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"It was all about new and boundary-breaking forms of doing literary criticism"

College Postdoctoral Associate Dr Mathelinda Nabugodi has published Shelley with Benjamin: A Critical Mosaic, a monograph that brings the English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley into critical conversation with the German Jewish theorist and critical thinker Walter Benjamin.

She tells us more about her creative approach to literary criticism and how that led to this work.

How did this monograph come about? What led you to write it now?

This monograph started life as my PhD thesis, which was the first to be awarded a PhD in Creative Critical Writing from University College London. So it was really pioneering in that respect. The programme allowed me to be creative and experiment with my methodology. It is, after all, creative critical writing — so the focus is on writing criticism. I say this because sometimes people would think that I was doing creative writing, as in writing a novel or poetry, but for me it was all about new and boundary-breaking forms of doing literary criticism.

That said, the book has also evolved a lot since I finished my PhD. The last section I wrote is actually the middle one (Part 2), which discusses Shelley's and Benjamin's respective engagements with Plato's Symposium. The Symposium is a dialogue about love, or eros to use the Greek term, and it has a lot of explicit celebration of homosexual relations between men. For this reason, this work was very controversial, and when it was translated into English it was typically censored—translators would just skip the gay bits. Shelley was the first to do a complete translation into English including all the references to sex, which I found both brave and intriguing. Benjamin also called for an uncensored translation of this work, and, particularly in his early writings, he was repeatedly returning to the Symposium as he was developing his own philosophical concepts. So, it interested me that both Shelley and Benjamin were profoundly inspired by this text. It must also be acknowledged that both Shelley and Benjamin made some really bigoted comments about homosexuality, but it's important that they promoted an honest translation that would give people access to that aspect of Greek culture without having to learn Greek to read it.

Looking into what the Symposium meant for Shelley and Benjamin is something that has been on my 'to do'-list for years, but I only found the time to work on it during the first Covid lockdown in 2020. As everything else was cancelled, I was able to read and think about this in more detail. The weather was lovely that spring, and I would spend hours reading and writing in the garden, so it was a very idyllic bubble. This was before the full ramifications of what Covid meant burst that bubble!

How would you summarise your monograph?

In a sentence, I would say that it is an experiment in critical reading. One that is both responsive to the authors being read — I really do try to read Shelley and Benjamin on their own terms, in line with statements they made about literature, poetry, and writing — but also acknowledging my own position; for instance the fact that I am a Black woman living in the early 21st century studying the works of two men who died a long time ago.

What led you to bring Percy Bysshe Shelley and Walter Benjamin together in this “critical mosaic”? What is their greatest connection?

In a way, the greatest connection is that there is no connection! Shelley was born in 1792, Benjamin in 1892 — so there's a century separating them. One is an English Romantic poet, the other is a German Jewish theorist and critical thinker — so there are big differences in terms of genre, the historical contexts in which they lived, the kind of literature that they were engaging with. And while Benjamin did read a bit of Shelley — this was in 1938 when he was staying with Bertolt Brecht in Denmark, both of them refugees from Nazi Germany (at the time, Brecht and his collaborator Margarethe Steffin were translating some of Shelley's political verse) — my work was never about Benjamin's reception of Shelley. Rather, I was quite struck by some similarities in their thinking about literature. I've already mentioned how both were interested in Plato's Symposium, but there are also other resonances across their oeuvres.

In 'A Defence of Poetry', Shelley speaks of poetry as marking "the before unapprehended relations of things" — that is, helping us see new connections that no one has seen before. I thought this was very similar to Benjamin's idea of a "constellation": different stars are lightyears apart from one another, yet when we look at the night sky we see them as a constellation — a single image. For Benjamin, this was the point of criticism: to bring things together in this way. And so, I wanted to see what happened if I would bring Shelley's and Benjamin's ideas into a constellation and explore how reading them together may shift and enrich our understanding of their respective writings.

What draws you so strongly to the Romantic poets?

I am interested in Romanticism because, to my mind, our own present is 'post-Romantic'. By which I mean to say that many of the ideas about poetry, society, nature, history and so on that emerged in the Romantic period are still with us today. But it must also be remembered that the Romantic period was an era of imperial expansion. It witnessed the culmination of the transatlantic slave trade, and the consolidation of racial thinking that placed humanity on a hierarchical scale with White Europeans at the top and Black Africans at the bottom. So, when we speak about how legacies of enslavement and empire affect us today, we are also speaking about the legacies of Romanticism.

This is something that I address in the final part of my book (Part 3) in which I try to face up to the ethical dimensions of engaging with material created in the era of slavery. Neither Shelley nor Benjamin ever spoke about transatlantic slavery or racism, but that doesn't mean that we can ignore this history when reading their works.

What does the term “mosaic” mean to you in this context?

The term 'mosaic' is a double citation, as it were. It refers to a passage in Shelley's 'Defence of Poetry' where he speaks of poetic inspiration. He says, regarding the alleged 56 different ways of reading the first line of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, that "Compositions so produced are to poetry what mosaic is to painting." What he's getting at is that poetry proceeds in bursts of inspiration — like a painter's inspired brush strokes over the canvas — whereas a critical procedure that unpicks multiple levels of meaning in every statement is more akin to an artist patiently assembling tiny fragments of stone or glass into a mosaic image.

Such a patient assembly is at the heart of Benjamin's conception of his own method. "Just as mosaics preserve their majesty despite their fragmentation into capricious particles," he writes, "so philosophical contemplation is not lacking in momentum. Both are made up of the distinct and the disparate." It follows that his own philosophical style is made up of tiny shards of thought. Ultimately, I seek to show that both Shelley and Benjamin conceive of criticism as a patient bringing together of distinct and disparate pieces into a multi-faceted picture, like individual stars make up a constellation.

How do you hope this monograph will influence its readers – in terms of conceptions of critical thinking, approaches to race, reflection on the past? What do you hope people will get out of reading it?

Both Shelley and Benjamin are very canonical and widely read. I hope that readers will come away feeling that the book has offered them a fresh, 'previously unapprehended' take on these two writers. I also hope it will help widen the horizon of critical thinking, offering a model for how disparate things can come together without necessarily aligning seamlessly. I really want to encourage experimentation in literary criticism. Given the lack of historical connection, one could say that it doesn't really make sense to do a comparative reading of Shelley and Benjamin — and yet if we suspend our critical disbelief, it really does work! And another really important point is that, when we read authors of the past, we have to be attuned to our own present. We are living in a moment that is confronting histories of enslavement and colonialism, which is both difficult and necessary. It might be tempting to shirk those painful topics, and simply focus on beautiful writing, but I strongly believe that there is an ethical imperative for us as literary critics to recover and foreground perspectives and experiences that have been marginalised or written out of history altogether.

Mathelinda's monograph is available in Open Access with UCL Press.