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ANNE C. MCCARTHY The Aesthetics ofContingency in the Shelleyan “Universe of Things,” or, “Mont Blanc” without Mont Blanc U NDERSTANDING PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY’S “MONT BLANC: LINES WRITTEN in the vale of Chamouni” (1816) most often means coming to terms with Mont Blanc itself.1 “Remote, serene, and inaccessible,”2 the mountain dominates the poem, yet remains always just out of reach. Whether Mont Blanc is understood as a textual signifier or an indifferent geological forma­ tion, studies of the poem almost uniformly maintain a focus on “what the mountain said,” as the subtitle of Frances Ferguson’s influential essay puts it. Ferguson notes that the poem “moves through a variety of different ways of imagining the mountain and the power ofwhich it is symbolic (or synecdochic),” a process aided by a “blankness” that is both estranging and inviting.3 A recent essay by Christopher Hitt sets out “to recover—or, rather, to show that Shelley aims to recover—the mountain, the real mountain” from the overdetermined context of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century writing and from the “mountain” of criticism sur­ rounding the poem.4 Noah Heringman promises a different kind of “real” mountain: “Against this domestication of the earth, ‘Mont Blanc’ . . . stands as a reminder of the absolute otherness and indifference of geologic forms and processes.”5 Implicitly or explicitly, the mountain stands as the I. I wish to thank Robert Caserio, Claire Colebrook, Noel Jackson, and Alan Vardy for their comments on earlier drafts. 2. P. B. Shelley, Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, 2nd ed., eds. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat (New York: Norton, 2002), line 97. Subsequent references to Shelley’s poems are from this edition and cited by line number in the text. 3. Ferguson, “Shelley’s Mont Blanc: What the Mountain Said,” in Romanticism and Lan­ guage, ed. Arden Reed (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984), 202. 4. Hitt, “Shelley’s Unwriting of Mont Blanc,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 47 (2005): 140. 5. Heringman, Romantic Rocks, Aesthetic Geology (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004), 6. SiR, 54 (Fall 2015) 355 356 ANNE C. MCCARTHY privileged site of material otherness in the poem, and this, in turn, struc­ tures a reading of “Mont Blanc” as a record of Shelley’s attempt to negoti­ ate a meaningful space for human consciousness in a universe that may or may not remain fundamentally indifferent. This essay, however, challenges the assumption that meaning in “Mont Blanc” is to be found only on the summit of Mont Blanc—and, for that matter, the assumption that Mont Blanc is, in fact, the object of “Mont Blanc.” It turns instead to Shelley’s musings on the Ravine of Arve, which have long been subordinated to his account of the power represented by the mountain. More than forty years ago, Earl Wasserman characterized the ravine as representing “the discontinuous external world,”6 while Nigel Leask has more recently elaborated a trajectory where Shelley’s attention “movfesj upward rapidly from contemplation of the ravine of Arve with a singular lack of humility, fixing a gaze that rises above the crowded and commercial viewing-platforms of the tourists, above the platitudes of con­ ventional sublime piety.” In Leask’s estimation, “Shelley suggests that a correct understanding of the mountain’s catastrophic agency is contingent upon an elite sensibility which, rejecting the valley view, seeks the view from the top.”7 Meaning always exists somewhere other than in the sensu­ ous world of the ravine, and readers have not been encouraged to linger there among the caverns, commotion, and visions of the unredeemed ca­ tastrophe of life and death. Mountain-oriented discussions of the poem thus tend towards one of two possibilities: either “the human mind’s imag­ inings” (143) are triumphant in their ability to give meaning to the famous “vacancy” (144) of the mountain, or the vacancy rebukes the pretensions of that mind, shutting down all responses other than humility. However, read from a perspective that does not automatically privilege the mountain, “Mont Blanc” offers an alternative experience of sublimity, realized in Shelley’s “unremitting interchange / With the clear universe of things around” (39-40)—an experience that is not oriented towards...


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