'Still Here'

Joel Faflak (Western University)
For Doreen.

Orrin Wang recalls one origin of this volume in his wonderfully generous response to its suite of gorgeously searching papers on Shelley’s last poem. Apparently I posed to him the notion that “certain Romantic texts require repeated unearthing and burial—require/compel our productively melancholic attachment to them. . . . We just thought it would be cool to devote a whole panel to one poem in order to demonstrate precisely its compulsive hold on our critical imaginations (a la de Man).” “We” refers to a conversation over drinks with Jacques Khalip at an earlier NASSR conference (likely Boston 2013), during which I broached the idea of devoting an entire conference panel, maybe even an entire book, to one Romantic text. It would (have to) be a text I felt that one could or should not live without, one that sustained repeated intervention, not just across time, but within the concentrated challenges of our present time. My wish included texts whose monumental (dis)figuration by and through time left them as open wounds within literary history that begged for the pharmakon of interpretation. Khalip and I agreed that the most compelling work, very much but not only because of Paul de Man’s seminal reading, was Shelley’s last poem, very much though not only because of the final “fold / Of” the text after it begs the question it cannot answer, “‘Then what is life?’

Percy Shelley, The Triumph of Life, ll. 547–48, 544, from Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat’s Norton edition of Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. All subsequent references to Shelley’s writing, except where otherwise noted, are from this edition, indicated by title and cited by line number for poetry and page number for prose.

Like Keats extending his “living hand, now warm and capable / Of earnest grasping” (Poems 1–2), the question makes a return to the poem at once compulsive and compulsory, but it was also our hope to lose ourselves in this final fold “without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” (Keats, Letters 43), not to avoid facts altogether but to stop making sense in ways the world seems increasingly to demand of us. Or as Orrin answers when he asks, in his “Response” to the following essays, “Why read?,” we do so “out of a Shelleyan love based on something like the sensation of the impermanence of our selves and our readings, our cognition and our somatic experience.”


I never thought this idea would go anywhere. Then Sonia Hofkosh, in typically generous fashion, invited me to organize one of the KSAA panels at the 2015 MLA, Sonia Hofkosh, thus indulging my fantasy, which resulted in “The Futures of Shelley’s Triumph,” consisting of Libby Fay, Jacques, Tres Pyle, and Orrin’s response. The conversations that preceded and proceeded from that experience, to which are added those with this volume’s fifth contributor, Chris Washington, are of the kind that, any time I feel jaded or disheartened about the state of our profession and field, reminds me that even the apparently smallest exchange of ideas can recall us to what really matters, which is a matter of our very survival. If that sounds melodramatic, I mean it to. For “We just thought it would be cool” is symptomatic, not of our nonchalance toward our field, profession, or work, but rather of our sense that chances need to be taken. As de Man says of Shelley’s last text, “Questions of origin, of direction, and of identity punctuate the text without ever receiving a clear answer” (95–96). Going for broke in the absence of clear answers may be a sign of desperation (“Why are we any longer doing this??”) that stimulants often help me to quell. It also begs the question of why we debate the interpretation of works that few people might or will or want to read. What could possibly matter? And yet at the same time, why not? If the world seems to care less about what we do as scholars, then who cares that we do this as long as there remains a place and time to do this, of course. But where at least two are gathered in the name of challenging the world’s premises, there remains, not a dangerously deluded hope for the future, but the queer capacity of an at once posthuman and all-too-human experience that offers a chance to redeem the everyday nature of our lives as a way of addressing the otherworldly stakes of our existence. As Tony Kushner writes in the Afterword to his monumental Angels in America (1995), “Marx was right: The smallest indivisible human unit is two people, not one; one is a fiction. From such nets of souls societies, the social world, human life springs” (158). When Shelley envisioned a maximum of five readers for Prometheus Unbound (1820), one responds either with, “Poor showing,” or, “Good start.”

The compulsion to return to Shelley’s last poem begins, of course, with Mary Shelley, whose editing of Posthumous Poems (1824), partly an act of impossible mourning, included a reading version culled from the manuscript her husband left behind. That version, included largely unchanged in her subsequent edition of The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1839), remained authoritative until the early 1960s, when G. M. Matthews and Donald H. Reiman revisited Mary’s version in consultation with the original manuscript, now in the Bodleian, to produce the text we now cite. Given the manuscript’s largely chaotic shape (only the opening stanzas exist in a relatively fair copy state) these were Herculean editing labors. T. S. Eliot called Shelley’s mind “in some ways a very confused one,” but he thought The Triumph (1822) was the “greatest though unfinished” of Shelley’s poems, “evidence not only of better writing than in any previous long poem, but of greater wisdom” (90). Arguing that only finished works can legitimate the apparent trajectory and philosophical system of a poet’s vision, Earl Wasserman ends his monumental Shelley: A Critical Reading (1971) with Adonais (1821), Shelley’s self-proclaimed “highly wrought piece of art” (Letters 2: 294). Taking up readings of Triumph’s nod to a Dantesque eschatology (Timothy Webb) and Petrarchan humanism (Desmond King-Hele), Angela Leighton finds in the poem, “in spite of all its pessimism, a renewed confidence in the act of writing as the only means of saving inspiration from that perfection which is the poet’s loss,” a “prognosticated happy ending” (one remembers Robert Browning’s point that Shelley would have found sympathy among the Christians), a redemptive possibility that Harold Bloom or Richard Cronin, also taken up by Leighton, read as a parody or obfuscation, respectively, of any such ideal (Leighton 150–51).

The above responses reflect our longstanding habituation, first pushed by Mary, to Percy as a second generation Romantic torn between skepticism and idealism, undecided if he wanted to reform the world or get beyond it, which tension reaches its highest pitch in Adonais and seems to get attenuated differently as Shelley moves on to The Triumph where, as Balanchandra Rajan argues, Shelley, despite more than likely intending to finish the poem, toys with what Rajan calls the “form of the unfinished,” how the poem “movingly confesses [its] inability to pronounce on its own nature” (209). An earlier study such as C. E. Pulos’s The Deep Truth (1954) mitigates this ambivalence by reading Shelley as what Hugh Roberts calls a “progressively more ‘idealist’ skeptic” (2). This mediation, symptomatic of a post-WWII reclamation of Shelley’s reputation in the wake (for instance) of F. R. Leavis’s attack on Shelley in Revaluation: Tradition and Development in English Poetry (1936), esteemed Shelley’s vatic power and poetic talent, though with a deepening understanding of the dangers and excesses of his political and aesthetic idealism. For Ross Woodman in The Apocalyptic Vision of the Poetry of Shelley (1964), The Triumph of Life presents an “Orphic vision of an annihilated world” (198), a mythopoeia that for Harold Bloom in Shelley’s Mythmaking (1959) achieves its “final aspect” in “that the myth, and the myth’s maker, are fully conscious of the myth’s necessary defeat” (275) by existence itself. This Shelleyan apocalypse without millennium at once haunts and anticipates deconstruction’s influence on Romantic studies, on full display in Bloom’s 1979 Deconstruction and Criticism, which contained Derrida’s and de Man’s landmark essays on The Triumph . De Man’s essay in particular attends to the poem’s fragmented, inchoate form as a sign of how the weave all human endeavor remains frayed by history, a rather telling sign of both Shelley’s and our crisis-ridden times. How and where does one now situate Shelley’s disastrous text as a text both about and of disaster, as Chris Washington explores in his essay for this issue? The poem’s incessant questioning of origins and identities, what Tilottama Rajan after de Man calls its attention to “questioning, doubting, and emergent knowledge,” becomes symptomatic of what she calls Shelley’s “purgatorial imagination . . . that derives its power from the very manner in which it finds itself containing the reality that is to deconstruct it” (Dark Interpreter 63, 71).

See also Rajan’s later analysis of the poem in The Supplement of Reading, 323–49.


Deconstruction partly urged a revaluation of the epistemology and ontology of Shelley’s formal strategies. For William Keach in Shelley’s Style (1984), Shelley’s verse, particularly its complex use of rhyme in Triumph, constitutes the productively ambivalent form of his thought, not as philosophical system but as open-ended intellectual (r)evolution. For Ronald Tetreault in The Poetry of Life: Shelley and Literary Form (1987), the poem’s “desire for a reassuring certitude with which anxiety [for a center] can be mastered” necessarily fails, but still with the confidence that “even in an age of deconstruction poetry may still teach us how to live” (257). Perhaps above all, critical responses to the poem thereafter had to contend with what was seen, either generatively or critically, as deconstruction’s missed encounter with history. Reading de Man reading Shelley reading, Orrin Wang (1996) calls Triumph a “disfigured monument” poised at the “limit of its historical and critical consciousness,” unable to “resolve . . . the final form of its narration” (64). For Hugh Roberts in Shelley and the Chaos of History (1997), Lucretian materialism offered Shelley a new model of history and its political rhythms as a ceaseless becoming that reflects the “entropic and negentropic aspects of evolutionary process” (406), which Amanda Jo Goldstein’s Sweet Science (2017) reads in terms of Triumph’s complex reciprocity between life and its symbolic manifestations, thus offering a Shelleyan biopolitics of life. In Shelley and the Revolutionary Sublime (2005) Cian Duffy discusses how the poem’s representation of post-revolutionary change, influenced by aesthetic theories of the sublime, questions the failure and subsequent deadlock of imaginative will in transforming the political and historical landscape. And in what is arguably the most significant single study of Shelley’s writing in the past three decades, Shelley’s Process (1988), Jerrold Hogle reads the conflict of interpretations generated by this ineluctable traversal between art, life, and history as transference, the nomadic principle of Shelley's aesthetics as history’s drive, most powerfully in his final poem. In The Supplement of Reading (1990) Rajan reads this shifting principle of thought and representation in Triumph as neither loss nor recovery: “Fading is not disappearance, but something more haunting: a presence that cannot be located and yet cannot be definitively renamed as absence so that we will cease searching for it” (347). William Ulmer (1990) reads this lost object (that can’t quite be called “lost”) as the force of eros behind Shelley’s politics and its idealism. Stuart Peterfreund (2002) reads this longing for transcendence post-deconstructively as the latent if unfulfilled spirit of Shelleyan verse, a potentiality Leighton targets as a moving acknowledgement and commemoration of loss, which is for her the poem’s “real triumph” (175).

History, love, loss: binding this dizzying array of readings is our desire to know what Shelley might have thought, felt, and intended when writing his final poem. Here I imagine what Walter Benjamin might have been thinking and feeling when he wrote his late theses on history, as if to remind a world that wasn’t listening why the very history that could consume us was also, paradoxically, the one that mattered. Benjamin’s survival was rather more precarious than Shelley’s. However, as if trapped within history’s Janus-faced reality, realizing there could be no Archimidean point from which to view and thus gain some kind of purchase on its onslaught— on history itself—Shelley struggles to see and say his way through to a different materiality of things, which struggle we find ourselves in the midst of. In After Finitude Quentin Meillassoux contemplates the existence of what he terms the “‘arche-fossil’ or ‘fossil-matter,’” which “indicat[es] the traces of past life . . . but [also] materials indicating the existence of an ancestral reality or event” (10), like the luminescence of a star reaching us after billions of years of light travel. Ancestrality indicates a “world devoid of humanity” (127), which for Meillassoux challenges “the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other” (5), which entails the Kantian idealism that we can think the Ding an sich of being, but only from the perspective of thought.

Wrestling thinking from being demands that we think a being beyond our thought of being, on its own terms, as it were, which is to say prior to its own “givenness.” In Meillassoux’s wording, this is to locate “that outside which thought could explore with the legitimate feeling of being on foreign territory – of being entirely elsewhere” (7). Contemplating a thought beyond correlation, and thus after finitude, in Washington’s powerful summation (in another context), “reveals an aporia that exists in both philosophy and science: our inability to account for a world outside of us without, paradoxically, accounting for it” (450). Shelley’s earlier Queen Mab (1813), attempting to account for the empiricism of this ancestral temporality by taking its reader to the verges of the cosmos and of Shelley’s idealism, tarries with this rift between being and thought, yet remains within the hope of making one commensurate with the other. But in Triumph Shelley finds that being in the midst of the everyday experience of history leaves him on the “foreign territory” of an attempt to exist within a history always out of our reach precisely because we exist in its midst. Thus abandoned, we are left to express an “inability to account for a world outside of us without, paradoxically, accounting for it.” We are also left with thought alone—with the being of thought, which Shelley expresses enigmatically as “thoughts which must remain untold” (Triumph 21). To read Meillassoux perhaps somewhat differently, the matter of history is the matter of ancestrality now, a being within being that cannot be thought, but also a thought within being that has a being of its own that cannot be thought. History itself is the being Shelley needs to think his way into and out of, without ever touching upon its foreign materiality in which he nonetheless finds himself enmeshed. Accounting for this point resonates with the following essays’ various points of entry: the “queerly erotic openness” of Jacques Khalip’s last look, the “beyondness” of Libby Fay’s detached attachment to/attached detachment of the sensuality of verse, the glimmering phenomenality of Tres Pyle’s account of the poem as minor event, Chris Washington’s exploration of the physical immateriality of light and love.

To move us toward a future of living on, with, and at the borders of history is to dwell with what Denise Gigante calls Romanticism’s “uncontainable vitality” (6), which at the same time expresses the killing moment of life’s disposal, feeding upon itself as waste product, like the ruins of Saturn’s temple in Keats’s revision of Hyperion (1820) as The Fall of Hyperion (eventually published in 1856) and or Shelley’s chariot as it plows on remorselessly, senselessly, irrevocably. At the end of Perestroika, the second half of Kushner’s Angels in America, Prior Walter is offered the Tome of Immobility, the promise of an eternal existence without suffering. The Angel warns Prior that life has become a “habit,” the result of which will be a devastation equal to Byron’s “Darkness.” Having survived the devastation that was dealing with AIDS in Reagan’s newly dawning America, his pre-Trump stab at Making America Great Again, Prior is momentarily enticed. But to move deathwards toward no death is to give into the defeat that the sheer lack of response to the dead and dying demands, or rather quietly, implicitly, assumes. How to respond to the being of death from within the living, a foreign territory that cannot be thought, although death sure has its own thoughts on the matter. Which may be why Prior embraces, however precariously, the promise of more life:

But still. Still.
Bless me anyway.
I want more life. I can’t help myself. I do.
I’ve lived through such terrible times, and there are people who live through much much worse, but . . . you see them living anyway. . . . Death usually has to take life away. I don’t know if that’s just the animal. I don’t know if it’s not braver to die. But I recognize the habit. The addiction to being alive. We live past hope. If I can find hope anywhere, that’s it, that’s the best I can do. It’s so much not enough, so inadequate but . . . Bless me anyway. I want more life. (133)

After a talk that I ended with this quote, David Clark asked, “But what about less life?” The question stopped me dead in my tracks, as it were. How not to heed the siren call of the biopolitical, to prolong and thus fetishize life against all odds, as Tetreault’s reading suggests?

Asking the question in turn prompted David Collings to organize a MLA panel, including papers by David L. Clark, Jacques Khalip, and me. The talk was a plenary at the 2015 NASSR conference, published as “Right to Romanticism.”

What do we do to others in the name of protecting homo sacer, of making of life, like Moneta’s sanctuary, an inviolable temple to the stillborn ruin of a life never surrendered? How to break the addiction to being alive? How to refuse the call for more life now that we are confronting not just our personal deaths but our extinction as a species?


Which got me thinking about what “just the animal” means in Prior’s speech. Can anything matter to us if it isn’t somehow a deprived, destitute, or an uncannily vital reflection of life? In Adonais Shelley is momentarily stunned by the creatively melancholic vitality of Keats’s decaying mind—the necrophagia of life feeding on itself. Left among the living to lament, Shelley is like Urania, who in one of Romanticism’s most freakishly gothic scenes attempts to revive her son’s corpse by, according to the post-Oedipal logic of Shelley’s poem, re-seducing him. Beware of mothers who fetishize life. According to Shelley’s psychoanalysis of the circuit of creative desire, having killed the thing she loved, the mother attempts to re-ingest it in a kiss—a word, as Khalip’s paper reminds us—that fills the mouth with desire’s lost object. In this scenario what refuses to cede its desire is not woman, but desire itself, or rather desire minus desire—sheer drive, the mindlessness of words, which needs no object and instead wanders aimlessly but irrevocably in its aimlessness. Despite its seemingly transcendental trajectory, the poem laments Absolute Spirit, its dark and fearful affect materializing the move past the loss of a history left behind once and for all. In Hellas (1822) when Mahmud describes “This firmament pavilioned upon chaos” (772), we’re taken back to the future of Queen Mab, which finds Shelley already unable to resolve the empirical with the transcendental and thus begins a move toward something like a Deleuzian horizon that unfolds the transcendence of empiricism, the restlessly moving still point at which experience at once appears and vanishes.

Put another way, the spectacle of Adonais— which includes a necrophilic muse, a poet acting like St. Sebastian, and a finish that smacks of Busby Berkley, in which the “white radiance of Eternity” (463) smashes the “dome of many-coloured glass” (462)—is a mere tryout for The Triumph of Life. Here the products of history are continually folded into a sheer visuality that at once materializes and dematerializes our lives. Urania as desire becomes the Shape all light and “fire for which all thirst” (485), not as lost object but as sheer drive. Shelley awakens us to the performance of history itself, in which we “pant,” “sink,” “tremble,” and “expire” on a daily basis (Epipsychidion 591). Here Triumph anticipates the invention of the film musical form, but fast-forwarded to versions that expose the insidious post-capitalist logic of its visual and aural interpellation of our subjectivities, the endless production and reproduction of perceptual information about the human condition that leads us nowhere except along the infinite horizon of our perpetual demise.

I address these issues in two parallel essays on The Triumph, “The Difficult Education of Shelley’s The Triumph of Life,” and Dancing in the Dark with Shelley.

Check out Pyle’s searching interlocution between Shelley and Velvet Goldmine (1998), among other parallels, to feel the full force of this parallel, or Fay’s equally searching interrogation of Shelley’s strange afterlife of rhyme.


In a brief, brilliant analysis of the aesthetic in Freud and Lacan, Alenka Zupančič, addressing the difference between the uncanny and comedy, argues that whereas the uncanny tarries with possibility of the lost object’s return as desire, comedy “point[s] to the irreducible materiality of nothing” (59), by which she means, not the naming of nothing as ‘something’ in order to give it symbolic consistency, but rather the “remainder of nothing, . . . nothing as insisting/emerging in the real, while being deprived precisely of its symbolic support” (60). This leaves nothing as a “‘mere hole,’ which is to say—an object. It is a nothing that, literally, remains (there) to be seen” (71). Like the gaze that cannot see itself, as Zupančič notes, thought cannot think itself, hence, perhaps, for Shelley it “must remain untold.” For Zupančič this paradox speaks to the “vitalism of the death drive. That is to say, the vitalism of the internal contradiction of (human) life itself. Far from referring to something in us that ‘wants to die,’ or that aims at death and destruction, the Lacanian notion of the death drive refers to an excess of life itself . . . the reason that the subject can never be reduced to the horizon of her death” (74). The death drive indicates not “that something of our life will go on living on its own when we die” but rather “that something of our life lives on its own as we speak,” the “logic of constitutive dislocation (as immanent nothing)” (75).

In the last years before my mother passed away, just shy of 91, she would repeatedly ask me, “Why am I still here?,” as if to rebut Carlotta’s defiant anthem, “I’m Still Here,” from Stephen Sondheim’s Follies (1971), for me one of the most moving and painful evocations of what it means to risk love in response to the nothingness of loss, and thus to risk the nothingness of love itself. My response: “I have no idea.” And at that we would both laugh. She felt—she knew—she was taking up space and time, and witnessing the reduced habits of her daily existence, I could not disagree. On that count we were brutally, fatally, happily frank with one another. I spent her final hours at her bedside in the company of my man, a nurse, her son-in-law, all three of us tacitly agreed on the need for and relief of acute palliation. As she drifted off and away, he clinically, quietly, beautifully mapped out for me the contraction and departure of life and warmth from her withered extremities—sites of impossible contemplation—to a place I imagine reduced to a still point somewhere around her heart and lungs. When the departure was complete, and because through her eyes I learned how film was one of the few ways to transform life’s dull round, I though of the end of Adonais re-imagined as the ending of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) when the spaceship contracts to a still point in the sky, then shoots across the horizon, far beyond the rainbow where suffering, decrepitude, hunger, and intolerance plague what we so quaintly call the human condition. Unable ever to know where life went at that moment, I also experienced what I imagine Shelley imagined in his encounter with what “remained” of Rousseau, or what Meillassoux means by an encounter with the fossil matter of ancestrality, though not as Meillassoux intended it. Living past hope, contemplating an “inability to account for a world outside of us without, paradoxically, accounting for it,” my first thought, which is to say the thought that emerges only once the dust and ash have settled, was: “I’m still here.” That is to say, I felt “the vitalism of the internal contradiction of (human) life itself.”

When Shelley, who drowned in the Bay of Lerici with The Triumph of Life unfinished, decided to ask, then, “What is life?,” he was asking of a future whose shadows the poem casts upon our present: Why are you here? Why are you doing this? What is the importance, and devastation (again, pace Benjamin) of even asking the question in the first place? Are you reading me? Do you care? Does it matter? Yet to mind the gaps in the representation of historical reality—to miss something another human being said (in this case, a rather capable poet)—might just tell us something about our present (in)capacity to say. When de Man drew our attention to the fact that Shelley’s dead and decaying body, inscribed at the end of Shelley’s last manuscript, was as essential to our understanding of the poem as the poem itself, he reminded us of what still needed to be heard. To which I would add: what needs to be felt about our present state of being, to which Khalip, Fay, Pyle, Washington, and Wang remain exquisitely attuned by turning from spectators to actors in the scene of the poem’s life that is the remainder of nothing. How they express the soul of our intellectual lives feels rather more urgent than it did at the time Khalip and I first libated. Let’s call it a call simply but urgently to indulge in doing what we do: restlessly examine the interpretive possibilities of responding to a great artist’s response to the world, with the understanding that no one might care. As I listen with careful and troubled attention to the question of what should matter in our present climate, I’m compelled to ask, why not this, at this present time? It can’t be any more consequential or inconsequential. And now I leave my contributors to voice the virtual reality of what it might mean and feel like to exist at once within and past the Anthropocene. To them I say and thank God or the gods or whomever or whatever might have orchestrated the situation to which this critical folly responds: I’m glad you’re here – still.

Works Cited

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———, et al. Deconstruction and Criticism. Yale UP, 1979.
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Faflak, Joel. “Dancing in the Dark with Shelley.” Constellations of a Contemporary Romanticism, edited by Jacques Khalip and Forrest Pyle, Fordham UP, 2016, pp. 166–85.
———. “The Difficult Education of Shelley's The Triumph of Life.” Keats-Shelley Journal, vol. 58, 2009, pp. 53–78.
———. “Right to Romanticism.” European Romantic Review, vol. 27, no. 3, 2016, pp. 1–17.
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———. The Poems of John Keats. Edited by Jack Stillinger, The Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1978.
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1. Percy Shelley, The Triumph of Life, ll. 547–48, 544, from Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat’s Norton edition of Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. All subsequent references to Shelley’s writing, except where otherwise noted, are from this edition, indicated by title and cited by line number for poetry and page number for prose. [back]
2. See also Rajan’s later analysis of the poem in The Supplement of Reading, 323–49. [back]
3. Asking the question in turn prompted David Collings to organize a MLA panel, including papers by David L. Clark, Jacques Khalip, and me. The talk was a plenary at the 2015 NASSR conference, published as “Right to Romanticism.” [back]
4. I address these issues in two parallel essays on The Triumph, “The Difficult Education of Shelley’s The Triumph of Life,” and Dancing in the Dark with Shelley. [back]