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Wave Dynamics as Primary Ecology in Shelley's Prometheus Unbound

  • Mark Lussier

…plus d’informations

  • Mark Lussier
    Arizona State University

Corps de l’article

I. Preludium

Across the last generation, critics have been extremely active in re-assessing Shelley's use of "figures and theories of light," since that particular imagistic pattern, as most Romantic theorists agree, allows the poet to overcome a perceived erratic incoherence embedded in the poetry and to establish an "extraordinarily systematic" symbolic pattern at the foundation of his theoretical poetics.  [1] While most critics have focused on The Triumph of Life to test hypotheses regarding this symbolic pattern, few have sought to probe the historical roots from which Shelley drew this imagistic pattern. Whether read from the recent perspective of Arkady Plotnitsky or the earlier rhetorical approach of Paul de Man, the symbolic pattern of light functions as the vehicle for forging what Shelley terms a "perfect symmetry" between inner and outer phenomena, where "the lights of nature and of mind entwine within the eye and call forth vision."  [2]

Of course, Shelley's ability to synthesize scientific and poetic insights establishes the boundary condition for his ecological thought as well, given his commitment to a "comprehensive and synthetical view" of universal dynamics.  [3] Shelley founded his "synthetical view" on "the active collaboration of the human spirit with Nature," which suggests that such collaboration between spirit and phenomena frames what might be termed an extremely "deep" ecology.  [4] Shelley's approach establishes him as among the first ecopsychologists, who "proceed from the assumption that at its deepest level the psyche remains sympathetically bonded to the Earth that mothered us into existence."  [5]

Critical exploration of Shelley's poetic use of physical theory, while remaining a steady state of kritical concern within Romantic Studies, has lately gained added intensity in relation to the emergence of a fully embodied ecological criticism.  [6] In Karl Kroeber's view, the imaginative acts of this scientifically oriented poet "proffer valuable insights into how and why cultural and natural phenomena have interrelated and could more advantageously interrelate."  [7] Shelley's poetry of physicality bridges the boundaries between mind and matter by insisting on the interpenetration and interaction between cosmos and consciousness, thereby treating "the nature of reality in general and of consciousness in particular as a coherent whole."  [8] With such assumptions established as boundary condition, Shelley's poetics thereby functions as a physical theory, where perceptual and phenomenal dynamics participate in the construction of reality. However, before expanding to the broadest expanse of Shelley's "implicate model" and how light's duality functions within it, some historical contextualization seems in order.

Certainly, the imagistic evocation of light in Shelley's work reflects a sophisticated understanding of the often-acrimonious debates between advocates of wave versus particle theories of light and embodies the poet's "gift of expressing in his verse a scientific outlook."  [9] Shelley's use of the tension between differing constructions of the fundamental nature of light arises from a historical context of heated exchanges between proponents arguing over the nature of light itself, following observations that light tends to act as both wave and particle. This essay, then, seeks to bridge the somewhat conflicting modes of reading "light" by a two part procedure: initially, I examine the historical context of Shelley's understanding of the dynamics of light, and subsequently I strive to articulate a theoretical framework within which to connect Shelley's thought to physical models expressed within the new physics of relativity and quantum as these relate to matters of Shelley's deep ecology. Phrased differently, the essay seeks to find a common ground or middle path between conflicting descriptions of the play of light offered by de Man, Reiman, and Plotnitsky, for all such descriptions are required to investigate fully the role that light plays in Shelley's argument for the complementarity of consciousness and cosmos as boundary condition for the deepest of ecologies.

II. The Duality of Light: Historical Contexts

The debate over wave versus particle theories of light, held in check until the mid-eighteenth century by Sir Isaac Newton's authoritative treatment of the problem in Opticks, began to break down immediately following his death through Benjamin Franklin's experiments on electricity and light. The debate in England was then re-ignited by the experimental work of Thomas Young between 1799 and 1804, "who first reported the shortening of wavelengths of visible light."  [10] Young's work centered on the degree to which "interference" as experimental outcome confuted the corpuscular theory of light articulated by Newton, a scientific insight fraught with quasi-political implications. As Peter Achinstein notes, "Newton's particle theory was accepted without question by many physicists until the mid-eighteenth century," when results emerging from experiments undertaken by Franklin and computations derived by the mathematician Euler uncovered wave properties uncountable from the particulate position.  [11] From Young's work, especially when considered in relation to the pioneering work of John Michell (a Cambridge scientist who, in 1783, first postulated a star of sufficient mass to prevent the escape of light itself—hence providing the first theoretical view of "black hole" theory), emerges a significant crack or fissure in the Newtonian view of the universe.  [12]

Shelley argues in "The Science of Metaphysics" that, from the 'bounded' state of perception and phenomena, "a conception of Nature inexpressibly more magnificent, simple, and true, than accord[s with] the ordinary systems of complicated and partial consideration" emerges and further argues that such "contemplation of the Universe" strives toward a "comprehensive and synthetical view" that must address "the subtlest analysis of its modifications and parts."  [13] For Shelley, this subtle analysis involves both mind and matter at their fundamental levels of manifestation, rendering his "implicate" model a mode of "generalized physics," to borrow a phrase from Michel Serres.  [14]

At the core of Shelley's 'interrelation' of cultural and natural dynamics, a commitment that appears early in his work and remains a steady state of concern throughout his poetic corpus, resides his appropriation of wave mechanics as a dynamic capable of unifying mind and matter. Shelley's continuous attempt to interrelate mental and natural phenomena within the physics of material waves actually arises from a historical context, specifically his awareness that the absolute construction of light as particles in Newtonian thought had begun to fissure at the end of the eighteenth century.

The elaboration of a wave theory of light achieved crisis status early in Shelley's lifetime and crystallized in experimental work undertaken by the natural philosopher and Royal Society member Thomas Young. In two lectures read to the Royal Society and later published in its Philosophical Transactions (concerning "the analogy between light and sound" [in 1800] and announcing "the discovery of simple and uniform principles" of light and color [in 1801]), Young challenged the authority of Newton when reporting that experimental evidence suggested that light operated as waves rather than particles.  [15] In the first lecture, Young defends wave theory, finding that—under certain conditions—light and sound share a physical dynamic, and the second lecture offers "an early formulation of the principle of interference," or what is now termed "constructive [and] destructive interference" (Achinstein 18-9). The combined effect of these works, which were later gathered with other essays into a two-volume work on natural philosophy, was the resurrection of the supposedly discredited wave theory of light. Young's temerity in refuting Newton's corpuscular theory of light, predictably, generated immediate hostile response from a "scientific establishment [that] regarded opposition to any idea of Newton's as almost heretical."  [16]

Both lectures were published in Royal Society of London Philosophical Transactions and received, almost immediately, vitriolic attacks in the pages of the Edinburgh Review by a champion of Newton, Henry Brougham (who helped found the periodical and who later served as Lord Chancellor of England). Brougham begins his 1803 review of The Bakerian Lecture on the Theory of Light and Colours with the assertion that "this paper contains nothing which deserves the name, either of experiment or discovery, [being destitute of every species of merit]" and concludes that the theory "has not even the pitiful merit of affording an agreeable play to the fancy."  [17] In his 1804 review of another Bakerian Lecture on physical optics, Brougham renews his assault in even more insulting terms:

The volume now before us, . . . another Bakerian Lecture, contain[s] more fancies, more blunders, more unfounded hypotheses, more gratuitous fictions, all upon the same field on which Newton trode [sic], and all from the fertile yet fruitless brain, of the same eternal Dr Young.  [18]

That Brougham was wrong about the theory itself is a matter of historical fact, for Young's work on interference proved pivotal to the later elaboration of quantum theory in our own century. And, as we shall shortly see, Brougham's latter claim that the theory lacked even "imaginative" power is refuted in Shelley's work, for Young's theory of interference becomes a physical dimension of the poet's unification of mind and matter into a "perfect symmetry" in several works, but most especially in Prometheus Unbound.

Of course, the re-ignition of the debate over wave versus corpuscular theories of light in Young's work was only concluded by "the quantum theory of Planck and the photon theory of Einstein . . . [which] brought to a superlative conclusion" the work "revived by Thomas Young in the opening years of the [nineteenth] century."  [19] This position was later espoused by the legendary quantum physicist Richard Feynman, who argued that when contemporary students finally came to terms with Young's double-slit experiment, they were provided with the fundamental analogy for understanding quantum weirdness, since "any other situation in quantum mechanics, it turns out, can always be explained by saying, 'You remember the case of the experiment with two holes? It's the same thing'."  [20]

III. Shelley and Wave Dynamics

As Carl Grabo and Desmond King-Hele have well-documented, physical experiment and theoretical speculation based upon scientific knowledge were "early passions[s]" for Shelley, and these concerns resulted in poetic productions "much enriched by the infusion of scientific imagery."  [21] Certainly, as the scant documentary evidence suggests, Shelley had several opportunities to familiarize himself with the wave/particle debate re-ignited by Young and Brougham, which erupted forth into the pages of the periodic literature when Shelley first began to explore the scientific construction of reality. As well, a decade following the Young/Brougham exchange, the poet reports reading back issues of the Royal Society of London Philosophical Transactions, a period of reading giving birth to both Queen Mab and his Refutation of Deism.

In an unused note to Queen Mab, Shelley states directly his awareness of the scientific debate over the dual aspects of light. "Light consists either of vibrations propagated through a subtle medium, or of numerous minute particles repelled in all directions from the luminous body" (Clark 338). Shelley's statement could not be made without familiarity with the resurgence of wave theories within Young's work, and in the Refutation, published in 1813, Shelley begins to extend this dynamic inward toward consciousness: "Light, electricity, and magnetism are fluids not surpassed by thought itself in tenuity and activity" (Clark 133).

This metaphoric connection between external material waves and internal mental dynamics suggests a vehicle for overcoming the dualistic split between subject and object, consciousness and cosmos, resident in Enlightenment epistemology. Even further, given the dual nature of light and the physical dynamics of perception, a unified wave/particle theory (later termed "complementarity" by the Danish physicist Niels Bohr) provided the poet with principles upon which to erect a poetics of physicality. Although Shelley seemed to regard Queen Mab as "a youthful discretion better forgotten" (Grabo 14), the poem nonetheless, offers amazing syntheses of physical theory. Quite often, these syntheses auger concepts in contemporary physical theory as well: ""there's not one atom of yon earth/But once was living man" (Reiman & Powers 27: II.211-2). Shelley's argument, although in inverse fashion, anticipates current theories of planetary formation, where the explosion of elder stars distribute elements that, eventually, provide the material substances of which we are composed. As Stuart Curran has argued, the poem offers a cosmological model in which the "Conservation of energy is a historical and spiritual truth, as well as a physical law," resulting in a work of "versified science" that attempted to map "the whole universe."  [22]

Shelley's exploitation of wave mechanics (electromagnetic, chemical, fluidic, or biologic) flows throughout his best know poetry, being easily discerned through the interplay of light and water imagery in the early works Queen Mab and Alastor, and is equally present in the later lyric "Mont Blanc," where "The ever-lasting universe of things/Flows through the mind" in "rapid waves."  [23] However, the interrelation of mental and material dynamics through wave imagery most prominently figures in the dramatic epic, Prometheus Unbound.

IV. Waves Within and Without

Shelley imaged the individual as an atom of consciousness interacting with cosmological energies, where individual identity emerges at the nexus of, in the words of quantum physicist Jim Baggott, "collection[s] of waves [that] combine and constructively interfere"  [24] within and without, and this aptly defines "the level of reality at which [Prometheus Unbound] is enacted."  [25] The "Preface" to the work articulates this position, one equally embedded in "The Defense of Poetry," where "A Poet is the combined product of such internal powers as modify the nature of others, and of such external influences as excite and sustain these powers; he is not one, but both" (Reiman & Powers 135). This position expresses a primal complementarity related, as Arkady Plotnitsky argues, to that later espoused by Niels Bohr:

Complementarity is a representational and theoretical framework developed by Bohr in order to account for what he called complementary features—features that are mutually exclusive but equally necessary for a comprehensive description of quantum phenomena. . . . The first is wave-particle complementarity, reflecting the duality of the wave and particle behaviors of quantum objects, and relating the continuous and the discontinuous representations of quantum processes.

Plotnitsky 264

While Shelley in no way could know the collapse of causal physics in the relativistic and quantum mechanical age, he would certainly be capable of making a theoretical leap toward complementarity as epistemic construct from the then unresolved status regarding light's dual properties. For this reason, the evidence supports Plotnitsky's assertion of a "quantum mechanical Shelley" (270), and other aspects of Shelley's complementarity model further supports such a reading.

The insistence within Prometheus Unbound that a single act of consciousness can create large-scale changes in the boundary conditions of the cosmos, although seemingly idealistic, actually anticipates a position argued within quantum and chaos theory as expressed by the mathematician Nicholas Rashevsky:

Whenever we have threshold phenomena, whether in physical, biological, or social systems, the configuration of the system at the moment when the threshold is reached becomes unstable and the slightest, even infinitesimal, displacement of the configuration in a proper direction leads eventually to a finite change in the configuration of the system. Therefore, a change in the behavior of a single individual, no matter how small, may precipitate in an unstable, social configuration, a process that leads to finite, sometimes radical, change.  [26]

Rashevsky sought to establish a common ground between mathematical biology and sociology, although this passage relates most specifically to material versus psychological systems.

Yet this aspect of chaos theory equally opens onto the operations of consciousness as well; for both Romantic and quantum thought on system theory assume that "the ecosystem which is presumed to exist as a whole . . . cannot be studies in the absence of the assumption that the observer and the observed system are part of this whole."  [27] This theoretical perspective also intersects current deep ecological thought, which continually urges that the boundaries between consciousness and cosmos are illusory. In Michel Serres's phrasing, "This is no more separation between subject, on the one hand, and the object, on the other [hand] . . . Nothing distinguishes me ontologically from a crystal, a plant, an animal, or the order of the world" (Serres 83).  [28]

The closing acts of Prometheus Unbound unite mind and matter through a shared dynamic, and the mode of consciousness required to apprehend this unification might best be approached through the elaboration of a "quantum mechanical Shelley" by Arkady Plotnitsky, who recently evoked the phrase as the best descriptor for the "conjunction of two features" in The Triumph of Life: "the first is the metaphoric duality of light, combining wave and particle imagery; the second is the suspension of classical causality" (Plotnitsky 263). Both are prominent features of Prometheus Unbound as well, and at a more general theoretical level, Shelley's stance asserts a mode of identity described by Danah Zohar as a "quantum self."  [29] Such a "self" re-cognizes that "the universe on the most fundamental level is an undissectable whole" and asserts that "holism [i]s an inescapable condition of our physical existence" (Kafatos and Nadeau 113).

These descriptions of subjectivity fit Prometheus quite well. When the titan re-calls his curse, the universe shifts with his altered perspective, bringing in its wake a new paradigm defined by complex complementaries that form the final state of Shelley's theoretical construction of an ecology of mind and matter founded in symmetry. Once Prometheus renounces the tyranny of hatred embedded in his previous utterance (the curse urges the extension of pain and suffering "through boundless space and time" [I.301;144]), he both creates and embodies an alternative ethic of Eros in his "wish [that] no living thing . . . suffer pain" (I.305;144).

In a typical manifestation of Shelley's suspension of causality, the recantation of this curse simultaneously re-fuses the fissure between consciousness and the poem's principle of love, embodied by Asia, an act immediately felt in the "lovely Vale" wherein she resides ("This is the season, this is the day, the hour" [II.i; 160]). Upon her arrival from witnessing the Promethean renunciation, Panthea communicates a dream that precipitates Asia's return, a dream in which the association of the principle of love with light moves to the imagistic foreground:

One [dream] I remember not,
But in the other, his pale wound-worn limbs
Fell from Prometheus, and the azure night
Grew radiant with the glory of that form
Which lives unchanged within, and his voice fell
Like music which makes giddy the dim brain
Faint with intoxication of keen joy:
Sister of her whose footsteps pave the world
With loveliness—more fair than aught but her
Whose shadow thou art—lift thine eyes on me!"
I lifted them—the overpowering light
Of that immortal shape was shadowed o'er
By love[.]

II.i: 61-73 [162]

Just as in Thomas Young's essay on the shared wave mechanics connecting light and sound, Shelley associates the re-ignition of light as love with sound as song, and across the second act, Asia, propelled by the renunciation, moves toward reunification with her beloved.

However, before this reunification occurs, Asia moves downward to the foundation of materiality itself, the layer of necessity initially evoked in Queen Mab: "Spirit of Nature! All-sufficing Power,/Necessity! Thou mother of the world!" Necessity is also associated with the the abode of Demogorgon, who defines the boundary condition of materiality as follows: "Fate, Time, Occasion, Chance, and Change? To these/All things are subject but eternal Love." (II.iv: 119-20 [175]) For Shelley, as The Refutation of Deism makes clear, materiality and mental processes share dynamics, since "rigid necessity [the motive force generally associated with Demogorgon] suffice[s] to account for every phenomenon of the moral and physical world" (Clark 132), and the sole exception, love, follows from his conceptualization of the emotion as motive force or universal binding principle bridging inner and outer phenomena:

[Love] is that powerful attraction towards all that we conceive or fear or hope beyond ourselves when we find within our own thoughts the chasm of an insufficient void and seek to awaken in all things that are, a community with what we experience within ourselves . . . This is the bond and the sanction which connects not only man with man, but with everything which exists".  [30]

Reiman & Powers 473; italics mine

Following this exchange, both Demogorgon and Asia mount 'chariots of the hour,' and Act Two closes with the interrelation of love and light. As one Spirit suggests to Panthea:

The sun will rise not until noon.—Apollo
Is held in heaven by wonder—and the light
Which fills this vapour, as the aerial hue
Of fountain-gazing roses fill the water
Flows from thy mighty sister.

II.v: 10-14 [177]

Here Shelley's language imagistically connects the wave dynamics of light and water, another shared characteristic between Shelley's "versified science" and Young's new elaboration of wave dynamics, a connect noted by de Man and Reiman. From the foundation of materiality, the realm of necessity, Demogorgon and Asia move toward separate but now interrelated spheres of activity, the former to overthrow Jupiter as Act Three opens and the latter to become the "Child of Light," the "Lamp of Earth" (II.iii: 54, 66 [179]), and, for Prometheus, "light of life" (III.iii: 8 [184]). The changes wrought by the reunion of consciousness and love ripple outward from the cave of their conjoining to transform the world (to conclude Act III) and then the entire cosmos (throughout Act IV). By the end of the work, Shelley has forged a mode to unify, through the appropriation and poetic re-deployment of wave dynamics, mental and material processes, and his analysis, at its widest horizons (Demogorgon's comments concluding the work), anticipates the recent work of chaos mathematician Ralph Abraham, who argues that the three great streams of history, "Chaos, Gaia, and Eros," have moved into mutual illumination and have come to define the new paradigm for the next century. As this essay has implicitly suggested, these three waves of history equally emanate from Shelley's most ambitious work, which initially evokes a chaotic universe defined by Jupiter, which subsequently establishes a new ethos of Eros as its defining characteristic, and which achieves, as a result of this ethical commitment, a renovation of the Earth and the Cosmos. This is as deep an ecology of mind and matter as one can find in all of Romanticism.

Parties annexes