“A strength badly exerted” – Rousseau, Radicalism, and Repression in the Works of P. B. Shelley

Something a little unusual for this blog – This is an academic article I wrote back in late 2013, revised in 2015, then forgot about after the e-journal it was intended for vanished off the face of the interwebs never to resurface. Since I absolutely cannot be bothered with the rigmarole of trying to find a new one, never mind edit this to its style guide and twiddle my thumbs waiting to see if my submission finds favour or ridicule, I’m just going to bang it up here instead, for anyone who cares about that sort of thing (The likelihood that I will ever need it officially published to support an academic career seems very unlikely now, since I am finally in my 40s and quite happy as an obscure SF author with a sideline in weird striptease acts).

A strength badly exerted” – Rousseau, Radicalism, and Repression in the Works of P. B. Shelley

Dr. Eleanor Burns

University of Leeds


Taking as its starting point David V. Smith’s essay Der Dichter Spricht: Shelley, Rousseau, and the Perfect Society,” (The Keats-Shelley Review 19 (2005): 117-31), in which the case is made that Shelley’s re-reading of Rousseau’s Julie within the context of the Swiss excursion of 1816 helped to revitalise his passion for social reform, this work examines Shelley’s evolving attitude to Rousseau and his place within Shelley’s “political manifesto.” From adopting a conventional view in 1812 which held Rousseau in little regard (consistent with the necessitarian views expressed in Queen Mab), to a view which placed him, as a creative writer, at almost demigod status, as Shelley’s own views and experiences steered him closer to a Platonically-influenced political philosophy in which inner reform, making good use of rather than repressing or denying the passions, was the essential complement to reforms in society (Shelley having explicitly stated that the French Revolution failed due to the lack of the former). This never went to the point of denying the value and necessity of practical social reform, as Shelley’s continued writing on specific social issues (as in the 1819 essay A Philosophical View of Reform) demonstrates, but is rather a denial of the reactionary notion that human nature can only be inclined to virtue by top-down, authoritarian means and institutions: a view that William Wordsworth was coming to espouse, leading to anti-radical works such as the elegy to Edmund Burke in the fourteen-book version of The Prelude (Book 7, 512-43). The response to these two “founding fathers,” Rousseau and Wordsworth, within Shelley’s works is then examined, both for comparison and contrast. While Wordsworth is summarily disposed of in a burlesque, satirical version of hell resembling a contemporary political cartoon (Peter Bell the Third), Rousseau is finally encountered in a more sombrely-depicted hell (A Triumph of Life), owing much to Dante and placing him in the role of honoured precursor and spirit guide to Shelley (like Virgil in the Inferno). Nevertheless, the similarities in the treatment of these two figures are also marked, and seem to indicate a desire, particularly marked late in Shelley’s career, to dissociate himself from the morbidly introspective strand of earlier Romantics and dedicate himself to the “poetical activism” championed in A Defence of Poetry. While Shelley acknowledges the value of incremental changes and even false starts on the road to reform, works such as A Philosophical View of Reform, The Mask of Anarchy, and The Triumph of Life promote a more indefatigable, courageous, and self-aware idealism than Shelley could confidently point to in his Romantic predecessors.


In his 2005 essay Der Dichter Spricht: Shelley, Rousseau, and the Perfect Society,” David V. Smith has pointed out the sudden significance that the figure of Jean-Jacques Rousseau attained within the imagination and philosophy of P. B. Shelley in 1816. He attributes this to the power and immediacy of his reading Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (1761) within the idyllic settings it depicted, as recounted in History of a Six Weeks Tour (1817), and explains how this helped to reinvigorate and redefine Shelley’s reforming spirit:

“Shelley’s works composed in the summer of 1816 conceive of a society which may be perfected through reforming the human character. […] in his temporary exile, the figure of Jean-Jacques Rousseau became an icon on the tourist trail, a secular God whose philosophies of virtuous humanism inspired him in his vision to create the perfect society.i”

Smith suggests that another factor that endeared Rousseau to Shelley at this time was a longing for the unconventional ideals of love expressed within Rousseau’s novel:ii a tragic love story, wildly popular amongst late Eighteenth-Century readers, between the aristocratic Julie and her tutor Saint-Preux, who are separated by well-meaning but socially conventional friends to safeguard Julie’s respectability. Nevertheless, the lovers remain emotionally and spiritually inseparable until Julie’s heroic, self-sacrificial demise. Shelley, at the time locked within his failed first marriage while feeling passionately drawn towards Mary Godwin (later Mary Shelley), would certainly have found much to seduce his imagination in Rousseau’s idyll, not least the notion that passionate love, even of a scandalous nature, is essentially a force for good without which virtue and reason lack the impetus for any truly sublime feats:

(Part I, Letter LX)

“Your two souls are so extraordinary that they cannot be judged by common rules. […] Joined to your love is an emulation of virtue which elevates you, and you would both be less worthy if you were not in love.iii”

(Part II, Letter II)

“Such a love as his is not so much a weakness as a strength badly exerted. […] the highest reason is only attained through the same power of the soul which gives rise to great passions, and we serve philosophy worthily only with the same ardor that we feel for a mistress.iv”

(Part IV, Letter XII)

“It is only passionate souls who are capable of struggling and conquering. All great efforts, all sublime actions are their doing. Cold reason has never achieved anything illustrious, and we triumph over passions only by opposing one to another.v”

As Dante illustrated on the ascending cornices of Purgatory, with the sins of the blessed categorised and chastised according to what degree they missed the mark of perfect, divine love, earthly love is a risky and corrupt business, but nevertheless an essential step on the road to the sublime. The spectres of both Dante and Rousseau would come to haunt Shelley in a more troubled fashion at the end of his career, but in 1816 his primary sense on re-reading Julie seems to have been one of liberation and joy at encountering an ally or kindred spirit at a time when he sensed his own weakness.

The profundity of Rousseau’s influence on Shelley may be inferred from the hyperbolic praise he lavishes upon Rousseau in History of a Six Weeks Tour: “[Byron] gathered some acacia leaves to preserve in remembrance of [Gibbon]. I refrained from doing so, fearing to outrage the greater and more sacred name of Rousseau […].”vi Also noteworthy is the contrast Shelley draws between these two Enlightenment icons, preferring Rousseau specifically due to his emotionally-charged writings: “Gibbon had a cold and unimpassioned spirit. I never felt more inclination to rail at the prejudices which cling to such a thing, than now that Julie and Clarens, Lausanne and the Roman empire, compelled me to a contrast […].” (343-4) This attitude towards Rousseau and passion is surprising when contrasted with Shelley’s earlier view on these subjects, expressed in Proposals for an Association (1812), in which, arguing the case for political reform, he echoes a widespread contemporary opinionvii that Rousseau’s philosophies had contributed to the carnage of the French Revolution:

“I do not deny that the Revolution of France was occasioned by the literary labours of the encyclopædists. […] Rousseau gave license by his writings to passions that only incapacitate and contract the human heart – so far hath he prepared the necks of his fellow-beings for that yoke of galling and dishonourable servitude which at this moment it bears.”

(Prose Works I, 278-9)

Nor was the young Shelley alone within the radical literary community in distancing himself from Rousseau’s philosophy, and for similar reasons. Byron, evidently less moved to rapture by the Swiss excursion than Shelley was, described Rousseau in Canto III of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1816)viii as a “self-torturing sophist” (l. 725), capable of putting on a “reasoning show” (760) but essentially the slave of “distemper’d” (742) passions: far from being a strength, his emotions were more like a contagious disease that caused an entire nation to “burn.” (764) Though initially an enthusiast of the Revolution, Mary Wollstonecraft was nevertheless a detractor of Rousseau, appalled by the misogynistic theories he advanced in Émileix and inclined to blame them upon his apostasy from a philosophy of pure reason:

“[…] Rousseau’s errors in reasoning arose from sensibility […]. When he should have reasoned he became impassioned, and reflection inflamed his imagination instead of enlightening his understanding. Even his virtues also led him farther astray; for, born with a warm constitution and lively fancy, nature carried him toward the other sex with such eager fondness that he soon became lascivious. Had he given way to these desires, the fire would have extinguished itself in a natural manner, but virtue, and a romantic kind of delicacy, made him practice self-denial; yet when fear, delicacy, or virtue restrained him, he debauched his imagination, and reflecting on the sensations to which fancy gave force, he traced them in the most glowing colours, and sunk them deep into his soul. […] Why was Rousseau’s life divided between ecstasy and misery? […] had his fancy been allowed to cool, it is possible that he might have acquired more strength of mind.x”

Though Wollstonecraft focuses on Émile, the process by which Rousseau himself describes the genesis of Julie affords a remarkable corroboration of her unflattering portrait. Within his Confessions, Rousseau openly admits to the all-consuming and sexually-charged nature of his imaginative process, though with a sense that he is not unaware of his personal shortcomings as he places himself within the landscape of his fantasies:

“I pictured to myself love and friendship, those two idols of my heart, in the most ravishing of guises. I delighted in embellishing them with all the charms of the sex I had always adored. I invented two friends, women rather than men […] To one of them I gave a lover, […] Bewitched by my two charming models, I identified as closely as I could with the lover and the friend; but I made him young and amiable, while giving him for the rest the virtues and defects I felt I myself possessed.xi”

“Wherever I looked I saw only the two charming girls, their friend, their intimates, the region where they lived, the objects created or embellished for them by my imagination. I was no longer in possession of myself for a single moment; and my delirium never left me. After much unavailing effort to ward off these fictions, I at last succumbed wholly to their seduction, […].”

(Confessions, 424)

The masculine protagonist of Julie, the passionate and well-meaning but naïve and egotistical tutor Saint-Preux – Rousseau’s self-confessed self portrait – is accused of similar fantasy-mongering by one of his friends: the would-be stoic philosopher Lord Bomston. He upbraids him for his inability to love virtue for its own sake, disassociated from the ideal of his beloved: “In your eyes it has taken on the form of that lovely woman who typifies it so well, and so dear an image could hardly let you lose the inclination for it.” (Julie, 343 [Part V, Letter I]) Ironically, Lord Bomston is soon relegated from teacher to pupil after underestimating his own passions, and Saint-Preux ends up saving him from a scandalous marriage.

Saint-Preux’s other mentor in self-control – Monsieur de Wolmar (Julie’s husband by arranged marriage, an amiable and virtuous man, but dispassionate) – is not presented as an enviable role model. “My only active principle is a natural love of order,” (Julie, 317 [Part IV, Letter XII]) he admits, depicting himself as an extreme manifestation of neoclassical principles, and one who, like Dante’s Virgil,xii in spite of his virtuous ethics has his horizons tragically limited by the absence of that transcendent, passionate love which both motivates and misleads Julie and Saint-Preux. A rationalistic atheist, Wolmar is presented as a figure to be pitied, while Julie goes to her death hopeful that this shock to his habitual indifference will eventually stir him to become a Christian, with Saint-Preux’s guidance (Julie, 406-7 [Part VI, Letter XII]). Again, the teacher-pupil relationship is reversed. As Jonathan Swift had satirically illustrated, while “the government of Reason”xiii may have its social benefits, the life of a Houyhnhnm is not the highest good to which a human may dare to aspire.

Ironically, the politically activist and proudly atheistic Shelley of 1812 would quite probably have found Julie’s idealised faith to be a stifling, socially-constructed delusion, and Wolmar’s necessitarian rationalism to be the truly liberating philosophy.xiv It would be deeply misleading to labour the cliché that some “radical” Shelley gave way to some “visionary” Shelley somewhere between Queen Mab and Alastor:xv The Mask of Anarchy, and its impassioned denunciation of Lord Liverpool’s government stands as sufficient proof of his enduring principles, while the merciless caricaturing of the “reformed” Wordsworth in Peter Bell the Thirdxvi testifies to the poor regard in which he held those who would lightly abandon their radical principles. Nor, in spite of Browning’s hope that “had Shelley lived he would have finally ranged himself with the Christians” (Browning, 150) does the increasing complexity of Shelley’s spiritual opinions appear to have ever softened his views towards institutional religion. “The New Testament is in everyone’s hand, and the few who ever read it with the simple sincerity of an unbiased judgement may perceive how distinct from the opinions of any of those professing themselves establishers [of churches] were the doctrines and the actions of Jesus Christ,” (Selected Poetry and Prose, 595) he states in A Philosophical View of Reform (1819), one of his latest explicitly radical works. What is, however, remarkable is the shift from his former rigidly deterministic point of view to one which encompasses spiritual views while rejecting their conventional manifestations, and one which, as Smith asserts, envisions the “perfect society” as the consequence or as the complement of inner, moral reform, without which any external efforts to improve society will either go awry or yield only temporary benefits. As A Philosophical View of Reform continues to state:

“Morals and politics can only be considered as portions of the same science, with relation to a system of such absolute perfection as Christ and Plato and Rousseau and other reasoners have asserted […] Equality in possessions must be the last result of the utmost refinements of civilisation; it is one of the conditions of that system of society towards which, with whatever hope of ultimate success, it is our duty to tend. […] We derive tranquillity and courage and grandeur or soul from contemplating an object which is because we will it, and may be because we hope and desire it, and must be if succeeding generations of the enlightened sincerely and earnestly seek it.”

(Selected Poetry and Prose, 624-5)

Here, in the cause of political reform, we find an exaltation of an imaginative process very similar to that which Rousseau depicts in Julie: contemplation of the ideal “object,” even when unattainable, is held to be a worthwhile exercise, on account of ennobling the individual soul and tending towards the long-term elevation of human consciousness. The bold conjunction of Christ with Rousseau had already been attempted by Shelley in the unfinished On Christianity (1817), in which he had cleared Rousseau of the charge of responsibility for the horrors of the French Revolution by implying that it would be as unjust to blame Jesus for the abuses of the church, thus defending two idealists in one iconoclastic stroke.xvii The conjunction with Plato is equally fascinating, and a reminder of how much this philosopher had come to dwell on Shelley’s mind at this time, bearing in mind that he had written his own translation of Plato’s Symposium in 1818. This dialogue contains Plato’s most stirring and powerful treatment of the subject of love, and one to which subsequent generations of writers and theologians would be indebted:

“This is the right way of approaching or being initiated into the mysteries of love, to begin with examples of beauty in this world, and using them as steps to ascend continually with that absolute beauty as one’s aim, from one instance of physical beauty to two and from two to all, then from physical beauty to moral beauty, and from moral beauty to the beauty of knowledge, until from knowledge of various kinds one arrives at the supreme knowledge whose sole object is that absolute beauty, and knows at last what absolute beauty is. […] Do you not see that in that region alone where he sees beauty with the faculty capable of seeing it, will he be able to bring forth not mere reflected images of goodness but true goodness, because he will be in contact not with a reflection but with the truth? And having brought forth and nurtured true goodness he will have the privilege of being beloved of God, and becoming, if ever man can, immortal himself.xviii”

In anticipation of John’s Epistle,xix Plato depicts love as humanity’s divine faculty or instinct, drawing our perceptions beyond the world of “reflected images”xx to “absolute beauty” / God / the sublime, from which standpoint all human efforts will be more availing. Rousseau pays clear homage to Plato in Julie: “[…] consult your inmost heart; it is there that you will always rediscover the source of that sacred fire which inflamed us so many times with love for the sublime virtues. It is there that you will see that eternal image of true beauty, the contemplation of which inspires us with a holy enthusiasm which our passions defile ceaselessly but can never efface.”xxi (Julie, 190-1 [Part II, Letter XI]) Rousseau, in his keenness to assert his own innate goodness while laying his vices at the door of a corrupting and unnatural civilisation, could have certainly drawn solace and even pride from Plato’s exaltation of sensibility. “If I had remained free, unknown and isolated, as nature meant me to be, I should have done nothing but good, for my heart does not contain the seeds of any harmful passion.”xxii

By 1818, Shelley’s impetuous passions and radical zeal had won him virtual exile, relative obscurity, the guilt of his first wife’s suicide, and the loss of custody of his children by her. Plato’s redemptive view of human nature, and the idealised tendency he theorises for passion, may well have held a strong note of solace for Shelley as well, and a clarion call to not follow the path of the preceding Romantic generation into compromise, conformity, and dogma. Nevertheless, in one of Shelley’s clearest takes on the Symposium – his essay “On Love” (1818) – no sense of unqualified optimism is to be found. Indeed, it opens on a grim note of isolation and self-pity that bears more than a passing resemblance to Rousseau’s biographies:

“I know not the internal constitution of other men, […] when […] I have thought to appeal to something in common and unburthen my inmost soul to them, I have found my language misunderstood like one in a distant and savage land. […] With a spirit ill fitted to sustain such proof, trembling and feeble through its tenderness, I have every where sought, and have found only repulse and disappointment.”

(Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, 473)

From this inauspicious beginning, Shelley proceeds to describe love in broadly Platonic terms: having discovered “within our own thoughts the chasm of an insufficient void” and seeking the completion and affirmation of a sympathetic “likeness” love is defined as the quest for “the ideal prototype of every thing excellent or lovely that we are capable of conceiving as belonging to the nature of man.” (473-4) In remarkable prescience of Lacan,xxiii Shelley speculates “It is probably in correspondence with this law that the infant drains milk from the bosom of its mother;” (473) introducing a strand of existential anxiety for the modern reader to appreciate even before he has announced the apparent futility of the quest in contemporary terms:

“[…] this is the invisible and unattainable point to which Love tends; and to attain which, it urges forth the powers of man to arrest the faintest shadow of that, without the possession of which there is no rest or respite to the heart over which it rules. Hence in solitude, or in that deserted state when we are surrounded by human beings and yet they sympathise not with us, we love the flowers, the grass and the waters and the sky. In the motion of the very leaves of spring in the blue air there is then found a secret correspondence with our heart. […] So soon as this want or power is dead, man becomes the living sepulchre of himself, and what yet survives is there mere husk of what once he was.”


As in A Philosophical View of Reform, even though “ultimate success” seems elusive if not impossible, Shelley nevertheless deems that the quest itself is essential. Saint-Preux of Julie attains no happy ending: his passions remain unfulfilled and Julie herself is rendered completely unreachable by her death, yet his enduring love for her remains the best hope that he will make good use of his life to come, for her sake. Interpreting “On Love” against the context of the preface to the tragic dream-quest Alastor (1815), which is decidedly sceptical on the subject of substituting non-human objects (even in living nature) for actual “human sympathy” (Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, 70), the suggestion of resorting to nature for emergency companionship seems dubious, but the crux of the matter seems to be that this search for absolute beauty motivates the lover to seek beyond themselves, as Shelley would later clarify in a key work regarding his later views on love, radicalism, and Rousseau; namely A Defence of Poetry (1821):

“The great secret of morals is Love; or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own.”

(Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, 487-8)

This view presents a stark contrast to the introspection championed by Rousseau, particularly in his later years when he was deeply embittered by real and imagined persecutions. In the Reveries he proclaims, with hubristic overtones:

“[…] if there is a state where the soul can find a resting-place secure enough to establish itself and concentrate its entire being there […] What is the source of our happiness in such a state? Nothing external to us, nothing apart from ourselves and our own existence; as long as this state lasts we are self-sufficient like God.”

(Reveries, 88-9)

Before turning to The Triumph of Life – Shelley’s final word on Rousseau as well as his only explicit poetic treatment of him – it should be noted that there are two distinct Rousseaus in A Defence of Poetry. While discussing Rousseau within the context of poetry, Shelly describes him as one of “the great writers of our own age, [who] have celebrated the dominion of love, planting as it were trophies in the human mind of that sublimest victory over sensuality and force.” (Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, 497) No minor compliment, especially considering Shelley counts Dante and Plato among his fellow-victors. However, as a moral philosopher or “reasoner” (502) Rousseau is casually dismissed as having made little lasting impact (though even that could be construed as a generous move on Shelley’s part, considering those of his contemporaries who believed Rousseau’s philosophy had incited carnage). The compliment thus emerges as somewhat backhanded, though the brunt of it falls on Shelley as well: since he assigns a pseudo-prophetic purpose to poetry in this essay, poets beings agents of great change on account of “communicating and receiving intense and impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature” (508), it seems there is little credit they can claim for their works. Indeed, Shelley frankly admits that the moral quality of poetic works may say nothing about the poet: “The persons in whom this power resides, may often […] have little apparent correspondence with the spirit of good of which they are the ministers. But even whilst they deny and abjure, they are yet compelled to serve […].” (508) By thus liberating works from authors, it could be said that Shelley simultaneously makes a case for persisting in his own career, in spite of the humiliations and frustrations of his self-imposed exile, and for exorcising any lingering embarrassment he may have felt at acknowledging the widely reviled Rousseau as a major inspiration.

With this in mind, it is unsurprising that we find the tragically over-sensitive Rousseau – described by Thomas Bentley as formed to be “an inhabitant of the air, but before [Nature] had finished his wings he eagerly sprung out of her hands, and his unfinished body sunk down to the earth”xxiv – in the role of Virgil to Shelley’s Dantean dreamer in The Triumph of Life (Poetry and Prose, 455-70). As a guiding light on the path to developing a poetics of universal love, he is at any rate suited for guiding the dreamer away from the Hell of Life’s pageant, though probably not for the more elevated task of actually escorting him into the company of Beatrice herself / Plato’s “absolute beauty.” Had the poem been finished, whether he would even have succeeded in this much is, of course, highly debateable. Joel Faflak describes the fragmentary condition of the poem, resurrected from its rough manuscript form by Mary Shelley, in appropriately necromantic terms for the author of Frankenstein:

“Mary Shelley tried to allay readers’ doubts when she first re-membered the manuscript […] the manuscript remains haunted by her husband’s drowned and decaying body. This haunting makes reading the poem resemble the impossible reanimation of a corpse.xxv”

Or, to switch from the gothic to the crime genre, to try solving a detective novel with the last scene torn out, though there are many clues to work with. The setting, though scarcely among Shelley’s more overtly humorous works, nevertheless possesses the same manic, grotesque energy as Shelley’s political satires. Its use of high literary devices such as the Roman triumph, and the allusions to Dante, Petrarch, and Milton, strikes a note of intense discordance alongside the chaos, absurdity, ugliness, and casual violence of the pageant: particularly the detail of the young, passionate celebrants who are callously run down by Life’s chariot, jettisoned behind it as aged, decayed figures, and who continue to dance in hideous parody of their former Bacchanalia. (Triumph of Life, ll. 136-75) As in The Mask of Anarchy and Swellfoot the Tyrant, the visual effect is reminiscent of contemporary satirical art such as James Gillray’s cartoons, the artist’s use and abuse of images from fine art, scripture, or literature serving to enhance the sense of sordidness and absurdity in the actual subject matter.xxvi Indeed, the imagery of Triumph of Life is reminiscent of that Shelley had already employed in The Mask of Anarchy, with “Anarchy” represented by an apocalyptic figure of death, accompanied by grotesque caricatures of leading politicians, re-enacting the Peterloo Massacre in the style of a medieval triumph of death:xxvii “Over English land he passed,/ Trampling to a mire of blood/ The adoring multitude.” (Mask of Anarchy, ll. 39-41) Whilst the peaceful protestors killed and wounded in St. Peter’s Field are a strange notion of “adoring” worshippers, that incongruous image both highlights the brutality of the Liverpool administration and subtly hints at one of Shelley’s prescient insights, key to this work and others: that true power only comes through the complicity of the masses, making peaceful civil disobedience a viable, albeit a risky endeavour. In this post-Tiananmen age, the image of the dishevelled yet defiant figure of Hope laying down in the path of Anarchy’s parade of carnage (86-101) has a resonance that may have been less apparent in Shelley’s day, though it supports his views in A Defence of Poetry that poetic insights transcend time, and what reason may deem to be plausible under present circumstances. “Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration, the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present […].” (Poetry and Prose, 508)

In spite of Shelley’s enduring antipathy with Christianity (It is noteworthy that there are conspicuous numbers of high-ranking priests in Life’s Triumph, just as there were in Dante’s Hell), this insight helps to account for the absence of Jesus Christ from the “mighty captives” (Triumph of Life, l. 135) chained to the chariot. In On Christianity, Shelley depicts Jesus in decidedly radical colours:

“A man of ardent genius, and impatient virtue perishes in stern and resolute opposition to tyranny, injustice and superstition. He refuses, he despises pardon. He exults in the torturing flames and the insolent mockery of the oppressor. It is a triumph to him beyond all triumphs that the multitude accumulate scorn and execration on his head solely because his heart has known no measure in the love it bore them […].”

(The Prose Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 247)

If it seems vaguely cynical of Shelley to co-opt Jesus in the cause of politics, it ought to be noted that in his view he was simply reinstating the truth and dignity of a figure whom he believed had been very cynically used and misrepresented by the establishment.xxviii Shelley also ranks Jesus as an inspired poet-activist in A Defence of Poetry, his exposition of “sacred and eternal truths” having promoted such causes as the “abolition of personal and domestic slavery, and the emancipation of women […].” (Poetry and Prose, 496) His fearless idealism, along with that of Socrates (another martyr to truth, also absent from the Life’s Triumph), makes him that rarest of phenomena: a successful living expression of his own life-transcending inspirations. Even Plato and “the great bards of old” (Triumph of Life, l. 274), chained to the chariot, are not accorded that honour, whatever the quality of their works.

Nor, of course, is Rousseau, who is discovered by the dreamer withered to the likeness of an “old root” (182): imagery reminiscent of Canto XIII of Dante’s Inferno, in which the souls of suicides are eternally trapped in the forms of stunted trees (Hell, 149-53). Though not a literal suicide, Rousseau’s own emotional violence against himselfxxix may have prompted Shelley’s choice of imagery. Those whose wit and wisdom, however great, failed to teach them to “know themselves” (Triumph of Life, l. 212) have all fallen victim to Life’s “sad pageantry” (176), and Rousseau, whose biographical writings speak volumes of paranoia, guilt, and a mind that even later in life could make no lasting peace with itself, manifestly fits the bill.

The key passage involving Rousseau – the mysterious encounter with a feminine “shape all light” (352) – also finds its prototype in Dante: namely the climax of Purgatorio (Cantos XXVIII-XXXIII)xxx, in which Dante is escorted through the Earthly Paradise atop Mount Purgatory by a fair lady – a handmaiden of Beatrice – who baptises him in the twin rivers Lethe and Eunoë to purge his memory of guilt in preparation for the ascent to Paradise. The “gentle rivulet” (Triumph of Life, l. 314) by which Rousseau awakens has similar “Lethean” properties (463), as does the glass of “Nepenthe”xxxi (359) which the apparition offers to Rousseau.

This encounter and its aftermath could be interpreted as a straight take on Dante’s version: the fair lady of the Purgatorio suggests that the dim recollection of Purgatory’s Earthly Paradise is the source of the theme of a lost golden age in poetryxxxii (and, by extension, of poetic idealism for humanity’s future). This ties in with the dim “phantom” (464) of the shape all light that continues to follow Rousseau after he willingly deserts the emotional tranquillity of the Earthly Paradise – where “all who hear” the stream “must needs forget / All pleasure and all pain, all hate and love” (318-9) – to join the fiercely passionate, but destructive Triumph of Life, though one could contend that the primal innocence depicted seems so blandly neutral, that facing Life’s passions courageously – though not naively – is an essential part of human and / or poetic progress.

However, to interpret the scene quite so literally in a work which exhibits so much of the grotesque and the ironic – with even the rainbow-arched Triumph (439-41) forming a grim parody of Beatrice’s pageant in Purgatoryxxxiii – would be a dubious endeavour, and indeed much critical enquiry has gone into determining whether or not the shape all light is a genuine handmaid of grace, or merely a cruel irony and manifestation of Rousseau’s own fevered imaginings.xxxiv Joel Faflak has opted for a view that acknowledges the unsettling complexity and indeterminacy of the figure. That view seems persuasive, especially given that Shelley, often delighting in the eerie suggestiveness of “ghosts and revenants,” may have intended such an effect:

“It is seductive to think of the “shape” as the ultimate lost object, the mother of representation itself. In this sense, she is like the dreamwork: overdetermined and overdetermining, the simulation of a Gothic and melancholic subject who gazes upon her life as both/neither actor and/nor spectator at the ground zero of ghosts and revenants […] she is the restless and restlessly unprincipled principle of desire itself, which is to say, she is pure drive.”

(Faflak, 74)

Given such ambiguities as the rainbow (which is associated with both the shape and the Triumph), and Rousseau’s own self-confessed tendency to be absorbed in his seductive reveries, it is compelling to assign moral neutrality to the shape all light. This also reflects that even love, in Dante’s reckoning, is a driving force with the potential to end in good or evil,xxxv and Rousseau himself had recognised as much in his critical self-portrayal in Julie: for all of the assertions that Saint-Preux’s passionate love for Julie is the raw fuel that, when refined, will inspire him to great acts of virtue, his efforts to contain and repress that passion often end badly.xxxvi Another clue lending itself to the interpretation of the shape as an indeterminate spectre, its ultimate nature powerfully influenced by the psyche of its perceiver, is to be found in a similar, albeit comical encounter in Peter Bell the Third. Peter (Shelley’s satirical portrait of Wordsworth) is described in an awkward tryst with a feminine personification of nature, and only succeeds in exposing his own limitations:

“But from the first ‘twas Peter’s drift

To be a kind of moral eunuch

Her touched the hem of Nature’s shift,

Felt faint – and never dared uplift

The closest, all-concealing tunic.

She laughed the while, with an arch smile,

And kissed him with a sister’s kiss,

And said – “My best Diogenes,

I love you well – but if you please,

Tempt not again my deepest bliss.

Tis you are cold – for I, not coy,

Yield love for love, frank, warm and true:

And Burns, a Scottish Peasant boy, –

His errors prove it – knew my joy

More, learned friend, than you.


Then Peter rubbed his eyes severe,

And smoothed his spacious forehead down

With his broad palm; – ‘twixt love and fear,

He looked, as he no doubt felt, queer,

And in his dream sate down.”

ll. 313-37 (Poetry and Prose, 335)

While the metaphor in the Triumph of Life is mockingly eucharistic rather than sexual (a communion with the glass of Nepenthe, as opposed to peeking up Nature’s skirt) and Shelley is less keen to belittle Rousseau even in the act of criticising him, there are notable parallels. The “love and fear” that Peter feels echoes the “desire and shame” (Triumph of Life, l. 394) that Rousseau feels as he addresses the apparition, reflecting the extreme sensibility and tumultuous emotional struggles of his real-life counterpart, who at times recognised himself as his own worst enemy. “[…] nature did not make me to know pleasure. She has filled my heart with an appetite for unutterable bliss, my perverse mind with the poison that destroys it.” (Confessions, 311) Like the timid Peter, conflicted and distrusting his emotions, and afraid or ashamed of rather than at peace with his “errors,” he cannot bring himself to take the full opportunity of his encounter with the sublime, muse-like figure. Instead of availing himself of her invitation to “Arise and quench thy thirst” (400) he merely “Touched with faint lips the cup she raised” (404). The effect of such half-measures speaks for itself:

“[…] suddenly my brain became as sand

Where the first wave had more than half erased

The track of deer on desert Labrador,

Whilst the fierce wolf from which they fled amazed

Leaves his stamp visibly upon the shore”


The Lethean draft, merely sipped in a spirit of resistance to “unutterable bliss,” grants Rousseau only a limited experience of absolute beauty, partially cleansing his psyche but leaving enough of a “track” of corruption for the “wolf” – an animal of dire significance in Dante, signifying the most grievous sins (Hell, 72-4) – to find its way in and fill the vacuum. Far from being the model of virtue and simplicity he had set out to become when he “quitted the world and its vanities” (Reveries, 51) Rousseau would be remembered, even by those who valued his works, as a paranoid delusional who had, out of selfish fear for having to compromise his idealised lifestyle, abandoned his children to an orphanage and sought to speciously argue that fact as the action of a “true citizen and father” (Confessions, 347-8). Like Peter Bell, far from inspiring him to be a personal inspiration to others, his non-committal, timid, and finally inward-looking flirtation with absolute beauty only serves to exacerbate his fall from grace:

“[…] some grew weary of the ghastly dance

And fell, as I have fallen by the way side,

Those soonest from whose forms most shadows past

And least of strength and beauty did abide.”

(Triumph of Life, ll. 540-3)

This mirrors the retreat of the real-life Rousseau into self-imposed exile and self-pitying introspection, and while Shelley, from his own experiences able to sympathise with this state, was not so offended by that as he was by the conservative backsliding of Wordsworth and Robert Southey, he still recognised it as a tragic waste of potential.

There are, of course, no definitive answers for whether or not Shelley intended to perform a volte-face in this grim, irony-laden fragment, and to reach an optimistic climax. The absence of Christ and Socrates from the Triumph (and possibly Dante, mentioned at l. 472 but not seen in the pageant) can be taken as a hopeful sign, though Joel Faflak is inclined to downplay its significance:

“Their influence seems redundant, for even the Narrator’s “fresh world” is “already old” (line 238). The text’s re-historicization of “[n]ew figures on [the world’s] false and fragile glass” (line 247) thus turns history into a ceaseless revisionary practice […].”

(Faflak, 72)

The analogy in question is certainly discouraging, and it also appears in the decidedly pessimistic sonnet “Lift not the painted veil which those who live / Call Life; though unreal shapes be pictured there” (Poetry and Prose, 312). The reduction of human works to painted images, continually erased and replaced, would seem on the face of things to deal a death-blow to Shelley’s argument for incremental progress stimulated by poetry, art, and idealism, stated in A Defence of Poetry, though The Triumph of Life affords some solace by suggesting that there is one indelible mark that can be made on the glass or veil: “[…] all things are transfigured, except Love” (l. 476). Another striking use of the same analogy occurs in Prometheus Unbound at III.iv.190-8:

“The painted veil, by those who were, called life,

Which mimicked, as with colours idly spread,

All men believed and hoped, is torn aside –

The loathsome mask has fallen, the man remains

Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed – but man:


Passionless? no – yet free from guilt or pain”

(Poetry and Prose, 194)

As Rousseau had demonstrated more acutely in his fiction than through his life, and which insight had helped to revive Shelley’s idealism after the personal and political disappointments of his early career, passion is a natural and proper facet of the human condition, and one which can be turned to good account, but only if one can be at peace with it.

“Reproach not thine own soul, but know thyself,

Nor hate another’s crime, nor loathe thine own.

It is the dark idolatry of self,”

Laon and Cythna, Canto Eighth, ll. 3388-90 (Selected Poetry and Prose, 184)

Notwithstanding the undeniable complexity of Shelley’s later spiritual views, his growing interest in Dante, and the positive connotations of the figure of Christ in his later works, Browning’s hopeful speculation of his “conversion” rather overlooks one of the most consistent of his grievances with institutional Christianity: its tendency, in alliance with oppressive societies, to encourage people to indulge in self-contempt. A person believing themselves inherently evil is faced with the stark choice of accepting their passions as evil and indulging them accordingly, or attempting to repress them (and thus inviting the repressed to return in unpleasant forms), neither strategy being conducive either to inner peace or the advancement of the ideal society. It was a point that a young Shelley may well have absorbed from his Gothic readings (especially “Monk” Lewisxxxvii) and which he would return to throughout his career: that believing oneself or society beyond redemption is to invite corruption to set up a permanent residence.xxxviii

In spite of the bleak fatalism of much of the existing fragment, there is scope for optimism in The Triumph of Life, provided that love, mediated through such poet-activists as Christ, Socrates, and Dante, can leave enough permanent marks on the “glass” to change its message for good, or to shatter it entirely. The glass itself – a Platonic or Pauline imagexxxix – implies a truer, underlying level of being. As stated in A Defence of Poetry, in the same vein, “[…] whether it spreads its own figured curtain or withdraws life’s dark veil from before the scene of things, [poetry] equally creates for us a being within our being. […] it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being.” (Poetry and Prose, 505) Rousseau himself falls within the honourable category of poets who have at least disturbed the veil. To the disillusioned Shelley on the “tourist trail” in 1816, the Rousseau of Julie was a powerful, inspiring reminder of Romanticism’s philosophical insight against the civilising formalism of Enlightenment Europe: that inner reform, accepting and not condemning of human nature, and liberating of guilt, must be the essential bedrock of reforms in the outer world, if they are to endure.

Insofar as Rousseau as a person and a “reasoner” had fallen short of the idealised creations of Julie, Shelley’s approval of him would remain qualified, though would not approach his level of disapproval for Wordsworth, who in his view not merely fell short of but actively set out to “atone” for his former radical principles. At all events, while Shelley gleefully disposes of Wordsworth in a satirically English Hell that Gillray could have depicted (in Peter Bell the Third), he elects to have a personal, serious meeting with Rousseau, in an ambiguously purgatorial state: for the shape all light continues to follow Rousseau, however dimly, holding out some glimmer of hope (Triumph of Life, ll. 424-33). Furthermore, to cast Rousseau as “Virgil” to his “Dante” carries both significance and honour: he is the precursor to whom Shelley in many ways feels he owes his literary existence, and whose inspired creations helped to guide him out of the dark wood of disillusionment. For all that, he represents a past Shelley feels bound to move on from: a past of false starts and failed hopes such as the French Revolution, represented in the carnivalesque, gothic imagery of Life’s Triumph: “[…] one feels as if the show could go on forever,” (Faflak, 76) but this is the very spirit of pessimism for which Shelley criticised those who had lost all hope in human nature and progress after the Revolution, and those who sought to use its bad effects as an argument against any reform whatsoever. As stated in A Philosophical View of Reform:

“[…] the oppressed, having been rendered brutal, ignorant, servile and bloody by long slavery […] took a dreadful revenge upon their oppressors. Their desire to wreak revenge to this extent, […] affords an additional proof of the necessity of that long-delayed change which it accompanied and disgraced.”

(Selected Poetry and Prose, 599-600)

Rousseau’s exaltation of sensibility and his exposé of the insufficiency of pure reason helped Shelley to reconcile with his own passions and to develop his prophetic, reforming, poetic manifesto that would evolve into A Defence of Poetry. Nevertheless, the dangers of pure sensibility in a morbid or unreasoning mind (or in a whole class or nation of them) were all too apparent to Shelley, and his final major work sees him reaching towards more harmonious and self-aware exemplars of idealism: Dante, in the literary sense, and Christ and Socrates in the wider sense. For all of the inspiration and sympathy that he afforded, Rousseau was in the final estimation a figure Shelley was wary of emulating rather than motivated to emulate.

Biographical Notice

Eleanor Burns graduated from the University of Leeds in 2004. Her thesis, in part a response to Teddi Chichester Bonca’s Shelley’s Mirrors of Love (State University of New York Press, 1997) investigates the endurance of the Gothic genre within P. B. Shelley’s works, tracing common themes from Zastrozzi to The Triumph of Life, with particular emphasis on Shelley’s attitudes to sexuality and gender. She is currently based in Cardiff, Wales.


i David V Smith, “Der Dichter Spricht: Shelley, Rousseau, and the Perfect Society”, The Keats-Shelley Review 19 (Keats-Shelley Memorial Association, 2005), 117-31 (130-1).

ii “In early nineteenth-century Europe, society was not liberated enough to accept Shelley’s idealised vision of love, whose perfection could only be found within the pages of Rousseau’s novel.” (Smith 121)

iii Jean-Jacques Rousseau, La Nouvelle Héloïse – Julie, or the New Eloise (1761), translated and abridged by Judith H. McDowell (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1968), 135.

iv Julie, 162-3.

v Julie, 319.

vi Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Prose Works, vol. 1, ed. Richard Herne Shepherd (London: Chatto & Windus, 1912), 343.

vii Edward Duffy, Rousseau in England: The Context for Shelley’s Critique of the Enlightenment (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1979), 35:

No sooner had the French Assembly decreed its honors to Rousseau than polemicists on the other side seized upon the Confessions, the Rêveries, and any other scraps of information useful in the ad hominem denunciation of revolution. Dwelling upon the most unedifying details, they proclaimed vanity and sensuality to be the keys to the diabolical kingdom that Rousseau had announced in his works, and which another upstart from Corsica was soon to bring to a bloody fruition.

viii Byron: The Complete Poetical Works, 7 vols, ed. Jerome J. McGann (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980-1993), 213-4.

ix Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Émile, or On Education (1762), introduction, translation and notes by Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, Inc, 1979) 357-406. The chapter in question consists of Rousseau’s depiction of the “ideal” woman, and instructs its female readers to consider themselves as “passive and weak” (358); good for nothing if not to please men (359); naturally coquettish and vain (365, 367); to submit to male injustice for the sake of preserving feminine “gentleness” (370); to develop the sensual talents of harem-women (374); not to cultivate knowledge (376); to rely upon their fathers and husbands for spiritual instruction and not trust their own judgement (377); to dress suggestively to aid voyeurism (394); and to believe that this “ideal” is a natural construct, and not that of Rousseau’s heated imagination (390). Aside from the paradox involved in his attempt to argue that such restraints facilitate natural development of character (a statement at odds with Rousseau’s belief that civilised constraints only serve to pervert humanity’s inherent goodness), he lapses into the realms of erotic fantasy with the following: “What a joy for a noble soul when the pride of virtue is joined to beauty! Bring the heroine of a romantic novel into reality” (391). Ironically, Émile book V was well received by the English literary establishment upon publication (Duffy, 17).

x Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1992), 189-90.

xi Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions (1781), trans. Angela Scholar (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 420.

xii Confined, along with other virtuous pagans, to Limbo. Cf. Canto IV of Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy I: Hell (1307-21[?]), trans. Dorothy L. Sayers (Harmondworth: Penguin, 1949), 91-5.

xiii Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (1726) (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1967), 346. The Houyhnhnms are a race of intelligent but coldly dispassionate horse-like beings whom the protagonist idolises while developing an extreme misanthropy for humanity.

xiv The Selected Poetry and Prose of Shelley, introduction and notes by Bruce Woodcock (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 2002), 79:

Every human being is irresistibly impelled to act precisely as he does act: in the eternity which preceded his birth a chain of causes was generated, which, operating under the name of motives, make it impossible that any thought of his mind, or any action of his life, should be otherwise than it is. Were the doctrine of Necessity false, the human mind would no longer be a legitimate object of science […] None but the few fanatics who are engaged in the herculean task of reconciling the justice of their God with the misery of man, will longer outrage common sense by the supposition of an event without a cause, a voluntary action without a motive.

(Note to Queen Mab, VI, l. 198)

xv Promulgated as early as 1851 by Robert Browning. Cf. Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, Browning’s Essay on Shelley, ed. L. Winstanley (Boston, London: D. C. Heath and Company), 148-9:

[…] one of the causes of his failure at the outset, was the peculiar practicalness of his mind […] every wrong had simultaneously its remedy, and, out of the strength of his hatred for the former, he took the strength of his confidence in the latter – till suddenly he stood pledged to the defence of a set of miserable little expedients, just as if they represented great principles […] Gradually he was raised above the contemplation of spots and the attempt at effacing them, to the great Abstract Light […]

xvi Though Wordsworth is the target of this satire, it may be worth noting that the disease which (comically) kills Peter is suspected to be “the gravel” (Peter Bell the Third, l. 15): a urinary complaint. Cf. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, eds. Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers (New York: Norton and Co., 1977), 327.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a long-term sufferer of urinary retention (Confessions 352, 418, 559-60). Possibly Shelley found this an apt image for former Romantic icons in humiliatingly reduced circumstances.

xvii The Prose Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 2 vols, Ed. E. B. Murray (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 247-71.

xviii Plato, The Symposium (c. 385 B.C.), translated by W. Hamilton (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1951), 94-5.

xix “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.” 1 John 4.8. Cf. The Holy Bible, Authorized King James Version (Nashville: World Publishing, 2004), 542.

xx An image also strongly reminiscent of the cave allegory in Republic, book seven, in which Plato compares the moral and spiritual condition of humanity to prisoners born in a dark cavern, whose perception has been limited to seeing shadows projected on the cave walls by firelight. Cf. Plato, Republic, translated by John Llewelyn Davies and David James Vaughan (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1997), 225-9.

xxi Also footnoted by Rousseau: “The true philosophy of lovers is that of Plato […].”

xxii Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Reveries of the Solitary Walker (1778), trans. Peter France (London: Penguin, 1979), 101.

xxiii Cf. “What Lacan Means By the Mirror Stage”, UK Essays, http://www.ukessays.com/essays/english-literature/what-lacan-means-by-the-mirror-stage-english-literature-essay.php (accessed July 27, 2015):

Jacques Lacan believed that at around the age of six months an infant begins to recognize its own reflection in a mirror, and the gaze of the caregiver reinforces the belief that it is a separate entity. However he termed this a ‘méconnaissance’, misrecognition, as this image is not a true representation of the child. Whereas the image is stable and appears to be whole, a vision of completeness, it is in contrast with the child’s immobile state, and the image appears to have an independence that the child still lacks. It is at once both the child and not the child, and the child is required to recognise this difference in order to become a subject. Lacan called this image the ‘imago’, and it is the misrecognition of it which creates the ego ideal as the child hates the image because they perceive it to be better than them, but also revere and aspire to it […] The infant will assume this image, but it is problematic because they can never truly become the image which is complete. This time is confusing for a child, and the mother becomes implicated and bound up in the child’s formation of the ego. This is why we find breast-feeding past a certain ‘acceptable’ age so horrifying because we begin to see it as a somewhat sexual act. The mother is part of this ideal which we view narcissistically and, to a certain extent, sexually.

xxiv Introduction to Reveries (9).

xxv Joel Faflak, “The Difficult Education of Shelley’s ‘Triumph of Life’”, Keats-Shelley Journal 58 (Keats-Shelley Association of America, 2009), 53-78 (53).

xxvi Of particular note is Gillray’s Presages of the Millennium (1795), which depicts contemporary political figures within an absurd, grotesque, and manic “Triumph of Death” scene. Cf. “Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination”, Tate Britain, http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/gothic-nightmares-fuseli-blake-and-romantic-imagination/gothic-5 (accessed July 27, 2015).

xxvii A device borrowed from Petrarch, albeit questionably. Cf. Karl S Guthke, The Gender of Death: A Cultural History in Art and Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 69-70:

Petrarch was familiar with the classical chariot of triumph but he only used it for Love triumphing over the World, not for the Triumph of Death. Nonetheless, countless miniatures, frescoes, cassoni, ceramics, engravings, fayences, gobelins, and stained-glass windows presented Petrarch’s Triumph of Dead […] as a long-haired woman, usually wielding a scythe (rather than carrying a banner as in the poem), standing triumphantly on her chariot whose wheels crush the bodies of the living and the dead.

xxviii A variation of this view can be seen as early as 1812 in A Letter to Lord Ellenborough, in which Shelley depicts Christ as a “meek reformer” who “attempted to supersede the ritual of Moses with regulations more moral and humane” (Selected Poetry and Prose, 566).

xxix See Virgil’s categorisation of Hell in Canto XI (134-7). The seventh circle – sins of violence – is subdivided into the violent against others, the violent against self (the suicide-trees), and the violent against God.

xxx Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy II: Purgatory (1307-21[?]), trans. Dorothy L. Sayers (Harmondworth: Penguin, 1955), 289-335.

xxxi An image from Homer’s Odyssey, Book IV, via Milton’s Comus, l. 675. Possibly a signal of the shape’s moral indeterminacy, as in Homer “Nepenthe” is a beneficial drug to relieve grief and induce forgetfulness of painful events, while in Milton it is only advertised as such by the evil Comus: in fact it causes a bestial metamorphosis and moral degradation. However, Nepenthe only has positive connotations in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (and is equated with love at III.iv.163). Cf. Homer, The Odyssey, translated by Walter Shewring (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 40; and John Milton, Selected Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 44.

xxxii Purgatory, 293: “[…] maybe indeed / They on Parnassus dreamed of this fair clime.”

xxxiii Canto XXIX (Purgatory, 298-302), which borrows its own imagery from Ezekiel 1. Shelley takes this borrowing further, the four-faced (and ironically blindfolded) driver of Life’s chariot echoing the four-faced creatures of Ezekiel 1.6.

xxxiv For a positive extreme, see Carlos Baker, Shelley’s Major Poetry (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1948), 267: “It has sometimes been quite wrongly supposed that the Iris-figure is intended to be a figure with evil connotations.”

For a negative extreme, see Charles E. Robinson, Shelley and Byron: The Snake and Eagle Wreathed in Fight (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), 225: “Iris is thus used by Shelley to equate the enchanting “ ‘fair shape’ ” […] of Life (the “ ‘shape all light’ ”) with the deforming foul shape of Death (the “ ‘cold light’ ”) […].”

xxxv Purgatory, Canto XVII (199): “[…] love must be the seed / In you, not only of each virtuous action, / But also of each punishable deed.”

xxxvi “Highlights” include challenging Lord Bomston to two duels (Julie, 126-7, 184-7); an orgy in a brothel, which he delusively believes he will have the moral fortitude to resist (217-20); and trying to persuade Lord Bomston to join him in a suicide pact (263-5).

xxxvii Cf. Matthew Lewis, The Monk, (1796), edited with an introduction and notes by Christopher Maclachlan (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1998). This sensational (and morally controversial) novel tells the story of Abbot Ambrosio: a passionate young man forced into monastic seclusion and celibacy. When he inevitably fails in his vows, believing himself irredeemable, he enters a descending spiral of sins including murder, rape, incest, and black magic.

xxxviii A notable manifestation of this theme is the pseudo-Gothic play The Cenci (1819) (Poetry and Prose, 243-301), in which the cynical and unforgiving nature of the presiding, corrupt institution (the late Renaissance Catholic Church) positively discourages virtue and honesty in favour of intrigue, murder, and deception.

xxxix “For now we see through a glass, darkly […].” 1 Corinthians 13.12 (Bible, 509).



In the early sixties, post-war France was perilously close to being a police state, the Algerian War of Independence (1954-62) being a major point of contention between right-wing forces wanting to preserve France’s empire and left-wing forces (including communists and trade unionists) who supported independence for former colonies. The combination of these tensions, along with the heavily military-influenced, nationalist government of former General de Gaulle and a police department which still contained many officers who had served during the Nazi-ruled Vichy regime of WW2, came to a disastrous head in 1961-2, with the Paris chief of police Maurice Papon assuring his officers that they would not be prosecuted if they took a “heavy-handed” approach with left-wing demonstrators.

On the 8th of February 1962, there was a left-wing demonstration against the Algerian War in general, and the Organisation armée secrète in particular (a right-wing militia that supported the war). The Paris police barricaded streets and forced demonstrators into the Voltaire area, where they tried to shelter in the Metro station Charonne. At this point, the police took their commander’s “reassurances” all too much to heart, and they attacked the trapped protesters by taking manhole covers and the iron grilles from around trees, and throwing them down the stairwells. Nine people died, including a sixteen-year old boy. The police blamed the violence entirely on the protesters.

On the positive side, however, the slaughter raised popular emotion against police repression, and the Algerian War finally ended a month later, to overwhelming public approval.

Song (“Charonne”, 2004) by Compagnie Jolie Môme, a French left-wing cabaret troupe whose favourite targets include fascism, capitalism, nationalism, austerity, and racism. Wonderful the things one can discover by having a French socialist hubby … I often listen to this band at my day job in the Royal Mail, as since the Brexit vote and the bizarre elevation of such right-wing, upper-class Conservative “eccentrics” as Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg I have been forced to the conclusion that far from wanting a better world for all underprivileged people, what the “modern” British worker wants are smirking aristocrats they can doff their caps to, and hideous tabloid newspapers and alt-right websites encouraging them not to feel ashamed of their narrow-mindedness and racism (and I fear that goes double for the average Trump supporter).

A Catholic Transsexual Applauds Several Points in Latest Papal Remarks

An article by a dear friend elucidating the recent, unexpected news that the Catholic Church is showing signs of softening its stance somewhat regarding gay and gender-reassigned people. Though not exactly a definitive swing towards liberalism, these hints do represent a dramatic change of tone from the oft-paraphrased trans people as “nuclear weapons” analogy and in that sense are both meaningful and encouraging: especially to those like my friend who happen to be both trans and Catholic, and risk being ostracised depending on what the “word from the top” is perceived to be.

I have personally been lucky, finding my own Church (Welsh Anglican) to be very inclusive and affirming of trans people, and the congregations welcoming and open, if not always perfectly understanding. I have, however, faced occasional religious bigotry and interrogation and dread to think what it would be to face a life of it …

Dear Brexiteer. What we need you to do now.

Totally off-topic, but this has been all too much on my mind of late. I dread to think how this may affect Cal, whether he will be able to remain in the UK after the dreaded exit, and even if he is allowed to, will he be able to keep accessing NHS services (which he needs to transition).

I have no hope to offer, alas. The exit seems like a bad decision every way I consider it, except from some very vague desire or fetish for national self-sufficiency (which I strongly believe is a myth) or xenophobia. So I offer healing words from someone else…


So well done, first of all. You listened to the arguments, the same ones I listened to. You heard all the same information I did, you listened to the same debates that I did, but you voted to leave. And you won. I take that – it was a democratic process and sometimes in the democratic process you lose, as I have done.

The referendum has activated the political energies of people who haven’t been interested in politics for some time, so we are told, and many of them are like you, who voted to leave. So here’s the plea of the losing side to you now.

Firstly, don’t stop – don’t stop with your political passion and activism, because we need you now. We need you to be active, we need you to keep talking to the people who you trusted with this vote, and we need you to…

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Fighting Back


Cal returned from the GIC last Tuesday, and the news was all good: like me, he has been granted a second appointment in February, at which point all going well he will be approved for HRT. The clinician seemed absolutely charmed with him (only naturally), and they had a good conversation. The fact that we both have had such positive experiences with the London side of things is certainly something to be very grateful for. It touched upon a subject of grave concern to us both right now, though: the UK’s impending referendum on whether to remain within or leave the European Union. The clinician was pessimistic, and when we consider the implications of leaving (which now seems the likely outcome) it is hard to feel too blithe about our future. For one thing, if it throws the UK back into recession, the NHS will suffer more cutbacks, so our transitions could be stopped by simple market forces. For another, it is liable to make the UK more isolated and right-wing, which rarely goes well for LGBT+ people (no more than one might expect of a Trump presidency…). Even if neither of those scenarios develop, we are bound to be affected as Cal is French, and will thus have to change nationality (at high expense) or risk losing his job, his right to stay without a visa, and his rights to NHS treatment. If Cal has to leave the UK to transition, I will of course leave with him, which will thus stop or at least hugely delay my own transition. Thus, if you are one of my Brexit-supporting work colleagues and you wonder why I am less than friendly with you these days, you can probably work out why now…

Furthermore, though, it has been next to impossible for anyone in the LGBT+ community to be particularly happy and easygoing this week, in the wake of the Orlando massacre. Cal and I attended a memorial vigil in Cardiff Bay (image above) and were moved to see so many of us and so many allies come out in support and recognition. The priest at my very LGBT-friendly church also gave a sermon and prayers on the shooting (acknowledging that it was an anti-LGBT hate crime, unlike a certain prelate). Still, it is hard to get away from the sense that the world is still not exactly on our side, whatever the mansplaining, cisplaining voices at work would have me believe: “Of course it won’t make any difference to you if we leave the EU. You people have full rights now. We’re a tolerant society.” And so forth, while I bite my tongue.

Cal thinks we may have spent too long biting our tongues, and now is the time to speak out, fight back, and be uncompromisingly courageous and visible. He has determined to make this year his first Pride appearance, and thus our first Pride as a couple. We have also initiated complaints proceedings against our GP, whose non-response to our progress at the GIC continues to infuriate us. Such combative behaviour does not come naturally to either of us, but it helps to remember that we have, in such a short time, gained many friends within our community who are also affected by these issues. God willing, this will be the year when we cease to be the timid little trans couple living almost like recluses for fear of offending, and not before time. Perhaps the world could use a little offending…


The Transphobe Within

“Nowadays we are all likely to meet people who think they are women, have women’s names, and feminine clothes and lots of eyeshadow, who seem to us to be some kind of ghastly parody, though it isn’t polite to say so. We pretend that all the people passing for female really are. Other delusions may be challenged, but not a man’s delusion that he is female.”(1)

“The lack of insight that MtF transsexuals about the extent of their acceptance as females should be an indication that their behaviour is less rational than it seems.”(2)

(Prof. Germaine Greer)

Before I began my transition, it is safe to say that I had a pretty grim social life. Defined by the perceived need to embody a certain image that I hated and had no desire to be read according to, nor interacted with on the basis of, I more often than not simply tended not to bother, and thus became both very creative and very lonely. For many years I had decided that this was as much destiny as my gender was, and always referred to myself as an introvert.

I am not so sure of that, now. While 2015 was very much about tentatively finding my feet as a self-confessed transwoman, 2016 has seen me at my most socially active, and being trans has itself opened social doors which I never anticipated: my Springboard career development course, for example. Although I was initially very nervous about being the only transwoman in my group, there has been no hostility or bad atmosphere whatsoever. My local LGBT support group continues to invite me to conferences, plays, and coffee mornings, and in a recent highlight my friends in the local queer scene invited me to Birkenstomp VII: a feminist music event and LGBT-friendly space, describing itself thusly…

Obviously, it’s trans-inclusive. Do we need to even say that?

…so why, in that case, did I feel so uneasy there, and afraid that I was intruding?

I have no good reason to believe that. Quite apart from having been invited, I wanted to see a friend’s new band that was playing their first gig there, and thus felt my reasons for attending to be basically supportive. Still, in spite of that and the fact that my presence there was never questioned, I found myself being sceptical and judgemental on everyone else’s behalf, second-guessing all of my possible ulterior motives for being there, and feeling guilty for the unnecessary strain I was putting on the tolerance of all of the non-trans women, as if I was cruelly taking advantage of their kindness… and in fact I know why I felt that way, and the reason is that I have brainwashed myself. Bravo me…

To be more specific, I have conditioned my mind to repeat a trope that I have often encountered in gender-critical discourse: that (non-trans) women, being socialised into politeness, kindness, and putting the needs of men first (which I do not dispute), would never think to confront a transwoman in public, but in private they all consider us as frauds, or at any rate the majority who have not bought into the delusion think so. That being the case, this discourse encourages us to distrust whatever acceptance we receive, especially from women, and to assume that we are more often than not merely pitied, or secretly held in contempt and derision. In effect, it aims to encourage suspicion and social disengagement, and to thus hinder meaningful social transition, although it may also be argued this is for our good if it encourages us to see transition as a hopeless, hollow sham, and to thus detransition and accept reality.(3)

Is there anything at all in this? It would be disingenuous of me to claim no sympathies whatsoever. I have, alas, suffered enough past sexual harassment at the hands of the local trans / drag scene that these days I assume the worst automatically and never set foot in those type of clubs (including, alas, the one Cal and I first met in), although to my mind the transwomen who frequent such venues have little in common with the dysphoric, innocent, endearingly nerdy lot who tend to constitute our support group. Still, a new transitionee or someone considering transition will sometimes join the group, and my instant mental reaction will, unfortunately, be “she looks and sounds just like a traumatised, effeminate man”… which I can hardly help but be aware is exactly the figure I cut when I first dared to seek help there.

Knowing that, there is certainly no part of me that feels I would do any good in this world by promoting a message that boils down to “who are you kidding?” Transition, for all of its trials and imperfections, brought me out of a profoundly low, dark place and has so far shown me an overwhelmingly positive side to humanity, and if acceptance is the reaction I get from almost everyone who isn’t the very worst type of unreformed alpha-male misogynist (or pretend alpha, at least), then distrusting it seems more than a little ungrateful as well as counter-productive to my social transition. Nor do I see that my internalised transphobia does anything positive for feminism. Rather, it probably just makes me look like a paranoid wreck, and hinders me from more positive and effective participation.

The other event that got me thinking along these lines was re-connecting with the dear friend whom I mentioned in my previous post, who heavily cut down her own internet activities after online transpolitics left her depressed and disillusioned. She had, prior to that, been known as a strong radical feminist ally and prepared to accept some fairly disheartening definitions of transwomen’s social status in the interests of this alliance. When, in spite of that, she still drew accusations of delusion, perversion, and seeking to divide feminists by playing on their sympathy, she renounced the cause altogether and pulled back from social media. She has also started to speak of her transition not as a limited, faintly tragic thing that might just about be excused in our flawed society, but as the miracle that healed and saved her (and me). For all of my self-conditioning, that is still how it feels.

So if I do not seem to be around so much these days, I can only offer my apologies, but I must beware of offering as open a channel to transphobia as I seem to have done. I know there is an abundant supply of it, but until real life starts to justify that deluge (and it has so far done very little to) I feel I can do no better than to ignore it. With any luck, I may thus hope to cut a less shy, uptight figure at Birkenstomp VIII, although I will still, I rather fear, be a cringing mess of embarrassment around the ceramic vulva craft stall. My inner transphobe may one day be exorcised, but never my inner Victorian…

1 The Guardian, August 20 2009, “Caster Semenya sex row: What makes a woman?”

2 The Whole Woman (London: Transworld Publishers, 1999), p. 93… and if there was ever a more ironic choice of publishing house, I would like to hear it.

3 In an excellent pseudo-public demonstration of this, I was once chided on Twitter for calling a transwoman friend of mine sister, with the following rationale…

“you don’t think it’s hypocrisy to call a man [sic] your sister? … if you shore up his [sic] delusions, he [sic] begins to expect other women to do the same.”

…and no, they had not realised they were talking to another transwoman, but one gathers they were even more displeased when they finally clocked me.

Burning Bridges and Glitching Vampires

My silence has been repeatedly noted, so I thought it time to type a quick assurance that contrary to the evidence Cal and I are still alive and well, and continuing as planned with our transitions. There have, alas, been no positive developments, though, and this week I find myself a somewhat lonelier trans lady…

Some may already be aware of what transpired mainly on Twitter this week, but if not then I’m afraid I must be vague. Suffice it to say that a very dear friend of mine has, unfortunately, felt the need to cut ties with most of her circle, including me. How I managed to upset her I have no idea and may never know, but since she was rather a controversial figure in her way, I have already shed a few friends and followers for having been so close to her.

I am hurt, but should I be offended? I was not the only friend thus soft-blocked, and her critics are now gleefully assassinating her character and chiding all those who trusted her. To be honest, though, I find myself just sad and sick of the whole thing. While I worry that she did not do herself complete justice (though from what I can gather very few do on Twitter), the fact was I admired her immensely, and still do; saw so much of myself in her, not to mention traits I only wished that I possessed; and I was so touched by her kindness and encouragement towards me that to see her encouraging the social media community to think and spread the worst opinions of her is mortifying.

But perhaps that is the very point of it, and by burning all her virtual bridges she hopes to move forward in real life, away from a medium that seemingly brings out so much anger in her. I hope so, and I hope I may one day hear more of her, and that it will all be good news. In the meantime, I may follow her example again, and go back to keeping only a very discreet profile on social media. My attempt to draw inspiration from her radical feminist politics has only backfired ironically, and reminded me of how divisive trans voices unfortunately still are within these circles.

At any rate, my friend has declared herself apolitical and the last I heard of her, she has devoted herself to writing. That seems a pretty healthy resolution, from what I know. I don’t know that I will ever make a difference to the world that way, but through fiction I find I can express myself a lot more deeply (and hopefully entertainingly) than in real life. Not to mention, of course, the welcome distraction it provides from the interminable wait the NHS still refuse to provide any relief over.

In more trivial news, I have just finished a Commodore 64 game which will hopefully be entered into a competition next month. I am a little proud, as it does include my first tentative efforts at programming in 6502 Assembly (a cross between hex code and utter gibberish), and will, God willing, not just crash everyone’s emulators. Unsurprisingly, it’s about vampires. In love. Fighting Nazis. They don’t glitter, though. Just glitch a little.

A Year of Existence

It was on the 8th of January 2015 that I began this blog, following the advice of my friend Jason, with no very clear idea but plenty of trepidation as to what might come out of it. Now seems as good a time as any to take stock of what I have learned and gained…


The Good – After a quiet start, interest and sympathy started to flow in, and rarely let up pace, from trans bloggers, from those in relationships with trans people, from non-binary activists, to supportive people in general. Particularly honourable mentions go to…

Ambivalence Girl

Anna Secret-Poet


Charissa Grace

Curiouser and Curiouser

Daniella Argento

Fairy Jerbear

Georgia Kevin

A Kinder Way

Kira Moore


La Quemada

Plain T

Tish Wolfsong

…among many other generous and uplifting voices who have encouraged me to keep this extended muse / rant as a going concern. My profuse thanks and love to you all. xxx

The Bad – Thankfully, little negativity has drifted this way, at least proportionally. Some critical feedback was drawn from Radical Feminists (a bit more on that later), and some downright hostile feedback from an older transperson who thought (and still thinks) me a charlatan, but not to name any names. The positives have vastly outweighed the negatives, and overall, the blog was a sound move that has helped me to keep a sense of purpose and progress, as I had dared hope that it might.


The Good – Initially, this went unexpectedly well. It was with great fear that I came out to a new GP in January, and they proved incredibly sympathetic, totally helpful, validating of my new identity, and not at all judgemental. Although they did warn me I would need patience…

In February, I saw a local psychiatrist with a view of obtaining a gender clinic referral. This too went not only smoothly but pleasantly, with no hostile questioning, no attempts to sow doubt, and complete consideration shown to my (by then) firmly established transgender identity. The referral was quickly processed, and I was (fairly) promptly informed that I was on the waiting list for the gender clinic.

The Bad – Progress for the past few months, alas, has been non-existent. This was expected. Worse, however, since the referral my permanent GP  (sadly, not the one I initially saw) has declined to help me at all. I have, like the majority of transwomen-in-waiting, ended up self-medicating with internet-bought hormones and androgen blockers. This is not supposed to happen, but the interim NHS guidelines for Gender Dysphoria, like the Pirates’ Code, are all too rarely followed, and I may be doing this for months (or years, even) to come.


Disturbingly, I am in spite of this doing better than my husband Cal, who applied around the same time as me and still has yet to hear news of his referral. Also, we have by now encountered insensitivity from some GPs, and according to information Cal obtained from the gender clinic (which ran an informal workshop), many of the profession still do not see gender dysphoria as a genuine medical issue. Thankfully, the medical status of GD is still official NHS policy, but until we actually have our diagnoses we will continue, I fear, to fret over the outcome, and the possibility of policy changes that could leave us with no option at all.


The Good – I had a suspicion right from the beginning, even before I had any experience in the murky world of online transpolitics, that feminists might look askance at transpeople, though I had no idea back then of the whole Liberal / Radical divide. For someone who began the year with little academic knowledge of Feminism, I have learned a lot in the course of understanding this debate, but apologies if I err in the following…

At a very basic level, and as I understand it, Liberal Feminism (such as espoused very early in Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792) holds the view that sexism in society arises from custom, tradition, and ignorance rather than by preconceived malice, and can thus be effectively fought through the reform of existing structures. Radical Feminism (such as pioneered by Second-Wave feminists like Andrea Dworkin in Woman Hating, 1974) by contrast holds that gender and patriarchy are deliberate tools of oppression, constructed with the full, misogynistic intention of keeping women as second-class citizens and an exploitable resource, and can thus only be effectively fought by the complete overhaul of the existing, corrupt social order.

Given that Radical Feminism posits an intentional campaign of hatred and control with the oppressor / oppressed rigidly delineated by biology (specifically, males conspiring to control and exploit females as unpaid labour, sexual slavery, and breeding stock), it naturally has very little scope to accommodate not only transwomen but any queer gender identities, finding them irrelevant at best, or at worst a malicious attempt by men to impinge on what rights and spaces women have obtained. This notwithstanding, there is no monolithic Radfem community or party line, and I have met those who tentatively accept transwomen as women, albeit with the (perfectly logical) caveat that they are not biologically female, even post-transition, and should be respectful that Radfem issues will often be specific to natal women. There are some transwomen even active and generally welcome within this community, although they qualify themselves as “allies” rather than as feminists per se.

Regarding the two schools of Feminism, I am still very much a learner. I have been fortunate enough to make friends in both quarters. However…

The Bad – I have, alas, read some strikingly inept journalism from trans Libfems including inappropriate comparisons between deficient trans rights and deliberate human rights atrocities, ironic attempts to shame confused allies for not being quite sensitive enough (in the journalist’s view), and accusations of really quite moderate, even reconciliationist feminists as “TERFs” (such as Helen Lewis and Penny White). This makes me hugely sceptical of the value of lending my weight, such as it is, to trans Liberal Feminism (or Liberal Transfeminism).

However, whilst there is no particular value in harping on with the “TERF” line (it is construed as an insult, and for me to disrespect anyone else’s chosen or rejected identification seems too ironic), I would strongly advise any transwoman to be very wary of most Radfem circles, even if invited to comment. If you do, expect hostility sooner or later, and do not expect to sway any perceptions or allay any scepticism, even if your intention is allyship. For everyone who appreciates such gestures of support, there will be others who construe them as patronising or hypocritical. I have had to watch two dear friends in the course of this year being slandered and grotesquely insulted in Radfem social media circles, one of whom was broadly sympathetic (at first) and one of whom was actually a long-standing ally (but has since disavowed that role). The hatred is there, make no mistake. As one of the commenters on the previously linked article by Penny White (who, incidentally, has always been very kind to me on Twitter) felt the need to put it…

“You should be listening to what WOMEN say, and not cowardly men who would rather claim womanhood and redefine the language we use for ourselves rather than break away from the patriarchal system they benefit from and embrace their gender non-conformity AS MEN. Trans “women” are not women, they are not female, they are not her or she, they are gender non-conforming men, and if they were brave enough to face that fact, they might actually be strong allies. Instead they’re men who reinforce harmful gender stereotypes, that help maintain the patriarchal oppression of women.”

Not for me to state my own courage, or lack of… but suffice it to say that this view is representative enough. Engage with these politics at your peril.


The Good – Our respective families, with understandable concern, have been quick to offer their support, and given that many transpeople face rejection, this is something to be hugely grateful for. Also, I feel easier in my conscience now, as the weight of my dishonesty all of these years is finally lifted, and has not been held against me. Cal’s family have also accepted me as their daughter-in-law, which is a tremendous relief. Any fears we might have had of being isolated as a couple, with only ourselves to rely upon, have been beautifully dispelled.

The Bad – Sadly, the timing of our coming-out did prove embarrassing enough that we were required to attend a family wedding as our old selves, in order to avoid a scene. Hashtag awkward… Thankfully, it is understood that this will not be happening again, whatever the occasion.


The Good – Rediscovering modelling was a joy this year, and one that helped me to raise my public confidence. The main project has been a short film (which is finally in post-production) called “Imago,” and when it eventually became necessary for me to do a shoot in “boy mode,” I felt so awkward and unnatural that it was wholly unnecessary to act up my melancholy for the scene… I am very pleased with the results, at least, so we shan’t be needing to revisit that concept. I also had studio and location shoots to rebuild my portfolio (having junked all of my male-model shots), and have shamelessly ripped off the most iconic trans editorial shot of 2015 (and probably of ever). Take a wild guess whose…


…although I wanted to Goth it up a whole lot more. The photographer (Alan) talked me out of that, his philosophy of plagiarism being to do it as faithfully as one can.

Coming out in work was unexpectedly easy. The Royal Mail policy has proven cast-iron to the extent that I have even been included on a women’s workplace development program. There has been no outspoken discrimination since (although I gather some unkind gossip).

Administrative changes proved easier than I dared to anticipate. I have now amended my NHS details, my bank details, changed my name by deed poll, changed my PhD certificate, and best of all obtained a new passport marked with an “F” in the gender box. I feel this part of transition is, to all practical intents and purposes, completed.

Also surprisingly, my church participation increased a lot this year with extremely positive outcomes, including my invitation to speak on being a trans Christian at Pride Cymru 2015 (at around the 13:50 mark for anyone wishing to hear my weird voice again…).

The Bad – Chavs making abusive comments on the street, white van men doing the same, misogynistic creeps messaging me on Facebook, elderly gentleman insisting on knowing my old name prior to lecturing me on why I am an ungodly rebel, the person who started the “dirty freak eleanor antony burns” Facebook group… oh, and electrolysis really hurts and I have many months of it to look forward to.



Thank you for helping me through a tumultuous but overall wonderful year. xxx

Responsibilities of Embodiment

Last week at Royal Mail, while on break and working my way through the exercises in my Springboard Workbook, I encountered the following passage…

Being a woman

Being a woman is at the core of who you are. Usually the first thing that people notice about each other is the gender that they are. Some people have changed their gender, usually after a long process. So if you have had your gender re-assigned you will have thought a lot about what it means to you to be a woman.

Daisley, Jenny and Willis, Liz; Springboard – Women’s Development Workbook; 7th ed. (Stroud: Hawthorn Press, 2013); p.48.

…which certainly clears up a lot of my anxiety as to whether or not I should even be on such a course (one can at least assume from this that the course designers did not see it as a problem, in theory), although I found it an interesting point in and of itself. Perhaps even a worrying one.

Regarding that point about “the first thing that people notice”: Caitlyn Jenner’s recent gaffe about non-passing transwomen making people feel uncomfortable, although possibly taken out of context in some sources, has been making much noise of late, and as someone who struggles to pass at the best of times it rings with a nasty logic whether I like it or not. Almost certainly, as time goes by, I will try to send out increasingly unequivocal signals of my gender identity if for no other reason than to mitigate social awkwardness. Whatever feminist instinct I may be said to possess bridles at the thought of a life spent becoming more stereotypically feminine to attain social ease. It is true that one does not see that many butch transwomen. Given the alternative of spending my life being assumed to be a gender-neutral / gender-fluid / non-binary man, however, I cannot see myself doing anything other than capitulating on this point. Even my weekly electrolysis sessions, although with a bearing on my dysphoria, could also be seen as an expensive and unnecessary cosmetic concession to social expectations (It is not as if there are no born women who do not experience unusually heavy facial hair growth). One option that does not currently appeal to me is facial feminisation surgery – I have seen poor psychological outcomes of heavy facial surgery, and have no wish to inflict that on myself – but even so I am cursed with a sad sense that the means of embodiment of a transwoman could be argued from all of this as inimical to women in general: their right especially to express as they please, without reference to anyone else’s comfort or expectations.

This is germane to the second point, “you will have thought a lot about what it means to you to be a woman”, and I find in other ways that I now need to be far more analytical about my life. One disturbing thing I have noticed of late is not that I have become less assertive per se, but I have become more comfortable with being unassertive, when I strongly suspect I owe it to the world to do exactly the opposite. I used to feel acute shame when men (it was, alas, overwhelmingly men) steamrollered me in conversation, patronised me on points where I was at least no more ill-informed than they were, and generally talked down to me without actual benefit of greater knowledge (and I don’t count the Daily Mail as valid source material). This all still happens, but since my coming-out it feels inevitable, and thus less shameful.

To clarify my thoughts on this point: sexism is not shameful to women (nor to transwomen). It bloody well ought not to be inevitable, though.

Still, that is part of the reason I am on this course in the first place, and hopefully it can help me to better define my role within the context of feminism, if I even have one. One faces a curious double-bind as a transwoman: anxious about appearing too meekly self-effacing, and thus embodying the most socially regressive stereotypes, yet also anxious about appearing brash and narcissistic, too eager to make oneself the centre of the struggle. I do not, as I have hopefully already said, believe that feminism – liberal or radical – should bend over backwards to centre transwomen or trans issues in general. The issues are complex, and the place (or even existence) of trans people in any speculative gender-reformed or genderless future society is hard to guess at. Second-Wave radical feminist Andrea Dworkin (1946-2005), who it should be stressed was not inimical to trans people (seeing their condition as symptomatic of rather than causative of a patriarchal society), had this to say:

There is no doubt that in the culture of male-female discreteness, transsexuality is a disaster for the individual transsexual. Every transsexual, white, black, man, woman, rich, poor, is in a state of primary emergency […] as a transsexual. There are 3 crucial points here. One, every transsexual has the right to survival on his/her own terms. That means every transsexual is entitled to a sex-change operation, and it should be provided by the community as one of its functions. This is an emergency measure for an emergency condition. Two, by changing our premises about men and women, role-playing and polarity, the social situation of transsexuals will be transformed, and transsexuals will be integrated into community, no longer persecuted and despised. Three, community built on androgynous identity will mean the end of transsexuality as we know it. Either the transsexual will be able to expand his/her sexuality into a fluid androgyny, or, as roles disappear, the phenomenon of transsexuality will disappear and that energy will be transformed into new modes of sexual identity and behavior.

Dworkin, Andrea; Woman Hating (New York: Penguin, 1974); pp.185-6.

Possibly slightly digressive of me, but I do enjoy quoting that, as it is so much more compassionate and less vitriolic than legions of modern internet philosophers and activists on this subject… but it does raise that nagging possibility that we are creatures born out of the very structure of abuse that feminism is (and by definition must be) ranged against. Of value in diagnosing it, perhaps – as Caroline Criado-Perez suggests – but perhaps too closely and ironically identified with it for our perspectives ever to be taken without a pinch of salt, even by ourselves. It makes my skin crawl when a retail assistant addresses me as “sir” or “fella” (although I am curious to know what training manual recommended the latter as a polite form of address). Should it not equally make my skin crawl when a stranger addresses me as “darling” or “babe?” The answer would be yes… It certainly should not feel as if I have achieved something.

Having said all that, there is one solace I dare take to from all this, which is that the authors of the Springboard workbook included that passage referring to transwomen in the first place. Critics could argue they only did that to appease liberal lawmakers, but they could easily have skipped over the issue (The law merely requires that they do not discriminate against applicants). Since the authors thus apparently felt it appropriate to include people like me on their women’s assertiveness / development course I will take that as a sign of encouragement, though also as a warning. Whatever I amount to – be it a badly-constructed woman or a badly-programmed man – I made a conscious decision to embody the social category of woman, and heaven forbid I should do so irresponsibly.

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