"Mary Wollstonecraft’s Perpetual Disaster"

This essay reads the moments in the Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796) in which Mary Wollstonecraft imagines future disasters and grieves for losses yet to come. Taking his cue from William Godwin's comment that her prejudices suffered a "vehement concussion" from the events of the French Revolution, Juengel argues that these moments of disastrous affect register a traumatic apprehension she cannot otherwise articulate - not even in her Historical and Moral View of the Origins and Progress of the French Revolution (1794). Devastated by a wounding realization of revolutionary hope, Wollstonecraft is "[h]aunted by what was to have been the future," and weaves "the time of revolutionary politics with what we might call 'species time,' resulting in forms of untimeliness that figure as disaster without end." Her sense of this disaster, so threatening to the value of individual lives, is attuned to the discovery of a planetary "deep time" that took place in the decades before and after the 1790s and to the prospect, articulated two years later by Malthus, of an ongoing "disaster of sensation and feeling that paradoxically moves the species toward life rather than death." Yet all these untimely reflections may enable her to avoid confronting the disasters of the present, such as the consequences of the fire that destroyed large portions of Copenhagen just before her arrival there; the thought of disaster, she suggests, would relieve her from the task of treading on "live ashes," on ills not yet reduced to scenes in fancy. Ultimately, Juengel argues, these movements of disastrous thought may all speak of what Reinhardt Koselleck describes as the radical temporalization of revolutionary time, a temporalization to which Wollstonecraft ultimately responds with a generous passivity, with a more-than-Kantian hospitality to disaster itself.