Myth and enlightenment: necessity, history, and agency in Shelley’s poetry and prose
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San Martín Varela, Pablo
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This thesis traces the changing conceptions and uses of myth in the poetry and prose of Percy Shelley. Its main argument is framed from a critical-theoretical perspective inspired by Dialectic of Enlightenment by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. From this methodological standpoint, the study of myth can be related to other aspects of Shelley’s work, like his understanding of history and the problem of necessity and agency. The body of the dissertation is divided into three main parts, each of which is constituted by a series of shorter chapters. The first part deals with the mutually constituting negation of myth by enlightenment, where simultaneously several different but related conceptions of myth are produced and the preliminary principles of enlightenment advanced. Shelley’s earlier conceptions and uses of myth are identified (personification, euhemerism, and allegory), and compared to those of his probable sources as well as of useful analogues, among whom David Hume, William Godwin, the Baron d’Holbach, and John Frank Newton are given special attention. These conceptions of myth are also situated in their intellectual contexts in the fields of eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century mythography and theological debate. At the same time, the philosophical underpinnings of Shelley’s earlier writings (naturalism, scientism, and necessitarianism) are brought to light, and interpreted as having been strategically advanced in his critique of myth and religion. The main subject of the second part is the partial reification of enlightenment as a narrative of natural history. The interaction of theological debate and natural history of religion is explored in the light of literary form and pragmatic situation. Shelley’s political and social writings are described as a natural history of civil society based on political economy, and are situated within the historiographical tradition developed in the Scottish Enlightenment by authors like William Robertson, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, and John Millar. These narratives contained embedded within themselves an early concept of sociological necessity, and developed in opposition not only to sacred history but also to the classical narratives of individual political agency. I argue that this historiographical framework became problematic for Shelley in the wake of the Manchester massacre, since it was at odds with his pacifist values and utopian expectations. The final part treats of the reincorporation of some elements originally suppressed in the critique of myth. Shelley’s later mythical dramas are read as an alternative representation of history to that of natural history, where a new conception of collective political agency was developed. Simultaneously, a new concept of truth as praxis is identified as emerging in some of Shelley’s political writings, whereby the truth value of myth and poetry could be reassessed as that of a guide for political action. Finally, I argue that Shelley’s debate with Thomas Love Peacock concerning the social function of poetry catalysed the process by which the attributes of myth were transferred to poetry, and the latter was set against science and other expressions of the calculating faculty.