- Legislators of the Post-Everything World: Shelley’s Defence of Adorno
To speak of Percy Shelley’s “ Defence of Adorno” is perhaps to invoke Jorge Luis Borges and his wonderful claim for Kafka’s influence on Robert Browning. 1 But my purpose here is not to make the case for Shelley simply by reading his High Romantic argument through dark Adornian lenses, presumably a corrective prescription for our post-Modern glare. Instead, the Borgesian injunction to cross-wire the circuits of historical understanding—of reading, really—is heeded with the intent of more accurately plotting the relationship between German metaphysics and British literature since Wordsworth. It is also heeded with the intent to present the case for seeing in Shelley and Adorno the lineaments and trajectory of a critical aesthetics that is already a working-through, and ultimately a rejection of, what is today called “the critique of the ideology of the aesthetic.” Reading Shelley together with Adorno—who seems to have written only a few words about the British poet—finds its justification in more than the playful coupling of different or succeeding historical geister. 2 Because as if in historical recompense for Coleridge’s stealings from Kant, Adorno’s work rather than that of any comparable English-language critic has come to be treated as an indispensable reference point for investigations of the vexed “aesthetics and politics” question in British letters (as opposed to the “culture and society” issue, where Raymond Williams and his successors figure most prominently). And given that for British literature the modern “aesthetics and politics” question is first broached during Romanticism, there turns out to be unexpected and specific historical warrant for utilizing Adorno to defend Shelley against cultural materialist, new historicist, and post-structuralist critique. Meanwhile Martin Jay, Fredric Jameson, and others have underscored Adorno’s special importance to the development of a Marxian criticism whose themes and procedures, I will show, are almost invented by Shelley (an idea first hinted at by Marx himself). 3
In what follows I offer a reading of what is probably British literature’s most famous proclamation of the revolutionary nature of [End Page 707] poetry and the aesthetic. I first rehearse Shelley’s polemic in the Defence of Poetry against “calculation,” his term for the philosophy and practice that has by 1821 brought England to political and economic crisis. Shelley continually asserts that the imaginative and poetical faculty must supersede the calculative principle (an argument that Wordsworth and Coleridge had already made years earlier, and that Adorno would reformulate in the languages of the Modern and post-Modern periods). 4 I establish, however, that at telling moments in his argument, Shelley’s use of the term “calculation” indicates a degree of ambivalence about the attack. The ambivalence results from the fact that the most prominent exponents of what Shelley deems an anti-imaginative and anti-poetical “calculation” are not classically reactionary; on the contrary, they belong to the progressive and radical pantheon Shelley has until now championed. And this calculative tradition has most recently included not only Shelley’s revered Thomas Paine, but also members of his own extended family: William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. 5
Yet the consequent “anxiety of influence” is crystallized in the Defence not in any of these “English Jacobin” rationalists, but in the figure of Milton, Shelley’s model for the poet-revolutionary, and, of course, the touchstone of Harold Bloom’s theory in the first place. 6 As it happens, the one instance in the Defence where the word “calculation” carries a positive valence occurs during a discussion of Paradise Lost. I contend that Shelley’s offhand, laudatory concatenation of “Milton,” “sympathy,” and “calculation” signals not just his charged relationship to the earlier poet, but also an otherwise unstated homage to and dependence on the Enlightenment calculators he inveighs against. Shelley is particularly beholden to these figures for his use of their doctrine of the “sympathetic imagination”; their notion of “sympathy,” albeit with some Shelleyan variations, plays a prominent role in the Defence. 7 This sympathy is connected to the prophetic side of Shelley’s aesthetics but is distinct from it. Prophecy, while dependent on auditors, viewers, or...