The Gothic Matrix: Shelley Between the Symbolic and Romantic

This paper begins with the Gothic, exemplified in Shelley’s early Gothic novels Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne, as an overdetermined and unprocessed moment that interrupts aesthetic ideology, and that is problematically entwined with the Romantic in ways that help to illuminate the deconstructive role that the Gothic has come to play in Romantic Studies. More particularly, I approach this interimbrication through Hegel’s distinction between “Symbolic” and Romantic art in his Aesthetics, which distinguishes three modes based on art’s (in)ability fully to configure the “Idea.” In Symbolic art the “Idea” is still "indeterminate"; it achieves “adequate embodiment” in Classicism; but in the Romantic, form and content are again separated, because of an inadequacy in external forms that repeats and reverses the problems of the Symbolic. Curiously placing Classical beauty and unity in the middle of his dialectic, as an abandoned synthesis, Hegel oscillates between two forms of inadequacy that are both similar and different. For the Romantic beautiful soul withdraws from existing discourses, while the imagination of the Symbolic artist is deformed by what it cannot form. But the Romanticist thereby risks a bad infinity, while the Symbolic artist works on content in the here and now, even at the cost of trapping his work in what Hegel calls a “bad and untrue determinacy.” Given Hegel’s association of the Symbolic with the fantastic and monstrous but also the sublime (which I read here through ðiñek), we can use his category to think through Shelley’s use of the Gothic as a mode whose very disfigurations—and sometimes its conscious badness—form part of a creative negativity. The Gothic, as a stalled and blocked form, has been seen as a “complex.” But this makes it a vanishing mediator in the transition from residual to emergent societal modes. I suggest, instead, that it is a “matrix” for an irresolvable contention and ferment in the work of culture: one to which Shelley comes back again and again. In conclusion, I touch briefly on three of these Shelleyan returns. In Prometheus Unbound Demogorgon’s clumsy overthrow of Jove is merely a parenthesis. Concessive clause. More complex is Alastor, as Shelley’s autonarration of his unsettled relation to a poetry he conceives Romantically but Gothically dis-figures. Finally, in The Triumph of Life the Shape in the Car seems to punish the Idealism of the Shape all Light. But their inter-folding reconfigures the relation of Gothic and Romantic, as Shelley can no longer immunize “the splendour of unfaded beauty” against “the secrets of anatomy and corruption,” nor protect literature from a cultural and political debasement that, by “eat[ing] out the poetry” from history, actually releases a disastrous creativity.