Paul de Man’s “Shelley Disfigured” provides an important location for considering the relationships between history, textual embodiment, and form, and it also describes a reciprocal, reflective relationship between bodies (of all kinds) and language.
De Man argues that Shelley’s Triumph of Life is structured on the process of forgetting or unknowing. For de Man, this forgetting occurs through disfiguration and deformation. He outlines the paradoxical and reciprocal emergence of form in discussing water in Triumph of Life:
Water, which has no shape of itself, is molded into shape by its contact with the earth, just as in the scene of the water washing away the tracks, it generates the very possibility of structure, pattern, form, or shape by way of the disappearance of shape into shapelessness. The repetition of the erasures rhythmically articulates what is in fact a disarticulation, and the poem seems to be shaped by the undoing of shapes.
-The Rhetoric of Romanticism, p. 107
It is precisely in water’s shapelessness that the possibility for shape, for form, emerges. And, later, linking this discussion to the “Shape all light” encountered by Rousseau in the narrator’s dream vision, de Man highlights the reciprocal and self-reflexive ways that form and shape emerge:
The light generates its own shape by means of a mirror, a surface that articulates it without setting up a clear separation that differentiates inside from outside as self is differentiated from other…‘Shape all light’ is referentially meaningless since light, the necessary condition for shape, is itself, like water, without shape, and acquires shape only when split in the illusion of a doubleness which is not that of self and other…‘Shape’ and ‘mirror’ are inseparable in this scene…
If poetry and poet are mirrors according to Shelley (see “Shelley and Disfiguring Form”), then “shape,” or form and figure, is also indistinguishable from poetry and poet.
De Man’s discussion of “figuration” seems to expand on this analogy between poetry, form, and reflection. De Man defines “figuration” as “the element of language that allows for the reiteration of meaning by substitution…the particular seduction of the figure is not necessarily that it creates an illusion of sensory pleasure, but that it creates an illusion of meaning” (114-5). Like Shelley’s mirrors, figuration is not a purely representative process to de Man, or perhaps not a representative process at all; instead, figures are nonphenomenal, produced by “an arbitrary act of language” (116). This “arbitrary act” is language’s “positing power,” its ability to create forms outside of a narrative sequence of events, like the sun “springing forth” unconnected to the preceding night, under its own power.
(Revolt of Islam, Stanza 57, 631-9)
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These acts become part of narratives due to the reader's own impositions, our own positing power, of “the authority of sense and meaning” onto the nonphenomenal positing power of language (117). Meaning appears in Triumph when the poem asks questions, foreclosing the reader’s ability to offer their questions, or to know—“To question is to forget” (118), and “figuration (as question) performs the erasure of the positing power of language.” It is in the process of questioning and forgetting that figuration erases the very power that creates it. Much of this discussion is about time—forgetting, for example, to the point of being uncertain what is real, or what is past or present, all “curiously scrambled” (104-5).
De Man uses the word “disfigure” due to “face” translating to “figure” in French and the defacement of a sculpture in Triumph. If figures erase and reconstitute themselves in a reflective cycle, then it is necessary, also, to have readers who engage in the “reduplication” of expression described in Shelley’s Defence. To build on de Man’s term, I refer to this process as “refiguration” to signal the recursive nature of the process (rather than simply “figuration”)
In Shelley, forms must be deformed in order to be recognizable as forms; and, crucially, this deformation happens through reflection and doubling. Moreover, this doubling is not one of reproduction, but it is rather a destructive doubling that deforms the form in question as much as it also creates it. The doubling and reflection of forms is not static, stable, or instantaneous; rather, the reflecting surfaces “never allowed the smooth stasis that is necessary to the duplication of the image” (111), the water rippling and distorting as it reflects.