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"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Shelley Love (aka the 69th English Institute)

Let me just say right out: I love Adela Pinch. She makes me all, I don't know, swoony. Her talk on Shelley love as a major chapter in the evolution of the psychology and discourse of love, on a Sunday morning, in the Fong Auditorium of Boylston Hall, was the highlight of the whole conference for me.

The English Institute, which sounds like some kind of sinister cabal of world plotters in a William Gibson novel, annually gathers the leading scholarly lights from across all fields to discourse dazzlingly each September on a single theme. This year it was "The Author."

Because I was back in Cambridge and seeing so many old friends, I attended only sporadically and no doubt missed some Major Stuff. But Pinch's talk, "A Shape All Light," from Shelley's "Triumph of Life," knocked my socks off. Witty, impassioned, and just plain beautiful, it mapped out the Victorian cult of PBS as a sentimental fetish and the demigod of etherial love -- an almost Christ-like figure, esp. for women writers like the now forgotten Elinor Wylie -- only to argue that this cultic frenzy played a strong role in the formation of early British object-relations psychology. Though she quoted Procul Harem's "Whiter Shade of Pale," I'm surprised that Pinch didn't see fit to work in The Beatles' "All You Need is Love" as well.

The love of authors -- the author as oracle, the author as the picture of our truer and better selves, the author as messianic -- was central to the larger cultural understanding of love itself. Though I think, really, that instead of "love," she might have used "interiority." For the author is the mapper of internal space, indeed, the author of that space, a space traditionally marked as feminine, but eventually seen as foundational to the confusing operations of subjectivity.

In some ways Pinch's talk reminded me of Judith Butler's thesis in "Psychic Life of Power" that the scission of melancholy produces subjectivity. Like love, melancholy, in Pinch's words now, not Butler's "gives shape to our internal object world." (She made this remark in reference to how Woolf used PBS in her famous essay, "On Being Ill").

There is much I'm skipping over here. The Shelley haters. The fascinating way Victorian occultists glommed onto poor Shelley, penning posthumous works in his name, even revising his poems! And the role which "good sound" plays in Shelley love -- the euphony of semiosis. This was drastically under-read, I thought. Perhaps the single point to take away was this: Shelley lovers were in the habit of planting violets around his grave. Other Shelley lovers practiced the ritual of tearing them up as keepsakes. Even Shelley's heart, Pinch told us, was wrapped at the last by Mary in a page from "Adonais." After she died, it was found in her desk drawer, crumbled to dust.

The word Pinch uses for all this is: "transferable." By which she also means: "perverse." "A shape all light" is that which continually eludes us; feeding and defeating us, it teaches us through the figure of the author how we might love ourselves as though we were other.

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