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Translating ‘Nothing’: Nihilism, Shelley’s ‘Atheism’,
and the Sublime

University of Wales, Aberystwyth


This article is a ‘test-case’ of a larger argument explored in Slocombe’s Nihilism and the Sublime Postmodern, using selected essays and poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Its primary aim is to articulate the relationship between the sublime and nihilism with reference to early-nineteenth-century debates about atheism. Translation here is a trope of understanding how these links manifest in Shelley’s work, and signifies not technical, ‘literary’ translation, but a method of cultural assimilation and transmission. Shelley’s ‘atheistic’ writings are used to demonstrate a snapshot of these debates during that period, as part of the larger international debates about religion and scientific rationality, but are also shown to be an expression of the links between nihilism and the sublime that have, in today’s critical environment, been elided. This paper thus demonstrates that nihilism and the sublime are in many senses ‘translations’ of each other, and that both emerge from the same intellectual and cultural concept – the decline of beliefs in a transcendent divinity.


Keywords: nihilism, sublime, translation, romanticism, Shelley, atheis


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