Romantic darkness: Critical reflections on enlightenment in Joseph Conrad, Mary Shelley, and William Wordsworth
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This dissertation proposes to explore the trajectory of Romantic darkness as a fate of Enlightenment, focusing mostly on Joseph Conrad, Mary Shelley and William Wordsworth. The notion of Romantic darkness accounts for a legitimate self-criticism integral to the constitution of Enlightenment as an on-going process. Consequently, Enlightenment entails an infinite responsibility and infinitely postpones its actualization. In the wake of the French Revolution, Romantic darkness is predicated upon a belated realization of the failure of Enlightenment idealism once practiced. Enlightenment's espousal of reason as the defining feature of the human species somehow produces violence and oppression towards the supposed others of reason. Yet Enlightenment harbors the possibility of exceeding its own limits, as suggested in Immanuel Kant's description of Enlightenment: the freedom of an individual from any external authority as well as from one's own intellectual laziness and the public uses of one's reason as a guarantor of freedom. In Kant's terms, the “age of Enlightenment,” not the “enlightened age,” points to a future anteriority. Hence, Jacques Derrida's idea of democracy to come is especially crucial as the postmodern reconfiguration of the Kantian telos without telos. Joseph Conrad, Mary Shelley and William Wordsworth as the inheritors of Enlightenment, among others, cope with the notion of Romantic darkness in the realm of praxis. They question the Enlightenment project of total knowledge by representing the failure of idealism. Conrad decenters the colonial subject, which is incarnated in the character of Kurtz. Shelley challenges the idea of social reform and the foundation of humanity by representing the monster as an absolute other through an apocalyptic imagination. Reformulating his own experience with the French Revolution into a tragedy of sympathy at unjust tribunals of history, Wordsworth relocates history in the imaginative reconstruction of his past. For him, rewriting history means revising his poetry as a self-fashioning. The most important question concerning the limits of anthropocentrism involves animals, which question the task of literature in confrontation with “the undeniable suffering of animals.” Despite being very different, these writers are concerned not only with the constitutive limits of the human through the construction of the other, but also the inevitable gap between idealism and embodiment, intention and result, possibility and presence, and finitude and infinity.