play. Gladden summarizes the central issues: "Tyrant Swellfoot attempts to quell public support for the return of Queen Iona to her rightful seat of power--a close parallel to the real-life George IV's desperate attempts to bar his wife, Caroline of Brunswick, from her spousal privilege incumbent upon his accession to the throne" (52). While such parallels have been noted before (as Gladden acknowledges), it is Shelley's attunement to the politicized-erotic nature of this public scandal that Gladden sees as central to Shelley's satire. Particularly notable is Gladden's attention to the infamous "Green Bag" (which contained "evidence" against Caroline) and Shelley's eroticized employment of the image in his play. In a such close readings of Shelley's language, while linking the play to textual contexts such as Sophocles's Oedipus Rex, Hunt's Descent of Liberty, and Shelley's own "Ode to Liberty," Gladden deftly locates and highlights the intersections of the erotic and the political throughout the play--revealing ways "Shelley demonstrates how language, the body, and sexual transgression affect change at the level of politics, and, consequently, in individual lives--whether for good or bad, whether in the interest of oppression or of liberation" (109).

Similarly, Gladden's treatments of The Cenci and Julian and Maddalo focus largely upon the eroticism of oppression, but these works, in different ways, also involve Shelley's plotting of erotic utopias designed to seduce readers into considering an alternative social vision, even though in Shelley's texts the vision may ultimately fail. In The Cenci, set within the always erotically charged environment of the family, for example, Beatrice articulates a "model feminine community," which fails to save her from execution but "may prove [a model] that Shelley's readers will embrace"(146). In Julian and Maddalo, Gladden sees "in Julian's description of the Maniac the image of the Romantic Poet par excellence, who [like the Alastor poet] falls in love with his own vision, rejecting the outer world for the inwardness of narcissistic pleasure" (155). Like Beatrice, however, the Maniac "complicate[s] the subject/object split according to which power relationships are traditionally defined," and in both The Cenci and Julian and Maddalo "Shelley explores the dismantling of oppressive orders by posing erotic relationships as paradigms for alternative social models" (159).

This process is promoted more fully and convincingly in the visionary utopias Shelley develops in Epipsychidion, Laon and Cythna, and Prometheus Unbound, the works which Gladden examines in Part II ("The Solution"). "In these poems," Gladden explains, "three erotic relationships emerge as paradigms for a new social order" (xvii). Gladden considers these relationships "in terms of feminist theory, Lacanian psychoanalysis, spatial theory, and ecocriticism" arguing that "in these poems Shelley envisions what I describe as the erotic cartography of a liberated world, a figurative map that charts personal relationships and political orders according to the contours of individual love-unions, which the poet sharply contrasts to the inflexibility of oppressive relationships and social structures" (xvii-xviii). Part II is thus dedicated to demonstrating "the textual processes that allow Shelley to subvert the unbending order of tyrannical regimes to peer beyond what [Gladden calls] the 'vanishing points' of patriarchy and to imagine a space over the horizon where rigidity dissolves into permeability as oppression succumbs to ecstatic union" (xviii). Reading Epipsychidion through Lacanian psychoanalytic theory and employing the feminist concept of jouissance, Gladden posits "Emily" (Teresa Viviani) as signifying Shelley's unattainable ideal (Lacan's objet a) complicated by Shelley's model of free love and his symbolic introduction into the poem of two other lovers (pointing autobiographically to Mary Shelley and Claire Clairmont), and proposes that the true object of desire for the speaker of the poem is "a complete escape from the Symbolic order and a return to the Imaginary"(187). While the Imaginary--Shelley's erotic utopia--is never realized, it is glimpsed in a transcendent moment of jouissance. Gladden (like Shelley himself) is loath to jettison entirely the viability of Shelley's erotic ideal. Focusing upon Shelley's attention to the limits of his own poetic language--itself enmeshed in a patriarchal symbolic order--Gladden proposes that the poem "finally demonstrates the inability of language to provide access to the place Shelley has experienced and thus underscores the insufficiency of language to the project of liberation, rather than the impossibility of the ideal" (194). Some may question whether this rationale places too great a thematic burden upon Shelley's linguistic frustration, but nonetheless it seems that Shelley's pragmatic purpose is certainly not to posit an unproblematic ideal, but rather, by simultaneously presenting and deconstructing the ideal, to provide a kind of negative dialectic--pointing to the Lacanian Imaginary as a free space apart from the symbolic order--a space from which to critique and reconsider the confines of oppressive and restrictive moral codes. Here, then, the erotic emerges as a revolutionary force, true to Gladden's definitions, as both a rupture and an "oozy" dissolution of boundaries between symbolic orders and the pre-symbolic Imaginary. Gladden concludes with a pronounced emphasis on the revolutionary: "In the end Epipsychidion succeeds in justifying--commanding, even--love's break from the confines imposed upon it by the Symbolic Order and its inflexible 'code of modern morals'" (214).

This engaging chapter on Epipsychidion is followed by equally thorough and complex readings of Laon and Cythna and Prometheus Unbound, elucidating ways these poems, too, present revolutionary erotic utopias located in "the void of a space that is both before and after, at the beginning and end of a historical record" (272). Gladden makes a strong and useful case for the erotic power of Laon and Cythna over Shelley's revision (The Revolt of Islam) in which Shelley acquiesced to his publisher's request to edit out the incest emphases: "In the original work, the pair's subversive eroticism elevated the twins to emblematic status, first by differentiating them from their culture at large (and thereby situating them in the figural space of the outlaw, or other) and then by recuperating them as renegade leaders whose shared psychic wholeness embraces the political landscape, (s)mothering it with a love whose seamlessness and self-sacrifice anticipate the model of the feminine community Beatrice envisions at the conclusion of The Cenci" (229). While noting the remarkable similarities between Laon and Cythna and Prometheus Unbound, however, Gladden stresses an important difference: "By locating the space of liberty in the real world, Prometheus Unbound offers an alternative to the problematic utopias we have seen in Epipsychidion and Laon and Cythna, and the poem suggests that any reader may access this space through a mere shift in perspective, a new way of thinking about the world" (269). Moreover, the reader is seduced into this "new way of thinking" by Shelley's erotically charged language, fusing the erotic and political liberty: "In short, the orgasmic cataclysm of man's protracted release from tyranny registers in this world and beyond to reconstruct the entire universe in the image of Shelley's agenda of peace and love, and the erotic cartography of the redeemed world of Prometheus Unbound echoes the oozy pleasures of the lovers' ceaseless reciprocity. In plotting utopia, Shelley co-aligns erotic and political engagement, whose effects interpenetrate the natural world" (271).

One of the critical bonuses of this book is the ecological potential for much of its exegesis of the political and erotic to yield, via Shelley, a "new way of thinking" precisely about the ways we have historically imagined the natural world. Gladden uses eco-criticism as one of his focal points, but this emphasis is somewhat sporadic and limited--mainly framed within some useful references to Martin Warnke's Political Landscape: The Art History of Nature. This is less a failing of the book, however, than it is an indication of the richness of its potential to inspire future studies, framed within Gladden's timely and convincing treatment of the ways in which Romantic literature intertwines and dissolves the oozy boundaries between the private and public, the erotic and political, the social and the natural. The book concludes by pointing to Shelley's influence upon later poets, including the Pre-Raphaelites and the Aesthetes, pointing again to potential further studies, and illustrating the richness and usefulness of Gladden's thesis. For this, and for Gladden's erudite and thoroughly detailed close-readings of Shelley's works, this book is highly recommended to anyone engaged in charting the connections between the erotic and political, or the private and the public, particularly within the historical contexts of English Romanticism.