Excess and Obscurity

Here is a passage fairly unrivaled in The Last Manin its horror-inducing attention to the grotesque and visceral:

“I lowered my lamp, and saw a negro half clad, writhing under the agony of disease, while he held me with a convulsive grasp. With mixed horror and impatience I strove to disengage myself, and fell on the sufferer; he wound his naked festering arms round me, his face was close to mine, and his breath, death-laden, entered my vitals. For a moment I was overcome, my head was bowed by aching nausea; till, reflection returning, I sprung up, threw the wretch from me, and darting up the staircase…” (336-7)

That the passage is also remarkable for its depiction of the “negro half clad”—for its locating him in and as the grotesque and visceral but also his location in the movement of the scene, as an impediment between Verney and what matters (the polarity of the “negro half clad” and the one to whom Verney is going, “Clara trembling, and paler than whitest snow” (337), could hardly be rearticulated more baldly than it is given)—is, in turn, unsurprising and offers a helpful critical perspective on the novel. Peter Melville’s reference to Alan Richardson’s reading elucidates these dynamics: the “negro half clad” as the object of Verney’s disgust embodies of the colony, and the moment expresses “English disgust at the colonial other” (quoted in Melville, 169). Melville’s own stress in his reading is also insightful, emphasizing not just the dead-end of colonial racist imagination but the way in which Verney’s reaction to the unavoidably colonial body marks a limit of performed or actual hospitality (the failure, in other words, of the Lawto come being), more specifically “the failure of English hospitality” that warns of the refusals present in even the most radically hospitable circumstances (169-70).

But what I am interested in here is not so much arguing that a colonial imagination produces Shelley’s “negro half clad” (which borders being incontestable) but in taking up the passage to explore a relationship between the plague, nature, and the colonial geographic imagination that runs throughout the novel. In this sense, the identity of the “negro half clad” and the colonial other that is unavoidable in this scene is inseparable from the identification of the “negro half clad” and the plague itself. The scene effects a sort of compresence, an incarnation of the senselessness, antic obscurity and perversity of the plague in the antic obscurity of the “negro half clad”—effects it most not only in Shelley’s extended attention to his grotesqueness but also in his meaninglessness as a character, let alone human sufferer. (It may not even be necessary to remark the difference between this man’s suffering and the way in which Verney’s friends and companions tend to wane and slip away in their illness. The death of white bodies in The Last Manoccasions Verney’s attempts at serious philosophical and romantic reflection; the dying of the “negro half clad” offers only a site of horror and physiological description, an encounter with the physical reality of fetid decomposition and corruption, “aching nausea, the suffering of being “naked” and “festering,” suffering (un)measured in fluids and excrescences.) The plague arrives for Verney, like it does for his world, out of nowhere—both particularly for Verney in that it is not prepared within the narrative (Shelley produces a sort of demon ex machina) and in a larger sense in that the novel is generally unconcerned with ultimate or even medical causality, with cure, with explanation on those terms.

Still, to say that the plague comes out of nowhere, whether this describes the plague generally or the plagued body of the “negro half clad,” speaks both, it seems to me, the novel’s wider interest in (and uncertainty regarding) the natural world and the way in which that interest and that uncertainty are filtered through particular colonial geographic imaginations—though it might be more illuminative to think of these primarily as fantasies about history rather than geographies. These imaginations pace the movements of the characters, as they trace and re-trace a linear trajectory from England to France to Italy to Greece. That Raymond and England more broadly are sympathetic with Greece and not the Turks is not explained in the novel, neither politicized nor narrated, but assumed. There is a continuity, exclusive of other geographic centers and their significance, that also surfaces in Macaulay’s “Minute on Indian Education” speech. There the inextricability of geographic, historical, moral and aesthetic imaginations of the world emerges forcefully early in the excerpt (English “abounds with works of imagination not inferior to the noblest which Greece has bequeathed us” (849)) and comes to real culmination shortly after: “What the Greek and Latin were to the contemporaries of More and Ascham, our tongue is to the people of India” (850). In various ways the novel both captures and is captured by this consonance of identity between the English people and Classical history. (While the plague eradicates distinctions in rank and even ethics in England (294), its advent hardly brokers peace with the Turks, nor is their eradication ever countenanced as bad in itself.) Nowhere isn’t nowhere; it’s other places.

Yet if all this describes a limitation of imagination that afflicts the characters (and perhaps Shelley), there is also a way in which the novel’s attempt to inhabit the apocalyptic history that it narrates engenders an encounter with this limitation itself, reveals its provinciality. This encounter becomes visible in the difficulty of determining whether the novel depicts the plague itself as natural. Verney’s reflections on nature border on the schizophrenic. At various moments (that all could bear interpretation): the air is feared because the characters see “the fabric of the universe no longer as our dwelling, but our tomb” (270); Verney longs for “the dear soothings of maternal Nature” (283); the same nature is divested of its divinity on account of the plague (308); the giant wave refutes regularity and instills sublime sense of awe (370-1); humanity’s being unto dust is lamented (398); the earth is no longer a living mother (411); the sublime vantage of the Alps erases memory of the plague (418-9):

Likewise nature consoles with its magnificence (424); yet in one of its final depictions, nature is the enemy of all that lives (460).

What strikes me is the inconsonance itself of these depictions, nature’s slippage past the easy categories of antagonist or friend, source of danger or source of succor. And in so far as the scene of the “negro half clad” is inextricable from these same larger obscurities, its significance lies not only in the problems of Verney’s colonial myopia but in its particular place within the larger context of the world’s excess beyond narration. These obscurities delineate the limitation of the novel’s world as limitation; they mark the failures of Verney’s narrative capacity (no matter how much his diction strains to be large enough) to name the world. The encounter, that is, along Melville’s line, suggests the real existence of other worlds and other peoples, the otherness of nature, excesses impinging on provinciality.

 

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