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Green ShelleyTimothy Morton, Shelley and the Revolution in Taste: The Body and the Natural World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. ISBN: 0-521-47354 (hbk). Price: £45/$59.95 (hbk).

  • Robert Corbett

…more information

  • Robert Corbett
    University of Washington

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The streets of the rainy northwestern American city where I live have recently witnessed a new kind of itinerant preacher. Now, in addition to the Krishna punks, Socialist Worker pamphleteers, and evangelical Christians, there are folks who proclaim the virtues of vegetarianism and the sinfulness of meat. It may be peculiar to me, but an air of crankiness lingers over these encounters that simply is not present in the other cases. Their seeming crankiness is strange still more because, while not a practicing vegetarian, I can agree with most of their arguments, whereas I am tempted to set the other groups straight on questions of doctrine. What makes dietary evangelism, as opposed to religious or political varieties, seem, well, cranky?

Of all the radicalisms that Percy Bysshe Shelley embraced in his short life, vegetarianism was perhaps the first as well as most enduring. This is not necessarily the conclusion of Timothy Morton's Shelley and the Revolution in Taste, as he rigorously abstains from the language of center and margin, but a reader may well draw these conclusions himself. The fact that Shelley's vegetarian prose has gone through eight posthumous editions suggests it may also be his most enduring political legacy. The prominence of vegetarianism in Shelley's thought has always been an embarrassment for academic readers of Shelley, who have tended to write it off as a health issue or simply ignored it. And with good reason, since the project of reclaiming the ineffectual angel would have only been hampered by his association with vegetarianism. The aura of crankiness surrounding vegetarianism would only further weigh down that angel's wings.

That association, however, cannot be denied, though recent marxist and feminist critics of romanticism have drawn little attention to it. Yet there it is, taking rather large portions of Shelley's corpus, and precisely because Morton focuses on "significant presences" rather than symptomatic absences, he is drawn to it as a subject. [1] Criticism's interest in gaps and elisions has been salutary for romanticism, but in judging a movement that was always "ever more about to be," one wonders if an interest in absence is itself predetermined by a romantic ideology. Instead, The Revolution in Taste admirably synthesizes archival research and Deleuzian theory in a manner that is exciting and instructive. In short, the work is ground-breaking both in content and method, and its shortcomings, are can be directly attributed to its ambitions.

The context in which Morton has placed Shelley is nothing short of revelatory. One of the benefits of the book is how it demonstrates that vegetarianism is a "revolutionary" discourse, having achieved a certain prominence in the ferment of the French Revolution. Of course, abstinence from meat is a perennial philosophical theme, but 1790-1820 saw an intensification of interest in the subject in Great Britain. Food scarcity because of the war gave it a special relevance and Morton suggests that interest in the subject crossed class lines: there were aristocratic as well as working-class vegetarian ideologues. Morton documents Shelley's association with, as well as borrowings from, a particular sect nicknamed "Brahmins" by the quarterlies. For the most part, they were petit-bourgeois intellectuals, much ridiculed in the press in the manner that limousine liberals once were in the United States. Peacock even parodied them (including Shelley) in 1820 as "lotophagi" in the first issue of The Medical Adviser.[2] There is no question that eating meat was a political issue of the time, since many representations of the British public concentrated on its consumption of roast beef in contrast to the meager of diet of French Republicans. If the expense of meat made vegetarianism make economic as well as medical sense, its promulgation smacked of treason. As Morton says, "While meat was too politically charged for Shelley to eat, it was too politically charged for the poorer classes not to eat." (21)

The erasure of Shelley's vegetarian politics is particularly puzzling because it naturally follows from his commitment to non-violent forms of resistance. Indeed, the long final note to Queen Mab , which later became The Vindication of Natural Diet, is a gloss of Canto VIII, lines 211-2: "No longer now/ He slays the lamb that looks him the face." "Lamb" calls up the ideal of Christian passive resistance. That note begins "I hold that the depravity of the physical and moral nature of man originated in his unnatural habits of life," the most prominent of which is killing to feed himself. Shelley even goes as far as to repeat John Newton's claim that Prometheus' most egregious offence was to use fire to cooking purposes. Emphasizing diet as the primary cause of man's downfall does come to seem a matter of lavishing attention on a few precious trees while the rest of the forest is being clear-cut, as Shelley later realized. Morton demonstrates that the poetmodified and secularized his rhetoric, changing his tropes from sin to disease. Thus, this lamb slaughter scene is modified in The Daemon of the World, while the unfinished "Essay on the Vegetable System of Diet" reworks the original note to create "a reasoned, sociopathological scheme" that interrelated "stomach and brain, science and politics" (142,144). The rhetoric of vegetarianism developed in Shelley's thought from an ideological plank to an figurative force-field, a way of telegraphing other forms of depravity and degradation.

Likewise, the general project of Morton's book is to show vegetarianism is part of a web of figures in Shelley's work. The subtitle, The Body and the Natural World, alludes to Morton's intent to render Shelley's figures physically. Shelley is certainly a heady poet, but it is remarkable, again, how readers have bypassed the prominence of "figuration" in his work, what Morton calls "the rhetoric of faciality." Morton emphasizes this rhetoric to redress the lack of attention given to the body in Shelley criticism, but it also suggests how important the rhetoric of sentiment in general was to the poet. For Shelley, meaningful glances at legible faces play an important role in generating community. Faciality concretely suggests that animals have souls and so should not be killed, but it also suggests connections not familial or sexual that are necessary for a radical politics. Shelley pushed this rhetoric farther than any sentimental writer could have imagined, by desublimating its sexuality and by extending the reach of sensibility to inorganic matter (if only in a manner that implied the possibility of failure). Far from being an abstractly intellectual poet, the poet was a phenomenologist of pathos, though the level of philosophical generality that he sought often obscures this fact to casual readers. Morton's work help makes this clear, though other critics will have render the picture of sentimental Shelley clearer.

Up until now I have focused on Shelley's prose, but the crux for any reading of Shelley is how it teaches us to read the poetry. Morton's discussion of Alastor is particularly productive in showing the complexity of Shelley's engagement with the politics of abstinence was. According to Morton, "Alastor is an analysis of how Wordsworth can start out as a 'poet of nature' and then deviate from the supposedly natural path, paradoxically by seeming to travel farther into nature, rejecting revolutionary politics" (108). This process Morton names "alastorization": "the creation of the vengeful ascetic for whom desire is lack and the pursuit of desire a monstrous and decoded death drive" (109). This thesis goes some way in explaining how the Poet, whose goodness is epitomized by his "making the wild his home, / Until the doves and squirrels would partake/ From his innocuous hand his bloodless food," could end up literally dissolving into nature. Morton here responds to Jerrold Hogle's powerful reading of Shelley's poetics of "transference." Rather perpetually undoing itself, Shelley's rhetoric "decodes and axiomatizes, creating an ascetic self through strategies of emulation and simulation that do not rely upon the despotism of the signifier" (108). Axiomatic, a Deleuzian term referring to discourse's tendency to reify and recenter, helps evoke the way Alastor simultaneously invites and evades allegorical reading, mostly through ambiguity. Thus, by the end of the poem, "bloodless food" signifies not so much the innocence as the Poet's deluded pursuit of asocial asceticism. In so doing, the poem becomes "prescription, a guidebook" that enacts the same process of alastorization in the reader.

Other poems are read productively, including Laon and Cythna and, most entertainingly, Swellfoot the Tyrant. Morton rightly critiques political readers for ignoring lyrical poems as much he critiques aesthetic readers for ignoring political ones. He refreshingly ignores these distinctions, revealing continuities that are surprising and interesting. However, he does confess to being rather "literal" with his readings—even daringly suggesting that The Triumph of Life could be read "more literally"—so it is appropriate to ask about the narrator in Alastor, particularly in his odd lament at the end that he cannot resurrect the dead Poet. The invocation of Medea and the wandering Jew suggests a wish for a Mariner-like "Death-in-life" existence for the Poet and raises questions about the narrator's aims in telling the story. More critically, by restricting himself to work done by 1820, Morton leaves the question of Shelley's later vegetable politics open. Since even the most sympathetic political readers of Shelley have seen an "epistemological break" (to use Forest Pyle's appropriation of Althusser's term) in the poet's politics, it would have been interesting to see how Morton handled a poem like The Sensitive Plant, which seems to revisit some of the themes of Alastor.

One also wishes that Morton could have addressed more of Mary Shelley's work than just The Last Man and Frankenstein. As he says, writing relationship of the Shelleys was in the fullest sense a collaboration, perhaps unique in the annals of literary couples, and too little criticism recognizes this. That one is tempted to make such suggestions is indicative of the scope of what Morton has achieved, though. Shelley and the Revolution in Taste simply places the poet in an almost wholly original light. Morton's innovations, however, are not only at the micrological level of content, but also at the macrological level of method. The work is full of penetrating and suggestive archival insights, but these are coupled with a comprehensive theoretical schema. The work of Deleuze and Guattari is present not simply as fashionable overlay, but also an effective tool for reading, particularly with regard to Shelley's strategies of figuration. Their work allows Morton to evade the new historicist trap of seeking subversion, only to find complicity by restructuring that relation as a polar (rather than binary) one between decoding and axiomatizing. Furthermore, the layering of historical detail also helps here, as it sets Shelley's work in a more general context of radical activity in the period.

Morton chooses not to comment an individual texts' marginality or centrality in the Shelley canon. This strategy avoids the stridency that characterizes some anti-canonical work, but it also turns his own work into "guidebook" to use his own apt metaphor. I feel sure that I will return to Shelley and the Revolution in Taste for my own use in the future, but I have only a hazy sense of how this new picture of Shelley should be fleshed out. Perhaps this is appropriate since Shelley is, in a sense, the occasion for Morton's concern to a work of "green romanticism." To my mind, it also achieves this end, particularly in going beyond simply praising or blaming Shelley for latent (anti)environmentalism. Methodologically, ecocriticism is still a matter of bricolage rather than engineering, of snatching local insights without necessarily having a grand theory to back it up. There is a certain justness in this: some of the crankiness inherent in environmentalism comes from the fact that it is not (or has only recently become) an instituted discourse, as is religion and marxism. More than most social movements, environmentalism can come off sounding like a voice in the wilderness, particularly in a discipline cut off from biology and the earth sciences. And yet ecocriticism could be the great hope of literary theory: it refigures the breach between nature and culture that has been overworked in criticism, it cuts through partisan distinctions of left and right, yet it is also intrinsically an issue of aesthetics—one might say of romantic aesthetics. Kant, in his Critique of Aesthetics, draws his examples from the natural world, with some doubt as to art's power to emulate their effects. Thus, ecocriticism may be a critical strategy peculiarly suited to romantic texts.

Shelley and the Revolution in Taste begins this work. Given its provocative reading of the poetry and Morton's archival work, it should be of interest to scholars not interested in green romanticism as well. Strangely enough, though, its ultimate affect may be to prod scholars to look more closely at consumption and consumerism in the romantic period. Perhaps one reason that new historicists have avoided this topic is that so many of the period's solutions are uncomfortably similar to our own. Boycotting products was popular, while later in the period the coop movement was born in Britain, and, of course, much ink was spilt extolling the virtues of nature. Things have not changed very much. Far from being divided from them by a romantic ideology, we may well be forced to say here that we have met the romantics and they are us.