- Shelley, de Man, and Historical Time
Where once deconstruction seemed undeconstructable, history has since had its say. After the brief "moment" of high theory, we have seen the rush-return of a broadly empiricist literary history, one that, we were once told, would disfigure itself under the weight of its figural contradictions, with deconstruction its faceless witness. Those of us now attempting to reinvent theory in the face of its historicist instrumentalization, which is to say its forgetting, risk becoming rather like the confused non-character in repose introduced at the beginning of Shelley's "The Triumph of Life," passively in witness of the retrenchment of normative historical periods and faith in prospective historical motion, nodding at the pageant of the return of theory's repressed. The least we can do, as this dialectic roils on, is to adopt the posture of historicism's own repressed or unwitnessed, to become Rousseau as he is pictured in Shelley's poem, "an old root which grew/To strange distortion out of the hill side" (2002, 460). The system of specular relays that de Man so brilliantly traces in his "Shelley Disfigured" would make of the subsequent image of the poem, that of the defeated Rousseau with "holes it vainly sought to hide," holes that "were or had been eyes" (460), something rather more than a figural testament to mere blindness—a complication announced even in that curious redundancy, "were or had been."
The poem instead acknowledges the myopia inherent in the construction of historical ways of seeing that bank on the recuperation of past by future, future by past, a blindness hidden by history's most fervent proponents—the blindness concealed by a firmly narrativized procession of events that would turn away from the material force of history's unforeseen, but formative interruptions, and, in a less fashionably concussive register, silences, pauses. Such interruptions are potentially blinding in a way that opens to a rather different kind of historical seeing, irreducible to the passively watchable but obscuring pageant of generational expectation and disappointment, of the lapsing of hope in the present cleanly translated into a future that will have been seen to be disappointing. To remind you of the poem's ostensible content, "The Triumph of Life"—borrowing from Petrarch, impacted by Dante, Shelley's last unfinished poem—presents us with a relentless chariot, the onward rush of "life," one that seems to shame the captives that trail the chariot, all of whom seem to have betrayed their historical purpose. Life has, so the summary would go, gotten the better of them, and of history too. [End Page 477]
There are blindnesses in de Man's "Shelley Disfigured" and in what I'm hastily calling "theory" too, which seems inevitable enough, and these also concern historical time. If I began with historicism's substitution of the force of an only ostensibly ahistorical blindness for the salve of a very different lack of vision, one produced through an ultimately theological revelation afforded by the transparency-in-advance of fixed periods or "contexts" or archives,1 I will focus instead on intriguing lacunae in de Man's most convincing treatment of the quasi-dialectic of historical vision and its effacement, to be found in his reading of "The Triumph of Life." Briefly put, I will claim that, where de Man finds in Shelley's self-darkening image of a "shape all light" both the promising glimmer of literary-historical understanding and its inevitable eclipse, one that both underlines and conceals the auto-impositional violence of language, I will instead detect in the poet more genuinely undecidable, if rather more constructive, picturings of historical time, with history cleaved obscurely, if generatively, in two.
In "The Triumph of Life," we encounter two different faces of history as it comes to be witnessed and/or effaced under especial pressure—historical time as linear pageant or spectacle, and thus as immediately conceivable and archivable-in-advance narrative, and history as unforeseen scene of material impact. De Man will ultimately conclude, at least in "Shelley Disfigured," that history can only be the brute imposition of one damn thing after another, history here following the senseless-in...