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DEBORAH ESCH A Defence of Rhetoric! The Triumph of Reading: De Man, Shelley and The Rhetoric of Romanticism Errichtet kei"erz Denkstein. RILKE, 'DIE SONEITE AN ORPHEUS,' I, V What do 'The Triumph of Life' and Paul de Man's programmatic reading of Shelley's unfinished poem have to tell us about theory?' Writing in his preface to The Rhetoric ofRomanticism, which reprints 'Shelley Disfigured' in a theoretical context distinct from that of its prior publication in the collective volume Deconstruction and Criticism, de Man singles out this essay as 'the only place where I come close to facing some of these questions' about the fragmentary and interrupted character not only of so many pivotal romantic texts, but of his own critical corpus as well.' In his account of 'The Triumph of Life: de Man asks, however, whether the structure of this enigmatic poem is properly one of question and answer (a structure he elsewhere terms hermeneutic),' or rather one of 'a question whose meaning, as question, is effaced from the moment it is asked. The answer to the question is another question, asking what and why one asked' (RR, 98) 4 If we can acknowledge what and why we ask when we ask the question of theory, in light of our position (historical, institutional, ideological) as readers and theorists, we might rewrite the initial question in a way that inscribes our self-interest in plainer terms, to ask: what do these texts tell us about the theorist? One answer (though not necessarily a privileged or paradigmatic one) suggests itself towards the end of Shelley's poem, where the theorist makes a brief appearance, under doubtful circumstances. In an unsettling sequence that owes a metrical as well as a thematic debt to Dante, the figure called Rousseau is swept along in the wake of the swift advance of the chariot of Life, to find himself in a mysterious dell whose air is said to be peopled with forms, benighted by phantoms dizzily dancing in a thousand unimagined shapes, hovering like vampire bats and vultures; or again like the small gnats and flies that throng 'about the brow I of Lawyer, statesman, priest & theorist' (lines 510- 11).5 The theorist, then, brings up the rear in a train of shady company, beset by these ghostly shapes, these 'shadows of shadows' (line 488). The next question on our part, consequently, might well be: what are these forms that pester the theorist, and where do they come from? Or, to echo the poem's terms of direct address, 'And what is this?' 'Whence UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 57, NUMBER 4, SUMMER 1988 RHETORIC/READING 485 camest thou? & why?' (lines 177, 296-7) - for, as de Man notes, these questions posed in the poem (as well as in Shelley's earlier 'Essay on Life') 'can easily be referred back to the enigmatic text they punctuate, and they are characteristic of the interpretive labor associated with romanticism' (RR, 94)" Rousseau recounts a tentative version of the origin of these busy phantoms: - I became aware Of whence those forms proceeded which thus stained The track in which we moved; after brief space From every form the beauty slowly waned, From every firmest limb & fairest face The strength & freshness,fell like dust, & left The action & the shape without the grace Of life; the marble brow of youth was cleft With care, and in the eyes where once hope shone Desire ... ... glared ere it died; each one Of that great crowd sent forth incessantly These shadows,.. (Lines 516- 28) The genesis of these forms that beleaguer the theorist makes for a narrative that is hardly reassuring; it shares with the question whose only answer is another question a self-receding structure, for the origins of the phantoms can be traced no further than 'to obscure clouds moulded by the casual air' (line 532), Moreover, it is a story of waning beauty and strength that leaves 'the action and the shape without the grace of life: recalling, for de Man's reader, the exemplary fate of the young man in Kleist's essay on the marionette theatre, who suffers an analogous loss of grace as he tries to recover his reflection...


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